Chris Cheney of the Living End: "You can have all the gear in the world, but if you’re not firing, you’re not firing."

Any Australian guitarist is almost certainly familiar with Chris Cheney’s playing. In the 23 years since The Living End debuted in their home country, Cheney has become inexorably linked with the instrument in a way that few others could ever aspire to. He’s now a regular Top 5 fixture on any list of the greatest Australian guitarists of all time.

The Living End has also expanded their fanbase into the US and Europe through touring, escalating their profile abroad in a way that few other Australian bands have managed. I chatted with Chris to discuss the pros and cons of touring at home versus internationally, his thoughts on modern gear culture, and the particularly intriguing tale of a certain bright yellow Torch Strat.

Hey, Chris. How long have you been based out in California?

Coming up on six years. We moved here for two, but six years later, we’re still kind of here. I never imagined we’d be here this long, but it just kind of worked out that way. I spend probably half of the year back in Australia in a van, though.

I guess you can chase summer the world round. That’s not a bad way to be.

Yes, it’s fine. It’s kind of like I get to sort of be at home and see my kids and stuff, and then I go away and do that other thing.

How do you find playing shows to US audiences? It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that in Australia, the Living End’s a ubiquitous band. You’ve been part of the landscape for a really long time, and many people here grew up on your band’s records. Do you find it more or less gratifying or different just to play out here as opposed to playing in the States where the audience base is probably a bit different?

It is different. When we play an hour set in Australia, for example, it’s like everyone knows every song. And we do get that a bit here, too, because your own fans are the ones coming to the gig, obviously.

But we hadn’t toured here for a few years, and we did two US tours last year, and it was a different level of energy in the room because we hadn’t been there for so long. People were really pumped, which was cool. Not that when we play in Australia people are kind of blasé, but it’s more common.

We found that over here, there was a real desire to see the band. And they definitely react to different songs. Like the biggest songs here for us are obviously “Prisoner,” still, but things like ”End of the World,” which was on a Tony Hawk video game in 2004, so…

Ah, the cultural impact of Tony Hawk. Nice!

Back then, doing a gaming thing was more of a risk, like “I don’t know if this is a good move or not.” Whereas now, with the way that the industry’s changed, of course you just jump at any opportunity to get your music out there.”

Yes, well, that’s the thing. Back then, doing a gaming thing was more of a risk, like “I don’t know if this is a good move or not.” Whereas now, with the way that the industry’s changed, of course you just jump at any opportunity to get your music out there.

So the reaction here has been incredible. We’re about to start another tour this Saturday. This will be number three in the space of kind of nine months.

Of the states you’ve played in the US and the various cities and scenes, do any stick out as favorites? Were there any towns that surprised you with bigger or wilder crowds than you were expecting?

Well, San Fran’s always been really good for us. I don’t know why. There are still places here that we haven’t been, but nowhere that’s really sort of surprised me. I was kind of surprised overall at how good the numbers were when we first decided to play shows here again because it’s been a while. But we’re one of these bands that has a bit of a cult following, so when people get into the band, they tend to really get into it. We’re really blessed to have that.

That’s awesome. Is there anywhere you’re heading on this tour that you’ve not been before and are excited to see?

I know that we’re stopping in Memphis, which has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid.

It was just one of those places that — even when we first started touring in ’98, ’99 — I thought we would get there at some point. I think we drove through there on a bus when we were asleep one night at 3AM or something, but that’s the closest to what we got. So it’s nice that this time, we’re actually going to go into Memphis and.

Yes, absolutely. Going to hit some guitar stores up while you’re there?

Hopefully. Hopefully we get to go to the King’s house and go to Sun Studios and just do all that touristy stuff.

It’s rad that there are still parts of the world that you can be a tourist in even when you’re on tour.

So Obviously the name “Chris Cheney” is synonymous with Gretsch guitars at this point. That’s just hand in hand, but I wanted to go kind of off tangent with that. What was the first serious guitar you ever owned?

Good question. The first electric guitar I ever had was a Torch. It was a Fender copy in fluorescent yellow with a black scratch plate. I loved that guitar so much.

I had an Ibanez-style classical guitar copy, which was my first ever guitar. It was a junior size that I got when I was seven or eight. I used to gaffer-tape a microphone (that belonged to my mum and dad’s stereo) on the side and point the mic in, and for me, that was my makeshift electric guitar. And then I graduated up to the Torch, and that just was life-changing for me.

That’s awesome. Surely, you’d have everyone in the world wanting you to try their guitars. Other than the Gretsches, is there anything that you’ve picked up and been impressed by?

I really do like Telecasters. They just kind of work for me. There was a lot of Telecaster on our last record. It’s one of those guitars that, because of the country kind of background that I lean to, I sort of feel way more comfortable on than I do on a Strat.

Les Pauls never felt right either, but Telecasters feel kind of good. I think they’re kind of like the ultimate guitar, really. They’re great rock ‘n’ roll guitars and for banging out chords, they’re so responsive.

