Chris Cheney on going solo and finding redemption
Author: Andrew McMillen
‘The first 25 years of my life, everything I did turned to gold,’ says The Living End frontman. ‘So what do you do when that happens? If you’re me, you sabotage it and you f..k it up.’
On a Thursday afternoon in July 2018, Chris Cheney sat sipping a beer in the lead-up to his soundcheck at the nearby Queensland Performing Arts Centre. As the spiky-haired frontman for Melbourne-born rock trio The Living End, the ostensible purpose of our meeting was to discuss the band’s upcoming eighth album, titled Wunderbar.
The man himself was visiting Brisbane while touring with a larger ensemble in a tribute to the White Album, The Beatles’ 1968 release, in a series of concerts where his performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was among the set’s finest moments.
As we sat and drank schooners in South Brisbane amid workers from nearby construction sites clad in high-vis clothing – the sort of workers who have featured prominently in Cheney’s socially inclusive and progressive songwriting – there was a new musical undercurrent running right beneath us, and it was only by accident that an unseen release valve was kicked open.
One of the most curious songs on Wunderbar is titled Death of the American Dream, a typically raucous Living End track drawn from Cheney’s own observations of living in Los Angeles with his family since 2011 – but one which ends on a highly unusual note, with his bandmates silent while the singer and his guitar tease out an evocative solo coda.
The presence of that song’s gorgeous acoustic ending – as well as another Cheney solo track on the same release, titled Amsterdam – was a striking stylistic decision for a band best known for its bombastic rock stompers. Back in 2018, it got Review wondering: any plans to record a solo album under your own name, Chris?
“I’ve done it,” Cheney replied. “I recorded an album in Nashville. There’s six songs that are just my voice and acoustic guitar, and there’s six songs that I recorded with a band over there.
“But TLE has to be No.1 at the moment; we have a great opportunity, because of what happened with getting signed to (record label) BMG worldwide, so I’ve had to put it on the backburner,” he said, frowning. “I’m really happy with it. It’s a little bit frustrating that I haven’t been able to do anything with it. But those other songs? They’re not going anywhere.”
According to his bandmates in The Living End, the frontman’s solo aspirations go way back. Double bassist and backing vocalist Scott Owen, who co-founded the group with Cheney in 1994, reckons “it’s been at least a decade in the making. It rivals Chinese Democracy,” he says, referring to the Guns N’ Roses album that famously took 19 years to complete.
“That doesn’t mean that Chris rivals Axl Rose,” Owen says with a laugh. “Maybe he does in some ways. But all of Chris’s output is pretty great quality. Andy and I have probably been of the same opinion. We’re just like, ‘Dude, it’s awesome. Just put it out! Stop working on it, because you’ll work on it forever!’ I think it’s fair to say that 10 years is pretty close to forever, in the ‘making of an album’ terms.”
Drummer Andy Strachan, who joined the group in 2002, concurs. “I don’t know how many times he’s written and recorded this solo record, but it’s been going for a long, long time,” he tells Review with a laugh. “Writing songs is not a problem for him; he’s always had the material to do the record.”
According to the man himself, the lightbulb moment came while recording a solo version of the Crowded House pop classic Distant Sun for the 2010 Finn covers compilation He Will Have His Way.
Back in 2018, the news that one of Australia’s greatest living singer-songwriter-guitarists was deciding to go solo was an enticing notion. In a flash, it was easy to see Cheney’s potential future, performing into middle age and beyond under his own name, just like some of his songwriting heroes, Paul Kelly and Finn.
Four years later, on the eve of Bluesfest 2022 – the music industry’s first major multi-day camping event to be held since the Covid pandemic was declared – Cheney jets into Brisbane from his new home in Melbourne, where he and his family resettled last year.
Before meeting up with his Living End bandmates near Byron Bay on Good Friday, he’s in the Queensland capital to play one of his first shows with his new band, two months ahead of the release of his long-gestating debut solo album.
In the lobby, Cheney peers over his sunglasses and offers a handshake. We take a lift up to the hotel’s sky bar where, over a couple of beers as the sun sets in the city centre, he begins to unpack the circumstances surrounding a set of songs that feel to him as though they’ve been half a lifetime in the making.
Titled The Storm Before the Calm, it’s a surprising collection that foregrounds his voice – and thus his lyrics, which are often painfully self-aware – like we’ve never heard before.
“The idea was that the vocals would be front and centre, and loud – everything I’ve never wanted to have with The Living End,” says Cheney, 47. “I never really was happy with my vocals. You get to a point, I reckon, where — and maybe it’s not even just vocally – you just sort of accept who you are when you get a bit older, and you’re okay with it. And I’m okay with my vocals now.”
He corrects himself: “More than okay with them. I worked really hard on them … because it’s such a lyrically-focused album.
“That’s what the record is all about,” says Cheney. “A lot of people, I think, are expecting a sort of a ‘guitar hero’ record – but it’s kind of the opposite of that.”
There is darkness in the stories behind these songs, and after our meeting, Cheney emails an essay of sorts he’s written about where their inspiration lay. According to him, the album contains “tales of excess; I had kidney failure, self-inflicted (no longer an issue); relationship breakdowns, regrets, dealing (or not dealing) with my father’s passing, not caring about anything or anyone except trying to block out the pain with booze and whatever else was on offer; not sleeping; desire; making big mistakes, and ultimately asking for – and receiving – forgiveness.”
