Dream Theater have been at the top of the game for such a long time …
ICYMI: Hard-Ons have recruited Tim Rogers as their new lead singer.
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But fear not, You Am I fans: Rogers has confirmed he will continue fronting both bands for as long as they will have him. And how could anyone deny Rogers this opportunity to make his teen-fanboy rock’n’roll dreams come true by becoming an honourary Hard-On?
Our interest was piqued with the August release of Hold Tight, the explosive, hook-laden lead single from Hard-Ons’ upcoming (and brilliantly titled) 13th album Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken.
Then follow-up single, Lite As A Feather – which oozes swoon-worthy choruses and blazing riffs – followed in September, complete with a ‘70s bubble card-themed accompanying music video that features all four current band members swapping instruments and aping each other’s steez. Essential viewing.
When we Zoomed two Hard-Ons at a time, there was reminiscence galore and maximum mutual admiration on display. For Part One, we checked in with bassist Ray Ahn and drummer Murray Ruse to get the lowdown on what Rogers brings to the band and the various influences (including Motown) that colour I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken.
Hysteria: What was the last actual gig that you guys played?
Ray: That must’ve been November last year.
Murray: Was that the Crowbar? Was that the weekend when there were three shows?
R: I can’t remember.
M: It’s so long ago; that’s another lifetime. It felt like it was sort of getting back to normal at that time – it felt like that was the start of it – and then we sort of had plans to do a lot more and then, yeah, this [Delta] happened, obviously.
At what stage was your new album I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken created in relation to the global pandemic? Can you give us a brief timeline?
M: We’ve been writing it for a while. So I live in Newcastle, they live in Sydney. Blackie [Peter “Blackie” Black, guitarist/primary songwriter] starts writing stuff as soon as he’s finished the last one or he never stops. But I was travelling down to Sydney every week since the end of last year, writing that album, and we jammed over a few months – so [the album was created] at the end of last year and the start of this year.
R: Yeah, we stopped jamming around March due to a few reasons that were beyond our control – for a month we didn’t do anything – but then we got straight back into it once we figured that Tim Rogers was gonna be singing on the record.
M: But most of the album was pretty much written, it was 90% there by March.
R: Yeah, we had demos with Blackie singing all the lead vocals at that stage. So we just didn’t have a lead singer, because Blackie didn’t want to sing on the album.
Did much change from those original demos once Tim took the mic?
R: Musically speaking – the instrumentation – it was pretty much all worked out. But I think the biggest thing was two of the songs didn’t have any melody lines, because they were riff-based rather than melody-based, so it was just the riff that was written and we worked out how to play those songs really well. We left it up to Tim – once he joined the band –
to come up with the melody line and the lyrics for those two songs: one’s called The Laws Of Gossip and the other one is called Frequencies, and they’re both on the album.
M: Tim added a lot to all the other songs as well. He put a lot in in the studio; just little things that added a lot to the songs, I think.
R: Yeah, there were vocal lines that he added, there were harmony bits he added, slightly different interpretations of the melody line that he added – so he wasn’t just sitting there delivering as per required, he was actually actively forcing his ideas onto the band, ‘cause we asked him to contribute as much as he was comfortable doing.
M: He’d done a lot of homework on the drive between Melbourne and Sydney, I think, coming up with those things.
How long did you spend in the recording studio with Tim, all up?
R: We did two rehearsal sessions with Tim – they were both about two-and-a-half hours each – so probably the four of us were in the studio together for about five hours, just running through the songs and letting Tim sing them over and over again until we kind of decided what was working and what wasn’t working.
And at the beginning Tim said if he sounds no good [we should] just tell him, ‘And I won’t be offended, I’ll just drive straight back to Melbourne and start crying’ [laughs]. In our minds we had no doubt it was going to work, but the recording was really quick as well.
Did Tim seem overawed to be in the studio recording with the Hard-Ons since he openly admits you guys are his musical heroes?
R: Me and Tim have been friends for a while so I thought he wouldn’t be overawed at all, but he told me that when he came into rehearsal with me, Blackie and Murray he went back to his early childhood, when he was a teenager and had seen the band for the first time. So he had to try and reconcile the current situation of him being in the band that he liked when he was young, and he said that he felt a bit overawed by that time juxtaposition. He was just a little bit freaked out, yeah.
But, I mean, I don’t know if you know of a band called the Victims? Well, do you know that band Hoodoo Gurus? Yeah, so the drummer from Victims [James Baker] formed Hoodoo Gurus with the other founding member, Dave [Faulkner]. Dave and James – when they were kids together, just out of high school in the mid-to-late ‘70s – were in a band called the Victims. They put out two records, I’ve got both of them and they were my favourite band when I was growing up. And when I was a 15-year-old kid I had a home-made Victims T-shirt and I remember showing a photograph to James, the drummer, and Dave, he’s seen that [photo], and so they knew how much I liked the Victims.
