The Heartbreak & Hits Behind You Am I’s 'Sound As Ever'

25 October 2023 | 1:51 pm | Jeff Jenkins

"The Australian alterna-rock explosion begins."

You Am I

You Am I ('Sound As Ever' album cover)

More You Am I More You Am I

Thirty years ago this week, You Am I released their debut album, and Australian music would never be quite the same.

Sound As Ever followed a handful of attention-grabbing EPs, but it was the album that truly heralded the arrival of Tim Rogers – The Last Great Rock Star. The record, however, was not without its heartbreak and challenges; indeed, it was almost over before it began. More on that soon.

Tim Rogers dreamed of signing to Waterfront Records (home to the Hard-Ons), “but they weren’t interested – subsequently have found out at least one of the owners hated us, dammit!”. After intense major label interest, You Am I ended up signing to rooArt, the label set up by INXS’s manager Chris Murphy.

The Australian music world was transforming when You Am I released Sound As Ever. The subsequent ARIA Awards saw “the changing of the guard” when The Cruel Sea cleaned up, and You Am I won the new award – Best Alternative Release, with Sound As Ever beating CloudsThunderhead, Crow’s My Kind Of Pain, The Cruel Sea’s The Honeymoon Is Over and Dave Graney & the Coral SnakesNight Of The Wolverine.

“It feels really stupid,” Rogers started his speech. “I still don’t know what alternative means.” Jimeoin, who presented the award, remarked, “It means you get great reviews, but you never get paid any money for it.”

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Around the time of the ARIAs, a TV news report stated: “You Am I have been described by visiting artists as the best live band in the world. They have a record deal; they’re asked to play at music awards, but they find it almost impossible to get airplay in Australia. Like the early rockers, their music is considered too abrasive, not safe enough.”

“It was an interesting time to be starting a band, the start of the ’90s,” Rogers reflects. “If you appeared to be enjoying the fruits of your success, you were immediately branded a wanker. It was very much frowned upon.

“We were considered to be very flashy and showman-like because I wore a frilly shirt occasionally. In 1991 and ’92, people were calling us ‘rock stars’ as if it was an insult. But I thought it was the greatest compliment you could get.”

The week before the album was released, You Am I played at Melbourne’s Punters Club, supported by a young band from Brisbane – Powderfinger. “We were both hairy and lairy and rifforama,” Rogers recalls. “We were like cousins more than brothers. We all just wanted to get loaded and enjoy each other’s company and play in front of more and more people each night.”

When Tim Rogers was a fledgling rock star, he fell in love with a Sydney band called Box The Jesuit, fronted by Stephen Gray, who was known as Goose. They became great friends, and Rogers would later call Goose his “mentor”.

During the making of Sound As Ever in the US, Rogers received a call from his then-girlfriend, Tracy. “She told me Goose had died [from lymphoma],” Rogers writes in his memoir Detours. “Though he was very frail when I left Australia, I never thought he could leave us.”

The singer rang Goose’s partner, Susie, telling her he was coming home – “fuck the recording session”. But she instructed him to finish the album, that the only wish Goose had was for Rogers to make the best record he could. “If he can’t make it, he wants you to.”

My mate Christopher Hollow from Melbourne flower punks the Sand Pebbles asked Rogers how he looked back on Sound As Ever. “My best friend died when we were making it,” he replied. “It was just the worst thing that had ever happened to me at that stage. The days after he passed were just nothing days, so I can’t remember recording a lot of those songs. Berlin Chair, I can’t remember at all. It was originally supposed to be a My Bloody Valentine-style song. It ended up like it did because Mark [Tunaley] grabbed it and ran with it and helped turn it into the song it is today: amazing drum parts.”

Andrew P. Street featured Berlin Chair in his book The Long And Winding Way To The Top, Fifty (Or So) Songs That Made Australia, saying it was when “the Australian alterna-rock explosion begins”.

He called it “not just one of the greatest You Am I songs – which is a tough call, given the size and quality of their still-growing catalogue – but also officially the actual greatest Australian song of the 1990s, according to a poll conducted by Double J in June 2017. That’s just science, that is.”

