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'Right on The Threshold of Breaking Down': Jack Ladder on New Album 'Hijack!'

Following a great period of change and personal growth, Jack Ladder has unveiled 'Hijack!', arguably his most ambitious, honest, and direct record to date.

It’s only been a few years since Jack Ladder (the musical moniker of Tim Rogers) released a new album, but in just that short span of time, a lot of things have changed. While 2020 brought with it bushfires and a global pandemic, Rogers himself kicked off the year with time spent in a rehab clinic. The result of this wasn’t just great personal growth, but an inspiration to write one of his most honest pieces of work to date.

For over 16 years now, Rogers and his Jack Ladder alias have served as underground heroes of the Australian music scene. Having released a pair of albums between in the mid-’00s (with 2008’s Love is Gone even receiving an Australian Music Prize nomination), Rogers expanded things somewhat in the next decade, with 2011’s seminal Hurtsville being released under the Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders name.

With Laurence Pike, Kirin J Callinan, and Donny Benét in his corner as The Dreamlanders, Rogers would release two more albums across the decade, with his velvety baritone voice and emotive, subtly humorous songwriting winning him fans the world over.

Fast forward a few years, and 2021 brought with a lot of news for Rogers. Announcing his signing with nascent label Endless Recordings back in March, the next month brought with it an anniversary reissue of Hurtsville, before May saw two retrospective shows, and then June resulted in the announcement of his sixth album, Hijack!.

Hijack! sees Rogers return from a period of change with a record that is arguably his most ambitious, his most direct, and easily his most honest, with deeply personal songwriting seeing him explore his fragmented self across a ten-track collection that equally delves into the beauty and absurdity.

In anticipation of the record’s release, Rogers spoke with Rolling Stone about its creation, the power of honest songwriting, and the desire to create enduring cultural artefacts of value .

The new album arrives following a rather difficult year for everyone. To begin though, how have you managed to survive the last 18 months or so?

Yeah, I mean, I was lucky in that I’d been touring a lot and I was going to take some off last year anyway, and I kind of had a head start on the whole thing. I went into a rehab thing in January of last year, so I was prepared to be shut in. So then I was sober for the last year and whatnot, and I was at home with my partner and our daughter, and working on the garden and stuff. But I moved back to the city this year, just before the lockdown happened. So now it’s all a bit weird.

Since your plans weren’t too badly affected then, when exactly were the seeds for this record first sown?

I guess my life had been pretty disrupted for the last few years, so I didn’t really have a chance to write much at all. I’d been working on a bunch of songs that I couldn’t finish, they were much more piano ballads. I was trying to change my writing style and write in a much more traditionally melodic way. It just wasn’t happening [laughs].

Then, once I’d cleared the time out, and after being in the rehab clinic for a while, I was able to write again with the sense of honesty that I felt like I’d lost. And I was staying at a friend’s house in Marrickville, and it was great because everyone worked during the day and I could write, and I started writing a lot there – just in this totally neutral space I’d never been in before.

Then I wrote a lot of songs quite quickly, just on my guitar, and it was very sort of freeing. More than half the record just came out very quickly. Then everything just seemed to sort of make sense.

“I was able to write again with the sense of honesty that I felt like I’d lost.”

You mentioned writing with a sense of honesty following your stint in the rehab clinic. Are you the sort of person who allows events such as this to inspire and inform your work, or is it more of a case of everything and anything can serve as an influence?

I don’t feel like I really get to choose what I write about, which sounds really non-committal and avoidant [laughs]. But the seed of a song, or where inspiration comes from for a song, what makes you pursue it past the demo point, or even to write it down and then spend all this time recording it, getting other people involved, and spending money on it, is kind of insane.

It’s really hard to know why one idea is better than another, and the sort of ideas I’ve pursued through my career could be pretty contentious, questionable sort of things to do. I guess I really had been holding off ‘bigger picture’ things for myself for a longer time while pursing music. I guess everything started to come crashing down around me, and I just felt super raw, just in that way where you strip down all your barriers. I just felt like I wasn’t thinking about this internal monologue of music trivia that’s kind of playing in my heads.