Players like Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton, who were my biggest influences, just make those things absolutely talk. I love the fact that they cut through anything.

Totally. All of the best documentation I could find said you tour with about six Gretsches at the moment. Talk to me about your signature model. What went into the design process for that?

Gretsch Chris Cheney Signature

My thing with the signature was that they offered to make me a one-off custom model with all the mods that I’d done on my Gretsches over the years. I’ve put in extra bracing, I’ve done a thicker fret wire, TV Jones pickups, locking tuners, pinned bridge.

Because the Living End is pretty diverse in what we do, I was always trying to find a balance between the different styles, and the same applies with a guitar. I’ve had to experiment a lot. Basically, the head of Gretsch over here to Australia and came to one of our shows, and we basically sat down with a pen and paper, and I just wrote down all the things all the things that I had done on my guitars and all the things that I would want on a signature.

I could have just got a White Falcon and just done the regular mods, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make something that was kind of unique. For me, it was about getting the scale length of a white Falcon and using that style headstock with the same body diameter as a 6120, which is the orange Chet Atkins.

I had a Setzer that I was really loving the sound of and the feel of, but I also love my Falcon, so I wanted to mix those two together and went with the Classic Plus in the bridge, TV Jones pickups.

I was in Japan when we got the first prototype, and when I went to the factory and played it, I must admit that I didn’t like it. It was still in its early stages, and whatever that version was that they kind of made was just a bit clunky and didn’t do what I needed it to do. It lacked a bit of spark and it lacked a bit of punch.

We ended up doing two or three prototypes before I finally signed off on it. By this point, they had said that they weren’t going to make a one-off, but rather a production model. I was over the moon. not going to do just a one-off; we’re going to make a production model.

Are you adding anything new to your rig for this tour, or is it the same staple rig you’ve had for a little while now.

Well, I did buy in Nashville a ’58 6120. Other than the Torch, that’s all I’ve wanted since I was a kid and first got into the rockabilly thing. It’s the orange 6120, and I saw one in the shop there and I decided to do it. I’d seen a few over the years, but they’re becoming rarer and rarer. I don’t know if I’ll take it on tour, to be honest.

Right, that’s awesome. Are you still using the Wizard amps?

Yes, whenever I can. In Europe, I had to use different amps because it was just some hired gear. I was using old Marshalls. But, yes, over here I’m using a Wizard and a Music Man — not a reissue, it’s an older one. All my gear is pretty much still in Australia, but I have a Wizard here and a couple of cabs.

How about your pedalboard?

I’ve got a real Klon, a Boss DD-20, a Frantone Switcher, an OC-2 — the Octave. That’s it

Do you think that the real Klons live up to the hype? I know that’s a risky question, but have you played anything else that comes close?

I don’t play enough pedals, to be honest. I really like it, it sounds great. I spend a lot of time trying to dial something in, but I also sort of subscribe to the Rory Gallagher theory. I get a tone that I like and I just kind of let my fingers do everything else.

You don’t need to go chasing something if you’ve found what you need.

That’s it. In Australia, I have a switching system, so I have the control board in front of me, and I have all the pedals back in a rack, and I have dialled-in delays and all that sort of stuff, and I can’t honestly tell you whether it makes for a better show. It just doesn’t. It all comes down to how you play on the night and the audience. You can have all the gear in the world, but if you’re not firing, you’re not firing.

That’s a pearl of wisdom, that is. I’ll follow that with a controversial question I like to ask everyone. The world of gear — post-internet and post-forum, YouTube videos, and the like — has become this very major industry and culture. As someone who plays guitar for a living, has played a lot of guitars, and are specific about tone, what do you make of the whole gear culture thing? Do you think it has any weight, or do you greet it with skepticism?

Even walking into a store now and seeing the 400 pedals in a glass case, I just go “Nah, I don’t even want to try any of them.”

Yes, I’m not against it, but I think you can definitely drown in it and get caught up in it. With the DIY culture these days, it’s great that everyone can put their own stuff out there and have a crack at it, but it is overwhelming.

Even walking into a store now and seeing the 400 pedals in a glass case, I just go “Nah, I don’t even want to try any of them.” And that probably sounds silly to a lot of people, but I just find it hard to figure out where to begin. But to each their own.

Well said, well said. Final question, then. In terms of holy grail gear — other than that ’58 6120 — is there anything out there one day that you would pick up immediately if you saw it in a shop or online?

Maybe like an original, late-’50s Bassman or something, those tweed ones. I really like old tape echos, too, but I’ve got a few of them. I’ve got an old Copicat from England, which I think Hank Marvin used, and I’ve got an Echolette from Germany, a few things like that.

I kind of stopped looking for things. Whenever we used to come to America, I’d go scouring through music shops, but it became harder and harder to find stuff because the internet kind of took over, and I would just end up like looking through stores and just kind of stopped finding things. Then it just became overwhelming with the amount of new stuff that was sort of replacing it. So I feel kind of lucky in a way that like in the late-’90s and early-2000s there was still a lot of cool stuff out there.

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