Warm Hands, Heavy Heart

“Well, the lads have it hanging on their walls. But I am pop culture.” With a grin Tim Rogers fires off this quick opening quip as he shows me into his neatly appointed ‘50s suburban redbrick in the quiet ex-ethnic inner-city suburb of Leichhardt. There’s a stunning grey cat - Coco - watching unblinking from the window sill, a couple of prints and posters on the walls of three warmly lit and fastidiously tidy main rooms. They show a woman’s touch, although that will go now that he is splitting up a seven-year relationship. There is a definite sense of melancholy in the house. Tim, however, is playing one-upmanship. I’ve commented on Rogers’ comparatively streamlined aesthetic - clean next to the cool trash/kitsch trappings which dominate the walls of his bandmates Andy Kent and Russell ‘Rusty’ Hopkinson.

And he’s responded in rock form. Tim shows me his den, which is less tasteful, more like Hopkinson’s place, with stacks of vinyl, guitars, tweed-covered mock-vintage amps and a poster collection which could only be furnished by years touring the op shops of the US, Europe and UK. Rogers also explains that outside this room the house is being disassembled, which adds to the sparse air.

He and girlfriend Tracy Forrester -subject of songs like “Mr Milk” and “Cathy’s Clown” -are calling it a day. Rogers is distancing himself from the memories by moving. To Melbourne. She’s moving out too. Rusty is hoping to take over the lease. Later, as Rogers proudly credits his opening quote as a learned reaction from Tracy, it’s evident that he’ll be at a loss without her. As if a song like the ballad “Heavy Heart” doesn’t say enough about the tenuous transience of You Am I’s Life On The Road, as well as Forrester’s place as his only solace (“I miss you like sleep,” goes the chorus, “And there’s nothing romantic about the hours I keep/The morning’s when it starts/I don’t look so sharp now I’ve got a heavy heart”), the mention of Forrester’s name in conversation leaves dead air and glassy eyes, as Rogers pulls himself in and out of reverie.

“It looks like a home, doesn’t it?” He glances around as we sit at the kitchen table. “It really does. But that’s why I’ve fucked it up. Because I can’t do it. I’ve been touring for 16 months of the past 22. That’s what I find to be stable, which is a little retarded, but I realise that’s where I’m most at home. It seems silly for such a school captain of Oakhill College. But I feel comfortable driving from Vegas to Minneapolis -these ridiculous long drives, sitting around with Rusty, and then playing a show. It feels so fucking natural.”

Rogers’ summary of life in a band is that it’s, “rootless, loveless, temporary and immature.” “It’s transient,” he says. “Your responsibilities are nil, you’re encouraged to be a drunk.”

In Australia, the band has been conspicuous by its absence (“That was imposed on us from elsewhere,” says Rogers. “Australia was getting sick of us,” says Kent). They’ve toured and recorded in Europe and criss-crossed the USA, whether it be through their spot on the Lollapalooza tour or tours with everyone from Wilco to Soundgarden. More recently they supported Oasis across Australia and Japan.

At times they’ve been more than fed up. They all talk of the period leading up to pre-production for You Am I’s #4 Album, which saw them careen around Europe at breakneck pace before suddenly stopping dead at a quaint B&B in picturesque Bath. The album’s title, Rogers recalls, has something to do with being overseas and everyone asking, “So you went number one in Australia?” And they all give the impression the tour nearly killed them.

The flipside is that Rodgers loves it more than anything. Consistent with the insecure, self-depreciating thread that runs through the interview, he admits he’s an unlikely rockstar. Being busted for possession of pot at age 14 scared him back onto the rails. He did well at school, became captain, studied hard, went on to Law at university, and was fundamentally very successful.

“I almost feel like I’m playing a part, because of my history,” he says. “I went to university, I speak like a private school boy -I was a private school boy for a while -these things are against it. But when I think when did I feel most at home? Lord-arsedly drunk before a show in Edmonton, Canada. That was the most natural thing in the world,” he says sitting back in his chair. “To figure you’re playing a part is an extension,” he admits. “That’s guilt 201.

“My sister and my mum and dad -they don’t talk no more, but when I speak to them they’re like, ‘We worry about you because you look like you’re dying, but we see you now, and you’re so much more like you were at 14.’”

