Slipping out for twenty minutes during the rehearsals of MTC’s production of What Rhymes with Cars and Girls, Tim Rogers found time to discuss his twenty-plus year career as a songwriter with MTC’s Paul Galloway.
You didn’t start out with ambitions to be a songwriter, did you?
No, I started out with my first guitar as a teenager and wrote rock ‘n’ roll guitar riffs, which wasn’t quite what I was in to. I grew up loving a mixture of Aerosmith and Blossom Deerie and Kiss and Django Reinhart, a little bit of Noel Coward and a lot of particularly American hard core rock ’n’ roll. For a while, until I was about thirteen, I was into the Rolling Stones and The Who and the Small Faces. Then I discovered a record by a band called The Replacements from Minneapolis, which showed me that you didn’t have to play in front of 20,000 people in stadiums. You could play in a club and pack it out with a thousand, five hundred people. When I was seventeen, maybe younger, I snuck in a club in Sydney and saw the Hard Ons play for the first time. That’s when I thought, ‘I could do this’.
What attracted you to the Hard Ons?
Well, they were violent but playful; dumb but not stupid. Dumb ol’ rock ’n’ roll! Hard, just powerful really. For a lack of another word, it was cool.
When was that?
1987 maybe, or 86. I was just dragged along by my older brother. When I started at Law School down in Canberra, I continued going to see shows. And people started asking me to be in bands, I suppose because I looked the part and I had a guitar in my room at Toad Hall at the ANU. I was always playing with guys who had never played before and I had a sum total of four years of experience. I started writing my first bits then.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
No, but it would have been just a dirgey little riff that my brother could play drums to and my best friend could play bass to. I didn’t have any idea about structures or passing chords. It was simply messing with guitar-based rock ’n’ roll riffs until you find some kind of melody. And as far as lyrics went, it was just pure angst, those very first You Am I songs. I was in a sort of mental health nightmare at the time, wailing about anxiety and depression.
But in those days it wasn’t about the songs, it was all about being on the scene and being with bands that I wanted to be with. I just loved the energy of it. People in those early days seemed to help each other out. You am I, we used to get a lot of favours and gigs because our first bass player Nick, my best mate, was very cute and handsome and very charming. We found that by being enthusiastic and saying thanks a lot we got shows when probably we shouldn’t have.
The song-writing began when we began to get shows and needed to have something to play. We never thought we would make a record or anything. I mean lyrically they were just crap. Before this, in 88-89 in Canberra, I worked on a couple of Law School Revues and a couple of other uni troupes and got involved in writing little comedic songs – which was fun. So I guess hidden away there was a potential to develop that skill a bit. Not long after Rusty (Russell Hopkinson) joined the band in 1993 – although he came from a hard core punk background as well – we were driving through the middle of America and we started played these Noel Coward tapes. Started discussing them.
Really, Noel Coward?
Yeah, well Rusty is three years older than me, very intelligent, a ferocious drummer, but also with a huge intellect. As I said, I love dumb rock ’n’ roll – dumb as long as it’s not stupid. But on this trip and after-hours we’d talk about different forms of songwriting. That’s when I first started, I suppose, to think really seriously about it.
What was the first song of yours that had you thinking: ‘Hey, that’s good?’
I wrote a song called Jaimme’s Got a Gal on the first You Am I record. It was difficult to finish because it was about my brother. He’d left the band and I wanted to write about what happened. I try not to be too personal in exposing other people, but I suppose I did use his name, so I must have been a little cavalier! But the song had a nice bit of a melody, some more interesting chords than I had used previously. There were descending bass notes over a major chord that I still like. And some little tricks that I picked up from making mistakes. There was a lot of going along with instinct in those days and I think it worked out.
By the time you produced the album Hi Fi Way (1995), you were producing a lot of good songs. There’s at least one major rock critic who nominates it as the best Australian rock album of all time.