And then they re-formed a few years ago to play some shows and they asked me to play bass for them, because they didn’t really get along with the bass player and, yeah! I was really overawed. The Hard-Ons are much bigger than the Victims ever were, but I was playing in this band that I liked when I was a kid so it felt really weird. I just kept on saying, ‘Well, you tell me what to do. I’ll just do what you tell me to do,’ and Dave and James kept on saying, ‘Look, you’re in the Victims now so you’re exactly a third; we want you to have a say in what we do and everything like that.’ I said, ‘Well, I feel a little bit overawed.’
And I think, in a similar way, Tim might have been a bit like that at the start. He was like, ‘I’ll do whatever you tell me to do,’ but we quickly said to him, ‘No, we won’t tell you what to do, we’ll get you to contribute,’ you know? [Laughs]
Because what’s the point in having someone in the band unless they can really stretch out and back themselves and, you know, go into the kitbag of every little bit of talent resource that they have and put it at their disposal for the good of the band. So that’s what we wanted Tim to do: just stretch out and give us his entire arsenal rather than us just going, ‘This is what you’re doing, that’s the vocal line, go and sing it for us,’ you know what I mean? So we wanted him to be an equal fourth member of the band for this project, as it were.
Yeah, I think Tim really suits the band. Because when I asked [Tim] to join the band one of the reasons I thought he would work is…
[ Murray Ruse ]
Because it’s Tim Fuckin’ Rogers! He’s a star!
[ Ray Ahn ]
Murray, did Tim playing with the Hard-Ons remind you of when you first joined the band back in 2011?
M: No, no. Different. Very, very different [laughs]. Actually when I joined it was a three-piece… Well then I guess it is similar, because, I mean, I grew up listening to the Hard-Ons and although we’d been friends for a long time, to actually be in the band and playing, yeah! I dunno, I hadn’t actually thought about that: you know, being friends but then once you’re actually playing together, yeah, that is a whole new thing.
But those first few jams with Tim – we just jelled straight away. I think everyone – we had been doing so much work leading up to those first rehearsals – like, we’d written all the songs and played them over and over – and Tim had done so much homework so that when we first got together everyone was well practised and excited about the whole thing so, yeah! In those two practices it was kind of like, ‘Oh, well, let’s go and record it!’
R: Yeah, I think Tim really suits the band. Because when I asked him to join the band one of the reasons I thought he would work is…
M: Because it’s Tim Fuckin’ Rogers! [Laughs] He’s a star!
R: Yeah, there’s a quality that I really like about him and it’s that he’s got all these obvious musical talents, and even if you take away his charisma and all that kind of stuff, when you see him live, there’s something there about his talent. He’s a musician that knows his talent really well and knows how to back himself to do something. And, without sounding too arrogant, me, Blackie and Murray are similar in that we have a really good grasp of what we can do and what we can’t do, and I’m very, very conscious of what I can’t do as the bass player, but I know really well what I can do and what works for a song. So the three of us know what to do for a certain song.
For example, Murray tends to be more than average, an explosive kind of a drummer where there’s a lot more rollicking drum fills. And stuff like that, in a lot of ways, shapes the way I have to play a lot of the songs; I just drive right in the middle of what he does. Other times, if I try and join in, it just sounds like me and him falling down the stairs with our instruments, you know? I’ve worked out what Murray does, and I know what works and what doesn’t work, and when I do meet him and join in with embellishments and stuff like that I know exactly when to do that.
So the three of us are really good at knowing how to play a song for the Hard-Ons and I always thought that Tim had that ability to back himself, to be able to access the talents that he’s got really well in order to play the song. And it was obvious as soon as Tim started playing the songs that he knew where his vocals went and what the approach should be. And then if we made adjustments and we told him, ‘Maybe do it this way or do it that way’ – well, mainly Blackie – he adapted really quick. You need someone like that in a band… And we knew that he would be like that, you know. He’s got all his talents and he’s very confident in what he does, because I’d say, ‘Can you do that?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, I reckon I could do it, Ray. I reckon I could do it, but I’ll have to practise by myself for a while. But I reckon I could do it. You just watch,’ and, yeah! You need someone like that in a band, just to get things done.
What would you say you learnt from working with Tim?
R: I learnt a lot from recording with Tim. When we were doing this record I just realised how melody-driven our songs are and how we could have someone’s soulful approach to the vocals like that and still make it work for the songs that we had. Keish [de Silva], our previous singer, his vocal approach was a lot less soulful – you know, he sang in key and everything, but he didn’t have Tim’s breathiness, he didn’t have Tim’s soulful approach. I mean, they’re two different singers. But we knew Tim would work.
