Ballistic Rebirth of Silverchair
By Eric Grant
I was a teenage prodigy? silverchair walks the teetering line between
music, madness and maturity.
The dream: Be a famous, respected, preferably rich musician. Even better -
do it NOW-NOW-NOW before you're too old to enjoy it, before you're
finished high school. Seems like everyone's doing it: one look at the pop
charts shows over a dozen superstars who aren't old enough to get into a
bar, and that's just this week. Last month, contemporary teen icons
silverchair released what history will recognize as a coming of age album,
Neon Ballroom. Crucial to the success of this former hair band's
self-relaunch is a collaboration with noteworthy pianist David Helfgott,
the man whose life story inspired the Oscar-winning film "Shine" - the man
who spent the last three decades recovering from his status as a child
music star. Helfgott was a prodigy, and while the members of silverchair
aren't exactly prodigies by definition, they've all been through the teen
fame wringer. Like Helfgott, Ashley MacIsaac was a prodigy, though he
suffered neither for or from his fame because of it. Like silverchair,
MacIsaac survived teen fame and managed to move on to a new creative phase
- the one from which you're likely to know his work. There's nothing wrong
with dreaming, and there's nothing wrong with making "the dream" come
true, but ask Helfgott, MacIssac or the members of silverchair, and
they'll all warn you that it comes at a price.
Back in 1995, a grunge-flavoured band emerged from the other side of the
world and surfed a wave of popularity around the globe on the strength of
its debut album Frogstomp. silverchair got noticed for two reasons:
their hard music, and their age - the members of the Australian power trio
were each 15-years-old. There were a few things you should remember when
you consider the beginning of silverchair's story: they happened years
before Hanson and the current collection of imitation kid-rock bands (Wow!
They're only 15! Hey! They're only 11! Wow! He's still in Pampers!). And
unlike most early teen pop stars, silverchair was not making sweet pop for
the 10 and under set - they were making loud, hard rock. The three legs of
silverchair - Daniel Johns, Chris Joannou and Ben Gillies - spent two
years touring the world to promote Frogstomp during high school breaks.
In 1997, second album Freak Show was released in conjunction with a
similar promotion pattern. The boys barely had time to think in the studio
- let alone school - in order to feel out where they wanted to go. The
bitterly ironic title showed the strain: Freak Show was a piece of work
very much in the same vein as its predecessor. Too much. "We wrote
[Frogstomp] when we were 14-years-old," says Johns, lead singer,
songwriter and guitarist. "It was before we were jaded. It was very
honest, straight, traditional rock music." When fame came calling for
silverchair, frontman Johns was the natural, inevitable media focus. That
was him in the spotlight - trouble was, there was never time for it to be
him in the corner. Five years later, at age 19, on the eve of the release
of his band's third album, an admittedly jaded but claiming to be healed
Johns has grown to fit one of the sadder music stereotypes: the Byronic,
tortured artist. Johns is slender, his features delicate, his voice soft
and his answers reserved. He is practically engulfed by the chair in the
interview room, as he leans forward and tangles his slim arms around each
other in front of himself while he speaks. All the more surprising to find
that Johns is by no means shy or flighty - just careful. Moreover, he's
frank, focused and direct. He went through the wringer, but he didn't lose
the ability to communicate. "On the second album, I got very bitter about
the whole industry, and about the direction my life was going," he says.
"By the end of touring Freak Show, I was very frustrated with the album.
I liked it, but in terms of songwriting, I didn't take as much time as I
Johns admits that between the three musicians' school and tour
commitments, there was little time to commit to creativity.
"It was rushed," he states, plain and simple.
Interviewed separately from Johns, bandmates Joannou (bass) and Gillies
(drums) come across like they're on top of the world - it looks like being
teenage stars has done them nothing but good. They talk about how lucky
they've been with their careers. They've grown from the lanky longhaired
teens seen on the Frogstomp liner notes into big, sturdy (in a
stereotypical Australian way) young men. They seem relaxed and
self-assured, and maybe even more mature than the average 19-year-old.
But the last five years were by no means without pressure.
"We were either going to school or touring," Joannou huffs. "The time that
we did have off was so limited. At times it really felt like a job and was
really hard. In '99, we're having some time off!"
"Now it's all fresh again," says Gillies. "It's exciting again!"
Johns comments on this freshness and excitement: "I made a conscious
effort at the end of Freak Show to sit down and focus on writing an
album which would be creatively satisfying, and which I could look back on
and be proud of in the years to come."
The result is Neon Ballroom, a modern rock odyssey that goes beyond
grunge but stops somewhere short of metal, experimenting with sound
effects, synthesizers and symphonies en route. "The first two albums were
traditional, hard rock music. This album's a lot more ambitious," Johns
states confidently. Joannou agrees: "We didn't want to do something that
was just like our other two albums. We all felt the same: we didn't want
to be labelled as a certain kind of style. You have all your bands and
they're either pop or rock or whatever and they always stick to that. We
didn't want to do that - we wanted to change and try different things."
