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You Am I

It's the Cream, it's the Crock, it's the You Am I interview with Tim Rogers!

by Gail Worley

Few bands on the world-touring circuit have worked harder and longer to become an overnight sensation than Australia's "Beat Combo Extraordinaire," You Am I. Together since 1989, with three number one albums to their credit and a collection of ARIA (Australian Grammy) Awards, You Am I routinely sell out arenas in their home country. In the States, they seem content to pack clubs the size of New York City's Mercury Lounge. As far as singer/guitarist, Tim Rogers is concerned, it's all good. "I think we're used to people not knowing how long we've been around," says the 29 year old Rogers. "We're aware of the disparity between what people know [in Australia] and what they may know elsewhere. It's no great concern to us."

Reflecting influences as diverse as the Who, early Pink Floyd, and XTC, You Am I create a timeless, guitar rock sound without concern for adherence to temporal musical fads. With Russell Hopkins on drums and Andy Kent on bass, You Am I have built a zealous global fan base. Their enthusiastic live shows, ignited by Rogers' on stage swaggering and mischievously spontaneous banter, incite fanatical loyalty. "The insults are pretty much just to fill in time while you're tuning your guitar or catching your breath," says Rogers. "I think it just came from when the band started. The first three or four years, we were used to being called "Faggots" and "Ponces" because we were playing predominantly with harder bands. So, we developed this kind of really pathetic [defense]. Our immediate reaction to anything would be, "Well, keep your eye on your girlfriend, 'cause she's coming home with us!"

You Am I's fourth record, entitled simply #4 Record, originally slated for release this past Spring, was delayed when the band made an amicable departure from their relationship with Warner Bros. "We got the feeling that people in the upper echelons of the company weren't as enthusiastic about the band as [our publicist]. We saw a lot of delays with [#4 Record] coming out and a lot of conjecture." The band had intended to seek representation by a smaller label, and were surprised to be offered a home with RCA. "We thought, okay let's give it one more try," says Rogers. RCA released #4 Record (which features such guest musicians as the Memphis Horns and Tom Petty's keyboardist, Benmont Tench) this fall.

Tim Rogers spoke to me from his hotel room in Chicago close to the end of the band's Fall U.S Tour. "It's very cold," he began, "and it's making a mess of my newly coiffured haircut as well." Rogers is definitely hard not to like.

There's no doubt that the band has a fanatical following, and you do seem to tour a lot.

We've been really lucky, for example, with the Semisonic shows. We were surprised, first of all, that we were allowed to play them, and it was a nice couple of shows to get on. As far as certain people being really into the band and the general public not knowing [about us], I guess that happens a lot. Maybe one day when the right song comes along or the right video, then we'll come off all fresh-faced. But then, in a way, you think you kind of don't know if you really want that to happen... but it would be lovely.

It can be like a double-edged sword.

We'd happily sell out at this point. The thing is, we do have a love of garagey, punk music. Then there's obviously a softer side to the band, which doesn't make it that easy. I don't know how we could bend our sound so that people would think we had sold out anyway. We have a lot of very sugary pop music, but then very throwaway garagey stomp as well. We're pretty much sluts as far as throwing rock and roll around.

It seems that you're just really allowing yourselves to be influenced by bands you love rather than wondering how you can capitalize on what everyone else is doing now.

Part of the reason we keep doing that is 'cause we travel a lot. We're not in America all the time or anywhere in particular for very long. We're always away from home, so we don't have the time to really sit down and find out what is happening in current, popular tastes. Even though it's very obvious what is [popular], say like Korn -- there are obvious things that you can't hide from. But being on the move, and playing shows to not many people, you've pretty much got to keep your attention on just satisfying yourself and the other guys in the band. That keeps you wanting to do the music that you're enjoying, because you don't have the tastes "of your public" to think of, because there is no public. [Laughs].

What was it like touring with Oasis?

