A conversation with Tim Rogers
While researching the film, Thomas Hyland spoke with Tim Rogers on August 14, 2010. Edited by David Campbell.
Thomas: All right, let's go to the start. Take me to the point –
Tim: The beginning.
Thomas:– at which you –
Tim: God created the earth.
Thomas: – first fully committed to music as your primary job.
Tim: Well, I guess I sort of fell into it – it being a financially sound thing. I was going to university and was playing in bands for booze. I think our regular fee at one stage for the band I had in Canberra, the Pleasureheads, was a crate of Great Western brut champagne. Now, Great Western brut then was $5.99 a bottle, so that opened my eyes to the possibilities...
But then I got into You Am I because I was sick and couldn't work, and the band [You am I] just started touring more. We all had jobs, part-time jobs, and I was working full-time in a record store.
When we were on tour, we gave each other $10 a day. That would be put out as a budget to get something to eat, because you could get booze for free.
Thomas: Were you on the dole at the same time?
Tim: I was on the dole for about two years, yeah – concurrent with when the band started touring. I think it was at this time that I couldn't get a job, because I was touring with You Am I and so was unemployable for anything apart from casual work. And being gloriously unskilled, I couldn't even get that. I think [the point where we could actually pay rent] was at least four or five years from when the band had started.
Thomas: Can you remember how old you were at this point?
Tim: Twenty-four or twenty-five. There was a point, I think it was around the release of the third of fourth EP, that I became very self-conscious going into Centrelink or whatever it was called in Sydney at that time. I would put in my dole cheque and imagine someone saying, 'Aren't you in that band?' and me having to explain that the reality is that we don't make anything [money].
It all just goes back into buying better trousers [laughs], guitar repairs and things like that. Andy, our bass player, is now our manager; I think he'd remember the exact point when we knew that we wouldn't have to work [other jobs] for a couple of months. It was a pretty good feeling.
Thomas: Can you remember the very first time when rent could be paid [with money from] the band?
Tim: It would have been when the first album came out in about 1993 or '94 – maybe one of the EPs just before that. We were pretty fortunate at that time; you could play a lot and not be any good. I think we got shows because we were enthusiastic and we had a pretty good-looking bass player. [laughs]
So we used to get a lot of shows whilst still learning how to play. It's documented that for the first 80, 90 or 150 shows we were kind of – if not lousy then just not very good. The songs we had written didn't have much chop. But any money that we'd make with those shows would just go back into the band. We saved up to buy a TASCAM 4-track to record on. But then we recorded on that TASCAM 4-track and that got stolen. So someone's got the first-ever You Am I recording. I think we did two Replacements songs and three of our own.
Thomas: So there are a couple of unheard of songs out there that someone's –
Tim: Yeah, it'll get sold for $88.80 on eBay. [laughs]
But at that point where you can actually pay the rent. I don't remember the exact moment but I remember time around it. Even then we knew this [playing music professionally] was not a long-term proposition.
Thomas: Were you planning for the future? Was that even possible?
Tim: I was planning one day to have a good haircut.
No, no, not at all. You have dreams about it, and you get to a point in a band where you actually admit it to each other: wouldn't it be great if...
So at the time it was, wouldn't it be great to headline this pub? And wouldn't it be great to have a poster? And then, wouldn't it be great to have a record? So any expectations we had were just [to take] the next step: wouldn't it be great if this happened?
I know that's the way things were happening because when we first toured the States – which was massive for us – it was so exciting. The first time we went over there we were shacked up in the East Village in New York, making a record with Lee Ranaldo.
And the American bands we were playing with over there, compared to us, were really, extremely professional. The question was always: who are you signed with? 'Ohh.. right – yeah, signed to a record label.' They really had it all together, and we were just a bunch of fucking convicts – just happy for the next thing. We just couldn't believe we were actually in America and that we may get an album out. It was always the next thing. The ambition was just what was happening next week.
Thomas: Have you ever wrestled with the fact that your artistic interests are intertwined with your livelihood and ability to survive [financially]?
Tim: Absolutely. It's a completely ongoing thing. As a sideline to that, we [the band] have talked quite often about how we got offered this Budweiser commercial in 1995, in America, and how we refused. I think we might actually be stretching the truth there. I think we were actually [holding out] for more money. [smiles]
But we had this real struggle. Aligning ourselves with a beer company? Even though we drink ocean-loads of beer, it just wasn't the thing to do. And now if you get offered something that's aligned to a corporation or whatever, you look at it seriously. You think, well, hang on...
