The Go-Betweens, interview from Scram #14
posted in memory of GRANT McLennan, a gentleman and an artist, R.I.P. May 6, 2006
Someone played me a Go-Betweens record in 1985, and I just didn’t get it—to my eternal regret, because I spent the next year in London, unaware of the wonderful band sharing that city. A decade later loud guitars were less essential to my listening enjoyment, and I realized my mistake. I even named a tabby cat Talullah. But by that time the only way to see the Go-Betweens was in pieces: ROBERT Forster one year, GRANT McLennan the next. Astonishingly talented songwriters, the both of them, but neither one can singly replicate the strange magic when they play together. Happily, they’ve reunited to record a fine new Go-Betweens disk (The Friends of Rachel Worth), and have been touring with shared longtime bass lass ADELE Pickvance. MARGARET Griffis and I caught up with them backstage at the Hollywood Knitting Factory during soundcheck for a rambling chat encompassing tailoring, space vampires and the mystery of whether GRANT or ROBERT have ever worked a day in their lives.
KIM: What are your immediate plans?
GRANT: We’re going to San Francisco on Monday, and then fly home Tuesday night.
KIM: And where is home?
GRANT: Brisbane, in Australia. ROBERT goes back to Germany. And then we reconvene after Christmas, in early January, for rehearsals with our new drummer, for a series of festivals. The Big Day Out in Australia. We haven’t played in Australia as the Go-Betweens for twelve years. That’s gonna be fantastic.
ROBERT: We’re playing at the same time as Limp Bizkit.
KIM: You’re opposite them?
GRANT: Yeah, two bands close the show.
KIM: That’s good, because I can’t imagine there’d be anybody who’d wanna see both.
GRANT: Exactly, that’s why it’s such a cool thing. And PJ Harvey are playing, Placebo, Rammstein, some Australian bands, You Am I, Powderfinger. It should be good.
KIM: You were saying you had a drummer and you lost one. How many nights did you do with the drummer?
ROBERT: It’s three and a half weeks we’re on the road. We did CMJ the 17th or 18th of October, and the last show we did with him was in Barcelona on the 15th of November. So it’s about a month. And now we have to find a drummer, and it would be good if this person was Australian, as we’re all gonna be in Australia. We had such a good time with Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney and Quasi. She would have been perfect for us.
KIM: She’s doing something else now?
ROBERT: She’s got two bands; she can’t really spend time with us on the road. We were lucky to get her for the record, really. But she set a standard, cause we know how we can sound with her. And just the personal chemistry: we liked her, very very much.
KIM: You’re gonna have to find someone very special.
ROBERT: Exactly. Without being egotistical, we’ve got three special people now, we need the fourth one and then we’re invincible. Isn’t that true, ADELE?
ADELE: It is. Extremely so.
KIM: Well, with all three of you looking, you’re bound to find someone.
ROBERT: I know, I know. But see, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re doing the Big Day Out, and that’s when we’re gonna get the word out. We’re travelling with all these bands, and we’re gonna go to each city. So it’s the perfect opportunity to just pick peoples’ brains.
KIM: Maybe you can put the word out that the best drummer in every town should be ready to play one song with you.
GRANT: Now that’s a good idea.
KIM: And it can be the last song of the set, so if it’s awful everyone will be leaving anyway.
ROBERT: Right, but it is putting someone into a high-pressure situation.
(GRANT leaves the room.)
MARGARET: Soundcheck might be better.
ROBERT: No, no, there is no soundcheck.
ADELE: Not for the big festival. You just get in there and do it.
ROBERT: The first band of the day does all the soundchecking. (laughter)
ADELE: So by the end of the day the microphones are really smelly!
KIM: We were just talking about that. Apparently the American Music Club has a rider that you have to disinfect their microphones for them!
ROBERT: (through a mouthful of bread and cheese) What I’ve talked about with GRANT is getting a roadie to come out just before we start playing, with a bottle of Chanel No. 5, quite visible to the crowd, and just spray each of the microphones. (giggles) Preferably the grottiest roadie that you can find!