So he belongs, but at a cost. If You Am I has caused the rift between Rogers and Forrester, it’s always been a part of the relationship as well, a romance romanticised in song and in print. Will he survive? “Time will tell, I guess,” he says, for once picking his words.

At the moment, Tim looks sharp, despite the heavy heart. He enthuses about the romance of the pub local -the old man’s old men, stags who slowly drain pots in silent contemplation of God knows what - you can see a gathering similarity between these bar veterans and Rogers’ current look. His hair is Bryl-Creamed back to a keen widow’s peak, the smoothness of his face cries out for tacky aftershave (Old Spice splash-on perhaps), and his taste in vintage clothing hangs loosely over his frame. (On “Heavy Heart” he rhymes “TV” with “thinner that I should be”). At 28, with a tendency to burn the candle at both ends, he’s turning into one of these codgers, a gaunt face framed by wiry tufts of sideburn.

Because of this, by the time you’re half pissed you’re well on the way to being in love with the guy. He has an openness that leaves you walking away realising he’s left a few questions hanging in the air so long they’ve disappeared from the conversation. He’s an adapt interviewee, and a people-pleaser.

“All I can do well is be an enthusiast,” he says at one point. “When I’m in a good mood I can generally make people feel good. I can listen to people and put myself out on a limb by acting a little idiotic, and try and make them -whether it’s Schadenfreude or not -feel good about themselves. I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to that. That’s what I’m supposed to do.” He laughs as he admits, “That’s essentially messianic.”

Rogers is his own harshest critic, someone who sometimes longs for the simple stability of his pizza boy gig over the inherent insecurities, obsessions and contractions that go with rock music and fame. “I was good at being subservient,” he says. “because then I could go away and I had someone to be angry at, rather than be angry at myself. I’ve got the luck of a thousand princes.”

As neuroses go, the lack of self-belief is endearing, but I still mutter something about Catholic guilt as I head towards his bathroom, joking that I expect to see a tapestry of the “Desiderata” on the back of his toilet door. He smiles and explains that’s not the case.
Tim Rogers’ toilet is an outhouse, the furthest of three doors framing a neatly appointed cement back patio. Inside there is a Beatles calendar on the door, a rubber ape perched under cobwebs on a shelf above the cistern, and a poster supporting Fitzroy football club. And there’s all of the singer’s ARIA awards hanging from the walls, next to a couple of pointy trophies.

A couple of days later, as we conclude the interview at Tim’s local in Glebe, Andrew - a New Zealand ex-pat who bears a vague resemblance to Noel Gallagher - gains his ear. “We just won the third grade downstairs and it’s a big night for us,” he says, cap in hand. “Could you do a solo number or something like that? Whatever you want to sing.”

Tim looks shocked, his face is flushed pink with embarrassment. Considering You Am I’s Pop & Soul review concept was named after Australia’s vintage cricket legend Victor Trumper (Buzz Aldrin to Bradman’s Armstrong for the cricket-challenged), it’s understandable that Tim is happy enough shooting the shit about the game but won’t play the triumphant Thirsty Third Grade a song.

“Aw, but those guys are doing so well…” Rogers declines, nodding to a pair of acoustic pub rockers who’ve been playing “American Pie” and “Heard It Through the Grapevine” to much approval. “I feel like I’ll spoil the flow, kind of thing.”

“Nah!” Andrew exclaims. “Hey, there’s some big fans of yours downstairs man… or you could do songs from the ‘70s, Bob Dylan, whatever you want to sing.”

“But those guys are doing so well.”

“They’re doing well, we’re loving it, we’re eating off their fucking hand. But we think you’re shit hot…” he concludes. “No pressure.”

As Andrew leaves, I continue with the cajoling.

“Nah,” says Rogers. “Maybe at the Hopetoun. If I was out of it.”

“What could be stopping you?”

“You discount the possibility that he was taking the piss? He’ll end up going, ‘Who does this guy think he is?’”

“Um… If you think that you’re just nuts, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know how I get it, but I also don’t know how you could not take that possibility into consideration.”

“But…the stats.”

He laughs. “The stats are that we haven’t sold a lot of records.” The stats are that .
“But last time I saw you the crowd sang along to half the set.”

