2001.02 - Heckler


Date: February 2001
Author: Sonny Mayugba
Featuring: Chris Cheney, Scott Owen, Travis Demsey


The Living End

I was paddling my hardest, trying to get past the whitewater when it hit me. How did I get here? Here I am, surfing with the bass player of one of Australia’s primo bands at the world famous Bondi beach in Sydney, Australia, 10,000 miles from home. This morning's session is the beginning of the end of a really cool trip that’s taken me very far from my home in Northern California. It is a bit windy but the waves are breaking nicely. "Bondi" or "Boondi" is an aboriginal word meaning "water breaking over rocks" or "noise of water breaking over rocks." I think it also means “noise of frustrated American as water kicks American kook ass.”Although Bondi is a big tourist destination, there were only a few people out on this particular day. Scotty, the bass player, and a local ruler named Graham are out where it’s breaking big. I look up to see Graham elevator drop on a nice wave and then get tubed before it closes out on him. He pops up, shaking his head, smiling from ear to ear. It’s a cold mid-winter back home and raining like crazy. Here I am paddling in 75-degree water under the South Pacific sun.

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It never ceases to amaze me how prophetic omens are, whether they’re noticed or not. One day, I was thumbing through the 14-inch stack of band promo photos we had that week at Heckler. For some odd reason, I stopped on a print of a band I’d never heard of called The Living End. They looked like three tattoo clad car guys who drank a ton of beer and wore derby jackets (Sorry, but after a mere eight years in this industry, I’ve come enjoy my personal categorizations of bands and humans in general). Even though there is an over abundance of these types, I still took pause on the photo. Honestly, I still don’t quite know why, I just did.

In pure coincidence and ironic fashion, I received a message from a Reprise publicist regarding their new band The Living End. When music publicist messages end up on my voice mail, I disregard them. Read the masthead, I am not the music editor. But, I knew this guy. He is a snowboarder and a really cool guy. I’d met him five years prior on a two-hour shuttle from Whistler/Blackcomb to Vancouver and although we’d neither seen each other nor did any business in those years, he always kept in touch just to keep in touch. I called him back and could not quite believe my ears. He was suggesting that we fly to Australia to see The Living End. He said, “Oh, and by the way Sonny, they’re on tour opening for AC/DC.” I literally pooped my pants. Eleven days later, I had my tickets, and the next morning I was on a plane to rock with The Living End in Australia.

It’s the classic story. Guitarist Chris Cheney and bass playin’ Scott Owen, both age 17, were in high school and started a band playing cover songs. Doing the Australian cover band circuit, they leaned towards rather obscure ‘50s covers, Johnny Bennett, Carl Perkins. But then they mixed it up with new wave such as Kim Wilde. They were gigging five nights a week, doing birthday parties and weddings. As exciting as that may sound, it gets very old and quickly becomes more of a job than musical expression.
“It came to the stage when we didn’t want to be a covers band,” Says Scott. “We realized there was more to the whole rock n roll industry than being a covers band. But wanting to appeal to everybody was a valuable lesson. It meant that when we started writing our own songs, we were over writing 12-bar blues straight away. We wanted an edge.”

Their edge was being honed, but it wasn’t until madman Travis Dempsey joined that that jagged edge became a sharp killing machine.
“Chris and I were doing covers for about three years with different drummers…and then we got Trav.”
“And it all went down hill,” says Dempsey.
“He was working at a drum store,” adds Scotty.
“I was employed there, I wasn’t working there! I had a car, so I didn’t even have to audition,” retorts the fiery drummer.
Trav is a fireball. He too was in cover bands, but instead of playing ‘50s covers he was beating as hard as he could doing Rolling Stones, Guns ‘N Roses, Poison and later, punk. From the instant you meet Trav, you either hate him or love him. He is loud, opinionated, and in-your-face.

Originally named after a Stray Cats song, The Runaway Boys got blind drunk one night and were watching a Bill Haley movie and saw “The Living End” in the credits. “Eh mate, whut a gud name fur uh buand.” The next morning, they still liked it.

