Start Me Up

Adelaide, May 1993: It's You Am I's first tour with their own drinks rider and vocalist/guitarist Tim Rogers, bassist Andy Kent and former drummer Mark Tunaley (since replaced by Russell Hopkinson) make the most of it. Much alcohol is requested, but attuned to what Kent describes as "the preposterousness of rock", the trio have asked for "two colourful local personalities backstage at the gig."

The promoter excels himself. There, to You Am I's disbelief, are the Smiths: American basketball import Willie Smith, six-foot-six of hoops magic. Several feet below is the Smiths Crisps Gobbledock, a mass of orange fur and moulded plastic features.

There is only one way to handle this. When You Am I take to the stage they open their set with an improvised jazz fusion feed back instrumental and a fourth member, a dancing Gobbledock.

New York, September 1994: You Am I have just finished recording their second album, Hi Fi Way, with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. They've spent just seven days recording what history will mark as one of the definitive Australian records, but right now their sights are aimed a little lower. "Tim got quite depressed at the end," the laconic Kent says.

"It was total amphetamine logic," elaborates Rogers, "We had no time and I was freaking out, being a total asshole. I threw my bag at the engineer, John, even though I really liked him. I went back to the loft we were staying in at six in the morning and I cried all day, I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'I've totally fucked up this record, this is shit.' Then I spent the next three days at a bar called Boo Radley's on a bender."

Sydney, December 1994: Tim Rogers is 25. If he was an arcade game he'd be a pinball machine. Like two sinners awaiting redemption, Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy look down from a poster in the kitchen of the Annandale home Rogers shares with his longtime girlfriend, Tracy Forrester. He idly rolls a soccer ball at his feet as we drink beer, looking every inch the portrait he obliquely paints of himself in scattered song fragments: the weedy, slightly nervous, "skinny-ass" kid, who is "expert at missing the bus". He is both disarmingly frank and humorous, one often directly after the other.

You Am I have just come of a sold-out national tour. At one of the Brisbane shows, Rogers' stage banter was lifted directly from the video of a 1975 Kiss concert in Chicago. "It went down so badly", he laughingly admits. "Brisbane, I can feel it, you are the rock capital of the universe!" The audience are like, 'Is he paying out on us?"

Speaking to Rogers, Kent and Hopkinson individually over several days, the impression is that You Am I fervently believe they will not be successful, rich and famous. They think Hi Fi Way is a record to be proud of, certainly better than their debut album Sound As Ever, but nothing extraordinary. After being the Next Big Thing for several years and touring America twice, once with Soundgarden, You Am I have gladly handed the title to Newcastle trio Silverchair (the 'chair' comes from You Am I's transcendent single "Berlin Chair").

"I have no idea how You Am I is perceived, or how Timothy A Rogers is perceived, or whatever I'm supposed to do. I know that I want to learn how to make a couple o' chords great and arrange a song, I'm quite happy not being really wealthy," Rogers says. Silence, then an addendum. "Instead of getting a perfect grunge rock beard I'd rather learn how to write songs properly."

When Tim Rogers was ten years old his parents wouldn't let him join the Kiss Army. They told him rock music itself wasn't bad, but that it was run by "corporate guys with big mustaches and cigars and they want your money". Soon after he was asking his mother who Mick Jagger and these other guys with bowl haircuts were. At age 12 he experienced an epiphany when he heard the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" on the radio while a dentist drilled into a tooth.

Then Tim Rogers had his first stage experience. "I was commissioned to play Gene Simmons of Kiss in the lunchtime exhibition. I had my costume done and I became the God of Thunder and I had my (mimed) bass solo coming and I'd got these blood capsules that day. I whacked them in, but when I spat them out nothing but dust came out - I had cottonmouth. For the rest of the gig I was trying to work up enough spit to wet the globules. It was pathetic, but a trend established: The big moves often don't come off."

The Rogers family moved regularly - from Kalgoorlie to Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Melbourne and finally Sydney. Rogers was a hyperactive child. He rarely dreamt, rarely slept for that matter. His initial impression of music was fear. "So much music really scared me, especially psychedelic stuff," he remembers. "Late Beatles records really scared me, still do."

When Tim Rogers turned 14, a handful of random facts coalesced into what we call fate: He received an acoustic guitar, had eight lessons, discovered marijuana, bought an Eagles songbook, discovered girls, stopped playing football and started fucking up at school.

"There's so much I don't understand," says Rogers quietly. "Why am I in love with my girlfriend? Why am I nervous all the time? But music was always simple. I knew that when I got my first guitar."