“They slur through the bits they don’t know…” he deflects. “A guy on the Net transcribed the words to ‘What I Don’t Know About You.’ They were so wrong, I could have been presented as being a Nazi. It had all these presumptions in it.”

The songwriter calls his last album, Hourly Daily, “arcane and sentimental.” With its visions of suburbia, critics likened the songwriting to that of Ray Davies and the Kinks. Rogers seems to regret his attempts at songcraft.

“Through making Sound As Ever, Lee (Ranaldo, producer) used to joke about how much I had a physical resemblance to Ray Davies. After that I started listening to the records you’re supposed to, and I was impressed by them,” he admits. “I was a fan of the early Kinks stuff, but I was only listening to the mid-period records when doing Hi Fi Way. I was impressed with the sentimentality of it, really. He wanted to live in another time. When everyone was making psychedelic records, he was writing about the village green. That escapism was like a home, it felt comfortable.

“The reason why I wrote ‘Mr Milk’ and ‘Cathy’s Clown,’ all these love songs, they’re about what I imagine my own relationship to be.”

The cricketers persist in requesting songs from Rogers. One big fan explains that “Purple Sneakers” is his favourite song of all time. On the recent tour with Oasis, Rogers concluded he simply “can’t sit down and write a chorus that’s gonna make the whole world sing. Not until I start regularly doing blow.” But he does want to be popular and doesn’t place much faith in indie credibility. He would like to sell a million records. He’s just not prepared to make the changes that would make that possible. The band have thwarted themselves throughout their career, “by not doing certain TV shows and not giving the choruses -I’m probably giving the impression of a poncey indie rock band from Newtown or wherever,” Rogers apologises. “I mean, I listen to Cold Chisel now -I listen to Triple M at home a lot. There is something about them that was so good. I really love ‘Flame Trees’ as a song. I can’t help it. I just adore that song.

“I don’t see age or establishment as being the enemy. I can’t just say Cold Chisel is the opposition. I can’t resolve the idea that playing RSL clubs is death and revolution is in a hair dye. It’s all so tired or so dumb.”

Let’s talk about the past. Tim has issues with all the You Am I records. “I was thinking about why Hi Fi Way felt so awful to make at the time -when we finished it -and yet I really like that record. It’s because it was even more naive. With Hourly Daily we were trying to be smart. Just because we had an extra couple of weeks off.”

I tell Rogers that Hi Fi Way is my personal favourite.

“Really?” he asks. “It is all over the shop, though. It’s not very coherent.”

As for suburbia, it would appear the obvious reaction to Hourly Daily’s tales of housewives and cab drivers is the #4 Album’s more personal lyrics.

“If I was living in Blacktown with my family, there’d be nothing romantic about it,” he says, summarising his attraction. “I’d just be doing everything to get out of there. But I think I tried so early to get out of home -go and live a bit, and get a root, take this, do that -It’s all just trying to get back.”

He has another regret about Hourly Daily, though his well-publicised modesty forces him to have issues with all You Am I recordings, it seems. I inform him that writer Lauren Zoric is planning to review Rogers’ acoustic show with Steve Earle in Melbourne. He grins ruefully, remembering a previous Zoric review in JUICE magazine. “This You Am I review was about the influences being so obvious that it’s laughable,” he says. “I remember reading it. I’d been home for a day -and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, OK.’ Maybe four years ago I’d be saying, ‘You just don’t get it.’ Now it’s like, ‘Well, I take your point.’ I was not prepared for how pretty she was when I first met her,” he concludes.

So he agreed?

“In retrospect, yeah. Absolutely,” he nods, going on to explain. “When the band started we didn’t know how to get sounds. So you make your own sounds. Then when I found out how to get certain sounds and instrumentation, and to write for that, it excited me. I just never edited it, I was never trying to push the envelope, I just wanted to get the letter. Even writing lyrics, I dismiss them, because at the time I just wanna get the feeling, which is so fleeting. I never think, ‘This is a record you’re going to have to live with for a long time.’ I was probably conscious of that at the time, but I never bothered worrying about it. Probably for the worse. I should have been a bit smarter, but I just got excited that I could get those sounds. I try not to get embarrassed about my enthusiasm.”

