Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #129. Subscribe to our print edition here!
DAS LEBENDE SCHLAUSS: NOCH IM ROLLEN
(The Living End: Still Rolling On)
Wunderbar: the new album from Aussie rock icons The Living End, and the German word to describe it. Matt Doria sits down with frontman Chris Cheney to riff on the band’s most crucial, confident and organic album in 20 years.
This October will mark the 20th anniversary of an Australian rock classic: the self-titled debut album from punkabilly rebels and 27-time ARIA nominees (five-time winners) The Living End. I have a strong bias towards my relationship with that album, because it was the first one – at the ripe old age of two – that I ever properly liked. My dad would blast the shit out of it, “Prisoner Of Society” ringing through the hallway as I mindlessly bashed my Lego blocks around. There’s home video footage of me as a toddler, struggling to stand, belting along to “All Torn Down” – with terribly misinterpreted lyrics, obviously – while family members roared with laughter in the background.
And today, at age 21, my official day job involves sitting with the man behind those lyrics, frontman Chris Cheney, and reminiscing on those glory days of VHS and Calippo Shots. The mere concept that The Living End has become a band adored by two adult generations (with a third impending) has the noted Gretsch aficionado at a loss for words.
“F***,” the Melbournite says, blunt and in awe. “It blows my mind when I hear stuff like that. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were trying to get a gig at the Espy! And to think that we’ve been around for as long as we have, and the fact that we’ve had so much success and we’ve continued to pick new fans up along the way… It’s just incredible. It’s incredible because we were a very stylised band when we first started out – it wasn’t like we were ever going to get on the radio or anything like that. That just wasn’t something we ever felt would ever be realistic for us. But here we are, eight records in, and we’ve managed to have these incredible peaks and resurgences.
“I just feel very blessed, to be honest, and I feel like we’re a better band now than we’ve ever been. I really do. I feel like we just play so much better together onstage, we write much better songs, and I’m just a better guitar player, I think. It’s just a maturity that I think we’ve needed to go through to be where we are today. I mean, f***, I can’t even listen to those early records or look at that footage, because I’m just like, ‘Dude! Stop trying so hard!’”
Ten years on from that scrappily recorded sleeper hit, The Living End didn’t need to try so hard – they were already the biggest contemporary alt-rock band on Australian radio. White Noise dropped in July ’08 to a #1 spot on the ARIA Charts, its title track cemented as an instant anthem for the angsty youth of the private school sector. And though similarities are rife between the two records, the Living End of the White Noise era were a far cry from the Living End of 1998. The same can be said for their recent eighth album, Wunderbar, which unofficially represents the band’s third incarnation.
“It’s really funny,” Cheney muses, “Part of me thinks that we’re still the same band – that we haven’t changed and we’re still doing the same thing we were in 1998 – but then there’s another part of me that goes, ‘Actually, we are very, very different to those 21-year-olds we were when we released that album.’ But that’s what we’ve always aimed to do; we’ve always claimed that we would grow as a band. I regret some of the records we’ve put out there and some of the things we’ve done, but I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve never played it safe. We didn’t just go, ‘Okay, well that first record worked, so let’s just write another five like that.’ I don’t think we could have done that if we tried, but we never wanted to.”
From the moment that debut album landed, Cheney says, evolution was crucial in ensuring a future for The Living End.
“For me, Roll On was a way of saying, ‘Right, I want to write something that’s as complicated and interesting as 10, 9, 8… by Midnight Oil.’ It was always my mission to go, ‘Well, you’ve heard ‘Prisoner Of Society’ and ‘Second Solution’, but now check this out!’ I was excited to play around with all of those odd time signatures and those crazy kind of diminished scale solos and things that threw people for a six. I think we’ve just moved in so many different directions – and as I said, we haven’t always gotten it right, but I think we have on this new record.”
Wunderbar represents a different kind of milestone for The Living End in that, where Cheney would previously steer clear of making comparisons to LP1, he’s more than happy to admit this time around that he was inspired by his own early-20s self.
“It’s got that character that the first record had,” Cheney says excitedly. “There’s so much personality to it, and I kind of feel like we’ve done a big circle with it all. And I think a lot of people would agree with me there – y’know, you’ve only gotta get on a forum and see what the experts say; ‘Why did you have to change!? Why didn’t you just write another ‘Prisoner’!? You’re not the same band!’ It’s hilarious, too, because if we had’ve done that – if we had’ve just gone ahead and made The Living End: Part II – we’d get in trouble for repeating ourselves. You can’t win, really. You’ve just gotta do what you wanna do.”
Such a nonchalant attitude to creativity led to – believe it or not – yet another milestone worth celebrating. Y’see, The Living End have been wildly inconsistent with their release patterns, forgoing the industry standard ‘one album every two years’ rule for a timeline more accurately described as ‘whenever the f*** they feel like it.’ Whereas the gap between 2016’s Shift and its predecessor – 2011’s The Ending Is Just the Beginning Repeating – was the band’s longest at an excruciating five years, the gap between Wunderbar and Shift was their shortest ever.