Like every other Australian teenager, Rogers also experimented with alcohol. "I got thrown out of school for a week at the start of Year 11 for threatening this guy with a broken bottle at a school party. He called me a prick or something important like that. We actually became good friends. He was the first guy I kissed, which is another drinking story. I was a bad drunk - as in I acted bad when I was drunk, not that I was constantly drunk."

By this time Rogers had explored popular music and fastened onto white-boy rock: the Stones, the Who, the Replacements, Kiss, Soul Asylum and a supporting cast of hundreds of other groups were a fulltime soundtrack. However, he remained solely a guitarist. There were, he simply says, better songwriters at his school so he never tried it.

"When I was a teenager - in fact, up until yesterday - I knew that this wasn't what I was destined to do. So if in fact it turns out that I've made some good records and played in a good rock band, that's fine. But I don't feel touched by the hand of God. All I know is that I feel really god when I play guitar."

The recurring theme on Hi Fi Way is family. Living within one, dealing with parents and siblings, growing up in the suburbs, the awkward years when your independence is tempered by still living at home, first relationships, finally leaving home. It runs the gamut from an eight-year-old Rogers' memory of pretending to be a Corsair fighter plane ("Applecross Wing Commander") to drinking with his elder brother Jaimme and then going to a Massappeal show ("Pizza guy"). "When I wrote the album I knew we had a short space of time to get it together and it was like , 'I've had the different drugs to get the lyrics out and that isn't working' and I was thinking, 'What do I know vividly?' The last five years are weird, so what I remembered vividly is the time up to 18 or 19. Suddenly all these things started to come to me. I had a perspective on those events. I could admit things.

"I think, 'I shouldn't have written that song about my mum.' She's cool about it, but I don't know if I want to bring my family into it with something so pointed. Then you think, 'Fuck it.' It felt weird saying some of these things in songs. The coward's way out. But it's one of the few things I care about, so it's hard to deny."

In his final year of high school in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, Tim Rogers tried something else - studying. He ended high school with a place studying arts/law at the ANU in Canberra. There, he formed a trio, the Pleasureheads. At 19, he became a songwriter. "I didn't have any burning desire to be one," he insists, "but when I started writing songs and paying attention to how they sounded, I realised that you didn't have to write stadium rockers. You could write very plaintive songs about how you felt."

In his second year in Canberra, Rogers had problems. "Freedom", he says, shaking his head. "I'll have a big chunk of that. Then Nick Tischler, my oldest school friend, rings, and I say, 'I'm in a really bad way and I'm coming back' and he says, 'Well, Jaimme and I have been playing together.' So I came back and we started rehearsing."

Rehearsals began in December 1989 and after six weeks Rogers had penned 15 songs. You Am I made their debut at The Cave in Sydney supporting Box the Jesuit (whose late vocalist Stephen Gray, aka Goose, was a major influence on Rogers; Sound As Ever is dedicated to him) and the Nerve (featuring Tex Perkins). The '90s had begun.

Rogers got a job in a pizza store. "Then Jaimme left the band because he and I punched the hell out of each other," announced Rogers. "We were brothers and we were living in the same house and he is a prodigious drinker and I'd just started again."

If family is the recurring theme of Hi Fi Way, then drinking is the context through which it's often examined. Most of the album contains references to alcohol, it's part of the patchwork of observations and thoughts, memories and regrets. In writing about his family and growing up, drinking is an integral part of landscape, but more importantly it captures a sense of time and place that is peculiarly Australian. Rogers even makes the link. "I didn't want to make an Eagles record just because we'd toured America. It was very much about being Australian - and when I'm at home, I drink."

Mark Tunaley replaced Jaimme Rogers on drums in late 1990, You Am I continue to gig, recorded their first EP Snaketide - "didn't sound so great" is Rogers' verdict - and acquired manager Kate Stewart, who works with Big Day Out promoter Ken West. "I wasn't concerned that it wasn't turning into a career, I was just happy that I was getting over being 18 and 19," explains Rogers. "But obviously it was more than recreation because I wasn't doing anything apart from working in a pizza shop, getting drunk , and trying to ask out Tracy."

Rogers first saw Tracy Forrester in 1987 at a Mexican restaurant where they were both eating with their respective families. He thought, 'Wow, you're happening!' The next time I saw her was at a Massappeal show and Timmy Rogers, at 19, decides it's time to stagedive, lands at the back of the pit and comes face to face with the girl from the Mexican restaurant. I'm totally embarrassed."

