ARIA award nominations. Seven sell-out Sydney shows. What's
the story behind You Am I's stunning success? BERNARD ZUEL
goes on tour with four guys turning '60s classicism into
You can spend your time talking numbers
when it comes to You Am I. There are the better known numbers,
such as one - as in consecutive albums which each had their
debut at number one, including the current album, Hourly,
Daily. And nine - as in nine ARIA Award nominations this
year, including best band, best single and best album. Or
three - as in three albums and three consecutive years being
nominated for best alternative band and the ARIAs (and winning
it for the past two years).
But the numbers that really count, the numbers that confirm
what the ARIA nominations have finally, belatedly recognised,
are those coming by phone to You Am I's manager, Kate Stewart,
sitting in the back of the band's Tarago as we head up the
Hume Highway. Last night the band began its current Australian
tour before a nrea sold out crowd of 1,100 in Canberra.
Tonight there's another 1,100-strong audience in Newcastle.
With a laptop balanced on her legs, Stewart is tabulating
information on the upcoming shows. The Brisbane Festival
Hall gig in two days' time already has sold more than 2,000
tickets, In Melbourne, pre-sales have gone past 2,100 a
week ahead of shows. And coming up are an unprecedented
seven straight shows at The Metro in Sydney, most of which
have sold out already.
By the end of this tour, You Am I will have played to 23,000
people. Maybe one or two other Australian bands could manage
this run. Maybe. The critics may love them and the industry
is finding it does, too, but for You Am I, these are the
sweetest numbers of all.
Tim Rogers has never been accused of carrying
excess weight. But since his hernia operation late last
month and the arduous July/August American tour - which
included 13 dates on the Lollapalooza mega-music travelling
festival - he is whippit thin and sharp angles. His powder
blue pants hang off him and the yellow shirt, complete with
corporal stripes on each sleeve, engulfs him.
But on stage, his energy comes out in continuous nervous
streams: his feet tap tap tapping away, the body sporadically
jerking, and every now and then the Pete Townshend-style
big arm twirling that has become a trademark.
While the shorter, nuggety figure of bassist Andy Kent is
content to patrol his corner of the stage and Russell "Rusty"
Hopkinson (older, beefier and adorned with some serious
sideburns) usually concentrates on his drum kit, Tim (26
a week ago) has no problem playing the entertainer. Though,
in his hands, it's less "happy happy, joy joy"
and more sardonic and open to interpretation.
"We act like an arrogant bunch of cunts, but thanks
for coming along," he says, towards the end of the
set at the ANU in Canberra. "oh, yeah, we are an arrogant
bunch of cunts."
Apres-gig, in the uni bar well after 1am,
the biggest band in the country at the moment is not exactly
in "arrogant cunt" star mode, or at least not
as we know it. No being spirited away to hotel rooms miles
away after the show, no trying to fit large pieces of cold
meats on to small pieces of bread.
Tim is on a stool, beer in hand, talking to three strangers
who are soon to be very good friends he will end up partying
with back at their house. Rusty and (virtual fourth member)
touring guitarist/keyboardist Greg Hitchcock are having
a natter with members of one of the support groups from
Meanwhile, Andy is having the world's longest game of pool.
With a vodka and orange juice he rescued from the ice box
masquerading as a dressing room upstairs, Andy is being
almost inhumanly polite to a doofus with no pool skill and
even less conversation. He's one of those campus losers
who, as Kent describes it, can be part of a vibrant university
scene and never know what is going on.
Not that Kent will brush him off. It's almost a cliche now
to talk about unfailingly polite You Am I are to their fans,
or to anyone at all. It has its downside, says Kate Stewart,
who is across the room kepping an eye on them all, like
a parent at a big children's party.
"I worry about them now that they're becoming 'rock
stars'," she says. "Everyone wants to talk to
them and they (the band) will always do it, which is great.
But they're trying to be normal people in an abnormal situation."
After the Newcastle show, the band spend
about half an hour at a small window of the dressing room
signing posters, chatting to a clutch of fans.
Rusty explains this openness with: "I really don't
think we've ever been into being arseholes.
"Tim has a certain thing on stage where he gives people
shit but it's definately played for laughs, and if anyone
came up to him after the show he's the ploitest person you'll
ever meet. We're still happy that people are into the band.
You say thanks, what else can you say?"
