The Living End’s New DVD From Here On In
Beginning with the promised new single, an angry ska tune titled I Can’t Give You What I Haven’t Got, they slam through a show that would have Holly and Cochran – and probably Wes Montgomery and Kurt Cobain, too – dancing in their graves.
Within three frantic songs of lightning licks and hollered choruses, Owen’s jacket and tie have disappeared, along with every other inhibition in the room. “There’s not gonna be much small-talk tonight,” Cheney tells us when he draws breath. “We haven’t played here in far, far too long, so we’re just gonna churn ’em out, OK?”
Hey, no problem. Save the Day, All Torn Down, Prisoner of Society, Roll On, Pictures In the Mirror, One Said To the Other, Second Solution, From Here On In … In fact, all bar one of the 14 songs on the imminent singles collection are dusted off and beefed up on shuffle play.
The message is loud and clear. The Living End’s latest album, Modern Artillery, is barely a year old, but it’s already just a part of their legacy. And, give or take a short acoustic breather midway through the gig, just as in their teenage days as a Stray Cats tribute band, this game is all about setting the stage on fire.
Rewind a week. Cheney is sitting in the Greyhound Hotel in St Kilda, about halfway between his home and that of his childhood friend, Owen. He’s upbeat, partly because he’s just bought his first house. And, with no American commitments for the foreseeable future, he’s likely to spend some time in it.
“I’m kind of disappointed,” he volunteers before his first beer is half drunk. “I don’t wanna talk (down) Modern Artillery at all, but I’m kind of disappointed, because that should have been a masterpiece. That’s what I was trying to write, and it wasn’t. And there were so many factors involved (asto) why it wasn’t and it angers me and … it’s a regret, in a way.”
So what went wrong? “America. The American record company (Warner Reprise) not trusting us. New people working for the company who didn’t sign the band and therefore didn’t realise what we were capable of and didn’t let us do our thing.
“We were in a very precarious position. If we didn’t do what they wanted we wouldn’t have had an international deal, and you have to weigh that up with artistic integrity. So we had to bend a bit, try and meet them halfway. In the end, when I listen to the album …” he tilts his head dubiously. “It’s not what I had in my head, you know?
“This has been a huge thing for the band,” he says. “We haven’t spoken about it much, because I still think it’s a good album, the songs are strong, but it should have had the ‘X’ factor. It was time for us to make a great album.
“But anyway,” he says with a shrug. “It was pretty hairy times after the accident, with Trav leaving, and all of a sudden we’re on tour and writing songs, and we didn’t really get a chance to settle in. We were straight in the deep end.”
There were few doubts about new drummer Andy Strachan’s suitability for the gig. The 2003 Big Day Out was a “baptism of fire”, as Owen puts it, which he handled spectacularly well. By October ’03 the trio were back to first-division festival status, stealing Livid from the White Stripes and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
After an extensive summer tour, though, Australia was on the backburner as they tried to pick up where they left off in America. Prisoner of Society had been a radio hit there in the late ’90s, and the band’s second album, Roll On, sold even better than the first.
But rock’n’roll fashion won’t wait. In March and April, the Living End played third on the Aussie Invasion bill across the US with the Vines and Jet. Neither of those upstarts existed when the Living End LP sold five times platinum in Australia in ’99 and, as confirmed by a handful of early-bird reviewers, neither had comparable stage skill or live energy.
“We just grabbed on with both hands and said, ‘Look at this,’ ” Cheney says with a grin. “I just thought, ‘We’re third on the bill, they’re calling us the Aussie rock veterans – even though we’re only a couple of years older! – so let’s go out there with all guns blazing.’ I mean, we do that every gig, but that one we really tried to put a stamp on.”
Cheney and Owen both speak fondly of the tour, of the bands jamming AC/DC and You Am I tunes backstage and enjoying the beery camaraderie that defines young Australians abroad.
But Owen points out the fundamental difference that usually saw The Living End retiring to their bus first. “Our gig is so much more demanding than their gigs,” the double-bass player says.
“For starters, we’re a three-piece band and they’re both four-piece. And our songs are so complicated and demanding. A lot of their songs are just kinda strumming and they get to lay back. They’ve got time to think. We’ve got time to do nothing except concentrate.
