If nothing else, Tim Rogers is conspicuous by virtue of his frame. Tall and thin, a little awkward, it's hard to miss him as he strolls into a quiet cafe in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe sporting a brand new pair of purple sneakers. Adidas Gazelles. His bandmates — "Rusty" Russell Hopkinson and Andy Kent - are suitably impressed and not a little amused, and the sneakers quickly become the centre of attention. A passing motorist has already yelled a short, "At least you wear 'em!" Everyone is smiling. It's a beautiful June morning, and after six months of waiting around, things are starting to happen for You Am I.
A week before the Australian release of their third lauded album, Hourly, Daily, You Am I embarked on their fourth tour of America, centred around a string of appearances on the Lollapalooza festival's second stage. Hourly, Daily debuted at number one on the national ARIA charts - the second consecutive You Am I album to do so (their second album, Hi Fi Way, was the first). Hi Fi Way, which went on to become You Am I's first gold record here, has finally been released by the band's American label, Warner Brothers.
For a band that loves to play as much as You Am I does, the inactivity of the past six months — especially the delays caused by negotiations between Warner and the band's Australian label, rooArt - has been a constant source of frustration. The prospect of actually doing anything, let alone playing Lollapalooza, is enough to set their energies in motion, and the band is already warming to its task.
"We have this alter-ego thing at the moment with here and overseas," says Hopkinson. "We have a bit of a profile here, but we haven't broken through in America yet. That's kind of good since we can go there and just be another band playing some shows. I hate the thought that we'd go over there and climb into a big tour bus and act like a big band when we're not, just because we've had success here. You gotta earn your stripes wherever you go."
"Yeah, if you don't luck out with a big hit," adds Rogers. "And we're not going to. So it's, uh, good."
Like the Soundgarden tour before it, Lollapalooza provides another great opportunity for You Am I. But Rogers, Hopkinson and Kent are determined not to get carried away. "If we seem a little lackadaisical about it," says Rogers, "it's just that we've seen that kind of thing before - 'Oh, everything's gonna go great'. And it just hasn't happened to us."
"It's good to be a little bit pessimistic about your opportunities," says Hopkinson. "Because chances are, you're not going to make it. So you might as well think like that. We can go over there and at least have a laugh and we might make it, but it doesn't matter."
Round-table converations with You Am I can be a daunting proposition. Rogers and Hopkinson tend to dominate; Kent — who freely admits that interviews make him nervous — is more cautious. Once Rogers and Hopkinson are into their stride, the conversation is liable to lapse into increasingly obscure tangents, usually concerning their twin passions — music and Australian Rules football. "They're both hyperactive, especially Russell," says Kent the following day at his home in Annandale. "They have incredible memories, it's uncanny at times. I've never met anyone like those two. But I know when they're bullshitting. One of them will go, 'What about this?' And the other will nod and say, 'Yeah, yeah.' But I know that they don't know. It's pretty funny, the battles that go on. It's fun, though, I learn a lot from them."
Joining the trio on the road are long-time sound mixer Cameron McCauley and second guitarist/keyboardist, Greg Hitchcock, formerly of Sydney band the Verys and a host of WA outfits. Hitchcock used to crew for You Am I, and his appearance as the "fourth member" of the band, at least as far as live shows are concerned, has led curious fans to wonder, where does he fit in? "He fits in right on the bar stool next to our three," says Rogers. "There doesn't need to be a reason for any kind of formal thing about it. Greg's been part of us for a long while anyway, through just being a mate and helping us out and living with Rus. So I don't think we need to make a big deal about it. He just plays with us.
"For five years, six years, we've been this three-piece thing. We wanted to play different songs and we seemed to be hanging out with Greg a lot. I wanted someone to muck around with guitar stuff. I wanted to concentrate on some different things. It's not to say that we won't be a three-piece next month. It's just that we're enjoying it at the moment. I want the band to keep doing different things. I mean, everything could be different next month. Who knows?"
"I wanted to male a record that could make you feel like you were 16 again for an hour or so."
Now that Hitchcock has settled in, certainly You Am I appear happier onstage. The long months of frustration took their toll on Rogers, who began to develop a reputation amongst audiences as a "difficult" performer. For the first time in the band's career, You Am I cancelled shows. At one particular showcase gig in Sydney, a noticeably humourless and generally unpleasant Rogers welcomed the assembled "freeloading fuckwits" and dedicated a song to "all the other three-pieces from Perth and Newcastle who are doing better than us in America".
Reminded of the incident, Rogers replies, "I'll say anything after a couple of drinks," before continuing. "Sometimes when you're feeling a bit shitty... The first five months of this year haven't been really great. There's been all these hold-ups with the record and people trying to ruin our chances of records out in America. And you get a bit frustrated then and you blow up. It's just because you've got a fucking microphone in front of your mouth that a big deal gets made about it. I'm not in it to fucking make friends with everybody. I'm sick of that. We just look after each other."
