We Zoom Tim Rogers, the musical mastermind behind the Jack Ladder moniker, to discuss the making of his latest dark and brooding opus, Hijack!
As our Zoom meeting commences, Jack Ladder observes, “I’m heavily silhouetted. I look like I’m in a witness protection program,” before scooping up his laptop, relocating and settling into a posi with less backlighting. “Here, now you’ll be able to tell whether I’m telling the truth or not,” he jests.
Our latest taster from Hijack!, Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders’ upcoming sixth album, was a double-single release: the lurching, cinematic, Bad Seeds-esque Leaving Eden alongside Xmas In Rehab (which Rogers likens to “a Tom Petty tune on a mild sedative”).
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Thanks to a recent post on Jack Ladder’s Insta, we learned that Xmas In Rehab reached #2 on the Lithuanian iTunes chart (pipped at the post by Elton John’s 1985 hit single, Nikita). What’s that all about? “I have no idea why that happened,” Rogers confesses, looking amused. “It’s just one of those bizarre things that happens in the world where you think, ‘No one’s really listening to my music. I’m not getting played on the radio in Australia,’ and then suddenly someone’s telling us the song is charting in Lithuania! I have a picture of it – with my single [artwork] next to Elton John’s and I’m like, ‘This is bizarre’. And my booking agent’s looking into festivals in Lithuania now.”
Considering the amount of shows that have had to be postponed or cancelled due to the ongoing fun-sponge that is the global pandemic, Rogers feels “lucky” that Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders were able to perform Hurtsville’s 10th anniversary shows in May this year, during which the band’s desolate, atmospheric third album was performed in full.
“Those shows were great,” he acknowledges. “The one in Melbourne, at the Forum, felt fantastic. I felt sort of vindicated, in a way; that we pushed through all the negative comments for years and are now in a position where we could do a nice show like that and have people still care about a record that came out ten years ago. It was an amazing night.”
Agreed. This scribe was in attendance. The night was an unmitigated success. When asked about a story he shared during the show about an ultimatum that was issued during a band meeting, following the release of Hurtsville – something along the lines of, ‘Unless you’re willing to move to London for six months and live off $5 a day then you can’t be in the band’ – Rogers chuckles before taking a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. “That was just music industry manager-speak… [Our then-manager] had been in bands and was like, ‘This is just how you do it, you know? You relocate to London.’ And I guess that’s how a lot of people – The Go-Betweens, The Triffids and Nick Cave and stuff – did it, and it worked back then because there was more of a market. But it felt very old-fashioned; I don’t know many Australian bands that relocated to Europe in the ‘90s and had enormous success.
“And I had just moved to a place in the Blue Mountains and was like, ‘What? You want me to go live in a London squat?’” he recalls, laughing. “But, yeah, the band kind of fell apart after that, because Donny [Benet, bass] and Laurence [Pike, drums] – you know, they’ve got families and homes and stuff and they were like, ‘I’m not doing that’. And so then we had other musicians play in the band, but nothing really connected at the time; I don’t think it was supposed to be… I dunno, it’s such a weird game and I’m always just trying to do my own thing.”
Rogers has always danced to the beat of his own drum. He’s a true artist. With the release of 2011’s Hurtsville, he veered away from the Americana sound that he’d established via his first two releases: Not Worth Waiting For and Love Is Gone. And were it not for Rogers’ trademark delicious baritone, Hijack! would bear zero resemblance to its predecessor: 2018’s self-produced, melodic Blue Poles.
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“Blue Poles was initially much more groove-orientated,” Rogers reflects. “I had all these great instrumental ideas that didn’t really fit any of the songs that I was writing so I sort of scrapped that edge of the album.” A bassline from these sessions was actually “recycled” to form the bones of The Giver, just one of the many jewels in Hijack!’s crown. “I think the original demo was just like a marching drum and that bassline, and I wanted to convey that sense of…” Rogers trails off, temporarily distracted when a friend tries to call him, and apologises before continuing, “I hit a pretty heavy point. The song’s maybe akin to It’s A Long Way To The Top or something, in its sentiment: it’s just, like, I’m now living in a bedsit and I’ve given up everything in my life to pursue this thing and, you know, what do you get back? And then it just sort of goes into absurdity.”
Even Rogers’ bleakest, most paranoid lyricism is sprinkled with humour, which sometimes goes unnoticed. Check out these lyrics from The Gift: “I give away my lunch break and I’m still not gettin’ paid” – pure genius.
