You Am I
fuse classic influences and contemporary smarts to create
a great debut album.
Mel Toltz follows them.
CBGBs, the site infamous for fostering punk's U.S. genesis
- playing host to the first gigs by the Ramones, Television,
Patti Smith, Talking Heads, - is cramped. Situated in New
York's notorious Bowery, the dimly lit club has an unexpected
intimacy. Patrons sit at candle-lit tables to watch bands
with a nonchalance exclusive to New Yorkers. When Sydney
trio You Am I taker their turn on the micro-stage, however,
the audience snaps to attention. Charismatic guitarist and
vocalist Tim Rogers wails and swoons and catapults his body
back and forth as the band propels itself into an intense
set, showcasing songs from their debut album, Sound As Ever,
and their previous EP, Coprolalia. Tonight, You Am I plays
as if it's their last-ever show... and the tiny audience
Bass player Andy Kent introduces "Everyone's
To Blame" and at the song's conclusion Rogers tell
Kent that he introduced the song like Dinah Shore would
welcome a guest. "If you don't know the words, just
sing along," Kent says of the next song as they dive
into a frenetic take of their new single, "Adam's Ribs."
These moments are slight relief from the angst-ridden mood
that builds across tracks like the tried-and-true "Last
Thing You Can Depend On" and the new "Berlin Chair"
and ultimately consumes the band's set.
Boiling point is reached on the ragged
epic "Cool Hand Luke" which disintegrates into
an onstage instrument assault, a la Sonic Youth. Rogers
is on the floor squeezing sounds from his guitar in newly
discovered positions while Kent simultaneously played and
abuses his bass so that musicians cringe painfully. Behind
them drummer Mark Tunaley is beating up a shitstorm on his
kit, working out inner demons, before he abruptly stops
and exits offstage.
It turns out to be a prophetic departure,
the last show this incarnation of You Am I will play. A
month later, in mid-September, when the band reconvenes
in Sydney, Tunaley is sacked.
Two days after the CBGBs spot, nestled
in a booth at Cafe Magador on New York's Lower East Side,
Tim Rogers, in screaming red velvet hipster flares, and
Andy Kent, the group's resident alternahunk, are relaxing
after putting the finishing touches to Sound As Ever. The
duo look like they live here, and the fact that Rogers appears
to know every person in the cafe only furthers this impression.
Tunaley flew back to Australia the previous day.
"All we have to do now is sent it
home and wait for it to be rejected," jokes Kent referring
to the new album.
"We'll get an urgent fax back telling
us that it's not commercially viable," smiles Rogers.
Although fiercely proud of Sound As Ever,
the banter is played out more than just laughs. It's typical
You Am I, who are overtly modest but, more importantly,
are concerned not to fan the flames of the hype that has
already burnt them.
"It's toned down quite a bit,"
explains Rogers of the difference between Sound As Ever
and their previous EPs Snake Tide (1991), Goddamn ('92),
Can't Get Started ('92) and Coprolalia ('93). "There's
less kind of squealing noises and a little bit less damage.
Just better songs and stronger songs. We've never found
it very easy to classify us," he says, and then pushed
to try Rogers offers, "forwards-backwards rock &
"Looking forwards and looking backwards
at the same time, but never quite getting there," he
The off-hand assessment proves particularly
sharp. Rogers, You Am I's primary songwriter, is steeped
in the history and mythology of rock, but equally possessed
if contemporary smarts - a recent Top 5 list in JUICE, detailing
the albums that changed his life, included the Rolling Stones'
Big Hits: High Tide and Green Grass and the Beatles' White
Album alongside Tim by the Replacements and Eleven Eleven
by U.S noisemongers Come.