There's just not that same kind of ethics behind it [anymore]. I just don't think that's us. I think there's a strain of ethical responsibility going through us of wanting to stay true to our art and our form. It's definitely not as strident as it used to be. That's out of financial necessity. I'm aware that being able to pay rent at this apartment and live in a great part of town is pretty fortunate. There's another part of me that knows I'm 40, I have a nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I really want to make sure that she can go to school next year.
I've absolutely done things just for bucks. I did it two nights ago where there was a gig – a gig I didn't really want to play, but they said they were going to give me 'this' and I just thought, that's half of Ruby's school fees the next year.
Thomas: Is there anything you've done that you're ashamed of?
Thomas: As there is working in a call centre.
Tim: Well... inevitably I will be working in a call centre. I don't lose a lot of sleep over it. I don't like taking advantage of people either, you know? I get asked to play a couple of shows each week, like private parties and benefits. I hate saying, 'Well you gotta pay me this much.' I don't know whether it's just that I'm a ponce or whether I think there's something ethically wrong with that. But it's just that these are the things I gotta do for a job. It's awkward. It seems less awkward for other people. It might have something to do with the era I grew up in.
The worst thing you could be called when you were in a band in 1991 was a 'rock star'. 'You're acting like a rock star.' That or, 'You're a sell-out, man.' It's like, fuck, you've just been stabbed in the heart.
Now it's almost like a 'Yeah! Be a rock star.' It seems that term does not apply [in the same way] anymore.
Thomas: What do you consider as your job?
Tim: Being a rock star. [laughs]
I was thinking the other day, I played this private show and it was an arts program to raise money for kids in some sort of financial distress. Giving them instruments and the like. I walked out there. I sang pretty lousy, I didn't play great. I felt a bit shabby but … I thought that I was enthusiastic. I had some good stories to tell, I looked good with the guitar on my neck and had a good jacket on. And people said they really enjoyed it. I thought, well maybe that's my job? To show appreciation for how lucky I am.
I know that I like it if people [artists/performers] show in some sort of covert way that they are really appreciative of the luck they've got, and that they want to share [it]. I'm all up for that.
You asked me about financial stuff... I never ever would've freaking thought that I could live off making music. I'm 40. I've been making a living out of it for 17 years.
Thomas: Have you come to terms with the realities and logistics of what that means?
Tim: There's a couple of points [to make]. Nothing feels better than writing songs. You kind of unlock this little key to a song, and it all starts to fall into place. And that's just alone, here, writing. Absolutely nothing is better than that.
But it never ceases to amaze me how much of a sucker you are. There's been the unfortunate circumstance in the past couple of years that at certain stages I've been in hundreds and thousands of dollars of debt. I don't really know how it came about – mismanagement or just me not keeping an eye on things.
The start of last year, I was approached by the tax department. And they said, 'You've got this incredible amount you owe the tax department.'
And I said to them, 'I don't earn that in two years. I don't know what I'm going to do.' So I got really angry at the people looking after my interests. But it was [because of] my stupidity as well.
Financial irresponsibility and making music seem to be a good mix. [The problem came about] through years of just not paying attention to things and trusting that 'somebody' was going to sort it out, but the reality of it being I was just fucking stupid. So these past two years has just been paying off debt and trying to get back to even again.
Thomas: Can you recall an occasion, early in your career, where you thought you may have committed yourself to something that could be –
Tim: A giant mistake?
Thomas: It's obviously not related to the satisfaction you get from music but in terms of it being against the convention of a 'stable' life?
Tim: I do find myself daydreaming about living another life, and something that's kind of straight – for lack of a better term. It happens when you're 30 dates into a tour: you're not getting on, you've got scurvy, sick of hangovers. You think, God, I'd love to be married and have a house, a mortgage – and it seems really romantic.
You get held up as living this kind of freewheeling life, but it's actually because this is what I've been doing for half of my life now that the other seems really romantic. Coming home, watching MasterChef... it just seems really cool. I had a family; we'd go on tour together and the most romantic thing would be after a show, when you come home and as a family you sit around and talk and eat together.