Sitting in the rooftop bar, surrounded by a rowdy crowd of young party-starters, the songwriter reckons the death of his father a decade ago was the catalyst for this surprising shift in his behaviour. “The first 25 years of my life, everything I did sort of turned to gold,” he says. “I didn’t make any mistakes, really; it was all from one success to the next. The band was flying high, touring the world; I met the girl, married the girl, moved into a house, had the kids. It was all pretty picture-perfect. So what do you do when that happens? If you’re me, you sabotage it and you f..k it up, because you go, ‘What else is there?’
“I don’t want to get into names, and that sort of thing, but I definitely betrayed my family and friends in a way, and ended up in this very dark place,” says Cheney carefully. “But part of me sort of liked it. I liked being in the situation where I had all this stuff to draw from, and show different sides that I didn’t know were there.
“I didn’t particularly like that side of me, and I’m sort of ashamed of some of the stuff that I did,” he clarifies. “But for some reason, I kept feeding it and I kept doing what I was doing. But I managed to make a record that I think is balanced, and there’s a personal triumph. I’m still here. I didn’t throw the record in the bin; I didn’t lose my marriage, thanks to my wife, who I owe everything to, because that could have been the case.”
This introspective subject matter is canvassed in the songs on his solo album, in a way that he’s never previously explored. For Cheney’s bandmates, hearing the songwriter open up in this way through his art felt like a breakthrough.
“Making it sound real was something that I wanted to really encourage him to do,” says drummer Strachan. “That’s what people want to hear, that ‘from the heart’ sort of stuff. In The Living End, he’s the guitar-shredder frontman guy – but as a solo thing, it just has to be raw and it has to be heartfelt. People are not stupid: they’re going to see straight through it if you’re trying to cover anything up.”
Before we part ways in Brisbane, I ask Cheney about his new role being the band leader in two different setups. He’s now simultaneously fronting one of the nation’s most recognisable rock’n’ roll groups, whose household-name status has been assured for more than two decades; he also fronts a new quintet, and there’s zero crossover between the two setlists.
“It’s such a novelty for me to have a piano behind me, and a lot of the songs were written with piano very much at the forefront,” he says with a smile. “I love being able to sing along with it, and with the Petty, Springsteen, Jackson Browne influence in a lot of these songs, the piano’s right up there.
“I’m loving that whole ‘bar band’ thing; it’s just working. The people who are coming to the shows are loving it because again, they’re seeing a different side to me – but it’s not diminished. It’s not a watered-down side project. I love it – and tomorrow night, I’ll put my other hat on, and try and blow the place apart again.”
The following night near Byron Bay, on the Crossroads stage at Bluesfest, Good Friday is a very good day for rock’n’roll fans, as the final four acts booked to play from 5.30pm onwards are The Angels, The Living End, Hoodoo Gurus and Midnight Oil.
Once the sun sinks beneath the horizon, the Melbourne trio attracts a huge crowd of about 8000 people spilling beyond the edges of the Big Top tent.
As they work through a “greatest hits” setlist including Second Solution, All Torn Down, West End Riot, White Noise and a hard-rocking cover of Tainted Love, the threesome comes across as something akin to an Australian equivalent of Foo Fighters, another band whose reach is bigger than most due to the songwriters’ willingness to lean into melodies that sound great when sung en masse.
Out the front, Cheney is in full showman mode, playing the character of the rockabilly demon, with a cheeky glint in his eye, that he has inhabited since this band broke through onto the national stage in the late 1990s. “There are very few things as uplifting and powerful as rock’n’ roll music, ladies and gentlemen,” he says to the crowd midway through the set. “There are no guarantees in this life, let me assure you, so you’ve got to enjoy the good times when they’re here. I want you to turn it up to 11 with this one. This is for all the misfits – for all the prisoners of society.”
Like Midnight Oil, The Living End are such an established machine that it’s just about impossible to imagine a mediocre live performance, let alone a bad one. But what’s different about them now is that the man at the microphone is finally unleashing that other side of his musicality, the one that’s been itching for an outlet for a decade, maybe longer.
Crucially, it’s an outlet with the full endorsement of his brothers in rock. There’s no sense of disharmony, onstage or off, from his two longtime colleagues in The Living End. “I know how much he’s bled and sweated over it, and probably shed many tears over it, as well,” says Owen. “It drives me and Andy up the wall sometimes, when Chris spends so much time changing things. I know how much of that has happened (with the solo album), and with all of that in mind, it just makes me even more proud and glad that the end result is so f..king good.”
Strachan, for his part, loves looking over his kit to stage right and seeing Cheney lost in the music, expressing himself through his guitar and vocals, letting everything out. “That’s the show: when he’s having a good time, we’re having a good time,” says the drummer. “It’s so fulfilling to see your mate living in the moment. I think he’s at his best when he’s just let his guard down. Playing with him constantly reminds me of how incredible he is.”
Rather than keeping him all to themselves, Owen and Strachan are as excited as the thousands of people gathered here beneath a heaving Big Top tent. They’re keen to see and hear what’s next for one of the greatest voices in Australian music as he strides out on his own.
The Storm Before The Calm is out now via Liberator Music. Chris Cheney’s solo tour begins in Brisbane on July 16 and ends in Sydney on August 13.