Classical Gas

You Am I fuse classic influences and contemporary smarts to create a great debut album.
Mel Toltz follows them.

CBGBs, the site infamous for fostering punk's U.S. genesis - playing host to the first gigs by the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, - is cramped. Situated in New York's notorious Bowery, the dimly lit club has an unexpected intimacy. Patrons sit at candle-lit tables to watch bands with a nonchalance exclusive to New Yorkers. When Sydney trio You Am I taker their turn on the micro-stage, however, the audience snaps to attention. Charismatic guitarist and vocalist Tim Rogers wails and swoons and catapults his body back and forth as the band propels itself into an intense set, showcasing songs from their debut album, Sound As Ever, and their previous EP, Coprolalia. Tonight, You Am I plays as if it's their last-ever show... and the tiny audience responds.

Bass player Andy Kent introduces "Everyone's To Blame" and at the song's conclusion Rogers tell Kent that he introduced the song like Dinah Shore would welcome a guest. "If you don't know the words, just sing along," Kent says of the next song as they dive into a frenetic take of their new single, "Adam's Ribs." These moments are slight relief from the angst-ridden mood that builds across tracks like the tried-and-true "Last Thing You Can Depend On" and the new "Berlin Chair" and ultimately consumes the band's set.

Boiling point is reached on the ragged epic "Cool Hand Luke" which disintegrates into an onstage instrument assault, a la Sonic Youth. Rogers is on the floor squeezing sounds from his guitar in newly discovered positions while Kent simultaneously played and abuses his bass so that musicians cringe painfully. Behind them drummer Mark Tunaley is beating up a shitstorm on his kit, working out inner demons, before he abruptly stops and exits offstage.

It turns out to be a prophetic departure, the last show this incarnation of You Am I will play. A month later, in mid-September, when the band reconvenes in Sydney, Tunaley is sacked.

Two days after the CBGBs spot, nestled in a booth at Cafe Magador on New York's Lower East Side, Tim Rogers, in screaming red velvet hipster flares, and Andy Kent, the group's resident alternahunk, are relaxing after putting the finishing touches to Sound As Ever. The duo look like they live here, and the fact that Rogers appears to know every person in the cafe only furthers this impression. Tunaley flew back to Australia the previous day.

"All we have to do now is sent it home and wait for it to be rejected," jokes Kent referring to the new album.

"We'll get an urgent fax back telling us that it's not commercially viable," smiles Rogers.

Although fiercely proud of Sound As Ever, the banter is played out more than just laughs. It's typical You Am I, who are overtly modest but, more importantly, are concerned not to fan the flames of the hype that has already burnt them.

"It's toned down quite a bit," explains Rogers of the difference between Sound As Ever and their previous EPs Snake Tide (1991), Goddamn ('92), Can't Get Started ('92) and Coprolalia ('93). "There's less kind of squealing noises and a little bit less damage. Just better songs and stronger songs. We've never found it very easy to classify us," he says, and then pushed to try Rogers offers, "forwards-backwards rock & roll."

"Looking forwards and looking backwards at the same time, but never quite getting there," he elaborates, grinning.

The off-hand assessment proves particularly sharp. Rogers, You Am I's primary songwriter, is steeped in the history and mythology of rock, but equally possessed if contemporary smarts - a recent Top 5 list in JUICE, detailing the albums that changed his life, included the Rolling Stones' Big Hits: High Tide and Green Grass and the Beatles' White Album alongside Tim by the Replacements and Eleven Eleven by U.S noisemongers Come.

Born in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia in 1969, Rogers moved across the country with his parents before settling in Castle Hill, in Sydney's north-west, for most of his high school years. While he grew up exposed to some of the great music of the '60s and '70s he is fond of recounting how he was reborn, in the early '80s, sitting in a dentist's chair when the Stones' "Start Me Up" came over the radio. Music became his abiding passion, but it was when he came under the spell of the Replacement's ramshackle rock that it became his vocation. A university degree in Arts/Law was abandoned for music, and until recently he continued to travel from his home in Glebe, in Sydney's inner city, some 20 kilometres to Castle Hill, where he worked in a local record store the last five years - he was sacked for ignoring the customers in favour of watching the Stones' film Gimme Shelter on video.

You Am I remains Rogers' only band, formed originally with Tim's brother Jaimme on drums, and he has steered the trio's transition form the thrashier rock of its early EPs to Coprolalia and Sound As Ever, where You Am I appropriated a blues groove and a growing comfort with subtlety. New Zealand-born Kent, 22, joined the band in late 1991, first appearing on the Goddamn EP.

Into this backwards-forwards rock thing the band introduced producer Lee Ranaldo, guitar maestro with avant rockers Sonic Youth. Ranaldo produced Coprolalia when Sonic Youth came to Australia for last year's Big Day Out, and was so blown away by the band he insisted on producing Sound As Ever.

"At this point, I'm so busy with Sonic Youth and other projects of my own that the only reason for me to produce another band right now is if it's a band where I'm really into the music," Ranaldo explains on the morning the final night after mixing. "When I did the EP, Coprolalia, I really liked it, so it made sense to work together again. I think the record's great and the songs are incredible. Tim's a great songwriter."

You Am I, Ranaldo and engineer Wayne Connolly of the Sydney band the Welcome Mat relocated to Pachyderm Studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they had just seven days in which to cut their disc. As well as a mixing desk from Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland Studios, Pachyderm has also adopted a unique and recent history of its own.