That was maybe nine months ago, through Japan and Hong Kong and Australia. We pretty much did it just to get to Japan -- we'd never been to Japan before -- and, obviously, to be under this certain, tabloid, visceral thrill in being close to any band that huge. Then we got to meet and play with them and they were absolutely charming, amazing people. We really just fell in love with them. Everyone got on really great and had an excellent time. I think the bands really complemented each other. We'd go on and put on a very short, sharp set of, ahem, "hits." Then they'd come through like a volcano with live production and sound and swagger and attitude. It was really good fun, and something I'd like to do again, actually. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but they are fantastic people, really funny.

One of my favorite songs of yours is "Please Don't Ask Me to Smile" from Hourly, Daily. Is that song about being a kid and being picked on for having braces on your teeth?

Well, there are bits of it that are personal [but] I never actually had braces. The bit about opening the door for the girl and having her say, "Don't be so fucking polite," those kinds of things are real. I suffer from not really having a great attention span, so I'll have an intention for a song [and it will turn out differently]. That one, that title just came from when people come up to you and go 'Hey Tim, just smile! C'mon!' You know, that kind of vacuous statement. Even though I find it very easy to smile, I'm genuinely quite ready to smile at any given opportunity, I just hate being asked to. Then it started getting into other things, like the girl cussing at me when really all I wanted to do was be polite or whatever. But the braces thing, that comes from somewhere else.

I think that song is a nice little capsule about insecurities.

It's funny, I've been writing songs like that and I will continue to do so, 'cause you can only write about what affects you. I'm maybe a little paranoid about being perceived as using that insecure thing as an angle, because now [that] my back's straightened out, my skin's cleared up a bit, I really don't have a lot to be insecure about apart from my accent. [My lyrics come] mainly just from watching other people, like from when I've got a lot of time to look out the window. I've got younger sisters, seeing them grow up and their friends, it tends to really affect me. Watching adolescents grow up, these small little things happen to your body that just make you feel so awful, so a lot of it's not from personal experience. I feel compelled to write chords that fit along with that kind of feeling. I'm not really purging my pain in most of the songs at all. I'm just there with a pen and too much time on my hands. It's kind of nice to write a little vignette or a song and not really know where it comes from. I like the mystery of that.

How would you say that your song writing has changed between Hourly Daily and #4 Record?

Just the circumstances were different. Before Hourly, Daily, I was at home for a month, the first month I'd been at home in a long while. I got to writing, just feeling very domestic and noticing what was going on around me in the suburbs. So a lot of the songs tended to be about little askew opinions about what was going on in suburban life, really. With #4, we were on the road a substantial part of that year. Anytime we weren't on the road, at home, I was kind of jumping around anyway, in line with that situation. So, [the song writing] was inspired, for lack of a better word, by being in a traveling, substantially unpopular rock band.

The thing I've noticed is that the new record seems to rock a bit more than the previous.

Yeah, I'm aware of that, I can see the two objectively. That may be [from] wanting to show off the band a little more. The comment has oft been made that when people go see the band, it is a lot more energetic than any of our records have ever shown. Maybe I feel compelled to write songs because I want to hear [what the band can do]. I don't sit down and write "Rumble" for my own sake, I do it so I can hear what Russ and Andy do to it. So it's for my own greed as well, wanting to hear them play all over "Junk" or something like that. "Junk" started off sounding a bit more morose and shuffly, like a country/blues kind of song. But when you've got Russ and Andy in a band to play with you, you want to show them off. [The Crowd] want to hear it and I want to hear it as well.

What's the story behind this "Convicts" project? Is it your thing or is it the whole band?

The Convicts is the band. We've always felt that doing our own music is great, we enjoy that, the sentimental songs mixed up with the more throw away ones. But we just wanted to form a band called the Convicts and make it complete garage, stomp music, so there was no subtlety to it and we could just set up in the corner and bash through 20 odes to convict life. You know, about scurvy... The album title's going to be It was but for a Loaf of Bread I was Sent.

Isn't that the story of Les Miserables?

