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You Am I’s Tim Rogers: “I was always writing – it was just that I wasn’t being a good friend or bandmate”

You Am I
(Image credit: Kane Hibberd)

With three consecutive #1 albums, a trophy case of accolades and more sold-out shows than you could wave a mic stand at, You Am I had one hell of a run in the ‘90s. But as the years went by and their stronghold on the Aussie alt-rock circuit waned, so too did frontman Tim Rogers’ adoration for it. By 2018, touring had become a chore, and Rogers seemed ready to pack up his pedalboard for good. He turned his songwriting efforts to folk tunes. He got a job at a bar. The dream, as it were, was over.

It was on a 2019 trip to the New South Wales south coast, where You Am I spent their seminal years practising, that Rogers first penned “The Waterboy”. There was no grand plan for the track, nor was his jaunt up north an attempt to rekindle his rock ’n’ roll spirit – he was staying in a cheap motel, fishing every morning and pouring his thoughts out into folk songs as nothing more than a mental exercise. But after a much needed pep talk from longtime friend and fellow rock dog Tex Perkins – who Rogers noted in a press release “is wonderful about cutting through my over-dramatic stuff” – the spark began to flicker once more.

Ironically, it was the COVID-19 lockdown in which live music was shut down that Rogers realised he missed being in a rock band. He sent “The Waterboy” to guitarist Davey Lane, and just like that, You Am I were back in action. Rogers’ lowkey folk tunes quickly grew legs as full-fat rock jams, and by the end of the year, the band – albeit split in two between Melbourne and Sydney – had their comeback record ready to go. Introspective, cathartic and aristocratic, The Lives Of Others takes You Am I back to their throne as the rightful kings of Australian alt-rock.

And before you ask, yes, You Am I do have a weighty slate of touring on the horizon. In the meantime, let’s check in with Rogers to learn more about how LP #11 came to be.

I know that before this record started coming to life, you were in a bit of a creative slump. How did you reckon with that period of uncertainty towards the band’s future?
I wasn’t in a creative slump, I just thought that I wasn’t enjoying being in a band. I was miserable touring – either by myself or with a band – and I didn’t want to be around the guys with that attitude, because I was bringing everyone down. So I kind of extricated myself from the band and just went and worked, had a few different jobs here and there, and then after a few months I thought, “Okay, I see what was wrong with me,” and worked quite hard to get that fixed so that if we do get to tour again, I’ll be a better bandmate for my friends. But creatively, I was always writing – it was just that I wasn’t being a good friend or bandmate. I was a good drinking mate, but not a good bandmate.

At what point did it become clear to you that a new You Am I record was starting to take shape?
Davey and I sent some demo-ish things to Rusty [Hopkinson, drums] and said, “What do you think of these?” He went into the studio for a day and put together some ideas, and when he sent them to us the next day, Davey and I got together and just started laughing. We were like, “This is the absolute right thing to do.” I don’t dictate the way a song is going to be – for other projects, maybe, but not with You Am I. I’m kind of the least musically adept member of the band –
so when Rusty sent back his ideas and Davey and I heard him playing, we were just over the moon.

It was winter in Melbourne and things were a little bit challenging, but Davey and I live quite close together, so we just went out on the street and shouted at each other, “Yep, we’re going to do this!” And similarly when Andy [Kent, bass] went into the studio and sent us his ideas, we thought, “Yep, this is it.” So I threw out all the folk rubbish I was writing, and we were together just making songs – Davey and I in the studio together, and Rusty and Andy in a studio up in Sydney.

What was that creative dynamic like, having the band split in two parties?
For this record, it actually helped. I’ve been joking that when we get into a studio together, we say, “Let’s be industrious!” But then we have one good day, then we just get f***ing hammered, and then four days later everyone’s a bit cranky. It just felt very purposeful – we knew that the world wasn’t waiting for a new You Am I record, but when we heard what we could do with those songs, and how we collectively felt about them… I always feel very emotional about the songs, and very attached, but after 30 years of writing I’ve kind of tried to tone that down; I was just secretly hoping that the guys liked them as much as I love them. And they did, which I can tell by the way that they played. 

I absolutely love the songs Davey wrote for the record, because we had shared that experience together over the last year. We’ve been together for 30 years, but when you don’t see each other for a year and you’re used to being in each other’s pockets all the time, it’s such a weird experience. So for a record where we weren’t in the same room, it’s surprisingly emotional – especially when we play these songs live.

Did that lead to these songs coming together in a different way than they might have in a more traditional album-making process?
Yeah, possibly. We’ve never had the luxury of saying, “Oh, let’s just go into the studio and see what happens!” I’ll write what I can – chords and melodies and lyrics – and send them to the guys to point a bit ahead. We didn’t do that early on, but we have for the past 25 years or so because I don’t think any of us could stand to spend a month kicking around the same idea. Andy could probably do that – Davey maybe – but Rusty and I are very impatient. 

We couldn’t spend weeks in a studio just sitting around and going, “Oh, let’s do lunch.” I’d rather go to the pub or sit out in the park with a slab of beer and know what we’re doing then and there, so that we could go into the studio and give ourselves the least amount of time possible. Even though we had a little bit of time in Davey’s own studio, I didn’t want to spend hours in there just deliberating over things. So we made all the big decisions before we even went into the studios separately. 

What guitars were you noodling around on for this one?
I got given a Les Paul copy – an Italian Greco – by some strangers in a country town; they were very generous, they liked what I did and gave me this guitar, which was amazing. I’d never played Les Pauls before, but I had that Greco and a Gretsch Duo Jet that I bought a bunch of years ago. Davey’s got a couple guitars at his home – I tend to go for the oddities, and Davey goes for the good-sounding ones. Because I live in a tiny apartment, all the songs are written on an acoustic guitar – a Guild Jumbo that I got about 20 years ago – and for songs with the band, I just hit it harder. 

What was that Greco like?
I think I’m someone who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time trying to find the right guitar sound – if I find a guitar that I really like, I’ll try to write songs to suit it. There’s something really special about that moment when you get a guitar in your hands, and you want to write songs just to hear that sound. And that Les Paul is very different from the Piers Crocker Rickenbackers I normally play. I did record with the Crockers as well – it’s pretty obvious because those Crockers have a very distinct jangly sound, and the Les Paul is a lot more of a thuggish-sounding thing.