I felt the last record, Blue Poles, was really stylistic in a lot of ways, and I think there’s some good songs on it, but [I think it was] potentially covering up deeper sentiments with kitschy kind of ideas, or trying to avoid the point, trying to juxtapose stuff, or trying to contrast emotions too much to the point where it kind of comes off a bit ‘whatever’.

But I felt with Hijack!, the songs that came out were so kind of honest and just had a kind of instant quality to them and they just needed to be treated in a very emotional way. [laughs] It’s that point where you’re right on the threshold of breaking down, I feel that’s where the record sort of rides.

Writing with that level of honesty and rawness, it must feel quite cathartic then to be able to share these thoughts and emotions you’ve not been able to previously?

Yeah, I mean it’s just a constantly evolving thing. When you start in the beginning of writing a song, the chord sequence needs to have some sort of resonance that’s bigger than just the notes that are happening. Then you throw a line at it, it starts to swell, and it kind of hits me in the gut a bit. Then you kind of have to maintain that sense, or at least hold on to that sense of emotion. And you have to follow it through at each stage.

It gives you a litmus test. Every time you do something it’s like, “Do I still feel that thing?”. So you record the drums and do the vocal performance in the studio and you’re like, “Hey, I still feel it.” So what you’re pursuing isn’t low-hanging fruit in terms of, “Am I getting a gag out of that?”, or “Is this cool? Do I feel this interesting?”, it’s more, “Does this still consistently hit me in the gut and leave me on the threshold of crying?”. Right down to the master, right down at the end, it gives you this sense of purpose, really.

I feel most musicians would agree with that. You can always write a song, but the second you revisit it, you might be able to see that it might not hold up like it when you first wrote it. If the quality is consistent though, it sort of helps to serve as a testament to the quality of the material that you’re writing as well.

It’s also a type of psychosis, I think. You kind of have to not have not much else going on. That’s the thing, if you’re constantly going on tour, it’s quite hard to maintain the focus on following something through for like, six months.

I mean, sometimes the best songs can happen really quickly, you record them, and you see that not every song needs to be filled with this kind of emotion [laughs]. But it did give me a compass and a sense of purpose for making the album. When the strings came in and it was just like [excited gasp]. At every point, it kept revealing how rewarding the nature of doing it all is.

Incidentally, singles such as “Xmas in Rehab” and “Leaving Eden” feel like the most personal songs on the record, yet they also seem like the most contrasting – sort of polar opposites. Thus, it seems sort of fitting that they were released as a double single previously.

Yeah, we did that kind of… The ‘back end’ of that is that we were going to release the song “I Can’t Drink The Water”, but the video wasn’t ready on time. So then as an alternative we were going to release “Xmas in Rehab”, but I felt like it wasn’t honest in terms of maintaining excitement about what the album is about.

So I thought that if we put “Leaving Eden” out as well, those songs would show people the expanse of the album. But I don’t know if it really worked. I think it was confusing for people, releasing two songs at once.

There would definitely be a lot of people in the digital age who don’t really appreciate the idea of releasing a double A-side.

Especially if it’s not on a 7-inch, and there’s no video… I mean, it’s a weird thing, and that’s sort of how I feel about the music. I remember years ago, when I put out my second album, I was like, “I don’t want to do any videos.”

And the record label was like, “You have to do a music video,” and I was like, “I just want people to listen to the music.” I felt like such a wanker, and it’s not that I don’t like music videos, it’s just that I think when I make something I think is good, unless the video is really going to support it, then I don’t know about it.

Sometimes the visuals don’t really lend themselves to the work either, and they just feel like this arbitrary accompaniment.

It’s also me being precious because I thought the record sounded great and had this cinematic edge to it knowing that we weren’t going to have huge amounts of money to make… cinema [laughs]. It was beautiful that Kirin did that video for “Astronaut” with his partner, Lilian [Sumner], but it was sort of like, “Is this going to work?” because it was just a Handicam video. I just really want people to hear the record as a music experience.

