Music

Tim Rogers: “Rock n roll is about fucking and about joy”

Oscillating between a louche cheekiness and tangential detours that dot his band’s 25 year history Tim Rogers spoke to MARCUS TEAGUE on the release of his band’s tenth album Porridge and Hotsauce

Tim Rogers is the frontman and main songwriter for You Am I. He’s also a frequent musical collaborator (most notably with The Bamboos), an actor, composer, sometime model, swagger ambassadorpoet of common sense, and inarguably Australia’s most well-loved rock-dandy.

His reliably excellent band have just released a new record, an event routinely referred to as a “return to form”, since their chart-topping run of commercial success in the mid-’90s. Truthfully, the band’s form continues to expand – from the grunge grunt of their early years, to the wide-eyed, indie-pop classicism that made them famous, through a swathe of albums that explored barnstorming garage rock, wistful psychedelia, baroque pop, classic rock, and more. Rogers might be the band’s focal point, but it’s the individual skill of the four-piece — including bassist (and manager) Andy Kent, drummer Russell “Rusty” Hopkinson, and guitarist Davey Lane — that will enshrine them as one of the greats.

Their tenth record, Porridge and Hotsauce, was tracked in the middle of this year at Daptone records in-house studio in Bushwick, NYC (Hopkinson is the Australian Representative for Daptone Records and facilitated the hook-up). Work was completed back in Melbourne. The diverse collection is a confident new frame around the world of four men still alert to exploring their own enthusiasm.

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How are you Tim?

I’m a lot better than I sound. Bit slow and a bit hungover. But this is the easiest job I’ve ever had really (laughs). It’s just an opportunity to have a bit of a grumble for my own amusement.

Musicians grumble don’t they? That’s part of the job.

Well I’m trying to take the grumbling out of it. I think I’ve grumbled enough in [You Am I’s] first 25 years to fill the quota. From now on I’m Grumble-No-More – that sounds like a Mumford and Sons album title. No, I’m just going to err on the side of kindness and pure enthusiasm from now on.

The relentlessly positive Tim Rogers.

There’s a lot of opportunities at the moment to be positive. It’s a lot easier to be downcast and a naysayer, a sniper and all that. We’ve got to err on the side of being an example to each other within the band and hopefully we can be examples to the kids who are around us. You’ve got to stand for something.

I was drinking at my local just a couple of weeks ago and this young buck, handsome man, came and did the classic, [dour hipster voice] “Er, yeah my girlfriend thinks I should meet you for some reason.” I said, Oh why’s that? He said, “Apparently you’re famous.” Oh god here we go. I said, I write songs I’m a bit of a D-list celebrity. He said, “Yeah but what do you stand for, man?” My only response was I stand for myself and for Rosy [Rogers’ partner] and for Ruby [Rogers’ daughter] and that’s it.

And he went “Well that’s typical of your generation.” And I went – wow. I didn’t want to be angry because I was getting loaded listening to music and having fun. But I’ve thought since then, well jeez what do I stand for? But there is some sort of vague ethical code that I’ve constructed for myself which is forever evolving or devolving. I think the band has it too, I notice it when we’re out and in the way we treat people. The band’s given us a lot and it’s time for us to start giving it back.

There’s a lot of opportunities at the moment to be positive

You went to New York again for this record (the band recorded their second album, Hi-Fi Way, there in 1994). In the literature for Porridge and Hotsauce there’s no mention of a producer. Were there any figures like that for you this time around?

I’m pretty nervous about giving songs to the band, with my increasing awareness of their intellectual forbearance over me [laughs]. As Davey gets astronomically good as a songwriter and producer, with Rusty’s stature as a music intellectual, and Andy’s, like, my spirit animal – if he doesn’t like something that I do, I’ll throw it away. Or seriously doubt it. They’re intimidating enough as it is.

Wayne Gordon engineered most of the tracks. He’s mostly known for recording rhythm and blues and doing Daptone records. He also owns a bar around the corner from the studio. The second day we went to his bar and it turned out he’s probably more into stuff from the grubbier edges of the history of rock n roll [than R&B]. He’d be spinning records by these beat groups and psychedelic groups, so he had a big influence. I probably wanted to impress him as well.

And then back in Melbourne we worked with John Castle on it for four days. I’ve worked with John with Megan Washington and the Bamboos. Again, his knowledge and musicianship was daunting for me. So even though we don’t [have a producer], there were a lot of figures. It was like a ten-man team.

Was there a moment of clarity for you with this record? When you knew what it would be like?

