Author: Julian Tompkin
It may have taken an horrific car accident and the departure of mate and drummer Travis Demsey from the band, but Chris Cheney, frontman for The Living End, has finally taken a second to stop and enjoy the success he’s experienced thanks to the only job he’s ever known. But, back with the band’s third longplayer Modern Artillery, it’s also given him a fiery hunger for more. No one could have seen it coming. Cheney had witnessed the band he’d formed with bassist Scott Owen at high school in the mid-’90s turn into big business, with a self-titled debut album that quickly broke all rock records in this country, going five times platinum after its release in 1998. With two record deals Reprise in the US and EMI in Australia The Living End, along with drummer Travis Demsey, soon found its punk/rockabilly songs of disenfranchised youth become the soundtrack for a new generation of rock kids, from the streets of Melbourne, to Berlin and Tokyo. Between world tours the band found time to record the second installment of The Living End story, 2000’s Roll On album. While less immediate than its predecessor, Roll On possessed enough of that iconic neo rockabilly charm that distanced The Living End from its contemporaries to continue the unstoppable momentum of one of Australia’s most successful bands. It was time for album number three but a car crash soon changed everything. Cheney was to spend months in rehab, unable to play guitar while his injuries healed. He cried, he hurt, he drank but mostly he thought he thought a lot. And he suddenly noticed a few important facts he’d managed to evade in his rock-star existence, like the fact he’d never made time to enjoy his success. But, more importantly, he realised he wasn’t getting any younger and the band was yet to make the album that had the potential to really break The Living End internationally. Cheney decided it was time to rectify that. However, during the course of the forced break the other band members also had time to think. Owen was well and truly prepared to execute Cheney’s grand plan, but Demsey wasn’t and he handed in his resignation. Maimed but determined to move on, the band recruited Adelaide lad Andy Strachan, warmed up on the 2003 Big Day Out tour then packed the bags, bound for LA to record under the pomp and polish of Mark Trombino (Blink 182, Sum 41) breaking with a tradition that always saw the band record in Australia. Couped up in a cheap hotel, The Living End toiled for three months, finally completing its most diverse, yet polished work to date. Gone is the customary double bass solo and the half-hearted anarchic catch cries, and in is large melody and lush production. But at the heart of the album is what’s become Cheney’s main impetus behind Modern Artillery, best summed in the evocative Maitland Street: “Will we be remembered? Or lost in history?”. As Cheney says, that’s a question that only time will answer, and he has his doubts. But above all of that he knows he’s finally created the album he’s always dreamed of making, and that, he reckons, is enough. The Living End tours WA in November, concluding with Rock It on Sunday, November 23.
It’s a term often bandied around, but in this case it’s true: It’s been a while between drinks.
“Yeah, we recorded the damn thing back in February, and started writing it the previous January/February, so it just feels like we should’ve written a movie or something but we didn’t. It’s so crazy; Metallica take that long to write their albums, not The Living End not at this stage of our career.”
Why didn’t it come out earlier?
“It’s just been one thing after another really. It started obviously with me having the car accident, then Trav leaving. It’s kind of due to no one in particular, it just seems to have been the curse of this album. And then some tapes got lost just everything seems to have taken twice as long, but I think they say good things come to those who wait.”
That meant plenty of time spent at home did that send you mad?
“Yeah especially this last year, it did get a bit like that; leaning too heavily on things I shouldn’t have been doing. It was extremely frustrating this is all I’ve done since high school, because I finished high school in ’92 and we started the band in ’91, me and Scott, and that’s all we did for like 10 years. Through doing that you do sacrifice a lot of the family stuff, and friends, so when it all came to a grinding halt I was tearing my hair out at home, really frustrated at sitting around and not having all those wonderful things I’d had before, and in a way it was probably good because it forced me to do something else other than the band. But it also made me realise I don’t want to do anything else other than the band (laughs) so then you have an extra beer a day and it just escalates from there I suppose”.
It really has been an eventful, if not life changing, few years since the last album with both your accident and Travis’ departure from the band. It’s a bit of a philosophical question but is The Living End the same band Australia knew a few years back?
“Well I think we have the same intensity, I would say, and renewed enthusiasm for playing shows but I think we’re a little bit different in our approach. I think we’re a lot more focused now and a lot more direct I suppose. Not that we were ever mucking around but things kind of happened in a natural, organic way. We were very lucky in the sense that it just got bigger and bigger and bigger with the first album, and then we started touring the world, and then the second album everything was sort of turning into gold. And having this break has made us realise that we’re pretty lucky I suppose, and not take it for granted. So I think now we’re a lot more; everything we do we try and do 180 per cent and really make it count and make sure we’re proud of everything that goes out.”
Was there always a burning determination to get back to the stage?
