The Living End: Back to the Beginning
20-Nov-2011 Words: Brian Fischer-Giffin
Pix: Kate Hibberd
Latest release: The End is Just the Beginning Repeating (Dew Process/Universal)
Since they burst onto the scene in the late 90s with their huge double-A side hit “Prisoner of Society”/”Second Solution”, The Living End has gone on the become one of the best-selling Australian bands of the past two decades. Latest album The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating has done nothing to buck that trend, becoming the band's fifth ARIA Top 5 album and continuing an amazing run of success that has seen all six albums peak in the Top 10. It's the band's relentless attitude to touring and recording that's been the key to their sustained success, so it's perhaps a little unusual to find bass player Scott Owen enjoying a bit of well-earned downtime.
"We’re in a bit of a lay period at the moment," he says pleasantly. "We did a couple of gigs a couple of weeks ago in Newcastle and Penrith, and there’s been others once every couple of weeks since we did our Aussie tour. But we’re spending the time between now and Christmas Eve off, a couple of gigs over New Year’s Eve and then the Big Day Out is just around the corner now. So all’s well. We’re playing regularly enough and spending enough time at home as well. Life is awfully good, actually."
Their heavy workload and the resultant pressure that can put on them almost spelt the end of the band a few years ago, when songwriter and frontman Chris Cheney suffered a creative breakdown. This album's cycle since its release in July has been somewhat more leisurely.
"You put so much work into getting the record up, and then once it comes out, that’s when the work changes nature but it’s equally as time consuming," Owen explains. "We usually just tour and tour and tour when a record comes out, but with this one we’ve spaced it out a bit more and made it a bit more doable."
While the group’s creative process can still be arduous, rigourous and stressful, Owen says that in the end the results are more than rewarding.
“Well we never make it easy on ourselves,” the bassist says. “The way the see it, the record’s not written until it’s done. Every idea that comes into our heads, we have to put it through the mill and see how it comes out. You never know, some of those last minute ideas, if you explore them enough, become the best parts of the album. We put ourselves under a bit of pressure and once we’re in there we don’t really have much of a breather. It’s just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. But that’s how we get the best results out of our songs. It’s just sort of something that has to be done. We’re all extremely happy with the result, so all that stress and pressure falls by the wayside when you’ve got something that you’re actually proud of at the end of the day.”
Critical reaction to the new album has been somewhat mixed – while generally positive, some commentators have reserved their strongest assessment for the somewhat different approach that The Living End has taken this time. Scott notes that in lyrical terms, Cheney’s songs have taken a significantly more personal turn.
“Whereas Chris has in the past written more social or even political things in his songs, this one seems to be a little more about him,” he says.
Musically too, the band has experimented with their basic sound much more than on previous outings. Scott puts it down to “mucking around with a lot of pedals”, which they haven’t done a lot of until now.
“It was sort of a bit of a cornerstone for putting songs together for that album,” he says. “They gave off a bit of an 80s sort of sound that conjured images of Mondo Rock and INXS and bands like that, and they were guitar sounds that Chris had never really explored before. He’s never really gone too far out of the box with his sound. He’s always kept it pretty straight-forward, pretty tough sounding. Using these pedals and having these riffs that make the most of that chorus effect does make for a bit of a different texture that the band hasn’t explored before.”
This development may have confounded some of the pundits, but from the band’s point of view it was a discovery that made their creative process much more rewarding.
“I love it when that happens,” Owen says, “when you find something new that you actually get a buzz out of. After all these years you have to start wondering when are the ideas going to dry up, and when are we going to stop getting excited about stuff… it certainly hasn’t happened yet.”
Tinkering with their so-far successful sound hasn’t been the only change for The Living End this year. They’ve also been on the road with a second guitarist, old friend and former guitar tech Adrian Lombardi, who’s played in Melbourne punk bands Blue Line Medic and Mid Youth Crisis. Lombardi’s role has been primarily to add those studio touches that the band hasn’t been able to replicate live before. Owen says the reaction to this has been both surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive.
“There’s been no weirdness. I really expected our diehard fans to be extremely unhappy with us for messing with the product that we have, for lack of a better word,” he says with a chuckle. “But there’s no negative feedback from it. He’s a great guitar player and he’s incredibly solid. He kinda feels like the glue in the band now that holds it all together. Being a three-piece it can sorta get a little topsy-turvy at some points in songs and gigs and stuff, and having Lombo on board really holds it all together and just fattens out the sound a whole lot. And it’s great to be able to hear some of the parts that are on even older songs that Chris can’t physically do live with one guitar. It’s really great to be able to hear all those flourishes and stuff. There’s been no bad reactions to it.”
The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating not only sees The Living End back on the Big Day Out tour once more but has put them in the running for two ARIA Awards – it was released only two weeks ahead of the cut-off for nominations, and since this interview was conducted the band has been confirmed to be performing on award night. While they’re now fairly old hands at this sort of stuff, Scott Owen admits that it’s still kind of exciting to be up for selection.
“We got two nominations, so we’ll see how we go,” he says. “There’s no mistaking that we are a reasonably vintage sort of band. We’ve got a lot of history under our belts. And it’s just sort of a bit of a pat on the back from the industry even to just get nominated. It’s nice to feel like we’re not just sort of been left behind or forgotten about, or that people are bored with us, or whatever. It’s always good for the ego and makes you feel confident to still be in the running for that sort of shit.”
After last appearing at the Big Day Out in 2009, The Living End line up on the tour again next year, although due to scheduling restrictions they will no longer be playing Adelaide. Five-time veterans of the event, only You Am I, Powderfinger and Shihad have appeared more often.
"It feels like our summer holiday now, the Big Day Out tour,” Owen says, laughing. “It’s like our summer home. Our beach house, or whatever. It’s generally just a fun thing to be on. Half a dozen cities in three weeks or something. It’s very leisurely. And when you put that many bands on the road together, there’s bound to be plenty of shenanigans and plenty of colourful moments."
Having done so many BDO tours now, Scott Owen has probably got up to his fair share of shenanigans and had many a colorful moment. His favourite memory of the tour, however, is from the 2003 season.
"When we did the Big Day Out and Queens of the Stone Age were on the tour as well," he says, "just being able to sit on the side of the stage and watch them every BDO for that tour was… well, it was when Nick Oliveri was still in the band and I’m a big fan of him as a bass player, and it was the first tour when Joey Castillo was playing drums, and he’s just an incredibly powerful drummer – I’ve just got all these excellent memories of being able to sit on the side of the stage and watch them play the Songs for the Deaf album. It was probably the highlight for me."
With eleven new songs to add to a repertoire that already includes a wealth of popular tunes, it must be now a considerable challenge for The Living End to decide what to include in a live show these days.
"We still try to vary it as much as we can," Owen says. "We still try to play songs off every record, play songs that people know and play some we’ve never played before, and still try to squeeze in as many new songs as we can. It’s always a bit of a mission for us when we write a set, with all those agendas in mind. We still just try to write sets that hopefully please everyone."
The Living End has always been a crowd-pleasing mob. That's unlikely to change when they hit five of the six Big Day Out stages in 2012. Scott Owen reckons that the reaction they get from appreciative crowds is really what makes all the sweat worth it.
"Our gigs always seem to incite a fair bit of enthusiasm from the audience," he says, with considerable understatement. "And that’s the payback for all the hard work really. It’s pretty fun doing that, night after night, and getting the band into a routine where we just feel like we’re playing better every night. That’s the joy."
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