Metro (Sydney Morning Herald)

It Lives!

Author: Kelsey Munro

Kelsey Munro has a close shave with Homebake headliners The Living End.

The Living End’s drummer Travis Demsey sits back in the seat of the photographer’s car, sunglasses on, colourful tattoo snaking down his arm. “America,” he announces, “it’s all about TV over there.”

Since 1998 when their self-titled album became the biggest selling debut in Australian history, the Living End have had ample opportunities to figure out the US. Touring with the enormous and gruelling Vans Warped roadshow (“We did really well in Salt Lake City,” offers a bemused singer/guitarist Chris Cheney), the band slept on the tour bus for months on end.

Scraps of ideas and riffs culled from long stretches of US highway made it on to the Living End’s new album, Roll On, which is released on Monday. Two weeks later, the band will headline Homebake, a line-up of all-Australian talent in the Domain.

While influences like the Who, the Clash and the Jam are still stamped all over many of the songs, Roll On sees the Living End reaching back to some more local influences.

“We’re reliving all that old classic Aussie rock, we’ve got that energy at the moment,” says bass-player Scott Owen. “Bands like AC/DC and Midnight Oil and the Angels and Rose Tattoo.”

The Oils influence comes out most clearly on songs like Revolution Regained, a song about East Timor’s troubled recent history; or the album’s title track about the dock strikes in Melbourne last year. Cheney’s not keen to proselytise though: “I don’t like to go into it too politically as far as my music goes, I don’t like to dictate to people. I prefer to use it as a social commentary. Just tell my story, rather than, ‘this is what I think kids, this is what you should do’.”

Roll On walks a line between playing safe and embracing the avant-garde.

“We just thought if it’s too eclectic, people will get the wrong idea and think we’ve gone all arty-farty,” says Demsey with a grin. “We’ll leave that for the third album.”

Thirty or so songs were recorded before they arrived at a digestible, album-size slab. But Owen explains. “There’s millions of influences, but I guess what’s coming out the most is that whole big classic rock anthem kinda singalong: ‘Be a yobbo and be proud of it!'”

If you think “avant-garde” sounds a bit rich from a rockabilly/punk band, you’re probably right. But the Living End are a lot more than that. Formed in 1994, when Melbourne schoolmates Cheney and Owen decided it would be cool to form a band, they’ve become one of Australia’s hottest musical prospects. Anchored by Cheney’s songwriting – informed by everything from ’50s rock ‘n’ roll to neo-punks like Green Day – and trademarked by Owen’s upright double-bass, the trio were almost unknown, unsigned and without a manager when they scored a support slot with US punks Green day in 1996.

It was another support slot a year later – this time with Bodyjar – which sealed their reputation as an incendiary live act and put them on the road to commercial success. Suddenly realising they hadn’t recorded any new material for about a year, they cut a single Second Solution/Prisoner Of Society with the aim of selling it at gigs. In the end it shifted more than 100,000 copies.

They’ve had their share of good luck, in other words. But luck only gets you so far. The Living End comprises three exceptionally talented players and as a unit, they’re positively watertight.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” says Demsey – and he doesn’t. “Guitar or drums or bass, if you want to be really good, it’s 10 years of hard practice.”

“When I was into ’50s stuff, it was not cool to be carting a double bass in to school to play 12-bar blues at lunchtime,” says Owen. “But I got enough out of it not to care.”

Cheney agrees. “I used to just feel sorry for everyone else – you guys are missing out! But I’m glad that we started learning how to play that stuff, because it enabled us to learn how to play [well], so it’s not all just smoke and mirrors.”

It’s this sense of music history that distinguishes the Living End. Rock ‘n’ roll purists at heart, they love everything from Elvis to the Sex Pistols to Green Day – attracted to the DIY punk ethic but as musically grounded as jazz players.

“It’s a dying art, though, rock ‘n’ roll,” reckons Demsey. “The way things are going with the Internet, I reckon that in the next five years, along with Powderfinger and silverchair we’ll be the last of the bands that actually made good money and lived the dream of being a rock ‘n’ roll band touring the world.”

Owen disagrees. “Rock will never die. In about 20 years time, some crazy guys who find AC/DC and don’t care what’s going on at the time will reinvent it and something amazing will come of it.”

At this, Demsey brightens up. “Wouldn’t it be great to think that maybe we’re making music now that in 10 years will do for someone what the Clash does for us?”

Whatever it is that the Living End are doing, so far it’s working pretty well. “I never thought for a second that what we are doing would cross over the way it has,” says Cheney.

But Demsey’s willing to offer an explanation. “Not many bands in Australia that we play with could do a jazz song and then go straight to full-on punk rock ’77 song, and then straight on to a good pop song. And I think that’s maybe the beauty of our band.”