Berlin Chair – the title inspired by an exhibition piece by Dutch furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld that Rogers had seen in Canberra – was not a big chart hit, peaking at #73 on the ARIA charts (the album’s highest-charting single). The video has been viewed more than 750,000 times on YouTube and is probably You Am I’s most-loved clip due to the scene-stealing performance of the dancing man in the silver suit – an old boxer named PJ. “He dances really amazingly, so we just got him along, paid him some cash, put him in a silver suit and said, ‘Dance away, my son’,” bass player Andy Kent told Triple J in 1996. “And he did it spectacularly.”

You Am I’s American label wanted Berlin Chair to provide the soundtrack to a Budweiser TV commercial. But this was the era when having a song in an ad was still seen as selling out, so the band said no.

Three Sound As Ever singles were released. None cracked the ARIA Top 40, but they all made Triple J’s Hottest 100: Adam’s Ribs #50, Berlin Chair #23, and Jaimme’s Got A Gal #77.

The Jaimme title was a nod to Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got A Gun, a band that Rogers absolutely loved (“I wanted to be in Aerosmith; I can’t stress hard enough how I want people to hear those first five Aerosmith records”). Lyrically, the song is a touching tribute to his brother, who’d been the band’s founding drummer. “Jaimme’s got a girl,” Rogers sings. “Don’t think things are gonna be the same/ He ain’t coming out and drinking tonight.”

There’s a wonderful rock edge to Sound As Ever. You Am I had bonded with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo during the second Big Day Out, and he agreed to produce the band. But he didn’t try to straighten them out or give their sound a pop sheen. The result is a record that captures how thrilling it is when You Am I are playing in the room.

Most fans agree that the band made better albums – particularly Hourly, Daily and Hi Fi Way and, more recently, 2015’s Porridge & Hotsauce is also a ripper. Most of the Sound As Ever reviews were qualified raves. “The highs were magnificent, but the lows were equally problematic,” Craig Mathieson believed.

The Herald Sun dug the record: “For a trio, they pack an almighty noise – Nirvana springs to mind – but while grunge serves as a springboard, their sound is more eclectic, and the lyrics are thoughtful, emotive and life-affirming. Just as impressive is their lack of hyperbole – it’s as if they want their music to speak for them, and it does, often with shuddering power and staggering beauty.”

The authors of The 100 Best Australian Albums called it “patchy”. “It was the sound of a band in transition, more interested in The Replacements than Pearl Jam, and the classic Berlin Chair aside, it wasn’t clear where the band was headed.”

Sound As Ever wasn’t that great an album,” The Monthly’s former music critic Anwen Crawford wrote, “but it does contain two genuinely great songs: Berlin Chair and Jaimme’s Got A Gal. The latter remains as moving an examination of male friendship as I have ever heard.”

But Juice editor John O’Donnell raved about the record in his four-and-a-half-star review. “If ‘disaffection’, ‘dysfunction’, ‘detachment’ are the defining buzzbytes of the lost/slacker/X generation, You Am I’s breathtaking debut album is a genetic fuck-up, a freak,” he wrote. “Where the ’90s are about unplugging and tuning out (symbolised by Kurt Cobain howling ‘Here we are now, entertain us’ and ‘A denial/A denial’ on Smells Like Teen Spirit), the essence of Sound As Ever is about connections, attachments, love and other bruises … rarely is rock this spirited, this focused, this fuckin’ good. Love it hard.”

In that same issue of Juice, Rogers wrote about how The Rolling Stones changed his life. “I was 12 and having my mouth rearranged in a Public School Mobile Dentistry when it all made sense,” he revealed. “The ether was working overtime when an otherwise synthesiser-friendly radio next to the spit bowl leaked out Start Me Up, and I lost it. Big time. I just didn’t quite understand the ‘make a dead man cum’ bit …”

A decade or so later, Rogers and You Am I were inspiring a new generation of rock bands. And, of course, the Facebook community of fans of ’90s Australian indie music, started by Jane Gazzo and Scott Thurling, is called Sound As Ever.

Tim Rogers wrote the prologue for the Sound As Ever book. He reflected on “the decade of the shrug” when it was uncool to be a rock star. But he concluded, “Fuck I’m glad I joined a rock ’n’ roll band. It’s given me everything.”

Scanning the street press the week before Sound As Ever was launched onto the world reveals a range of rock bands such as Baby Animals, Powderfinger, Mr Universe, Scarymother, Have A Nice Day, Bigger Than Jesus, Judge Mercy, The Truth, Chocolate Starfish, The Poor Boys, Starworld, and my all-time favourite band, Horsehead

Not many of them survived the decade. But for You Am I, Sound As Ever was just the start. The album stalled at #61 on the ARIA charts, but the next three records all hit #1. The aptly titled Sound As Ever laid the foundations. And as Tim Rogers sang, “I’m the re-run that you’ll always force yourself to sit through.”

