Out From Down Under

Aussie punks seek American airwaves

On a summer afternoon in Los Angeles, Dodger Stadium radiates heat that feels a lot like what hits you in the face when you open an oven two hours into a roast. Welcome to Van's Warped Tour, where several thousand fans of punk music have gathered to pay $4.25 for bottled water and check out some bands that'll be too big to give a shit about coming back next year. What's surprising is that, of the half-dozen or so stages with bands doing their best to be heard over the din, some of which have garnered some serious press in this country, only one has drawn a real crowd at 2:30 in the afternoon: Australia's the Living End.

"They've got a bigger crowd than Helmet and they haven't even taken the stage yet," a flame-haired Aussie in the crowd marvels. When the band appears 15 minutes later, the crowd has doubled in size, with an ever-expanding whorl of a mosh pit at its center. At this rate, it will consume the known universe within 52 minutes. And all the Living End wants to know is, "Who's Going to Save Us?" Or so they sing, as old and mostly new fans pump their fists in the air.

The Warped Tour marks the band's first major U.S. tour since the debacle that was 2003's Modern Artillery, the Living End's third album that was, for all intents and purposes, supposed to be its masterpiece. It turned out to be anything but, mostly because of the machinations of producer Mark Trombino and the band's label, Warner Bros., which dropped the Living End after the group spent a soul-sapping six months touring the U.S. in support of the album. They didn't return until this year's South By Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas.

Time-warped: A new beginning for the Living End.
Time-warped: A new beginning for the Living End.

"The whole idea was just to come back, get in front of everyone again, and show we're a current, valid band — which we think we are," singer/guitarist Chris Cheney says backstage after the Warped Tour performance, gulping a beer as sweat runs down his face. He tips the cowboy hat he's wearing up on his brow, to let the sun hit him.

Considering they've been a band since 1994, scoring their first major hit with the instant classic "Prisoner of Society" back in '98, it's understandable that even the members of the Living End would wonder if they still mattered. In other words, the Melbourne-based three-piece had something to prove with its latest album, State of Emergency.

"Everyone talks about our first album and 'Prisoner [of Society].' 'It's a classic,'" Cheney says. "Screw that. We trampled that album with this current one. We got lucky and had a lot of success early on, but there's so much room for improvement, even now. A lot of bands say that, but they become naive and they think that they're important and they're not. Hopefully, we're aware enough to know when the time is up. We're not going to be 40 and fat and still turning out this stuff."

Determined to produce the masterpiece he had hoped Modern Artillery would be, Cheney, along with upright bassist Scott Owen and drummer Andy Strachan, hit the studio with a velocity that physically destroyed the front man. "It's normal that I stress too much and work too hard, but I don't think I know any other way. It's a fucking problem," he says of the experience that rewarded the Living End with its first No. 1 on the Australian ARIA charts and Cheney with a nasty case of shingles.

"I ended up working myself until I got sick, no days off, and I'd created this massive amount of work," Cheney continues. "I had to do it properly or it was going to be a failure, and I wasn't prepared for it to be a failure after Modern Artillery."

Though State of Emergency — a collection of anthemic rock that emphasizes musicianship and songcraft over three-chord hooks and punk chants — was only released the day before the Living End's L.A. Warped Tour triumph, it is already a commercial and, surprisingly, critical smash Down Under. In many ways, it's done for them what American Idiot did for their good friends Green Day.

"For [Emergency] to go to No. 1 and get great reviews . . . ," Cheney begins, only to interrupt himself. "You know, I don't care what anyone says. It's nice to get a pat on the back. A lot of people will say, 'Fuck the press. Who cares about good reviews and bad reviews?' But when it went to No. 1, it validated that there was a whole generation of fans out there who weren't around in 1998 that were discovering the band for the first time."

In other words, after a three-year absence following a commercial and critical flop of epic proportions and, oh yeah, a 2001 car accident that nearly killed Cheney and severely crippled the momentum his band's punk-worthy nonstop touring regimen had built up over the previous seven years, the Living End's worth was measured, and found, as they hoped, still relevant — at least in Australia, the far side of the world. Next stop: the United States.

"When the offer came in, we knew they had the right vision for the band," Cheney says of Oakland-based Adeline Records, co-owned by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. The two have known each other since a cassette demo won the Living End a slot on the Australian leg of Green Day's 1995 tour.

"Everything just felt right about it," Cheney explains, dismissing any lingering concerns his band might have had about re-signing with an American label. "We've got to go with our heart these days. We've just got to go with what feels right.

"We worked damn hard to get where we are, and we're very successful in Australia and Japan," he continues. "I think there comes a point where you think, 'Well, we should be successful here [in the States].'

"Why can't we have a go at cracking this market?" he adds, laughing. "We're young enough and ugly enough to give it a shot."

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