Robert Forster, measured and eloquent as always, is eagerly awaiting delivery of a finished copy of the project he's been immersed in for the past year. The collective output of the Go-Betweens – the iconic Brisbane band Forster co-founded with Grant McLennan in 1977 – is being released over three box sets by their UK label Domino, and the towering guitarist has been heavily involved in the curation of the package. "I was very involved, right from the start, especially when I wrote the sleeve notes, which are 9,000-words long," he comments. "I sort of programmed the rarities CD, which evolved out of those sleeve notes."
The project's first instalment chronicles the formative years of the group (from 1978-1984), then consisting of Forster, McLennan and a "flurry" of drummers. Alongside vinyl reissues of their first three albums – 1982's Send Me a Lullaby, 1983's Before Hollywood and 1984's Spring Hill Fair – a vinyl-only collection of early singles and four CDs of radio sessions, demos and more, is a 100-plus page book that's full of ephemera, including McLennan's original lyrics to "Cattle and Cane", as well as scans of the cassette demos which would evolve into their debut album. Despite having a wealth of visual material to draw on, Forster wanted the book to look clean and uncluttered. "I didn't want it to look too scrapbooky," he says. "I wanted the packaging to be as idiosyncratic as the band was. I wanted it to look like a treasure chest, and the box is quite ornate and beautiful."
When asked whether it was tempting to tinker with the truth, to make the band seem cooler than they were, Forster ponders his answer at length. "Not really, that's a good question. I wrote the sleeve notes, which is probably the biggest departure from anyone's box set. Very rarely does one of the artists in the band write 9,000 words explaining the band's history. I wanted to tell the story, and I wanted it to be just, 'So this happened, then that happened.' I wanted it to have a fairly casual tone. But at the same time, I'm the artist, so I know things that are interesting and that only the people in the band would know. I wanted it to be personal and authoritative."
If Forster had visions of deleting the more cringey aspects of the band's growth, he failed in the inclusion of McLennan's early Woody Allen film reviews or his own typed lyrics to the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop". It's a rather sweet image of a young band trying to find their identity. "I just wanted to show how simple it was. Grant was writing film reviews of some Woody Allen. I was typing out the Ramones' first album songs and playing them with the band I was in before the Go-Betweens. That is the big bang – that's where Grant and I met when we were 18, the two worlds coming together."
As for whether McLennan (who passed away in 2006) would approve of the box set, Forster has no doubts. "He loved all the cataloguing. He was a lot more of a buyer of these sorts of things in his time than me. He was very concerned about the band's place in history, and he loved beautiful things. I know that he would very much like the box set and the fact that it's three volumes – the pretentiousness of that, he would've adored. We sort of know that we're on the right track.
"It's really difficult to assume what someone who has passed would think or do. People are unpredictable, and it's really hard to make assumptions, and normally I tend to skirt away from it. Would Grant have liked this? It's a really hard judgement to make, but I know with this, he just would've adored it. So I feel on solid ground with that."