2001.03.12 - Aversion.com
Date: 12th March 2001
Author: Matt Schild
Featuring: Travis Demsey
Archived from: Website Closed
Rock this Town
"Rock’n’roll to us is everything," declares The Living End’s drummer, Travis Dempsey. "It’s life-changing. It hits you as a teenager and it gets you through so much that a fu For the past few years, such a statement’s been curiously absent from the talk about rock’n’roll — Dempsey makes a point to avoid the term "rock," as if to separate his band from 30 years’ worth of head bangers — to the point where music fans who search for something outside of pure entertainment in their music may have given up the ship. It’s the kind of statement that’s expected to come from one of rock’s elder statesmen, a Pete Townshend or Joe Strummer, but not out of the mouth of a 28-year-old Australian drummer.
After talking with Dempsey for just a few moments, however, it’s clear his dedication to rock’n’roll as a way of life is a throwback to the days before the antics of shock-rockers like Eminem and Marilyn Manson turned the music industry into a three-ring circus, or before the quick-patch DJ culture threatened to make hard-working bands obsolete. It’s not the "music is my life" sort of sentiment, either. There’s none of the kind of thing that drives indie kids to pick up an acoustic guitar and crank out tenderhearted ballads that have more in common with a trip to the Hallmark store than a walk through the sleazy underworld that begot rock’n’roll 45 years ago. No, the trio, Dempsey along with singer/guitarist Chris Cheney and acoustic bass player Scott Owen, bows down to a vision of rock’n’roll as a sort of rebel religion.
"Rock’n’roll music is about rebellion," Dempsey says. "It’s about rebelling against what’s going on around you. It’s about actually standing up for yourself and saying, ‘No, actually I like orange T-shirts rather than red,’ or whatever."
While it’s unimportant to Dempsey what rock’n’roll sets out to rage against, the idea of it as outsiders’ music is one that the band keeps close to its heart, despite its monumental success in its homeland. While appearances on awards shows and on the cover of the Aussie version of Rolling Stone have taken The Living End to one of the highest levels of success in its homeland, it’s not going to turn its back on rock’s rebel origins. Considering the band’s background and style — one that blends perennial outlaw styles punk and rockabilly — it’s not too surprising to find out that the mantle of rock star resting on the band’s head sits a bit uncomfortably at times.
With the band’s latest album, Roll On (Warner Bros.), just now hitting the states, it’s clear the band won’t let its position as bona-fide rock stars in its own country erode any of the passion that helped it get to the forefront of Australian rock. The trio can be taken out of the limits of the punk and rockabilly circles that spawned it, but there’s no way it’s going to leave its underground ethos in the small clubs.
"I think we’re a rock’n’roll band that draws on the punk ethics," Dempsey says. "We’re not leather-wearing, mohawk-type punks. We’re more socially aware of what’s going on around us punks. We’re not trying to dress out to impress anyone that I’m punk rock. I just am what I am. We definitely like the ideals behind punk rock. Play music for music’s sake. Don’t let the other stuff get in the way of the music like the lines of cocaine and the girls and the fu Such a no-nonsense view of rock’n’roll runs counter to almost everything that’s passed off as rock in the mainstream. In fact, the band that loves rock for its grassroots rebel image sees the spit-polished legions of rock icons as an affront to everything threatening that rock’n’roll is supposed to represent.
"The whole rock’n’roll myth of people in a band are tongue-in-cheek, but also a little bit cheeky, and a little bit left-of-center, most rock bands don’t have that," Dempsey complains. "They look like the average person walking down the street. They don’t look dangerous to me at all."
With a respect for the danger of pure rock’n’roll, The Living End looks out at much of the rock landscape with some distaste. After all, rock was made to provide the soundtrack to rebellion, not to help hock jeans, soft drinks and automobiles. While the commercialization of rock music in the media and advertising is anathema to the End’s ethos, Dempsey says it does provide an easy filter for figuring out whether a band is one of the rare few that still hold their music in reverence or if it’s simply in the business to get its image on the cover of as many magazines as possible.
"I think there’s been a lull in the past few years, where upon the advent of putting music with extreme game sports, putting music with advertisements like Sprite commercials, all that sort of stuff, is good, because it sorts out the men from the boys, and I’m not being sexist there," he says. "It’s really like ‘Who wants to be a rock’n’roll star?’ ‘Oh, I do’ put your hand up, fine. We know what bands want — instant success — and what they’re willing to do to get it. We’re not willing to do that. We’re willing to do interviews and make the interviews work for us."
When it comes down to it, even without the aid of spotlight-seeking appearances in commercials, it’s still pretty easy to separate the real rockers from the impostors. After all, just because a band plays angry music, doesn’t’ mean it is angry. A look on MTV will reveal a host of bands who walk the rap/rock crossover road, though many, especially underground acts, will argue that many rap/metal bands use the style’s popularity simply as a springboard to success.
That’s the very mentality that The Living Ends hopes to destroy with its music. Without a firm belief in the music they make, Dempsey argues, there’s little to be had in any band’s output. It’s a belief that Dempsey doubts many bands have in their work.
"Those sort of bands, I don’t know how much they believe in what they do. I’m sure they’ll believe in it as long as the money’s there," he says. "I just want to see how long these bands keep sticking to what they’re doing. It’s always ironic to see a mid-20-year-old band singing about being pissed off, but in their video clips, they’re showing their lavish lifestyle."
While it’s apparent that Dempsey’s done a lot of thinking about what’s amiss with today’s rock’n’roll, he avoids the role of the feuding rock warlord that many rock stars take on. With music news increasingly becoming just a report of on-the-record disses and verbal volleys between pop icons, it’s a rare moment when a rocker doesn’t take the opportunity to single out another to be his verbal punching bag. That’s not to say Dempsey completely turns the other cheek, however.
"I’m certainly not going to stoop to the level that they do and start slagging each other off. I think real music fans, they don’t want to hear bitching. They just want to hear good rock’n’roll," he says. "It’s a weird position where rock bands feel the need to criticize each other. I think that’s out of inadequacy. They know they’re not good or whatever."
With full-scale domination of the Australian music scene under its belt, The Living End now looks to extend its empire around the globe. It’s a daunting task: the trio is still relatively unknown across Europe and the States, but the band is keen to take on the challenge. It’s going to do it without the help of any publicity gimmicks or watered-down songwriting, too. While cracking the MTV market would be considerably easier if the End pandered to the lowest common denominator, the band is determined to stick to what it does best: rebel rock’n’roll.
"It’s angry and it’s pissed off, but it’s also got a touch of raw emotion to it, just like Iggy Pop or the Clash or the Who or the Jam or whatever, and have a social commentary on what’s going on around us," Dempsey says. "‘I did it all for the nookie’ — that just doesn’t appeal to us."