For most bands, reissuing old albums and embarking on a retrospective tour would be an admission that the past was looking a lot brighter than the future.
Such a theory is redundant when considering You Am I's decision to reissue three classic albums — Sound As Ever, Hi Fi Way and Hourly, Daily — and hit the road for shows playing two of those in their entirety. Not the least because enigmatic frontman Tim Rogers doesn't think the past looks that bright.
"Misty-eyed nostalgia? Not at all," he confirms. "It was not the best time of my life at all, now is and it's progressively getting more interesting and more painful and more ecstatic as time goes on, so that's for other people."
You Am I have been almost bloody-minded in their desire to keep looking forward, putting out nine studio albums since releasing debut EP Snake Tide in 1991. "We've never really looked back or thought we needed to," admits bass player Andy Kent, who also assumed managerial duties for the band in 2002.
"But it dawned on me recently that it's probably a very healthy thing to do for anybody in their life to look back at what they were doing and what their potential was and their output and creativity."
Back in the early 90s, there were many who thought You Am I's potential was nigh on unlimited.
With a fearsome reputation as a live act, You Am I circa 1992 consisted of Rogers, Kent and drummer Mark Tunaley.
After four EPs, the last produced by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, the group bunkered down in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to record debut LP Sound As Ever. That was 20 years ago this month. The album was completed in seven days and contained the band’s first classic hit, Berlin Chair.
“I don’t remember a lot about Sound As Ever because someone very close to me died and I went down pretty heavy after that, ” Rogers recalls. “I don’t remember recording Berlin Chair because I think we did it just after he passed.”
Intra-band relationships resulted in Tunaley being fired on the group’s return to Australia, to be replaced by current skinsman Russell Hopkinson.
Rogers refers to the incident as “some stupid arguments over stuff I really regret” but the line-up change sparked the most critically and commercially successful period of the band’s nascent career.
A few months after Sound As Ever was released, the group was asked to support Soundgarden on a US tour and used the time Stateside to work with Ranaldo on the follow-up.
The recording process took 10 days and the end result, Hi Fi Way, debuted at the top of the ARIA Charts in February, 1995 and contained fan faves such as Purple Sneakers, Cathy’s Clown and How Much Is Enough.
Less than a year later, the band was in a Sydney studio working on Hourly, Daily, a bittersweet examination of suburban life, complete with a string quartet and horn section.
“With Hourly, Daily, umm, I wore a lot of jumpers, ” Rogers says with trademark self-deprecation. “I’d had a lot of smoke blown up me the year before about songwriting so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to be the serious songwriter guy’.”
As with the previous album, Hourly, Daily made its debut at the top of the charts and, thanks to songs like Soldiers, Good Mornin’ and Please Don’t Ask Me to Smile, the band were big winners at the 1996 ARIA Awards, taking home six gongs.
But at the height of You Am I’s success, forces beyond their control were already conspiring to stunt their potential and challenge them creatively and personally.
When BMG Australia swallowed up the rooArt label that had been You Am I’s home since 1992, the band’s recording process was subjected to major label attention for the first time.
Although the resulting album, #4 Record, was a chart-topper, it marked the start of the band’s darkest period.
“When we were on BMG we were getting people going ‘We’re just trying to help you contemporise your sound’, basically saying ‘Why can’t you sound like Radiohead or Powderfinger’, ” Hopkinson remembers.
“I can understand that from a commercial point of view but from a creative point of view it would be like committing harakiri, not because there is anything wrong with that music, it’s just not us.”
Rogers remembers realising something was seriously wrong when he found himself in Rick Rubin’s house in Los Angeles — alone.
“After about three days when you come down from whatever I thought, ‘Where are my friends, I want to be back with them’, ” he says.
Record label interference made recording fifth album Dress Me Slowly just as tough. It was a baptism of fire for guitarist Davey Lane, who had only recently been asked to join the band on tour — a big promotion from being the kid who did the guitar tabs on the official website.
Lane was only 12 when Sound As Ever was recorded and prior to that point had only really played guitar in his bedroom, so admits to thinking such studio difficulties were the norm, not the exception.
“The songs that Tim was bringing into the studio were brilliant, songs like Damage and Judge Roy, and to have everything second-guessed all the time, I saw how frustrating it was, ” Lane says.
The period following the release of Dress Me Slowly and its follow-up, Deliverance, was difficult for the You Am I’s frontman, who says the band was “doing anything to get dropped” by record labels.
History shows the group emerged intact, if not unscathed, and would go on to record three subsequent albums; the last of which was a self-titled effort in 2010.
While none attained the success of those 90s albums, they were made by a band increasingly comfortable in its own skin.
“I would have hoped there might have been spa baths, champagne, ladies, lots of cars, big lawns and all that but I probably would’ve settled for where we are now quite happily, ” Kent laughs.
To a man, the band sees no downside in the reissues and accompanying nostalgia tour, instead seeing it as a chance to give something back to the fans before embarking on the next chapter of their story.
Though the shows will feature the biggest production we’ve seen from the group in some time, with strings and horns bringing those classic songs to life, attention will soon turn to the future again.
To that end, Rogers says the 10th album will be a high-energy affair, with contributions from everyone in the band. Kent suggests work could begin by the end of the year.
Lane has no doubt they’d be working on a new album now if it wasn’t for the tour; something Hopkinson sees as “breathing space” between albums.
The consensus of opinion highlights You Am I’s greatest success of all: staying the best of friends.
“For us as a band, we’re closer than we ever were, ” Rogers says. “If we don’t speak to each other for a week something is really wrong.”
You Am I play the Astor on July 13 (sold out) and 14. Tickets from Showticketing. Remastered versions of Sound as Ever, Hi-Fi Way and Hourly Daily have been reissued with bonus tracks.