The Last Temptation of You Am I

Somebody was always going to get hurt. Tim Rogers couldn't help himself. Given an electric guitar, a sensible drink and a large chunk of the punters at Good Friday's Offshore Citytripper festival, tears before bedtime were all but guaranteed.

The first to feel the lash of the You Am I frontman's tongue was Finland's finest breakdancing troupe, Bomfunk MCs. For reasons unfathomable, the lightweight tourists were given precedence on the bill above You Am I, 28 Days and other capable homegrown talent. Result? Our Timmy's diatribe was enough to wither dreadlocks at 100 paces.

Next it was Rove McManus's turn. No explanation this time, just a vitriol-infused invitation to Channel 10's golden boy to perform a lewd act on our host. Whatever their subtext, the five curt words were a striking introduction to You Am I's new single, Get Up.

As usual, when these guys shut up and play, all mystifying and abusive stage banter was instantly forgiven. It's not exactly a national secret that on their day, Tim Rogers, drummer Russell Hopkinson, bassist Andy Kent and new guitarist Dave Lane can rank with the greatest rock'n'roll bands on the planet.

This appraisal has no shortage of support. Although You Am I sell a fraction of the records Powderfinger take for granted, they've achieved a unique position in the Aussie rock firmament. Paul Kelly and the Hoodoo Gurus have both mentioned the band in songs of their own. Bono and Noel Gallagher are among the heavies who have doffed their caps in interviews.

There's a good reason, too, why Tim Rogers' wiry frame tends to grace the covers of Australian music books, from Ian McFarlane's Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop to Craig Mathieson's expose of the alternative-rock revolution, The Sell-In. In an era of unashamed Bomfunkery, Rogers remains a true believer in the mythology and ethos of rock'n'roll. He represents not just a class act, but an elusive ideal.

That's evident from the suit he's wearing when we meet four days after Offshore for a largely liquid lunch in a Port Melbourne pub. Denim-clad Dave Lane's slick, double-breasted number is apparently at the cleaners, but Rogers attacks interview duties in character, attracting the odd double-take from patrons of lesser sartorial standing.

"Before going on stage I really do tell myself, 'Tim, shut up, just sing the songs'," he offers by way of sheepish explanation for his Good Friday behavior. "Then you get a bit of a vibe or whatever and suddenly you think everything you say is witty and passionate and . . ." He shakes his head.

"I read a review of an Adelaide gig on the last tour, and this guy said he walked out halfway through because he didn't have to pay $25 to hear a drunk get up and spray insults."

That must have hurt.

"It didn't hurt, but it made me think, well, all I did on that tour was get fired up and just enthuse. And maybe you can drag something a little more artful into it. Definitely, for this tour we're thinking, let's throw in the whole lot. Because we've got it. We're sensitive, affectionate people, and we can also be brats. So let's try and get it all in there."

Dress Me Slowly is You Am I's fifth album. It's sensitive, it's affectionate, and it rocks - with an instinctive and unshakeable grip on what makes rock rock at its rockiest.

The quality draws from somewhere deeper than the power of Hopkinson's drumming, the blistering guitar and Rogers' standard eye-watering turns of phrase and melody. As ever, Dress Me Slowly is steeped in history and the kind of uncompromising ambition more reminiscent of Keith Richards than Rove McManus.

Asked to describe the album's genesis, Rogers replies without hesitation. "1972. It was when we had Gregg Allman and Leon Russell was behind the boards.

"They were eating too many mushrooms," Lane quips into a rapidly vanishing pint of Guinness. "We had to get rid of 'em."

Seriously, though, the sessions for the album date back to Frank Sinatra's home town of Hoboken, New Jersey, at the tail-end of 1998. At the time, Rogers' main concern was to avoid the endless record company committee meetings that had brought the band to their knees during sessions for their previous disc.

He admits to having mixed feelings about You Am I's #4 Record, implying the band lost their way to some extent in a tide of peripheral opinions. But his hopes for a freer hand with their fifth album were quickly dashed. Early sessions resulted in the painfully familiar boardroom complaint that RCA US "couldn't hear any singles".

When the band's American A&R (artists & repertoire) minder began to suggest record producers, and even offer wisdom about how to write a hit, Rogers got nervous.

"I went to see (BMG Australia managing director) Tim Prescott," he says, "pleading with him, saying, 'This band is dying because of some chap with a very high-paid job in America who can't see the value of this band'. I think the value of this band is other than our potential to sell a million records. They obviously want that kind of band, and it's not gonna happen."

He pauses to order three more pints of Guinness, without bothering to consult the other two people at the table. What the hell? It is Tuesday.

"We were just being misunderstood, really," he says with a shrug. "These are people who sit down and analyse a song in terms of what makes it a hit and what doesn't. So they've got that sort of information over me, because I don't listen to modern radio. I only know what, in my opinion, makes a good song."

Hence, Rogers insists, he bit his razor tongue for the moment.

"I listened to what they had to say. I've been asked to take every second word out of a song, to make things a little less idiosyncratically Australian. I've been told all sorts of things. 'Go and write with (the Kinks') Ray Davies.' They want a modern rock song, and they want me to go write it with Ray Davies." He shakes his head.

A later but no more reasonable suggestion was Ed Buller. The former Psychedelic Furs keyboard player made his name as a producer with pasty glam throwbacks Suede. He's since applied his hip contemporary sheen to records by Ben Lee, Alex Lloyd and - after the proposed gig with You Am I fell in a heap - the Superjesus.

"I'm sure if we nutted it out and Ed was there with his keyboard in a hotel room and I was there with my guitar, in a day we could have come out with a hit single," Rogers says. "But it would be a song I don't feel affectionate about, that I have to play 300 times a year and felt nothing of myself in. A cynical stab at writing a hit single.

