Mighty oceans

Well-read and back from the dead, the Go-Betweens opt for the lush life.

By Johnny Ray Huston

HOW BOOKISH ARE the Go-Betweens? So bookish they make Belle and Sebastian seem ready for the short bus. It's possible they took their name from the Joseph Losey film, but more likely it came from the film's source material, a novel by LP Hartley. Either way, if band names are indeed prophetic, then the Go-Betweens could be used as Exhibit A. Over the course of close to three decades, they've gone between continents (Australia and Europe), record labels, and even birth, death, and rebirth as an entity. So it makes sense that when I call Grant McLennan, one of the group's pair of superb singer-songwriters, I catch him in transit. "We're in London," a chipper McLennan says from his hotel room. "We got back from Germany yesterday, and we leave for New York tomorrow."

As for a certain upcoming date on the itinerary, McLennan is looking forward to it. "We love San Francisco, absolutely love it," he says. He has good reason to – a little over five years ago, SF was host to a night that proved crucial in the band's reformation. During a halcyon period in which the city seemed a favorite international pop underground port of call (while visiting the Aislers Set's Amy Linton, Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch had led an oceanside campfire musical gathering), Robert Forster and McLennan were joined by Sleater-Kinney and some local musicians at the Phoenix Hotel for a late-night, sing-and-strum get-together.

The group's official comeback LP, 2000's The Friends of Rachel Worth – featuring Janet Weiss on drums and some contributions by Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker – emerged from this fateful meeting. "That was a great night," McLennan remembers. "Janet – what a hoyden! And it was great to play with Carrie and Corin. Their new record is just another step, another stratosphere. I'm glad that they're into Led Zeppelin."

Majestically melodic, the Go-Betweens' new album, Oceans Apart (Yep Roc), is another step too, though of a more familiar nature: One of every three albums by the group embraces lush, wide-screen atmospherics. When McLennan sings that there's "No Reason to Cry," the song's synth-string finale is so beautiful, what else can a listener do but prove him wrong? For their third album since coming back (their ninth overall), Forster and McLennan reunited with British producer Mark Wallis, who brought a levitating splendor to the guitar work on their sixth long-player – and first farewell effort – 1988's 16 Lovers Lane. "I've said to Robert, 'Do you think our third, sixth, and ninth albums are our posh albums?' " McLennan explains, going on to read meaning into the group's occasional major-label ties. "When you look at it, [1984's] Spring Hill Fair was with Sire Records, 16 Lovers Lane was with Capitol, and with Oceans Apart we're on EMI in Australia."

Spring Hill Fair was my introduction to the band, and you could say I became married to them upon hearing McLennan's "Bachelor Kisses," a yearning ballad – and sterling example of their complex female portraiture – that remains one of my all-time favorite songs. "We were down in the south of France," McLennan says when asked about the track's origins. "It was great being in a château – [French jazz pianist] Jacques Loussier's studio. After recording, we came back to London, and [Sire Records president] Seymour Stein really liked the song. It was a favorite of his, ho ho. But he said, [adopts high-pitched, East Coast nasality] 'I think it needs a middle-eight.' So we rerecorded it and got Ana da Silva from the Raincoats, who's a friend, to sing vocals."

Da Silva's harmonies on "Bachelor Kisses" are a typical Go-Betweens touch; after their early days in Australia singing the praises of Lee Remick on a debut single of the same name (sleeve image: an autographed head shot), they moved on to not only write about women well, but also to play music wonderfully with them. The Phil Spector-like majesty of 1987's Tallulah owes plenty to the unconventional rhythms of then-drummer Lindy Morrison – a model of Bloomsbury-like butch chic – and the backing vocals and string and horn work of Amanda Brown. These days bassist, keyboardist, and backing vocalist Adele Pickvance brings a similar balance to the band. "I've always liked the Mamas and the Papas," McLennan says. "I like the beautiful reality of men and women singing together and playing together. There's not enough of it."

McLennan isn't averse to discussing his lyrics. "Oh yeah, we get a lot of undertakers at our shows," he jokes when I resuscitate an old fanzine rumor that his 1987 song "Right Here" is about people addicted to chemicals used in funeral parlors. He embraces my suggestion that the older, damaged "Boundary Rider" of Oceans Apart and the schoolboy of 1982's "Cattle and Cane" (from Before Hollywood) are the same person, identifying those tracks and a few others ("Unkind and Unwise" and the sublime "Bye Bye Pride") as "north Queensland songs." Nonetheless, he doesn't kiss and tell when I ask about the air of the mystic that suffuses so many of his ("The Clock," "Magic in Here") and Forster's lyrics. Forster has created characters such as the Clarke Sisters, raised in a feminist bookstore and prone to midnight vigils with crystal balls, and if tracks such as "Spirit of a Vampyre" (from Tallulah) are any indication, he seems drawn to vamps; on Oceans Apart's "Lavender" he sings of a woman who got a foreboding welcome – "They poisoned her water / And nailed her door" – upon visiting Sydney.

On "Lavender," Forster also rhymes "well-read" with "good in bed" to describe the same woman. The group's audience tends to fit at least one of the above categories; novelist Jonathan Lethem, for example, deems the Go-Betweens his favorite band. "I must admit that we were on the bus going through Europe the other day, and I looked around and saw the four of us, all with our heads in books," McLennan says, adding, "I guess that's better than having porn on." What has he been reading? "A lot of contemporary Australian fiction. I'm also thoroughly enjoying a collection of Anthony Lane's writing about film for the New Yorker. It's a good tour read, because War and Peace can be tough going after a couple of vodkas – or maybe not."

One book that apparently isn't on McLennan's reading list is David Nichols's biography of the band, The Go-Betweens, which if nothing else illustrates the powerful cult that's formed around a self-declared pop outfit that has yet to have a chart hit. "I'm not fudging the point, as you West Coasters say – I haven't read it," McLennan claims when asked about the book written by a fan who had a group of his own Down Under (the Cannanes). "I know people within the band who've read it, especially the updated version, and they were disgusted with it. But other people who have read it have said they thought it was very good. They're outside of the 'inner circle' [of the band], but knowledgeable enough about us, and they said it was a good, quick summary."

A good, quick summary that takes its time airing the grievances and romantic entanglements of former drummer Morrison, The Go-Betweens apparently still isn't comprehensive enough to fulfill the wishes of McLennan's songwriting partner. "Robert Forster has always said," McLennan explains, "that if you're going to write a biography of the Go-Betweens, it has to start with Robert at the age of four walking around a golf course picking up golf balls for five cents a ball. But then Robert is a great lover of Proust and Tolstoy and George Eliot."

McLennan is prepped for his SF visit because of one recent purchase. "I just found a wonderful book in Heidelberg, Germany, of all places," he says. "A hardcover first edition of The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Charles Perry." Considering this tidbit, the group's Bay Area plans aren't very surprising. "I know Robert's looking forward to going to his favorite health food shop," McLennan says. "We'll also go to the bookshops."

The Go-Betweens play Fri/17, Slim's, 333 11th St., SF. $17. (415) 255-0333.