KIM: One of the really big bottles, the toilet water.
MARGARET: Will it be Chanel No. 5 or will it be?
ROBERT: I don’t know. GRANT‘s the expert on perfume in the band. Ask him.
KIM: What are you the expert on?
ROBERT: I’m tempted to say everything else-but I won’t! (laughter) A few things.
ADELE: (noticing a club employee with a vat of energy drinks) Oooh, Red Bull!
(ROBERT disappears with employee)
KIM: Wanna do a little interview, ADELE?
KIM: Tell us about yourself.
ADELE: Ah, okay. I’m from Manchester. I lived in Brisbane, and that’s where I met ROBERT, as you know. That’s when I met you, when we were doing the Warm Nights tour. I’ve played with GRANT as well for solo kind of stuff. And then suddenly these guys get together and decide to do an album, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to play bass. And it’s worked out really well.
KIM: Were you surprised that they decided to get back together?
ADELE: I don’t know. Every couple of years, they’d do a little duo tour. And in ‘96 we did a Go-Betweens show in Paris for Les Inrockuptibles, a French magazine.
KIM: They used the Go-Betweens name?
ADELE: Yeah. And I’ve been involved in those with two different drummers. And also we did a little European tour in ‘97. So, it’s good that they’ve got an album out-I think it’s about time! It wasn’t a surprise, but I was hoping that they would. And it felt like it was gonna happen. I think it’s perfect timing.
KIM: They both have built up a lot of interest in their individual work, but it’s sort of like-you have two halves of a deck of cards, and you keep messing them around-
ADELE: Yeah, this new album, it sounds to me like-it’s a Go-Betweens’ album, but it’s ROBERT‘s and GRANT‘s songs. They’re each playing and each has an influence. It’s weird, they’re kind of different but they work together so well. GRANT‘ll throw some licks and ideas onto ROBERT‘s songs and ROBERT will put ideas onto GRANT‘s songs, and I think it ends up sounding really good. I’m just enjoying the touring. And the Big Day Out will be happening, then maybe another European tour.
KIM: What do you do when you’re not with them?
ADELE: I play in a band in Australia, in Melbourne, called the Dave Graney Show, which is a guy who used to play in the Moodists. And I have a day job as well, because you know, musician, it’s impossible.
KIM: (whispering) We were wondering-do THEY have day jobs?
ADELE: (whispers back) No! (laughter) They’re big stars.
KIM: It’s hard to ask. They’ve never worked a day in their lives?
ADELE: I don’t think so! You can always tell. For me, I always look at their hands. (laughter) All these beautiful soft hands!
KIM: Y’know who else had hands like that was Tiny Tim, because he always put lotion on whenever he had an impure thought.
ADELE: Oh, really?
KIM: And he had very, very soft hands, because he’d obviously had a lot of impure thoughts. But I don’t know if he ever worked either. He was kind of crazy.
MARGARET: He must have worked as a 15-year-old youth somewhere. Paperboy?
ADELE: I’m sure they’ve done as much work as anyone, but I’ve never known them to-they’ve survived, it’s great. It’s really hard, this inconsistent kind of-one minute you’re all right, and the next minute, “Oh my god!”
(We stop recording and reconvene over supper)
ROBERT: How’s life been in LA?
KIM: Oh, LA’s great. Lots of people are moving here, I think because San Francisco’s just had all the creativity squeezed out of it by the money people.
ROBERT: Ah, really? That’s interesting. That’s a shift.
KIM: You haven’t been up there yet, have you?
KIM: Well, you know what’s happened, right?
ROBERT: Yeah, the dot-com thing.
KIM: And all of the cheap lousy rotten neighborhoods have become unlivable. Landlords have pushed all the poor people out and they’ve started putting up condos. For a while there were artists doing public street demonstrations against all of the SUVs driving around-but I think people are giving up. All the music venues are shutting . You can’t even live in Oakland anymore!
