The Rockin’ Mr. (Tim) Rogers of You am I, Interviewed
Tim Rogers is fucking with my head. Maybe.
A couple of days before the Australian singer/guitarist and his power pop quartet You am I are due to play Bumbershoot, I’m dutifully calling the Los Angeles hotel where he’s staying. I ask the front desk clerk to be put through to room 505–Tim Rogers’ reputed digs for the day. There’s no one occupying that room, the laid-back clerk assures me in a California monotone, but there’s a Jim Rogers in another room. The clerk connects me.
The line goes quiet, and seconds later, a brusque voice answers. It sounds curtly, distinctively American. “Hello!” it barks out.
“Is this Tim Rogers?” I ask, carefully pronouncing the first name to alleviate any misunderstanding.
“Yes, it is,” the blunt voice on the other end replies.
“Tim Rogers, the musician?” I ask uneasily, convinced I’m having a dialogue with some business executive from the Midwest named Jim Rogers.
Suddenly the voice morphs into an airy Aussie tenor. “You mean, Tim Rogers the semi-famous Australian rock star? Yeah, that’s me.”
We vault into our conversation so quickly that I never get to ask Rogers if he was, in fact, intentionally fucking with me. But our initial exchange–and the self-mocking statement at the end of it–pretty effectively anticipate the conversation ahead. He’s been a career musician for over half his life, and he’s got the requisite rock-star anecdotes to back that up; but a streak of self-deprecating humor reflects his full awareness of the absurdity–and the fun–inherent in that lifestyle.
You am I started out in the early 1990’s as one of many snarling grunge-era guitar bands (their first two long-players were produced by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, for Pete’s sake). But starting with their second record, Hi-Fi Way, You am I picked up the British-Invasion cue from The Who and The Kinks and evolved into a winning power-pop ensemble. Rogers’ singing and songwriting combined (and continues to combine) Ray Davies’ wit and Paul Westerburg’s ragged romanticism with just enough post-punk roar to knock the dust off.
One of the great pleasures of preparing for my interview with Rogers proves to be exploring his band’s back catalog. Tracks like “Rumble,” “Good Morning,” and “Heavy Heart” truly deserved to be huge outside of Australia, and it’s a bloody shame that albums like Hi-Fi Way, Hourly Daily, and #4 Record didn’t become soundtracks of a generation. Rogers’ muse has remained consistent, too: last year’s terrific self-titled release combines You am I’s power-pop energy with flashes of psychedelia and a contemplative air that the band wears as comfortably as a tattered-but-right denim jacket. Combine that wealth of great material with some of the most rip-roaring live shows you’ll see, and You am I’s relative obscurity stands as a head-scratcher of epic proportions. Thankfully, Rogers takes the whole rollercoaster of near-fame in stride–sense of humor and guitar in tow.
So how are you doing these days?
Things are good. Give a band two days off in Los Angeles; they’ll get inappropriate suits, and find the last smoking bars in the world.
It looks like you guys are only doing a few shows in the U.S. on your current tour; then you’re back in Australia touring with Cold Chisel. Have you thought about any dates besides the small handful listed on your website?
I thought we were doing twenty, unless something’s changed. Maybe fifteen or sixteen.
There are only eight U.S. dates listed on the website…
We’re doing more than that…I think it’s more around fifteen or sixteen now, but we’re not really good on self-promotion [laughs], so…. At the end of the thing, I’m doing some shows by myself over on the East Coast. But once again, self-promotion isn’t really our thing.
You guys seem to love playing live. That really comes through on all the footage I’ve seen on YouTube.
No, it’s just a necessary evil [laughs]. Well, it’s kind of what we do. If we didn’t, we’d probably live a lot longer…. We’ve got a certain spirit about us, which I think now is sort of coming into its own, because we have absolutely no ambition.The shows come in the spirit of things, and our records only [come] when we’ve got a bit of ambition in us. We’re kind of beyond the expectation that we’re going to become more successful than we were. And now that we’re just really in it for a bit of a giggle, we can pretend like we’re someone else for an hour. It’s a lot more fun when you take a lot of the preciousness and precociousness out of it; and you play for pure enjoyment.
I think, because we’re so busy personally with all the different other things that we do, even though the band may play about 100 shows a year, maybe a little less, it’s sort of like a sleepover, or something; a slumber party. Which, for a 41-year-old guy to be saying that…hell, I’ve done worse.
How long has it been since you’ve toured the States?
