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 Ben Green

The Collapse Board Interview | You Am I

The Collapse Board Interview | You Am I
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You Am I are not ones for looking back. Sure, their music rings with echoes of the past: ‘60s garage and pop, ‘70s glam and blooze, ‘80s metal and indie rock, and that point in the ‘90s when they and others mashed all of those things together. Their songs, even the rockers about the here-and-now good times, have a kind of built-in nostalgia that’s hard to pinpoint but resides somewhere between the suspended guitar chords and the wobble in Tim Rogers’s voice. But when it comes to their path as a band, You Am I are avowedly futurist. For years they’ve been frustratingly eager to downplay the classic status of their mid-90s run of songs and albums. The guy who wrote the press release for their most recent (self-titled) album was expressly banned from using words like “much loved” and “legacy”. So why have they announced deluxe, expanded reissues of their first three albums and promised to play them all in full, on an eighteen-stop national tour that is growing with each sold-out venue?

Collapse Board spoke to Andy Kent – bass player, manager, and the guy who the other band members say proposed the idea – about the past and its claim on the present. Along the way we touched on drunken audition myths, “Uncle” Lee Ranaldo, Van Halen’s importance to grunge and You Am I’s collective memory of tour stories. We also found out what won’t be included in the bonus tracks.

This isn’t the first time You Am I’s been reissued. A few years back I was surprised to come across the Goddamn EP (1992), complete with tracks from Snaketide (1991). Given the past reticence about sharing that early stuff, I wondered how much the band was involved in that release.

Not at all, to be honest. There was just an old label who had the rights to it and we’ve subsequently got those rights back. They put them out, they pretty much reissued a couple of old EPs. It was quite a while ago, I think it was around the time we did a “best of” double CD [2003’s The Cream and the Crock].

Whereas a big part of the vibe around the current reissues seems to be that it’s on your own terms and that’s the point of it, is that right?

Well, I think the point is that we keep getting asked and we keep getting offered money. Festivals, promoters, they keep saying, “It’d be great if you could do this”. And you know, bands have gone out and played one record, their best record. But we thought while we’re all, we’re actually really good friends at the moment, not that we haven’t been, but I think we’re in a better place than we’ve been in a very long time. And you know, the fans have been asking for it for a long time so it seemed – you know, you can either ignore it, or you can wait ‘til it’s too late, and do something, you know, retrospective – and so we just thought fuck it, you know. We’ll all get in a room, just kind of play those records and play them well and present them beautifully and have heaps of musicians come and make it sound like it should… and just do it right, and everyone just hold hands and have a good night. I don’t think it means it’s the end and I don’t think it means it’s the beginning. I mean if you look at, you know Queens of the Stone Age did exactly the same thing four years ago or three years ago, came out and played their second record and that’s all they played on a tour and now they’re putting out a new record and everyone’s more than interested in what’s coming. So we just figured the time was right. You know, we like to do things our own way only because we just don’t think other people do it how we and our, we know our fans pretty well and we know what they want.

Does buying back the rights to those early EPs mean we can expect to hear that material on, say, the Sound As Ever (1993) reissue?

No, no EPs will be on the [reissues]. We found enough live recordings, b-sides which aren’t really available, a handful of long-lost stuff to fill a whole disc. So I think if you buy one of these reissues, it’s a remastered version of the record that you know and love and then the second disc is chockablock and we didn’t actually have room, people said, (enthusiastically) “You should put the EPs on there it’d be fantastic”, but it just doesn’t fit. Now that we own all that stuff we could put it onto, you know, a two-disc set, and that could be something but at the moment that’s not what we thought we’d focus on.

Goddamn was of course the first release to feature you on bass. Is there truth to the legend that you were offered the role after your performance in a drunken jam?

Oh, yeah kind of. I mean me and Tim would always hang out and play guitar, and play Eddie Van Halen and, you know, Stooges and all sorts of shit so um… yeah, pretty much. I mean their bass player [Nick Tischler] left and we were all in Melbourne hanging out and came back to Sydney and he said, “Oh Nick’s not gonna play any more so um, whaddya think?” And I had to think about it ‘cause I was playing guitar in bands and I was an audio engineer, and I kind of had a path plotted for myself so I had to turn around and go, “Do I want to be a poor musician?” And I thought, “Fuck it”, you know, this band’s pretty good and I’m sure we can, you know… lucky I did that I think, in hindsight.