It's not hard to hear the difference on Neon Ballroom. The lead track is
called 'Emotion Sickness,' and it features (along with the Sydney Symphony
Orchestra) another famous Australian who achieved a different kind of
musical fame at a young age: David Helfgott. Certainly, to hear about this
collaboration is to think: gimmick. Take a band whose claim to fame is its
"yesterday's news" status as child-rock-trio, and team it with a man whose
life proves that the pressures of being a musical child can nearly destroy
you. But to actually hear the song is to realize that even if the prodigy
angle is a gimmick, it's appropriate. Helfgott's hard, frenzied and
on-the-edge style of keyboard work fits exactly into the erratic,
discomfiting feeling that is 'Emotion Sickness.' "The prodigies are
alright - it's the parents who need advice," a jocular Helfgott comments,
discussing the silverchair project via eMail. "I have had plenty of
emotion sickness myself." The collaboration was originally management's
idea - "We have the same lawyer," Helfgott quips - but the band agreed
without hesitation. "Daniel wanted a manic piano part," Joannou says. "It
suited the song. He wanted it so it wasn't typical - didn't want something
that was nice and kinda polished. He wanted something that was manic and
off-chords. David Helfgott was the perfect man for the job." Johns was
honoured to meet Helfgott. "I'd always admired his style of playing," he
says. "And admired what he'd been through." Though decades spanned the
space between them, Helfgott and the members of silverchair had a shared
experience that transcended age: they had all suffered overexposure in the
spotlight of teen fame. One wonders what it was like when they met: how
would three young guys who had survived teen stardom relate to a man who
had been damaged significantly - in some ways, permanently - by the
pressures of being a child prodigy? "He came into the studio and spent the
whole day there," Gillies remembers. "A guy wrote the music for him. He
just came in with his wife, sat down and bashed it all out. It was good.
You could have a small conversation with him, but he talks really fast and
repeats a lot of stuff. He had a nice, um, aura about him." "Yeah, he was
very affectionate," adds Joannou. "He would always hug you and he was
always trying to kiss you... I don't think, unless he was sitting at the
piano, that there were many times he was just standing by himself. He
always had to be near someone. But it was cool - that's what he's like."
Helfgott describes the lads as likeable and "very natural." When asked if
he had offered them any advice about how to deal with the pressures of
fame, he replies that he didn't need to: "They seemed fine... They don't
let the pressure get to them, which is great." For Helfgott to state that
personal pressure management is "great" is, of course, and understatement.
Helfgott was pressured from an early age to be an outstanding classical
pianist, and the strain of fame (combined with the expectations of this
father) yielded a nervous breakdown during a performance. Helfgott was 16
at the time, and, as "Shine" documents, it took the better part of his
adult life for him to recover. Although Helfgott's case was both extreme
and unique, Johns' post-Frogstomp career also practically drove him to
the breaking point. "After suffering a few psychological problems I went
and saw some people," he admits. "I was taught to separate the rock
lifestyle from reality. Basically I'm two separate people: I'm silverchair
Daniel, and I'm real Daniel when I'm at home. I learned to separate and
draw the line." The need to keep personal identity separate from a career
persona is something manic Canadian fiddler Ashley MacIsaac can relate to.
A child prodigy in traditional music circles before he started his
alt.rock career, MacIsaac began performing in concerts as a step dancer in
his Nova Scotia home at age eight. When he was 13, he started touring
Canada and the U.S. as a Cape Breton fiddler, crossing the continent in
the company of musicians four times his age. "It was hard because I was
still a kid but I played the part of an adult," he remembers. "It was
really weird. By the time I was 14, I was coming to Toronto and playing
for 500 people to do square dances, and they were all over 50, and they
looked at me as being one of their friends. That's how I became a bit of a
weirdo." MacIsaac doesn't regret the way he grew up, but he says that
child prodigies often feel like they exist for other people rather than
for themselves. Granted, MacIsaac's show business launch came at an
especially young age. "My earliest performance I can remember, I was two,"
he says. "I was in Santa's Village in New Hampshire. There were two
monkeys doing a show, they were dressed up in suits and ties. I got to go
on stage with them... I got in this little car and drove around in a
circle with the monkeys, I can remember going: "Wow. Everybody's watching
these monkeys and everybody's clapping for them, and they're fucking
monkeys! I was like: 'I wanna be a monkey!'" In some respects, his dream
came true. For an audience, part of the appeal of seeing a child prodigy
perform is comparable to watching monkeys drive a car: it's the novelty of
the situation, the sheer weirdness. That's certainly what silverchair was
thinking when they named their second album Freak Show. But for all the
pressure that audiences, fans, and domineering parents can put on a child
branded a prodigy, it seems they put as much pressure on themselves to
excel. The teenage Helfgott was self-driven to master the most difficult
pieces of piano music (hence the infamous "Rach 4" sequence in "Shine").
silverchair's Johns is obsessed with honesty, mentioning the term in
reference to any one of his albums or songs. MacIsaac is driven through
his performances by personal perfectionism: "You gotta get things right,"
he says. "If it's perfect to you then others might like it." Without a
doubt, one cannot become a child prodigy without being personally driven
already to develop talent at an early age. But add to that sense of
commitment the pressures of performance, the expectations of an audience,
and the fact that the child star still has to deal with all the normal
crap in growing up - the byproduct is one volatile situation. But ask them
straight out whether they'd change anything about their careers as young
stars, and all of the musicians featured in this story say they're proud
of the lives they've led. Emotional turmoil or not, they probably wouldn't
change a thing.
As MacIsaac says without hesitation: "No regrets."
Gillies maintains that he and his two friends have been lucky - he's heard
far worse stories. Joannou's more optimistic: "I think we've had a dream
run." "Fame is pretty much the same in all fields," Helfgott states. By
implication, the pressure of fame is comparable at all ages - it can be
ugly, it can be cruel, and if it doesn't kill you, it definitely makes you
Or as Johns sings in 'Abuse Me,' from the Freak Show album: "C'mon,
abuse me more - I like it."