"So I've stared the devil in the face," he says with characteristic drama. "As far as I'm concerned, that's what it is, because this rock band has made and wrecked my life, and I refused to take it."

What's surprising is not Rogers' ultimate resolve, but his initial doubt. Can it be that he doesn't share the overwhelming perception that he's a perfectly capable writer when left on his own with an unplugged six-string and a notepad?

"I just think I'm an enthusiast and I don't edit myself well, and that's what makes me a half-decent songwriter," he says resignedly. "I don't (agonise over) 'Oh, should I put that it in?'. I just go ahead and do it. Ignorance is the key."

This is all too much for Dave Lane, who was You Am I's No.1 fan many years before sharing his first Guinness with them.

"Well, your songs don't sound like they've been pasted together," he volunteers indignantly. "Unlike a lot of the Lash, or some kinda thing."

Rogers laughs. Lash are the femme-pop sensations-in-waiting recently signed by You Am I's manager, Todd Wagstaff. They will undoubtedly find their own place on the canvas of pop culture, but there's no sense directing You Am I to the same corner. As Lane suggests, it's frankly insulting that the writer of Berlin Chair, Purple Sneakers and Damage should be asked to haul himself into line with some Manhattan suit's idea of a crackerjack pop jingle.

"He A&R'd Noiseworks, mate," Rogers replies. "Come on."

For all their resistance to the pop market status quo, evolution is no dirty word to You Am I. While their music remains proudly rooted in traditional sounds, structures and motives, their internal dynamics have forced considerable change since their last record.

The most obvious catalyst is Lane. More than 10 years Tim Rogers' junior, the former guitar tablature guy for the You Am I website has taken to his new surroundings like he was born there. Both on stage and on the new record, his contributions are palpable and uncannily appropriate. "It's been a big learning curve," goes his typically succinct summary.

"It's remarkable the way it's happened," Rogers elaborates. "We always say Dave's a You Am I kinda person. There were only three of us in the world, and we found another one. The ease with which it came together is a testament to that."

So he wore his suit to the audition?

"Davey came as he is. He's an old soul and something about him was very, very familiar. We don't need to explain things to each other very often. If we've got a song that needs to push a certain emotional button, Davey will keep hitting those notes and those chords."

"I get to play -"

"The hard bits."

"- the fiddly bits on the record," Lane says modestly. "But a lot of the time Tim would come up with a riff, and what's on there is just a development. I throw in a few more notes, but, basically, the catchy bits, he writes."

The second unexpected influence on Dress Me Slowly is less obvious. On AFL Grand Final day in 1998, as Adelaide were beating Rogers' beloved 'Roos at the MCG, he was falling for his future wife, Rocio, at a festival in Leon, Spain. Their daughter, Ruby, arrived two months ago.

"I wanna impress her, you know?" Rogers says of his bride with touching openness. "I wanna impress the whole world, but I wanna impress Rocio more than any friggin' thing on God's green earth, and she's a person with exceptional musical taste. She's seen the best, she's tour-managed the best. She tour-managed the Kaisers, my favorite band in the world.

"So my married life consists of wanting to be a better songwriter, as well as taking care of her and taking care of Ruby. It's not the opposite to being in a rock band that I would have thought. There's endless possibilities for songs that involve Rocia, definitely."

Three of the best were appended to Dress Me Slowly nearly half a year after the album was ostensibly finished. Having successfully begged off the expectations of their American cousins, You Am I eventually made the record they wanted with producer Cliff Norel in Sydney. The exquisite Beautiful Girl, Watcha Doin' To Me and Kick A Hole In The Sky are all later responses, in varying shades, to new love.

With Russell Hopkinson and Andy Kent both married and Lane settled in a relationship of his own, it's hard to imagine the rock'n'roll dream unfolding in quite the same way when You Am I hit the road next week.

"A lot is yet to be seen," Rogers acknowledges. "It just takes this extra, crappy kinda flirting element out of our time together. You know, when everybody's got a bunch of gack up their nose and a sackful of liquor down their throat, saying, 'Look at that girl over there'.

"Now we sit around a room and Dave talks about his girlfriend and we talk about our wives, and it's just God's honest truth - we love these women, and it's great. It's one other thing we've got in common, and it's an emotional touchstone for us."

This would all sound worryingly complacent if Dress Me Slowly wasn't near enough to the most alternately butt-kicking and brow-stroking record You Am I have made. Still, it's tempting to wonder how many of Rogers' once quoted cornerstones of the rock'n'roll life - "rootless, loveless, temporary and immature" - still hold firm at home.

"The immaturity's gonna stay, unfortunately," he says. "It's been a constant source of frustration for Rocio and anyone who's got a personal involvement with me, but to play in this band you've got to be in f---in' love with rock'n'roll, you know?

"We go out there without any sequencers, no DAT tapes behind us, we throw ourselves around and we expect people to like it and to pay for it. You've got to have a f---in' lot of love in your heart for that."

Amen. Pints are drained all round in the firm knowledge the world is a safer place for You Am I's continuing existence.

Four days later, Tim Rogers will be spotted by a fan in the upstairs bar of the Palais in St Kilda, where Emmylou Harris is about to take the stage. The punter will cheekily suggest the rock star buys him a drink - he's heard the new record, so he knows he "must be rich".

Rogers will smirk and mutters something about battling to pay his electricity bill, but he'll take his wallet from his suit pocket anyway. Whether or not there's a platinum credit card in there, he'll still be the best-dressed bloke in the house.

 

By Michael Dwyer