2016.05 - Australian Guitar

Australian Guitar

Date: May 2016
Author: Peter Zaluzny; Matt Doria
Featuring: Chris Cheney


The Living End Roll On!
The Australian alt-rock legends The Living End take their trademark tunes in a new direction. Words and photos by Peter Zaluzny.

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“Prisoner of Society” was everywhere back in the day. In the late ‘90s, you couldn’t flick on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing the driving, punk rock, angry Aussie teen anthem. It was a milestone in music history and the song that brought The Living End to the mainstream.

And now? “My kids think it’s hilarious,” frontman Chris Cheney says with a grin. “They’ll pull up a clip on YouTube and go ‘look, Daddy’s got blonde hair, Daddy looks funny’ and I’m like, ‘alright, alright, it was the ‘90s’.”
But while The Living End can still slay those early tracks on stage, they know they’re not a bunch of angsty youngsters anymore. When it came time to record album number seven, after 20 years of doing the punk rock thing, it was time for a change.

“I guess maybe we were rebelling against the last record, with that really long title,” explains Cheney, “and perhaps we felt it was a little bit bloated. With this record, we didn’t have an idea - there wasn’t that writing process then pre-production, we just wanted to go in and keep it very loose; just experiment and make some noise.”

When you look at it that way, Shift makes for a pretty fitting title. Vintage Living End still roars through the record, but the tone rolls closer
to rock music, which was the final product of simply stepping into the studio, grabbing a guitar, and hitting record. It was the only way to do it. After all, The Living End didn’t have too much experience working outside the system they’d followed over the last two decades, so there was no other option but to break down the walls. Songs were refined over time, but most of the groundwork was born out of spontaneity, after their first jam session went unexpectedly well.

“The first song that did that was “One Step”. We did this four-and-a-half minute jam on that basic idea; I was right up on the top of the neck, playing a Telecaster at the time, just playing as high as I could and as frantic, forgetting dexterity and technique and just thrashing away,” Cheney says, whipping out an air guitar. “The other guys were just going for it, I was yelling stuff out; it was so exciting to us! The idea of technique and subtlety just went out the window, and we needed that - we were unleashed. It’s a really important tune.”

It was a little strange at first. The freedom
to break the status quo and just go for it was new territory for everyone, and the guys felt a little awkward and self-conscious early on. In the past, The Living End knew what would and wouldn’t work when writing songs, so to take a chance, abandon that approach altogether and stare down the barrel of potential failure was frightening. Cheney didn’t know where the music would wind up, self-doubt reared its head and before long, he was questioning himself almost every step of the way. Despite it all, the lure of curiosity - and reckless musical abandon - was just too hard to ignore.

“I read this thing in an Elvis Costello book - he was saying that when you start chasing the ideal of something, that’s when you lose originality,” says Cheney. “If you have a clear picture of how it’s going to sound, you’re f***ed, because then you’re only working towards that picture, you’re not allowing yourself any room to breathe, or any room for happy accidents that could take the song somewhere truly special. Sometimes the guys would disagree with me; they’d say, ‘Dude it sounds good,’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, it sounds good, but it doesn’t sound f***ing mighty, and it has to!’ I’m pig-headed like that, but then you start to think, are they right?”

Were they? Maybe, but they also understood that Cheney didn’t want to stop at good, and when you’ve been in a band together for as
long as these guys, you trust the person next to you. The open forum did lead to some heated conversations, although these cooled off before things got physical. “[We’ve] been there, done that,” Cheney adds with another sly grin, alluding to a small scuffle long since forgotten. Once the confidence kicked in, the ‘anything goes’ scenario didn’t seem quite as frightening, and suddenly, they were listening 1984 by Ryan Adams to get the feel of making a record outside your usual repertoire, and drowning songs in reverb to create that hard hitting Roy Orbison vibe. When the ball started rolling, anyone could bring an idea to the table.

“It was really collaborative like that, they were really exciting moments,” Cheney continues, excitedly throwing his arms in the air. “I was in doing the vocals to a song called “Further Away”, but I wasn’t singing it like it is on the record, it was in a lower register. So we were sitting back, having a few beers and I said, what if I just sing it all up? Just shout it almost at the top of my range? Then we’d play the track, I’d just sing along stuff over the top and they would say, ‘That was good! What did you do there? Go in there and do that again!’ There was so many great moments like that.”