"The thing is, up to now we've never had a big machine behind us, pushing us like some other bands," says Hopkinson, jumping in. "We've always had to do our bit of hard work there."
Which is not to say that You Am I wouldn't like the benefits such a machine can offer. "Having free drinks here and there is always great," says Rogers. "But look, people take shit like that too seriously. I don't wish anybody ill will at all and good fuckin' luck to them, but you know, we're allowed to get fuckin' caustic and shitty."
You Am I, from left: Andy Kent, Tim Rogers and Russell Hopkinson.
"We spent our last American tour having virtually every American journalist asking if we knew who silverchair was," says Hopkinson. "I mean, of course I fucking know who silverchair are. Love 'em dearly, but I'm gonna start hating them dearly if you don't shut up. The thing with silverchair is, it was the perfect song for that time. You'd be in Ohio and walk into a record store and there'd be the representatives of Generation X looking through the racks with their pierced eyebrows and 'Tomorrow' would be playing and it looked like a scene out of Clerks or something. It made perfect sense."
"There's been this theory that we're in competition with silverchair, Ammonia, bands like Regurgitator," says Rogers. "But they're doing their thing, as far I'm concerned, it's fucking Carnaby Street out there, you know? I'm not in the same mind set at all. So there's no competition. You're just all trying to get into the right pair of trousers."
Later, as he sits over a bowl of baked beans in the Annandale home that he's about to vacate, Rogers offers a more simple explanation of the band's slide into bitterness. At times like these, it's hard to reoncile Tim Rogers, Angry Young Man, with the gentle, impossibly charming person before you. "We were unhappy people then," he says. "And now because there's something happening... Rus, he needs to keep moving. He's like a shark - if he stops moving he'll die. And Andy has this plateau of contendedness wherever he goes, he's so calm. But I've gotta keep moving as well. It's confusing when everything stops. You just don't think rationally. It's like a car brakes too suddenly and there's no airbag. You smash straight into the railway lines. I find that sort of depression after a tour really hard to cope with. It really does fuck up your relationships with everybody because they don't know how to handle it." He pauses. "It's pretty hard to explain, it just sounds like you're being a prima donna."
Hourly, Daily was the first You Am I album to be recorded in Australia. Recording at Sydney's Q Studios gave the band time to relax. It also let them go home at the end of a day's work. Despite the easier schedule, the band deliberately kept rehearsals to a minimum, keeping their ideas fresh and their performances spontaneous. Jackie Orszaczky gathered a string quartet and a small horn section, scoring the melody the band hummed at him. Producer Paul McKercher added the cello. "We're not going to labour over songs till we kill them," says Rogers. "Two of the songs ("Good Mornin" and "If We Can't Get It Together") were actually written four days before we started,"
The alternate Hourly, Daily covers: Australia (top) and for the international release (bottom).
Hi Fi Way, written on the road and recorded during, a hectic week in New York, benefits from a unique sense of urgency. In retrospect, Rogers and the band are happy — not to mention pleasantly surprised — with the results. Still, says Rogers, "There was no clarity to it all, It was just a bunch of songs."
Hourly, Daily, on the other hand, had a deliberate sense of purpose. "I wanted to make a record that could make you feel like you were 16 again for an hour or so, or at least make you feel something," says Rogers. "It's a mixture of trying to emulate things and also making something of your own. There's obviously a deliberate thing coming through, but it's not like we're going to be sloganeering or flag-waving. There's a bit too much fucking flag-waving. It'd be nice if it just spoke for itself."
Asked to nominate just what records he was trying to emulate, Rogers simply smiles and says, "That'd be giving it all away now, wouldn't it?" Still, the influence of the British beat sound of the '60s is undeniable (and most often seized upon), and Rogers later name-checks the Pretty Things pre-Tommy rock opera, SF Sorrow, as a favourite of the time.
Given the overwhelming critical reaction to Hi Fi Way, You Am I were entitled to approach Hourly, Daily with a measure of caution. They didn't. "The good thing about that," says Rogers, "is that we garnered a bit of trust from people. So with this one, we made the record ourselves - we got the people we wanted, the studio we wanted, and no-one second-guessed it. The good thing about doing well is that you can then do things on your terms. It can be totally your record, and it's fucking unreal."
Instead of being a reaction to the pressure to produce, Rogers ays Hourly, Daily "was more a reaction to the fact that there were so many shit records last year that people thought were so great, and a lot of records were sounding exactly the same. It wasn't deliberately a reaction against anything, but it was that mix of things. In the end, it really didn't matter. It was just what we were listening to at the time, the kind of music we were into."
