Ahead of the release of their seventh album, Shift, The Living End’s frontman Chris Cheney sat down with SARAH SMITH to talk about honest songwriting, befriending your heroes and hanging out with Lemmy.
“In 2006 I threw in the towel and walked out of the band,” admits Chris Cheney. “It just exploded – [we had] everything that we wanted and we just couldn’t handle it after a while.” Visiting Australia from his family’s new base in L.A The Living End frontman is a little bit hung-over and happily reflecting on the last two decades in one of Australia’s most successful bands. “The problem is, I can’t do anything else. I don’t know what I’d do! Also, absence makes the heart grow stronger.”
There may have been some explosive moments between Cheney and his bandmates, Andy Strachan and Scott Owen, over the years, but that they are still together after two decades is testament to just how much The Living End means to all three. “We’ve gone through pretty much everything you can go through,” Cheney admits. “We’ve sacked band members; we’ve dealt with drug problems; and we’ve had alcohol problems … I think we just figured that the band is just too special to let that stuff get in-between.”
Cheney has long been hesitant to discuss these dramas publically, his lyrics tending towards social commentary rather than personal revelations. But on album number seven something changed. For the first time in The Living End’s history the singer decided it was time to let it all hang out. “It’s brutally honest and it’s the most personal record [yet],” the singer reveals. “I’ve always tried to hide it, and put a mask on. But this one is just barebones”. And it doesn’t get much more bare bones than tracks like ‘Death’, ‘Coma’, and ‘Starring Down The Barrel of a Gun’.
This new approach to writing spilled over into the recording process as well, where Cheney relinquished some of his perfectionist grip to do something he and the band hadn’t done for years: get in a studio and jam. The result is Shift, a record that routinely changes gear from brooding punk songs to the kind of looser indie rock not usually associated with the band. It’s honest and unpretentious, and despite Cheney’s dark lyrics Shift sounds like a band having a whole lot of fun.
You gave an interview in 2012 during which you said that doing those retrospective shows would be the perfect for The Living End to sign off. Was there ever a moment after that tour where you considered calling it quits?
The other guys were doing a couple of other side project things and I’d started working on a solo project of some sort and was living overseas and writing with different people. I think we were quite comfortable doing that, even though the idea of not having the band is quite frightening because it has always been there. But because we were doing other things, if we didn’t make another record then we didn’t.
But we decided when we were all here doing a run of Day On The Green shows [to jump into] the studio and get some stuff down. Don’t worry about writing and pre-production and the pressure of all that. Let’s just get in and make some noise. And if it’s good, it’s good. And if not, well, dunno, maybe we just wont bother. That’s when we went in and did a couple of weeks of little blocks of sessions and came out of that with four or five ideas that we were all really pumped about.
You really laboured over your last record, The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating. It was highly produced and had a lot of songs – was this more laid back approach a reaction to the process of the last album?
It was. I feel like every part of this album was a reaction, even the title; just one word as opposed to the novel that was the last title. The last record was kind of like every other one where I just spend months and months writing and end up with a hard-drive full of ideas, take them into the guys, jam them, hone them and edit them. Then we go into the studio and just sort of lay it down. But this time there was no ideas. There were a few songs that I brought in to show the. But we definitely went in with the idea of “let’s just keep it kind of edgy and let’s just think on our feet.”
How did that feel? You guys have been together for a long time – did you tap into anything new in one another?
“Before you know it, you’re trying to make everything too clean and too perfect and too good and you lose that edge”
I found it was a bit nerve-wracking because you fall into that comfort zone. I like to present a song as a full arrangement, so to kind of go in with a blank canvass and have three of us standing in a room in a recording studio a looking at each other asking “What do you want to play?” You’re thinking “Is this going to suck?” And I like to think we are one of those bands who can get up on stage and improvise, but it’s different making a record. We want to come up with solid ideas that are exciting, but also good songs. So it was a bit like “I don’t know if we can do this or not?”
The first track off the record [‘One Step’] is for me the most important track because it was just a spontaneous jam that we kind of came out with on the spot. And I was just yelling out random things that were in the room – “brick wall!” “fire extinguisher!” – just something that sounds psychotic. We sat back and when we heard that we were like, “Well this is completely different to anything that we’d done before.” I don’t think it sounds like the band in a way. You can tell it’s us but it sort of blew the gates wide open.
