Latest release: I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken (Cheersquad)
At the beginning of the year, the Hard-Ons were set to be celebrated in one of the most righteous ways possible when rock documentarian Jonathan Sequeira announced a film about the band was being readied for release next year. Then, while anticipation for that began to buzz and guitarist Peter “Blackie” Black was in the middle of one of his extensive solo tours, things took a dark and dramatic turn.
When allegations of sexual misconduct against singer Keish de Silva went public, shit got real fast. The film was canned and all the band’s upcoming shows were blown out when Keish was immediately fired and the Hard-Ons no longer had a vocalist. There was almost complete silence from the usually very, very noisy band for months.
Then, like a stealth bomber attack, the Hard-Ons dropped one of the biggest surprises in Australian rock history when they announced their new vocalist would be none other than uberfan Tim Rogers from You Am I. Facebook fan pages almost broke under the weight of the disbelief, surprise and anger expressed by fans of both bands. But it was too late to be upset. The new Hard-Ons album, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken, was already completed and the second of two singles – Lite as a Feather – was about to be released as we caught up with Ray Ahn in Sydney and Tim Rogers in Hobart for what amounts to a tale of Aussie music history and mutual admiration.
L: Let’s start with you, Ray. It didn’t start out as the greatest of years for the Hard-Ons.
R: No, it didn’t, but to be really honest, Brian, I can’t really talk about it because it’s in the hands of solicitors and stuff. So we’re not really allowed to discuss it at all. But it wasn’t good, that’s for sure.
L: Things have certainly taken a strange turn. Tim, I’ve always hoped that I’d be interviewing you one day, but I never thought it would be as the singer for the Hard-Ons!
T: Well… it’s weird and… exciting? [laughs] I hope it’s OK for you. I’ll treat you tenderly.
L: It was a very strange situation when this was announced. A lot of people couldn’t believe what was going on. There was some belief that it was some kind of hoax, or something.
T: Me too!
R: I still can’t believe it.
T: Brian, when Ray called me, I was out walking in St. Kilda for the first time in… however long. I got a call from Ray and I thought, “Fuck, I haven’t spoken to Ray in a while”, so we chatted. I was kinda cagey, at first I thought it might be a stitch up [Ray laughs]. First I asked if everyone was OK. I was, of course, concerned about what was going on, and then I said yes to everything. I think Ray and I spoke again two days later and I got the feeling it was for real, because I spoke to Blackie as well. Then I put petrol in my car and couldn’t wait to drive to Sydney.
L: It must have been a very strange phone call to take. Ray, what made you call Tim?
R: The main thing was that we had recording booked and all the songs were being worked on and sounding really good. For one reason or another, we didn’t have a lead singer anymore. I asked Blackie, “Are we still doing this album?” and he said, “Yeah, yeah, the songs are good.” I said, “Yeah I know the songs are good, but are we still doing it?” He said, “Yeah, we’re still doing it,” so I said, “Who’s going to sing?” and he said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Are you singing?” and he said no. So I said, “All right, leave it with me.” And then I rang Tim. I didn’t really think about anything other than whose vocals would really suit these songs we had. Because we just wanted the singer to be really suited to these songs we had. I couldn’t think of anyone better than Tim. We liked the approach that he had to vocals, and they were really going to suit these songs. When you hear the songs, you’ll understand that Tim’s vocals are perfect for these songs. We’re really happy with it. So, when we started practising with Tim, the first day… Tim had driven up from Melbourne and after two songs, I said, “Stop! Stop! I’ve heard enough! It’s working!” Blackie and Murray, our drummer, we called each other and said “Now we understand!” I was right the whole time. The vocals are perfect for these songs. He’s the right man for our band, right now. It’s working really well. And I think Tim would also agree that he fits the band’s sound really well.
L: Tim, the fact that Ray thought to call you and thought those songs would fit your voice must have been mindblowing for you. The fact that they could have called anyone, and they called Tim Rogers.
