ARIAs Are Us

Nine ARIA award nominations. Seven sell-out Sydney shows. What's the story behind You Am I's stunning success? BERNARD ZUEL goes on tour with four guys turning '60s classicism into '90s gold.

You can spend your time talking numbers when it comes to You Am I. There are the better known numbers, such as one - as in consecutive albums which each had their debut at number one, including the current album, Hourly, Daily. And nine - as in nine ARIA Award nominations this year, including best band, best single and best album. Or three - as in three albums and three consecutive years being nominated for best alternative band and the ARIAs (and winning it for the past two years).
But the numbers that really count, the numbers that confirm what the ARIA nominations have finally, belatedly recognised, are those coming by phone to You Am I's manager, Kate Stewart, sitting in the back of the band's Tarago as we head up the Hume Highway. Last night the band began its current Australian tour before a nrea sold out crowd of 1,100 in Canberra. Tonight there's another 1,100-strong audience in Newcastle.
With a laptop balanced on her legs, Stewart is tabulating information on the upcoming shows. The Brisbane Festival Hall gig in two days' time already has sold more than 2,000 tickets, In Melbourne, pre-sales have gone past 2,100 a week ahead of shows. And coming up are an unprecedented seven straight shows at The Metro in Sydney, most of which have sold out already.
By the end of this tour, You Am I will have played to 23,000 people. Maybe one or two other Australian bands could manage this run. Maybe. The critics may love them and the industry is finding it does, too, but for You Am I, these are the sweetest numbers of all.

Tim Rogers has never been accused of carrying excess weight. But since his hernia operation late last month and the arduous July/August American tour - which included 13 dates on the Lollapalooza mega-music travelling festival - he is whippit thin and sharp angles. His powder blue pants hang off him and the yellow shirt, complete with corporal stripes on each sleeve, engulfs him.
But on stage, his energy comes out in continuous nervous streams: his feet tap tap tapping away, the body sporadically jerking, and every now and then the Pete Townshend-style big arm twirling that has become a trademark.
While the shorter, nuggety figure of bassist Andy Kent is content to patrol his corner of the stage and Russell "Rusty" Hopkinson (older, beefier and adorned with some serious sideburns) usually concentrates on his drum kit, Tim (26 a week ago) has no problem playing the entertainer. Though, in his hands, it's less "happy happy, joy joy" and more sardonic and open to interpretation.
"We act like an arrogant bunch of cunts, but thanks for coming along," he says, towards the end of the set at the ANU in Canberra. "oh, yeah, we are an arrogant bunch of cunts."

Apres-gig, in the uni bar well after 1am, the biggest band in the country at the moment is not exactly in "arrogant cunt" star mode, or at least not as we know it. No being spirited away to hotel rooms miles away after the show, no trying to fit large pieces of cold meats on to small pieces of bread.
Tim is on a stool, beer in hand, talking to three strangers who are soon to be very good friends he will end up partying with back at their house. Rusty and (virtual fourth member) touring guitarist/keyboardist Greg Hitchcock are having a natter with members of one of the support groups from tonight's gig.
Meanwhile, Andy is having the world's longest game of pool. With a vodka and orange juice he rescued from the ice box masquerading as a dressing room upstairs, Andy is being almost inhumanly polite to a doofus with no pool skill and even less conversation. He's one of those campus losers who, as Kent describes it, can be part of a vibrant university scene and never know what is going on.
Not that Kent will brush him off. It's almost a cliche now to talk about unfailingly polite You Am I are to their fans, or to anyone at all. It has its downside, says Kate Stewart, who is across the room kepping an eye on them all, like a parent at a big children's party.
"I worry about them now that they're becoming 'rock stars'," she says. "Everyone wants to talk to them and they (the band) will always do it, which is great. But they're trying to be normal people in an abnormal situation."