You Am I unveiled their new look on a 1996 tour as the Rock & Soul Revue, pumping up their own material with well-chosen covers. While Rogers has been through Townsend and Iggy Pop phases, keeping the best from each, the show, with its staged introductions (“Russell Hopkinson of Fremantle on drums, Andy Kent of Wellington on bass”) saucy banter (“Are Hopkinson and Rogers homosexual lovers?”) and well-placed dramatics has seen the rock showmanship has spilled over into #4 Album. Kicking off with an awesome rock & roll set opener in “Junk,” (Rogers is chuffed to have had the legendary Memphis Horns guest on the song), it goes on to reference the rock band on the road in “Billy,” the cheesy anthem “Radio Rumble,” and “Guys, Girls, Guitars.” It’s You Am I’s hardest record since the rock focus of Sound As Ever. It was recorded in LA with legendary producer George Drakoulias, who impressed You Am I with his work with the Black Crowes. And while it’s reflecting the Pop & Soul Review ethic, it’s more about letting rip than razzle dazzle.

“We’re not pop stars,” Hopkinson explains. “We’re not entertainers as such. We’re just a rock & roll band in the tradition of Mudhoney, or the Clash or the Standells or Small Faces. It’s not about looking good in front of a camera. It’s kicking out the jams.

“We just like the idea of soul bands in the ‘60s just touring around,” he says later, “well-known people like James Brown, the Famous Flames, the bands that played five shows a day, because they had to eat. Every performance was maximum energy and you got fined if you missed a beat. It’s a cool thing, it’s not just a guy walking out with a guitar going, ‘I’m really miserable because my girlfriend left me.’ It’s that kind of showbusiness. I’ve always liked the Dylan thing, the Rolling Thunder Review. It’s not just a gig, it’s a happening scene.”

With all the accolades and ARIAs, the happening scene is now well loaded with expectation. You Am I are a consistently the most admired band in Australia, but they still don’t sell any more records than whippersnappers like Grinspoon or Jebediah, and they don’t even come close to the figures of Powderfinger’s Double Allergic. The sense that this album must do something special at the band’s peril is palpable. You Am I expect it to get canned.

“We got quite significantly fucked over in the past couple of years with record company things not working out. It’s stopped us being too full of ourselves. Wow, Hi Fi Way is seen as being a certain record. Considering how blow-up-able my ego is, you’re lucky I’m not wearing peacock feathers.

“People ask, ‘Why do you play covers all the time?’ It’s because we find ourselves playing to nobody, so really you’re only playing for yourself. We’ve turned into Australia’s most successful bar band.

“I was talking with Rusty the other day about how this record is set up so you’re just waiting for someone to absolutely trash it, you know, because the past three records have been reviewed really well. Somebody has to say, ‘Alright, I’m going to make a call now. This sucks!’”

With Hourly Daily, the record, poised for release after the announcement of the ARIAs wins, was hamstrung even as it should have made good. At the awards You Am I learned that their indie label had been sold to a multinational, and the early stages of the record’s marketing were left in the hands of Shock records, who had no real reason to promote the album for long-term success, the latter stages to BMG, who were comparatively unprepared for this large Australian rock record.

“You win five ARIAs or whatever, you expect the machine to go into overdrive and hopefully grab people in other areas of the country who haven’t heard You Am I,” says Kent. “We were overseas anyway.” Kent, for one, was keen to get out of Australia just to avoid the fall out from the ARIAs win.

“Being in a popular band, there’s such a lot of garbage that goes with it,” he explains. “People pissing in your pocket and saying stuff they don’t mean. I don’t enjoy that side of it. The bullshit around limited fame is so hollow. It doesn’t even give your ego a boost.”

This could explain Roger’s self-consciousness. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism -it’s hard to get a big head or get carried away with your own ego when you hate yourself this much. The various pressures and Rogers’ obvious edginess make for a complex personality.

Rodgers arrived at the pub fresh from linking up with Kent. “We went and had a kick of the footy today because we needed to get through some stuff together,” he says. “We’ve spent the past three years not talking to each other, apart from just pissed talk. I’ve been waiting for Andy to turn around and say, ‘Why are you so nasty to me?’ But he doesn’t. I’m just amazed at his temper.”

There’s a stereotype of blokes not being too close. Do you always have to be best mates?
“Well, no, but I always want it to be. There’s that point and then there’s also being downright rude, outright rude to him and discounting.

