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The Many Lives of You Am I

Emerging from the miasma of 2020 with their first new record in six years, You Am I's Tim Rogers and Russell Hopkinson discuss the creation of 'The Many Lives of Others'.

When You Am I released their last album, 2015’s Porridge & Hotsauce, they likely wouldn’t have expected a global pandemic would have preceded the release of record #11 in 2021. But of course, life – like You Am I themselves – can be as unpredictable as the weather.

While artists the world over found themselves sidelined by the likes of COVID-19, unable to tour, play live, and – in some cases – unable to release records they had spent countless months and years on, You Am I were not immune to such impact despite being located in the comparatively-unscathed Australia.

However, 2020 brought with plans of a new record, and with an inability to gather together to make the album in the traditional fashion, the resulting collection was a true product of its time.

With frontman Tim Rogers having written many of the songs during a 2019 fishing trip to the New South Wales south coast (where a green You Am I first rehearsed back in their formative days), these songs arrived during a period of uncertainty.

Unsure about his own future in music, Rogers took up a job bartending, before asking close friend (and fellow music icon) Tex Perkins for some advice. Perkins explained that it would be worth taking some time away – six months, maybe – from music to let things clarify. Of course, no one could’ve expected that 2020 would happen.

Armed with this advice and a stable of new songs, an unintentional period of downtime soon gave rise to creativity, with You Am I focusing on new music, albeit with its members working remotely. Beginning with lead single “The Waterboy”, this new method of approaching music ended up being more fruitful than expected. With no deadlines, tour dates, outside opinions or expectations, it allowed the band to focus their efforts on a singular goal.

With Rogers and guitarist Davey Lane working from the latter’s home studio, bassist Andy Kent and drummer Russell ‘Rusty’ Hopkinson would remotely provide the rhythm section. Slowly, but surely, a You Am I record began to form, with The Lives of Others now arriving on May 14th.

To celebrate the release of their first album since 2015, Rogers and Hopkinson spoke to Rolling Stone about not only making a new record, but adapting to the unwanted restrictions of COVID, and emerging out the other end with one of their finest albums to date.

Firstly, let’s begin things with the standard question: how did you manage to cope with the events of 2020? Did you get through it all well and safe?

TR: Initially was a mess. Drank my way “through” the dread and anxiety of it. Which is foolish, and typical. Resumed a ferocious reading schedule which made me a better neighbour. Howling is bad for the neighbourhood.

RH: Pretty much, we got an Old English Sheepdog puppy named Irma as a friend for our other sheepdog Mable and she kept us all preoccupied at home thankfully. Living in inner west Sydney during the pandemic wasn’t so bad, we’d walk the dogs every day, we have pretty much everything we need on our doorstep and things slowly got back to some level of near normality.

The last gig You Am I played was in early March in Adelaide and little did we know that it would be the last time we’d all be in the same room together for over a year. The last gig I saw before the pandemic/lockdown kicked in was one of my favourite groups in the world, The Schizophonics, who played in Sydney before racing back home to San Diego and I don’t think they’ve played live since. The next day Sydney went in to lockdown.

It was a challenging time; everything we had on our calendar either got postponed or cancelled, the record label I work for in New York closed temporarily and my wife, Andrea is a travel writer and was just about to launch a fantastic guidebook about LA and suddenly no one could travel. It affected all my family and friends differently, but I think we all weathered the storm OK. Our band is certainly happy to be back doing shows!

It’s been close to six years since the last You Am I album, but you’ve not been lazy in that time by any stretch of the imagination. How long after the release of the last record did you begin thinking about the next?

TR: Five years. I didn’t think about a new YAI LP in that time at all. I thought about us, but didn’t think about recording until… May last year?

RH: I don’t know if we ever really talk about making records that much. It usually starts with Tim having something he feels will work with the band and us all having the time to think about new material. There’s also the fact that the band is split between Sydney and Melbourne and it’s not like we get together and jam every week, we’re not that kind of band. I’m happy to wait, there’s no need to rush.

As the song says, “We ain’t goin’ nowhere”. We’ve had plenty to keep us busy; a fun regional tour became a live album a couple of years back, we reissued a bunch of our older stuff on vinyl for the first time and played a whole bunch of shows at home and around the world. We all do our own things outside of the band so when we get together it seems to be a bit special and fun.

