Tim Rogers is a man who needs no introduction (but here it comes anyway). As the frontman of iconic Australian band, You Am I, Rogers has cemented himself as one of the greatest songwriting talents this country has ever produced, whether it’s the Aussie grunge classic Berlin Chair, the anthem for the lazy Heavy Heart, or his 2017 concept album An Actor Repairs.
We caught up with the man himself in the middle of a solo acoustic tour – The Eternal Cycle of Maintenance Tour – to find out about the life of a rockstar, You Am I’s upcoming 30th birthday, and just what kind of maintenance he’s talking about.
We had a beer and a chat with Tim Rogers in the middle of his The Eternal Cycle of Maintenance Tour about the life of a rockstar, You Am I’s upcoming 30th birthday, and just what kind of maintenance he’s talking about.
HAPPY: You’re known for being a prolific writer and tourer, you’re always on the road…
TIM: You sort of have to.
HAPPY: Why is that?
TIM: It’s definitely a reasonable question. I think because at the level I tour at, you’ve just got to keep doing it to make a living. It sort of coincides with the fact that it seems like a more natural state of being than being at home. I do like being at home but I get very antsy.
HAPPY: You moved around a lot as a kid, didn’t you?
TIM: Yeah, but I’ve been in St. Kilda for almost 20 years now. That’s home. When I get to New York, because my daughter lives there, that’s the other home, so I spend a lot of time there as well. The rest is just planes and trains and automobiles. It’s a good way to live in a lot of respects. I don’t have any family here, and my romantic partner works a lot so she’s not home often either. It suits me, I think. I sometimes daydream about staying somewhere and growing tomatoes, but I’ll save that until I’m 70.
HAPPY: When you moved around a lot as a kid, was that good preparation for the life of a musician?
TIM: I don’t think necessarily, but it makes you very eager to please people. I think it leaves you a little bit nervous as well because you’re never really sure when you’ve got to pack up and leave. It definitely set me up, it influences my character a lot. I don’t think it’s necessary though.
HAPPY: Was it part of the attraction?
TIM: The attraction was I wanted to be an older person half drunk and on the road. And I mean, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Even watching films about country singers or rock and roll bands jumping from plane to plane and existing on booze and cigarettes, it’s sort of been the daydream. It’s that cowboy-esque aspect of it. Look, perhaps not very honourably, it’s still the attraction. When I run into friends like the Supersuckers from the States – them in particular – we cross paths, they’re on the road all the time and I am too, and we meet up once a year and we’re all over each other because we understand each other. A lot of my friends as I get older are touring musicians as well and we just check in with each other and try to look after each other, men and women, it’s a good little community. You’ve got to look after each other. Make sure the fridge is full.
HAPPY: Both literally and metaphorically.
TIM: Yeah yeah, that’s true. But it was just through films really, I think. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Smokey and the Bandit. The outlaw-ish aspect of it I‘ve always found very attractive.
HAPPY: Speaking of being on the road, you’re on tour at the moment – The Endless Cycle of Maintenance Tour – what can people expect from these shows?
TIM: Uhhh, songs. It can sometimes turn into a stand-up comedy or stand up black comedy routine depending on how the day’s gone. On the face of it, it’s very simple entertainment. Just one instrument, one human, and a shaky voice. A lot of my favourite performers do that as well, so it’s trying to form entertainment with very basic instruments. So, you’ve kind of got to be a good humourist of a storyteller and hope the songs are good. I try and change the set up every night, trying to write songs while on the road at the moment. Ideas for songs come on stage often. Generally when you make a mistake and you go “Oooh, I’ll use that tomorrow”. It’s a good place to write when you’re out doing it.
HAPPY: You’re playing a lot of different places on this tour – Orange, Wagga Wagga. Why?
TIM: I guess what’s obvious in a very depressing way is that gigs in smaller towns and smaller regions, the shows are rare. Universities hardly have any shows these days, so I just said to my booker “Get me out of town”, and I love going. I haven’t been to Orange in 12 years, I haven’t been to Wagga Wagga in a few. Young, in New South Wales, has a great venue there. When you get the mail through and you see dates that aren’t Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, it’s a real thrill. I just pack the car and drive out there and if people show up, great, and if not you give the owner their money back and leave with your tail between your legs.
HAPPY: The tour is called the Endless Cycle of Maintenance – what kind of maintenance are you talking about?
TIM: It’s a phrase of my partner’s. She has intimated that – we’re about the same age, about fifty and when you get to that age it really is endlessly trying to keep yourself alive. So whatever you do the night before, in the morning you think to drown your head in apple cider vinegar or eat something healthy, and then you do the exact same thing the next night. You’re just keeping yourself maintained. This morning I was walking around, feeling a bit sorry for myself, and everyone seemed to be doing yoga classes. I quite like yoga – I like the idea of yoga, but I don’t wanna do it. But the people looked really healthy and I thought “fuck, I’ve got to get back into that”. I’ve lost my girlish figure. My version of maintenance now is have a glass of water occasionally. I play footy twice a week and I’ll play cricket this season, there’s varying degrees and a lot of men and women my age are wanting to keep themselves really looking good. When you look like me, you’re never gonna get there, so you’ve got a lot of free hours in your day to read books and see films. All power to the yoga people.
HAPPY: When you play new songs live, how long does it take for you to feel really comfortable playing them on stage?
