2003.12 - The Age
Date: December 2003
Featuring: Chris Cheney, Scott Owen
Modern Artillery Tour
Hard times and conflict have been key ingredients in some of rock's finest albums. Inner and outer turmoil have given albums such as Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks an edge and passion that has catapulted them to legendary status. For Melbourne trio the Living End, their third and best album, Modern Artillery, was the result of a trying two years that would have killed off many other bands. With their first release, in 1998, success had come easily. Their self-titled debut, propelled by the instant teenage-angst hit Prisoner of Society, is still the highest-selling debut album by an Australian band, with sales of five times platinum (350,000). On their follow-up, Roll On, they set out to prove they had more to offer than infantile pop-punk bands such as Blink 182. They showcased their playing skills and revealed influences ranging from the Clash to the Everly Brothers. But it was all a bit clever and convoluted, and in the end didn't satisfy their fans - or themselves - as much as their debut.
When it came to writing the next album, after touring Roll On for most of 2001, they hit a brick wall. First, frontman Chris Cheney's car was hit head-on by a car travelling on the wrong side of the Great Ocean Road between Aireys Inlet and Fairhaven. Enter 12 months of hospital, rehabilitation, crutches and a walking stick. Then, in February 2002, drummer Travis Dempsey quit, citing a lack of interest in touring. This was a serious problem for a three-piece heavily reliant on group dynamics. When Cheney resumed walking, they found a replacement drummer in Andy Strachan. They flew to Los Angeles to record Modern Artillery, but were held up in customs for four hours with visa problems and almost weren't allowed into the country. The recording went over time and over budget. "The curse of this album ..." Cheney says with a sigh at an Melbourne pub.
But the band's perseverance has been rewarded. The fans haven't forgotten them. The album debuted at No.3 on the ARIA album charts and has so far sold 50,000 copies; they received a hugely positive response on the Livid tour; and they had about 3000 people - including many new fans - pack out HMV in Bourke Street for a recent in-store appearance.
"It's not ideal to have a break like that with the roll that we were on," says Cheney. "We had so much momentum, and we've probably lost a bit of ground, but I'm so thankful about the overwhelming response we've had with our gigs and the in-store.
"I still get really excited about the idea of this band. I think it's such a valid kind of band. I still don't know why there aren't more bands with double basses and whatever else we've got. There just doesn't seem to be anyone else around doing what we're doing. There's a whole generation of young kids that weren't around a few years ago who find it exciting, and I'm glad about that, because I still find it really exciting."
Some of those new fans who packed out HMV caused $4000 damage as they tried to get close to their heroes.
The band spent hours signing autographs for the devotees, including a woman with a fresh tattoo of the band who asked them to sign their names around it so she could return to the tattoo artist and get the autographs marked permanently.
Double-bassist Scott Owen reckons their young fans connect with the band's energy and honesty.
"Kids can see through bands who get up there and put on the show-pony thing. It's an ageless thing when guys are up there just getting off on it. We sit around kind of quiet all day, and we're not really outgoing as individuals, but we save it all up for the stage. We feel like little kids when we're up there playing - like you're a four-year-old who can just run around with your hands in the air and just be normal. It still feels like that."
With all the drama, it's not surprising that a sense of mortality, darkness and introspection pervades Modern Artillery. There are references to the Tampa affair and disillusionment with both sides of politics (Who's Gonna Save Us was written in response to the bickering within the ALP), but it's far from a political manifesto. In fact, Cheney is becoming increasingly apathetic.
"I know that you've got to get involved and you've got to see what's going on, because you can make a difference, but I struggle to see how anything's really going to change. It's the same with the whole George Bush thing - (in the end) they're going to be dead, we're going to be dead. Is there really anything that's going to change? It's laughable, so that song is like, 'Who's going to be leading us down the garden path next? Who's going to be telling us what we can and can't do, and does it really make any difference at the end of the day?'. You do have to make a difference in your own lifetime, and find your own happiness and make your own right decisions, but I still just don't know whether the big problems, like the war, are going to change. I can't help feeling that these guys (politicians) are saying, 'We care, we care'. They care about the pay packet at the end so they can retire. They'll get a good life out of it and they'll die, and everyone else will just keep struggling."
Cheney admits that being holed up in his living room for months on end left him with too much time to contemplate his own existence, and the result is more personal reflection in his songwriting.