"I think hundreds and hundreds of bands have recorded there. Were you referring to anyone in particular?" asks Andy Kent defensively, reluctant to namedrop Nirvana, whose In Utero was cut at Pachyderm with hardcore soundman Steve Albini and was subsequently the subject of much rumour and controversy. Besides Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Soul Asylum, the Jay Hawks and Babes In Toyland - whose explosive Fontanelle Ranaldo produced - have all recently recorded there.

"It's apparently just been an unknown studio that's all of a sudden come into vogue because the surroundings are so great. Very isolated," explains Rogers. "It's in the middle of this corn growing area and it's very rural. After you've clocked up a song enough times you go for a wander in the splendour in the grass, and get nude and kind of feel at one with the surroundings. It was very lovely. Very calming."

You Am I lived Brady Bunch-style in a house that is part of the studio, adjacent to a llama farm. "When things were getting stressful, we were thinking, 'Okay, make a simulation here: weirdness, madness, llamas, Jackson, Michael... It was comforting to know we could go and speak to a llama," jokes Rogers. "It's true."

"The critical part for us is recording, and working at Pachyderm, where we were isolated and able to live together, was important," adds Kent. "We could get right into each other's heads all the time rather than everyone going home after a session and turning up the next day."

"I don't know whether it made a difference that we were in Minnesota rather than Queensland," Rogers continues. "I'm not sure, but apart from that it was just good fun and a real experience. Do you think it would?" he asks Kent.

"No I don't think so. I just think the isolation factor is... the male bonding factor," grins Kent. "Have you ever seen those shows were middle-aged men, about 40 of them, go into the forest and let it all out? They get around and they cry. We did that every morning before the session. We'd go into the trees, hug a tree and cry."

The other advantage to recording in America is that it gave You Am I a chance to tap into its influences. Rogers waxes poetic about seeing one of his heroes, ex-Replacement frontman Paul Westerberg, perform. And on his last day in the country he caught Urge Overkill.

Discussing what they're doing in the three spare weeks before they return to Australia, Kent jokes, "Tim's off to LA to become a glam rocker, and I'm off to Nashville to be a country and western singer." Rogers explains, seriously, that he is going to Las Vegas to get married to his girlfriend. An Elvis impersonator will perform the ceremony: "It's legal, you know." The wedding doesn't happen.

The cornfields and llamas only masked the problems that had been brewing between Rogers and Kent and Tunaley, allowing the band to hang together until the record was complete. The sessions also afforded a break from the pressure that gathered around them in Australia. After a record company feeding frenzy, the band signed to Ra (an offshoot of rooArt) in late /92 and gigged prolifically through '93, including a national tour with Tumbleweed, on a tidal wave of hype, glorifying them as the Next Big 'Grunge' Thing. It left the band gimmick-shy and more than a little media-wary.

"We became aware if how much that hype thing can just override anything you're doing that's of any worth," says Rogers. "We're in a comfortable position now - to do whatever we do and have it judged on its own merits. We've had plenty of opportunity to mess up the hype by playing an occasional bad show or not getting the right haircuts or something.

"It's taken us quite a while to do the album while all that stuff going on and now it's died down, and we've justified some of the things haven't justified other things," Rogers adds elusively. "Now e can put the album out and just have everything based on how we play from now on."

The resulting album, Sound As Ever, justifies all expectations. From the focused rage of "Everyone's To Blame" and the single "Adam's Ribs" through the more sentimental, yet no less spirited, "Trainspottin'" and "Berlin Chair," to the bludgeoning blues of "Sound As Ever" and "Forever and Easy," You Am I have perfectly coalesced their traditional influences with the dissonance and in-your-face arrogance of the best guitar/noise rock.

If this is only further contributing to the hyperbole, the balanced and knowing words of Lee Ranaldo might be a better indicator. "There's nothing as important when you make new records as having good songs, and with this record there's like six or eight songs that are just 'knock-you-out' songs - good hummable melodies and good lyrics," he enthuses. "I find the melodies for the songs stick in my head, and that's always the sign of a good song."

Back in Sydney in mid-October, You Am I are launching the single "Adam's Ribs" at the Phoenician Club. With new drummer Russell Hopkins (form the Perth outfit the Kryptonics) having settled in over a handful of shows, You Am I are a screaming juggernaut, playing tonight as if it was their last-ever show, to a packed crowd of 800-plus.

However, a bunch of dumb-fuck stagedivers are doing their best to screw things up. The band blitz through "Trainspottin'" at warp speed, but divers invade the stage on every song. Two turkeys leap from the first floor and narrowly miss an ill-at-ease Andy Kent and then a girl jumping onto stage for her moment of glory trips on Kent's mic-stand, smashing it into his bass and tearing through three strings. The band limps to the end of the song, where Kent verbally abuses them and Rogers pleads for some common sense. To no avail. A few songs later a guy gets caught in a tangle with Rogers, his guitar amp and a roadie - it's an ugly scene and brings the song to an end. Rogers is seething, his lanky frame pacing up to the microphone, then turning away again, opting to cool down before he resumes. He finally steps to the mic, and says: "Everyone turn to the person next to you and give them a BIG SMILE."

It's a perfect moment, undercutting the palpable angst of the room and belittling the dumb antics of the divers. After a stagediving lull during the ballad, the mayhem continues. The band play out their set and at the end of a brutal version of "Cool Hand Luke" storm offstage. Rogers returns a minute later, but there's no chance of an encore - he snatches a slab of beer from the stage and is off.

Forwards-backwards rock & roll. A great album, an ever-increasing audience... Surely this is the stuff of rock & roll dreams? Tim Rogers is still awake at 4am wondering whether it is.

Mel Toltz