No. No clarity whatsoever [laughs]. It was summer in Brooklyn and it was humid as fuck. There’s great bars around there and the studio is cramped, but there’s people coming in and out all the time. People were DJ-ing that night or musicians coming in, it’s a pretty electric place to be around. Rusty was working for the label upstairs, so he was having to rush up there. There was just this perennial musical conversation going on.

We’d finish up early evening and there was always someone from Daptone around, a friend on the corner or a band playing to go out and see. So it was this intense week where, if we weren’t in the studio we were involved in someone else’s music. Which is a very dreamy place to be. It’s about a perfect a life as you could hope for.

Like a clubhouse.

Yeah that’s a good analogy. Then when we got out to John’s it was pretty much myself and Davey and John. There it was the same there – when you’re not making music you’re talking about it. We’ve worked with people before who are a bit heavy-browed and not all girlish enthusiasm, and it’s a real drag. Writing and recording with You Am I is for our own enjoyment, and I’ll continue to do it, to turn those guys on and us.

It gives us perspective on a couple of years back. For a few years everything we did and every song I presented was being second guessed. Which was a period of my life where I was deeply unhappy and I should have been very happy.

Ten albums. Does it feel inevitable or an accident?

[Laughs]. Oh no, not inevitable! I still have vivid memories of making our first EP and our approach to it then isn’t much different to how it is now. Back then we just wanted to get third on the bill and play with The Hard-Ons. [But] making Hi-Fi Way and Hourly Daily and those records, I don’t know what we were hoping for but it just felt different. There were a lot of people interested in the band and around us all the time, so longevity wasn’t an aim.

Ten records, yeah. Fuck me. [laughs]. I remember for a long while I was thinking how in the year 2000 I’ll be 31, thinking I wonder how I’ll be then? To get to 46 [now], it’s ridiculous. Life has its little struggles but essentially I live a very, very fortunate life. We’ve had so much good fortune, and by our own initiation really. The fact that one of us isn’t dead, just through the pursuit of life and touring – we’ve pushed certain things a little bit but we’ve looked after each other. [For us] to be intact is incredibly fortunate.

A celebration?

We celebrate every night. If we play a good show we celebrate, if we get a good sandwich we celebrate. We’re pretty excitable people.

If your name gets misspelled on a poster you celebrate.

[Laughs] When we got the banner, the owner of the hotel sheepishly passed it on to us. That’s our banner for the rest of our life. [laughs]. It says so much about us. 25 years of playing and that name is misspelt. It’s perfect.

We’ve always said at some point no matter how good or how big you are you’re going to wind up playing to two people and those two people aren’t interested in you. You’ve got to have your stories and your humour and your love for each other intact. I’ve been very close to people who have been very concerned about their trajectory as far as how their music career goes. It doesn’t make you a very pleasant person.

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Earlier in the year you performed as a musician in the stage play of What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, based on your 1999 solo album. One reviewer said it was quite affecting seeing the older you, looking on at these characters from your younger self. Or at least from your younger head.

Well look with that… when I first met Aidan [Fennessey] who wrote the play, the first thing I said was if the character’s have any similarity to myself then I’m walking. I’m just not interested in that. Or writing about myself when I was younger. Thankfully the characters didn’t. So I wasn’t looking at the characters, I was looking at two actors I’d grown very close to performing. It’s probably why I’m a terrible actor but I can’t disassociate looking at these people as actors rather than characters.

So I hope it helps the story and review and all that, but I wasn’t looking at my younger self – I was looking at my friend John and Sophie. And just being a musician. It was a remarkably non-nostalgic time. When Jen Anderson who plays on the original album came and saw the show, I couldn’t help but get a bit nostalgic for absent friends and all that. But I’m not interested in the young Tim Rogers. He was a grumbler [laughs].

But one thing you have a great knack for, and is a real power to some of your songs, is there’s room for your characters to display human emotions that we all share. Sometimes you can’t help casting those feelings into it, whether based in reality or not.

Sure. Yeah absolutely. It’s why it’s often a disappointment to hear explanations behind songs. I’m probably not the best person to remark upon any songs I’ve written because my original intent may be very foreign to me now. When I sing a song like ‘Heavy Heart’, which I occasionally do these days, it means something very different than it did when I wrote it. Because I wrote it for Charlie Rich. And he was dead at the time.

