Before we get on to the new album, you wrote the score to the Malthouse Theatre's Blood Wedding, which runs until August 19. How did it feel seeing that open?
It’s like sending the kids off to school. As it’s worked out, there’s very little music in it. I wrote a lot for it, but in theatre the music should only be there if it’s needed or desperately wanted – or if there’s something that can be added with it. I was going into it thinking, “Here’s the opening theme…” I’d have it start before the audience even arrives at the car park. And it just wasn’t needed. The director said to me a couple of weeks in, “Let’s let the actors and the script do their job and keep music out of it until the second act.” So I got to observe a lot of great actors.
Last year you acted as a troubadour-style narrator in Griffin's The Story of Mary MacLane By Herself alongside Bojana Novakovic, the latest in an impressive CV of acting roles.
I was glad to be along for the ride. I enjoyed parts of it and really didn’t enjoy others, but what I did enjoy was watching the director work and watching Bojana work. To be honest, I was quite disappointed with myself and really egotistical about the role, wanting it to be more – because the way we originally wrote it was that my character was the devil, and then that changed so I was very disappointed; totally ignoring that it was best for the play that that didn’t happen.
I thought your character was very nuanced.
I think I’ve been devoid of nuance after 25 years of being on stage, but it’s time to learn. Just working with the actors on Blood Wedding, their energy levels and attention to absolutely doing the best for each scene, and taking their ego right out of it – most of them – makes watching from the sidelines really exciting.
Is acting something you want to do more of?
I’d have to really, really work at it. I enjoy it but it’s project by project. Of course I’ve got a huge ambition towards it, I can’t lie to myself about that, but I don’t have much of a range. You get offered things about being an ex-drug-taking, ex-drinking rock’n’roller, but they’re just not all that interesting. To be physically challenged, for example, romantically, would be interesting. Play someone with a different sexuality. You know, to really push myself. However, if I don’t have the range or the skill then I can understand why I wouldn’t be offered to take the part in stuff like that. So in lieu of me having the time or the money to take myself off and learn, I’ll just continue to live my life and watch people and I’m learning from that.
Anything on the horizon?
Yeah, there are a couple of films coming up that are really interesting. They’re definites. Stuff that’s gonna take a lot of time and a lot of effort.
Presumably they’re under wraps?
Oh, ridiculously. But I love talking about them and I do. When I ran into one of the directors the other night he was like, “Tim!” [Mimics slashing a throat.] I’d thought that somehow, me talking about it… hey, it’s all publicity, right?
Your live shows of late incorporate the sort of warm, comedic banter folk used to tune into the wireless for. These fireside chats have very much become part of the performance people are there to see.
I hope it is. It’s taken a long while for me to be warm with people. I mean, early on it was just all so combative. But that’s just because you’re always expecting to get something thrown at you, for people have a go at you. And thankfully now, after about 15 years of having a really juvenile response, I try to make it more interesting for myself and more interesting for an audience. The stupid thing being – I thought about this when speaking with my dad the other week, because he’s such a good joke teller – I’m a terrible joke teller and possibly even worse at stories. Unless I’m in that Homer Simpson world of thinking you’re the funniest in the room because you just had 17 martinis. But on stage that in-between songs stuff works, because you’ve got command of its timing.
You can always strum a chord if it’s going wrong.
Yeah, quick: someone throw me a major 7. And I’ve just been really disappointed going on tour with other performers, other singers, when they present the same thing every night. “You guys rock, you’re unreal.”
“How you doing, Mel-born?”
Yeah, work on getting the pronunciation of the towns right. When I toured the States last month I was wondering how the hell all that stuff was gonna go, because I was just there by myself with a guitar, a couple of songs. And oddly enough it mostly worked. Some towns, like Philadelphia, one of my favourite towns in the world, didn’t like it all. I’d just seen my baseball team play for the first time, I was so happy, I was playing with this young kid, very handsome kid from somewhere in Canada now living in Brooklyn. I took him out for some drinks beforehand; I thought, “I’m supporting him, I’d better get him drunk.” Everything I tried just didn’t work that night. Then I played a club in Washington the next night and it worked.
Is it nice to play more elegant theatre tours – your Castlemaines, dinner performances and regional boltholes? Much more civilised.
