Rock 'n' Roll High School

By Mordechai Kleidermacher / Photos by Jez Smith (Guitar School)

Guitar School cover, February 1996

 In little more than a year, the three Australian grungeheads who make up silverchair -- singer/guitarist Daniel Johns, bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies -- have gone from jamming in a garage back home to worldwide acclaim. The band has already sold more than a million records in the U.S., achieved Number One radio hits and garnered the coveted opening slot on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' current American tour. Success like this doesn't happen every day - especially not to a 16-year-old with two 15-year-olds in tow! [Transcriber's Note: All three band members were actually 16 at the time the article was published.] And while Johns certainly admits that their rocket ride to the top of the charts is surprising, his tone suggests that the band is taking their stardom in stride. "It's okay, I guess. It really doesn't bother us."

Cover of Guitar School magazine, February 1996,
signed by silverchair and altered by Daniel Johns

Maybe that's because Johns and his two surf buddies, unlike the legions of careerists who dominate the rock scene, were never really shooting for the stars in the first place. "We started the band because we were bored," says Johns. Before America embraced them as grunge's salvation, gigs for silverchair were few and far between: the biggest one was a local battle of the bands in the group's hometown of Newcastle. In June of '94, the threesome entered their song tomorrow in a national demo competition. Of the 800 entries, silverchair placed first and won a day in the recording studio run by Australia's national alternative-rock station, 2JJJ FM. The band recut the track, which was promptly added to the station's playlist, and without further ado, silverchair had a Number One single on their hands. Incredibly, they had come that far without even a record contract. When the band's debut album, frogstomp (Epic), was finally released, it entered the Australian pop charts in the top spot and was platinum within a week. Now America is feeling the Aussies' onslaught as the album hurtles far beyond platinum status.

Photography by Jez Smith One listen to frogstomp is indication enough as to why silverchair have come so far so fast. With his pained, brooding baritone and deep, soul-searching lyrics, Johns -- with a face resembling Kurt Cobain's -- is a record executive's dream frontman. He belts out dark, violent lyrics with the intensity and soul befitting someone twice his age. Compound that with lots of big, ballsy guitar riffs and plenty of sticky vocal hooks and you get a sound that could best be described as Black Sabbath meets Pearl Jam. Johns recently took a break from the hardships of high school to talk with Guitar School about silverchair's swift rise to the top.

GUITAR SCHOOL: How long have you been playing guitar?

DANIEL JOHNS: About three-and-a-half years.

GS: Did you play any instruments before that?

JOHNS: Not really. I played a little bit of trumpet, but I couldn't really play. I just liked to make noise.

GS: What inspired you to pick up the guitar?

JOHNS: I heard this song on the radio and it had this little guitar thing in it. It sounded like hell. And I said, "I'm going to learn the guitar." Actually, I didn't get a guitar until about a year later because I couldn't afford one. I ended up getting an $80 electric called the Rock Axe. It looked kind of like a Strat, but it was really small. And it was all white. I thought it was good at the time, because I could just turn up the amp and go, "Yeah!"

GS: Do you remember the song you heard on the radio?

JOHNS: I wouldn't have a clue. I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, so it was probably one of them, for sure. Or Black Sabbath. I love that kind of guitar-oriented rock. It's hell!

GS: How did a young guy like you discover such old bands?

JOHNS: I got it from my dad. He used to listen to that kind of music around the house, so I started listening to it. My dad also likes Helmet, Tool and the Rollins Band. It's great because I can go and buy him a CD for his birthday, and I can listen to it too. (laughs)

GS: What was it about that style of music that attracted you?

JOHNS: I really got into Black Sabbath. I loved how heavy they were and the grooves that they got. When I heard Ozzy Osbourne's voice, I just went, "Oh, fuck!" He just had the hell voice.

GS: Do you remember the first song you learned to play on guitar?

JOHNS: Probably Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath by Black Sabbath. I just figured them out off the radio or from CDs.

Quote GS: Have you had any formal training?

JOHNS: I had classical lessons for a year. This guy, he just taught me all the main chords and stuff. And after a year, I thought, "I can't be bothered having lessons." So I just decided to figure out my own stuff. I never really wanted to be a really fancy guitarist anyway. I never wanted to play all those fast guitar solos. I just thought, "I'll be like Pete Townshend of the Who. I'll do what he does and just go along with the band and play powerful chords and stuff."

GS: So you wouldn't consider yourself much of a lead guitar player?

JOHNS: I never got into that stuff. I just prefer making really loud, heavy chords and just playing with the band so that the music sounds full, rather than doing those really fast solos. It's harder doing solos in a three-piece, because the sound loses a lot of balls.

GS: Who are some of your guitar heroes?

JOHNS: Page Hamilton from Helmet is my biggest guitar hero right now. At first I was really into Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. And then I started getting into heavy, alternative stuff like Helmet and Tool. A lot of the stuff I listen to now is down-tuned to D (dropped-D tuning). Most of the songs on our record were down-tuned. All of our new stuff is tuned down as well. It just sounds heavier, more resonant and ballsy. On one of our new songs, we tune the G string up to A and the E string down to D - so we're experimenting with different tunings and stuff.

GS: Do you get any inspiration from technical wizards like Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai?

JOHNS: I've never really listened to those guys.

GS: What about Tony Iommi or Jimmy Page? Did you ever try to work out any of their solos?

JOHNS: I figured out the solo in Paranoid by Sabbath. I tried to figure out the solo in Heartbreaker by Led Zeppelin, but after I got about halfway through it, I couldn't be bothered.

GS: When did you get your first real guitar?

JOHNS: About a year after I got the Rock Axe. It was a Les Paul copy. It had good pickups and it sounded alright. I got my first Gibson about six months after that - a Firebird; I've still got it now. It's got White Zombie stickers and other shit all over it.

