Musician Jack Ladder (Tim Rogers) is neck-craningly tall. It’s not an original observation but it’s an essential part of both his stage presence and his bearing in a small room, or in this case, the barber shop Sterling Apothecary in Sydney, where we’ve brought him for his first cutthroat shave. He is distant, speaks slowly in a deep baritone that mirrors his singing voice and rarely looks us in the eye. When he does, it’s an exposing feeling. Ladder seems reluctant to take part in our grooming suggestion, but he gingerly sits in a vintage barber’s chair, folding his long legs awkwardly as a friendly barber rolls up his sleeves on tattoo-covered arms to get started.
In the barber’s chair, hot, black towels are placed on his face and he's left there, vulnerable for a moment with his eyes covered. He seems to settle into it when the barber lathers him up, and they chat occasionally.
After touring for his third album Hurtsville, released in 2011, he moved straight onto his latest album, Playmates, which was released this week. The first single was Come On Back This Way featuring Sharon Van Etten. The song and accompanying video have a dark humour to them – desperation and joy. “If tomorrow never comes, I wouldn’t care at all,” he sings with a straight face in the video, one gloved hand on a keyboard while Sharon Van Etten grooves behind him on a podium in a sparkly red dress. He’s back with his band, The Dreamlanders, made up of exceptional talent Donny Benet, Kirin J Callinan and Laurence Pike (PVT).
After the towel, lather, shave and balm process has been repeated twice, he touches his face and smiles. “It feels amazing,” he says. He sits in a leather armchair in the parlour of the barber listening to blues and jazz, looking a little more at home in carefully curated, vintage aesthetic, and we talk about how things have changed with this album. “There’s a lot more space on it. I think [single Come on Back This Way] is a one-off, it’s a way into the rest of the record,” Rogers says. “I like the way it all works together; that’s the thing that’s most exciting to me about music; when you create a body of work and it feels like a body of work.”
In the past, seeing Jack Ladder perform for the first time was quite a shock – it sounded nothing like his recorded music. “I have always presented what I thought I’d want to see. [The performance] was its own interpretation, trying to keep the songs alive and feeling new,” Rogers says. “There was a point where it properly started to kill the songs. We just drove them so far away from their initial conception and they became formless blobs.”
“[People] would come up to me after the shows quite distressed at what I’d done to the songs. I thought I was doing the right thing – I think I was doing the right thing – because if I just tried to re-create the album, I wouldn’t have been happy and I wouldn’t still be [playing] music,” he says. With Playmates, Rogers’ attitude has changed.
“Now [the songs] have got a history and mean something to me. Playing the songs now, I have a sense of purpose and a sense of, not setting things right, but having an entertainment attitude – realising people like the music and want to enjoy it, as opposed to wanting to whip people in the face because they like you. The band really fell apart after the last record came out. We didn’t really do any shows together. So I guess now is the time we’re actually playing the last three records.”
When Rogers first started releasing music (and now, too) the likeness in his sound to Nick Cave was immediately apparent and it was rare to find a review that didn’t address it. Understandably, it’s frustrating. “I don’t mind being compared to Nick Cave, it’s just the way that people say it. Everyone who likes music has respect for him. He’s in the press a lot now and there’s a certain undercurrent in the underground music scene that despises him now for whom he’s become. So when people go, ‘It sounds like Nick Cave’, they say it in a dismissive way. That’s kind of upsetting to me. I never wanted to sound like him anyway ... I think my music has been much more joyful. There are more greens, definitely a different colour palette.”