Born in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia
in 1969, Rogers moved across the country with his parents
before settling in Castle Hill, in Sydney's north-west,
for most of his high school years. While he grew up exposed
to some of the great music of the '60s and '70s he is fond
of recounting how he was reborn, in the early '80s, sitting
in a dentist's chair when the Stones' "Start Me Up"
came over the radio. Music became his abiding passion, but
it was when he came under the spell of the Replacement's
ramshackle rock that it became his vocation. A university
degree in Arts/Law was abandoned for music, and until recently
he continued to travel from his home in Glebe, in Sydney's
inner city, some 20 kilometres to Castle Hill, where he
worked in a local record store the last five years - he
was sacked for ignoring the customers in favour of watching
the Stones' film Gimme Shelter on video.
You Am I remains Rogers' only band, formed
originally with Tim's brother Jaimme on drums, and he has
steered the trio's transition form the thrashier rock of
its early EPs to Coprolalia and Sound As Ever, where You
Am I appropriated a blues groove and a growing comfort with
subtlety. New Zealand-born Kent, 22, joined the band in
late 1991, first appearing on the Goddamn EP.
Into this backwards-forwards rock thing
the band introduced producer Lee Ranaldo, guitar maestro
with avant rockers Sonic Youth. Ranaldo produced Coprolalia
when Sonic Youth came to Australia for last year's Big Day
Out, and was so blown away by the band he insisted on producing
Sound As Ever.
"At this point, I'm so busy with
Sonic Youth and other projects of my own that the only reason
for me to produce another band right now is if it's a band
where I'm really into the music," Ranaldo explains
on the morning the final night after mixing. "When
I did the EP, Coprolalia, I really liked it, so it made
sense to work together again. I think the record's great
and the songs are incredible. Tim's a great songwriter."
You Am I, Ranaldo and engineer Wayne Connolly
of the Sydney band the Welcome Mat relocated to Pachyderm
Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they had just seven
days in which to cut their disc. As well as a mixing desk
from Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland Studios, Pachyderm
has also adopted a unique and recent history of its own.
"I think hundreds and hundreds of
bands have recorded there. Were you referring to anyone
in particular?" asks Andy Kent defensively, reluctant
to namedrop Nirvana, whose In Utero was cut at Pachyderm
with hardcore soundman Steve Albini and was subsequently
the subject of much rumour and controversy. Besides Nirvana,
PJ Harvey, Soul Asylum, the Jay Hawks and Babes In Toyland
- whose explosive Fontanelle Ranaldo produced - have all
recently recorded there.
"It's apparently just been an unknown
studio that's all of a sudden come into vogue because the
surroundings are so great. Very isolated," explains
Rogers. "It's in the middle of this corn growing area
and it's very rural. After you've clocked up a song enough
times you go for a wander in the splendour in the grass,
and get nude and kind of feel at one with the surroundings.
It was very lovely. Very calming."
You Am I lived Brady Bunch-style in a
house that is part of the studio, adjacent to a llama farm.
"When things were getting stressful, we were thinking,
'Okay, make a simulation here: weirdness, madness, llamas,
Jackson, Michael... It was comforting to know we could go
and speak to a llama," jokes Rogers. "It's true."
"The critical part for us is recording,
and working at Pachyderm, where we were isolated and able
to live together, was important," adds Kent. "We
could get right into each other's heads all the time rather
than everyone going home after a session and turning up
the next day."
"I don't know whether it made a difference
that we were in Minnesota rather than Queensland,"
Rogers continues. "I'm not sure, but apart from that
it was just good fun and a real experience. Do you think
it would?" he asks Kent.
"No I don't think so. I just think
the isolation factor is... the male bonding factor,"
grins Kent. "Have you ever seen those shows were middle-aged
men, about 40 of them, go into the forest and let it all
out? They get around and they cry. We did that every morning
before the session. We'd go into the trees, hug a tree and
The other advantage to recording in America
is that it gave You Am I a chance to tap into its influences.
Rogers waxes poetic about seeing one of his heroes, ex-Replacement
frontman Paul Westerberg, perform. And on his last day in
the country he caught Urge Overkill.