We haven’t just gone in and made up something on the spot that sounds like ‘Second Solution’ or ‘Prisoner of Society’, because we know we can do that. We wanted to know if we could come up with something that was fresh and exciting that inspires us – and that’s what that song did. And we were like “cool – this has come out of absolutely nowhere so maybe we can make a whole record”. So that’s what we decided we would do.
It sounds like a record of two halves. The first half more traditional Living End – fast and furious, but on the second there are these more jangly indie rock songs like ‘Further Away’.
That’s the thing – we’ve tended to clean things up in the past, and we are kind of perfectionists – which can just be the worst thing.
Which is weird given the punk/rockerbilly scene you emerged from. Perfectionism is almost the antitheses of that…
It is, you’re exactly right. I don’t know how we’ve fallen into that trap. We came from that scene – that punk kind of rockabilly scene – where you’re supposed to have those edges and it’s all about the energy and stuff. Then we got into other records and other bands – even like Radiohead or whatever – and we looked at the way those guys can just create these masterpieces and I suppose that started to creep in. And before you know it, you’re trying to make everything too clean and too perfect and too good and you lose that edge. So it was important with this record to have songs like that and our sound guy Woody [Annison] was pretty instrumental in that. He’d go “please don’t sing that vocal again, it’s fine!” The only way it is going to sound fresh and exciting is if we don’t do 55 takes of it. And just leave it as it is.
Lyrically The Living End tend to commentate on what’s going on around them rather than what is going on inside of you. But Shift is clearly a really personal record.
It’s brutally honest and it’s the most personal record [yet].
What motivated that?
Just because of shit that I was going through.
You’ve gone through shit before, though – why are you happy to talk about that kind of stuff on a Living End record now?
“Shift is brutally honest”
I think I just thought that to write a truly great song you need to do that. It needs to have that – those lines where you go “this is kind of awkward to listen to”. To have something that shocks and inspires you have to go that extra thing. For me that was writing stuff down that was pretty painful. There was a lot of moments where I was like “do I really want to say that?”
But [then I decided] I’m not going to sugar coat it all or step around it, I’m just going to put it out there. I think just due to some of the records I was listening to – people like Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams – just those singer/songwriter guys, I was so inspired the way that they put things together. I just felt like I was at the stage and it all just spilled out. This great ammunition. It has been such a negative time, but the only way I could get through it was to use it like therapy and turn it into a positive thing. It’s great art if you do it the right way.
Do you think living away from Australia allowed you to do that?
I don’t think it’s had an effect. For most people that’s just how they write songs. from personal experience, but I’ve always tried to hide it. And put a mask on. But this one is just bare bones.
Are you more comfortable talking about these things now?
Not really – can’t you tell? [laughs] The people and the places and names will remain a mystery. It’s just that so much has gone on, it’s all I could write about. It’s almost like there weren’t any other songs to be written. That’s probably the true answer to the question. I probably wouldn’t sit down and think, “I’m going to read through the paper and try and find a topic that feel needs to be spoken about”. It’s just every time I wrote a lyric it happened to be the same thing, it was in the same headspace. And the whole record is a real package for that reason.
The song titles are ‘Death’ ‘Coma’ ‘Starring Down The Barrel of a Gun’…
Yeah it’s grim…
So how are you feeling at the end of the process?
Sort of relief I suppose, that a lot of that stuff is out now. But also that the songs turned out good. It’s one thing to have raw lyrics and stuff, but I feel like we’ve just hit a whole other level, because these are things that everyone can relate to. And you can really feel it, what I’m singing about. Musically we spent a lot of time making sure they were really, really great songs. Not just focusing on the guitar track or whatever. We didn’t care about that stuff.
“Anyone who has any pre-conceived ideas of what the band does is going to be pleasantly surprised”
Lyrically it certainly feels a lot less self-conscious than the last record.
Yeah. There were lyrical moments and stuff that was kind of like “I don’t know if I want to go there”. And that’s why you go there.