The Living End is scheduled for six nights in the Sydney arena. After three nights we were sitting backstage like rock stars, sipping Jim Beam and Coke, chugging Victoria Bitter and chomping on M & M’s (even the green ones) while I put questions to the boys in the band.

For all the people who haven’t heard The Living End, describe your music.
Trav: Good Australian rock n’ roll.
Scotty: Loud.
Chris: This is a terrible word to say in the rock ‘n roll business, but I think there’s a little bit more “intelligence” in what we do, like we really like being able to play and we really think about what we’re going to play in different bits. It’s not about the Ramones’ kind of mentality of just three chords, beep bang it out. We love that sort of thing, we love getting up there and just slamming it out, but we put a lot of thought into our arrangements and our lyrics and all that sort of stuff. It’s kind of “thinking” rock n’ roll, but not too serious.

You had a quote, “We’re using technology to make punk-rock better,” right?
Trav: That’s something I’ve been really enthused about because I think that punk rock is just so caught up. John Lydon from the Sex Pistols in the documentary The Filth and the Fury, he says, “You know what wrecked punk-rock? Punks.”
Chris: They’ve become uniform.
Trav: Now, I think a mohawk and a leather jacket and motorcycle boots looks cool. I think non-racist skinheads with the button-up shirt and the Docs, I love that. I just can’t wear it; it’s not me. I like certain fashion bits of it and I like the music. I also like bands that are taking the next step. They’re still just as much into punk rock as any other band but they go, "Look, it’s been done,” and that’s what we’ve sort of done too. You can’t compete against The Clash. They were an enigmatic band. I think there’s bands like us out in the world today that are playing to their limited fans, like we do, that are really making a mark on people’s view of music. Showing them that there is something else to look for apart from Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys and Nelly and N’ Sync and all these rap ghetto stars like Puff Daddy. It’s got no soul. I’ll tell Puff Daddy to his face if I have to. I’ll probably get shot and he’ll probably get off because he’s got the money. How can you rip off a Led Zeppelin song and then go, “Yeah, check out my new song!”
Scotty: To describe our band you could say we’re a mix up of all kinds of styles. We live and breathe and eat all different kinds of music all the time. We eat it, we chew it up, we spit it out and it’s got our own saliva on it.

What’s the stupidest thing Americans say when they come to Australia?
Scotty: Why aren’t there kangaroos jumping down the main streets of our cities?
Trav: When they try and do the accent ‘cause you don’t see many Australians in America going, “Howdy.”
Chris: Wuusssuuuup!

So tell me about your songwriting process.
Chris: It’s very child-like. I think to write a song you have to almost be very immature in a sense. I am very immature sometimes, but I think that’s a good thing. You’ve got to be able to get on the guitar and just go, “AHHHHH!” You know, just sing shit. Just make up stuff and be a sort of visionary. And then get a couple of chords that sound good together and maybe there might be a melody that you sung a minute ago and you think, “Hey, that might work over these chords.” It’s so random. It is from sort of thin air and I don’t think it’s something you can sort of learn. I guess you can get better at it. I think it’s either something you’ve got or haven’t. We’ve got a pretty standard songwriting process. I get some lyrics down, get the basic chord structure and take it in, whack the double bass on it, Travis drums and then we jam it for a few hours. You know, nine times out of ten it’s pretty good, but if there’s any doubt in any songs we normally throw them away. We throw away a lot of songs, which I think is a positive thing. The more we throw away, the better quality stuff we keep. We’ve always had that so hopefully we’ll always keep that.
Trav: I think the longer a band stays together too, you get a better picture of what the band is about. You now how some bands just survive and all of a sudden REM have been going for ten years and all of a sudden the drummer writes one song and it’s the biggest song ever. I think really good bands, eventually everyone starts to try and help out. I can’t speak for Scott, but as I’m getting better on guitar at home eventually maybe I’ll come up with a song and Chris will go, “Thanks, because I’m sick of writing songs. I want to write a lead break.”
Chris: There are no rules as far as, “I write the songs and you guys play them.” It’s just not like that.