Discussing what they're doing in the three
spare weeks before they return to Australia, Kent jokes,
"Tim's off to LA to become a glam rocker, and I'm off
to Nashville to be a country and western singer." Rogers
explains, seriously, that he is going to Las Vegas to get
married to his girlfriend. An Elvis impersonator will perform
the ceremony: "It's legal, you know." The wedding
The cornfields and llamas only masked
the problems that had been brewing between Rogers and Kent
and Tunaley, allowing the band to hang together until the
record was complete. The sessions also afforded a break
from the pressure that gathered around them in Australia.
After a record company feeding frenzy, the band signed to
Ra (an offshoot of rooArt) in late /92 and gigged prolifically
through '93, including a national tour with Tumbleweed,
on a tidal wave of hype, glorifying them as the Next Big
'Grunge' Thing. It left the band gimmick-shy and more than
a little media-wary.
"We became aware if how much that
hype thing can just override anything you're doing that's
of any worth," says Rogers. "We're in a comfortable
position now - to do whatever we do and have it judged on
its own merits. We've had plenty of opportunity to mess
up the hype by playing an occasional bad show or not getting
the right haircuts or something.
"It's taken us quite a while to do
the album while all that stuff going on and now it's died
down, and we've justified some of the things haven't justified
other things," Rogers adds elusively. "Now e can
put the album out and just have everything based on how
we play from now on."
The resulting album, Sound As Ever, justifies
all expectations. From the focused rage of "Everyone's
To Blame" and the single "Adam's Ribs" through
the more sentimental, yet no less spirited, "Trainspottin'"
and "Berlin Chair," to the bludgeoning blues of
"Sound As Ever" and "Forever and Easy,"
You Am I have perfectly coalesced their traditional influences
with the dissonance and in-your-face arrogance of the best
If this is only further contributing to
the hyperbole, the balanced and knowing words of Lee Ranaldo
might be a better indicator. "There's nothing as important
when you make new records as having good songs, and with
this record there's like six or eight songs that are just
'knock-you-out' songs - good hummable melodies and good
lyrics," he enthuses. "I find the melodies for
the songs stick in my head, and that's always the sign of
a good song."
Back in Sydney in mid-October, You Am
I are launching the single "Adam's Ribs" at the
Phoenician Club. With new drummer Russell Hopkins (form
the Perth outfit the Kryptonics) having settled in over
a handful of shows, You Am I are a screaming juggernaut,
playing tonight as if it was their last-ever show, to a
packed crowd of 800-plus.
However, a bunch of dumb-fuck stagedivers
are doing their best to screw things up. The band blitz
through "Trainspottin'" at warp speed, but divers
invade the stage on every song. Two turkeys leap from the
first floor and narrowly miss an ill-at-ease Andy Kent and
then a girl jumping onto stage for her moment of glory trips
on Kent's mic-stand, smashing it into his bass and tearing
through three strings. The band limps to the end of the
song, where Kent verbally abuses them and Rogers pleads
for some common sense. To no avail. A few songs later a
guy gets caught in a tangle with Rogers, his guitar amp
and a roadie - it's an ugly scene and brings the song to
an end. Rogers is seething, his lanky frame pacing up to
the microphone, then turning away again, opting to cool
down before he resumes. He finally steps to the mic, and
says: "Everyone turn to the person next to you and
give them a BIG SMILE."
It's a perfect moment, undercutting the
palpable angst of the room and belittling the dumb antics
of the divers. After a stagediving lull during the ballad,
the mayhem continues. The band play out their set and at
the end of a brutal version of "Cool Hand Luke"
storm offstage. Rogers returns a minute later, but there's
no chance of an encore - he snatches a slab of beer from
the stage and is off.
Forwards-backwards rock & roll. A
great album, an ever-increasing audience... Surely this
is the stuff of rock & roll dreams? Tim Rogers is still
awake at 4am wondering whether it is.