From the outside, Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios is an unremarkable building. Located down a quiet suburban street in the inner city suburb of Richmond, it looks just like any of the other faceless warehouses that threaten to squeeze out the small selection of tiny, weather beaten bungalow houses that intermittently line the street. There’s nothing to suggest that, behind two hefty wooden doors, The Living End are slaving away on the follow-up to their 1998 multi-platinum, self-titled debut album.
In fact there’s nothing to suggest there is a studio here at all. There are no flashy cars in the street – the chosen accessory of any self-respecting rock star – just a few beat-up Holdens, one a station wagon with a Bodyjar sticker and a back seat that looks like it’s carried way too many drums, guitars and amps. The studio’s rubbish bins, currently sitting on the footpath, are the only indication that there is any sort of rock ‘n’ roll activity in the vicinity – neither contains food scraps, but both are overflowing with Melbourne Bitter stubbies. This must be the right place.
Once inside the building, things take on a marginally more impressive bent. The walk to the complex’s premier studio – The NEVE room – takes me down a corridor lined with gold records, which opens out into a kitchen and eating area that would fit nicely into any designer catalogue. Next is a games room, which offers a series of distractions from the pressures of recording such as a ping-pong table, snooker table and dart board. Another corridor leads from here into the NEVE room, and it’s from behind the glass door entrance to this area that The Living End’s frontman Chris Cheney appears.
Looking to all intents and purposes like a young English punker with his flat cap, black jumper, red tie and brothel creepers, he offers his hand and smiles. “G’day, I’m Chris, come on in.”
Within seconds we’re standing in the main control room of Sing Sing Studios watching producer Nick Launay (Silverchair, Semisonic, Midnight Oil) splice together some tape. It’s a dark room making the dazzling array of lights on the mixing desk seem even more impressive. A poster of The Clash hangs above the desk, a Clockwork Orange poster on the far right wall. Bass player Scott Owen – the picture of elegance in his grey suit – stands up from one of the two well worn couches that line the back of the room and introduces himself, beer in hand.
Both Cheney and Owen are openly friendly. Chris immediately offering me a drink while a rough mix of one of the band’s new tracks thunders out of the studio speakers. “How’s it all going?” I enquire. “It’s slowly getting louder!” smiles Launay, looking disturbingly like a mad scientist at work on his latest creation. Behind him, a large window looks into the actual recording studio, revealing a perfect view of drummer Trav Demsey’s back as he sits at his kit, randomly attacking the skins. Inside the studio it looks like a bomb has hit – at one end is Demsey’s gold coloured kit, surrounded on both sides by two long petitions. Leads, drum skins, microphones and drums are strewn across the wooden floor, a grand piano sits in the corner (“We only use it to play chopsticks,” assures Owen), and a mirror runs along one side of the room. Two smaller rooms lead off the studio – one houses Owen’s double bass, the other a selection of vintage amps and Cheney’s guitars. Poster of various heroes dot the walls – The Clash, AC/DC, Supergrass, Bill Haley And The Comets for starters. “That was Nick’s idea,” reveals Owen. “He said we should put some things up that will inspire us.”
After everyone has a drink in their hand (Demsey a Coke, Owen and Cheney a 500ml can of Classic Bitter each), we plonk some chairs in the middle of the mayhem and settle in for a bit of a chat to discuss the past, the present, and the future, as told by The Living End.
The past two years has been an amazing period for this trio. On the strength of one album they became megastars in Australia, circumnavigated the globe four times, played prestigious festivals such as Reading in the UK and the Warped tour in the US, accompanied The Offspring on their first jaunt around American arenas, and discovered that some of their idols such as Brian Setzer (former singer-guitarist with American rockabilly legends, the Stray Cats) are big fans of the band.
Their travels also gave them the opportunity to make a lot of friends around the world – and a few enemies. Their run-in with Eminem at the Warped Festival in particular has become the stuff of legend.
“That got blown right out of proportion,” scowls Demsey.
“The Warped tour has two stages, and they run back-to-back. Eminem was playing right before us on the other side of a field, and he had such a huge crowd over there that when we were about to start there was no one there for us. I had a microphone and said, ‘We’re The Living End from Australia, we don’t sing about raping women of being tough,’ and i called him a wanker and a fuckhead, and it got people over. The next day the rumour was that he was very offended that he’d done nothing to us but we’d cussed him out, and I thought this guy can’t take a fucking joke. “So the next day I said, ‘Eminem, you’re a fuckhead’ in the mic in front of everyone, and the next thing I know he’s got people on his entourage saying they’re out to get me. I was like, ‘Dude, it’s a joke. It’s the Australian way to hang shit, it’s a fun thing to do.'”
Given that the band have been toiling away with Launay for 12 hours a day, six days a week over the past month, and still have another three and a half weeks ahead of them, the globetrotting escapades of 1999 seem like a lifetime away. “We’re definitely trying to move on from the last album,” starts Demsey. “We idolise The Jam, The Clash and the Sex Pistols, but it’s been done, and we could not beat that. So we might as well do our own thing and add the stuff we’ve been listening to over the last 18 months – everything from Wings to Midnight Oil, AC/DC, even Primal Scream. We’ve tried to use all those ideas and still make the album rock hard, but have a lot of musical parts in there that make sense, they’re not just in there because they’re tricky. We want to be as simple as the Sex Pistols, but people who really know music will go, ‘Yeah, that is punk rock, but it’s punk for today.'”