In the interview I mentioned earlier, you said you needed to see what life felt like outside of the band for a while – after four years in L.A. do you think you discovered that? Do you know what that feels like now?
I don’t feel like I’ve had that time away. Because for the four-and-a-half years that I’ve lived there, I’ve constantly been coming back here the whole time. So it’s been a little difficult to immerse myself over there or to get anything happening over there – because I’m always having to leave.
What were you hoping to get out of L.A?
Well, just to do more collaborating with different people. Maybe some session work. I don’t really know. There was just an opportunity there to go and have an adventure and just base myself somewhere else for a couple of years. We had a lot of friends and people in the industry that we knew. It’s all good, it’s just been harder to get anything really happening over there because I have been focused on this record for the last year-and-a-half now.
With the last record you said you felt some pressure because of the success of White Noise which had preceded it– what do you feel coming into this one? Does it come with any burden or set of expectations?
The big difference is that these songs are so direct and we just haven’t had that on the last couple of records. I’m just excited about it. I know every band says six or seven records in, “Yeah this is the best record we ever made”, but I really feel like it is so fresh. I think anyone who has any pre-conceived ideas of what the band does, and thinks it’s just going to sound like same old same old, is going to be pleasantly surprised. And I think the song craft has hit a whole other level. With the last record I thought they were the best songs, and now I look back I know this one is so much better. You use your energy and focus in on the wrong areas on things. But with this one, I felt like when I was working on something it was the right part.
Your retrospective tour seemed quite physically grueling. On a personal level do you think it made you appreciate the band or were you guys sick of it by the end?
No, no, no. What it made us do is it made us realise there are a lot of songs that should have been played over the years and not just the radio songs – but you fall into that comfort zone don’t you? We’d be playing album tracks and we’d go “Geez this song is great, I’d completely forgotten about it”. And there were other songs that we’d never played. And there were some that I couldn’t believe we’d recorded.
Can you give me an example?
There is one called ‘Putting You Down’ off Modern Artillery. And it’s just this nothing song. It’s this watered down piece of crap. I really think it is. Like now, it just wouldn’t get over the line.
“‘Putting You Down’ off Modern Artillery is a watered down piece of crap”
Can you remember making a decision about that song the first time around or remember writing it?
I remember being in that moment and thinking, “It’s a different kind of a tune, it’s a bit mellow.” I had an idea of how I wanted it to be but I don’t think it was realised. Surely I couldn’t have thought we nailed it. That’s only one. There’s a few. That’s what I mean with this album, there was just times when I did a complete song and the song was finished and then I went “Nup, this is crap. Erase it.” Or I’d put it on my computer and [then] attack it – change everything. But maybe that’s me being neurotic and not being able to stop.
Are you more likely to take a song and pull it apart rather than throw it out all together?
Well that’s the thing isn’t it? Sometimes you’re trying to fix something that is already broke. And I think I’m one of those people that try to salvage it. On this record there was half a dozen songs that were on the right path. They were good but they weren’t great, so it was worth the effort of going into the studio and showing the band what I’d done to the four songs we’d all been into [previously]. I’d play [the new version] and they’d go, “Oh fuck it’s so different”. But thankfully it was better.
Given the personal nature of the lyrics, why did this become a Living End record and not your solo record?
“The stuff I have for my solo record is just different and it shouldn’t sound like The Living End”
Because the stuff I have for my solo record is just different and it shouldn’t sound like The Living End. The minute it does, it sort of defeats the purpose. There were some songs I brought to the table [for this record] that were too different. But anything we thought we could do we had a stab at. But a lot of it is just stuff we came up with in the studio.
What is your solo stuff like?
It’s more acoustic based. There is some stuff with piano. It’s more about the singing as opposed to lead breaks and fancy guitar work.
But that’s your thing Chris!
I know that’s why I trying to do something completely different. And I’d never really focused on myself as a singer until this record – so that is a priority. And lyrically I suppose it’s more organic and it’s less bravado than what The Living End.
Do you still listen to new music?
I do but not enough.
Anything recently you’ve been particularly enjoying?