Yeah, there’s a very strong image in my head of playing with You Am I in Reading in England – the town, not the festival – and walking to the dressing-room and the promoter goes, “There you go, boys.” Walking into this tiny room with a four-pack of lager on the ground and a couple of packets of chips. To be honest, at that stage we were happy to get anything, but to walk in and the dressing-room’s got a chair in it is great. You know, I might want to have a read. You just get brought up thinking that if you’re an artist you don’t deserve appreciation; you’ve really got to work for it. And I thought that’s why I supplemented it doing what I do with other more physical jobs, but no it’s just because it’s money.
But to be doing those venues where the whiskey’s actually quite good, you gotta take the perks when they come along. Just don’t depend on them. I remember the first tour You Am I did with a now really big American band, we were touring with them through Europe, they were on a separate record label and we really loved them – but they would just complain about everything. Like we’d walk into these venues in Germany and there were these huge platters of meat and bread as heavy as doorstops. This is 1995 or ’96 and we were probably a bit full of ourselves, but we we thought that was great, and then they would come in and start complaining.
You recorded Rogers Sings Rogerstein with Shane O’Mara as producer. He’s got a very unusual studio made of pushed mud, hasn’t he?
It’s a little joint just out the back of his house and Shane and I spend so much time together as friends that I tried to start making this record under the guise of: “Let’s just hang out” and then: “Oh, the record’s finished. Have I paid you enough in whiskey? I bought you dinner a couple of times.” I’d call him and whoever he was making a record with, I’d say, “Have they finished? I just wanted to try out something.”
We started doing a little boogie record, sort of a tribute to JJ Cale, just a drum machine and a couple of electric guitars. I was trying to encourage him to sing more and more and to write more with me. You know, he and I would have a similar aesthetic; I wanted us to gallop off into the sunset in our middle-aged, urbane kind of way. But at a certain point he caught me out and said, “Jolly, are you making a record?”
But still, it was done over nine months, trying to get an hour here and two hours there, because I never thought that I’d ever get the chance to do a record in the studio ever again; no one would put up money for it. So I had to ask a lot of favours. Then towards the end of it I chanced it and called Andy, You Am I’s bass player. He’s great at tour managing – he’s just got a level head and we just get on better now than we ever have – so I called up and asked him, “Can you manage me?” He said, “I’ll go away and think about it and I’ll come back in three weeks.” I was really hanging on it, because I needed something, it was all just chaos. He came back three weeks later and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
And so he managed to make sure everyone was paid, apart from me, and I just sold it to him. I said, “Andy I’ve got so much coming up in theatre and I’m writing so much at the moment, and I may have some life changes coming up soon… so come along for the ride, we’ll have a lot of fun. We can go into our forties, we can enjoy cocktail parties together, instead of, you know, hating each other in the back of a bus, hurtling through South Australia.” I think that really appealed to him.
My relationship with Shane, with Andy and with Rusty, who I was out with the other night, they’re these better, more involved, more expressive and passionate relationships, 24 years after first meeting each other. You’ve got to be an optimist to make this sort of music and to think that I can make records like this and people will be interested. So I’m optimistic that any personal relationships that I’m involved in will be ones full of passion, vitality, mishap and misdemeanour, even more so when I’m 60.
Tell us about Shel, your phantom co-composer and muse. He’s referred to in a suspiciously vague manner in your press material.
Someone got quite angry at me as though, you know: “How dare you make up something like this?” You expect truth from someone who writes songs? But it’s all true; he’s actually making some videos for me, he’s from Cleveland.
The vagaries are just because I feel in some way he’s a figment of my imagination. Because it’s ridiculous that someone so similar can exist and we get along, because I always thought if I met someone too similar to myself I’d want to slap them. He’s better looking than me, he’s more successful, he’s been through some break-ups, his kids are growing up… and I didn’t want to slap him. We have a really great relationship and I’m looking forward to why it is we can work together and not be afraid of it.