It's the kind of music Rogers has been listening to all of his life. "The biggest things to ever happen to me," he says, "were Keith (Richards), then it was Pete (Townshend), and then Paul Westerberg in about '84. They're the big three, they always pop up. When you go off on these little diversions, you come back again." With the exception of Hi Fi Way, Rogers still won't listen to You Am I's earlier material, which he describes as "a lot of noise, making up for what you can't play.
"I always wanted to make a sound like the Stones ot the Who, but we sounded nothing like it. I can't hear it in those songs I was writing - at all. I didn't know how to make those sounds - like the first Who record - the sound of that record makes my whole world swing, but I just didn't know how to make it happen. And suddenly I've figured out how to make those sounds, and I'm having the time of my life."
All that's missing is the one song at the right time. "We've had a little bit of that with songs like 'Berlin Chair'," says Rogers. "I mean, they never sold, it was just pretty much that they're just familiar or something. But it is time we had a big shitty hit, I reckon."
It's ironic that while You Am I have consistently moved towards a more "British" sound, they've largely focused their international push on America. Todd Wagstaff, formerly the band's A&R representative, left rooArt to establish himself in Los Angeles as You Am I's American management contact (Wagstaff co-manages the band with long-term manager, Sydney-based Kate Stewart). Andy Kent insists that the focus has not been deliberate - it's merely that opportunities to tour and release in America have presented themselves to the band; opportunities in the UK haven't.
Still, the suspicion remains: You Am I are making records that the American market just doesn't want to hear. "We got a letter from Lee Ranaldo a couple of months ago and it said exactly that," says Rogers. "This is a record that Americans aren't going to get, but I don't give a fuck if you don't give a fuck.' But who knows? Maybe Americans aren't going to listen to the same kind of bland, FM fodder for the rest of their lives. And why try to make records like that? I want to make records that are completely different from what's going on. And that seems to correlate with the music that I, we, enjoy. It's just knowing what you like and playing what you like."
"The good thing about doing well is that you can then do things on your terms. It can be totally your record, and it's fucking unreal."
Hopkinson's bag is overflowing with copies of English music weeklies, Melody Maker and the NME ("He just gets them for the pictures," jokes Rogers). "I love the dynamic of the English music scene," he says. "You've got these guys and they can make a band really exciting. They're really governed by the now, not like here or in America where most of the press is a month behind. A band's career might only last a year, but it'll probably be the most exciting year of their lives. And if a band's good enough, it will survive."
But the English music press operates as a two-way sword. "Australian bands have, historically, just been mercilessly hammered over there," says Rogers. "The thing about England now, and all these Australian bands who are cutting their hair, everyone's saying 'Yeah, I'm fuckin' into the Small Faces!' Personally, I couldn't be bothered competing with little saps like that."
"Going there would be fantastic," says Kent, "but it'd be terrifying just to be trod on and sent home."
"We've done that in America," says Rogers. "We've been, not trod on, but just ignored and sent home. We can handle it."
With three more dates remaining on the Lollapalooza tour, the mood within the You Am I camp is less than buoyant. It's mid-July, and Hopkinson, on the phone in New York, sounds tired and weary. The driving has been arduous. "It's not been the most pleasant of experiences," he says. "I think a few people have taken a bath on this. It hasn't been as big as they thought it would be."
This year's Lollapalooza, with Metallica headlining the bill, has seen the second stage — traditionally well attended — largely ignored. "It's basically Metallica with 18 support bands," says Hopkinson. "That's what the crowds have been like, anyway. It's interesting, but I wouldn't want to do it again at this point.
"The thing is, when you play at 1:40 everyday, it's really bright and really hot. The second stage finishes at 8:00 so the main bands can get under way. It just hasn't been as good for the band as we thought it would be in terms of playing to a lot of people. All the bands would say that, be it us, or someone like Girls Against Boys who are a bigger drawcard on the bill. They've certainly had some decent crowds, but it's not been like it has in other years. We've probably had a thousand people at most and when you look at the whole scale of the thing, it does kind of freak you out a bit because you go down to the main stage abd there's 40,000 standing in the field waiting for Metallica to play, throwing stuff at Rancid."
Still, wherever they go — be it Quebec or Rockford, Illinois — there's always someone who knows and loves the band. And the other second stage acts — Girls Against Boys, Ben Folds Five, Cornershop — are aware of the difficulties each band is facing. You Am I, Sherrin football in hand, are making friends.
"The one thing about Lollapalooza is, it's very culturally-defined," says Hopkinson. "It's really directed towards body-piercing nation. It's really alt-rock. And I think the thing about us, especially on the second stage, we don't really have a spin. We're just a bunch of guys who play rock & roll. I think that gets lost in the translation because we don't really have a schtick, we're just a rock & roll band. But that's cool. We're the type of band that thrives under adversity. For every 10 people in the crowd who don't get it, there's always going to be three of four that do.
From issue #527 (October, 1996). Photographs by Polly Borland.
Topics: You Am I