Tim Rogers: The M+N Interview
Over a pot of camomile in his favourite St Kilda haunt, Tim Rogers tells DARREN LEVIN why he's comfortable with his new life as a renaissance man.
Tim Rogers is just about finished his second coffee for the day when I meet him at his favourite St Kilda cafe, a pokey little hole-in-the-wall with bearded baristas called Nineteen Squares. It’s lunchtime and he’s already appeared on the now-cancelled morning show The Circle and had a meeting with the AFL (he’s the face of their “This Is Greatness” finals campaign). After our interview, he’s off to discuss a new TV show, which he can’t really talk about – “I’m playing an exaggerated version of myself,” he tells me reluctantly – and he’ll end the day at the premiere of the new Australian film The Sapphires.
After 20 years fronting You Am I, Rogers has restyled himself as a renaissance man. And he’s looking pretty stylish too: grey coat, pink shirt, blue waistcoat and a scarf. Just about audible over the cafe’s lunchtime natter – “I’ve got a very low volume,” he later confesses – Rogers has spread himself so thin of late that when he had a couple days off earlier in the week, he didn’t know what to do.
“I was really looking forward to learning a language, learning how to cook, getting a spray tan and exercising, but instead woke up in such a panic because I didn’t know what to do with myself with so much free time. I ended up walking from here to North Carlton and back just in this sort of fog of anxiety because I had two days! So I didn’t learn a language, didn’t get a spray tan, didn’t get exfoliated.”
He did, however, listen to several podcasts of Ira Glass’ This American Life, including an “incredible” episode on cancer research in Poland. Over a pot of camomile – after two coffees, he wanted “something herbal” – Rogers discussed his new solo record Rogers Sings Rogerstein, the truth about the album’s collaborator Shel Rogerstein (he insists he’s real) and how he feels very little nostalgia for You Am I’s heyday in the mid-1990s.
Is St Kilda still home for you now?
I hope so. I really do. Winter is particularly great … Backpacker culture isn’t as obvious, so you tend to see folks you haven’t seen for the rest of the year all clamouring for hot toddies. I was away for two months doing theatre in Sydney and was then in the States for two months. It’s pretty good when you come home from a trip that’s been rather eventful and if you’re really excited to be home.
I wanted to talk about [the Bamboos collaboration] ‘I Got Burned’ and how successful that’s been.
You mean the quickest recording I’ve ever done? [The Bamboos’] Lance [Ferguson] and I were both touring with Megan [Washington], and he asked me and I said, “Yep!” Firstly, I wanted to record with John Castle, who I really enjoy as a producer, as well as his company. I love to talking to Lance about music; I love talking to John about music. I drove to the studio in 15 minutes, spent a couple hours sitting around drinking beer. I suggested a string part which he [Castle] dutifully projected, and it’s probably been the most successful thing I’ve been involved in.
I think I heard it on Nova the other day. I was flicking stations.
Well, good luck to Lance. It’s his shout next time. We’re talking about doing some recording again. After doing that I want to make tea for the original Bamboos, the Perth rock ’n’ roll band that Rusty [Hopkinson] and [one-time You Am I guitarist] Greg Hitchcock were members of.
Was the falsetto your touch?
I can’t remember. My original memory is that it was Lance on a demo doing it, or he asked one of the girls to do it. I have to hear that original demo because I really can’t remember. I, of course, trust his ideas – and his memory.
It’s become part of your repertoire, the falsetto.
You did it on ‘Trigger Finger’ from the last You Am I record [2010’s You Am I].
Well, that’s interesting. I think it was the day before we were recording ‘Trigger Finger’ and I went into Greville Records, as I do, to have a morning martini with Warwick [Brown], who runs it. We were talking about falsetto and I was fishing for affirmation that it was OK. He said, “Oh no, mate. Once singers go falsetto, they’ve given up.” I think he was referring to My Morning Jacket [and] a few other bands at the time. My confidence was shot from a guy who’s pretty much given me my entire musical education. It’s a fucking challenge. I tried to replicate some of Megan and [Lanie Lane’s] parts live from You Am I songs. Those ladies earn their bucks! [Laughs] Singing like me is easy.
