Outside You Am I
One of Australia's
hottest bands, You Am I, is playing it low key. No fanfare
please. MARK MORDUE visited a scruffy studio in inner Sydney
where the group is recording its third album.
TIM ROGERS is a white ghost in a window;
nothing there but the discernible rub of a bodyshirt in
reflected light, and a sweet, croaky voice singing about
milk and love. Through the double-plated glass of a recording
booth at night, his torso shines. The lead singer and guitarist
with You Am I is deep inside, finishing off vocals for the
band's next single, Mr Milk. It's a sweet song. Later, Rogers
will say: "It was about time.
There's always a reticence to do an unabashed love song.
I didn't want to do it for ages. But why
not sing about things that are real . . . or can be?''
Along with You Am I bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell
Hopkinson, Rogers has written and recorded 21 songs so far
for a prospective album the band is currently calling Hourly
Daily. After working with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo as their
producer in New York both on their 1993 debut Sound As Ever,
and this year's Hi Fi Way You Am I are making this one at
home in Sydney.
Third albums always have something big
inscribed in their DNA, particularly when you're as widely
respected as You Am I. From blistering live shows to ARIA
awards, and getting taken on a US tour by ``fans'' like
Soundgarden, You Am I are the feted sons of 1996.
They've picked two producers to work with
this time: Wayne Connolly, from Knievel and the Welcome
Mat, and Paul McKercher, best known for his work on Triple
J's Live in the Studio.
Rogers says they did this ``to create
arguments and violence''.
Coming out of the studio, Rogers presents
himself in an eager lanky fever there's something about
his sawn features reminiscent of a young Ray Davies or Pete
Townshend. Maybe it's the brown corduroys Rogers seems to
permanently wear, the band's fondness for side-levers, or
their constant allusions to everyone from the Zombies to
the Andy Partridge (XTC) biography, but You Am I exude '60s
classicism or what Rogers yearningly calls "simplicity,
with a little bit of style''.
As a writer, Rogers has become interested
in "ordinary situations that can be romantic rather
than mundane''. In how songs can "make you put on a
silly pair of pants, walk a different way, cut your fringe,
or just change you. That's brilliant''.
He refers to another new song, The Count
to 4, "about a boy and a girl who get married because
there's nothing else to do. I can't believe I wrote a song
like that. It's such a Springsteen thing to do''. Then he
whispers, as if its part of the tragedy, "Nebraska's
Rogers may document the small times, everything
from the Courthouse Hotel to fatal kisses, but there's a
zing to his hopeless, sometimes bitter-tongued, romanticism.
It's called the history of pop music. Rogers is the ultimate
fan, with an astounding and encyclopaedic knowledge.
"There's nothing better than late
at night, writing a song, and thinking: 'Wow, this will
be unreal! I can be like Roy Wood when I play this,' ''
he says, zooming into an air-guitar posture. "I just
want to make a record I can listen to and love. I want it
to be like the Move, the Zombies, Nick Drake.
I want it to be an Action record, a Creation
record, a Small Faces record. But maybe it won't sound like
any of those and I'll just be disappointed. I just don't
want to make a typical one.
"We could have invited all our friends
in and got really drunk and done Exile On Main Street again,''
he adds, referring to the famous Stones romp that produced
a definitive album.
"But we thought we may as well make
this an experience for us.''
Rogers admits: "We've always been
a pretty close unit.'' Soon though, You Am I will be expanding
to a foursome on stage, with the inclusion of guitarist
Greg Hitchcock, formerly of The Verys. Yet only six months
ago it seemed as if You Am I were falling apart; that Rogers
in particular was freaking out about success.
Bassist Andy Kent emphasises: "We
shared a room on our last tour of America. We'd travel on
the bus together, wait in the band room together, play together,
go to a bar and drink together, then go home together and
wake up to have breakfast together. It was incredible; it
was . . .'' Kent starts laughing "preposterous!''
Kent eyes you like he's watching something
inside you. It's a typical You Am I trait. That closed-ranks
quality again, the feeling that outsiders aren't let in
easily, even when they want to let you in.
"But the rock can actually save you,''
Kent says, emphatically, of the great nights on stage. "The
thing that has been driving you insane can actually save
you. After all the frustration, all of a sudden we're at
the bar afterwards with beers grabbing each other,'' he
says, making Viking sounds. "The funny thing is in
you're not getting on well with someone, you just don't
see them for a while. But on the road it's like you have
tell them, `Hey, we're getting on good again.' You share
Interestingly, Kent adds that "silverchair
have got a lot to do with taking the heat off us. Australia
is a small place for a band to be successful. It's left
us a lot freer''.
While they mess about with everything
from zithers to xylophones and a terrible keyboard sound
that Connolly compares to Flash & The Pan, You Am I
have also called on the talents of jazzman Jackie Orszaczky
to help with brass arrangements. Hopkinson says that "in
some songs there's going to be an R&B blast of horns,
in others that psychedelic lone trumpeter''.
Hopkinson talks about "Garry Usher
and hot-rod music''.
"He (Usher) was one of these maverick
producers who was looking for the ultimate teen exploitation
hit in the '60s.
He'd write about hotted-up cars, and get
people like Glenn Campbell, then a session musician, to
play guitar, and Hal Blaine, the drummer whose best-known
work was with the Beach Boys. It was very naive music in
a way,'' he says.
"Tim has really gotten into all this
freak-beat stuff from the '60s, too. Glam rock actually
came out of a certain kind of psychedelia from the '60s,
but it was a more punky, garage sound. We want to follow
that line from the '60s into the '90s, that hippie naivety,
but with a real garage rock grunt in it.''
Lighting a fag off a toaster, Hopkinson
observes that this melting pot attitude was just as true
of the black funk master George Clinton. "He was as
much into the Stooges, the Amboy Dukes and the MC5 as he
was into James Brown and all the Stax stuff.''
Warming to his theme, and trying to track
it all back onto You Am I's album, Hopkinson proclaims:
"It's a revolutionary hippie vibe. Like Chocolate City.
Another land. Not a race thing an attitude thing.'' It's
not just "love is all you need', however. You Am I
continue to make pop with edges, whether it's in Tim Rogers's
stage attitude or in his writing. Hourly Daily, the provisional
title track, is set to piano and cello. It was inspired,
says Rogers, "by a couple of specials I saw on Skinheads
and the right-wing revival in Europe on the ABC''. "I
started to think how their mums felt'', he adds, rushing
to a lyrical burst that sounds like someone quietly spitting:
"Does your mum dig your jackboots or does she polish
them for you?'' He admits that success didn't rest well
on his shoulders earlier this year. And he talks about doing
a tour with Kim Salmon and the Surrealists, and "how
Kim pulled me aside to say ''Love it while it is happening!'
'' Looking back at his own behavior, Rogers speculates that
``in 1995 the thing to do is to be at odds with yourself
if you're doing well. To not enjoy it''.
He says Hourly Daily is "pretty much
on the same track as the last record, but less self-referential,
less woe, less teenage angst. Travelling lots like we have
been, just looking out the window of a van, maybe that affects
your view. I dunno.
The songs seem to be more about what you
see rather than how you're feeling.
"There's lots of aggressively
played rock 'n' pop on this, but it's more fanciful, more
vaudevillian almost. Just trying to give it a jauntiness.
Then there's some r-o-c-k. I'm just trying to write better,''
Rogers shrugs, finally. "In a way, to be ill at ease
yourself and what you're doing is a definition of an artist,
isn't it? As soon as you've got a pattern set, that's when
you're in danger."