It’s easy to forget that this “much loved”, “cult” Australian band with a concept album about the ‘burbs (Hourly, Daily, 1996) was baptised in the weird waters of early-to-mid ‘90s U.S.A. The support slot on Soundgarden’s 1994 U.S. tour was yelled about by the folks back home with a pride that was the mirror image of our cultural cringe, but even outside that circus, You Am I clocked up a lot of miles between albums one and two in the geographical heart of the “alternative crossover”. Consider the liner notes of Hi Fi Way (1995): produced by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth in New York, keyboards by the late Epic Soundtracks of Swell Maps and by Jon Auer of the Posies, who also mixed. Now that post-punk and US indie are so broadly canonised, that’s an impressive roll call. As for the music (not to mention the haircuts), You Am I exemplify the ‘90s journey from throbbing grunge to Kinks-y guitar pop as Australia’s aesthetic allegiances crossed the Atlantic. The current promo trail offers an opportunity to ask Andy to reflect, albeit briefly, on those interesting times.

The first two of the albums we’re talking about [Sound As Ever, 1993 and Hi Fi Way, 1995] were recorded with Lee Ranaldo in the US. How did he get the gig, and what did he contribute to the sessions?

He was getting out here on tour [with Sonic Youth] and we thought we’d be cheeky and send a fax, ‘cause there was no email in those days believe it or not, and say, you know, “Hey we understand you’re coming out here on tour” – and they were on the top of their game, you know they were selling a lot of records and selling a lot of concert tickets – “would you record an EP with some tiny, you know, nobody band from Sydney?” And he listened to some music and he thought, “Yeah great”, so he came in a few days early and we got together. And rather than being a sort of avant-garde New York-fashioned noise freak that he is, I think he just nurtured the idea that it’s up to us to present whatever the best thing we’ve got is, rather than trying to mould it into anything he thought. He didn’t want to take it away from us, he just wanted us to make the best thing that we could. Which, you know, over the years we’ve realised is sorta unique. A lot of producers in particular will have a vision for you and they like to guide you in a direction, or mould what it is, and the cynical end of that is that they see a place in American radio for something. But anyway, yeah look he was great, we went and made a full length record and then another one. You know he was very good at just being “Uncle Lee” and only encouraging us to just kinda get it right.

Around that time, you guys seemed to play down comparisons to the Sub Pop stuff, Nirvana and all that, but in recent years there’s been a bit more acknowledgment that maybe Bleach got a few spins. What bands did you feel a kinship with on those first couple of albums, locally and overseas?

Oh I mean you know we all loved – I mean everybody did who was a young dude in a band with a guitar, was into what was coming out of Seattle ‘cause it was really, really raw, and really good and, nasty and, you know it’s that thing about what people call – grunge is not, um… Grunge is essentially dudes who love punk rock, which could be you know The Ramones or whatever, but they also loved Eddie Van Halen. You know, so they hated hair bands ‘cause it was fashion, but they loved fucken eighties metal at the same time as they loved seventies punk. Wrap that up into a pretty depressing, rainy part of America and a very tight-knight community and that’s where you get, you know, Mark Arm, you know Mudhoney, and you know all those phenomenal bands which sounded great, sounded fresh and free doing exactly their own thing. And so yeah we just loved it, listened to it, you know, digested it and spat parts of it out. But on the other hand we also loved, you know English – you know the Kinks, the Who and all that stuff was pretty important to us. And then you know, the Black Crowes we just fucking loved, so – you mix all those things together and you probably get You Am I.

That tension, especially between heavy rock and sentimental melody, came to be a bit of a defining thing for You Am I. Was that kosher on the Australian scene at the time – was there any hesitation with you guys about going soft, doing the melodic stuff?

