Word on the P Street: In Defence of Hipsters

First published Time Out Sydney, 10 Apr 2013

Remember a few years back when “emo” was a pejorative term?

It was the go-to derogatory adjective (or, less often but infinitely more irritatingly, noun) for a certain type of person that no-one would ever admit to being – vaguely moody, self-absorbed and almost certainly wearing black, unless it was a band in which case it was a term that apparently meant “men with guitars” (seriously, I’ve heard “emo” applied to everything from My Chemical Romance through to Something For Kate).

Hipsters, yesterday.

Hipsters, yesterday.

But emo was like pornography: difficult to describe, but you knew it when you saw it. Also, in that it seemed connected with a whole lot of wank.

No-one’s used “emo” outside of inverted commas in years, but since about 2011 the I-hate-the-young-people term of choice has been “hipster”, and again everyone knows what it means while the definition has remained diffuse enough to apply to anyone you wanted to insult without being pinned down to any particular reason why you wanted to insult them. Hatred of hipsters is matched only by hipster hatred of the term “hipster”, which the Atlantic recently voted as one of the worst words of 2012.

That guy in the hat on a bike? Hipster. Those people sitting in the beer garden of that inner suburban pub? Bunch of hipsters. The music playing in the café yesterday morning? One of those hipster bands, no doubt. Though not actually No Doubt, obviously, since hipsters would be listening to something far more cool – unless they were being ironically retro, of course, which would be such a hipster move.

As a bearded, bespectacled man who owns several checked shirts, principally buys albums on vinyl and lives in a suburb replete with cafés, I tick a number of the 600 or so boxes that qualify one for hipsterdom, and even I avoid the term (I prefer the more poetic appellation “aging indiekid”, myself). But now that it’s become fashionable to hate on the word itself, it’s worth asking: um, what’s actually wrong with hipsters?

See, I get what’s complaint-worthy about, say, Nazis. They do stuff to people in an aggressive and racially-unpleasant way. I think we can all understand why folks would have reservations about Nazis, as a rule, but hipsters?

They’re generally what, inner-city folks of a vaguely artistic bent, generally with a degree or so under their belt and a progressive political outlook, doing such not-especially-aggressive things as riding bikes, launching websites, and playing in noise bands. They’re opening small bars and pottering about in community gardens. Seriously, they’re pretty easy to avoid if they irritate you so much, since they all seem to be fairly busy. After all, that organic ale isn’t going to microbrew itself.

While one of the criticisms of emo kids was that they were too self-absorbed to be political, hipsters get stick for having too much of a political outlook – so much so that the Miranda Devines and Alan Joneses love whaling on them as being latte-sipping inner-city types that are everything that’s wrong with Australia, with their fancy book-learnin’ and community action.

Maybe it’s just another version of our rich cultural cringe and our nation’s weird, inexplicable anti-intellectual streak. Or perhaps it’s something more positive: an indication that previous Australian cultural punching bags like non-whites and non-straights are less valid targets in 2013.

Seriously, if the worst subculture we can come up with as an object of contempt is a bunch of well-educated, environmentally-conscious, socially active and culturally aware twenty- and thirtysomethings with a penchant for quality coffee and retro tattoos, our society’s probably in pretty good shape. I mean heck, some of my best friends are hipsters.

Not that I’m one, obviously.

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You Am I interview

First published in Time Out Sydney, April 2013

You Am IIt seems astonishing, but this year Sydney’s You Am I are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut album, Sound as Ever. Hence three quarters of the band – frontman Tim Rogers, drummer Russell Hopkinson and guitarist Davey Lane (absent is bassist Andy Kent) – are sitting in a café discussing their exciting new project.

It’s not the deluxe reissues of their first three discs. It’s not their nearly sold-out tour performing albums two and three (the beloved Hi Fi Way and Hourly, Daily). It’s the release of their first ever beer, naturally called Brew Am I, which is the obvious next step for a band who legendarily know their way around a tipple.

“Oh yeah,” Hopkinson laughs. “We’re beer barons now, man.”

“It’s to make up for our losses on the terrible ticket sales so far,” deadpans Rogers.

“Yeah, it’s awful,” Lane chuckles.

“Actually, the response [to the tour] has really taken us by surprise,” Rogers says, with surprising sincerity. “It’s just the right time to do it. It wasn’t someone asking us to do it – it came from the four of us.”

Each of the albums is being re-released with a bonus disc of rarities from each period, which has involved a lot of going through the archives for material from the band’s formation in 1989 through to 1996.

“Not that I was there,” Lane, who joined in 1999, points out.

“You were spiritually there, though,” Hopkinson retorts.

Well, the story goes that Lane was busily writing up You Am I guitar chords for the internet and obsessing over the band, wasn’t he?

Lane looks affronted. “No!”

Well, that’s what Wikipedia reckons.

Hopkinson laughs. “That’s because he wrote it.”

“I was just doing the guitar tabs for something to do in the school holidays because I had no friends,” Lane counters. “I was just uploading them for my friend who ran the website…”

“Hey, you just said you had no friends!” Rogers interjects.

There’s some work to be done ahead of the tour. Despite the first three albums’ position as bona-die Australian classics, Rogers may be the only person unfamiliar with them. “I was listening to those records on the drive up to Sydney and I was alarmed at how much I had forgotten. I’d forgotten how great my guitar skills were back then.”

“There are all these parts and harmonies that we do differently these days,” Hopkinson nods.

It’s luckily all the tabs have gotten online somehow, then.

“Exactly!” Lane says, laughing.

The band are now completely independent: no record company, no external management, nothing beyond the members themselves. “We felt that with Andy’s experience with management, Russ’s experience releasing records, and my and Davey’s experience with Class As, we could handle everything ourselves,” Rogers smirks. “Everything that we do now, it’s just asking: will this be fun for us? There’s no talk about ‘trajectory’ or ‘momentum’…”

“It’s not like we’re going ‘OK, let’s crack this market or that market’,” Hopkinson nods.

“We’re cracking the beer market instead!” Rogers says. “It’s the natural progression from our music.”

Talk turns to the tour, and what they plan to get up to. “I think it’s Andy’s turn for a-prankin’,” says Rogers, to wide approval. Although it sounds like the laconic bassist is a hard man to unsettle.

“We were on tour in Wolverhampton [England] in this quaint little hotel, all in beds next to each other, and the fire alarm goes off,” Rogers recalls. “So Russ and I jump up and go, ‘Struth! Andy, get up!’ And he rolls over, puts his hand on the floor, goes ‘it’s not hot’, and goes back to sleep.”

Could the fire have not been in the ceiling, though?

They all stare for a second, before Hopkinson breaks the moment. “We’re not physicists, right?”