MARGARET: (chortling) All those artists who kicked out the really poor people have gotten kicked out.
ROBERT: I know. When we were up in Portland at the start of this year, I was talking to a lot of people that have come up-like Janet, Sam from Quasi, Larry-they’d all been in San Francisco for a while, and they’d all come up to Portland as sort of the next step away. Economically, all of them could survive in Portland and still follow what they were doing, where in San Francisco they’d have had to make major life decisions that would have cut severely into what they wanted to do.
KIM: People are also moving out to central California, Sacramento, and to Davis-
ROBERT: And are people going between LA and San Francisco-are people moving to the coast there as well? Or are they going just to LA?
KIM: I think there’s a lot of people in San Francisco who never come to LA-there’s a big prejudice against it. But there do seem to be people who are coming here from other places.
MARGARET: One of my friends moved down and has already moved back up! The prejudice is strong. (laughter)
KIM: How’s Germany?
ROBERT: Good! Very, very nice. But next year I’ll be moving back with Karen and family, back to Brisbane. At the end of next year. So GRANT and I can-a number of reasons-my parents are getting older. And also I want to be in a warmer climate. The German experience is going to go on for about another year. It’s very good for working, because it’s a very indoor lifestyle.
KIM: Do you live in a city?
ROBERT: City of about 120,000. It’s a small, provincial city, but very, very nice. Very beautiful. A classic European city. But it’s very nice to be out here on the West Coast. I think that we’re more West Coast people. We’re a West Coast band.
KIM: I think there’s an affinity between Australia and California-
ROBERT: There is! As soon as you get here it’s familiar. Food, culture, everything. It just corresponds a lot more. And also in Australia we get a lot more America, the Californian version, than anything else.
KIM: When you first came to California-when was that?
ROBERT: God, ‘83, ‘84.
KIM: And was it what you had in your mind, or did you have a California that doesn’t really exist?
ROBERT: That was really scary-we did a show, I think-my earliest memory is playing the Lingerie club-
KIM: (chuckles) Yeah, on Sunset.
ROBERT: And there was this guy there who was playing, he’d written a Top 10 hit, his name was Lee? I think he’d written one for Blondie-
KIM: Yeah, “Hanging on the Telephone!” What’s his name?
ROBERT: It could have been him or it could have been someone else-I don’t know if it was actually him-
KIM: Was he in the the Nerves?
ROBERT: I dunno, but he was a little bit of a sort of underground singer, and he’d had a Top 10, and he was kind of hip. He was playing, and he had shoulder-length hair, and this sort of buckskin thing, with all these sort of Valley groupies around! These girls who were like out of a seventies rock fantasy! Hippie girls, with long, long hair-
KIM: Jack Lee! Is that it?
ROBERT: It could have been. But these girls were just sort of not Sunset girls, if you know what I mean, not Rainbow Room girls. These were girls from the Valley that you just imagine sitting around the feet of David Crosby back in 1969! (giggles all around) It was like seeing this rock fantasy that I thought would have been gone, but it wasn’t, y’know?
KIM: It was a big surprise to you?
ROBERT: Yeah, that this LA rock world still existed. He was just going to get into a big car or some sort of combie-
KIM: A what??
ROBERT: A combie, a camper van. And just drive off into the hills, to some sort of “love pad.”
KIM: And share the land.
ROBERT: Very Topanga. I thought that era was over, and it wasn’t. That was my introduction to LA…. Do you know the Aislers Set? They’re a San Francisco band.
MARGARET: We’re not allowed to know about them and they’re not allowed to know about us.
ROBERT: Well, that’s good.
KIM: Tell ROBERT about the war paintings.
MARGARET: Oh, the war paintings! There’s this artist Sandow Birk who’s making war paintings like the ones you see in museums-
KIM: Goya and all that-
MARGARET: But it’s based on the mythical war of the San Franciscans versus the Angelenos.