Yeah, I know a lot of people like that album, but, as for well-crafted songs, there’s not a lot there at all. There’s a lot of good half-written songs on that album. I see that now. Partly that was because we were squeezed for time. We were touring in America and signed to a big label, who wanted us to get back to Australia and spend two months to write a record. And we said no, if you just give us beer money, we’ll stay in New York. Just give us a week and we’ll give you a record. So it was made really quickly, over eight days, with a lot of excitement and adrenaline. And I think that’s why it sounded exciting to people. There’s an obvious immediacy and joy. I’m sure, if we’d spent any longer on it, we would have ruined it. So it was really good luck that New York was expensive and we only had eight days to make it.
The album after that, Hourly Daily, was when I thought: ‘Look, I got to get serious about this song writing.’ So I tried hard to complete songs and polish them up a bit. Now, even though I think that album has got some good songs on it, maybe it suffers a little on the excitement level. The same for the next record. We were in Los Angeles for three months and, again, there are some good songs on it, but at the immediacy and excitement level things were diminished. I was enjoying crafting things better, but we were a rock band. It was a great example of knocking the edge off your work by trying to craft it too much, trying to be too smooth.
In writing a song, how do things start, with a musical idea or a lyric?
Either, or. More nowadays it starts lyrically and then I’ll mesh it together with a piece of music – and it won’t work. So I either massage the music or the lyric or think of something else. I keep working at it. It still does happen, when there is the right crepuscular light and I have a couple of whiskeys inside me that a song will just come out, either half-formed or fully. And it’s just a matter of getting it down.
When I feel I have something, I’ll record it, the music and the idea. Eventually, I will have to write down some of it in notation if I want to get other musicians involved. Often I would half write it to get them started and then say, ‘Lets get it into a room and knock it around a bit.
Once I am back with the band, the melodies and lyrics tend to stay stable, and the chord progressions too, they tend to stay the same. But the band contribute to the arrangement. I love the guys I play with. I used to tell them or heavily suggest what they should play, but my ideas were rarely the best. Now I’ve learnt that, when you work closely with talented people who can be trusted to come up with their own ideas, it’s best not to bang the gavel and insist on some stupid idea.
What led you to go solo for the first time on What Rhymes with Cars and Girls?
I moved to Melbourne and I didn’t know too many people here. At the time I saw a lot of folk gigs and people would just set up in a few minutes. You Am I – we always used to say that we wanted to be the band that could set up in five minutes, play hard for half-an-hour, and be gone. And we had lost a bit of that because to stay at a certain popularity in Australia you need plenty of set-up. It was getting bigger – bigger venues – and harder to play anywhere. And I went to a show by Guy Clark, the Texan songwriter, who just played his guitar and had his son on bass with him, singing these great songs. The lyrics were just thrown out there, very simple, but very, very touching. So I’d started thinking outside the band. I was living in an apartment with no windows and just one room. I was not feeling wonderful and I thought I’ll write my way out of this one. And I knew I was not writing for the band, and I didn’t have anyone in mind to sing the songs except myself. It was great.
And did that result in more personal songs?
No, not really. But because I knew I wouldn’t have the band behind me, the rhythms could be looser; the scansion of the song lyrics didn’t need to be so strict. I could fruit them up a little. I am realising that right now, in rehearsals, because the poor actors downstairs have to sing them. Some lines were squeezed to get them rhythmically correct. With the more idiosyncratic passages I tooled around with the rhythm a bit. I never thought that anyone but me would have to sing them.
Were you surprised that the album was so popular at the time and became a favourite with some people – Aidan Fennessy for example?
Yeah, geez it was really popular. Completely surprised me. The thing I suppose was that it was so enjoyable to make. It wasn’t hard work; there seemed to be no effort in making it at all. I met some really close and dear friends on the record, so it’s one close to the heart. And I enjoyed this type of writing, but it still came as a surprise that so many people wanted to listen to it. For me though, I wouldn’t write these songs again. They were of their time in musical and lyrical style, but in the end they came from not a bad place. They are about relationships that are a little exacerbated and there’s a bit of fiction in there, but it’s all resolved in the end.
What Rhymes with Cars and Girls by Aidan Fennessy, with music and lyrics by Tim Rogers, is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 13 February to 28 March. Tickets start from just $36 – visit the play page to learn more and book.