“It’s been pretty intense, well it was for me. After all that we’ve been through and then to come back with an album that was not quite there I just wanted to make it the best album that we could possibly make and every song I was writing I was putting everything I had into it. I just didn’t want to put up with second best; even like school work and all that sort of stuff was never my forte, it was never my greatest achievement so I figure that I’ve got this opportunity in this band to do something really special and I don’t want to screw it up. So when it comes to songwriting and playing guitar and being in the band we really do try and give it all we’ve got. Scott and I were the same, we never did our homework at school, we weren’t academics by any means but we got through it we just figure we’re good at this so let’s really give it all we can and show different sides of the band and make sure we keep moving in a forward direction.”
How do you do that?
“Just try and make sure we don’t have any loose ends and trying to enjoy it at the same time. Just trying to be the kind of band that we would want to go and see, that we would be into which is how we started out, trying to form the ultimate band, with double bass and a Gretsch and influenced by punk rock and rockabilly and jazz. All that sort of stuff we were trying to do back then still trying to do now, and I never want to lose sight of that and go “Yep, that’s it. We’re the greatest band ever we can’t improve now”. There’s always room for improvement.”
With all that time off to think there must have come a point where you just totally freaked yourself out?
“Yeah, that’s the thing. We’d never really stopped to really look around before, and although I was always proud at what we’d achieved, I’d never kind of sat down and counted the gold records (laughs) or anything like that. I thought with this album it’s time we were seen as a band that can write good songs I think people have this preconception, a gimmicky kind of thing with the double bass and it’s pretty energetic and we give it all live, and it’s very visual but that’s only one side to us. I mean most of the people we listen to are really great songwriters, like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson and You Am I, whoever. So we want to be seen as that too. So that was the plan with this album, was to go “Right these songs are going to be better than any other songs that we’ve written”, and I think they are and I think that’s the strength of the album, it’s not the double bass solo which has just been done to death. I’m happy that the foundation behind every song is a strong one.”
Each song on Modern Artillery is a song in its own right, with its own identity, providing for The Living End’s most diverse album yet. Would you agree?
“I guess it’s a different album from what we would have made if we hadn’t had that time off that’s obvious. And getting older I suppose, probably a bit more maturity makes you try focusing on your weaknesses perhaps, and I think that’s been a bit of a weakness of ours in the past.”
It’s obviously The Living End, however songs like Jimmy, In The End and The Room are as far away from Prisoner Of Society and Second Solution as the band could get. Are we seeing the real Living End for the first time?
“I think you’re definitely seeing another side to the band, whether that’s always been there or not and it’s only surfaced now I don’t know. Songs like The Room is something that I’d like to do more of in the future, but again that’s just me being selfish and personal in saying “Well, why can’t I write a song like that? Why are other people allowed to do it and get all this praise?”. It’s kind of like “We’ll show them that we can do that kind of thing too”. I guess I don’t mean that in a negative way, I just mean it like we just want to try and cover as many things within our career as we can. As long as it sounds real and as long as we do it properly. You have to be very careful; there’s nothing worse than a band that tries to do interesting stuff and just doesn’t pull it off.”
The band has broken with tradition here and decided to record this one overseas. What was the premise behind that?
“Just because we had the opportunity to, I suppose. I’d always wanted to do something like that overseas and it just felt like the right time we should get away from distractions here, really focus. We had Andy on board and we wanted to get him really feeling like part of the team, just go over there and really get our heads down and get on with the job. But in hindsight I don’t think that was the perfect environment because it was just kind of boring a lot of the time, because we were stuck in Burbank at the Holiday Inn for three and a half months it had karaoke every Friday and Saturday night and after we finished recording it was kind of too late to go anywhere so we’d just sit in the bar and listen. It was the same people every week for three months, these same six people who went to the Holiday Inn and got up and sang songs. It was a little bit like Groundhog Day, I thought we were never actually going to ever get back to Australia again. It kept going on and on and on.”
You worked with Mark Trombino, how was that experience?
“He was pretty good, I wouldn’t say he was the ultimate combination really but I’m not sure whether there ever is. I think one of the things that we originally wanted to work with him for was the fact that he could maybe bring a slickness and maybe a bit of his, I don’t know, give us a big sound and maybe something different to what we’d had before. That if we brought to the table our looseness and roughness that we try and get across live it’s pretty ragged sometimes we figured if we could meet half way; and that’s kind of what we did.”
That slickness was obviously a move that had the international music market in mind?
“I suppose so, I think it’s a little cleaner than the last album but there comes a time we’ve made lots of trashy EPs and that was one of the challenges, to maybe make a good studio album; get in there and work with overdubs and work with layering. I admire the garage rock revolution but at the same time it’s probably kind of cool that we’re doing our own thing; that we haven’t tried to get on that boat, even though we come from similar backgrounds. We’ll just see what happens. I don’t know what to think about the international thing we’ve given it all we can and we’ve played some pretty big venues and got a bit of a name for ourselves but it’s hard to say whether this will translate. We’re just going to go over there and do what we’ve done before and really give it all it’s probably the last chance we’ll have, so who knows. This is a business in a way that we’ve built up since high school and it would be great to try and take it, I mean we’ve done so well in Australia why can’t it work overseas as well? I couldn’t care less really about the worldwide acclaim or the money, I just think it would be great to be able to tour this band for another few years around the world.”