First published on 11 Oct 2012. Updated on 25 Feb 2014.
Hang on, let’s do the maths. Eighteen years together, six albums, five cities including 11 nights at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel, approx 80 songs to rehearse… It all adds up to one colossal career retrospective. Could this be a long goodbye from Melbourne’s finest rock/rockabilly/punk/other band?
At the close of their first day of rehearsals, Time Out Melbourne orders a lavish pub curry for singer/guitarist Chris Cheney, double bassist Scott Owen and drummer Andy Strachan, and asks them just that.
Andy: It's not a sayonara, no.
Scott: Well, one never knows.
Chris: I heard this story about the Clash playing in New York and the promoter had completely over-sold it. They were only supposed to play a few nights, but the Clash were like, “Fuck that, we’re going to honour every ticket.” They played 17 nights straight. And I always loved that story ’cause it was such a statement. It’s an out-there kind of bold thing to do. It’s crazy but it just might work.
These days Chris is based in LA, Scott in Byron Bay and Andy in Barwon Heads. So why do this career retrospective now?
Chris: When our first record, The Living End, came in at number four of Triple J’s ‘Hottest 100 Albums of All Time’ last year, the idea was to play that at a night at the Corner from start to finish, just to acknowledge what that album achieved. Because getting to number four really blew us away [not to mention it going four times platinum, reaching number one in the ARIA chart and being the third-highest selling rock album in Australian music history – Ed]. So we had a meeting with our manager and it turned into: “Let’s do it in every city.” Then someone said, “Why don’t we do all our albums, in all the cities?” And it just snowballed.
But it is kind of weird how it's worked out, because our last album was called The Ending Is Just the Beginning Repeating, so there’s a real circular feeling. It doesn’t feel that there’s a use-by date on us though. It feels really exciting today.
Scott: I was surprised at how much I remembered right away, because memory’s a bit "eh, eh, eh" after a decade, and we want to really nail these songs, not just play them. Maybe we should do the EPs as well. It’s up to the crowd – the ball’s in their court.
Chris: I was imagining the last night should go on for hours. We should just keep going and going until people leave.
You’re renowned perfectionists. How tempting is it to look back at those recordings and think, "Oh, that would be much better if we changed that bridge”?
Andy: I've been listening back to the records, doing my homework, and with some of them, I’m like, “Really? Is that how we started that song? Really?” But that's only about five to ten per cent at the most.
Chris: I reckon it should be just a little bit open. We’ve slowed the tempos a bit, just to bring things back into a more danceable tempo rather than going a hundred miles an hour. The first record is just out of control; I'm sure the first two records were sped up. I remember with [producer] Lindsay Gravina, if we weren’t dripping with sweat, that wasn’t the take.
You might start bickering about something you were bickering about 15 years ago.
Chris: We will; there’s no “might”.
Scott: The argument was always you saying to me, “Let’s keep it simple” and me saying, “Well that’s fucking boring.”
It’s only day one of rehearsals, but are these old songs triggering memories?
Andy: Playing the first album is taking me back to a tour we did across America. There’s one song from that record that we haven’t played since the album came out, so it does take you back to venues and stages and audiences. It’s bizarre.
Scott: My mind is going back to all these places and thinking about what Chris was saying, about the last few years being a ‘circle of life’, it seems like a really important thing for us to do for a lot of reasons. For the fans, for us.
Chris: The weird thing is I think anyone who’s an artist knows that the one thing you don’t do is look back. But in our case it’s going to refresh us and it will feel like our career’s rejuvenated – because you go back to things and go, "Wow, I would never go with that arrangement now.” But there's actually a real charm to that, and I can see why – especially the first few records – we really stood out from the pack. There was a real ambition to absolutely go for it. There’s not a lot of subtlety [laughs]. It's like, “We’re going to have all these different chord changes and it’s just going to be as busy and as energetic as possible…” but I think it can give us a big recharge. That’s how I feel about it.
I think the Corner was a venue of some significance in your early career.
