Rogers Hangs On To His Pet Project

Rock'n'roll is a dog's life for hard-working You Am I frontman Tim Rogers, Peter Holmes writes.

A few years ago You Am I's Tim Rogers was asked if he'd like to dance with the devil. His mission, if he wanted the cash, was to create a dog food jingle for an advertising campaign.

"I was full of myself," Rogers recalled. "All I cared about was having enough for a six pack at the end of the day, so I said, 'Nah, fuck ya, I'm an artist'."

Spool forward to 2001. Money in the Rogers household in suburban Melbourne is tight. The lean, hirsute songwriter has a family to feed and is feeling the frustration of recurring delays in finishing the next You Am I album, Dress Me Slowly. The phone rings, and it's the dog food people again.

"When the bills start coming in and [daughter] Ruby needs a bunch of nappies, it's not a very hard decision to make," Rogers said. "So I really worked at it. Anyway, they ended up wanting to license the instrumental track from one of the Twin Set [a Rogers side project] songs.

"I did think about it and realised I couldn't afford not to. You Am I spends a lot of money making records and doesn't get a lot back. We haven't always been smart, and these opportunities don't come along very often."

That one of our finest songwriters and idiosyncratic vocalists should be reduced to writing pet food ditties is a slight not only on commercial radio but the taste of the Australian public, who would rather spend $30 on a Bon Jovi CD than anything from You Am I.

The band's press releases may trumpet, truthfully, that You Am I have achieved the rare feat of four consecutive No1 albums, but closer inspection reveals the albums tend to slip quickly from the charts.

Or, as Rogers put it: "They sink like a stone. Even though we won the ARIA for Best Album in 1996 and won six that year, we sold a 10th of what Powderfinger sell.

"I've thought about why. There's the fact I sing like I do, or maybe we're a little too retro. A tiny bit eccentric perhaps? But in a lot of ways we are a very generic rock band.

"I've had a lot of people telling me why they think You Am I aren't more successful and it's hard to give a rat's because we can go around Australia and play every town and play to a couple of hundred people and have a ball."

Among those who knew what was best for You Am I were RCA-BMG staff in the United States, who felt Rogers was in need of remedial songwriting classes before any rock-solid commitment was made concerning an American release for Dress Me Slowly.

"I had conversations with A&R [artist and repertoire] guys who sat me down and told me what it takes to write a hit song today," Rogers said. "They said to take every second word out of my lyrics and to write big, brainless choruses. All said with a completely straight face, which is pretty dire.

"We're not getting any younger and I feel whatever kind of momentum You Am I had in terms of becoming a large act in Australia has slipped away completely.

"So you think, 'OK, we missed that but we've got 15,000 people who'll go out and buy this record'.

"To me that is a remarkable success, and to be able to finally look at it that way and not think, 'God, we've got to sell more records than Powderfinger', is a tremendous relief."

While the sleeve notes will credit Cliff Norell (Brian Setzer, Echo and the Bunnymen) and Paul McKercher (Clouds, Magic Dirt) with producing Dress Me Slowly, original sessions were conducted with American Ed Buller, who had overseen albums for Ben Lee and Alex Lloyd.

Buller's brief from You Am I's American label was to mould the band into a contemporary rock act who could offload 1 million albums. The band jacked up and sacked Buller, a decision that will probably cost them any chance Dress Me Slowly had of being released in the US.

"RCA told him that some people dig us but that we were never going to sell a million records," Rogers said. "They asked Ed to change us and it was about choice of songs and the structure of the songs, 'Get a damn chorus in there, make it loud, make it proud!'

"We were up for it at the start but soon railed against it completely when we thought about the repercussions.

"We were going to have to play these songs for the next couple of years and we didn't feel as if they'd come from our gut. We've got to listen back to this stuff in the future and I didn't want to be a part of it, so we stopped our relationship with Ed Buller right there. We shan't meet again."