No restraints, no obligations, no pressure - The Living End had all the time in the world to bring Shift together: an opportunity major label bands aren’t often afforded. Gradually chipping away on the record for just over a year had its benefits. Cheney’s quick to point out that he’s happy they didn’t release an early version of the album that was almost finished eight months ago, because it wouldn’t have been “anywhere near as good.” He’s a borderline perfectionist, but the guys didn’t spend a year holed up in a Melbourne studio together - Cheney moved to Los Angeles towards the end of 2011, which meant there were big gaps between jam sessions for the band, where they would go away and fiddle with bits and pieces on their own. Cheney did a little more than tinker.

“Every time I went home, I took a hard drive full of the new ideas, and some songs that
were 90 percent complete, I just pulled apart,” he explains. “I just thought they weren’t good enough. I think we were all on the same page thinking they were good, and some of the songs came together from the beginning, but there were a bunch that I just felt hadn’t reached their full potential. With “Monkey”, it was a completely different song, different arrangement, it had a whole half-time sort of pre-chorus thing, and I just kept listening to it thinking it didn’t have that emotional connection and didn’t hit like a sledgehammer like I wanted it to.”

The thing is, Cheney isn’t a control freak and his band mates know that. When you step into a record like Shift - where self-imposed rules don’t exist - you prepare yourself for practically any situation. “The good thing, though, is that I think we had the perspective, and the open-mindedness enough to go with new ideas even though we felt like we’d already done a whole lot of work,” he continues with an air of admiration. “They were great with this record - they were very trusting; if I said I thought we could do something better, or that a part wasn’t right, they would go, ‘Alright, you’ve got a vision, let’s see this idea through.’ We could always turn back, but if you stifle yourself and stifle your creativity, you’ll never know.”

Breaking musical barriers is one thing, but Cheney hasn’t really tapped the personal vein on any Living End albums until now. Some old songs dug a little deeper, there just wasn’t too much to sing about because Cheney, by his own admission, has had a pretty comfortable life. But he’s faced a few tough situations over the last few years, and while he doesn’t want to discuss them - when the question comes up he smiles, looks away and says “not really, no” - many of these experiences made their way onto Shift.

“I felt like all of a sudden there was these major cracks over the last couple of years, and this is just what’s come out. I couldn’t really write about anything else,” he says quietly. “For me,
it was like - a song could be really powerful, but it’s not going to be powerful if I just skirted over or around the issue, it was like, don’t shy away from it. With ‘Enemies Like That’, that was a song I actually sang when it was all going down, even though I felt like not singing that song at that time, because it was all far too close to the bone.”

You often hear about musicians using songwriting as a form of therapy - the act ofputting pen to paper is cathartic, in a way that people who can talk about inner turmoil can’t understand. It hurts like hell, but it can also make for great music. “I ended up doing it. I became relentless, and some of it hurts to listen to because it’s deeply personal, but I really felt like I found a new depth with it. It was all about the restraint - the tension - and getting that really deep, soulful kind of vocal; the only way to get that was to get back into that headspace. It’s believable. I don’t think people are going to listen to it and say, ‘Okay, that’s a nice vocal,’ it’s like, ‘Wow, some shit has gone on.’”

Cheney spent a lot of time learning how to write about his life, and how to put it across poetically, so the songs wouldn’t come off as contrived or inauthentic. He looked to great lyricists like Jason Isbell, Ryan Adams, Neil Finn and Warren Zevon - the latter of whom he holds in particularly high esteem. “Just the way he could write these tragic lines - really melancholy kind of moments, but put in a beautiful way,” he adds. And while some may lament the idea of the punk rock icons getting older, Shift wouldn’t be the same if the band had tried to write it in their mid- 20s. “I don’t think I would have done it years ago. I don’t think I had the maturity or the depth to be able to come up with stuff the way that I have, and to phrase it.”

And at the end of the day, the specific stories behind the songs don’t need to be told. Cheney set out to convey honesty, and it seems that if people walk away from Shift feeling something - anything - then he’ll go to bed feeling happy. It’s an undeniable turning point for the band, exploring the impact of life, parenthood and age either directly or indirectly, through music that may sound dark and grim at times, but has an underlying optimism that often explodes from the record when you least expect it. But they’re still The Living End, and the songs still kick you in the teeth just like they did back in the band’s early days.

“The difference is that the first record [The Living End] was that anger at everything around you, whereas I think with this album, it’s been me against myself. I’ve been in a battle with my own mind and that can be a frightening place to be. But it’s a different kind of emotion; it’s a different kind of anger. When you’re younger, the only
way to express that is to sing harder, louder and higher, whereas now - even lyrically - you can say so much more than any amount of ranting, raving, jumping up and down and breaking shit can.”

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