But you know, at some point it's probably going to happen. Next year, if the play I'm doing doesn't work out, if the You Am I record is flippin' lousy and all that, then I'm going to look at it [getting a normal job] because there's no next egg – 'Berlin Chair' didn't sell that many records. [laughs]
Even at our most successful we just didn't sell a lot of records. There's no safety net. It's always the prospect. It's exciting in a way, but because I've got responsibilities, it's really fucking scary.
Thomas: If that happened, the worst case scenario, I imagine you would still keep playing as much as you could?
Tim: I would be as happy as a freaking lark playing in the 'Stones cover band up the road – or a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, a Guided by Voices cover band - and playing on the weekend. I essentially do that now anyway. [laughs]
When Davey and I have days off, we get together and pretend that we're in a rock band and sit around and play. [laughs] I'd definitely still play. I don't know if I'd write a lot, but I think that's just because this year I've written a cabaret show, a You Am I record, and [I'm] finishing another record by myself and I'm involved in a honkytonk band. You know, I've probably written 50 or 60 songs this year. I'm kind of running out of adjectives. So, yeah, to be in a cover band – I'd love that.
Thomas: Is lyrical content something that you dwell on?
Tim: Yeah, of course. For 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day you've got absolutely nothing to say, and then you have this 10 minutes of delusion where you're putting words together. It's just the big puzzle thing about it – chord there, melody here, words? – and how it all comes together.
Like, I've never been to a class for songwriting. I'm contemplating it now: how the fuck does that [songwriting] happen? How did Chuck Berry do it? How did John Martyn do it? How did Warren Zevon do it? Is there a code that I don't know? How does Gareth [Liddiard] do it? It's such a flippin' mystery. [But] I think that if you solve it then all the magic will be gone.
There are books out there about songwriting and I eye them off thinking, maybe I should find what the secret is. It's fascinating stuff.
Davey and I went to a couple of wonderful painting exhibitions in Sydney last week, talking about the use of colour and form and just what a mystery it is, then thinking: but what about what we do? How does that work? You put the fingers here, and there, and that. It's a flippin' mystery.
Thomas: Do you write lyrics and never give them music?
Tim: Yeah, yeah. There's stacks but they're usually pretty rubbish. I'm no prose writer at all. The lyrics pretty much come from the rhythm of whatever music is happening and you get sort of taken away by the rhythm. With the combination of that and the melody, things just pop into your head.
The stuff that I've written as prose and tried to squeeze into a song normally ends up being rubbish. There's a compromise on the lyrics because of the nature of songs and rhythm, verse, chorus. There's a compromise there, but also the rhythm and chord and melody of songs encourages wordplay. So it's a bit of a trade-off. Don't let me think about it too much, though, because the mystery will be gone. It's all about the mystery, man.
Thomas: When writing, is it all about you documenting your life? Could you say there is a narrative through your albums?
Tim: The only consistent thing, I guess, is confusion – existentialist theory. I'm hoping at a point that I can get back to writing about other people and other situations. It's just times like these, and in the past few years, that I feel very different from how I did before. Maybe it's a middle-age thing but I do wonder why, at the age of 40, I still think like a 12-year-old.
I'm fascinated by things. Little vicissitudes of affections and behaviour and just ... people are fascinating. I've spent the last couple of years trying to make sense of that, thinking: when am I going to grow up? It's not looking likely. I'll probably eat jelly for lunch.
Thomas: Just looking back on the path that you've carved out: if it all [your music career] ended, what kind of job would you want?
Tim: Whaddaya got? [laughs] Mike Noga and I will open a bakery. [laughs]
I don't think I'd work in music. But I'd play for fun. I went out to have a drink with an old acquaintance and friend of mine. We used to work together. He works in music and has done very well out of it, but as a manager and promoter. He said to me, 'Ohhh look, Tim. Jesus it's hard for anyone to make a buck out of music these days.'
Then something snapped inside of me and I kind of wanted to strangle him. I love him dearly, but I thought: you think it's hard? What about us fuckers? And when you say it's hard to make a buck in music, I guess it's also that I've done harder jobs than this. I really don't know.
I do wake up occasionally, when a phone bill comes in, and think: ahh shit... What am I going to do if this all falls apart?
Thomas: Would you give your earlier self any advice, or say not to do it?