“We’re so close, we could hurt each other, and you know exactly how to get at another person. If you end up pissed with someone 300 nights a year, you get a lot of dirt on them. It’s almost scary.

“I pretty much have my blinkers on when it comes to the band. But I was looking at Andy today and thinking, ‘You’re different from when I last saw you.’ As in, you’re you, and you’ve got this thing about you and I haven’t realised that for the past three years. I do often just treat them like, ‘Just do your job, c’mon. Make me look good.’ That’s just the way you get on long tours. But I was looking at Andy today going, ‘Wow, what a fine young man you are.

“Russell seems to have this image. Everyone thinks, ‘Yeah, good old Russ, pissed, loves his drugs, drums like a demon. He’s a very, very sensitive person. We’ve had a lot of early morning talks where he’s said, ‘When you said that last night, did you mean that?’”

Then there’s the band’s management, which is split between Kate Stewart and Todd Wagstaff. The friction between the pair is near legendary, and it’s a push-me-pull-you arrangement which you can’t help expect has hampered the band’s progress at times. So why have two managers who often go hear-to-head over issues?

“When Todd and I get together, we’re kind of like this little homosexual roving couple,” Rogers explains. “We’ll get all poncey, and he does like seeing me want to go out and buy clothes and drink martinis. When I start getting to be a prima donna, he lets me go on that, to a certain extent. On the other hand Kate just won’t. It’s pathetic that I need that balance to temper my ego. I’m a kid.”

The ever-persistent Andrew is back. “The band downstairs is happy for you to play in half an hour’s time or whatever?”

“Sure,” says Rogers. “I could do John Williamson. I heard the call downstairs.”

On cue a footy chorus begins an impromptu accompaniment to “True Blue,” hollering about Vegemite and Mum and Dad and a cockatoo -an anthemic reflection of some of the sentimentality Rogers injects into his own finely-detailed explorations of the everyday. Then the bar closes and we’re shuffled from the loft down into the fray. So the night concludes as it must, with Rogers at the bar, surrounded by the stragglers of a fifth-grade cricket team who celebrated their loss with far too many goes through the sculling song. He’s belting though covers to please the crowd, which sings and claps along with inept enthusiasm.

After playing through “Hippy Hippy Shake,” “Not Fade Away,” “When Will I Be Loved” and “What I Like About You,” he tunes down while making small talk with Tim, the “Purple Sneakers” fan, who goes red from his thick-set neck to his neat beard when he realises Rogers is playing the opening chords of his fave. The grin breaks into a whoop, and then an impassioned vocal, as the half dozen assembled sing along impeccably and yes, slurring a few words they’ve missed.

An acne-damaged 19-year-old with a wide, bleary grin and a spattering of blood on the left shoulder of his otherwise Omo-white Penguin shirt sits by (Cricketers are rarely sent to the blood-bin through injuries sustained on the field, and this is no exception. The fellas explain that the blood was spilled as they tried to rip out his earing, which still sits in a slightly swollen lobe, on account of it making him “look like a poof”). He gets a hold of the guitar and has a go at Guns’n’Roses “Patience” and Nirvana’s “Polly,” both of which dissolve immediately. To his left, a British tourist couple hover, wanting in. A barman jokes that the bespectacled Brit looks like a pubescent John Denver, and she looks every bit as wet, a drunken, half-wit Minnie Driver. He gets a hold of the guitar and starts playing the Verve’s “Sonnet,” the pair looking for all the world like the singing relatives from Four Weddings & a Funeral. This idiot blagging on about “The Vearve,” just like he must have been with Oasis last year, crystallises Rogers dislike of Poms.

Fortunately, it’s Rogers who takes home the pub’s rock ashes tonight. As he shakes hands and begins an eight block stagger through the vague danger of Glebe and Leichhardt’s back streets, Driver turns to Denver, in the middle of his holiday of a lifetime, and with wide eyes makes a startling realisation. “You’re so gay!” she says. He gets up, stands over her, starts hollering something about playing football with the lads in Liverpool. “You’re a liar and a denier,” she retorts. “You cannot tell me you’re not gay! You are so gay!” Denver’s head is in his hands. And Rogers is already halfway home.

 

Simon Wooldridge