Returning to the idea of the two songs feeling like polar opposites, I have to admit that “Leaving Eden” was one of the few songs I’ve listened to recently that actually gave me this real visceral reaction. It had a real claustrophobic feeling to it, while on the other hand, “Xmas in Rehab” felt much more upbeat with its sense of humour and levity.

That’s good! Yeah, “Xmas in Rehab” is a bit of a funny song because the sentiment of the song is quite a niche area to mine. It’s not exactly a popular opinion in terms of songs about Christmas, families, and what it means. I think it’s a really weird song, but it does speak to… I think the fact that it’s quite honest about the experience and is very detailed lyrically; it’s a generous song.

There’s always that fine line where you’re doing a song like that and people don’t feel it’s a joke. You never want to be ‘Weird Al’ [Yankovic], but maybe that Randy Newman type of tone. It’s a difficult tone to get, and using names like Cameron Diaz or Bill Murray in a song, it can really go either way in terms of whether it works. Like, what those associations mean. There’s a whole bunch of words in there you’d not usually put in that kind of song.

It also feels like the sort of thing where it could be too esoteric if people aren’t sort of ‘in’ on the joke or what it means to you.

They’re huge movies though. That’s kind of thing though; when you’re in rehab, you’re allowed to watch one movie a week and generally you have to watch it with 50 other addicts. And you have to watch these films that have been vetted and they’re generally American rom-coms because they’re written by people in AA. Like, most of the writers are in AA and most of those films follow that 12 step program.

Like, Groundhog Day is kind of like a self-help manual, and a lot of those films have these self-help messages, and that’s what I was trying to tie into the song. But I’d never heard Vipassna used in a song before. And that’s always exciting for me as well, if I’m able to put in a line I don’t think’s been used before.

Going off that, it does seem as though there’s a lot of folks who seem to miss the underlying humour that exists within your work. I guess that could come from how ‘serious’ the music sounds, so people assume there couldn’t be any humorous sentiment or subtext within it all. Is that something that bothers you, or are you sort of past it?

I guess that’s always the area I’ve been mining for a long time now, sort of on the edge of comedy and drama. There’s a lot of the ‘sad clown’ in my music. And I think because I don’t usually dress things up physically, like I’m a pretty straight-up guy, I try and let the work do the work [laughs]. But without big signifiers and without doing big comedic gestures, it can go unnoticed.

But I’ve been told I have a very dry sense of humour, and I like to keep it that way, because people that like it, like it, and people that don’t, well maybe they get it in another way. Leaving things open to interpretation, for me, is the key. Once you make something obviously a joke, then that’s all it’s got, whereas if you have a sentiment that is loaded with a few different things, it can go either way.

The song “White Flag” that I did for my last record, people think it’s a joke when I sing it live, but then the chorus is overwhelmingly emotional. I think it’s catching people off guard and in between those phases. Like, love is funny. Maybe that’s my own way of dealing with it. The seriousness with which love and death are dealt with in popular music is weird. I guess I try and just lighten the dark things and darken the light things.

Did you find yourself affected by restrictions and whatnot when it came to recording the album? Obviously getting the other Dreamlanders on board means the recording process was a bit more collaborative than the government would have liked.

Not really, it was fine in the studio tracking here. We’d recorded the strings in Texas, and they had a masking situation and COVID guidelines they recorded that within. Other than that, we didn’t really have any problems recording the album. Laurence [Pike] and I were in the studio in Sydney and we were working on our own. Donny came in, and we tracked some guitars a bit later with Kirin, but yeah, it was a pretty closed shop.

The new album also sees you working with Endless Recordings for the first time. How did you manage to get involved with them, and become one of their first signings?

Alex [Cameron, label founder] and I became friends because I worked on the last Bad//Dreems albums as a producer, and he’d always liked my work. He liked Hurtsville; that was a big deal for him, and I guess he had this idea that he wanted to start a record label. And I was out of contract, and I thought it would be nice to work with friends.