TIM: The first time playing them is difficult. The most difficult part about it is it’s blatantly obvious that one person out of every five hundred gives a shit. It starts pretty early these days that I’ll step on stage and someone goes “Heavy Heart!” or “Berlin Chair!”. I just think “Oh well, here we are again”. I’m very thankful that they enjoy those songs, but I’d love for people to be listening, it doesn’t always happen so when you get a good listening crowd like I did in Gold Coast the other night – it’s a real joy, you think “Oh, people are actually listening to the lyrics, I’m glad I put some time into them”. But I definitely don’t expect it. It’s quite a non-condescending way of treating people. When I go see someone I love, Perry Keyes or Camp Cope, I’m hanging on every word that comes out of Georgia’s mouth, I really want to hear that. And if they’ve got new songs, I’ll be listening in between the music to hear it. To think anyone is interested in what an old straight guy has to say, I still keep trying. Because wordplay is a good way to stave off dementia, and they’re like little puzzles in how you remember them. It’s like learning scripts.
HAPPY: If you get a bad listening crowd, do you take it personally?
TIM: I look forward to shows very much and I get pretty shocking stage fright these days. It just kind of ruins the night, but I don’t get angry about it these days because people buy a ticket, they’re there to be entertained, they can do what they want. But it’s just one of those nights, wrong venue, wrong time. If you play 1am in an RSL, you’ve got no chance. I’d much prefer to play during the day and then take everyone out for a drink. I’d like the pope to listen and find something in the songs, but you can’t expect it. I get angry inside, but I don’t want to expose people to that because it’s their prerogative. I’m the underpaid little drummer boy on stage. I’ll probably hit the whisky a little harder when it’s a loud crowd, because you’ve got to get something out of it. So I think “I might as well get fucked up“, because everyone else is.
HAPPY: There’s a lot of Australians references in your lyrics – do you think that’s why You Am I never cracked the overseas markets?
TIM: I think it’s because I’m not a good singer, I think that’s why. I like singing and it’s got a quality to it, but it’s just not for radio. But I got told a lot to change the way I wrote lyrics, absolutely. I didn’t see it as being less Australian, I never deliberately put Australian references in there, it’s just that’s where I happen to live most of the time and I find those metaphors or those allusions natural because that’s what I’m surrounded by. It seems every fucking songwriter writes a song about New York or about Paris – Rogers & Hammerstein and Randy Newman, it’s kind of been covered. So, when I hear Julia Jacklin or Freya Hollick, Perry Keyes, use references that are idiosyncratic I think “Oh that’s a new metaphor” and that’s immediately interesting to me. Even with my favourite country singers, if I hear fucking Mississippi in another song, it’s almost wiped out the interest for me. I love Mississippi, it’s where I want to end up. But as soon as I hear it in a song, I lose interest. But when someone mentions Whyalla, “Oooh!”, for some reason, that image is stronger to me because it’s not used a million times.
HAPPY: When you’re writing in St. Kilda and Sydney or recording in New York, does the city you’re in shape the sound?
TIM: In a reverse way, because I never feel so much a kid from Kalgoorlie as when I’m in Milan or London. I guess when we spent a lot of time in the States – we were living in Los Angeles for a number of years – the condescension, even from the people working with us, was astounding. As if Australia was an absolute backwater and had no musical history. Some of the best garage groups of the ’60s came from Australia, Primitive Calculators were Australian, they’re from fucking Melbourne. So our accents would get thicker and we’d start sounding like Ross Knight from the Cosmic Psychos. We deliberately went against that, maybe to our detriment, but I think we’re quite proud of that. It was a difficult time, we had this big expectation to be big overseas but we had a little vision. We had a lot of successful friends and we saw that that’s not necessarily going to bring happiness. Having said that, I’m going to Greece next year to make some Greek folk music, and then I won’t be able to avoid it because I’m playing Greek music. I’m really interested in recording in Brissy with the band early next year because we’re writing songs at the moment and I reckon that would have a bigger effect on us. Just the humidity, it’ll do something to us. It’ll make us angry.
HAPPY: You Am I have been signed to indie labels for most of your career, and I was wondering how did you find and then maintain success without being a part of the big machine from the start?
TIM: We kind of haven’t… well, we’ve maintained a certain level of success.
HAPPY: You’re one of the biggest Australian bands ever!
TIM: Yeah, but we still play to twelve people occasionally. We’ve experienced major labels and smaller labels, so I think we’re in a position to appraise that. Look, we signed to major labels because we wanted more drinks, more blow, premium economy flights. We sucked the big one, and I admit that very happily, I wanted that. Rusty wanted that, Andy wanted that. It was, for the main part, a pretty bad experience. The label we were on when we were very successful, RooArt, their manager Chris Murphy really fucked over Shock Records really badly. He did a complete – if you’ll excuse the term – cunt act to Shock, and Shock were our friends. In the States with the major labels, really awful things are done in your name and you only find out about them later – people who weren’t paid. Things just done as if they’re our decisions and they’re done on our behalf. We haven’t really experienced that with smaller labels. Maybe that’s the way it is nowadays, they have to be more perspicacious, possibly a little more honest. Rusty has a great vision of what happened and he’s very eloquent about it, I think I was kept pretty dumb because I was dumb. He’s got a great book in him, Rusty. It didn’t kill us but for a while there it killed out friendships. It was a mistake.
HAPPY: Last question – You Am I is turning 30 next year. Any big plans?
[Does the math in his head]
TIM: Fuck. Well, I’d love to have an afternoon drink with everyone who’s been in the band, with Mark, Nick. Nick and I started the band with my brother, Nick’s still my best friend. I haven’t seen Mark in a long while, about eighteen years, so I’d love to see him. I don’t think we’ve got any plans, we want to make singles and a record. Just a big, stupid weeklong bender. We’re good at that.
Tim Rogers is currently on his The Eternal Cycle of Maintenance Tour. Head over to his website for all the dates.