KIM: So you’ve got all the gay clones coming down fighting the Valley Girls in the trenches of Tarzana!
ROBERT: This person is from San Francisco?
MARGARET: He’s from here but he moved to San Francisco and there felt like he was being attacked constantly for being from Los Angeles.
KIM: Every Angeleno who moves up there is shocked to discover that they hate us. And it goes back apparently to the 1970s when they weren’t allowed to flush their toilets. (laughter) They were told there was a water shortage, and that Southern Californians were using up all their water in their swimming pools. I believe the phrase was “If it’s yellow it’s mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” And they’re still really angry about that-which I can understand.
MARGARET: I don’t think anyone remembers that.
ROBERT: Right, right. It’s over.
(GRANT wanders in and demands that we teach him the mellow yellow rhyme, which he repeats delightedly.)
GRANT: It’s a bit like “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”
ROBERT: Well, I thought you two might be up on this-
GRANT: San Francisco in the ‘70s, been through it, mate. They’re still pissed off about it, eh?
KIM: Yeah, they hate people in Southern California-and we don’t really care about them! Nice place to visit GRANT, how has ROBERT changed since you’ve known him?
GRANT: He’s sense of humor has improved. It’s frighteningly quick these days. He’s more ROBERT that he’s ever been, which is a good thing. There was a time when he didn’t know, and he was sort of that ROBERT and that ROBERT, now he’s ALL ROBERT.
ROBERT: Isn’t that a nice thing to say?
KIM: Look, he’s crying.
GRANT: He’s developed into a very, very fine, world-class rhythm guitarist.
ROBERT: My guitar playing has improved, hasn’t it?
KIM: Same question for you, about GRANT.
ROBERT: GRANT is remarkably the same.
ADELE: Still 14! (laughter)
GRANT: And it’s on tape!
ROBERT: (long pause) Very much the same, which is a surprise. But then GRANT has stayed true to artistic vision, which I think is a remarkable thing. That is a very, very hard thing to do. In other ways remarkably the same, but I think that we are quite similar to the way we were when the band started. And also it’s not coincidental that the band has re-started. And we’re still looking for a drummer!
MARGARET: You can just go out on the street here and find this drummer.
ROBERT: I know, but they’re sort of-
GRANT: We’re very particular.
KIM: What do you need?
GRANT: Well, you’ve got to be a Go-Between, whatever that means to you. It means something different to me. It’s almost impossible to explain. You just know it when you’re playing with someone that it’s working. It’s a groove-and it’s not just musical groove, it’s personality groove, and clothes. They can wear really different clothes to the rest of us, but if they’re cool within that, and they fit-it’s a matter of fitting. This is a very precious gang. Anyone can join, but you have to fit the criteria. You could be a little bit weird-you know what I’m saying?-just a little bit weird. But the music shop types don’t get us. Forget it. No ads in music shops.
KIM: Could you guys play “Stairway to Heaven,” if you needed to?
GRANT: No no no no. We can’t play any of these songs. Never learned. I can sing it, karaoke style. I can do that.
ROBERT: That’s the criteria.
GRANT: It might be a 17-year-old who’s been playing for six months.
ROBERT: It might be Jet Black.
GRANT: We’re not looking for the product.
KIM: Isn’t that how you started out, just looking for someone who looked like the right drummer?
KIM: So you’re gonna do it again.
ROBERT: I know, I know. But-
GRANT: There’s only so many Mo Tuckers-
KIM: She’s around-
ROBERT: She is, but-
GRANT: She’s Lou’s drummer.
ROBERT: But I was saying how much we admire Janet Weiss-
GRANT: Very much so.
KIM: ROBERT, where’d you get your suit?
ROBERT: This was made in Regensburg. I always thought it very LA. That’s why I wore it to the soundcheck, because I want to get this suit out and on the street.
GRANT: You need the Arthur Lee sort of winklepickers, though.
