Inside and 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 all right.''

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 Sydney when
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 it.''

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 with
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."