Tim: No. Playing in a rock band completely saved my life. I only tell the story … I'm in no way trying to elicit sympathy at all, but it's because I was diagnosed as having a mental illness. I thought, okay, my life is over. I was so heavily doped up and heavily medicated for what I was going through that I thought that was the end of my life. I thought, maybe one day I'll get a cleaning job, and that will get me out of the house.
But because I got asked to join You Am I by my brother and my best friend, Nick, I got encouraged to go out and play in clubs and associate with people and go on tour. But I couldn't tour while being heavily medicated so I had to sort of wean myself off it [the medication]. I did, and I found that the afflictions that I had dropped away. It was because of playing in a freaking rock and roll band.
The only advice I'd give to myself back then is to ease up on the ridiculous trousers and just appreciate everything more. When we had a couple of great years where every show was selling out and we were on a trajectory of bigger venues each time, I would get concerned and I wouldn't go out and enjoy it – I wouldn't just have the greatest time ever.
I guess it was fortunate because I'm actually having the greatest time ever now. Life is so much better now and I really do appreciate it. I guess you have to go through that time of unappreciation to make sure you never go through that again. You appreciate how fortunate you are now.
Twenty-three years of playing in rock and roll bands and I'm actually able to look after my little family and get a jacket dry cleaned occasionally... buy Nando's chicken.
I used to think that making art, making music, was just an excuse to have the greatest time ever, but I actually think now it's quite essential to people's lives. You become better people by experiencing it. Art is all about possibilities. And with Australia entering the golden brown-age of conservatism again, I think there's going to be some good records made in the next couple of years.
Thomas: Take me through your days and weeks and routine.
Tim: Routine? Like today I had to learn the script for a play I'm performing in and writing music for. It's kind of just wake up, get the strongest coffee possible and ride my bike for a couple of hours until you feel physically capable of doing anything.
Thomas: You're kind of sliding further and further into the performing arts area...
Tim: Once again that's just because I got asked. If you show enthusiasm for anything … I was just in the right place at the right time.
Thomas: Have you found that actors are going through the same things as musicians?
Tim: In music, I guess – in particular with rock and roll – for some reason it's almost that you can't let it show that you want to be good at it.
Thomas: That's an Australian trait. There is also an economy of 'cool' around music.
Tim: Is that still around? [laughs] See that's the good thing about being 40. I don't care anymore! Fuck, I'm Tim Rogers, man. I wrote “Heavy Heart”! [laughs]
God, there is that 'cool' thing, but the wonderful thing I can tell you, young man, is that you get to this point where you just don't care. I'm sure there's part of me that does care – I mean, you've already seen how many times I mess up my hair in half an hour. God help me if I can look as if I've paid attention to myself.
But that's just bad habit. I don't care if someone sees me riding my bicycle with a bottle and bouquet of flowers in my basket. I've never been cool. I've always just been odd looking and I have a good body for being in a rock band. Kind of underfed, gaunt, swinging your arm around. You look kind of good if you've got a big nose and eyes too close together, bad skin. People trust that. You can't be too handsome. That will never work. [laughs]
Thomas: You've just got to make sure your bass player is –
Tim: Yep, make sure your bass player is good looking.
Thomas: And then recruit a younger guitarist as well?
Tim: Yeah, getting handsome young Davey in the band. I remember calling his parents and saying, 'Mr. and Mrs. Lane, we want to steal your son. We will be good to him.'
And they were like, 'Please, take him!'
David – it's not like he couldn't have done anything else - because he's a very intelligent young man - but he's actually born for it [being a musician]. He's got the perfect temperament, even more so than me and – fuck, I'm Tim Rogers! [laughs]
He'll be touring 365 days a year, have all the fun in the world and he'll still make it to the show and know everything and have all his gear sorted out. He's incredible. I've never met someone so constructed by the Great Architect to be playing in a rock and roll band for the rest of his life. I'm bit of a flake – a bit emotional that I'm not really made out to be in a rock band, how I should be like a gardener or something. I don't know.
Thomas: It's interesting – we were talking about committing yourself to music, and here's a slightly younger version of yourself joins the band, embarks on the same –
Tim: I have been asked if he's my son. Someone asked me on a plane the other day. I was really proud. [laughs]
Thomas: Did he ever ask about the economics of how to make this life work?
