Meet the Goon Sax: The Story of an Impossibly Charming Aussie Indie-Pop Band
Louis Forster of the excellent Australian indie-pop band the Goon Sax started writing songs when he was seven years old, right after he got his grade-school-aged mind blown by Green Day’s American Idiot. He kept at it for years, but he never really felt comfortable sharing his work with anyone else — even his uniquely musical parents. His father, Robert Forster, was co-frontman of the Go-Betweens, one of the Eighties’ most acclaimed indie-pop bands; his mother, Karin Bäumler, was in the German group Baby You Know. “Songwriting is such a personal thing,” he says. “Only in the last year or so has it been that I could ever share that with anybody else. Doing that with any member of my family just seems so awkward.”
His hesitance fell away around the time he met another fledgling songwriter, James Harrison, in high school. “When I first showed James my songs, he didn’t really say anything,” Forster recalls. “He just started playing along. He wasn’t picking it apart, and that made me feel all right about it. We just played the song twice, and said nothing, and then we had a sandwich and went to the creek and got high or something.”
The two recruited drummer Riley Jones, an intimidatingly cool girl who also wrote songs and was already in a band despite having only mastered, by her count, two drum beats. The bandmates’ fragility and shyness — a sense that intimacy is something you earn, sometimes the hard way — remains an engine to the fantastic songs the trio have written since forming the Goon Sax. “You don’t have to hold my sweaty hands/I completely understand,” Forster sang on the band’s 2016 debut, Up For Anything, an album that often recalled the spare, naive guitar-pop of Jonathan Richman, Half Japanese or Television Personalities. On another Up to Anything standout, “Boyfriend,” Forster and Jones sweetly sang, “I need a boyfriend/Or just anything real/And we can break your heart/So you see how I feel.”
The Goon Sax just released their second album, We’re Not Talking, one of this year’s most charming indie releases. On its devastatingly great single “Make Time 4 Love,” a jumpy cowbell beat and taught guitar churn unfold into a gushing melody and summery strings as Forster sings, “Let’s get nervous in your room again,” with the florid charisma and old-world charm of a cardigan-clad Bryan Ferry. “All of our lyrics are a little bit self-indulgent,” says Harrison, “and maybe that’s great.”
The band were still teenagers when they started playing shows, so young they were often hustled out of clubs right after their sets because they were under drinking age. “We played with a lot of great bands,” says Forster. “We just never saw them.”
Today, all three — Forster, 20, Harrison, 21, and Jones, 20 — still live at home, partly due to the tight job market in their native Brisbane, and partly because touring makes it tough to maintain steady employment anyway. “When I lived by myself I lost so much weight because I just wasn’t eating,” Forster says of one brief, cash-strapped attempt at getting his own place. “There’d just be nothing in the fridge ever. It was pretty bad.” Harrison recently had a conversation with his sister in which he admitted he wasn’t taking college courses; in response, she quickly alerted their parents. “It reminded my parents that I’m doing nothing,” he says, with a mix of resignation and sheepish pride.
No one could impugn the musical erudition they display on Up to Anything and We’re Not Talking. Forster grew up hearing Television and the Byrds around the house, and he bonded with Riley and Harrison over a shared love of vintage post-punk — “heaps of Rough Trade stuff,” as Jones puts it. On We’re Not Talking, songs like “She Knows” and “A Few Times Too Many” recall the Raincoats and Swell Maps; mutedly pretty, drum-machine-backed baubles like ‘We Can’t Win” and “Losing Machine” evoke Young Marble Giants; and you can hear twee touchstones the Pastels in their boy-girl vocals and the Feelies in their strummier pastoral moments. For the obvious standout “Make Time For Love,” Forster says he wanted a song that combined Summer of Love psych-oddballs Love and the jittery New York punk-funk of ESG and Liquid Liquid. It’s all played with an open-hearted sense of discovery, so nothing ever feels like record collector-rock. “I like writing songs,” Forster says, almost idealistically. “I like melodies.”
Considering those influences, one would assume the Goon Sax has also taken at least some inspiration from Forster’s dad’s band, the Go-Betweens, who recorded for Rough Trade before departing Australia for London, signing to a major label and wracking up almost universal critical adulation for albums like 1986’s Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express and 1987’s Tallulah. The band split in 1990, then reformed in the 2000s for a second run that ended when co-founder Grant McLennan died in 2006.
There are some similarities between the Go-Betweens and the Goon Sax. They have the same basic line-up (two men up front, a woman playing drums and sharing vocals, though unlike Jones, Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison was rarely credited as a writer), and both groups combine post-punk’s taught, nervy energy with sweet, airy tunefulness. Back in the Eighties, Robert Forster played shows with some of the bands that Louis Forster admires.
Yet the younger Forster says he’s never listened to the Go-Betweens. “It just always kind of seemed weird to me,” he says, “It hasn’t been a conscious choice. Sometimes people will come up and ask me about a record or certain songs or whatever, and it’s really embarrassing to me because I just don’t know them. I have to be like, ‘Sorry, I actually don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
The Go-Betweens’ legacy looms large in Australian music history. There’s even a bridge in Brisbane named the Go-Between Bridge, which opened in 2010 with a solo performance by Robert Forster. For some artists looking to forge their own path in the world, it might feel a little strange driving over a piece of civic architecture named after a local musical institution founded by your father. But Louis hasn’t given that uncanny experience much thought, either.
“It’s a toll bridge,” he says. “I can’t afford to use it.”
To which Jones quickly adds, “Yeah. It costs, like, six dollars.”