It’s 6.30pm and I have three hours to file this cover story on The Living End before the Beat printing window closes. The cover is ready, the pictures are done, and the page is waiting.
No, it wasn’t a last-minute interview or a scheduling screw-up. I’ve been holding onto a taped conversation with Chris Cheney for about two weeks, hoping for a flash of inspiration; an original way into a story that would do the band justice.
But here I am, victim of my own procrastination, sweaty with fear and breaking every rule in the book: (a) including myself in the story, and (b) causing deep fear in the heart of Nick the editor who I’m certain is desperately stabbing the Send and Receive button so he can get his copy and go home.
The reason for starting this story this way comes not from some misguided idea that anyone gives a toss who I am, but by way of comparison: this small amount of pressure is causing me to sweat, grind my teeth to shards and weep on the floor like a little bitch.
The Living End’s principal songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Chris Cheney and his bandmates Scott Owen [bass] and Andy Strachan [drums], once played 34 shows in the US in 40 nights. They followed their biggest-selling Australian single of the 1990s, Second Solution/Prisoner of Society with a self-titled CD that went platinum not once, but five times.
Then, straight off the back of a world tour, The Living End went into the studio to record Roll On, while their record label danced from foot to foot in gleeful anticipation. That record contained singles that went gold and cemented their position – both critically and with audiences all over the world — as perhaps the biggest mainstream Aussie rock band since AC/DC (whom they supported in 2001).
The Living End has redefined the term “hard-working”, touring the world relentlessly, playing endless live shows and somehow finding time to write and record new material. Chris’ car accident in 2002 put things on hold while he recovered from his injuries. Then drummer Travis Demsey departed the band. Pressure? Yeah…
But they’ve loved every moment of it (car accident excepted, obviously). Playing live is what this band exists for, and their shows are almost always an unforgettable experience. Chris not only handles pressure gracefully, he’s one of the nicest, most genuine people in the business, something that comes across on the band’s new documentary DVD, From Here On In (1997—2004), which is packaged up the latest singles compilation album, I Can’t Give You What I haven’t Got.
And no, the release of a compilation record does not foreshadow an ending, says Chris, but the promise of a new beginning.
“The whole reason we did the double package CD/DVD was to tie up that period and hopefully move in a different direction. I still feel like we’ve got a lot of good ideas … we haven’t made the definitive album yet.”
I still feel like we’ve got a lot of good ideas … we haven’t made the definitive album yet.”
Months on end in a bus eating crappy burgers, the pressures of recording to deadlines and the expectations of fans has done little to dull Chris’ creative edge. He remains one of the most prolific songwriters in the business – the main issue is not writer’s block, but deciding what to leave out.
“People always tell me that I work well under pressure. Which is nice of them to say – I’m the one who has to deal with it. I don’t remember [recording] being particularly difficult because we usually have a lot of songs and stuff ready and we just have to go in and do it.” Is it a case of stop pedalling the bike and you’ll fall off? “It seems to be that way… it’s pretty much our main strength. I mean we can’t compete with, you know, Brittany Spears videos and things like that…” Not that you’d want to…
“No! Not that we’d want to, and I don’t think we ever will. But the strength of this band has always been to tour. We’ve never sat down and gone, ‘how can we get to the top without touring?’ “It’s always been, yep, we’ll make an album then go out on the road. It’s the grandest thing. The record company that works for us… [laughs] That came out wrong! Ah fuck it, leave it in. Our management has always known that the thing that sells us the most is playing live.” Despite the exhausting schedule, playing to pub and club crowds remains the lifeblood of the band. “We did a summer tour with Blink 182 and No Doubt, which was outdoors, and we also did our own headlining tour. The outdoors can be sterile – no atmosphere whatsoever — but the shows we did ourselves were awesome. There’s something about it that’s so special – I love playing in a packed place, it just feels right,” said Chris.
Next to playing gigs it’s evolving the sound of the band that makes the musical trip worthwhile. “There are parts of the first album that were so juvenile-sounding, and it only makes sense that we’re going to grow and get better. People thought were just going to be a rockabilly band and release four of the same-sounding records. I think perhaps when Roll On came out people started to realise that there was more … I’m a big believer in having really strong songs. “I think because we’ve always been the old way as far as being influenced by stuff from 30 years ago — I think some of that is always in fashion, if you like.”
And while many other groups maintain that modern music does little to influence their sound, Chris admits to being a hopeless music fanatic.
“I probably listen to more contemporary music than old stuff these days – I really liked that Franz Ferdinand album. I’m going to see Supergrass tonight. As much as we might come across as dudes stuck in the past or whatever, we’re aware of what’s going on and I’m genuinely excited by a lot of stuff that comes out. There’s so many great bands out there waiting to be discovered, and I don’t want to miss out on them,” he says.
The singles album also contains two new songs to be included on a new album slated for next year, and these tracks show increasing depth and maturity – but not at the expense of their trademark punkabilly energy.
Does this indicate a change in direction for the band?
“We were supposed to do two songs for the singles collection, we ended up with five and we had to argue it down to two… but we actually demo’d like 15. The other guys in the band are more excited about these songs than they were about the last album, if that’s any indication. And I kind of am too…the theory of it is Andy [the “new” drummer] was still relatively new to the band back then… we went through a hell of a weird kind of period trying to find ourselves. The new single, I Can’t Give You What I Haven’t Got, is more in tune with what we would like to do next time, all the parts and stuff worked with the band and it sounds more like the band playing rather than the band playing ‘a song’ if you know what I mean. It’s not just us doing a version of a song that I wrote. We learned a lot from the last album, we learnt what not to do anyway…” Interviewing prospective drummers must have been a strange experience…
“Yeah,” laughs Chris. “When Andy first joined he was trying to fit in with what Scott and I were doing as opposed to being an equal third member, which is what we want him to be. I think he is more aware of that now, and even when we butt heads we’re butting heads for the right reason and we’re going to get the best result.”
The Living End’s must-have singles album and DVD is in stores now.