It suits your range. I’m surprised you’ve never tried it in the past.
It’s just a lack of confidence. Vocals have been the last thing that we’ve recorded. We’ve always made it the last thing to regard, and on my solo records as well. I don’t think [producer] Shane [O’Mara] listens to me singing at all. It’s possibly why we’ve remained friends. He’s much more into instrumentation. On this record I asked him to pay attention to what I was singing, to get some pointers; you know, trying stuff that’s often said with rouged cheeks.
Do you think singing on stage recently has made your voice stronger?
No, no. It’s wrecked it completely. It’s never sung with a lot of force – I’ve got a very low volume. I went to get a couple lessons about 15 years ago. It’s just not a strong instrument, so I need to find where it feels good for me and hope that it translates somehow. It’s always going to be a rough version of a diamond. Maybe it’s good timing because there’s so much gymnastic singing going on. When I played this morning, I felt the audience were looking at me extra critically going, “Oh! Is that wrong? Is he drunk?” [Laughter]
What song did you do?
‘Go On Out, Get Back Home’. I thought it would be good for morning TV to do a song called ‘Part Time Dads’, but then the producer called last night and asked for something more upbeat … Part of me was like, “Fuck it! I’m just gonna go on and be that Tim Rogers guy, be all sloppy as hell.” I’ve been around for a while, and in Australia you can’t do that. You can’t rely on your not-inconsiderable charm. There’s a part of me that’s like, “Hey! Like me!” When the lights are off I feel a bit embarrassed about that, but I want to be able to keep playing. I’ll happily do some dorky things if it means doing good things.
Tim, I think the last time I spoke to you – around the time of [2007’s] The Luxury Of Hysteria – you said you were $20,000 in debt.
It was considerably more than that.
Since then it does seem like you’ve thrown yourself into a lot of diverse projects, and really taken control of your own music and management as well [Rogers is now managed by You Am I bassist Andy Kent].
I don’t know of many other circumstances where, after being in a band together for 23 years, the lead singer turns to the bass player and goes, “Hey, can you manage me?” Not many other people would know what I’m on about … Doing the different projects, it’s because I need to make a living, and also because I’m an egotist and most of them are really interesting. The theatre projects, for example, are purely out of interest. They’re not high-paid jobs and a lot of time has to go into them. It somehow all works together. If I had to go out and play my own songs 300 days a year, I think it’d be a little less interesting, which is really saying something.
I remember reading the program notes to Woyzeck and it said, “Tim Rogers is essentially a novice”, while Nick Cave had an entire paragraph.
[Laughs] That’s what happens when you have people that have grown up in theatre and film and they want to work with people like me who haven’t, but have a passion for it. Occasionally it can really work; occasionally it doesn’t. More often than not I think it doesn’t. But I’m open to things; I’m open to doing the research and the work. If somebody asks me to work with them, I take that as really flattering and I put the work in … There’s a collaborative part to it and maybe they enjoy working with someone who doesn’t really have an ego about that. With music I’ve got a bit of an ego about it.
Do you think you were covering your back a bit with a line like that, just in case things went awry?
Yeah, there’s a bit of covering going on. It’s like this AFL gig. Earlier this week I was like, “What am I going to do? I guess I could go back to a gardening job, but it’s not going to get me a ticket to go over and see [my daughter] Ruby [in New York].” And this call came out of the blue. The AFL people were like, “We really enjoyed working with you last year because you didn’t come in with all this baggage.” I tried to go in with baggage, believe me, but it’s obviously not the kind of baggage they saw as baggage. [Laughs] It was more like a bindle rather than a Louis Vuitton collection.
You’ve dabbled with a bit of writing lately with The Age and The Monthly. Would you contemplate going down that Robert Forster [musician-turned-critic] path next?
No. [Pauses] There’s no plan. I met Robert a couple years ago. I was kinda drunk, but I really wanted to have a good talk to him. I mostly enjoy what he writes, and one day I’ll get into his music because I haven’t yet.