It has to be three or four years; a really long time. We are involved in a lot of other stuff. I’m doing a lot of theater work at the moment, film stuff, and the other guys with their jobs…it’s kind of difficult to truly find the time to get away, and the money, of course, to get the tickets over here. The dream would be to do it a bunch of times a year, but unfortunately we’re not in that position. I guess it’s up to us to make the time worth it.
What’s the difference between touring the U.S. and touring Australia?
Familiarity’s a big one. I mean, Australians do love letting whoever’s on stage know that they know who you are; and [that] they know your foibles, and they saw the gig where you projectile-vomited, or that they went to school with you. The thing I love and don’t love about playing at home is that it’s almost a combative kind of atmosphere at any show [laughs], even when I’m playing by myself, or when we decide to do free jazz for the evening.
In the States, people just tend to listen–I guess because we’re a bit of an oddity, a band of convicts. I think it’s only taken us ’til the past couple of years to realize that they’re grateful for it. And I think they throw [fewer] things; fewer bottles…I think [that] contributes to about 80 percent of our humor or hubris onstage, if the expectation that you’re going to be hit a bottle isn’t there. Playing the States is really a giant relief [laughs].
I’ve heard that playing concert venues and clubs in Australia is a bit of a gauntlet…you seem to bear that out with your statements here.
I think [that’s] because of the time that we started, in the early nineties… also, I think we kind of invited it by being rather…for lack of a better term…cocky. It’s not just that crowds are wild all the time. When I do different shows–cabaret shows, that kind of thing–there’s an intelligent listening audience. But I think You am I have got a history of being kind of loose. So there’s the expectation that it’s just going to be like, if not some kind of Bacchanalian orgy, then at least an Ultimate Fighting Championship [laughs], where the audience all gets involved. Which is odd, because our music is quite, um, poncy.
I don’t know about that. I’d say it’s got some teeth.
Yeah, I guess so. I guess that we were afforded the luxury of being five different bands in one night. I like that, because as people, we’re not combative…and we pride ourselves on having some sort of semblance of intelligence and delicacy, as friends even when we’re on the lash and getting into trouble. There’s normally a lot of compassionate behavior, and lots of hugging and kissing and the like. We’re sort of like a mixture between Jack Dempsey and Quentin Crisp.
That’s a pretty vast contrast.
Well, that was my morning, sort of reading up on Jack Dempsey and also Quentin Crisp.
That definitely comes out in your songwriting for me. When you first started out in the early nineties, you sounded of the time–fuzzed-out guitars, an air of disaffection–but very quickly on, starting with Hi-Fi Way, I think your classicist songwriting came to the fore. It wasn’t all about cathartic wailing.
Sure. The cathartic wailing was just what we knew at the time. I couldn’t help being influenced by what was going on… because we started playing with a couple of hardcore bands and harder rock and roll bands, we couldn’t help but just want to turn everything up just to be somehow accepted. We didn’t have a lot of nuance, particularly as far as songwriting.
Those second and third records we did–Hourly Daily and Hi-Fi Way and that kind of stuff–we were actually in the States much of the time, and we wrote a lot of the music while we were touring in the States and in Europe. It’s probably just because of a lot of time alone, and feeling misplaced, and kind of misunderstood, really. You tend to become quite sentimental in your writing. And thankfully, the guys that I play with, that’s what they’re kind of into. Not afraid to be soft, almost, you know? During Hi-Fi Way, we were living in the East Village in New York; so over the next couple of records I wrote these sorts of paeans to The Zombies, or The Kinks, or The Creation. Later on, I think that when we got involved with record labels over here, strangely enough, all we wanted to listen to was American rhythm and blues music; soul music. And we were so influenced by that. Our timing’s always just a little off, you know?
You mention bands like The Zombies and The Creation. Was that what you were listening to when you first started songwriting?
No. Absolutely not. I came into that era of music really late. When we first started the band, it was a mixture between Discharge, Aerosmith, and [hardcore] bands that were around Sydney at the time. I moved to Sydney and got ill and started a band with my brother and my brother’s friend, what they were going out to see was punk and hard rock and roll. And they lambasted me for always wearing an open-necked, long-sleeve shirt. What we were trying to play was hard rock and roll, partly so we could get shows. We were just kids in the Northwestern suburbs who wanted to play….
I’m kind of glad I didn’t have a real clear idea of what I wanted to do, what music I wanted to play, when I was fifteen. It’s so much more fun now at 41, touring around the world, taking drugs–I’m kidding–and playing rock and roll shows.
I think there’s something to be said for discovering something when you’re mature enough to appreciate it on a deeper level.