Many songs for the record were written on a trip to the New South Wales south coast in 2019, where the band used to rehearse in the early days. Is this an approach that You Am I have used for inspiration in the past? How effective was this trip in kicking off the songwriting process?

TR: I was down there by myself in 2018 with Nik, the gentleman who started the band. We went fishing and walking. Then I’d walk an hour to a little shack and write folk songs. Or drive around and hum tunes. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I didn’t go there to write, I went to see my friend, drink beer, and fish.

RH: I love the south coast of New South Wales and I know the place has a lot of meaning for Tim but I’m not going to be able to tell you how it influenced him. All I know is that he started sending through these fabulous songs including some stuff he’d been writing on a road trip. His best mate and his mum have houses ‘round those parts and he likes to visit and go fishing. It’s a splendid part of the world.

“We all do our own things outside of the band so when we get together it seems to be a bit special and fun.”

Tim was quoted as saying he had some doubts about the future of the band, and the possibility of another record. Where did this doubt come from? What went into overcoming it?

TR: The doubt was from my own melancholy. I was sad and didn’t know what to do. Playing with my friends and still being sad was untenable. Many say “when it stops being fun, I’ll stop” and never do. I stopped because it was no longer fun. Nothing to do with the band, just at times when your melancholy you wanna stop. So I did. I just didn’t tell anyone.

And then everything stopped. Is it my fault?!?!?

RH: I don’t really know. I’ve never seen the quote in question, but I have been with Tim when he’s been asked about it in interviews. He lives a full-on life and gives it his all across a number of disciplines; music, talking, writing, reading, footy etc. I think at one point he wanted to slow everything down and become a bar-tender and who could blame him. But we’re all like sharks, we can’t sit still, and I don’t think that would have lasted for ever.

Like most most bands, 2020 proved to be something of a learning curve in terms of being involuntarily sidelined, and being forced to adapt to new ways of doing things. How did it affect the band and the plans you all had?

TR: Our plans started then evolved because of the circumstances. Not everyone in the band was convinced it was a good idea to make an LP, and with good reason. I became fuckin’ rabid about it though. Is it my fault?!?!

RH: As noted above everything got put on the back burner. I went to my neighbours, cap in hand, and said “Do you mind if I set up a little drumset and play an hour or two of drums every other afternoon, so I don’t go nuts?”, and they thankfully said, “Sure thing”. For a bit of fun, I recorded a song with my mate Tom Morgan (of Smudge) called “We’ve Got a Plague to Catch” and from there I suggested maybe to the band that maybe we could get the creative process going. Songs started getting shared and that spurred everything on as time was literally the only commodity we had an excess of.

The new record began to appear in the midst of lockdown and quarantines, but had there been any sort of apprehension about making a new album in this manner? Were there thoughts about just letting recording go until a sense of normalcy returned at some point?

TR: Yes of course. But when Russ sent through his drums on “The Waterboy” I think we all realised we had to do it then and there. And there. And over there.

RH: The first parts I came up with lent themselves to the space I was recording in; the record room at our place that’s filled with old records and other fun stuff. I’d sit down and put headphones on and play along with a tune on repeat, just guitar and vocals then I’d sit down and edit together the bits I liked and send ‘em on through. Everything was quite stripped back with lots of off beats and no big drum fills or loud cymbals, pretty austere compared to my usual clang. Pretty much all the parts I sent through were the exact opposite of what the rest of the group thought I’d do but everyone seemed to dig it.

That worked for a few tunes then we started to wonder if maybe some of the other songs Tim and Davey had sent through would be better served being belted out in a proper space. To that end, our dear friend and publisher Marianna managed to wrangle us some time at Forbes St studio in Sydney. Andy and I rocked down there a few days after lock down had lifted to record a bunch of tunes.

It was a completely cathartic moment, some of these songs I’d kinda mapped out others I’d barely listened to and to have this space and this loud drumkit and to be able to unleash a few months of pent up ramalama fa fa fa was very special. Andy and I slotted in together trying to compliment guitar and vocals and get that authentic band feel in a situation where that wasn’t available.

I did “DRB Hudson” one morning by myself playing it over and over again, trying to get this big rolling tidal wave of drums for those guys to embellish, it was fun to sit down and edit all the takes it really gave me a sense of purpose in a difficult time. The drums and bass parts were sent down to Davey and he and Tim went to work creating some really fabulous sounds; it was such a joy to hear what they’d come up with.