After the Newcastle show, the band spend about half an hour at a small window of the dressing room signing posters, chatting to a clutch of fans.
Rusty explains this openness with: "I really don't think we've ever been into being arseholes.
"Tim has a certain thing on stage where he gives people shit but it's definately played for laughs, and if anyone came up to him after the show he's the ploitest person you'll ever meet. We're still happy that people are into the band. You say thanks, what else can you say?"
The band is even saying thanks - well, sort of - for the surfeit of ARIA nominations. As with The Cruel Sea two years ago, who virtually apologised for winning their ARIAs, You Am I traditionally have had a reluctance to be part of the backslapping industry fest. But Tim is prepared to say that while "It's not the be-all and end-all" of their lives at the moment, they are flattered.
And Andy is keen to clarify.
"We come across as being a bit angry about it, like 'How dare you?' but it's not like that," he says. "Tim made this comment that we've been invited to the club but we weren't really standing outside waiting to get in it.
"Seeing Tina Arena with sincerity and emotion on tap, that side of show business is really appalling and we're just a rock 'n' roll band in the tradition of rock 'n' roll bands.
Rusty (who confesses that "I'm a sucker for any band with a manifesto and good trousers and riffs") calls it a "surreal thing".
"But, at the same time, it's good to be the outsiders who are getting this, through sheer dint of the fact we have a quite decent fan base who really like the band and that we have intruded on the mainstream charts a bit.
"All we have, really, is our hour on stage together, all the other stuff is superfluous to it. The playing live is what powers the band. Making records is important to us but there's nothing like going out and kicking out the jams."

While radio, in particular the Triple M network outside Melbourne, finds the band too "alternative" to play - despite 35,000 sales of Hourly, Daily in less than three months - it is live that You Am I really make the line clear between the good bands and the top division that inhabit. It's hard to avoid feeling, that you are seeing a band approaching the height of their powers. Confident and throbbing, they effortlessly toss off hooks left and right without sacrificing any force, Tim playing as often as not in mid-air, Rusty flaying the kit.
In front of them is a passionate reaction that sees bodies pressed up against the front of the stage, sometimes almost buckled over with the pressure behind, but never taking their eyes off the band.
Says Rusty: "It amazes me, seeing those people down the front getting crushed and people landing on their heads. But they stay there for the whole thing because that's where they want to be.
"It never ceases to amaze me that people will do that for us. You're always expecting to play one song and they go, 'They're not that good, let's go'."
He then adds, as if it wasn't already obvious: "We've never been the most optimistic band."

But they are a band starting to believe, even if it is just a little bit. With Hourly, Daily they have done what very few of the American, English and Australian bands mining at the vein of '60s-influenced pop have managed: to stay true to their origins and create something individual and fresh.
Part of the reason for that is a lyrical bent which paints small but closely observed scenarios. Tales of a milkman delivering the clinking bottles while his mind is on the girl he is chasing, or the mother cleaning the boots of bower boy son.
These are songs where life can fully described in just two apt lines.
Set to music which can echo The Kinks or any number of never-successful '60s garage punk bands one minute and Kiss the next, it's a potent mix of verve and simplicity. And eve the hard-to-please Tim has been convinced.
"I like the sound of it, I like most of the songs on it (Hourly, Daily) a lot," he says. "I listened to it quite a lot while we were away because it made me feel quite emotional. I couldn't believe out own record made me do that.
"I'm not really aspiring to being a really good songwriter, I just really love writing songs. I love writing the music to songs; the lyrics are kind of a bit secondary. The lyrics are an excuse to play the songs but they're there to support the music so why not try to make them good?"
and addressing the regular topic of those influences, Tim has his answers all worked out.
"I don't know which lines I've stolen from somebody; that kind of worries me a bit. I accuse bands of ripping off, too, but I think it's not where it has come from but is it good or not.
"The Stones wanted to sound like Chuck Berry, the MC5 wanted to sound like Chuck Berry mixed with Sun Ra. Rock 'n' roll is such a bastard that the question is whether it's good or not. It's pretty basic stuff, it's what kind of stew you make, ratatouille or gumbo."

The last chord of Who Takes Who Home is still reverberating as You Am I come off stage. The chant for more is under way, feet stamping and whistles punctuating the cries. Rusty is still shaking his head about the stool that collapsed mid-set, Andy and Greg quietly pull on their drinks, but everyone is watching Tim. He has slumped to the ground behind the bank of speakers, cradling his head in his bony hands. His face is pallid and drawn, the shoulders hunched over and he looks barely capable of getting down the stairs to the dressing room, let alone doing an encore.
After several minutes Tim stands up slowly and he is handed his guitar. As he straps it on he gives a wicked little smile and you can see the shoulders pull back. He strides back up the stage and the others follow. They kick into She Digs Her, Tim gives a small whirl of his arm, throws his head back and the switch is turned to on.