If people have their own interpretations of songs, I’ll try not to naysay and say they’re wrong, because I don’t know. But a lot of songs on this new record are about creating some moral code for yourself.  Because I want to sing songs every night that do bring joy or release or some kind of catharsis. Rather than just being wordplay. So there’s little codes or messages in some of the songs to myself. Like, C’mon Rogers, realise how fortunate you are and try and sprinkle that good fortune around.

So it’s emotion-based rather than subject-based?

Yeah that’s right. With subject-based songs, I’m working on a bunch of different things at the moment. But if I want to be clear and paint a character properly, but the scansion of the lyrics is mucking with Rusty’s drumming, then I’ll ditch the song. Because if we’re a rock and roll band, getting some good lyrics get in there is luck. There’s other projects a little less rhythmically propulsive and I can use those [character-based] lyrics for other things. I’m lucky in that I have so much else else on, as we all do. It helps us be a better band I think. If we concentrate on the band solely for 365 days of the year I don’t think we’d still be around. It’d be a drag.

“As a band we love drinking, getting loaded, playing shows, seeing the sun come up”

It sounds like being in a rock and roll band is still a good thing to do with your life.

It’s the best job I’ve ever had! [laughs]. Being in a rock and roll band has given me everything. I was hopeless before. I was working in a pizza store. I was happy having a case of beer at home and $200 in my pocket after work. I was OK with that. Looking back now, You Am I gave me everything. I’ve got my daughter through the band. My good looks have been honed through playing 200 shows a year. I can’t talk about it enough. I’ve met these four people that mean so much. I never would have met Davey Lane if I hadn’t been in You Am I, and he’s an incredibly important person to me.

The only thing I don’t have [from the band] is my partner. She never saw me play before we went out on our first date. Never saw me, never saw the band. She only knew me as the guy who drank in her restaurant. So maybe I’ve finally achieved something without the help of the band [laughs].

But then again, I guess the band has given me a bit of chutzpah and maybe she wouldn’t have chatted to me if it hadn’t been because of that. So yeah, fuck it – You Am I gave me everything.

Does talking about suffering performance anxiety help?

I’m not sure. The only reason I talked about it was in case it might help someone. When I’ve read about similar people having difficulties it meant the world to me. ‘Cause for a while I thought I was the only person in the world experiencing what was going on. It’s absolutely the only reason I talk about it.

I’ve done certain things in my life in the way I live day-to-day that help. I don’t have to rely on medication anymore which I’m really grateful for. I’ve cut some things out of my lifestyle that were irregular and important in that they were depriving me of any money that I had and were affecting my mental health. I thought, well this isn’t helping anybody. For about the past eight months I’ve just had to drag myself through the quicksand. Giving up shit’s difficult. But the end result is great.

And now you’re on tour.

Being on tour you can live it up and enjoy yourself. As a band we love drinking, getting loaded, playing shows, seeing the sun come up. That all still goes on, but it’s kind of justified when you’re on tour because you’ve got a show to do. I think the only thing I won’t do from now on is think that you’ve got to be at a point of obliteration when you get on stage. That’s not going to help anything. We’re a little better at it now, we know what to do.

I was at this thing for a corporate event last night, because… school fees. And someone was saying to me “Well, this isn’t very rock n roll is it?” I hear that once a fuckin’ day. Every time I’m out watering someones’ pot plants or something. And I said: No you know what rock n roll is? It’s turning up and playing a fuckin’ show [laughs]. As opposed to looking rock n roll or acting rock n roll.

It’s about being spirited and being generous. Rock n roll is about fucking and about joy. And I think being generous is a big part of making love, and so being generous, rock n roll, the wheel: there you fuckin’ go – may the circle be unbroken.

Porridge and Hotsauce is out now via . You Am I are currently on the road playing dates on ‘The Bargain Bin Bon Vivants’ tour. Check out the dates below.

Thursday, November 12 – Waves Wollongong
Friday, November 13 – Beachcomber Hotel, Toukley
Saturday, November 14 – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Thursday, November 19 -Villa Noosa Hotel, Noosaville
Friday, November 20 – Triffid, Brisbane
Saturday, November 21 – Parkwood Tavern, Gold Coast
Sunday, November 22 – Spotted Cow, Toowoomba
Wednesday, November 25 – Magnums Airlie Beach
Thursday, November 26 – Dalrymple Hotel, Townsville
Friday, November 27 – Discovery, Darwin
Saturday, November 28 – Gapview Hotel, Alice Springs
Wednesday, December 2 – Metro Sydney
Friday, December 4 – 170 Russell, Melbourne

Tickets on sale now via youami.com.au

Gif image by Dan Boud for FasterLouder