(Snorts) Nah! It’s who we were, you know. I think if someone thought you were soft, you know they’re just a prick, you’re just a wanker. You know everyone made music together and it was all slightly different, no one played the same thing. You all inhabited the same space doing different things and everyone went to each other’s gigs and hung out and drank together and rooted each other and you know, told stories in their records and that’s kinda it. I dunno how competitive it really was, you know, people are competitive, but soft, hard, whatever, it’s not kinda, it didn’t come into it.

You’re really talking about a time and a place there, and that’s one thing a lot of Hi Fi Way feels like it’s grounded in – actual times and places that you guys lived, like going to a Massappeal show in the song ‘Pizza Guy’.

Yep.

Is that right, are there particular times and places that that record’s about – and what are they?

Yeah totally. Yeah they all are. I think you know, that’s the start of songwriting, you just watch around people, what’s happening. And I think Tim was very observational in some sense and through some of those songs. But also there’s shared experience, it’s his own experience but you know others can understand it, you know get his point of view ‘cause they have a similar experience. So yeah. It really is a time and a place.

To pick an individual song, ‘She Digs Her’ seems to kind of epitomise that album [Hi Fi Way], because it’s super poppy with a lot of energy, it’s got obscure lyrics but they’re really evocative, then there’s the long rock out and the mellotron. Are you able to shed light on where that song came from and how it came to be what it is?

Oh look it’s about, you know, someone very close to Tim who you know, had a shift in their life and it wasn’t necessarily a standard shift. But you know it was… um, yeah. You know just someone’s kind of sexual orientation pretty much, just how that came about and, you know his perspective on it.

I was expecting to hear about the musical process and this candid response took me by surprise. Tim has said elsewhere that this song, and others from the time, are exaggerated studies of real people, but the actual story of ‘She Digs Her’ – despite the title – is news to me. What’s interesting, and what I wish I’d explored further, is that Andy has such insight into Tim’s often opaque lyrics. This is by no means the case in all bands with a “songwriter” up the front. Do they discuss what the songs are about? Instead, we return with a thud to practicality and lost memory.

And then ‘How Much is Enough’, was it just so good you had to book that extra session back in Sydney [apparent from close inspection of the liner notes] to get it on the record?

Yeah I’ve got no idea why. (Laughs) Twenty years ago! I dunno it could have been that – who knows, who knows maybe we walked out and went, “Shit we need some good songs, we’d better go back and come up with something!” I dunno.

You Am I’s third album, Hourly, Daily (1996), consolidated their position at the top of the ‘90s Oz-alt-rock heap with a run of stellar singles, each portraying a different facet of the “suburban” concept that bound the album together. For all their impressionistic lyrics it’s clear what these songs are, at least superficially, “about”. From this album onwards, concepts and intentions were announced in the press cycle surrounding each new release, although none have been as holistic and as clearly realised as Hourly, Daily. I asked Andy whether there was conscious discussion of what the band wanted to achieve on each of their first three albums, and the answer was a resolute “no”. Instead, Andy took me through the more prosaic inspirations behind each one.

Sound As Ever (1993)

SAE

The first one was very much, “Well, we need to make a whole record instead of an EP”. You know we get to go Minnesota, and drive out to the sticks, and walk into this awesome studio in the forest, and stay in a house next door and have someone cook us breakfast.

Hi Fi Way (1995)

hi_fi_way

And then the next one was, you know we’re now, however many months we used touring for the last record and we wanna make another one, you know we don’t wanna stop moving, so we’re just gonna drive straight to New York and get on with it. Which was good.

Hourly, Daily (1996)

HD

Hourly, Daily we just decided that you know we wanted to bring more to the party with instrumentation, or ideas, or people, or time. You know there were two producers, there were two engineers so that we could just work early in the morning ‘til late, late at night to keep it rolling.

I think through those records we knew what we didn’t wanna do again and what we wanted to try. We didn’t plan, when you’ve got so many parts of an ever-evolving creative beast, you always end up where you end up, and hopefully you’re happy.

The last major topic of our interview is people. A classic ‘90s photo of the band shows three faces, with Tim’s fist in the foreground bearing three pen-scratched words: “ANDY + RUSTY + ME”. It’s on the topic of people that the laconic but amiable Andy perks up the most.