You have a song that’s about the conflict in East Timor, talk about that.
Chris: We went and played there last Christmas. There’s a lot of trouble over there as far as the residents. There’s a foreign group that came in called the militia that basically killed a lot of people. The whole place is just a beep mess. Anyway, Australian troops went over as peacekeepers to try and settle it all down. They’re really kind of revered over there and they’ve done an amazing job. So kind of as a Christmas present they organized a really big concert and we went over there, along with a few other big Australian celebrities. We went over there and played for the troops. It was just an amazing experience. It’s always the experiences like that that give you inspiration for songs. We had that tune for about two years, the basic structure of the song and the melodies and everything. And we had a few ideas on lyrics and stuff. We just kind of ended up bringing the lyrics to sort of fit the melody. It was the last thing that happened, as we were recording actually those lyrics came up. But I’m really glad that song’s on the album because I think it’s one of the strongest in the end. Apparently there’s a group of Timorese guys that play in bands and stuff that want to re-record that song in Timorese. A bit of a tribute. We’d like to use it as a b-side perhaps.

How is the music scene in Australia different than the U.S.?
Chris: I think it’s a bit more honest. Nothing against the U.S., but there’s a lot of hype and a lot of money and all that sort of stuff. And maybe in the underground music scene in America it’s very similar to Australia. As much as we’re a big-selling band in Australia we’re very in tune with all of our friends bands and the whole underground scene. And it’s very honest, you’re either good or you’re not. The thing about America whenever I go there, probably because we only ever see MTV and stuff, it just seems a little fake. It’s like if you’ve got money and a big marketing budget and all this sort of stuff you’re going to become successful. Whereas in England it’s more based on whether you can play or not. I think Australia’s more in tune with England in a sense. You’re either good or you’re not. There’s no tricks and mirrors.
Scotty: The thing about England and Australia is you really have to stir the waves musically and you have to do it from an organic position. I think we really got our reputation from playing live because we did lots of touring. We went and did whatever gig we could you know, like I said, we just wanted to play five nights a week, we didn’t want to go to college, we didn’t want to learn a trade. We just wanted to play all the time and that’s just a really organic way to make an impact on people and you can do that in Australia. You can make an impact on a really big audience just through touring and playing live all the time. There’s lots of venues in each city to play at and they’re all popular. Maybe not so much Sydney, but especially Melbourne, where we’re from. There’s so many pubs you can play at. You can play every week and get a crowd there all the time. And to me, that just seems like a much more cool way to get a following than having a song on MTV or have a song that does well on radio or whatever. That’s just a real honest kind of organic way of getting across to people. It’s just getting up there and doing it live.

Do you guys all have girlfriends and stuff and families or whatever?
Chris: Girlfriends and… “stuff?” What do mean “stuff?” (In a sarcastic Puff Daddy voice) Like side bitches, yo?
Trav: (Laughing) Yeah, we all have side bitches.

I'm just wondering how does being on the road so much of the year affects your private lives?
Chris: It's a bitch having to be away from your chick for a long time.
Trav: I think it makes you appreciate them when you actually get home. You realize, “Oh my God, I could have gotten up to this and I could have gotten up to that.” Then you get home you go, "I'm glad I fuckin' just played rock 'n roll." If your girl is a good girl, you better stick with her. Put it this way, if girls were coming up to us in shows going, "You're fucken great, we love you, take us to bed," I'd be thinking,
A) not only how I'm ugly and why the fuck are they talking to me? It's only because I'm in a band.
And B) if I'm an ugly fuck, imagine how many good-looking cunts they'd have said that to. I think “pimple-dick” and I think, “no-no.”

So how often do you guys beat off on the road?
Chris: Often, often… often, I mean… often.

Per day?
Chris: Once an hour is sufficient for me.

No way!
Chris: Sonny Mayugba, don't question me!
Trav: That’s why we call him “The Wanker.”