The band is even saying thanks - well, sort of - for the
surfeit of ARIA nominations. As with The Cruel Sea two years
ago, who virtually apologised for winning their ARIAs, You
Am I traditionally have had a reluctance to be part of the
backslapping industry fest. But Tim is prepared to say that
while "It's not the be-all and end-all" of their
lives at the moment, they are flattered.
And Andy is keen to clarify.
"We come across as being a bit angry about it, like
'How dare you?' but it's not like that," he says. "Tim
made this comment that we've been invited to the club but
we weren't really standing outside waiting to get in it.
"Seeing Tina Arena with sincerity and emotion on tap,
that side of show business is really appalling and we're
just a rock 'n' roll band in the tradition of rock 'n' roll
Rusty (who confesses that "I'm a sucker for any band
with a manifesto and good trousers and riffs") calls
it a "surreal thing".
"But, at the same time, it's good to be the outsiders
who are getting this, through sheer dint of the fact we
have a quite decent fan base who really like the band and
that we have intruded on the mainstream charts a bit.
"All we have, really, is our hour on stage together,
all the other stuff is superfluous to it. The playing live
is what powers the band. Making records is important to
us but there's nothing like going out and kicking out the
While radio, in particular the Triple
M network outside Melbourne, finds the band too "alternative"
to play - despite 35,000 sales of Hourly, Daily in less
than three months - it is live that You Am I really make
the line clear between the good bands and the top division
that inhabit. It's hard to avoid feeling, that you are seeing
a band approaching the height of their powers. Confident
and throbbing, they effortlessly toss off hooks left and
right without sacrificing any force, Tim playing as often
as not in mid-air, Rusty flaying the kit.
In front of them is a passionate reaction that sees bodies
pressed up against the front of the stage, sometimes almost
buckled over with the pressure behind, but never taking
their eyes off the band.
Says Rusty: "It amazes me, seeing those people down
the front getting crushed and people landing on their heads.
But they stay there for the whole thing because that's where
they want to be.
"It never ceases to amaze me that people will do that
for us. You're always expecting to play one song and they
go, 'They're not that good, let's go'."
He then adds, as if it wasn't already obvious: "We've
never been the most optimistic band."
But they are a band starting to believe,
even if it is just a little bit. With Hourly, Daily they
have done what very few of the American, English and Australian
bands mining at the vein of '60s-influenced pop have managed:
to stay true to their origins and create something individual
Part of the reason for that is a lyrical bent which paints
small but closely observed scenarios. Tales of a milkman
delivering the clinking bottles while his mind is on the
girl he is chasing, or the mother cleaning the boots of
bower boy son.
These are songs where life can fully described in just two
Set to music which can echo The Kinks or any number of never-successful
'60s garage punk bands one minute and Kiss the next, it's
a potent mix of verve and simplicity. And eve the hard-to-please
Tim has been convinced.
"I like the sound of it, I like most of the songs on
it (Hourly, Daily) a lot," he says. "I listened
to it quite a lot while we were away because it made me
feel quite emotional. I couldn't believe out own record
made me do that.
"I'm not really aspiring to being a really good songwriter,
I just really love writing songs. I love writing the music
to songs; the lyrics are kind of a bit secondary. The lyrics
are an excuse to play the songs but they're there to support
the music so why not try to make them good?"
and addressing the regular topic of those influences, Tim
has his answers all worked out.
"I don't know which lines I've stolen from somebody;
that kind of worries me a bit. I accuse bands of ripping
off, too, but I think it's not where it has come from but
is it good or not.
"The Stones wanted to sound like Chuck Berry, the MC5
wanted to sound like Chuck Berry mixed with Sun Ra. Rock
'n' roll is such a bastard that the question is whether
it's good or not. It's pretty basic stuff, it's what kind
of stew you make, ratatouille or gumbo."
The last chord of Who Takes Who
Home is still reverberating as You Am I come off stage.
The chant for more is under way, feet stamping and whistles
punctuating the cries. Rusty is still shaking his head about
the stool that collapsed mid-set, Andy and Greg quietly
pull on their drinks, but everyone is watching Tim. He has
slumped to the ground behind the bank of speakers, cradling
his head in his bony hands. His face is pallid and drawn,
the shoulders hunched over and he looks barely capable of
getting down the stairs to the dressing room, let alone
doing an encore.
After several minutes Tim stands up slowly and he is handed
his guitar. As he straps it on he gives a wicked little
smile and you can see the shoulders pull back. He strides
back up the stage and the others follow. They kick into
She Digs Her, Tim gives a small whirl of his arm, throws
his head back and the switch is turned to on.