"There was a lot of thinking, a lot of over-thinking and over-analysing, and I continue to over-think and over-analyse things now, especially 'inside' stuff. When you're young you just live and get on with it and don't think about it, and I suppose that's why a lot of those earlier songs were about other things.
"And I'm at the age when you start thinking, 'What's it all about? What does it mean? Where am I heading?'. I didn't end up as bad as some people do. It's the trauma of the accident that makes you start thinking, like, 'Why didn't I die?'."
Cheney says the album's epic closing song, The Room, was partly inspired by being confined and partly by the film The Shawshank Redemption, in particular the character who works in the library and kills himself because he can't stand the thought of being released into the world.
"I find that a fascinating subject - whether it's a prisoner or an animal, if you release them into the wild, they can't survive. We had lost a drummer and lost some ground. There was that apprehension that we were on a good thing, and then we lost some ground and had the feeling that things weren't going to be as rosy as they were, and maybe we didn't make the most of it while we had it."
Now that they're back on their feet, literally and metaphorically, the band have recently returned to the pub circuit, with gigs at Geelong's National Hotel (with the Persian Rugs) and Fitzroy's Evelyn Hotel - the pub at which they cut their teeth for about five years before their anthems catapulted them to arena status.
"Five years ago we were struggling to get gigs at the Evelyn and fill it. I remember we did our first EP launch there, and back in those days we were still calling friends from school saying, 'We're playing a gig. Can you come down?', and walking around all night putting flyers in everyone's windscreens. So now it's surreal to play a one-off gig there and heaps of people can't get in. You forget about the harder times.
"At the National it was like the old days. It was crammed and sweaty and people were almost hanging off the rafters. That's where our show comes from, and I think we're a slightly different band when we do that. It feels more aggressive and a lot more rock'n'roll. They're the gigs you remember as a fan, and a band, too. There's nothing to rely on - you just go out and do your best."
Owen adds: "When you can see the back of the room and you can see a guy at the back, standing against the wall on a chair going like this (throws his hands in the air and pumps his fists), then you must be doing something right. You can see it in their eyes and there's a strong connection."
These days, the band feel as at home in a stadium as they used to in a small pub. At October's Livid Festival they were one of the few bands that managed to transcend the lack of stadium intimacy.
"Because we've been playing big venues for a while, like the Green Day tour overseas, where we thought, 'We're a three-piece; we've got to try and fill up the sound and the stage', it sort of comes easily now," says Cheney. "It's fun playing the Evelyn, but I don't feel any more naked on the big stages, because that's all we've done recently - lots of big, outdoor festivals."
And then there was the AC/DC support. Cheney acknowledges that many in the crowd were keeping an eye on their watches for the main event, but they won over plenty of fans.
"All of our favourite musicians are their (AC/DC's) favourite musicians - we're just 30 years apart," says Cheney. "They grew up listening to Little Richard and all that rock'n'roll stuff - they're just like a bar blues band, but they're considered the world's greatest heavy metal band. It's just a '50s boogie-woogie sped up and played a lot louder."
Ultimately, the Living End are a live band, and Cheney says he wanted this album to translate well in the live arena.
"Lyrically, I wanted it to be more direct and easier to understand, and musically to have less fat. We wanted to get from A to B directly, rather than going, 'We can do all this tricky stuff and that will lead us to there'. It's kind of easy sometimes to put in all these stops and diminished chords, just musical bullshit, to link stuff, rather than thinking, 'How can it go there naturally, so the listener doesn't have to stop and think about it?'.
"The listener just wants to listen to it and enjoy it, which is something we've forgotten a bit in the past - thinking about songs from a musical point of view rather than a listening point of view, which is why I admire bands like Oasis, because it's a lot harder to do than what it sounds. All the great songs are so simple.
"I look at bands like the Jam and stuff, and where they took their music, with well-crafted songs with substance and depth, which have stood the test of time, and after you write a song like Prisoner of Society, you want to write something with some longevity to it, because it can be seen as a throwaway song. That's the way I see it, anyway."
The Living End's two-month, 29-date Modern Artillery tour hits the Palace, St Kilda, on Friday; Brass Monkey, Narre Warren, on Monday night; and 21st Century, Frankston, on Tuesday night.