So that's why your set is never over an hour. When you're on tour a live set is generally just an hour. Tell us what you guys do the other 23 hours of the day.
LE: Listen to music, read books. We're generally traveling to the next (show). You're traveling a great distance sometimes between shows so if it's only a couple hours between shows I guess you look around the town, see what you can of it, and do a sound check. If you're on a bus for 15 hours you just want to amuse yourself. Read books, write letters, e-mail, watch movies. We seem to occupy ourselves without getting too nasty with each other. Then we just play Playstation. That was a big savior on last year’s tour. It's good, Playstation's a brain number, you just play it.

How did you guys get signed to a record deal?
Scotty: We gathered a lot of interest from labels in the states from the reputation and following we had here at home. We put out a single that did really kind of well.
Chris: People were following us everywhere!
Scotty: We put it out ourselves. We had a distribution deal with a little company called MDS. So we went into the studio and started recording our first record by ourselves, with our own cash. During that time I guess the word of mouth had gotten over to the states and there was a bit of hype here and there was some A & R guys who flew out to see us. We met with them and they offered deals and they went backwards and forwards between us and all the different labels and we just waited until the right one came. When the right one came we said, “Yes, it's very good, but we would also like this and this and this.” We pretty much put all of the points that we considered fair from our own point of view into the deal. We gave it back to them and then Reprise were the first ones who came back and said, “We'll give you all that, whatever you want.”
Chris: And the rest is like rock ‘n roll history, man.
Trav: You know what, we signed with a major label because we decided... you know a lot of bands with punk ethics don't like the major labels because they're sort of a mass corporation type of thing. But we thought, isn't it better that we get our music heard by people who would only listen to MTV and not know that there is good rock 'n roll out there? So we thought, let's get into the war before we can win it. There's no point just signing to an indie label going, “It's beep, the situation is beep.” You've got to be a band that says, “Fine we'll sign to a major label on our terms and you distribute our music around the world.” And I think that's better because more people get a chance to discover your music around the world. It's a big punk argument, “Oh, major label.” Major label means shit. Doesn't mean we're millionaires or that we've got heaps of money, it just means the distribution and the promotion of the band can be worldwide as opposed to just So Cal or New York or Greece or whatever. So we made a distinct decision to do that and it's working.

Are you guys happy with Reprise?
Trav: So far. Obviously, they're in charge of a lot of bands and we want the attention that we think we deserve and sometimes you don't get that so you just say to them, “Hey, we're not fucking around here.”

Do you ever call them up and go, “Hey, give me love or I'll break your jaw”?
Trav: Not to that extent. I think the people that we talk to know us well enough to know that we don't fuck around. If we're going to tour overseas, lets put on good shows, lets be the best we can be. Because so many bands just get pissed and take drugs and fuck around. I can do that at home. I've got the rest of my life to do that. At the moment we can do that in small quantities and still play a good show. We're not over in fucken Alabama to see the sights. We're there to play rock n' roll and do a good show.

What bands before you do you pay homage to or sight as some of your influences?
Chris: It's more genres of music. Obviously the '50s rock is the first thing that Scott got into. That and the '70s punk movement, we admire a lot of those bands. Stuff like The Who. We don't like to name our influences too much because even though they're our influences we haven't copied that because there's no band that's really done what we've done so we're kind of making it up as we go but there are different bands that we admire what they did and I guess we try and incorporate a little bit of what worked for them.

Are there any other bands that are playing right now that you guys are stoked on?
Trav: I like the Hives from Sweden, International Noise Conspiracy from Sweden, I like the Hellacopters from Sweden, and I like Backyard Babies from Sweden. I really like a lot of the Australian bands like Grinspoon, Area 7, Jebediah, Bodyjar. I like any band that's unpretentious. You know, just gets up there and plays and you can see that they're having fun and they're feeding off the audience. I don't care if it's an Irish band or a hardcore punk band, good music's good music and shit music's shit.
LE: Big fans of Supergrass and I really like Placebo, I like Radiohead.

What advice do you have for young musicians and bands worldwide?
Chris: Just relax.

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