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Evolution is unpredictable when it comes to music. Melbourne, Australia's the Living End is a case in point. The band was formed in the early '90s when guitarist Chris Cheney and bassist Scott Owen met in high school and bonded through their mutual love of rockabilly. Drummer Travis Dempsey solidified the lineup, and the band, first as the Runaway Boys and then as the Living End, began playing every conceivable venue for any size paycheck.
"When we were the Runaway Boys, we were basically a Stray Cats rip-off," says Cheney. "We used to play a lot of that stuff. We just got to a point where we decided that we wanted to be relevant and to be valid in a few years' time. So let's not worry about playing just one style of music that we like. There are various forms. Why not try to incorporate them? That's what we did."
In 1994, the band heard Dookie, the debut album from Green Day, and made the collective decision to shift sonic gears. From there, Cheney, Owen and Dempsey revisited the work of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, which led the trio to incorporate more punk volume and attitude into its music without completely forsaking the rockabilly foundation. Four years later, the Living End's eponymous debut album was released in Australia, causing an immediate sensation and driving the album into quadruple platinum sales figures in its homeland. After three years and countless gigs (including a recent opening slot on the Australian leg of the AC/DC tour), the Living End finally released Roll On, its anthemic sophomore album. With Roll On selling at a remarkable pace at home, the band turned to America. It went on a mini-tour earlier this year and has now launched a full-scale road assault with Green Day.
Here, its members have -- up until a recent spate of outdoor radio shows -- been playing clubs, instead of the packed arenas they've grown accustomed to in Australia. But that's all right with them. Cheney insists that the band relishes the thought of winning over American fans, a few at a time if need be.
"We fully expect that that's the way it has to be. It is kind of hard sometimes, going from playing to 20,000 people to playing to 200 people, but I think that it's character-building, and it's good for your playing. In Australia, we can walk onstage and wave our arms in the air, and people will go crazy. You get kind of blasé after a while. I like the challenge of having to get up in front of a new audience and do it bare-bones again. You've got to impress them, and you've got to play well."
The Living End is certainly no stranger to that kind of work ethic. Constant touring across Australia had earned the band a fan base that ensured the success of its first album. But even as the band honed its chops, it was ill-prepared for the rigors of fame.
"We were prepared in the musical sense," says Cheney. "I'm proud to say that we played for such a long time to no one. We did a lot of kilometers in the Kings Wood. We played every kind of gig you could imagine: 21st birthdays to weddings to country town halls. So when we did get that success and we had bigger crowds, we could play."
They weren't prepared mentally, however. "The stuff we were playing at the time was the alternative to the alternative. Nirvana was just starting to click, and we were the alternative to that. I never in my wildest dreams thought that we would cross over to a larger audience. I knew wherever we went, by the end of the night, we had them on their feet, so I knew what we were doing was valid. But for it to become the highest-selling Australian debut of all time, it was just crazy for a band influenced by the Clash and Buddy Holly. It's a credit to the people of Australia that they could open their eyes and ears and accept a band like us."
After conquering Australia, the Living End continued to travel, crisscrossing America on last year's Warped Tour. In the three years since the release of the first album, the band took time off only to head home to write and record Roll On.
"When we were on the Warped Tour, we kept running into bands that we'd seen the year before," Cheney says. "And they'd say, 'You guys had some time off?' Because they'd been home, and we'd say, 'Nope, still doing it.' And then we'd see them a few months later, and they'd say, 'You guys are not still on the road.' And we'd say, 'Yep. Haven't been home yet.' And they couldn't believe it. They thought we were crazy. We just felt that's what we needed to be doing."
One of the biggest lessons the Living End learned from listening to the Clash was that music could be used to promote social change, something that was reinforced by homelanders Midnight Oil. The Living End writes some bracingly effective punk anthems on a number of subjects, but never in an archly preachy manner. There's actually an interesting dichotomy between the band's roots in the music of Little Richard and Chuck Berry and its eventual branches into the territory of the Jam and the Clash.
"It doesn't really mean much to sing about hot rods and girls now," says Cheney. "I just felt that there was more to be said, especially after reading the lyrics of Paul Weller and Joe Strummer. I just found that it was easier and more challenging to write songs about social issues than vent my own personal demons. That never really did much for me. 'Oh, the world is so terrible, and my life is such shit . . .' That never applied to me. I always found it good to write a bit of a story, maybe stretch the truth a little bit, but base it on something that's actually happened. It comes from newspapers, or hearing a story, or maybe I'll see something written on a wall and think, 'That's a great title for a song' and base it around that. There are no set rules, and that's the beauty of music, I think."