Coming Full Circle
Author: Hugh Robertson
It’s almost impossible for me to recall a time when The Living End weren’t a fixture of Australian music. I was nine the first time ‘Prisoner Of Society’ roared into my livingroom on a Saturday morning, giving me my first experience of music that was mine rather than something I’d just found on mum’s LPs. Mine can’t have been a unique experience though; the band’s 1999 debut remains the third highest-selling debut in Australian history, and just reached the dizzying heights of #4 in triple j’s poll of the greatest Australian albums of all time.
I spoke to vocalist Chris Cheney the day before the top ten were revealed, but his response when I told him how significant The Living End had been for me was telling enough of how he would have taken the announcement. “Fuck, man,” he begins, sounding genuinely chuffed. “Thank you! That’s awesome. That means the world. But that’s what you [make music] for, isn’t it? To have your own music. And for me it was a matter of coming up with something that didn’t exist; trying to write our own thing, and combine all the things that we liked in one band – or in one song, perhaps.”
Whatever the motivation behind it, The Living End’s songwriting formula has been an enduring one. Over the past decade, barely a single rock festival in this country has gone ahead without Chris Cheney and co., and more often than not their sets have been the highlight of the day. Following 2008’s triumphant White Noise and the ensuing tour, Cheney took himself off to New York for three months last year to, in his words, “write a few tunes, and get out of the comfort zone of living in St. Kilda, and my little music room here.” The fruits of his time away are now available for all to hear on their sixth full-length, The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating. It sounds subtly different, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until Cheney offered the answer: extra time in the recording studio. “If I could have my time again,” he confesses, “I would gladly go back and re-record the first four albums. Whenever I hear them now I just think, ‘Man, we were just on speed!’ Everything sounds sped up to 100mph. And that’s what we were trying to do – to be as intricate as we could be, and play as fast as we could, and try to cram as much information [as we could] into every single song.
“I think there’s a certain naivety to our earlier stuff,” he continues. “And I think this record in particular is more crafted. We spent more time trying to figure out what the songs need, rather than just blasting them out.” And it’s amazing how much of a difference that simple change has made. There’s still that trademark classic rock sound, but it’s filtered through a more sophisticated process than simply hitting ‘record’and smashing through one take. Perhaps the biggest stylistic shift has been away from frenzied riffs and speed, towards a “groovier”, more rhythmic approach to playing together. “Locking into a groove is something that we’ve really enjoyed as a band, particularly since Andy [Strachan, drums] has come on board,”Cheney explains. “And rather than just having three guys up on stage going hell for leather and trying to out-do each other and out-play each other, we really enjoy the idea of locking in as a unit, and as a band. And Andy’s a very groovy drummer – he really appreciates the rhythmic side of drumming, rather than just trying to play all these crazy fills.”
Hardcore fans shouldn’t fear, though. As Cheney takes great pains to point out, any experimenting with sounds or styles was done with one ear on the sound that’s defined the band for all these years. “The last thing we want is to completely take what TLE is and flush it down the toilet,” he assures me. “And The Living End using synths could be a recipe for disaster – but I hope we do it in the right way. I think it still sounds very powerful, and I think the songs benefit from it. And that was the main thing: whatever helped to support the song … Everysong had to feel good,” he continues. “Not only to have a hook and sound right, but when we were playing it we all had to finish the song and say, “Fuck yeah, that feels rock and roll. It feels heavy, and there’s a symmetry between the three of us when we play. And it’s hard to describe, hard to put into words.”
Before we wind up, I have to ask Cheney about his favourite Australian albums. He was one of the voters in the ‘industry’ list for the triplej poll, and while his personal favourites aren’t surprising, it’s always nice to hear someone wax lyrical about their favourite records… “You Am I’s Hourly, Daily was my number one,” he begins, without any hesitation. “That record just killed me – as do most You Am I records.They’re just so good. But I also had Back In Black. And I think I had a Crowded House record in there – technically not Australian, I know… Hourly, Daily is just a quintessential Australian album. But Back In Black, you could really have retired rock and roll after that.”