Six albums. Each one, a milestone: The time we thought we were indestructible. The time we lit a fire under the establishment. The time we wondered if it was all worth it. No.6, if we put it under the scalpel, is the album that hunts down the truth, asks the big questions and demands answers. The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating is The Living End’s most honest album yet.
Chris Cheney, Scott Owen and Andy Strachan have always forged their own path, irrespective of passing fads, haircuts, and any vogue for keytar-wielding debutantes. Their songs require of the listener a social conscience and mosh pit stamina, and give in return a visceral experience that’s flawlessly executed. It’s this attitude that’s earned the band four platinum and one gold albums.
Winding up the tour cycle that followed 2008’s White Noise, Cheney went to New York to buckle down and write, before the songs were jammed out organically in a South Melbourne rehearsal room. Finally the demos were taken to 301 Studios in Byron Bay and Chris’s studio Red Door Sounds in Collingwood for a reworking with producer Nick DiDia — who has put the Midas touch on records by The Living End-approved Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine — imported especially for the occasion from Atlanta. Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Powderfinger, AC/DC) took the reigns as mixer. The results are astonishing.
All three musicians share a craftsmanlike love of songwriting, on an eternal quest to find the ultimate hook, most danceable tempo, the chord progression to break your heart. “With this album we were searching for really spine-tingling bits,” says Cheney, who namechecks classic songwriters like Glen Campbell, Springsteen and the Bee Gees. The Living End are widely renowned for their ability to throw in a fancy fill, beer-frothin’ rockabilly lick or red hot bass run without breaking a sweat, but this time the challenge was to strip away the excess and (in Owen’s words) ego, and wind up with the strongest groove possible. “We can get very serious sometimes in the rehearsal room,” laughs Cheney: “‘Technically that won’t work…’ but we’ve learned that you can really narrow down your options to what works on paper if you think about things too musically. This time there was a lot more experimentation and a lot of happy accidents.”
“Nick was always dancing around in the control room,” Owen adds, “but he also went into some deep territory with the songs, especially with vocals. He wasn’t afraid to push boundaries to get what he felt like he needed, even to the point where he would say to me and Andy, ‘Can you guys split for a bit?’ as he’d be uncomfortable saying some of the stuff he was saying to Chris in front of anyone else. I appreciate the fact he went into it so deeply. He laughed at 95 per cent of our jokes, too, which takes a unique character.”
If White Noise was all about the octave pedal and the heavy riff sorcery Cheney wreaked with it, The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating works the chorus pedal to panoramic effect. “It gives you that Police, Mondo Rock kind of sound,” Cheney says approvingly. “There was a bit of indecision; do we want to go there? Are we writing an ’80s record? Are our older sisters’ Culture Club records actually coming back out of us now?”
They needn’t have worried — it’s an expansive, melodic tone that adds retro colour to tracks. In fact, from the early Oils aura of ‘Heatwave’, to the cool, spacious beats of INXS in tracks like ‘United’, the band were charting new territory that challenged them constantly. “That was something we had never really experimented with before,” says Owen of their mission to find a hypnotic groove. “It had always been about making things heavy, but this time it was about making you dance.”
While they’ve succeeded in this, there are undeniably some gritty themes behind the grooves. ‘In the Morning’ details the rot behind a suburban façade, ‘Away From the City’ reflects on the mindless violence that besets any CBD on a Friday night, ‘Resist’ channels the desperation of boat people, and ‘Machine Gun’ walks in the shoes of Melbourne’s underbelly. While Cheney’s socialist stance can often be interpreted as a call to arms, he now reveals it can come from a far more personal place. “I think that’s deflection, using ‘we’ instead of ‘me’, or putting another person’s face on a song,” he admits. “There’s something about baring your soul that I baulk at, but I’m more of an emotional person than I care to let on.”
A case in point is the album’s centerpiece, ‘Ride the Wave Boy’, with its desperate motif of keeping your head above water. Cheney lost his father during the recording of the album, a traumatic turn of events that gave his writing an existential skew and made him question the point of making a record at all. You can hear this sentiment in tracks like ‘Another Day’, ‘Song For the Lonely’ and ‘Universe’, all of which reflect a need to make sense of life and reframe it accordingly. Essentially, it was time to sink or swim. “Snapshots of making the record were euphoric,” Strachan points out, “but Chris was going through such a rough time that it was really hard on Scott and me to know how much to give and how much to step away.”
If there’s one song that epitomises this spirit, it’s the title track. “After what I’ve just been through, it gives me comfort to think that when something finishes there’s a positive within it,” says Cheney frankly. “You’re about to start a new era and it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. It’s so important to have hope, or else I would have lost it. It’s a test. You can lie down and admit it’s all too hard or think, fuck it, we can do this and we’re going to do it well.”
The Ending is Just the Beginning Repeating will be, Cheney says, a very special record for a group that’s faced tough times with a united front. “As a band, it feels for some reason like we’re right in the middle of something really important, and we’re watching it all go round us, heading for something new. I definitely think it’s our darkest record, but within that there’s that whole idea it can get better — and it will get better. We’ve ended up taking a big leap forward, in every aspect of what we’ve ever done. There might be a certain part of us, like the rockabilly aspect, that gets left behind each time, but I don’t for any second think we’ve diminished in any shape or form. It’s a better version of us.”