am i there yet?

When Tim Rogers played a "secret" acoustic show at Fitzroy's Rainbow Hotel on September 10, there was an air of apprehension that had nothing to do with the looming second anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. It also had nothing to do with the 250 people who had turned up for what was essentially going to be a rehearsal (Rogers offered to busk outside for those who didn't make it in, but because the neighbours and the pub management were at war over noise, he was told it wouldn't be a good idea). No, it was because Rogers was announcing to his faithful fans that after seven years, his band, You Am I, had been dropped by their label, BMG.

How could it be? In the same week, another great Australian band, Powderfinger, sold out Rod Laver Arena, a venue usually reserved for the Kylies and Farnhams, in less than an hour? Meanwhile, Rogers was broadcasting the disappointing news from a small pub in Fitzroy's back streets.


The obvious answer is the varying degrees of mainstream radio support. Simply put, a few years ago, Austereo decided Powderfinger were the new Cold Chisel, while continuing to ignore You Am I, an outfit many consider to be the country's best rock band.
Rogers is more self-deprecating, putting it down to a matter of voice.

"Bernard (Fanning, the Powderfinger singer) has got an amazing voice and I haven't. Every time I've been interviewed in the last couple of months, I've been asked how I feel about not being as successful as these other bands. It's obvious - the guy can't sing. But it physically feels good, and we like to give it a bash. Bernard and Nick Cester (Jet) can sing a phone book. They're freaks. But our heroes are the guys who didn't get hits and sell a million records - apart from those damn Rolling Stones, of course."

Which leads us to the Stones, who You Am I supported in Brisbane after the main support, Jet, had to return to the US to continue recording. And like Jet, You Am I were a little taken aback by the conservatism of the Stones' baby-boomer crowd.
"We were threatened to be kicked off the second show because we swore too much the first night. There were 57 complaints, including the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, who I think was sitting in the front row, because I said, 'You stole my seat, c---'."

Meantime, although Rogers doesn't think his band are in Powderfinger's league, he does believe You Am I still deserve to be on a major label, and has few kind words for the industry bigwigs at BMG and rooArt, the independent label to which You Am I were signed before it was sold to the international giant.
It's bad timing, to say the least, to have so much bad feeling when the release of a best-of album should be a crowning moment for the band and label. It's quite surreal to hear Rogers slag BMG as the record company representative buys us another round of beers, which only adds fuel to Rogers' fire.
Rogers is on a bit of a bender. Spotted at the Black Keys show at the Prince the night before, when a You Am I CD was played between acts, rather than be embarrassed or try and act cool, Rogers was happily singing away. This says a lot about the man.
Rogers says the best-of compilation, The Cream & the Crock, was the band's idea, and they chose the tracks.

"I said to the band, 'We're going to be asked to do a compilation at some stage, so let's do it now rather than wait for BMG to say, 'You're losing us too much money - let's put out a greatest-hits'," says Rogers, adding that the band weren't told until after they started planning the compilation that they would be dropped.

It looks a little bit like a rushed job. Encased in a large, old-style double-CD case that doesn't fit in many CD racks, it has no liner notes save for some personal descriptions of each member by a man in his 60s called Captain Ted, whom Rogers describes as "the band's benefactor who cooks things like pumpkin cake for us sometimes". (Ted describes Rogers thus: "Decent chap, the little gin blossom; glad he's forsaken the modesty and self-flaggelation (sic) for some good old-fashioned cockiness and bravado. Dances like a chicken and still can't get a decent haircut ...")
Rogers puts the situation in perspective.

"You Am I started in the north-west suburbs of Sydney, pretty f---in' dreadful, and the only thing we had going for us was that we swung our arms around, had a great drummer, and then we got a chance to see the world. We did get those chances and had a wonderful time, and we still do - we're going to go overseas again soon. People seem to put this unlucky tag on us, but we're the luckiest c---s in the world (with) the stories we've got. Because, essentially, when you're on your deathbed, what have you got? You've got stories.

"We did this great interview the other day on Triple J with Robbie Buck, but he essentially cut everything out apart from the questions like 'What do you think of Jet?' and 'Why aren't you more popular than the Vines?'. We're being set up as the band who could have but didn't and we're failures. But when we get into a room together, we're the masters of our domain. It's not our time, it's not our year, but there's 200 people in every town that dig us."

Longevity is more important to Rogers than hype these days, and he feels a bit for Jet as he flicks through the newspaper and notices they're having a war of words with singer-songwriter and part-time actor Ben Lee.

"If we were quoted about everything we said when we put out Sound As Ever (the band's 1993 full-length debut), we would have been lynched. It's a pity that everyone is waiting for them to slip up in pissed talk and slag someone off, like that Ben Lee thing. But they'll be fine, they'll live through it. Lyrically, I don't get a lot from them, but the record's great, it's fun.

"I mean, Nick Cester, that's an incredible voice, man. He's a lovely chap, but he doesn't drink before a show. Don't drink before a show? Get the nerves out, go on a bender."
For the record, BMG is simply saying that You Am I's sales have been slowly declining since the band scored three consecutive No.1 albums in the late 1990s (with 17,000 sales, their last album, Deliverance, obviously didn't deliver for BMG), and that it would let the band go and would write off old debts.