Well, I wasn’t a fan growing up, but I also wasn’t a fan of the Soft Machine growing up. Now I am absolutely am, so I’m looking forward to it. I remember meeting Grant [McLennan] and Robert years ago. We did a TV show and we shared a bottle of bourbon together. It was just small talk, but I remember thinking, “I’m going to lose a couple years just listening to your music.” Robert is that not-yet elder statesman, and I’ve had success in not many places in a lot of different ways – not only geographically. I’m just a grifter…
In the early-’90s, when the band [You Am I] was coming up, I don’t feel nostalgic for that time … I don’t feel fucking nostalgic about that. I don’t want to talk about the glory days of the mid-’90s, because it wasn’t that at all. There was some great stuff – every Regurgitator record was something to look forward to. Midget were great. There were some great bands around, all of whom hated us. I’m not nostalgic about it at all. But someone like Robert, in his writing, I can hear him doing that. It makes sense because there’s a good story there. We don’t come from a good story. Even the characters involved, with him, Grant, Amanda [Brown], Lindy [Morrison] and John [Willsteed]. They held themselves as interesting people, and to me they are interesting people. It’s not, “Hey, it’s Rusty, it’s Andy, it’s Davey, it’s Timmy.” Who? We toured, did a lot of stupid shit, but you need something to stand on if you’re going to be a man of letters. I’m standing on a crate of beer. I feel I’ve still got to do something. Speaking of which…
[Local legend and Bad Seeds member Conway Savage walks past the cafe]
He’s a good man. I guess I have to do something brilliant and then I can get the house in the country.
Given how self-deprecating you are, I doubt that’ll ever happen.
It’s just being honest, mate. In interviews with – for lack of a better term – mainstream publications, they’re always [puts on a posh accent], “So, you’ve played with The Stones, you’ve played with The Who.” I was really pissed off with the way they edited my [Enough Rope] interview with Andrew Denton, so it was all about who we supported. I don’t give a fuck who we supported. I actually think I’m one of them. That’s how deluded I am. I don’t support people. I’ll support their balls as I’m banging them.
Surely the critical acclaim about those You Am I records, 10 years on, must mean something to you.
They meant something at the time. Unfortunately it created a bit of ennui because we were acclaimed and then we spent four months making records after that. The great records that people regard were made in six or seven days. And so we’re going, “Why did we spend four months making a record when we made all our good ones in seven days?” #4 Record was 1998: we had a lot of money behind us and a lot of support, and it was the worst recording experience. We met a lot of great people – [producer] George Drakoulias was a fantastic guy – and yet Rusty, Andy and I didn’t hang out. I was being taken out and asked to write with [The Kinks’] Ray Davies. We’d meet up for a burrito occasionally. Now the critical acclaim is off us, we spend beautiful times together.
It seems like it’s back on again, give your frequent appearances in all of these lists.
But it’s for stuff we’ve done in the past. I can guarantee that when we go out for our weekly drinks in Albury Wodonga, where we all meet up, we don’t for a second refer back to how great it was in 1995.
For people like me, who were teenagers in 1995, it’s something to get nostalgic over.
Sure, and I understand that. I’m nostalgic for things in my youth as well, but I can only speak for myself and it doesn’t really hold a lot of interest for me. I’m grateful that people enjoy those records, and it’s really given me a lot … My daughter lives just around the corner from where we made Hi Fi Way in New York. I was walking past there with her when we were on tour, and I was like, “You know baby, this is where we made this record.” And she was like, “Oh, yeah.” She wanted to know where we made a song called ‘Doug Sahm’. And I had to say, “Well, actually, that was back in Sydney.”
Let’s talk about the new record. I think it’s one of the most diverse you’ve made.
Well, it started off as a tribute to JJ Cale. We wanted just a drum machine and two electric guitars. The next week I came in and I wanted to make it like a Harry Nilsson record, and then I wanted a bit of my cabaret show in there. We’d have to grab an hour or two whenever Shane had the studio. I wouldn’t see him for a couple weeks, and he’d call and say, “Jolly! The studio’s available.” So I’d get myself over to Yarraville … This was well before we spoke to the ABC [and their new label Four Four]. Who knows what’d happen if I actually had a block of time in the studio? It hasn’t happened in a while; maybe it’d be a good idea?