Maybe…I feel things a lot deeper now; probably why I listen to more Judy Garland records.
Davey and I were in a bar last night. They played the original “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Stones, and as soon it started I got that same rush that I did when I was thirteen when I first heard it; when everything felt sexy and dark and wonderful, and [I] just wanted to dance. That’s pretty much what I want to do now. Those sorts of things never change. When I met Matt, the singer from The Bronx, a couple of months ago, I was still as completely starstruck as I was when I was 22 and met Ray Davies.
Speaking of which: I’m sure you’ve been told this a million times, but there’s definitely a vocal resemblance between you and Ray Davies. I don’t think that it’s anything you’ve tried to emulate, but it’s there.
I probably got a lot of credence from listening to Ray. One of the very first tours we did internationally was with Soundgarden. Listening to Chris [Cornell] sing every night…if anything’s going to make you feel intimidated, that’s gonna [laughs]. It was so intimidating to play with them. What I got from listening to Ray was that I could sing …in my own vernacular, and not try and be someone else. At times Ray could sing with delicacy, yet the man had a power behind it.
You am I are very revered by musicians and critics. Those demographics are really almost worshipful of what you’ve done. Obviously, Soundgarden and The Strokes–both of whom you toured with–were fans.
Yeah, we gave the Strokes their first tour. We asked the Mooney Suzuki out to tour with us in whatever year it was [probably 2001–Ed.]. They couldn’t make it. I’d just bought the Modern Age EP, and I was listening to it in the back of the van. I put it on and said, “Hey, listen to this! This is really good!” So we contacted their manager, and four weeks later the record came out huge, so The Strokes toured with us in Australia…it was fun watching five impossibly handsome guys on the big upswing.
Reading things about them subsequently, and the way things have gone, it can’t help but give a little perspective to us. By steadfastly avoiding large-scale success, it’s definitely kept us [in You am I] as better friends. I’ve got a lot of love for, and had great times with, those guys [in The Strokes], but the way it’s gone, I really hope they’re happy personally. When you read about that band bitching about each other it’s like, “Fuck, I like being in my little gang.”
You’ve won awards in Australia and done quite well there, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve ever been thrust into a truly white-hot spotlight on any level. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, absolutely. And there are times when that’s frustrating, ’cause you’d love to get upgraded every now and then on a plane [laughs]! But I’ve got a lot of friends and people very close to me who’ve had enormous success in music and film or whatever, and that in itself doesn’t seem to give much guaranteed comfort, or guaranteed happiness. The time when [You am I] were furthest apart as people was when we were living in Los Angeles and on a big record label and associating with some great [music industry] people…They were wonderful. But I was being taken aside and urged to write stronger choruses and better songs. And it sort of alienated [the band members] from each other. A couple of years later, the pressure was off. The industry people stopped caring: Their jobs weren’t invested in our popularity. We could just concentrate on keeping each other happy as friends and companions.
I just have to interject that the notion of you writing stronger choruses and better songs than you do already, seems rather absurd to me.
Well, we were really urged to do that. [There were] lots of long, long conversations from people with record companies. We’ve been on about fifty [labels]. But some people I really love said, “Tim if you took a couple of the idiosyncrasies out and put more attention to song construction, it’s gonna make our job a lot easier.” And I kind of tried, because I love those people. But the records where we tried to do that, to pay attention to song construction in a more traditional manner, are probably the duller ones that we’ve done. We’re just not that kind of band that will ever, or should have ever, been that big. There’s something quite idiosyncratic about us. I think if I’m proud of anything, it’s that we got through that time and didn’t bicker at each other or bitch about each other…It’s at this point now where we’re self-managed and self-produced. It’s a real solid group of people.
Any fun U.S. tour stories you’d like to pass along?
Oh, too many, man. Touring the States is like Wonderland, you know? We love to visit, go on strolls…”Shit! This is where this band is from!” or, “This actress was beheaded here [laughs]!” What’s not to love about it when you’re a little odd convict cult band from Australia? You’ve got time to do that, ’cause you haven’t got the commitments with press or a label. That’s stuff that dreams are made of. We’ve toured with bands that are really successful, and while that’s wonderful and it’d be awesome to have on-site dealers and big fruit platters, you just don’t have the time and energy to have fun when you’re at that level.
In addition to your own gigs, have you seen a lot of live gigs yourself? Can you talk about some of the live shows that you’ve seen that changed your life, or inspired you to get into music, or just rocked your world?