7 Things You Might Not Know About Sound As Ever

You Am I followed Nirvana into the studio

Sound As Ever was recorded at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, with producer Lee Ranaldo and Australian engineer Wayne Connolly. “The record the studio made before ours was Nirvana’s [final studio album] In Utero, so we were a bit of light relief,” Tim Rogers recalls. “We did it in eight days, drank a lot of Schlitz – Milwaukee’s finest.” 

It was the beginning of the end for drummer Mark Tunaley

Sound As Ever was the You Am I swansong for drummer Mark Tunaley. Lee Ranaldo says Rogers and Tunaley “were just not suited”.

“Mark is an amazing drummer, no doubt about that,” Ranaldo told Hi Fi Days author Craig Mathieson. “But he wanted to be in a really hard band, whereas Tim wanted more of a Replacements electric-folk thing, which was definitely the way to go with those songs.”

When they made it back to Australia, Rogers called the drummer to tell him he was out. Rogers even thought about breaking up the band. “The experience of Sound As Ever and falling out with Mark was just fucked, like, ‘God, does everything have to be so melodramatic?’ When we came home, I really wanted to get in a band for fun with people who had all the right records.” But You Am I continued on, enlisting Rusty Hopkinson (ex-Vicious Circle, the Kryptonics, Nursery Crimes and Kremator), and the band was back on track.

Tunaley wrote and sang one track on Sound As Ever, Off The Field, which was deleted from the US release.

You’re singing along, but you might not be eggs-actly right

What is Tim Rogers singing in the first verse of Berlin Chair? Is it, “If you wait, I’ll give all my eggs to you”?

Confusion over the lyric even became part of the storyline in the Tim Minchin TV series Upright.

The line is actually: “If you wait, I’ll give all my aches to you.”

The American label made a new video for Berlin Chair

Sadly, American audiences didn’t get to enjoy the silver-suited dancing man as the band’s US label insisted on a new clip.

Berlin Chair inspired Silverchair’s name … except it didn’t

Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou talk about the origins of the name Silverchair in their new book, Love & Pain. “One version of the story is simple: it’s from one of the C.S. Lewis Narnia books, The Silver Chair, written in 1953,” they write.

“Another involves all three of us sitting around at Ben’s house calling in to Triple J’s Request Fest on the radio. Dan wants to hear You Am I’s Berlin Chair, and Ben is gunning for Nirvana’s Sliver. Chris is writing the names down, but because he’s a bit dyslexic, he accidentally writes ‘Silverchair’. And so it became.

“The truth? We made that second story up entirely. Except for Chris having dyslexia, that’s true.”

Cover me

Berlin Chair has been covered by Kisschasy, Paul Dempsey and Smudge. And Holly Throsby did the song for Triple J’s Like A Version.

B-sides ourselves

The B-sides for the Sound As Ever singles are also noteworthy. Berlin Chair included covers of The Who’s I Can’t Explain, and Ross Wilson’s Mighty Kong track All I Wanna Do Is Rock (which You Am I retitled All I Want To Do Is Rock).

And Jaimme’s Got A Gal features the band’s take on The Beatles’ I’m So Tired.

You Am I are touring across Australia this November and December. You can find tickets here.



November 2023

Friday 3                     Torquay Hotel, Torquay

Saturday 4                 Archies Creek Hotel, Archies Creek

Monday 6                  The Prince, Melbourne

Friday 17                   King St Band Room, Newcastle

Saturday 18              Everglades, Woy Woy

Sunday 19                 Avalon Beach RSL, Avalon

Thursday 23              Dunsborough Hotel, Dunsborough

Friday 24                   Froth Craft Brewery, Bunbury

Saturday 25              Freo Social, Fremantle

Thursday 30             Cleveland Sands, Cleveland

December 2023

Friday 1                     The Triffid, Brisbane

Saturday 2                 Miami Marketta, Gold Coast

Sunday 3                   Kings Beach Tavern, Caloundra

Thursday 7                The Basement, Canberra

Friday 8                     SS&A Club, Albury

Saturday 9                 UniBar, Wollongong