‘One O’ The Girls’ sounds to me like a T. Rex homage.
Yeah, it didn’t start off that way. [Producer] Tony Visconti got sounds that, if you can replicate them, it’s too exciting not to. Maybe also Visconti’s work with a couple of those Bowie records as well. What I became really interested in through Rusty was bands from that era from Britain, who made essentially glam singles, but were really unpopular. Iron Virgin, in particular. They were like these bricklayers dressed up in glam ware. They had all the sounds and the logos and the choruses. We knew we couldn’t get too big on it; we wanted to keep it more like a shuffle. The guitars originally were JJ Cale rhythm guitar, but we’d have a couple little drinks and thought, “Let’s just push everything.” Midway through, we were like, “We really should just get a producer.”
How long did it take to make the record?
On and off?
Yeah. From top to tail, maybe three days. If we had a consecutive time in the studio and we weren’t so excitable, we’d probably reconsider a lot of things that we did. Shane and I don’t allow ourselves that time because we don’t want to overthink anything. We wanted to make mistakes in judgement as well as playing … We hope there’s something of substance in there. We tried.
There’s a couple songs from the soundtrack [to Wish You Were Here] in there [‘If Yer Askin’’, ‘I’m Dancin’’ and ‘Didn’t Plan to Be Here Either, Baby’].
Not the one I wanted [‘Bend With Me’], unfortunately. With that soundtrack, we did most of the music for the film and they actually rejected it, which wasn’t that hard to take … because they wanted more ambient noises from the locations. But I liked the film and I liked working with the director [Kieran Darcy-Smith] – I’m actually doing a couple films with him this year. The ones that Megan [Washington] was involved in didn’t make the record. They were a really good example of, “I got this idea, you’ve got that idea. We need to send a demo off in half-an-hour.” We booked a studio the next day…
Your soundtrack work with Shane: I’m wondering if you’re trying to build up a Warren Ellis-Nick Cave working relationship?
Well, the next soundtrack I’m doing, I’m not doing with Shane. The music for [current play] Blood Wedding I did with [sound designer] Russell Goldsmith, and I want to get him involved in a TV soundtrack. I just want to get away from guitars for that work. I want to score things properly. I had a day with Warren [Ellis] about two years ago when we were doing press for Woyzeck. It was a great day and I hadn’t seen him in a couple years. We had lunch and we were talking about what things we had coming up. It was definitely inspiring. He wanted to make it clear to any journalist that there was no career trajectory plan. He’s an interesting guy who’s also interested. He does his work, does his research, leaves himself open, doesn’t suffer fools. I learnt a lot from that time, as I do every time I walk away from a talk with him, which is obviously rare … You just don’t say yes to everything. It would appear that I say yes to everything, but I say no to a hell of a lot more things than I say yes to. My god, you should hear some of the shit I say no to.
Well, each time I catch up with Tex [Perkins], I say to him, “Did you get offered this?” And he’s like, “Yep.” And I’m like, “Yeah, me too.” Invariably we have the same reasons for saying no. So we invent our own projects and try and push them through.
Do you ever get competitive [about projects] with Tex?
No, but sometimes when I’m touring with him I get competitive over getting the last imbibement. There was a point where we decided to stop working together just to be friends. Recently, we’re like, “I think together we can do a lot better…,” so we started writing stuff together again, but more comedic. He’s the finest comedian I’ve ever been in the company of. That’s just socially. Socially, I’m pathetic. I’m a pathetic storyteller, I’m a pathetic joke-teller, but on stage I’m not bad.
I wanted to talk about Shel Rogerstein. There are some rumours going around that he may be a fictitious character?