“We know from experience that if we have too many beers under our belts, it’s almost impossible to get through the gig. And it’s just not enjoyable. The reward for us is actually playing tight and getting all the dynamics to stand out and be strong.”
That reward wasn’t enough on the Blink-182/No Doubt tour that followed. The Living End were all but ignored, Cheney says, not only by two monster American bands with “separate bodyguards and separate buses and separate rooms”, but by hundreds of thousands of 14-yearolds straggling into the arenas.
“This band sells itself live,” he says. “We thought, “If we can get over there and get ourselves in front of people, we can screw all the industry crap.’ There’s no shortcuts for us, it’s just about getting in front of people, and that’s the only way we know. But if the people aren’t there …
“I just wanted to go home,” he says. “I thought, ‘These people are not getting it and they’re not interested.’ “
Unfortunately, that was increasingly true of the American record company. Modern Artillery was the last in a three-album deal with Warner, and the band were given a friendly handshake when the crucial monster hit failed to materialise.
Meanwhile, an album ostensibly tailored for the US market had fared less than brilliantly in their neglected homeland. Does all that time in America feel wasted in retrospect?
“Ah, some of it does,” Cheney says. “(Warner) were given a band that I think you can sell to anyone. This band has got something that immediately appeals to people visually, and we write songs that aren’t too hard to listen to and, yeah, they fucked it.”
Cheney reveals that I Can’t Give You What I Haven’t Got, the first of two new tracks on the singles compilation, was largely inspired by the Warner US debacle. Bringing It All Back Home sounds like the other side of the coin. It’s a development that Strachan, for one, is less than distressed about.
“If I had my way, we’d just tour Australia and Japan,” the drummer says, his hair still soaked after the Peninsula gig. “We’re not in a big hurry to get back to America, I don’t think. We’re all pretty keen to concentrate on Australia for the next year, get a new album out. I just love touring here. You can get good food, for a start. America’s really dodgy that way.”
Owen’s ambitions are similarly pragmatic. “For me,” he says, “selling records and playing to bigger crowds is only important because I’d love to be able to do this for the rest of my life. I don’t have massive ambitions to be a household-name rock’n’roll star. I don’t have that desire. Creating, expanding musically, that’s the most important thing to me. There’s nothing else I really think about. Ever.
“I’m not upset about the American thing, because it brings perspective back to us. Rather than them having a plan and us saying, ‘OK, what do you want us to do?’, finally it’s time to say, ‘What do we want to do?’ “
There’s little doubt that EMI Australia is looking to reclaim lost ground with the CD and DVD retrospectives. Largely due to their US focus, The Living End’s local sales graph has charted a steep decline since what Owen calls their “freak” debut.
“I don’t care, really,” the bass player says jovially. “I’m sure that behind management and record company doors it’s an issue, but personally, look, sometimes I try to think about it, but it doesn’t have that much of an effect on me. I am genuinely happy just getting up there playing gigs.
“As long as we can fill pubs like the Palace and the Corner, pubs I like to go see bands play, I’m happy. And as long as I think we’re making good music,” he shakes his head, “that’s so much more important than the climb.”
For Chris Cheney, the shift in global perspective began three years ago, when he woke with his leg in pieces at the foot of a cliff near Fairhaven.
“I’m definitely a lot more easygoing,” he says. “I care less about what other people are thinking. I just want to make myself happy, make sure we have good songs and the band plays well.
“I’ve always said (the accident) was imperative to the band. It had to happen and it gave us all a chance to rethink. I dunno if the last album was a true indication of that, but the new stuff we’re writing and the headspace we’re in – I dunno, it just feels fresher and newer.”
As is often said of Bob Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle accident of 1966, if the crash hadn’t existed, perhaps it would have been necessary to invent it. Certainly, after the record-breaking success of The Living End’s debut, downhill appeared to be the only direction to go. But that depends on which way you’re facing.
“That was never intimidating to me,” Cheney insists. “I’m so glad I never got sucked into that idea, ‘This is my first album and it’s a masterpiece.’ I can see it’s a special kind of record, but come on,” he says with a cocky grin, “that was just the beginning. We can do so much better than that.”
The Living End play at the Palace in St Kilda tonight, and tomorrow at 2.30pm (under-18s only), with Dallas Crane supporting. The From Here On In CD and DVD are out separately this week through EMI.