You’ve spoken before about the 24/7 nature of your touring schedule in that lead up to Hourly Daily, – all three band members sharing a bus, room, breakfast, dinner, show, everything. Are there any stories you like to tell from that time that can paint us that picture?

Oh look there’s, I dunno 20 years of them. You know whenever we get in a room together and you know start crankin’ through some wine or whatever, then someone’ll come up with some story and point a finger and someone else’ll say, “I don’t think that happened” and someone’ll say, “Oh yeah it did”, and you know what I mean we all own parts of the story (laughs) and it’s only when we get together that you can put the jigsaw back together and that’s, you know, when it’s actually funnier, when we actually can work it out. But yeah there’s plenty, there’s bus crashes, there’s deaths, there’s y’know break ups, there’s a million frequent flyer points getting lost when Ansett fucking went down the tubes, I mean everything, it all happened, that’s the great thing about touring in a rock band in your twenties is fuckin’ anything’s possible and most things happen.

Nowadays, I imagine your lives are a little more separate. How’s the process gone in preparing for these reissues – I’ve got the impression you’ve done some digging separately and then convened to go through it?

Yeah kind of, everyone’s reached up into their attic and pulled down a box and found some old tapes and we’ve sort of gone through it that way. We’ve tried to keep it separate so that everyone gets their stuff back. Yeah it’s been eye opening, some stuff that I didn’t remember, stuff that Tim didn’t remember. It seems that Dave [Lane, guitarist who joined You Am I in the late ’90s] remembers everything, ironically. He wasn’t even in the band, thank God he’s here he can go, “Oh no no no, that wasn’t on that bootleg, and that wasn’t that gig it was that gig” and you go, “Thanks Dave!” (laughs), “Glad you’re here”, you know.

Well Dave wasn’t around for these three albums but Rusty [Hopkinson, drums] came in on Hi Fi Way. How did he change things, what did he bring – did he bring the Sixties?

No look he’s a seventies punk rock man to the core, he’s a punk guy to the core but he’s a freeformer. You can get him to play a million miles an hour and just tear a wall down, or he can just you know play like Ginger Baker, or Ian Paice – he sounds like Ian Paice from Deep Purple to me. You know I think they’re really similar drummers. Yeah he’s just a free spirit, sometimes he’ll play shit that I haven’t heard before, you know I’ll turn around during a gig and he’ll just pull out some roll and I’ll go, “Where did that come from?” – he doesn’t know, he’s like “Whoah!” (laughs). So yeah I think he brought a bit of, um, you know like at the time we wanted to play like Big Star covers and, you know, stuff like that, that we liked, Tim and I liked. Mark wasn’t into that at all, he was quite rigid in the music that he liked and Tim and I were far more varied. Russell teaming up brought a great deal of knowledge, he’s very wise, he has a very long memory but also freedom to understand and play all different types of rock music that we liked. He kind of opened the doors to many things which was an important step for us.

So less a change in the vision than being able to achieve the vision that you already had?

Yeah totally, let’s walk this way and see what happens sort of thing.

After covering twenty years in twenty minutes we end, fittingly, on the future, with a nod to the past and an eye to the unknown in between.

You’ve been tight-lipped about the content of the reissues and the live presentation, but is there anything you’ve especially enjoyed digging out, or that you’re looking forward to?

I think it’s just gonna be fun to have the space to kind of stretch out in these theatres, a bunch of these theatres we’re playing are really quite beautiful, and, you know we’ve got some people coming along for some string and horn parts. I’m just looking forward to getting it right in a beautiful environment and having it look good and everyone having fun, pretty much. Being in a room full of people who are all into the same thing is really quite special. You know, to kind of celebrate with our fans is gonna be really good fun.

One more question: what’s next for You Am I?

Well I dunno, we gotta work it out, I think we’ll all go on holiday (laughs) after this, however long, 10 weeks or whatever. We’ve got some songs, I think a few of them will come to fruition, maybe later in the year we’ll see how many we’ve got. It’s a good time to get out there and play, heading into a new cycle.

Thanks a lot Andy, I’m really looking forward to the shows.

No worries buddy, thanks for chattin’.

This interview and article were assisted greatly by chats with my friend Seb Keim.

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