I understand that, but it’ll become clear very soon what it’s all about. He’s a real person. I get asked about the validity of him as a character because someone did a Google search and found nothing. It is possible that there are things off the radar; people disappear … And the other thing, if you’re expecting the absolute truth out of Tim Rogers then you have problems. He’ll make an appearance soon. It’s not me in costume, it’s not me with a fake moustache. He’s a real guy from Cleveland. I met up with him again recently.
When we used to play in bands that toured together, he’d bring up that he was a better looking version of me. It’s disturbing how at 42 – we’re both 42 – that’s held true. His life has gone a different way to mine, yet when we got together during the year, I expressed a love of tango music. He said, “Tim, I’ve been dancing tango for 10 years” – his partner is a professional tango dancer. We have similar attitudes towards a lot, basically: baseball, relationships, our burgeoning possible sexuality dalliances. At 42, how rare is it that you come back into someone’s life, and you’ve got more in common than before. I wanted to celebrate that, and he did as well. It’s not an easy thing to tour, he’s not really interested in it. We wrote together in a really haphazard way.
Lyrics or music?
It was more music. He’s an exaggerated character, but there’s a photo of him in the record.
Can I interview him?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ll set it up. He’s available for sure.
[Rogers writes down his phone number on a piece of paper. Over several attempts I only manage to reach his answering machine.]
Shel Rogerstein answering machine by Mess+Noise
The cover reminds me of those old showtunes records I’d dig out of my parents’ record collection.
Oh, really? I don’t think [manager] Andy Kent likes it all, but maybe because he’s not a showtunes kind of person. [Cartoonist] Rick Chesshire, the artist who did the artwork, when he showed it to me, I thought I had to change the record to make it more showtune-y. But it’s about getting enthused by music of the past, but not exactly making those sounds. Someone asked the other day about whether I’d do a record of standards. Yeah, but I’d prefer to just do that in a bandroom and I wouldn’t want to just replicate those sounds to give people that absolute nostalgia trip…
The album opens with female vocals, which I thought was a bit of a red herring.
I gave it to Lizanne [Richards], who sung on the record, and said, “See what you can find in it.” She did a day in the studio with Shane when I was on tour. It’s perfect because it’s a tale of a male-female romantic relationship. [Pauses] I like herring!
There’s some good herring around here.
Before you go, I wanted to find out what’s happening with You Am I. Is there another record on the cards?
When we stop socialising. There’s a lot written for it. It was going to be the next thing I did before this, but Andy was doing tours, and Davey wanted to make his record, Rusty is probably busier than the rest of us, and I got involved in some film stuff. There’s songs there, and there’s intent there, but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to mess up the fun we’re having. We’ve got a short tour at the end of the year. I saw Russ play the other night and it was the best I’ve seen him play ever. It reminded me of when I saw him play in Nursery Crimes in 1989. It was so exciting. We’ll find some time to do something.
Any idea what shape or form it’s going to take?
I don’t think it’ll be the hardcore record I promised myself.
Hardcore punk record?
Yeah, just because I can’t sing. I’ve destroyed my throat. Maybe it’s time to get another singer. I really want that to happen, and 98 percent of the listening public does as well. I’m not sure, but I’d like to think that it won’t be considered and diverse. I’d like to think that it’s all extremely direct, which we haven’t done for a while. That’s what we do when we play live. It’s time to start thinking less. The last record, [2010’s You Am I], which I love, we really thought about it. We talked about it so much. We need to talk less – we do that when we go out. We’ve still got good figures, we look better in our 40s than we did in our 20s. How often does that happen?
‘Rogers sings Rogerstein’ is out now through ABC imprint Four Four.
Thursday, September 13 – Spirit Bar & Lounge, Traralgon, VIC
Friday, September 14 – Regal Ballroom, Melbourne, VIC
Thursday, September 20 – The Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide, SA
Thursday, September 27 – Clancys, Dunsborough, WA
Friday, September 28 – Fly By Night, Fremantle, WA
Saturday, September 29– Rosemount Hotel, Perth, WA
Sunday, September 30 – Wave Rock Weekender, Hyden, WA
Friday, October 5 – Bended Elbow, Geelong, VIC
Saturday, October 6 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, VIC