Almost 30 years after co-founding dynamic Australian rockabilly band The Living End, frontman Chris Cheney is branching out on his own with the release of his debut solo album.
One listen to Cheney’s deeply personal new offering The Storm Before The Calm and one thing becomes abundantly clear: we’ve never really known Chris Cheney at all.
“The Living End have just never had songs that personal, for a start, and if they were, it’s sort of been represented under the umbrella of the three of us,” Cheney says, referring to bandmates Scott Owen and Andy Strachan. “Whereas this is just me, under my name, and people know it’s a solo project.”
Lead single ‘California’ was released in March; an ode to the place Cheney called home for nine years, until a global pandemic ushered a return to Melbourne.
Living in Los Angeles, Cheney says he found himself in some “incredible” situations that were particular to the “buzzing” LA music scene.
“You’re on stage at the Troubadour, and to the left is Chris Shiflett from the Fooies, and Duff from Guns ‘N’ Roses on the right, with Captain Sensible and my old mate Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats, because we had a band together and all of these different people would just come along and jump up and jam,” he says. “We did tours of that, and I was pinching myself. Like, that stuff just didn’t happen when I was living in Glen Waverley.”
LA was creatively “very inspiring” for Cheney, who began writing The Storm Before The Calm while living there.
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“There’s a standard and a level there that is pretty darn high,” he says. “I like that, and I like feeling that pressure.”
Watch Chris Cheney ‘California’:
After “tinkering” on some songs on his own, Cheney found himself working with Skylar Wilson in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2016.
“[Skylar] is just amazing; he’s from that whole Leon Russell school of piano playing and the band that he brought in were just fantastic,” he says. “They weren’t old Nashville, they were kind of young contemporary guys. They have all that old school Nashville chops, but they didn’t rely on them – they were okay with bringing in a few more modern-style licks and playing, which was nice.”
Cheney then worked with Aussie Justin Stanley, who had relocated to Los Angeles and worked with the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton.
“I showed him some songs and said, ‘Hey, you want to help me finish these off?’” Cheney says. “So he played drums and piano on ‘Still Got Friday on My Mind’ and ‘Lost in the Darkness’ and one other one, I think.”
‘Still Got Friday on My Mind’ is one of the tracks Cheney says he is “super proud” of, and it’s one that really allows fans into his deeper psyche, as it deals with the “sore point” of his father’s passing.
“I suppose for me, it’s a way of dealing with it, like any songwriter it’s like a therapy session if you just write it down on paper and put music to it and it’s a way of dealing with it,” he says. “But he had been very sick for a while, and I was going out to visit him one morning where he’d been particularly ill for the last couple of days.”
After arranging to see his father one weekend, Cheney “selfishly” went out the night before, and spent too long the following day “probably trying to find the Panadol” and overcoming the “messy” night before.
“And of course by the time I got there, he was gone,” Cheney says. “So it was a huge regret for me, and that was my way of saying, well I kind of wish it was still Friday night, then I wouldn’t be dealing with what was going on on the Saturday or the Sunday, whenever it was.”
Cheney says he is proud of the track, because it showcases what he wanted this record to be: “Where people go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise that that guy could do this, I thought he just jumped around on stage and climbed up on a double bass and did the blazing guitar solo thing.’ So that’s what I’ve noticed from people that have heard the record, they sort of go, oh okay, so you’ve got that side to you as well.”
Cheney “really tried” to make the lyrical content of this record as “raw and personal as possible,” with nothing blocking their emotional depth.
“I think the whole key with this record was that there were a few times where I didn’t quite know if I wanted to say what I wanted to say,” he laughs. “It was a little too raw, a little too close to the bone, a little too personal. But what I found was if I didn’t say it directly and if I didn’t make it really simple and clear, then it just sounded like I was kind of skirting around an issue, and it sounded like it was watered down, or like I’d tried to sugar-coat something.”
After recording 10 songs in what he now refers to as the “Nashville sessions,” Cheney returned to his garage in Melbourne and continued writing, penning ‘California’ as well as follow-up singles ‘Corner Shop’ and ‘Football Team’ as well as ‘Little White Pills’ – which, incidentally, is about the most ‘Living End’ sounding track on the album.