ROBERT: I know, I know. I think it’s very Arthur Lee ‘66. It’s very Love.
KIM: It should be a little tighter for the Arthur days.
ROBERT: I know, but it looks good.
KIM: Does it have your name sewn in the pocket?
GRANT: That’s what you should do. Get a little stitching and put “ROBERT“ inside. It’s a very good idea.
KIM: If it’s made you have to have your name put in.
ROBERT: (sounding stricken) I know, but the maker does not want to do any writing on it. I’ve asked them.
KIM: Not their name, not your name?
GRANT: The person that makes them wants to stay anonymous.
KIM: But then fifty years from now when it turns up in a thrift store, someone’s gonna know it’s your suit.
ROBERT: It WON‘T turn up in a THRIFT STORE!! It’ll be in Cleveland, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In its own little cabinet.
GRANT: Yeah, it’s all museum stuff.
KIM: Everything you own is going to the museum?
ROBERT: Sure! Of course!
MARGARET: Maybe you can pin it, a little safety pin inside with your name?
ROBERT: It will be verified.
GRANT: You have to learn “Stairway to Heaven,” and then you get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
KIM: Karaoke style. You’re laughing, but I saw someone do “Stairway to Heaven” karaoke style last week. And during the guitar solo he just shook his hair. And it was very wrong.
ROBERT: This still goes on. This amazes me.
MARGARET: I saw a small girl like you do it on Hallowe’en in a little fairy outfit. And she did all the live version additions. Like from the movie soundtrack.
GRANT: What movie?
ALL: The Song Remains the Same!
GRANT: Oh, that’s a bitchin’ version of it, too. Jimmy’s got the two guitars-three guitars! Three-necked guitar.
ROBERT: Is this in the fantasy section?
KIM: With the horses.
GRANT: No, the fantasy sections are terrible. I saw it recently.
GRANT: God. I saw it in the West End. It was terrible.
KIM: You can’t watch it in the theater! You have to be able to fast forward.
GRANT: The live footage is awesome, the band is just fantastic.
ROBERT: And what’s in the fantasy sections? What’s ROBERT Plant’s fantasy?
GRANT: On the farm. The hair, the sheepskin vest, the Boticelli little girls running around, and sort of the maid in the field. John Bonham’s dressed as a gangster. (giggling all around)
ROBERT: Jimmy’s Satan!
KIM: (Laughing) Okay, you guys make the same movie: what are your fantasy sequences?
GRANT: Now that’s a good idea! ADELE, what would you do? Oh, I know what your fantasy would be; I don’t have to ask you about that. (chuckling)
ADELE: I know what you’re gonna say-
GRANT: Is it Buffy? (laughter) No, that’s mine!
ADELE: No, no, I can’t say it! You go first, ROBERT.
ROBERT: No. Does your fantasy involve Queen?
ADELE: No, it doesn’t, actually.
KIM: I know what MARGARET‘s is.
MARGARET: What is mine?
KIM: To be picked up by the Creature from the Black Lagoon and carried into the swamp!
MARGARET: Mmm, that’s a good one.
ADELE: All right!
GRANT: Can I have that one?
KIM: Mine’s some sort of 18th century coffeehouse thing.
ROBERT: In what country?
KIM: London, of course.
ADELE: I do like the Viking idea, sitting at a feast at a table, and wine and chicken legs and (makes gnawing sounds).
ROBERT: Throwing the bones-
ADELE: And huge dogs under the table! And people unconscious, and eating, that’s my idea.
KIM: Maybe they’re going to burn a ship burial afterwards.
ADELE: Yeah, that’d be nice.
ROBERT: Mine would be a Hawaiian fantasy. Beach house, surf, me running in slow motion-
KIM: In a white linen suit?
ROBERT: Yeah, in a white linen suit down the beach, hair in the wind, very slow motion.
MARGARET: Is there a volcano? (laughter)
ROBERT: There’s a volcano with a little bit of smoke. We might do it with animation.