Scott: Before we put out an EP we were still called the Runaway Boys and we were a rockabilly band doing mostly covers. We played a residency at the Corner when they had this little public bar at the front with a tiny stage. We honed our skills there, but it was also significant in the fact that just before we put out our first record we booked a gig at the Corner months in advance. We were on tour with Jebediah and our band started getting really popular, so when we got back to our own gig at the Corner there was this huge line of people around the block.
Chris: I have this real romantic thing about it – which is probably completely untrue – that when we started the Jedediah tour we had all the fucking dickheads going, "Who the fuck are these poofs?" They thought we were this Bill Haley, Buddy Holly rip-off band. Then by the end of the tour our single ‘Prisoner of Society’ had exploded and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Don’t tell the Jebs this, but we’re the ones getting all the attention on this tour. Shit yeah.”
Production-wise, this tour has to be a nightmare.
Chris: Our crew said halfway through, “You guys are mad.” But we haven’t really changed any of our instruments over the years.
Scott: We could pull out a few old outfits and I want to pull out some haircuts.
Andy: I was thinking Chris could keep changing his hair. He’s got to do the red hair for State of Emergency… but he’d have to keep bleaching it and it would fall out before we got to Melbourne.
Scott: I need a full-on movie make-up artist to make me look fucking 22 again.
Are you going to sing the earlier albums in a higher voice, Chris?
Chris: It was just the tight jeans [laughs]. But listening to those records… it’s terrible! I would give anything to have another crack at recording them! I’m just going to sing them as I would now. In my mind we’re gonna play them like they were meant to be played in the first place; straighten them out, give them what they need. The past few weeks have been… “Oh my god, you precocious motherfucker. What are you trying to do with that guitar solo, dude? Just settle the fuck down!” It feels like a different person, really.
If you think about it, your body replaces every cell over seven years, so you’re entirely different people now.
Chris: Your eyeballs have got to be the same, don't they? But that’s where we were at, at that time. With the vocals we were just trying to be part of that bunch of bands that we were listening to at that time. It was the mid-’90s, and we were listening to Green Day and Blink and Pennywise, coupled with the wildness of our favourite rockabilly bands. That record had a bit impact on a lot of people, but we were just out to prove a point, that the combo we were into would work.
It’s a real endurance test. We’re not a Bob Dylan kind of band where you can go, “Okay, well I remember the lyrics so I’ll just play the chords. You don’t want make it mechanical; you want to inject the right emotion into it. So at this stage, the first thing we’ve gotta do is get back those memories without cringing every five minutes.
Chris, you’re squirming a bit, talking about your early lyrics; yet you’ve got to perform them all imminently.
Chris: Maybe I am a little bit. It’s just looking back on things. Sometimes it doesn’t all sit well.
Scott: You should be really proud. I always have and still do think that yours are well-written songs. The lyrics sound good, they say the right things, they have a lot of meaning to them. Don’t squirm.
Chris: No, no. It’s this curry. I guess it’s just the idea of having to get back into that headspace of where you were when you wrote the songs – you’re not just playing the songs.
So which albums are you most excited about reliving?
Andy: I have been really excited about Roll On, just because it’s so bombastic; a big, dirty rock’n’roll record. I reckon I’ll be most surprised by Modern ARTillery, because I’ve been listening to it and it’s actually really good. We had a really horrible, shitty experience recording it and in hindsight maybe it would have been really great if we had a different person working with us, but there’s a certain charm to it and I think some of the songs are really, really good. It’s just been tarnished in our own minds. But getting ‘The Room’ right could be really cool.
Scott: I’m looking forward to White Noise the most. There’s something about that record. It’s got an enormous pair of balls. And actually, I agree with what Andy was saying – playing Roll On today, there’s a crazy amount of changes in every song. It was kind of hard at the time, but now they don’t actually seem that difficult.
At the time were you writing songs to the maximum of your skills?
Scott: Yeah, and they seemed really hard to play. But now they just seem busy.
Chris: I’m most looking forward to State of Emergency – I think that’s a really good middle ground between albums. There’s a maturity of songs as well as a real brattiness… and some real ambition.
You’re going to get all sorts of characters from your past crawling out of the woodwork to see the Living End of their particular era.