Rogers escaped the pizza store for a record shop, which Forrester frequented. "After the Snaketide launch on June 3, 1991, I'm suddenly in the pub alone apart from Trace. I said, 'Wanna go out next week? She said 'Yep' It went from there."

Not coincidentally, this is the only date Rogers knows to the day. I'm the blankest face you'll ever have to forgive …" from "Berlin Chair" - was written by Rogers about the relationship, one of the enduring tenets of his life. "I was feeling that at the time with Trace that I had a typical male ego that couldn't be honest or express the way I felt. It's like, 'I should support you, but I'm not going to be that supporting. I'm this cold but frail thing'."

Towards the end of 1991 You Am I supported the Falling Joys in Canberra and their manager suggested a new soundman, Andy Kent. "Mark had diabetes," Rogers recalls. "We were in the back of his car and he was shooting up insulin. Andy walks up as Mark is jabbing himself and Andy's like, 'G'day fellers, how you going?' he probably thought, 'Great, another junkie band'."

Andy Kent is 23. If he was a video game he'd be Battletech. Sitting under a tree in a Glebe cafe, blonde hair framing his face, the New Zealand-born Kent, recalls the two moments of rock & roll epiphany - one sublime, one ridiculous - that make him take up the guitar. "I remember vividly walking into my friend's house over the road when I was eight and hearing "Are You Experienced?' on Jimi Hendrix Concerts - that was one of the most amazing things I've heard. Plus, my friend's brothers and his mates were sharing this joint and I was just like, 'What is this?' Freaked me out. Scared me.

"When I was nine I went and saw Kiss live. The promoter came out and said, 'Kiss will be late on stage. In rehearsal Gene Simmons swallowed petrol while practicing his fire breathing.' I'm like, 'How cool is that?' I had this image of Gene lying in hospital having his stomach pumped with his make-up and outfit on."

Kent moved to Australia when he was 15 and joined his first band at 18, the Pupils of Love. As You Am I's soundman he was valued by Rogers because he'd up the guitar volume. "We didn't become friends for a while," notes Rogers. "Then he came to Melbourne with us and he and I got drunk together and we came back to the hotel and jammed - as Aussie blokes do. I realised he was a shit hot guitarist. Nick's sitting there, listening to us play, and that's when Nick thought, 'Maybe I should bow out," which is Nick - being totally cool and not thinking of himself. He suggested that we get Andy to join. I was kinda disappointed because to me You Am I was Nick's band and he had saved me, as Tracy has, which sounds over-dramatic, but he'd said 'let's start a band' which was kinda like a solution."

In his time in You Am I Kent has learned one very valuable lesson: "Never open the bottle of red wine in the band room because Tim has to open them himself. He has a fascination with things being fresh and pure."

Andy Kent joined You am I as they released their second independent EP, Goddamn, and continued to draw bigger crowds with a harder sound. "I knew I wasn't a good songwriter," says Rogers with self-deprecation. "It was all dynamics: soft, heavy, soft, heavy."

Around this time Rogers wrote a song about his feeling of stagnation: "Just couldn't wait to let us know we're going nowhere." When it was released in late '92 "Can't Get Started" was, ironically, the first salvo of the band's major deal with rooArt/Ra records. The song, powered by Kent's rolling thunder bassline, finally translated You Am I's live venom onto record as they received high-profile tour slots with the likes of the Hoodoo Gurus.

After extensive touring, the Coprolalia EP crystallised You Am I's renaissance rock charms - classic riffs reinvented with taut, cynical word play bathed in menace. The group then spent eight days recording their patchy debut album, Sound As Ever, in Minnesota with Ranaldo, before playing a handful of American showcase dates. Upon returning Tunaley left the group. "He didn't leave as he wants everyone to know, he was sacked," states Rogers. "We just got home and rang him up - gutless, I know - and said, "It's not happening, you're not getting along with people.' I'm a person who likes to be constantly reassured that what I'm doing is alright and he wasn't doing that, so to me it wasn't working out."

On the eve of their debut album Tim Rogers considered pulling the plug. "The experience of making Sound As Ever and falling out with Mark was fucked. When we came home I wanted to get in a band for fun, but that didn't happen. I called Russell and said 'Do you want to joint the band?' and he said 'Yep'. We rehearsed and it happened from there."

