Choosing to record at a break-neck clip in the capital of Germany, The Living End have delivered on hope, indignation, empathy and rapture in their strapping new album Wunderbar. We spoke to frontman Chris Cheney about how it came together.
German band Die Toten Hosen feature on the album; you’ve known them since way back in ’98. Were they part of the lure of recording in Berlin?
[Die Toten Hosen] were on the Warped tour in Australia [in 1998], and we struck up a friendship. Then they said, “We love you guys, please come and play with us back in Germany. We’re very famous.” That was an understatement. They’re not only famous but they were a household name – the biggest rock band in Germany. We’ve kept going back to Germany ever since then. It was the best recording experience we’ve ever had, and the most fun we’ve ever had making a record. It all worked out, thankfully. It could have been a disaster. It was just a leap of faith.
And you had no connection to Tobias, your producer, prior to recording?
No, we didn’t. Having a bad producer or someone you don’t get along with can seriously affect the record – it can affect it positively or affect it negatively. [Tobias] was just beautiful. We just knew the minute we spoke to him on the phone when we were still in Melbourne. We thought, he sounds really nice. He sounds cool. He sounds normal. Not like some of these producers that are on another planet. He plays guitar – that was interesting for me. There were two guitarists in the room workshopping ideas and playing off each other a little bit. That helps shape the song. He brought an incredible vibe. Everyday we’d go, “We’re so happy with these songs and we’re so happy with this record. Is it good or is it not good?” You start questioning it. “Surely it can’t be this much fun and be this easy if it’s good. Shouldn’t it be harder than this?” Thankfully that wasn’t the case on this record.
Tell us about how it began in Berlin.
I flew straight from LA, met the guys, and went, “Okay, here we go.” We stayed at a B&B together, the three of us. It was like being kids again. This B&B was flea-ridden and there was no heating. It was minus four. It was terrible. We lasted four nights, I think. I was trying to sing during the day, and at night I was just shivering – sleeping on the floor of this kid’s bedroom because I didn’t want to get into the bed because it was so disgusting. It was freaky. It was kind of cool though, because here are the three of us, grown men, and we’re bonding through this. We were trying to keep each other chipper and make each other laugh to get through it.
The expansive Death Of The American Dream is in two parts; one recurring lyric is “I’ll defend you.” Having been a resident of LA for so long, how do you understand the country’s current situation?
That song is a love letter, from me to LA. I spent the first year in LA thinking I wanted to go back to Melbourne. Then six-and-a-half years later, I knew I was really going to miss the place. I grew to love it. I have some dear friends there who are ashamed, almost, of what their country has become and what people think about their country – that it’s become this laughing stock. The first half of the song, the crazy fast part, has that comical side to it. The second half, the little acoustic tag-on, I recorded in Melbourne on my iPhone and it’s the love letter, saying, “You’re wounded and you’re hurt at the moment, but you can still be the America that we all thought you were, the land of opportunity and all that. You can get back on your feet depending on what political decisions you make the next few years.” I’m really proud of it.
Amsterdam is a stand-out; it’s terribly simple, but the descent on the last syllable of the line “I don’t know who I am” is heart-breaking. How are you going to play this one live?
I hadn’t thought about that. Tobias was the one who said, “Let’s have it on the album but do it Billy Bragg style. You with a guitar, record it live, couple of takes and just pick one.” That’s what I did. It’s probably the saddest song on the record – dealing with loss, and when it throws you it throws you like a curveball. You start questioning what your worth is. I’m really glad it ended up on the record because 15 years ago [the guys] would’ve said, “I’m not playing bass on it and I’m not playing drums on it so it can’t be on the record.” Now they were, “It’s a worthy edition to the album.” It’s another character to the record.
While listening to Wake Up The Vampires, I realised that famous vampire film Nosferatu is German. Was it your location which inspired you to use vampires as an allusion?
I didn’t know that. You taught me something. Tobias gets his Ws and Vs all mixed up and he kept saying, “Ve have to record it, Vake Up The Wampires. It has to be on the record.” I probably worked harder on that song than any of the others. I was writing as we were recording. It took a lot to get there; it was a lot of work. But the pressure,
I think, is good for me.
Drop The Needle has a distinctly Goanna or Dire Straits feel, and you’re singing along (wordlessly) to the guitar riff in the middle, which is something you rarely do. Was it a deliberate break from tradition?
Yeah. You know the band Doves, the UK band? I adore them. They’ve got some songs where they have these beautiful high guitar sounds with tons of reverb and everything on it. It sounds really spiritual and powerful. They’ll have a vocal that follows the exact melody of the guitar line. I was trying to do that with that tune.
Considering the rapid pace at which this album was written and recorded: how often does it happen like that, start-to-finish, in one swoop?
Not as often as I’d like. Noel Gallagher, I think, is one of those guys who can sit down and just write something in two or three minutes and it’s done. It takes me a long time. Having said that, [some elements of Wunderbar] were kicking around probably three years ago. It’s a bloody mystery, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. If it was something that you could just switch on, then it wouldn’t have the same power and the same magic.
Wunderbar is out September 28 via Warner.