When did you first meet Tim, Ray?
R: I didn’t meet him first I met his bass player Nick Tischler, he was a high school kid that used to come and see the Hard-Ons back in the mid-to-late ‘80s, and he’d always tell me about forming a band with two brothers, Jaimme and Tim Rogers, out northwest of Sydney where he used to live. They formed a band called You Am I and so I became friends with Nick and we kept in touch. He called me to invite me to a gig and I went to a few of their early gigs where there was no one there, but even back then you could kind of tell that there was a fair bit of talent in that band. The first time I met Tim I thought he was quite shy, but you don’t see that on stage obviously.
So we would’ve met each other in the late ‘80s and the first gig that we did together would have been in 1991. We played at a pub in North Sydney, they were the support band and Nick was still in the band. The bass player. Jaimme, Tim’s brother, had quit the band, but they had a different drummer, a guy named Mark [Tunaley]. And then in 1993 the Hard-Ons went on tour around Australia for the Big Day Out with You Am I and who else? Iggy Pop and Helmet, Sonic Youth… And so obviously I saw Tim then, I bumped into him many times, but when you both play in different touring bands, you don’t always see each other. So I hadn’t seen him for a long time, you know, we’d kept in touch by email here and there and that’s about it. So I hadn’t physically seen him for probably, I dunno, about two years or something like that.
Who came up with the excellent album title, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken?
R: That was Blackie again.
It’s so hilarious and would make a great T-shirt slogan. I reckon a lot of people would want to own that merch.
R: Yeah, we’ve got a T-shirt design ready to go pretty soon. Blackie’s come up with the last few record titles. He’s got a pretty surreal sense of humour; it’s not straightforward, what he says – a little bit like his lyrics nowadays [laughs]. The last album was called So I Could Have Them Destroyed – there are a few layers of what he’s trying to say; he’s not always obvious, you know? But, yeah, we usually let Blackie come up with stuff like that just so that we don’t have to think about it.
You score a co-writing credit on Back Pack Sweat, Murray. Tell us a bit more about that.
M: [Laughs] I wrote a riff! It’s pretty amazing that Blackie has actually credited me for that. We were just literally jamming on this riff – he only had the first part – and this riff just popped into my head, and I just grabbed Ray’s bass and fumbled through what was in my head and so, yeah! It’s more funny than anything that he’s credited me.
Is that your first Hard-Ons songwriting credit?
M: Yeah, yeah. Even though I’ve written all the drums but, you know, it doesn’t count [laughs]. [Back Pack Sweat] is one of the more punky and faster sort of ones on the album.
R: A minute-and-a-half, it goes for.
My favourite song on the album at the moment is another heavy one, Humiliated/Humiliator.
M: That’s the closest one to the Hard-Ons’ metal sort of sound. I’ve seen comments, ‘Oh, it doesn’t sound like the Hard-Ons, it sounds like You Am I,’ and it’s like, ‘This whole album was written before Tim was even anywhere near the band,’ you know? So the album’s quite different – just ‘cause you brought up Humiliated/Humiliator, that’s the heaviest thing on there; it definitely stands out from the rest of [the songs], but, yeah, I just wanted to make the point that the album was already done [before Tim came on board]; for some reason the band had already sort of gone in that direction.
Have you each got a favourite song on this album at the moment?
M: My favourite track is Needles And Pins. It really surprised me, ‘cause when we were writing it – Blackie comes up with all the songs and we just jam and get them together – I wasn’t particularly drawn to the song at first, but once we recorded it and then Tim put his vocals on it it just – I dunno, to me it came out really well.
R: Blackie rang me one day and said, ‘Look, I’ve written a song that has the nuance and the ethos of Motown.’ And I’ve known Blackie a lot longer than I’ve known Murray, so we had a lot of similar music taste when we were growing up. And one of the things that we both really liked when we were kids was Motown music. So the Hard-Ons are hugely influenced by American girl groups like The Shangri-Las and things like that, but also Motown music – you know, the Four Tops, The Supremes, that kind of stuff; we really like it, because of the importance of the vocal structures and whatnot. So that really influenced Blackie’s songwriting.
Do you know a band called The Jam from the ‘70s? They’re from the UK. Yeah, so they are one of my all-time favourite bands. I love them because they were like a punk band as it were – ‘cause they started in ‘76, ‘77 – and they were really unlike the other punk bands that were influenced by things like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls and stuff like that, and garage punk. The Jam were really heavily influenced by soul music – Stax soul, Motown, Philly soul; you could tell that they were really influenced by that. They did covers by bands like The Supremes and whatnot, and I really liked that sound, you know? That modern-day, really muscly, pushy rhythm grafted onto very soulful melody lines and that’s always been a big part of the Hard-Ons: people who know us know that we’re really influenced by that kind of stuff. But, you know, when you go and call yourself a punk band – or people call US a punk band, I just don’t really think that.