According to the album presser, Hijack! was “born out of bushfires, breakdowns and a long-term hospital stay”. Of making this record, Rogers tells, “It was very personal and very cathartic. I hadn’t really been writing much for years, because I’d been on tour pretty consistently since, like, 2017 and, you know, being able to have the space last year to focus solely on writing and being able to have a clear head – I was sober and just working, feeling very inspired, and things happened very naturally; I didn’t really have to fight particularly hard for the songs to come out. It’s a body of work that was given the time and space to happen, and then nothing really interrupted it.”
Rogers coproduced Hijack! with Pike, one of The Dreamlanders, and enthuses, “All the pieces just fell into place quite easily and naturally. It’s probably the easiest record I’ve ever made. And the best; I didn’t have to fight with myself all the time over it and I didn’t have to fight with other people about it… Laurence was a huge contributor and support through making this record. It’s got a very pure sort of tone and it feels uncorrupted by outside forces. It’s one of those things where you’re just allowing songs to be what they are. And there’s a certain freedom in that.
“When I was writing [Hijack!] I was using this, like, kinda silly keyboard and I’d just use a lot of the string sounds. And I didn’t initially think, in my mind, that I was gonna use a lot of real orchestration. But I think we decided to at a certain point, because a lot of the sounds that I’d been using to write with weren’t necessarily any kind of identifiable instrument. Then [once we got into the studio] it was like, ‘Okay, what’s the real sound that that is?’ – just replacing sounds that were kind of abstract synth noises and whatever… So I guess that’s why we ended up using the strings.
“There’s hardly any guitar on the record, basically, other than what Kirin [J Callinan] does on a couple of songs, which is more like bizarre Kirin stuff that doesn’t really register as guitar-playing most of the time.”
When told that Egomania called to mind Beethoven (albeit slightly warped, à la A Clockwork Orange’s soundtrack) for this set of ears, Rogers enlightens, “There’s a thing that the string arranger [Sam Lipman] did on that – it’s called Scotch snap time, which is a semiquaver and a dotted quaver, it goes like [demonstrates with a couple of ‘dong, dong, da-dong’s].
Whereas traditionally I’d have that much straighter, for that song I felt it was sort of tying into this idea of the foolish king that had lost control of himself, you know? So this regal pomp felt like the right way to use it. But the song was thinking about the ego as this sort of old-world idea of self and, in the future, this idea of Dataism; that we’re sort of harvesting information on ourselves that then continues to help us make decisions so that we don’t really have a sense of free will. I think a lot of the record’s about the sense of free will and whether we have it or not.”
As varied in mood and texture as Hijack’s songs may be, it’s still an incredibly sonically cohesive set. “I do have very clear decisions that I’m making when I’m thinking about what songs I’m gonna use and how they’re going to go together. There’s a Stanley Kubrick thing when he makes movies, which I think was the way A Space Odyssey was made – he just wrote a bunch of different scenes and then how he put them together is sort of how the movie came together. And it makes sense [for me to work in this way], because it allows the listener the freedom to sort of put everything together in their mind and it’s not necessarily a strict narrative. I guess that’s what records are: they’re just like individual compartments that – when you stack them on top of one another – tell a bigger story.”
Hijack! is definitely an album that deserves your undivided attention and Rogers admits, “I’m excited for the record to come out and for people to hear it in its entirety, because I really don’t enjoy putting singles out from my records. Ever. I always feel like you need to experience the whole record, because what’s happening in one song isn’t indicative of anything else that’s gonna happen in the album and you really need to hear the whole thing to get the actual story of what’s going on. People are able to get in touch and say how much the music means to them and stuff and I guess that’s always really important; I do like to know that the music is helping people in some way.”
Given his penchant for “dark, sort of upsetting, almost industrial kind of blues”, it makes total sense when Rogers divulges his “secret love” for Depeche Mode (“Well, I dunno if it’s very secret, but to me Depeche Mode are like The Beatles in terms of their importance”).
Rogers actually grew up listening to “stuff like Parliament-Funkadelic” and clarifies, “I don’t necessarily associate it with the joyous sentiment of that kind of music, but being able to use something that’s traditionally supposed to be a good time and then filling it with a sense of dread seems to be something I do,” he says, laughing.
Hijack! is out from Friday September 10 via Endless Recordings.