I have been getting into really great songwriters. Just stripped back: a few chords, simple lyrics. That is the stuff that really impresses me. Not so much loud bratty rock’n’roll bands. Maybe I’m just maturing, but just that idea of getting the right hook with the right lyric is something I’m obsessed by.
This Living End record seems like a stepping stone to your solo record in some ways…
Yeah, it’s definitely different. I’m super proud because it could have gone the other way. It could have been a record with loads of energy and loads of chants and stuff like that. Not that our last couple of records have had that. But we could easily have fall into that kind of trap and comfort zone. And it would be good, but it wouldn’t be great.
Do you still enjoy The Living End’s earlier music?
“Back then we weren’t trying to write really great songs, it was more about style”
I’m proud of it. I don’t know whether I enjoy it. I think some of it was just time and place and we were on a different mission back then, almost. It’s like back then we weren’t trying to write really great songs, it was more about style. I don’t mean to rat on it. We were still trying to write good songs but in a different headspace – it wasn’t about really deep and meaningful lyrics. It just wasn’t the scene we came from. But I’m proud of the back-catalogue I suppose. I would definitely change a lot of things if I had my time again.
If you could go back and re-shape some of the decisions the band has made what would they be?
I’d just re-do my vocals.
[Laughs] That’s the big one. But that’s just being self-conscious. I was young and full of energy and full of brutishness, and the vocals just wouldn’t get through now. So that is something I would change. Otherwise – maybe we should have lived in the States earlier. I mean, we basically lived there anyway.
I think it would have helped cement the band over there, because we were doing lots of touring and getting a lot of radio play. Good opportunities on good festivals and playing TV shows – that whole campaign. But the fact that we didn’t live there I think is part of the reason it didn’t continue on.
Did you want that for the band – was breaking America important to you?
It was. It was! And the thing was that the first [self-titled] record had done really well. ‘Prisoner of Society’ was like a radio hit over there. We regrouped and made Roll On [and then the] same thing [happened]. We went over there, did all the TV shows and gave it a really big push, and then I came home and had the car accident and that was it [Cheney was hospitalized for two months after a car crash on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria]. Six months of being laid up. So we lost that momentum. Then when we regrouped again we probably should have based ourselves there. But it was too long between drinks. And in the U.S. you just have to be there and be hitting it constantly. So it was a number of factors, some of it out of our control obviously.
Has part of that brought about your desire to live there now – scratching the itch?
No I don’t think so. I don’t have any grand illusions of trying to conquer America with my solo thing. We lived in New York in 2010 – my wife and kids – when I was writing the last record. And we just loved it. So we thought, maybe we’ll just go and live it. Not New York because it’s too expensive.
Can you tell me a bit about this super group Dead Man Walking – featuring Fred Armisen and members of The Damned, The Stray Cats, and Guns N Roses – that you’ve joined in L.A.?
We recently changed the name to the Jack Tars…
How did that come about?
It came about with my friendship with Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats – which is super weird.
It’s a bit wild to think you are friends with Slim Jim now. Is it bizarre to consider someone who was such a hero of yours now just a mate?
I know! He came to see the band in 2006 – brought his son to the show. That’s when we met. Because his son was a huge fan and had our first EPs on imports and everything. It’s so weird because his son still says now “Your first EPs are my favourite records.” And I’m like, “Yeah and your dad’s band was my favorite band as a kid”. They were the band. So we met them and stayed in contact. And each time I’ve been there or Jim had been out here we had caught up.
\He had this band with Mike Peters from The Alarm and Captain Sensible from The Damned. And they had Kirk Brandon who was in Theatre of Hate, and he left the ban, so Jim called me and said, “Do you want to come and play guitar?” And I said “Sure!” Initially it was one show at The Troubador [in West Hollywood] and it was amazing. We did that one show and it was like “Okay lets continue on.” But that night, Duff from Guns N Roses played with us as well, Fred Armison from Portlandia played. He is lovely. So it’s kind of like all their mates.
Do you ever get a little bit starry eyed at all?
Backstage that night was just ridiculous! Lemmy was there – he came to a couple of the shows…
Did you talk to him?
