Tim Rogers played his first show with You Am I in 1989. His life has taken some dramatic turns since then. There are entire periods he now regrets. (Say, the ‘90s.) Yet despite life’s colourful swerves, Rogers confesses the joy of being on stage playing in a rock band still feels like nothing else. And while Rogers has come to find happiness in simpler pleasures, he is not anticipating abandoning You Am I any time soon.
How to summarise You Am I’s 32-year career in a few short words? This was a question Music Feeds found itself asking following our conversation with Tim Rogers concerning the 11th You Am I album The Lives Of Others. It was only after asking the question we realised Rogers had already said it best.
“It’s been,” he shares in the following conversation, “a f***ing trip.”
Music Feeds: The Lives Of Others is arriving very soon. Was it a lockdown album?
Tim Rogers: Spot on. I had a bunch of songs that I was writing for another project, an orchestrated folk project. And I was just working day jobs. And I hadn’t spoken to the guys in the band for a while.
And then The Plague happened. (Well, it’s still happening.) So I rewrote all the songs because I was missing my friends. I wrote them as You Am I songs. I wanted to hear what they could do with them. So I rewrote everything and sent them to those guys. And they came back and said, “Let’s do it!”
David Lane and I were in Melbourne. So, we got this ramshackle recording arrangement together when we could see each other. Rusty Hopkinson and Andy Kent were in Sydney. Then Rus had to go to Perth for a family emergency. So they recorded in Perth and Sydney while David and I recorded in Melbourne. Somehow, we got it all together through a mix of artiness and ingenuity.
MF: What differentiates a You Am I song from a song you might write solo or for another project?
TR: I guess you can hear if you’re writing a song for someone else. I’ll do it in their voice, imagining their voice. If I’m writing it for another band, I can hear them. I don’t want to impose Tim Rogers on anyone!
I guess what I enjoy is wordplay firstly and then trying to construct something where a band can sound great and exciting. Andy, Rus and Davy are very, very smart but also intuitive musicians. Two of my favourite characteristics in musicians!
They don’t have to be smart as in school smart. Although I do have a lot of respect for people who know musicology. Andy, Rus and Davy are impulsive, intuitive and smart. So I write to impress them when I write songs for the band. Getting their approval means everything. If I don’t get their approval, I drink heavily, put my tail between my legs and put myself to bed for a couple of weeks.
MF: You published your first book Detours in 2018. Has your journey into literature impacted your work as a lyricist and songwriter?
TR: That’s a good question. Possibly just from working with editors. Editing used to horrify me. It still does! But less than it did before.
An edited piece is edited for a reason, hopefully. When writing lyrics now I’ll go back, get the red pen out and take things out. I’ll make sure there’s not so much going on that it’s missunderstandable. More is not necessarily better. I’ve learnt how to edit myself better.
MF: It is interesting when an artist says something has influenced them which comes from outside their discipline. Like how a painting or book can influence a song or even an album. Have you experienced that?
TR: Absolutely, yeah. Reading – whether it is literature, journalism or poetry – absolutely! Probably more in the way that you’re feeding your brain with beautiful or intriguing things. Whether it’s movies, literature or visual art, you’re setting yourself up to have a greater pallet to use.
It’s like when I’m reading on the phone or on the computer for more than half an hour, I feel myself getting sad, like a mild depression because I think it’s not feeding my brain. When I read something off paper or in books, newspaper or magazines, I’m happier and I think I can write better that way. It’s feeding your beautiful brain, with beautiful things.
MF: There is a lot of ‘90s nostalgia around at the moment. Have you had any thoughts about that period in regard to your work with You Am I?
TR: I’m not nostalgic for that era. Good things happened but some really f***ed things happened as well. So no. I liked the decade after that. For example, in 2001 my daughter was born.
The band played its first show in 1989. During the period between the band starting and my daughter being born, I had a complete lack of responsibility. So I see it more in that way, I guess.
Interesting things happened. And I guess it was pre-internet you know? I was running into other musicians or other artists at gas stations. It was just a different way of communicating.
But I’m not nostalgic for that. It just happened. I was in my 20s. A lot goes on in your 20s. And a lot did.
I’m not nostalgic for it because a lot of bad things happened. I think I can see it for what it was. I don’t want to go back there at all. But there was some good music. And some absolutely f***ing awful music!
I think the biggest difference had to do with social media. It just wasn’t there. You communicated with people face-to-face or on the telephone.