Chris: I don’t want to think about that!
Scott: Why are we doing this? Who are we doing it for?
Chris: We’ve had so many periods of the band; so many groups of people who could show up. We’ve had post-high school, then the period where we wanted to be Melbourne’s best rockabilly band – but we’re no longer the band that rockabillies used to go and see at the Royal Derby Hotel. Then you’ve got the first album crowd, versus the White Noise Triple M mega-radio airplay crowd.
It’s really weird, I was looking through an old 1994 Rolling Stone the other day, and Paul Norton was at number eight in the charts with ‘Stuck On You’. We met him when we were playing a residency at the Sand Bar in Mildura; playing three or four hours a night. One night we went to a party at a house afterwards and he was there with his wife, Wendy Stapleton. I remember thinking, Fuck man. These are in the charts! Imagine that! Imagine having a single doing well in the charts. Three or four years later, of course, ‘Prisoner of Society’ went through the roof – but it’s like we were in a different universe back then, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to with this tour.
We’ve had such a good run; we’ve been so lucky, that it’s weird to remember us thinking, “What do we have to do to make it in this industry?”
Scott: There was a guy earlier today in the rehearsal studio who gave us each a demo of his band. That was us. We were always walking up to people and giving them cassettes saying, “We’re trying to make a name for ourselves. We’ve played this pub!” Now I look at those people and think, “Good onya. Stick at it, seriously.”
Are you going to get a doco crew down to this tour?
Andy: We probably will; we’re definitely recording the audio. Although I reckon we should just wear GoPro cameras on our heads like miners and that’s the gig. So you’ve got Scotcam, Chriscam and Andycam and we’ll just look at each other. I’ll just look at your arse all night, Scott.
Scott: Okay, it’s on.
Andy: Can I tell you a story about that, which did happen? It was somewhere like Brixton Academy in London, and Chris came flying off my kick drum in a big rock move and the whole seam of his pants just exploded. It was pretty funny for the rest of the gig he was a bit sheepish.
So are your stage moves wildly different from how they were at the beginning? Are you going to have to revisit that as well?
Andy: Scott’s will be if his leg doesn’t heal.
Scott: I’ve ripped it surfing. I need some cortisone; just putting it out there. We wouldn't be the first band in the world to say our bass player needs drugs.
Chris: It’s the same moves. We’re still posing – it’s what you do, isn’t it? It’s all about the look in rockabilly bands and that’s still our foundation. It’s about creepers and cut-off shirts.
You all seem the happiest and most charged up I’ve seen you in ages.
Chris: Really? It’s because it’s the first day. It won’t be the same on Monday. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. I think not being in each other’s pockets means we’re not at the point where we’re sick of each other. Yet. We’ve had our moments over the years – it’s a miracle that we’re still together.
Over the years, Chris Cheney’s written a bunch of songs about this city. Here are the most rabble-rousing...
All Torn Down
“I see the city and it isn’t what it used to be…”
“I was still living at home in Wheeler’s Hill when that came out. I’d see a bunch of beautiful old buildings disappearing in the city… and when they’re done they’re gone. It was about me being into old-fashioned cars, music and fashion; why can’t things just stay the way they are?”
West End Riot
“There's a man that was born in the west workin' at a factory / There's a man from the east who now runs the whole company...”
“I was listening to a lot of the Jam at this point. It was about kids knocking around together and how their lives part as they get older – and never the twain shall meet again. My mum and dad were both from that area [the industrial west]. Dad’s family was very poor and he told me stories about his dad sitting on the steps crying during the Depression when all the men would come home from work, because he didn’t have a job. Maybe that stuff gets into you. I always hated the idea of some people looking down on other people.
“The shipyards are deserted on the docks of Melbourne town / The wharfies standing strong / Why are you standing there? Filming for the outside world...”
“It’s about the 1998 strike on the wharf over a pay dispute, but it wasn’t particularly trying to stick up for the wharfies; it was more a statement about what was going on at that stage – a song for the underdog. They were so gung ho, they weren’t going to back down, and I thought that would make a great rock’n’roll song.”