T: Oh yes. And, look, you can choose to be intimidated by that to the point of conniptions, or you can just think, “Well, Ray and I have known each other for a long, long time, and that guy has an incredible musical mind and, also, not only that, but he’s got a pretty keen awareness of social responsibility and sociality, really”. Blackie I didn’t know so well, but I just respected that guy so much in our conversations, and in reading about him, even more so. So I just thought, If those two guys thought I could do a good job, I’m not gonna question myself anymore, because I respect their opinions. So I’m just going to rise above, be that person, and rise up to that level. Then, in the first rehearsal, it was the first time I’d met Murray. I’d seen Murray from a distance and he’s an intimidating character. He’s either the lead in a romantic comedy, or an axe murderer. I could never tell. I just love his playing so much. But then, within five minutes, I thought, If this guy thinks I can do it, I’m going to. If you put faith in people, it’s amazing what they can do. I’m 120%, 123% the person I was before, since these blokes showed a little faith.
L: They had the songs, but you must have had some level of input as well. What did you bring to the Hard-Ons along with your voice?
T: Just enthusiasm, I think, Brian. I’m a fan, first and foremost. I’m going to do anything I can to not let this band, that I fucking adore, and I’ve adored for so long, and I respect… they don’t want me to be anyone else, I never got the feeling that they wanted me to replicate anything, whether it’s Keish or Jerry (A.) or Henry (Rollins) or anything. I remember driving up to Sydney and listening to nothing but Dez Cadena’s vocals on Black Flag records, because he was my favourite of their vocalists… I love Henry to death, but Dez just had this kind of loose thing. And I thought, well I’m kinda thin and I’ve got a big nose as well, so maybe that’s where I slot in. So I was just trying to rise to the occasion, I guess.
R: I think, for me, the reason it was gonna work was because Tim’s vocals, and his approach, has a quality that we really could use in the Hard-Ons that we didn’t really explore that much. You know, (Dan) McCafferty from Nazareth and Noddy (Holder) from Slade, those English singers who have got that right amount of melody, but are gruff, have that razorblade approach but there’s also something smokey, something soulful about that approach. It’s a really gritty approach that Tim had, and I knew that he liked that kind of vocal approach as well. He must have, because some of the bands I would hear Tim name-check would have those vocal approaches, and I thought, this is something we didn’t have. That straddling of melody and razorblade, that smokiness. We didn’t really ever have that. We always had the melodic approach or the scream, but nothing that sits in both camps at the same time like Tim has. I don’t know it that makes sense, but somehow, I just had this idea that his vocals were gonna work. The quality of his vocals – forget about the phrasing or anything like that – just the quality of his voice was gonna work with our band. I just knew it. And I was right! After the first band practise, Blackie rang me and said, “You were right!” I said, “Come on, man, when am I ever wrong?”
L: Well if you don’t mind me saying so, that first track you released sounded something like the Ramones jamming with Pete Townshend and coming up with the Buzzcocks.
T: That’s all right mate!
R: None of those bands are bad bands, so I’m all right with that!
L: There’s been some pretty strong reactions from fans of both the Hard-Ons and You Am I, because there was some shock – not the least from you guys yourselves – that it’s worked as well as it has.
R: I think a lot of the problem is that, people that are not in the band don’t give that band enough credit. They don’t have enough faith in bands to be able to come up with really weird decisions that work.
L: What about you, Tim? It didn’t take you long to throw your hat in the ring. I remember reading things with you over the years and you’ve always name-checked the Hard-Ons.
T: They were the first band that I could go and see. We’d go and see a show, me and my best mate, and my brother. And one day I’ll be able to exacerbate why it was so important, but it was hero worship. Then we’d go to see them, and there they were. Then on the drive back to northwest Sydney we’d talk about the sneakers that Ray was wearing or the amp settings that Peter had, or the way that Keish could look over his left shoulder and play, and we’d talk about the minutiae of it. We just saw it! It’s really quite something, and I guess when musicians say that these records, you think they’re made by wizards, and then you see it, and that band is right in front of you, which is quite something when we’re in the rehearsal room… me, as nervous as hell, Ray plugged in and I thought, There’s his sound! That hiss! There’s nothing more evocative as a musician when you’re going through equipment that you know, and the sound is distinctive. Looking over at Murray, who’s such a monster player, and looking at his face when he’s playing, or at his shoulders – that’s how that happens! And Peter’s guitar… I’ve been deafened by that fucking amplifier by decades.