“It’s a lot more advanced musically, we’ve just gone crazy on trying to have really good parts and make it rock,” adds Cheney. “But first and foremost the songs have to be good; if it doesn’t sound good on an acoustic guitar we don’t go much further with it. All our favourite bands have great songs, we’re not caught up in the whole technological thing, we just want to be able to song along with it.” Tentative song titles include Uncle Harry (“about and Uncle of Trav’s we caught pissing in the bath one day,” laughs Cheney), Blood On Your Hands, Al Capone, Shut The Gate, Roll On, and Killing The Right.
Killing The Right is an anti-racism sort of song, inspired by being in Atlanta and seeing this black guy getting arrested up against a cop car and feeling very weird because we’re white,” explains Cheney. “Just walking down the street and not seeing any white people, and it was kind of like reverse racism, and I’d never seen it before. It’s a little bit more confrontational than anything on the last album. I think a few of the subjects are, dare I say it, more grown up.”
Prior to this interview, the band were busy rehearsing, working on a chorus for a new song tentatively called Maitland Street. Keen to hear how the new material is sounding, we decide to stop talking so they can start rocking. Before they can focus on their instruments completely, though, they have a quick photo session to attend to.
“That’s more of a Beatles pose,” quips Demsey when Massive‘s photographer John Stanton tries to position each member for a photo. “And I’m more of a Rolling Stone.” The trio spend much of the session cracking jokes, both at each other’s and their own expense. “What do you notice about this, Trav?” asks Owen as both he and Cheney use their guitars as props for a photo.
“That I’m not holding an instrument,” responds Demsey, inviting a thousand drummer-musician jokes that for some reason don’t materialise. “No, that I’m playing my double bass left handed,” snarls Owen. “I didn’t even know you played double bass,” quips the drummer. Boom boom.
While the band are busy striking a variety of poses, it provides the perfect opportunity to talk to Launay about the album and what The Living End are like to work with.
“I find them great, the whole youthful kind of thing,” he smiles. “It’s part of the music and what we’re trying to do, make it sound very, very exciting, but they’re just naturally like that. Trav in particular is constantly up and cracking jokes and in your face. And that’s what this band and their music is all about.”
Launay has dubbed the band’s music “progrockabillypunk” (a tag the band don’t agree with), because the new material is so tricky and takes so many twists and turns.
“The arrangements on the last album were pretty amazing, but on this album they’ve just gone to town,” he says. “In fact one of the things we’ve had to do was just simplify some of the songs that were completely over the top, and we’ve managed to leave all the best parts of that. And I think it’s going to shock people because the playing on it is just fantastic.”
That much becomes clear as we head back into the studio to watch the band trying to perfect the new chorus. Cheney stands face-to-face with Owen showing him the chords, while Demsey bangs his drums randomly waiting for things to start.
“We might bear witness to the birth of a new chorus,” I mention to Owen before they start playing.
“Yeah, you might also bear witness to a pile of shit!” he chuckles. Within moments Owen is plucking his bass tentatively and watching for Cheney’s instruction, while the singer yells into a microphone that’s plugged into an old, distorting speaker. The band are using the most basic amplification because they can’t use headphones to rehearse, and the sound is, as a result, not the greatest.
“This is the worst guitar sound in the history of everything,” growls Cheney. “I hope you’re not taking notes about how bad this sounds,” he smiles in my direction. I am, and it doesn’t sound bad at all. Sure, sonically things could be better, but the song itself is rousing stuff – part AC/DC stomp, part punk rock attitude; the chorus they throw in is as anthemic and uplifting as you’d expect. Even with the primitive equipment, it’s easy to tell that this is another Living End classic in the making. The band plug away for another half an hour, chopping and changing melody lines and arrangements, before deciding to leave it for a while. We retire to the control room, where Launay is cueing up a track the band worked on the night before called Shut The Gate. Kicking off with an ominous blues boogie riff, it takes a few rhythmic twists and turns, Cheney’s vocal snarl sounding as catchy as it does vitriolic, before climaxing in a rousing gang chorus of “SHUT THE GATE!” It’s a short, sharp number and proves that neither Launay’s, nor the band’s claims that this is going to be a somewhat complex but intensely rocking album are unjustified.
When the band emerge from the studio in just under a month’s time, they’ll head to New York to mix and master the album with supreme knob twiddler Andy Wallace (Jeff Buckley). After that, who knows what lies ahead for the trio? “We didn’t expect what happened with the last album,” marvels Owen, “and because of that I don’t know what to expect now. I’d be just as happy to do what we did for the last two years. I’ve got a hunger for it to be bigger and better, though.”
Is this the album to make The Living End global megastars?
“Possibly,” muses Owen.
“Who knows, how can you say?” snaps Cheney. “it’s to do with the timing, the songs …you look at the stuff riding the airwaves and it’s all that boy band stuff, there’s just no rock ‘n’ roll. There’s definitely a market for what we’re doing, it’s just a matter of whether it clicks.” Till things start clicking, The Living End will have their fingers firmly crossed.
Their new album will be available from HMV in October.