Russell Hopkinson is 30. If he was an arcade game he'd be Sonic The Hedgehog. Born in Perth, the youngest of five children, he was raised on music ranging from the Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd before falling in love with the energy and complete lack of self-indulgence of the Ramones at age 11. Coming of age during Perth's nascent punk scene, he moved to Melbourne and joined Vicious Circle, the first of a long line of hardcore bands. It was the bands Hopkinson helped inspire, like Massappeal and the Hard-Ons, which would ultimately be the band's Rogers first saw and so badly wanted to emulate. His last outfit, Melbourne's Nursery Crimes, created something of a Rusty Hopkinson legend by sacking him for playing too fast.

Hopkinson joined You Am I for the extensive touring and promotion which followed the release of Sound as Ever at the end of '93 to near-unanimous ecstatic reviews and strong sales (it would go on to win an ARIA award for Best Alternative Release).

There were moments that anyone - except, of course, the members of You Am I - would regard as portents. When Hopkinson introduced himself, as a fan, to the Breeders' Kelley Deal at the 1994 Big Day Out she asked if he was in a band. He told her. "You're in that band that everyone's talking about," she gushed. The compliment carried all the way to BDO headliners Soundgarden, who as You Am I to open their American tour.

"At the end of the touring we were frazzled," admits Kent of the Soundgarden support. "The whole year had culminated, after all this hard work, in making the second album, and it was like everyone just wanted to kick this really hard." While Rogers had made the breakthrough of writing lyrics that dealt with his family and past, the over-riding elan and spirit of the songs hadn't revealed itself.

The breakthrough came when the three attacked "Minor Byrd" as if it was a rock song, giving full rein to Hopkinson's Keith Moonish drum flourishes. "We all though, 'Fuck, let's make a fucking rockin' record'." Rogers remembers, "Any pretensions about making a defeated, acoustic record were replaced. We though 'Fuck it, let's wing it'."

So what you're telling me is that Hi Fi Way is an accident?

Tim Rogers looks me in the eye and nods. "Pretty much."

This is You Am I's attitude to success: don't want to know about it. "I think it would be a nightmare," notes Kent, "having seen what Soundgarden go through." In fact, You Am I are prepared for failure. All three members are definite that they will never carry on if the group's camaraderie or quality control recedes.

"This coming year will be a good one, and we'll probably tour the States and sell a few records," admits Rogers, "but if we don't write any good songs and we play shit and start hating each other, hopefully we'll have the foresight to stop it and we'll all die happier people."

You sound like you're convinced you're returning to that pizza shop? "Yeah," responds Rogers. "I'm definitely resigned to thinking that, but in another town, I won't go back to Castle Hill."

"We're destined to play a long time and make some great records. If they sell is another thing," says a more optimistic Hopkinson.

"I thought by now I'd be able to write songs easily, but it's hard - as hard as it was five years ago," muses Rogers. He points towards the CD player, home of a golden voice. "I'll never be able to sing like Bobby Bland, no matter how good I get. I'd rather concern myself with things that matter, like how to work out relationships."

Does music get in the way? "Maybe." A beer is drained. "Maybe."

Before and beyond the words, there is music. You Am I's sellout two night stand at Sydney's Metro Theatre is nothing less than a triumph. On both nights the group encore with guests - Tex Perkins on the first night, the Hoodoo Gurus' Brad Shepherd on the second - and they're nothing more than an enjoyable afterthought. The then unreleased Hi Fi Way supplied almost half the set, but such is the verve of the group that the audience is immediately smitten with the electrifying "Cathy's Clown" or the insidious "Ain't Gone & Open".

Hopkinson pummels his kit, Kent holds everything together with his implacable bass and Rogers carves across the stage, leaping and windmilling at his guitar as if someone's wired an electric lead to his body. On stage there's an unspoken fluency to Tim Rogers' every move that renders the doubts and fears peripheral. You Am I perform with such presence that on the first night their manager weeps in elation mid-set, while on the second night I venture into the moshpit, looking for a different take. Admidst the flailing bodies there's a purity, emphasised by hearing hundreds of leaping people sing as one to "Berlin Chair": "My cold hand is there for you to take…"

In his kitchen Tim Rogers tells me this: "Now I'm starting to write songs and the band are starting to play these songs in a way that makes me think, 'Fucking hell, I'd really dig this band if I was 16,' and I'm not sure if I would have before. That feels kind of good. And kind of uneasy."

Silence fills the air. But for just a moment, out of the corner of my eye, it looks like Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck are smiling down on us from the Midnight Cowboy poster.