The Australian

Living End: how song Amsterdam made it to new album Wunderbar

Author: Andrew McMillen

In this weekend’s Review I write about Melbourne trio the Living End, whose eighth album Wunderbar is released next week. It contains a song named Amsterdam that catches the ear immediately, as the arrangement features nothing more than Chris Cheney’s vocals and a trebly electric guitar. It’s rather far removed from the boisterous brand of rock and roll for which the band has been well known for two decades, and when I met Cheney in July, I asked him how the band decided to include it on the album in such an unadorned state.

“It was one I’d written, and I just demoed it on my GarageBand,” he told me, referring to his preferred recording software. “The other guys never had a problem with it. They weren’t like, ‘Hang on, that should be on the solo record’; everyone just went: ‘That’s a great song. You know what? Drop everything else out of it, and just you play it.’

“It just adds another colour and texture to the album, and I think it’s got a lot of character because of that. It’s going to make for a stronger record, with peaks and troughs.”

When I spoke to Cheney’s bandmates, they filled in a few more details and offered their perspective on a song that is likely to surprise fans of the Living End who have come to know and love the group for its strident, three-pronged attack.

“It was written in Amsterdam, in this funny little Airbnb place,” said double bassist Scott Owen. “Chris showed it to us, and it had more of a twangy, surf guitar line, but it was more of a full band kind of idea. When we got to the writing process for the record, it really wasn’t going to fit; it just didn’t have a place.”

Wunderbar was recorded in Berlin, and it was the input of producer Tobias Kuhn that convinced the group to rethink that decision, however. “When we got to Germany and Tobias was going through some ideas, Chris played it to him at one point, and he said, ‘There’s something in that song but it’s not going to work as a band track. Let’s try getting it back to its rawest state,’ ” said Owen. “It just makes it so much more powerful. He held two iPhones up in front of Chris and pretty much tracked it live. It’s got a real grit to it, and real emotion. By stripping everything back, the emotion really comes to the foreground.”

The decision to include such a sparse arrangement certainly highlights the strength of Cheney’s vocals, and it also offers a glimpse into how he presents songs to his bandmates at rehearsal, before they begin adding a rhythm section. It strikes me as the kind of artistic decision that could be reached only by three musicians who are confident and secure in their own abilities, and keen to share that sense of openness with their fans.

“I don’t think it’s something we would have even attempted 10 years ago,” drummer Andy Strachan told me. “There’s a musical maturity that you develop over the years where it’s OK to play really minimally, or not at all, if that’s what the song is asking for. In that particular scenario, that’s what the song required. It didn’t need a heavy bassline and some pounding drums behind it, because that took away from the rawness to it. I think we’re at that point where we’re like: ‘It’s better without us.’ ”