GS: Did you practice a lot in the beginning?

JOHNS: No. I've never practiced. I only practiced when I was learning classical. And that's only because I didn't want to get into trouble with my teacher.

GS: You were more into doing your own stuff.

JOHNS: As soon as I picked up a guitar, I was trying to write songs.

GS: How about singing?

JOHNS: I never really wanted to be a singer; I just wanted to play guitar. Then one day we had a gig, and we still didn't have a singer. None of us wanted to sing. But I ended up doing it, and from then on I've been the singer.

Photography by Jez Smith GS: How do you feel when people compare silverchair to Seattle bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana?

JOHNS: I don't think we've got that much of a Seattle sound. At first, we were very influenced by Pearl Jam. There's some Soundgarden influence there as well, but we never really got into Nirvana. We're mainly influenced by Helmet and Black Sabbath. And the new stuff is more like Tool and Rollins and stuff like that.

GS: Do you still listen to Pearl Jam?

JOHNS: Yes. We think they're good, but we like playing stuff that's a lot heavier. All the songs we were writing started to sound like Pearl Jam, so we just thought that it would be good to listen to some other stuff to get some other ideas. Actually, we have a lot other songs that sound like Pearl Jam, but we didn't put them on the album.

GS: Your voice comes across like a hybrid of Ozzy and Eddie Vedder.

JOHNS: Thanks. I'll take that as a compliment. They're big influences, but the vocals are less melodic on our new stuff. There's still a melody line, but it's darker and more intense, more influenced by (Tool's) Maynard James Keenan.

GS: How long has silverchair been together?

JOHNS: About three-and-a-half years. We're all from the same town of Newcastle. We live about five minutes away from each other.

GS: What's it like there?

JOHNS: One half of Newcastle is real industrial, and the other half is all beach and stuff. We're from the beach end. It's really quiet around the beach - not like in America where there are all these buildings and stuff. It's a reasonably small town. People basically leave you alone, but some call us "long-hair louts." (laughs)

GS: How did you meet?

JOHNS: We were all friends at school. We've known each other since we were little kids. We used to go to the beach a lot and play pool and video games and go surfing together and stuff. Then we decided to start a band because we were bored.

GS: What did it sound like the first time you played together?

JOHNS: Really bad, but we thought it was good. It was really loud. Everything we had was on ten! And Ben was just smashing the shit out of his drums. I was just screaming.

GS: Where did you guys play?

JOHNS: We never really got gigs at the start. We just rehearsed in Ben's garage. We still rehearse there.

GS: What was your first gig?

JOHNS: At a street fair. We got 10 dollars each to play. We did it because we needed the money. We got up there and played Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath songs. That was it. Actually, we ended up getting bounced. This old guy complained because it was too loud. He came over and said, "If you don't stop playing, I'm calling the cops." So we had to stop playing. But we didn't care - we still got paid.

GS: Did you do any major gigs before the band started getting popular?

JOHNS: Not really.

GS: So this is all sort of new for you?

JOHNS: Yeah.

Photography by Jez Smith GS: Let's talk about the recording of frogstomp. The album has an extremely raw sound.

JOHNS: We recorded the whole album in nine days. We just went in there and recorded it all live mainly, and then we put down a guitar overdub and vocal track on each song and that was it. We didn't want the record to sound overproduced. We wanted people to know that it was three guys playing -- not three 16-year-olds playing on an overproduced record on which they're probably not even playing most of the shit.

GS: Did you feel nervous or pressured at all, being that it was your first real album?

JOHNS: No, it was fun!

GS: How did you get such a thick guitar tone?

JOHNS: I mainly used my Gibson Firebird through Marshall amps, JCM 900 Dual Reverbs, I think they're called. But I don't use them anymore, I use Soldano amps now.

GS: Did you use any sort of a distortion device?

JOHNS: No. It's just straight amp distortion. I drive the amps really hard. I don't put much presence or treble in; I put a little bass and not much middle.

GS: What about string gauge?

JOHNS: I use .011 to .052. I hack the shit out of the strings, so if I use light ones, I break 'em.

GS: What other guitars do you own?

JOHNS: I own a Paul Reed Smith that used to be Page Hamilton's.

GS: How'd you get it?

JOHNS: He gets his guitars from the same place I do, at Paul Reed Smith. I rang them up to see what guitars they had, and they said, "You can have a new one or you can have this one that Page Hamilton just traded in. I said, "Yeah, I'll have that one!"

GS: Are you still going to school?

JOHNS: Yeah. We just try to fit it in when we're not playing with the band. We have tutors, but we're not doing very good at school at the moment. We're just trying to stay in there, really.

GS: Do you plan to graduate?

JOHNS: Yeah, we want to.

GS: Is it strange for you to go all over the world and play in front of all these people and then have to go back to school?

JOHNS: No, we're used to going to school - it's something you have to do.

Photography by Jez Smith GS: A lot of your songs are very dark and serious, yet you don't seem like that sort of person at all.

JOHNS: We like angry, intense music, but we try not to act like Mr. Depression all the time. It's all an act. (laughs)

GS: A lot's been made of the fact that you're all so young. How do you feel about that?

JOHNS: At first, we got really pissed off. It was really annoying. Now, we don't even care. It doesn't bother us anymore.

GS: Is the success you're having at all overwhelming?

JOHNS: I guess.

GS: What's the coolest thing about it?

JOHNS: Just playing to good crowds - seeing people stage-diving and getting hammered and jumping around everywhere. Just a good mosh.

GS: As a musician, have you set any goals for yourself?

JOHNS: To just play loud, heavy music until we're sick of it.