“We all thought at some stage that things would closer to normality and that we’d all convene to finish what we’d started.”

We all thought at some stage that things would closer to normality and that we’d all convene to finish what we’d started. But then Melbourne got locked down for ages and in November I had a situation arise where we needed to move to Perth for family reasons and that scotched any notion of the band being together until at least March.

So we got on with it, I finished some drum tracks in Perth and Paul McKercher mixed the album in Sydney over the new year period. Special mention goes to Davey who pretty much was the backbone of the album when it came to production and pulling everything together. By January we had an album, it took six months rather than the usual six weeks, but it was worth it.

Obviously the idea of recording remotely is one that You Am I wouldn’t have been used to. How did this affect the creative process? Did it force you to think differently in certain aspects?

TR: Yep. We could sit on things. Normally, we have a week or so and our decisions are made most often impulsively. This one, we talked a lot. Having said that, my guitars and vocals all took two takes. But that’s the nature of how I do it. Andy, Russ, and Davey are musicians and more considered.

RH: We have written some things remotely before. Parts of our self-titled record from 2011 were written in a similar manner because everyone was super busy so we wrote some of the things at home and other things at soundcheck. All the drums for that record were recorded in two days with just Tim on an acoustic guitar in this little studio in Balmain because I had to go to New York for an extended period and then everyone else did their parts at other studios.

On the other hand, our last record was recorded straight to 8-track tape with all of us crammed into a tiny tracking room at a house in Bushwick, NY that’s home to Daptone Records. With this album there was a slight air of freedom because I had time and some mics set up to record every dumb idea. There were no real deadlines apart from wanting the other guys to hear what you’d come up with and for me, vice versa.

For example, “Rubbish Day”, with its percussion filled breakdown section, was influenced by an afternoon with a couple of beers and some old 60s psych 45s from a Mexican group called Revolucion De Emiliano Zapata. It was not what the rest of the band were expecting at all but to my relief (and surprise) they loved it.

Did you have any particular fear of this being labelled as one of the ever-growing ‘lockdown albums’ that have emerged in recent months?

TR: No. It sounds like a flippin’ great rock band havin’ a ball. And there are so songs about last year. I wrote some, but they didn’t make the cut.

RH: To be honest I live in a self-imposed cultural bubble that deflects 99% of modern music so I did not know this was an actual fear a person could have. As far as I’m concerned folks can label the LP whatever they want; go nuts!

How did you feel this affected the relationship between band members? Music-making is typically a communal, unifying thing, but given the distance involved, it turns it into something of an example of resilience.

TR: Good point. We got together in pairs when we could. It was like rooming together on tour.

As the recording began to take shape I know at least I began to feel a resilience as a band. We’ve been in very challenging conditions before. Nothing like this, but a good song makes us feel eternal. Or at least buzzed…

RH: They’re my other family. I missed the hell out of them. I think this record and the process making it kept us together, not in a band sense, but as people. We’re not big talkers, we don’t discuss the ins and outs of what it means to do what we do, we get on with it. This record gave us a reason to do just that.

“I don’t wanna make a record like this again, no. But I’ll try be a better lyricist always.”

Tim was noted as being particularly proud of the lyrics on this record, which was in part due to having extra time to work on them. As a result, the record feels rather similar to the early You Am I albums. Despite the difficulties and restrictions of making an album such as this, do you feel as though this could be a method revisiting given the benefits it gave rise to?

TR: Spending time on lyrics? Early YAI records we had NO time to work on anything. And mayne there is the charm. I don’t wanna make a record like this again, no. But I’ll try be a better lyricist always.

With the record out in the world soon, and live shows returning more and more, how is 2021 looking for You Am I now? 

TR: We listen to the health professionals and when we can, we play. If things get canned, we go back to day jobs. But fuck we feel grateful for whatever we can be involved in. Even if it’s a sandwich together.

RH: You Am I has plenty of dates piling up and we’ve already done some super shows. Our gig at the Enmore Theatre in April may be one of my favourites of all time; there was a special energy in that room and it was great to be back in my favourite local venue with a couple of favourite combos Smudge and The Holy Soul. It was a life affirming and cathartic experience and I hope we can get plenty more of that in the upcoming months!

You A I’s The Lives of Others is available now.