I think when Tex (Perkins) and I were working together it was some sort of brotherly love affair, but even though we never really said it, we looked at each other and thought, “We’re gonna kill each other if we continue to work together so let’s just be best mates and maybe sometime down the track…”
Why I chose to call the album Rogers Sings Rogerstein is it’s my little tip of the hat to Harry Nilsson, making his record of Randy Newman songs. That Shel’s contribution – the way he’s just coloured the record and pretty much coloured my whole life in the past half a year has made me feel a bit more optimistic about things, wanting to go on. So that’s my little personal thanks to him. When you see the video he’s making for the record, it will all make sense.
He and I met up at my favourite club in Cleveland. I hadn’t seen him in years and we laughed about that night and made plans to see a baseball game the night before I jumped on a bus to go to Washington DC. I got an address of a French restaurant, I thought we’re in Cleveland, let’s go to a French restaurant in the university district. We were just sitting around and he said, “Tim, so what are you listening to?” and I said “I’ve been listening to a lot of tango…” He looked at me open-jawed, saying, “I’m a tango dancer.”
I’m not yet a tango dancer, but I’m about to be – and he and his partner were as well. What are the chances that these two 40-year-old gentlemen who hadn’t seen each other for a little while would be eating beautiful French food on a budget and talking about tango? Too many Edmund White novels. [Pulls one out of his pocket.] The Flaneur is the one where he just walks through the streets of Paris and observes. Being one who walks kind of obsessively, beating camellias with my cane, it appeals to me. I’ve taken a bit of time off from my day job before the tour starts, and this week is pretty much free. I panicked. I woke up this morning and thought, “Oh shit, what am I going to do? What I should do? I’m gonna have fun, go on a holiday, go see a movie.” But I see that as being incredibly indulgent, whereas if I went to cocktails at midday, I see that as something creative and it’s an achievement.
What’s your day job?
I do some gardening and some dish washing. My gardening boss is a very dear friend and extremely patient.
Oh, I was picturing you on an estate with rich women staring at you.
See, in my mind that’s how it is, then I catch myself in the mirror and I’m like, “Oh. I’m not quite the rippling young gardener.” No, it’s not Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
A particularly beautiful song on the record is ‘Part Time Dads’ (“Get informed of the lice / But never asked for advice”). Your songs about daughter Ruby are forming a scrapbook of sorts.
Any time I would sing about her – and definitely before putting it on the record – I tried to think it through: is this the right thing to do? It’s not all about my relationship with Ruby; it’s half a character where the song’s about me and also about other people. It’s all quite blurry.
I don’t want to use her, but it’s also a keeping touch with her. She lives a great life in New York. Her mum’s done very well for her and will continue to do so. But there’s a lot of distance between us and if something happens to me, there’s all this stuff around that will remind her, “Wow, my dad really loved me.” And I figure if you’re thinking about someone that amount of time, it’s gotta come out in song sometimes. And I am expressive about my relationship with her and my care for her. It comes more naturally for me to be very open about things and I hope it’s not a mistake. I hope not. But you know, I’ve made some very big mistakes in my life.
Your own dad pops up in songs sometimes. Is he someone you talk to about your career?
No, he’ll call when something great happens; if there’s a good mention or if I’m photographed with someone from the A list. I was reading this great Bruce Springsteen article in The New Yorker last night where Bruce was talking about the relationship with his dad – which was terrible – and he quoted T Bone Burnett, who said rock’n’roll was one large cry of “Daddy! Daddy!”
My dad was just this huge, big strong presence in me growing up, and a bit mythical really, because he used to travel a lot for work. So for him to be challenged a lot over the last couple of years – a couple of cancers, couple of heart operations, knee operations – that was big for me. When anything great comes up I’ll be like, “Have you seen it? I did great, didn’t I? Eh? Eh?”
Is that the only place you look for validation?
No, I look for it in the newsagent, in the papers. Dennis, a Big Issue seller on Acland Street, we met up last night to have a chat – he writes poetry and we’re thinking about doing some stuff together – and he was like, “You were in the Herald Sun over the weekend, Timmy.” And I think, “Good – Dennis is happy he’s seen his mate in the paper.” I look for validation everywhere. It’d be great not to, but I wonder why I tire even very dear people to me. I’ll be making a cup of tea and come out with: “Hey, guess what I got asked to do today? Guess which film I’m in now?” Really I should just wrap a bow around my waist and say, “Hey honey, I’m looking good, aren’t I?”