But apart from anything else, if there are You Am I fans who aren’t aware of the last six Hard-Ons LPs and flexi-singles, that means they get to hear those, and I consider that a job done, even if I never get to step onstage with the band. If people think they know what the Hard-Ons are about, I need them to listen to, not just this record that we’ve made together, but decades of Hard-Ons records that just have the most exquisite fucking punk rock songs, rock and roll songs, instrumentals. Get into Nunchukka (Superfly), get into Peter’s solo records, get into WOG, the records Ray makes… there’s so much amazing fucking music to be heard!
L: I think that the Hard-Ons have provided the foundation for so much Australian independent music for the last 30 years, or longer, and, as you did, Tim, I’ve been following them from the beginning and it was interesting how much they influenced the stuff that came out of 90s. Your band, for example, and other bands that came out around the same time as You Am I, had the Hard-Ons to thank for a lot of that.
T: We started out playing a mixture of Hard-Ons covers and Aerosmith, which is… (Ray laughs) go work that out! But one thing that got us, and I think was really influential, was just how gracious the band were with fans and they gave a lot more than they received to other bands they played with. You never saw a Hard-Ons show without thinking that those guys were giving anything less than 100% And they were really cool with people. The first time we supported the Hard-Ons was at Feathers in Crows Nest, and we were billed as You And I, and they were so supportive, and watched. The tip for any young performer, boy or girl or non-gender binary, to be just given respect and time and then to be completely blown off the stage, is a privilege.
L: It sounds like you’re still in awe, Tim, and considering your own career, that you still have this reverential awe for these guys, who you’re now working with, is a huge thing.
T: Well, we would talk about records, when we get together, and we talk about fatherhood, and family stuff. I went up to Newcastle and spent time with Murray and his wife. If you don’t know that band dynamic, you’re missing out on 70% of what it’s all about. How friendships become really strong. There’s the musical awe, and then there’s the intellectual awe. When Ray and I jump on the phone, or I’m talking to Murray… it’s just gotten greater. You know they say don’t meet your heroes. If they say don’t meet your heroes, you’ve got the wrong heroes.
L: What do you think the chances are of the four of you being able to perform in front of people?
T: 100%, mate.
R: That was the plan. Until lockdown started getting really bad, that was the whole plan. I think the bread and butter for the Hard-Ons is the power on stage. The overbearing electricity on stage, that kind of stuff.
R: The good thing is, that’s how Tim cut his teeth as well. When You Am I did some shows this year, the three of us went to watch You Am I play a couple of times in Sydney. We thought the band presented a real electricity, so it’s a big part of playing in a band for me. Playing live, and blowing my eardrums right off. And Tim, I know that’s his bread and butter as well. If you want to play that kind of music, you have to play live. We’re not recording artists. We’re not studio musicians. Just to bring some perspective, the 12 songs on the new album that’s coming out, 9 or ten of them are first take. The drums, the rhythm guitar and the bass was all recorded live, separated by baffles, of course, so we could mix it, but done live. We had this idea that we’re obsessed with playing live. We need to play live. It’s a big part of who we are. When we record, I listen to Murray play the drums, and he plays the song differently every time.
T: That’s true!
R: He’s got a real fun approach to playing drums. If you listen to Nevermind by Nirvana, I really like that record, and I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a producer. He was breaking down why that album worked so well, and he said, Have a listen to the drummer in Come as You Are. Every time he does a roll, it’s the same, so it hooks into the brain. Obviously, that’s the strength of Nirvana. The strength of the Hard-Ons is that we play everything quite differently every time so I really need to listen to Murray’s drums. His drums are telling me what to do. Sometimes live I’ll come in a bit earlier, sometimes I’ll come in a bit late. Listening to each other’s really important. So the record was recorded live on the whole, the rhythm parts, so playing live is really important to us, and I know it is for Tim as well, so we’re going to go out and play as soon as we can.
L: Tim, it must have been really different for you to record that way because you couldn’t do the last You Am I record live. I talked to Rusty about that and he said it was a very different process when it came to making that. So to get that vibe from the band in the studio must have been a completely different kind of feeling, and a different way of approaching things too.
