"Big fan, mate," I said to Cheney (since I'm half-Australian and can kind of get away with saying "mate" without sounding like a douchebag). "Last year, I got stuck driving across the Top End" - the Top End being the Darwin region of Australia's Northern Territory - "and the only CD we remembered to bring along was your first album. We spent 18 hours listening to you guys on repeat." Cheney chuckled and said, "I'd hate us then, too, mate."
But, the thing is, I didn't. In fact, since the Top End, I had learned to appreciate The Living End's sonically complex punk sound even more and, when I caught their show again at this year's Los Angeles leg of the Warped Tour, I was genuinely thrilled, not to mention satisfied, by the gargantuan crowds the three-piece outfit drew compared to the drifting mobs that seemed to wander from stage to stage elsewhere. One Aussie in the crowd voiced my sentiments: "I'm amazed so many people know who they are over here."
"Here" being the States, of course. "Here" being one of the only major markets The Living End hasn't conquered in its 12-year run. But, rather than fade away - as maybe Warner Bros. expected them to when the label dropped them from a recording contract - the band is back in the States supporting an album, State of Emergency, that went straight to number one back home - a first for them, and a notable achievement in what is an over-saturated punk market.
"The whole idea was just going over there, getting in front of everyone again, and showing we're a current, valid band - which we think we are," Cheney says of SxSW when I catch up with him backstage at Warped Tour. "We got put through the ringer, you know," he continues, referring to the debacle with Warner Bros. that culminated in a commercial and, for the most part, critical flop. "We worked damn hard to get where we are and we're very successful in Australia and Japan. I think there comes a point where you think, 'Well, we should be successful `in the States`.'"
In his early 30s now, Cheney, like upright bassist Scott Owen and drummer Andy Strachan, faces the truth - that, on the punk-tour circuit, they've earned a certain amount of seniority and accompanying respect, not unlike good friends Green Day. But he's not ready for the rocking chair yet.
"I still feel like we can play alongside U2 and give them a run for their money," he says, laughing. "I feel invincible sometimes. I have to feel that way. When I stop feeling that way, we'll be in trouble."
The first step in reminding the world that they're still, as Cheney says, a "current, valid band" was recording the masterpiece their third album, Modern Artillery, was supposed to be. "I always feel like I have something to prove, every morning I wake up," he says. "I definitely felt with Modern Artillery, it should've been better than what it was. I can stand here and point fingers, but there's no point now. All I know is it didn't turn out like it should've and I'm bitterly disappointed. But you've got to have some regrets in life, I suppose."
Those regrets fueled Cheney's desperate perfectionism when The Living End hit the studio to record State of Emergency. "I ended up working myself until I got sick," he says. "I'd created this massive amount of work `and` 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."
The outcome not only conquered the charts, but also made critics swoon and delighted fans old and new. "Everyone talks about our first album and "Prisoner `of Society`," Cheney says of the punk anthem. "'It's a classic.' Screw that. We trampled that album with this current one. We're getting better at songwriting and better at performing. 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 naïve and they think that they're important and they're not," he continues. "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." Cheney also feels validated by the critical success of State of Emergency . "When it went in at number one, it was the first time the critics were going, 'Wow, this is a good album' about us," he says. "Everyone knows we can play live, but to get an album where the harmonies sound right and good and they sound like they fit the song, for that to go to number one and get great reviews ... you know, I don't care what anyone says. It's nice to get a pat on the back."
Later, I remind him that we met last spring in Austin in that record-store parking lot. "Oh yeah?" he asks, looking blankly at me. I give him some more details, including the story about the 18- hour Living-End-CD marathon across the Top End. "I'd hate us then, too, mate," he says, laughing.