So Blackie rang me and said, ‘Look, I’ve got a song that’s like a Motown-style song,’ and he meant it as in a very, very strong backbeat and it’s got this really fantastic, catchy, neck-snapping backbeat, you know? The snare’s fantastic. There’s all this space in that song, which is really good, and the melody fits so well. And I have to say Tim Rogers really made that song come to life. When we heard Tim record it, the three of us listened to it and thought that Tim did a really great job bringing the song to the utmost fruition, as it were. Didn’t you think that Murray? Tim really brought the song to life?
M: Absolutely, yeah. To go back to what I said about not being that into it at first, the drum beats all tend to kind of be the same so, for me, I guess I was unsure what I was doing with that song at first, but by the time we recorded it, I think I’d picked up what Blackie was sort of looking for; even though I still find it hard, because it’s essentially the same drum beat, but just the feel of it [is different]. We made it there in the end but, yeah! What Tim put on it was so – just the little things, the little breaths that he does in there and…
R: He does have a soulful voice. And the usual Hard-Ons method in recording vocals has always been something that we took from the original punk bands from the ‘70s, like, the Ramones and The Damned would be our two big influences in recording our vocals. So what they used to do – if you go and listen to the first Ramones record, or the first few Damned records, the lead singer sings the song twice so every vocal track is double-tracked. And so we did the same for all our records; if you listen to all of our records, they’ve got that hallmark.
And the idea is that you make the muscle of the music drive the band. So you don’t really need that personal touch of one person singing to the whole world, but you’ve got this melody line that just becomes part of the instrumentation. But, you know, you can push the drums and the guitars right up in the mix and make it really blistering to the ears, but when you double-track the vocals you don’t bury them; you push them so they can compete with the other instruments.
It’s a fantastic technique for a punk band playing that kind of music – that driving music – but if you listen to that song Needles And Pins, Tim only has one vocal line. And that was needed, because it’s a love song. So similar to when you listen to Diana Ross & The Supremes, it’s like one person singing to just one person – it’s very personal. And Tim’s vocals – because he’s such a soulful singer, he can pull that off. So I don’t know if Blackie had the confidence that he could do that one-vocal approach, but we had the confidence that Tim could and he did a fantastic job; it’s very soulful and it’s very personal the way he sang it, you know. As Murray said, there’s breathiness to his singing. The stereotypical soul approach is to be breathy so that you can hear the singer breathing out or breathing in, you can hear that really intimate singing style, and Tim had that.
And that’s why I asked him to join the band, because I think one thing that really excited me was that song Needles And Pins, because when we were demoing it I thought, ‘Tim would do this really, really well.’ And I think I was right.
Tim really tapped into his soulful side when he recorded The Rules Of Attraction album with The Bamboos as well.
R: Yeah, he’s no slouch, Tim… I always knew that Tim was a really, really supremely talented guy. I mean, he can play guitar like no one’s business, but his singing and his songwriting are pretty incredible as well.
M: We were calling him the vocal chameleon when we were recording. And actually my friends that I’ve played the record to have all said, ‘Oh, it’s good that he hasn’t just come in and sung like he does in You Am I.’ And in every song he’s catered to the soul of that song, or the essence of the song. And he’s actually really excited to play the heavier stuff as well, I think.
We were pretty stoked with the recent Hard-Ons Australian tour announcement. So you’ll be playing shows around the country next year?
R: Oh, yeah, fingers crossed. I mean, right now I’d kill for a band practice, you know? [Laughs] I’d kill to be able to be in the same room as my bandmates just for half an hour’s practice – I’d kill for that!
In all our cases – including Tim and Murray – we’ve been playing in bands since we were little kids, really. I mean, I started when I was 16, Blackie started when he was 15, Murray started when he was really young. Didn’t you start when you were 16 or something, Murray?
M: Yeah, 14 or something!
R: Yeah, I think Tim started playing in a band when he was 15 or something, so it’s almost like it’s all we really know. And the other big thing is that even when you’re down in the dumps, your band and your bandmates are always there for you.
M: There’s been times like after the recording – ‘cause we were all really happy with [the album], immediately, and so there’s been a lot of group emails, I’ve gotta say, that have really cheered me up in the last few months. I mean, we are always separate anyway – living in different cities – but we usually catch up a lot more than this. I have really enjoyed getting the group email through.