Tim: No, he never did. And we only started to speak about money stuff recently because we both found ourselves in a situation where we couldn't afford a cab to get to the studio from where we [were] in Sydney. We just [hadn't] even got 30 bucks between us to get there. Credit card cancelled and all that kind of thing. It was just a bit of a situation where we were both broke, then we had to start talking about money.
But he never asked, how am I going to get through? Because he's an absolute artist. He just doesn't seem to care if he's got enough money. I was a bit like that until... well now it's all about my daughter and I want her to have everything.
David never asked for any advice whatsoever. He just doesn't seem to care. Really, as long as he can get the occasional fried chicken. He's so adolescent. It's incredible. You know, I had a mortgage for a while. I put down a deposit on a house! I just didn't look at it in 10 years.
Thomas: When did you do that?
Tim: I really should give someone a call.
Thomas: Was You Am I going to pay for it?
Tim: No, I got a publishing deal about 10 years ago and it was comparatively an enormous amount of money. I couldn't believe it. I saw what was being offered and thought, well, drinks are on me.
We split it up in the band and I just put it into a bank account. What I was actually given – I couldn't go buy a house or anything but I could put a big deposit on something. I put it into a bank account and didn't think about it for years. I just thought we'd get 200 bucks out when we wanted to get on the razz. Why won't you put a deposit on a house and get a bank loan?, I thought. Yeah, well I could do that but it's so grown-up and adult.
I was 29. I did it, but unfortunately I put a lot in there, and now I've got this big bank loan and I can't pay it off. You know, I haven't written a popular song in 12 years. The debt is kind of scary. I might throw myself in front of a car and get the insurance or something.
Thomas: On the point of popular songs, has it ever crossed your mind to tick some boxes and write a song that you didn't want to in order to [make money?]
Tim: Oh, I've written songs I didn't want to. You know, to get out of [a] contract. A couple of record labels, particularly in the States, used to set me up with other songwriters to try to get a hit, and it just never worked. I remember this American producer, when he shook my hand he said, 'Hey, Tim Rogers, I hear that you're difficult.'
I remember that Warner Bros in the States wanted to fly me over as they said, 'Tim, we want you to write some songs with Ray Davies.' Ray? My hero, I thought. But then I thought: hang on. They're only doing it thinking that I'll write them a hit. So I said no – perhaps foolishly.
You know, [opportunities come] up to write music for advertisements for things. I'm almost at the point now where if it was for a product that I liked – for example, Milo – then I'd do it. If it means the anxiety of looking after my daughter subsides.
Thomas: I remember there was one for Cricket Australia.
Tim: That Cricket Australia one, man. That broke my heart because they approached Shane O'Mara and me to do it. I was living in Madrid and I flew back for three days to do that. We had a lot of fun recording it. It was a great little afternoon.
And then people would call me from the cricket and say, 'Tim, I'm listening to your song on the SCG PA.' And I thought: ohhh man, I'm going to get so much APRA for this. It's been played a hundred times at the cricket. This is going to be great. That big cheque is going to come and [solve] all my problems...
The APRA [The Australasian Performing Rights Association] cheque came through at the end of the year. I looked at it – it was $100.
I called them up and said, 'They're playing this song I wrote, and it's on TV all the time and at the cricket, and there's a couple of naughts missing.' And they said, no it's because of this and this, and you get like two cents every time it gets played.
I made all these plans to pay off all my debts, get my hair dyed, [laughs] buy a pair of boots and a really nice record player. I was so disappointed. It was a song for cricket, though, so ah well...
Thomas: It's almost APRA time again.
Tim: Yeah, I was fortunate that I had someone call to remind me: 'Tim, you haven't submitted yet.' Once again it's just me being fucking stupid thinking that there's someone who'll do that for me.
I've been at friends' houses who are in very successful rock bands with enormous songs and albums, and there's a letter from APRA sitting on the kitchen table... 'Do you want me to open that for you?' [laughs]
It's just intriguing – like, what did you get for your APRA? The majority of [my] friends who play laugh about how small our APRA cheques are. I think I've still got my first one somewhere. It was 14 bucks. My dad always said you got to frame your first paycheck. I got my first APRA one somewhere.
Thomas: It can almost feel like, 'Now you're a musician. You just worked.'
Tim: Yeah. That's what it's all about. 'I'm a real one.' Let's put it next to my platinum records, multiple awards...