But I still live that way. I do have social media but I don’t live by it at all. So it doesn’t feel as different as it should, aside from the fact I had less silver hairs.
MF: Then and now, what is different in your approach to your work as an artist?
TR: I now look at myself more lyrically. Early on, it was a lot of emoting and not a lot that was very humorous or titillating. To me, it was just about getting some kind of lyric down so that we could play shows.
Now I want to be proud of what I write. I want to be proud of myself. And fewer people are listening so that’s an interesting little mathematical equation.
You know, sitting down with a pen and paper and working on lyrics, working on songs, is just about as happy as I can be. And I realise that’s what happens. So it means that these days as long as I’ve got a notepad and a pen, I can be content and feel peaceful. I can be a human and smile at strangers.
Every beer tastes great when you’ve got a pen and paper in front of you. It’s a very basic way to live. But I know that’s where I’m happiest.
MF: Are there songs you are looking forward to playing from the new album?
TR: Oh yeah! We’ve started doing shows already. We started off the last couple of shows with the first single from this record, ‘The Waterboy’. And that was just a massive thrill. And to see us playing it? Wow! I only dreamt about this.
There is another song called ‘The Lives Of Others’. It’s the last one on the record. And to play that live is just a really visceral emotional feeling because I remember where I was when I wrote it. It’s quite something. Each of the songs has a little bit of a tinge of apprehension with a little bit of fear and sadness – what a lot of people were experiencing last year. And with that, it adds a certain frisson when you’re playing it.
It’s very emotional to play them. Even though none of the songs are about The Plague or that situation. The songs could be completely devoid of any thoughts about that.
But we can’t help remember how we made it through. The situation is so dire in other countries overseas. I just hope that we are smart about it and listen to the people that we should be. And hopefully, the rest of the world gets on top of it all.
MF: You can only hope!
TR: I find it difficult to feel smart about luck or good fortune when there is so much suffering.
MF: Has the coronavirus pandemic inspired you to write songs for future projects?
TR: Yeah. I’m writing a song for a band up in Sydney at the moment. I can’t talk about it because of legal things, unfortunately. But they’re people I admire enormously.
It’s a very, very different situation to You Am I. Writing with them is enormous. It’s a different way of writing. But, similarly, I just want to impress them. That’s the impetus.
I’ve got my songwriting heroes and I’m always trying to live up to their standard. To think that maybe one day I could have a song or a couple of songs, that could sit amongst my favourites! That has been happening over the past 20 years.
Now the band is a bit more niche, or less popular, it is a relief in some ways. Because you’re looking for other ways to satisfy those urges and keep happy. Not worrying about your popularity is great. Worrying about your popularity and basing your happiness on that will turn you into a very awful person.
MF: Do you have any advice for younger artists starting their journey as a musician or creative person?
TR: One. Don’t listen to people like me! And two. Try to divorce your popularity from your happiness. You’re always going to get kicked if you’re an artist or creative person. You’re always going to get bad reviews and you’re going to play to no people.
I would have been a better person and been better to people around me if I had learned that. Because I wanted the band to be successful, I made some terrible decisions. I guess sometimes you learn when you’re 51. Sometimes you learn when you’re 21.
MF: Is there anything you would like to put out there to the readers and your fans before we close off?
TR: I’m just enormously grateful. You Am I are grateful to each other. We’re still excited by the thought of being together. You can’t manufacture that excitement.
It’s genuinely, genuinely exciting to be in a rock band. It could fall apart at any time. There are no backing tapes!
I’m so grateful I got the chance to experience that as a young human. You think being in a rock band is cool at 21? At 51 it’s f***ing hilarious! To think you can just go out there and there’s no safety net? It’s thrilling and exciting. There’s so much fun and laughter to be had playing in a fallible rock band. You’re just trying to look after strangers and look after the people around you.
Gratefulness is a wonderful virtue. I find it a very attractive virtue in humans. So we’re working on that gratefulness.
MF: Do you think you will still be going when you are as old as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger? How old are these guys now?
TR: Bob’s turning 80 in a couple of weeks. Mick’s about 77. I don’t know. Look. I’d be happy being a postman really you know? If I could have a beer at five o’clock, or two or nine.
I would love to be making music at that age but I don’t want it to be the basis of my happiness. Seeing people smiling for no reason that’s the stuff. If I’m still able to play I love the thought of that, because it has been a f***ing trip!
It’s the most fun. There’s so much fun to be had doing it. It can be really frustrating but my god being on stage is just so much f***ing fun.