“I think I’ve figured out a way to get by…”
And with that I was rapt with attention. I had heard the song before, but it was finally time to hear a real solution to something both as ambiguous and specific as winning life, from a man who I believe could really tell me — a genuine Australian rock star. It all made sense.
This band in my headphones had overtaken my listening for the past few months. I was 26 and vacuuming a church. My band had recently whimpered to a slow and unheralded death because, well, no one outside of the band cared. (Which reminds me to try and track down our old Myspace. For kicks.) But here! Here was a solution from a man I wanted to be, a man who had seen the world and written some of my favorite (and similarly saddest) songs. If that isn’t a (the) qualification to tell me the solution to life, then I’m not sure what it would be.
I was a month into this gentleman’s music completely diverting all of my listening habits away from everything else — those buzzy new releases, familiar classics, seasonal mainstays — and this, alone, could have been the culmination of my obsession.
Total and complete devotion to a band’s discovery — where all other recorded music reverts to a state of irrelevancy — has happened to me a few times. These are the bands where you devour even their demos and scraps, and you listen with the fervency of other artists’ musical high-water marks.
You’re asking for a negligible return while still attaching some sort of credibility for devoting a portion of one’s hard drive space.
The two main ingredients for this level of infatuation, as I’ve uncovered, are mystique (an almost intangible allure to the legend of the band) and great, great music. As soon as you hit a road block, an unengaging album, even a tepid middle section on an otherwise solid release, the momentum slows. The band’s body of work has to maintain an across-the-board level of quality to constantly keep you reaching for the next phase. It helps, too, if the band is quasi-self-destructive, irreverent, border-line destitute with equal parts charm and a tossed-off talent, the kind whose early shows were zine-traded triumphs and antics were relayed with both you-had-to-have-been-there honor badge and disdain (hello, The Replacements).
You Am I are a little known band stateside, mostly due to poor exposure and a meager attempt to squeeze them into the thrift store grunge sweater of Nirvana. In actuality, they are a blend of the Kinks, the Clash and the Replacements, with a frontman in Tim Rogers that can rival any of those guys and with lyrics both witty and introspectively soul-stirring, all forced through the sieve of charming Australian colloquialism.
Part of their allure was their inaccessibility. After a solid recommendation, I couldn’t get most of their music, other than sporadic YouTube videos. Pre-Spotify, they weren’t available on most U.S. download sites and certainly not in any U.S. retail stores. To legitimately purchase a You Am I release, I had to utilize eBay, even if through a third party. This meant being air-mailed from Australia, often resulting in postage costlier than the product itself. Every arrival was an event, carefully budgeted (around $20 USD an album) and anticipated with a careful debit balance and a prayer for international transit to be gentle on my jewel cases.
When I worked with a church youth group, I had a degree of influence over the next generation, and when they didn’t think they knew absolutely everything about the world, they would occasionally let me offer a suggestion about it, be it Christ, morality, art. In those rare moments, I was able to give the occasional music recommendation that was received with as a nugget of wisdom from a guy who spent way too much time listening, dissecting and waxing poetic about classic, new and underground. But what would happen? A youth would take a recommendation like “check out the Who” and go home and download their entire discography in a few button clicks. If you like rock music, you can’t dismiss the Who, but without a proper entry point and with minimal value attached to the torrented files, this ultimately cheapened their entire output by making it both completely accessible and entirely indigestible for their attention spans. You’re asking for a negligible return while still attaching some sort of credibility for devoting a portion of one’s hard drive space. We’re granted rights to say, “I own their every output,” with the correlation of “I get them,” without asking for more than a passing look at a few hits and then on to the next craveable legacy band.
I struggled with this in my own way, during my own “Great Awakening” post-high school (also known as the “Dark Ages”). It started with a period of great discovery; I would work through my favorite bands’ influences, as rooted in the age-old practice of tracing lineage through liner notes for the thank yous to other kin bands. In this case, I was descending into past generations of the alternative forefathers, the waves of bands prior to my formative golden age of the early 2000s. It starts simple enough: The Get Up Kids put out an odds and ends release, compiling 7” singles, B-sides and covers, giving me bands like The Replacements, The Cure and New Order. The Ataris have a song aptly titled “Song for a Mixtape” where they detail their own love-struck compilation of Mineral, Jawbreaker, Built to Spill and the Descendants. Bleach told me about Pedro the Lion. MxPx had some of their earliest promo photos sporting NOFX.
But I was standing over the buffet, and everything looked good. I found myself on a download spree, consuming bands faster than I could truly appreciate them — even faking genuine appreciate — in part fueled by my musical guru friend who liked to compete in the most innocuous and brazen namedrop sessions you can imagine. You soon realize that the hardest thing in the music-fanatic world is admitting you’ve never heard of a band and must therefore acknowledge another hipster’s dominance (often seen in the wild by a graceful head-lowering gesture into a craft beer). “That sounds awesome. Do you listening to the band XX?” “No, but I’ve heard of them!” This led me to having a Descendants poster on my wall for a few years because I was supposed to like them. They helped shaped modern pop-punk (a Hot Topic favorite!). Of course I like them. Do I listen to them? Well… But I “own” their entire discography (thanks Limewire!) Quiz me! I can name at least two songs by them (and, in their case, hand draw all of their album art to near perfection).
With You Am I, I was hooked. I had a thirst for each subsequent release, having discovered them nearly 20-years into their storied career and with seven impeccable releases under their belt. (Now eight.) I was forced to apply monetary value to each individual release, and I was forced myself to devote a crazy two-week, undivided attention span to each of their studio albums. And it all lead to this. This revelation:
“I’ve figured out a way to get by…” couched nicely in the bridge, track five on their fourth studio album, giving a new meaning to the two verses and repeated chorus before it. Some bands are a warm blanket, tried and true, only seeming to get cozier the more worn and frayed they become. Some bands are like a shot to the system, a blast of amphetamine in the way they pour over you, like a cold shower snapping you awake to the beauty in music, life, old chord progressions and the well of creative inspiration that looks like you can see the bottom but is really just your own reflection with the ceiling behind you. You Am I have the rare quality of a band that can be as reassuring as an old friend and unexpectedly freewheeling — who gets drunk at your wedding to find the words to toast your love with charm, aplomb, wit, and danger. Before Tim Rogers ever told me his solution to get by, I already knew it. I turned their music up and forgot I was a janitor.