Well, seeing Joan Jett play at the Off Ramp…I played some songs with the Posies that night, they were playing with Joan Jett. That was back in ’94 or ’95…Ken and Jon were such raconteurs, and I was, like, “I’m sharing a dressing room with Joan Jett [laughs]!” That was a big one. And seeing Thee Headcoats playing in New York ripped my head off. Billy ended up playing with just one string, ’cause he broke five and thought it was being posh to change strings.
That’s so Billy Childish.
Yeah! I’m not trying to bring the Seattle connection in too hard, but…we were touring with the band Semisonic in the late nineties. We’d finished that tour in upstate New York, and we just discovered after soundcheck that Mudhoney were playing downstairs. Mudhoney was the second show where I stage-dove and got my nose broken. The guys from Semisonic were really lovely to us: They were like, “Let’s have a party!” and we were like, “Look. We can’t! Mudhoney are playing!” That was one of Matt Lukins’ last tours with them. I thought, fuck, we just played a show in front of these people upstairs, now we’re watching Mudhoney play in front of a couple hundred people in whatever town we’re in. I thought, this is the best job ever [laughs]!
Another highlight for me was when I saw Flop playing in Los Angeles. I was hanging out with some friends that night…Rusty Willoughby’s just an enormous, enormous influence on me. That was power-pop in extremis. The way they just sort of wandered onstage, plugged in; and then BAM! Whereas, we were a bit more prima donna and demanded the stage be swept with golden brooms before we dare [set] foot on it…
Seeing the Fastbacks play a show in Seattle was great. [They were] people I wasn’t aware of when I was younger, but who seemed to be contemporaries of ours. I catch up every year with [Soundgarden drummer] Matt Cameron whenever Pearl Jam are in Australia….
Describe the new record for me.
We did it in kitchens, and set up mattresses around kitchens in a warehouse. Anything that felt familiar, we just ditched. There were probably about fifteen songs that got cut from the record that were power pop rock-and-roll songs. We just threw them all out. It’s probably a lot more textural than anything we’ve ever done. I was traveling a lot last year doing other work. I was listening to a lot of Soft Machine, and Neu records. We just wanted to stretch ourselves.
Oddly enough, the record we’re starting on now is the least textural and nastiest little fuck-over we’ve ever been involved in. It’s all heart and was written mostly when going through turbulence in aeroplanes.
What do the other guys bring to the mix?
Oh, everything! Rusty [Hopkinson], on top of being the most intelligent guy, he’s such a powerful drummer. But what he prefers to play is things where he’s really thinking on his feet. He’s played the drums for Levon Helm, [and] he’s endlessly inspiring, just by his life and the way that he plays; his power and his subtlety, turning on a dime.
Andy [Kent], he’s our bass player…he’s probably curtailed my flakier instincts…because we don’t listen to a lot of similar music, [I’m] very, very conscious of trying to please him. And he manages us: I can’t believe anyone would want to do that. It’s sort of a beautiful thing; he’s like my brother who’s been playing with us for 21 years and looking after us.
Young Davey [Lane, You am I’s second guitarist]; we room together, we live in each other’s back pockets. He’s like my little brother. He can play all the things that I can’t. He’s able to actually notate what we do. He’s just, 24 hours a day, dedicated to being a better musician; a better writer. So if any of us are feeling tired, we look around at Davey, and he’s feverishly trying to learn the solo to “The Seven Seas of Rye” by Queen or through all of A Wizard, A True Star by Todd Rundgren. He toured Australia with Todd Rundgren recently. Those guys are the ones who bring it to the band. And Stevie [Hesketh], our keyboardist who tours with us…if we wanted someday to just do Randy Newman covers, we could do that. That’s my little idea of heaven.
Looking back at the You am I catalog, what’s your favorite of the ones you’ve done?
I’d have to say the last one. But you always expect someone to say that. I haven’t listened to the records that people seem to love, like Hi-Fi Way and Hourly Daily, a lot at all. Then I listened to them the other day, and I thought: Wow, that is three young men really just going for it. Hi-Fi was just an odd little record, and I’m sure glad that we made it, so I’m starting to become affectionate towards that record again.
I have more fun making records these days. So the last one and the next one are my favorites. I’m just less serious about it. I want to be amazing, but I expect and know that I’m next to nothing. That’s where the beauty of it lies; no smoke being blown up my arse. If I’ve got enough money in my pocket for a pitcher of beer and a show that night, I’m happy as hell knowing that knowing that, fuck, maybe I can go home and write a song that’s gonna make me feel like a million bucks. It’s not gonna make anyone a million bucks, but I feel like it [laughs]!