Jumping the tracks
Author: Andrew McMillen
The Living End’s new album, Wunderbar, should please the fans and attract new followers.
One of Australia’s greatest living rock songwriters sips a beer at an inner-Brisbane pub while musing on the fractured state of popular culture.
“I mean, that guy there: he might only listen to dance music,” says Chris Cheney, pointing at a worker in high-visibility clothing who sits nearby, enjoying a solo schooner on a Thursday afternoon. “We’re all listening to different things. These days, a hit is only a hit to the people who like it. It’s very rare to get people coming up to me saying, ‘Have you heard that song?’ or ‘You’ve got to get this record, it’s amazing!’ Everyone’s just on their own train.”
As frontman of the Living End, Cheney has navigated a prosperous and durable career for the Melbourne trio, whose 1998 self-titled debut contained a string of hit songs that came to define that era of Australian rock music. A decade later, fifth album White Noise was awarded an ARIA award for best rock album, while its title track won song of the year at the 2009 APRA Music Awards.
It’s a curious time to meet the musician in July, as he has one foot in the past while touring in a concert tribute to the White Album by the Beatles — the 1968 release from a simpler time, when cultural train tracks tended to share a single terminus.
Despite nightly performing timeless songs such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps, when he raises a glass with Review he’s looking ahead to the release of an eighth Living End album.
Even if his fellow day-drinkers at this quiet pub had never heard a note of his music, it’d be hard to mistake Cheney — who wears black sunglasses and his blonde hair swept back at the fringe — for anything other than a man who belongs on stage, guitar in hand, standing before a microphone.
This penchant for a distinctive dress sense harks back to his childhood. “I remember what it was like being an Elvis freak in high school,” he says. “People used to give me strange looks: I wore pointy shoes, had my collar up, and was right into the whole 1950s rockabilly thing. I’ve always felt some sort of empathy towards anyone that was sort of different.”
While watching his two daughters — now aged 12 and nine — start to express their individuality, and while tuning into recent national discussions surrounding subjects such as same-sex marriage and cyber-bullying, Cheney began to write a song about a social outcast.
That sketch became Not Like the Other Boys, a track built on a jangly chord progression whose first verse begins: “Danny was a little different from the rest / Not like the other boys / Always sitting on his own out in the schoolyard / Away from the other boys …”
Cheney’s adolescent enthusiasm for rockabilly — and, later, punk rock — was mirrored by double bassist Scott Owen. The pair formed the band in 1994, after meeting at Wheelers Hill Secondary College in Melbourne.
“We loved the Stray Cats, and what their roots were, while everybody else was listening to Bon Jovi, hip-hop and Nirvana,” Owen says by phone. “That’s kind of how we’ve always been and we’re still like that. We just make the music that we like, and try and show everyone: ‘Hey, look what happens when you put this and this together.’ It’s like cooking in the kitchen: ‘Here, taste this — it’s bloody awesome!’ ”
When it comes to writing words and music, Cheney has long since learned that his first goal is to satisfy himself, after years of honing his instincts. “I know that if I write something and go, ‘That is kick-arse!’, I know that Scott and [drummer] Andy [Strachan] and other people around me will [agree] — and then I know I’ve got something that’s undeniably catchy,” he says.
Eighth album Wunderbar was recorded in Berlin, with a view to having a new release ready ahead of the European summer festival circuit. Its evolution followed the familiar form of Cheney presenting skeletal ideas for his bandmates to build on, which is how the trio’s songwriting process usually works.
“Depending on the formation of the skeleton, it could be a few bones or it could be a complete structure,” says Strachan. “It could be a riff or it could be a few words that are really powerful. When we’re in the band room, we get excited, we fire off each others’ ideas, and that’s when things start to take shape.”
After spending much of his adult life as a performer, Owen says: “I think I play music more for myself now than I used to. Maybe I started off playing for myself, then I was straight out into the world of playing it for other people, and to try and make a living out of it. Those were a bit more intellectual sorts of reasons, rather than emotional. Now, I just feel totally privileged that we are still able to do this; still able to have a passion job.”
Given the stripped-back and distinctive style of rock ’n’ roll offered by its 11 tracks, Wunderbar will likely be met with enthusiasm by the band’s packed train of followers, here and overseas. If any of its songs happen to jump the tracks and connect with a new audience, then that will be a happy bonus.
Wunderbar will be released on Friday via BMG.