In a statement released this week - and seemingly contrary to Rogers' opinion - BMG managing director Ed St John claims there's no ill feeling over the split: "In my humble opinion, You Am I are one of the 10 greatest rock'n'roll bands this country has ever produced ... But regrettably, You Am I and BMG can do nothing more for each other and we have arrived at a mutual - and completely amicable - decision to part company. We all wish Tim, Andy, Rusty and Davey the very best of luck in the future. God bless the lot of us."

But with such a loyal fan base, consolidated through years of touring, does a band such as You Am I need a major label in these technologically fluid times?
Rogers says You Am I were perfectly happy on rooArt, with distribution through Shock, when Chris Murphy sold his label to BMG in 1996 after You Am I scooped the ARIAs with awards including best album, best independent release and best group, for Hourly Daily. They've received plenty of nominations since, but haven't won another award.
I suggest to Rogers that theirs is a similar scenario to Weddings, Parties, Anything, who were dropped by rooArt after 1993's King Tide, also when their live fan base was at its peak.
"Put on (WPA's) River'esque. Have they got River'esque here?" he demands. Fortunately, the barman manages to find WPA's best-of compilation, and plays it.
"River'esque, lyrically and musically, blows my mind. It came out when I first moved to Melbourne in '98. Mick Thomas is a total genius - I inherited some testicular forte from Mick Thomas, more so than anyone. I'll never tell him, because he's had enough smoke blown, but people talk about Paul Kelly as being 'the Australian songwriter'. And Paul, obviously, like Other People's Houses, it's beautiful, but Mick Thomas did me a spin, and gave me a lot of confidence."

And back to the label question?
"If I had to sit down with another guy deconstructing my writing style one more time ..." he says with a sigh.
"I remember when we were mixing Hourly Daily in LA, and Snoop Dogg was recording next door - we had some interesting exchanges - and our A&R guy for Warners at the time would say, 'Tim, are you sure you want the first song on your first release in America to be a five-minute ballad about the National Front?'. They were trying to subtly make us get rid of that song, and I was like, 'F--- you, dude'."

So, no, You Am I don't need a major label, and won't be signing with one - not in Australia, anyway. They're planning to start their own label to release their next album.
At least they're staying together. With Rogers pursuing a solo career with his new band, the Temperance Union, and guitarist Davey Lane being given a second chance to make it overseas under the nu-rock banner with his other band, the Pictures, rumours have been circulating that You Am I are about to call it a day.
Not so, Rogers says. The band will record an album of his uptempo songs in January, and the Temperance Union will be the outlet for his ballads and acoustic ruminations.

"My mind's pretty bent at the moment. I'm floating off somewhere in the ether at the moment, and I want to articulate that.
"You Am I should make a belter. When you're in the best rock'n'roll band I've ever seen - not the tightest, but personality-wise - you want to exploit that. Just make a fruitier record."

Will it be a relief to be free of a label's shackles?
"No, there were no shackles. BMG were really good to us. We never had meetings with them about songs. We just lost them too much money. There's no mystery - You Am I just don't sell enough records for that kind of outlay. So we're just going to make records and set ourselves a budget a tenth of that size."
What did they spend the money on?
"We f---ed around a lot with recording, too much time in expensive studios, and if there was a good pub around the corner, got a little distracted. And I think they were waiting to see if my voice would get a little better, and it just never did. We took chances, going overseas. As f---ed as some of the decisions were that were made, we were lucky to get those opportunities."

It seems that once they realised they wouldn't make it in the US, You Am I focused on giving opportunities to the other bands, whether it was a leg up to local acts such as Silverchair, the Vines and Jet, name-checking Dallas Crane in a song, or touring with talented but obscure (at the time) US bands such as the Strokes and the Dirtbombs.
And plenty of these bands seem embarrassed that they've been given a chance at international success while You Am I are considered by some to be over the hill.

Rogers says those bands could do more to help out than just talk You Am I up in interviews.
"They should give us a tour. I'd do anything to play a tour with Jet. I'd love it - if you feel pity on us, give us a support. I'll show you pity, mate," he continues. "I'll drink you under the table and then I'll blow you off the stage," he says half-jokingly.
It's good to hear some of the old Rogers bravado again - the fact the usually cocky singer with the Pete Townshend moves only once in the interview referred to his band as "the greatest rock band in the world" suggested his confidence had taken a hit.
It seems fame and fortune aren't particularly high on Rogers' list of priorities, though. Besides, he'd get himself into too much trouble if he was the best-known songwriter in the country, slagging off other bands to 12,000 kids at Rod Laver Arena.
He's seen what becoming the biggest band in the country is like and how it can change people.

"Bernard's a champion, We've been mates for 12 years, and he stayed with us last year when my wife put on this show at the Woomera Action Committee. I said I'd take him to the greatest record store in the world, Greville Records, and as we were walking down the street, every five steps people were freaking out at Bernard, saying, 'I love your band'. I love the guy. When we used to bang around, he'd talk to a chair if he thought it had some kind of reflective quality, but he's become a bit hardened with people."
Let's hope Rogers keeps on bangin' and doesn't ever toughen up.

By Patrick Donovan
September 26, 2003