And Mclean Stephenson, the photographer who is the Creative Director for the label, is a very dear friend of mine, so I felt it would be a nice little family. And they were willing to give me free rein to do what I wanted, which has never really been a problem for me [laughs], I’ve kind of done what I wanted. But I hope that it’s something that will keep going and be a supportive little family for Australian music to do interesting things.

They’re definitely making moves in the scene, and I guess that success comes from the mix of having that mentality, experience, and integrity of a label that has been around for quite some time as well.

Yeah, it’s about an integrity. They’re trying to deal with stuff that’s not just like, ‘kid’s music’. I think that’s the hardest thing in Australia. I don’t want to bash anyone, but I feel like I’ve never really made ‘kid’s music’, and there’s a finite space for music in Australia that is ‘adult contemporary’ [laughs].

It’s such a shocking name, but ‘music for grown-ups’ is probably a better name. There’s just that general consensus that if it’s not going to get played on the radio, then no one wants to support it, and there needs to be music that exists outside of that that is of cultural value and enduring value.

The first thing folks received by way of your work with Endless Recordings was the Hurtsville anniversary reissue. How did you feel to sort of revisit such a huge record all these years removed from it? Obviously the songs haven’t left your live sets, but to actually focus directly on it for a change.

Well, it’s always there for me – it’s not something that really went away. We’re still selling the T-shirts and I’m still playing the songs pretty regularly. It was beautiful to play with the band in large rooms, and play songs from the record that we hadn’t really played before. I think, “Blinded By Love” we’d never played before; “Short Memory” as well.

There was a bunch of things that just seemed a bit hard or a bit stilted, and then we played them and I was like, “Why haven’t we played these before?” [laughs], because they worked really well. But it was beautiful thing. We recorded it and got a video of it, so I’m putting that together now.

Given how it felt to sort of take a look back at an album that has grown in such acclaim, do you think we’ll be seeing a similar celebration for Hijack! in ten years time?

I don’t know, I think Hijack! is a weird one, because the nature of the album is that it’s not instantly playable due to the string arrangements. There’s still songs. I can still play the songs, but to perform the music, you really need that extra sort of element. And the way things are now, I don’t know what the reality of the touring schedule is.

I love the album, I’m still kind of amazed by it. You always hope that your work will be remembered and that people will find some value in it and it will grow over time, but who knows?

[Laughs] It’s hard, because sometimes you feel like you’re forcing it. Like, understanding how much work goes into gives things a certain sense of value. I mean, the Hurtsville thing, I made the T-shirts. I bought the silk screen thing and bought all the T-shirts from Vinnie’s and screen-printed them with my partner. There was this huge amount of process and work, and you sometimes think, “The more amount of process and work I put into something, the longer span it will have”.

And the making of the record was very long and drawn out and difficult, so I guess all the things that go into making it give it some sense of endurance rather than “I just went into the studio and made this record in a week, then it came out”. But that can work too, you just don’t know what’s going to be lasting, other than hoping that there’s some good songs that have a core to them, some emotional lasting core.

I guess it’s that weird metaphysical thing about music is that what you’re selling is some kind of magic. And when you get it right, it’s… [Laughs]. Thinking about all records costing $30, y’know, like, are you going to buy The Veronicas’ CD for $30, or are you going to get Neil Young’s Harvest for $30? Everything’s got the same value allocated to it, but what is the actual worth of it? It’s crazy.

“It’s not about making huge bucks, it’s about creating cultural artefacts of value that have some sort of endurance.”

It’s amazing what catches on, really. You definitely could be looking at Hijack! as this seminal record 20 years down the line.

That’s what I try and do [laughs]. But that’s the value for me, it’s not about making huge bucks, it’s about creating cultural artefacts of value that have some sort of endurance. When I first started making stuff, I would hate the idea that someone threw my record when they moved house or something. There’s always this fear of someone saying it’s going in the bin.

You’ll see it at a thrift stores where there’s all these James Blunt CDs. You go into Amoeba Records in America and they have this whole section filled with James Blunt records, and you just don’t want to be that guy. I heard from a friend once that one of my CDs was in a secondhand bin at a record store and just about broke down in tears [laughs].

Jack Ladder’s Hijack! is out now via Endless Recordings.