“If it had just been the Nashville record it would have been quite a dark album, and I think I definitely would not have been as happy with it if it had come out three years ago as what I am now,” Cheney says. “Because when I got back to Melbourne, and the extra songs that I wrote, it seemed to balance it up. I found then that I had a complete record, and it would have been a different beast altogether.”
Cheney says that “as a sum of the parts” the album feels more complete now, even though it meant discarding half of those original 10 tracks in favour of some of the newer songs.
“The Nashville stuff was a little bit more probably country, Americana, that sort of feel – acoustic-based – and I think three of the more rock songs that I wrote on the album happened once I got back here,” he says. “When I hear it now, I feel like I’ve almost written – unintentionally – a concept record. Like there’s definitely a narrative that flows through it.”
Every time he tried to shy away from the real, Cheney says the songs “weren’t as good” – and that is why he brings so many personal demons to the surface on this record.
“As honest as it is, I think at the end of the day if you choose to go through the lyrics with a fine-toothed comb, you’ll see exactly what I’m saying and where it has all come from; but if you don’t you can just listen to the songs and listen to the hooks, and hopefully they’re the things that are the most prominent,” he says. “I’m one of these people that ruminates on things, and you probably shouldn’t do it, but I do. So I’ve had my fair share of lying there all hours of the evening, or making bad decisions. But we’re only human, aren’t we?”
Cheney says he hoped people would get a little bit of insight into who he is “without the big production and the thumping drums and guitars and everything that The Living End records normally have”.
“I didn’t know if people would buy it, and I didn’t know if I could really do it” he says. “Until you throw yourself into the studio and you strip everything back, and you just have a piano and sing along with that – which is what the first track on the record is, essentially just piano and a little bit of guitar and it’s all vocals.”
Admittedly, though, Cheney wouldn’t have exposed himself in such a way 20 years ago.
“I wouldn’t have have been able to listen to my vocals like that,” he says. “But I’m okay with it now.”
Cheney has also been exploring visual art – the artwork on The Storm Before The Calm is all his own – and has even held an exhibition this year; but it isn’t a new venture like many believe.
“As a kid, before I got into the guitar, I just sat and drew all the time,” he says. “I never had a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper very far from my grasp. I just used to sit and draw all day.”
Even The Living End logos and poster designs showcased Cheney’s artistic flair in the band’s early days. But using a brush and paint was a new experience, and one Cheney has embraced whole heartedly.
“I went from just kind of fooling around and trying to teach myself a few techniques to I’ve now got a garage that’s like bursting at the seams with all these canvases, and it’s been great,” he says. “It’s sort of very similar to song writing, you know, you just throw an idea at the canvas and then add something to it; if you don’t like it you paint over that bit then paint something else.”
Between the music and art, Cheney says the past two years have been the “most creative probably ever” in his life.
“It’s definitely re-awakened my love for visual arts, because it had sort of been suppressed, I suppose, over the last 10 or 15 years – I’ve just been so focused on the band,” he says. “And I don’t know, I just sort of forgot that I could draw and do all that stuff so it’s been great, and I’m kicking myself now that I haven’t done more of it over the years because it’s sort of become a new obsession.”
For now, music will once again take precedence for Cheney. He has a number of shows with The Living End between now and the end of the year, as well as a run of solo shows in support of the album.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m having to sell the idea too hard to people; they’re kind of like, okay, yeah, I’m interested in hearing that. That’s really nice,” Cheney says. “I guess the few times I’ve done outside of the band over the years, whether it be the ‘Distant Sun’ cover or the White Album or whatever, I think I’ve proven that I can kind of hold my own when I need to.”
The Storm Before The Calm will be released tomorrow, Friday 17th June.
Chris Cheney Tour Dates
Saturday 16th July: The Zoo, Brisbane
Friday 22nd July: Mojo’s, Fremantle
Saturday 23rd July: Jive, Adelaide
Saturday 30th July: The Corner, Melbourne
Saturday 13th August: Factory Theatre, Sydney