It was the same kind of thing. I think we became a bit more idiosyncratically Australian over the past couple of years because we've been forced, in a way, to change out accents to be understood and there's a vague amount of condescension that comes with being from that country. The Convicts was a way of celebrating our colonistic [laughs] background and exacerbating our pride for it, or whatever. It's always on the back burner you know. Whenever we're feeling a bit tired of playing in You Am I, [we go] "Let's just get the Convicts together!"

Have you actually played out as the Convicts, or does this just go on in your head?

No no, it's definitely one of those things that needs to be talked about. It's our fake band, but it will definitely happen.

That will be fun.

Yeah, it is definitely something to look forward to, for us as well.

You know what I think everyone looks forward to as part of your stage shows is your hilarious commentary. You say some pretty outrageous things. One show you did recently, from the stage you said something like "Tonight the part of Tim Rogers will be played by Liza Minelli."

It's probably just stuff that we talk about on the bus during the day. It's not like I plan "Oh, tonight I'm going to say this." Like that [comment] came from how Jeff McDonald from Redd Kross was referred to once as "Liza" -- someone called him Liza Minelli, because of a certain affectation in his persona. It will just come out that night. It's just the juvenile humor of the band.

It's one of the best parts of your live shows. Everyone wants to know, "What will Tim say?"

It's funny... We were in England just recently and I was taping a show and I put [the tape recorder] near the soundboard. Over the top of the music, our mixer, Phil, I heard him say in the middle of a song, "Oh, shut up Rogers!" So I stopped talking at all for a couple of shows, just thinking maybe I'd overstepped it, people are here to see a band, not to hear some guy ramble.

A question about the song "Cream and the Crock," which is just a song about being on the road, right? I read that the working title of that song was "Don Henley." Now this has got to be a good story.

We always said that, even though we spend a lot of time on the road, we never wanted to write a song about a band being on the road, because that would be something that would be a little too Eagles-ish. So we just called that song "Don Henley," because that was our way of saying, look, we can't help it. It was going to stay like that, but then when Benmont was playing on the record he said [adopts American accent] "Ah, Tim, why is this song called 'Don Henley'?" I went through the story and then he said [American accent] "Well, I just spoke to Don the other week, and maybe I should mention that to him." I thought oh no, I can't believe that Don Henley is now two degrees of separation from this record. I thought I should change the title to avoid any litigation. It wasn't meant in any particular way, it was just fun. I mean, the song, "15" was called "Fuck the Kids" for awhile.

That's provocative.

We were talking about this Metallica thing, I read an article in Kerrang a couple of years ago. Any song they'd do, they'd ask themselves at the end of the song "But what about the kids?" You know, will the kids like it? And we were so aware that most of the songs on the record wouldn't appeal to "the kids," so we just called it "Fuck the Kids." We thought the better of it later on.

What inspired you to write the song "What I Don't Know About You"?

There was a song called "I Think I Like What I Don't Know About You" that my girlfriend at the time wrote, she just wrote lyrics down and gave them to me. It meant something quite heartfelt and personal, and I said to her that I thought it was the best thing that she'd written. I said, do you mind if I just take the title, cause I just love the title so much. And she was like, yeah, no problem. Then we were in England before we made #4, and I sat down and started playing those chords. The lyrics probably came from being out in the sun too long. You can catch some vague attempt at affection to a person, with the crux of it saying you've got a lot to find out about that person. That expectation is the wonderful part about it, I guess. That's one of my favorites to play live as well.

It's a great song.

A couple people have noticed that recently. I didn't think that for awhile, because we released it in Australia as a single and so many people were like, "Oh my god, it's just such a wussie pop song." So we quickly buried it, even though it was probably out favorite song for a long while.

What's up for you after this U.S tour ends?

We've already started on the next You Am I record, writing songs for that. That feels particularly good at the moment. It's nice to keep moving and not worry about promoting the last record. We just treat it a bit like a job -- even though it's what we love. It helps sometimes to think of it as another night at the office because it gives you that extra kick at 11 in the morning when you don't want to get up. And maybe it helps rationalize it, because it does feel like you're just on a paid slumber party, really. To regard it with a little bit of the attitude that it is work -- we're all from working class families, really -- justifies it. But that's pretty pathetic so I'll just stop there.