“There were a couple of factors leading to that,” Cheney explains. “From the moment we finished Shift, I felt really inspired. I was like, ‘Man, I just want to make another record straight away!’ I think we really kind of got our shit together on that record, and I’m really proud of it. So as soon as we finished making it, the vibe was kind of like, ‘Alright, well, let’s not wait another five years before we make the next one.’ I probably didn’t imagine it would be this soon, but… Here we are! We just couldn’t sit around and write for six months at a time, trying to write a magnum opus. It needed to feel fresh and in-the-moment.”
That immediacy translates to the album itself, with Wunderbar revelling in a sharp wit that’s taken literal decades for Cheney to perfect, undercut with the ragged punk spirit he’s known since day one.
“I think it’s a really good balance,” he agrees. “All the people around us were kind of like, ‘This will be great for you guys, because you’ll just write these three-chord, four-on-the-floor punk songs and keep it really simple!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, we will, but we’ll also try to write songs that are interesting as well.’
“I didn’t want to just make that balls-to-the-wall, straight-up cliché rock’n’roll record – I still wanted it to be The Living End, and I wanted there to be all these little hooks and twists and turns, and things that need a little bit more thought. So I think we’ve found a good balance between being really head-on in parts, and then having those nice little ‘songwriting’ moments.”
Staying true to their impulsiveness, The Living End decided that LP8 would be as good a time as ever to shake their writing process up, forgoing Cheney’s usual perfectionist edge for a looser, more on-the-fly technique. In fact, much of the album was more or less written in realtime, some tracks coming to life minutes before the band would record them.
“When I wasn’t in the booth laying down my guitars or vocals,” Cheney says, “I was locked in the other room playing around in GarageBand, just demoing the songs and trying to write lyrics that inspired me on the spot. There was a lot of pressure, but it was a good kind of pressure. We were constantly building and evolving the songs, going, ‘Ah, this song could use a middle eight,’ or, ‘The chorus for this one is not quite there yet.’ Every spare second was spent trying to sort of hone those bits and get them right, so then I could step into the other room and hit record. It was an interesting way to do it.”
It wasn’t just the band’s lyrical process that saw transformation, either, with Cheney overhauling his entire approach to the guitar.
“This probably isn’t the right thing to say in a guitar interview,” he says, “But there’s not that many guitar solos on this record, which is something that I used to lean on quite heavily. It was always something that people would ask us about, because when our first record came out, I don’t think anyone was going guitar solos. So people were always like, ‘What’s with all the guitar solos!?’ And I’d be like, ‘What do you mean!?’ That’s where my background is – all my favourite bands had guitar solos back then. So it was quite interesting with this album.
“I had to push a little bit, I think – I had to push Tobias and go, ‘No no no, I need to play more!’ Because he didn’t know much about the band, so for him, it was kind of good because he was like, ‘No, I’m just interested in the songs. Yeah, I know you can go around the chord changes twice and you can solo over the whole thing, but why? You only need to go around it once!’ And I’d be like, ‘But man, that’s my thing!’ He’d be like, ‘Nah, nah, you’re a singer,’ and I’d have to go, ‘No, I’m actually a guitar player who sings.’ I’ve always been a guitarist first and a singer second, so it was kind of interesting to flip that around for this record. The songs were strong enough on their own; I didn’t need to go, ‘Okay, here’s where we’ll throw in some theatrical guitar acrobatics!’”
One thing that remained the same, of course, was Cheney’s adoration towards his signature Gretsch White Falcon – a guitar that has been linked intrinsically to the shredder since long before he was a Triple M mainstay. It’s one of many archtop axes in Cheney’s prized collection; a tone that instantly makes itself known as the backbone of The Living End. But while it makes it pops up more than anything on Wunderbar, it’s not actually the most prominent tone on the record. And that’s not entirely by choice, either.
“My damn guitars didn’t arrive in Germany when we got there,” Cheney says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “We had two weeks of pre-production booked to start as soon as we got there, so I ended up using Tobias’ guitars for that. He plays Jazzmasters – he’s got a couple of beautiful old ‘60s ones, and I had no choice but to play them while we were getting the songs whacked into shape. It was actually really good, though, because it was a bit like being on a different instrument. It forced me to play differently, because those Jazzmasters have just got such a signature sound. It’s not quite a Tele, but it’s got that twangy kind of thing to it, which I really liked.
“I ended up using those for quite a significant chunk of the actual recording as well. We would put the Jazzmaster down and then I would put my Gretsch down over the top of it, and we would just kind of battle it out. I had three Gretsches for this one – I had my main White Falcon, I had my Malcolm Young signature model, and we had an old Guild Starfire, which is such a great guitar.”
The Living End
Thursday November 1st - The Tivoli, Brisbane
Friday November 2nd - Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Saturday November 3rd - The Forum, Melbourne
Friday November 9th - Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
Saturday November 10th - Metropolis, Fremantle