The Go-Betweens: It's taken millions of years and a lot of sun to make music like this

Dry, spare, witty - the Go-Betweens' new songs are inspired by their Australian homeland. Garth Cartwright meets a rock band which thrives on extremes

Sunday 02 March 2003 01:00
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There are now three things guaranteed in life: death, taxes and your favourite bands reforming. The reunion of The Go-Betweens is not the stadium filling, headline gathering event that surrounds the tawdry efforts of the Rolling Stones or Sex Pistols. Instead, it's a much quieter, more intimate affair. As it should be: wiser men than I have been known to hail The Go-Betweens as the finest songwriters ever to emerge from Australia.

The Go-Betweens were always Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, the band's founders, songwriters and guitarists. Rhythm sections appear interchangeable. For a band which emphasises the primacy of the song it's paradoxical that they formed in Brisbane in 1978 as part of the punk revolution. Shifting to Melbourne, they initially shared the stage with a teenage Nick Cave.

"I still think we're inspired by the spirit of The Stooges," says McLennan. "It's just we never felt we had to sound like – or try and live like – The Stooges. We're similar to Nick (Cave) in the sense that we always believed in writing good songs not just making lots of noise. That said, I remember living with Nick in Shepherds Bush in the early 1980s and trying to get him to listen to Dylan and he refused. But we all get older and change."

McLennan and Forster have seen many changes across their adult lives: shifting to the UK in 1981 they enjoyed considerable critical acclaim yet never sold huge amounts of records. Disbanding in 1989, both pursued solo careers to diminishing returns. Inevitably, they reformed The Go-Betweens. A tentative reunion in 2000 found their audience had grown considerably. In December 2001 Forster quit his German base to rejoin McLennan in Brisbane.

"That's how our new album Bright Yellow Bright Orange, came together notes McLennan. It'd be impossible if Robert was still in Germany."

Bright Yellow Bright Orange's title comes from the Australian landscape and appropriately its ten songs are dry, spare, witty, reflective on life and landscape. The songs are often literary (yet never pretentious) in style. Where most Australian acts are given to grand gestures – think INXS or AC/DC – The Go-Betweens are defiant minimalists.

"Australia is such an ancient, distant, lost, fragmented place and it takes a very strong person who can survive there without going nuts," says McLennan. "Look at Aboriginal culture, they've been there for maybe 60,000 years – that's older than Europe, older than China – and then Europeans turn up and destroy them. See, Australia was and remains a hostile environment – the bugs, the critters, the heat, the people – it really is hostile to art, to culture, and that forces you to react. We've both lived away from it but find it does suit us to live there. We always do exactly what we want to do and have been very fortunate in that there's few commercial contingencies involved."

When you meet Forster and McLennan you are immediately struck by how they naturally appear a double act. Forster is tall, shaggy haired, droll and bears a passing resemblance to Stephen Fry. McLennan is small, bald and crackles with energy and good humour. They effortlessly harmonise together and sometimes finish each other's sentences.

"Our friendship lends itself to the songs," says Forster. "The fact that the band exists is a testament to our friendship," adds McLennan. "We split in 1989 because things were difficult commercially and artistically. Now we've resolved the problems and can focus on the music."

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"Things are now the best ever financially," says Forster, "but, that said, the house I've just bought is no mansion."

Signing to London-based independent label Circus – home to The Magnetic Fields, the acclaimed American band who could be the Go-Betweens' US cousins – they have just reissued three of their 1980s albums, all of which have aged much better than most music from that blighted decade.

"We're good, we're not shit," states McLennan firmly. "We believe in the idea that the imagination is the ruler, the romance of the band, the fact that the songs have value, have lasted this far ... We do possess a quiet power, an ability to convey meaning to listeners."

Which, inevitably, means The Go-Betweens will remain Australia's finest cult band. McLennan and Forster both shrug at this; any dreams of pop stardom having been dumped a long time ago.

"I'm honoured we have an international audience," states McLennan before adding with a chuckle, "anyway, we're just waiting for Kylie to cut an album of Go-Betweens songs."

'Bright Yellow Bright Orange' (Circus) is out now. The Go-Betweens UK tour starts at King Tuts, Glasgow (0141 221 5279) 25 April and ends Astoria, London WC2 (020 7434 9592) 28 April

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