Yeah! It was great. I spoke to him a bunch of times. I remember coming off stage and he goes, “Geez, you played the shit out of that Gretsch my boy!” And I was like Yes! Seal of approval from the great man. We didn’t have any indepth conversations he was kind of a quiet character. He was pretty unwell even then. This was a couple of years ago. And like Steve Jones [from the Sex Pistols] was there and Linda Ramone, just all these people. And we just did a tour of Europe in December.
We’re going to do an album at some point – we’ve been writing tunes. I love it. It’s so much fun to play those songs with those guys. Playing at the 100 Club and playing songs by The Damned and stuff and seeing the photos on the wall from the 77 Punk Club Festival and going “It’s the same guy!” And Glen Matlock [from the Sex Pistols] was there and all these people just came down and it’s like “How cool is this?!”
Are you totally confident in yourself as a guitar player and musician when you play around those kind of guys?
That’s a really good question. I probably am now more so than I’ve ever been and as a songwriter. And playing with those guys its kind of a cruisey gig for me because I’m not the lead singer. I was a guitar player first and foremost, obsessed with it – so that’s kind of my thing. And I do my homework. Make sure I’ve got my shit together and make sure it rocks – and it does. Because its like a greatest hits set of early ’80s classics it is unreal.
“Before White Noise I threw in the towel and stormed out and walked out of the band”
You guys have been together for about 25 years now – that’s a long time to sustain any one thing. How does it feel personally in the band right now?
It feels great. There is no friction or tension on any level and it’s not just – even though I’m the lyricist – all three of us have gone through stuff over the last few years. Personal things in our private lives that have been quite testing and the band is something where the three of us can get together and almost put all that other stuff out of our minds.
And we have gone through everything a band can go through – particularly Scott and I. We’ve known each other since we were 10 years-old. And we’ve had a lot of tension over the years. There has been moments we didn’t get along. But when you’re 25 and you’re on a tour buss for six months straight, you just get sick of each other and you pick up on each other’s little habits and it just becomes grating and I feel like all that is ancient history now. We’re grown men – we’ve got our own kids. It’s weird our kids are getting to the age that Scott and I were when we met.
Are they friends?
Yeah! Which is cool because Scott’s parents and my parents were best friends – cause our older sisters were friends in highschool. So we used to have these gatherings with the two families and we were just the two little kids kicking around. So we’ve gone through pretty much everything you can go through: We’ve sacked band members; we’ve dealt with drug problems; and we’ve had alcohol problems. Everything that goes with rock’n’roll – it can quite easily fall apart. How it hasn’t I really don’t know sometimes. I think we just figured that the band is just too special to let that stuff get in-between. But you know, before White Noise I threw in the towel and stormed out and walked out of the band.
Why did you do that?
Because I was just sick of it. I just thought, “I’m so sick of this – I’m sick of the sight of the other two”. One night on stage I just thought “I don’t want to be here”. Mid song I went, “I’m out. Fuck this.”
How do you cope with that kind of realisation while on stage?
It was horrible. The show finished and we had a massive row backstage and I was just picking at Scott about something – which is nothing now – but for some reason it annoyed me. I just needed a break. I was burnt out I think. Because we worked so hard on those first records. Before we even got successful Scott and I were playing from 1991 doing gigs – when we were in year 11 in school.
That is a different time – you gig and gig and gig?
It just exploded – everything that we wanted and we just couldn’t handle it after a while. So they left me alone for six months. [Our manager] Rae [Harvey] said “No-one is to contact him.” And the other guys were cool they were like, “We get it and the only way we are going to make another record is if we do this.”
What made you want to come back?
I think I missed it. The problem is, I can’t do anything else. I don’t know what Id do! Absence makes the heart grow stronger.
The Living End’s Shift will be released on Friday, May 13 via Dew Process /UMA.
Friday, June 10 – The Tivoli, Brisbane
Saturday, June 11 – The Enmore, Sydney
Thursday, June 16 – The Astor, Perth
Thursday, June 24 – The Forum, Melbourne
Friday, June 25 – The Forum, Melbourne
Saturday, June 25 – The Gov, Adelaide
Sunday, June 26 – The Gov, Adelaide
Sarah Smith is the former editor-in-chief of FasterLouder, an Australian Music Prize judge and the current host of Breakfasters on Triple R. Follow her on Twitter.