MARGARET: Is something chasing you? Women? Lava?
ROBERT: There’s a combination of lava and women. There’s women in lava!
MARGARET: Are they carrying food?
ROBERT: No, no food, no food, no food!
ROBERT: There’s no fish! There’s no food in the fantasy!
MARGARET: There’s no coconut-drenched fish in the fantasy?
ROBERT: There’s no coconuts, there’s no fish. There’s lava, there’s volcano-I didn’t know about the women-but there’s lava coming down the beach. I’m in the white suit. Bare feet. And I’m running down the beach, very early in the morning, sunrise, whole screen drenched in orange and red. Waves that nobody’s riding, and me running down the beach. And then while I’m coming like this, there’s a table with a big bowl of muesli! (laughter) Soy milk-
MARGARET: I told you there was food.
ROBERT: There’s always food. Soy milk, strawberries, and a very, very nice muesli. And the New York Times!
ROBERT: You’re good! Wrapped, so I have to unwrap it, sit there on the beach in the white suit, bare feet, eating muesli.
GRANT: That’s great.
ROBERT: What’s your fantasy?
GRANT: I’m on the spot, so I’ll just go to a fantasy I often think about. A spaceship comes down, sort of chrome, and a beam-it’s the most beautiful light you’ve ever seen-you get lifted up into the spaceship. And there’s vampires. And they go, “Do you wanna come with us?” And I go, “You betcha.” That’s it.
MARGARET: Isn’t that a movie already? A space vampire movie?
GRANT: Do you know the name of it?
ROBERT: Space Vampires?
MARGARET: It wasn’t that out of the way. It was pretty popular.
GRANT: Oh, I’d love to see that!
MARGARET: I saw the end of it on the TV with the spaceship and the beam of light coming down.
GRANT: Proper vampires, not trashy Hollywood vampires.
ADELE: You want a sexy vampire.
MARGARET: Like Bela?
GRANT: No! None of that rubbish. Your real vampires, people that live forever, those dudes.
KIM: What is a real vampire like?
GRANT: I haven’t met one.
MARGARET: Not that you know of.
ADELE: You mean somebody that’s a really together kind of vampire.
MARGARET: Sharp dresser.
GRANT: Yeah, good clothes. Probably a little bit 18th century.
MARGARET: A bit foppish.
GRANT: Yeah, but also a bit of leather. Books, I’d like there to be books on the spaceship. An opium den. And a bar that serves the best absinthe ever.
ROBERT: That sounds very nice.
GRANT: Would you like to come on, then?
ROBERT: For a short while. (chuckles)
KIM: Have you had absinthe?
ADELE: I had a bottle last Christmas.
KIM: Psychedelic or just alcoholic?
ADELE: I just found it really, really alcoholic.
GRANT: They’ve taken the drug out of it now, they’ve taken the wormwood out.
KIM: Really? I thought they were making the real stuff again.
ADELE: I got mine over the internet.
KIM: The Czech stuff?
ADELE: It was from London, Canadian from Spain, I think.
ROBERT: (puzzled) Wormwood?
KIM: It’s an herb.
ROBERT: Is it an illegal herb?
KIM: Wormwood is perfectly legal. Brewing this alcoholic beverage with wormwood in it has been banned since the early 20th century, because it was causing all sorts of brain disorders in people who were addicted to it.
ROBERT: (hungrily) Ahhh….
And then the Go-Betweens excuse themselves to get ready to play. MARGARET and I give ROBERT a ride back to his hotel, commenting on all the rock and roll landmarks along the way; he eats it up. The band later plays a wonderful set with (I think) four encores, and they might have gone on all night if the club hadn’t rented out the room post-show to an increasingly irritated bunch of salsa dancers. Their annoyed muttering first sounds like tropical birds, then like rude humans. But it can’t wipe the smiles off MARGARET‘s and my face as we take our leave and step out onto Hollywood Boulevard, very happy that the Go-Betweens are back.