T: Yeah, it was. Lachlan (Mitchell), the engineer, couldn’t have been more… awful. (laughs) He couldn’t have been more welcoming and encouraging! To… that’s the thing when you’ve got glass in between you, just looking through and before Ray finished work – he came in a bit later in the day I did 90% of the vocals – Blackie’s a bit of a pokerface. I was petrified. I had a list of how I was going to approach it all, but I couldn’t hear what he and Lachlan were talking about. It was really late in the day, and I thought it was going to work OK…
I love recording studios. I guess I think I liked recording studios because I liked taking drugs in recording studios, but on this we had baklava and coffee, and I guess there was something very non-egoist about it, because they weren’t my songs. They were Peter’s songs, and Ray’s songs, and I felt it was going to work, but in the best possible way that you get to charm the pants off and show the bosses you’ve done the best job possible. It was the only way I got to make sense of it. It’s a good recording studio. And then when Ray would get off work and Murray would come down from Newcastle and we were just hanging out there and Murray and I would just slip off to the pub and trying not to let everyone know… It was everything that being in a band’s about. You’re kind of hugging each other and telling stupid stories. It’s so romantic. I see footage of bands in the studio and it’s so ponderous and lugubrious, and it doesn’t need to be like that! I’ve never giggled so much in my life. Ray turned up and we were just talking, and laughing. It’s gorgeous.
R: That’s true, Brian. One of my friends asked me, “Why would Tim Rogers join your band?” And I said, “Well, because it’s a challenge for him, you fucking idiot! He’s going to love a challenge. It’s not going to be a walk in the park for him, but he doesn’t need to prove anything so he’s just going to back himself to be a good singer for my band. That’s going to be a challenge, and why wouldn’t he want a challenge, to be in a band that he already likes?” So we said to Tim, we’re going to be in Sydney at this time, we’ve got a handful of rehearsals, can you do it? And he said, Yeah, I think I can. Then Blackie said, “By the way, we don’t have lyrics for a couple of the songs,” and Tim said, “Maybe I can do them.” So we let Tim come up with some lyrics and melody lines, as well. So, it was a challenge for him. There’s no point playing in a band unless you’re pushed and if you don’t get a sense of achievement at the end of it. That’s why I thought this project of the Hard-Ons with Tim, would appeal to him.
People say to me, “Why would he want to join your band?” and I say, “Because you don’t have the imagination to see how a band really works, because you’re an idiot! I play in a band, Tim plays in a band, that’s our job. You just have to sit there and criticise.”
T: An interesting little microcosm that you’ve probably noticed, Brian, it the way that bands exist. Traveling with different ones I’ve been working for or been part of, and how those personalities get on, I’ve had my head in my hands most of the time wondering, Why does it need to be like this? It’s a microcosm of a perfect society. You’re seeing each other at your best and your worst and you want to be better together. I feel like a better human being part of this band for however long I’m allowed to. It sort of makes me a better human when you’re part of something you love so much and want it to be better. You just elevate yourself. You not only rise to the occasion, you want us to be better. My wife is so in love with Murray and Peter and Ray, she just lights up like a pinball machine whenever I mention them. It’s good, life-affirming stuff.
R: To be honest, when things have been bad in my life, the band has always been there for me. The Hard-Ons has been very reliable for me. It’s always been there. The whole premise of the band was a high school band gone feral. (Tim laughs) Well, that’s what it is!
What I mean is… Right at the start, we had a band meeting, and we were called the Plebs. So we had a band meeting when we were at school and said, how can we take it up a notch? How can we alienate more people? How can we make people understand that we are not interested in any sort of success other than musical? Let’s come up with the most obnoxious name that will get us into trouble. So we came up with the Hard-Ons, and the whole idea was that we were very self-important but we would back ourselves to make good music. It’s always worked for us. It’s a band that’s never really been interested in any other sort of success than musical. It’s a band that’s got absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain. It’s always been like that.
So Tim fits into the band really well, because he’s like Blackie and Murray and me. He’s able to back himself to do something really good musically.
L: Thanks to you both. This is something that people are going to be talking about for a long time, and I hope we get to see all four of you on stage together sooner rather than later.
T: Thanks for your time, mate!