The Silverchair Tapes, Ben Gillies Speaks

By Marcel Anders (Massive)

Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou have just taken a couple of months off to study for the Higher School Certificates. To celebrate the end of their school days silverchair is undertaking their biggest Australian tour ever. While the band was recording a video for a track from Freak Show earlier this year Marcel Anders spent some time with Ben Gillies in Los Angeles. Among other things he explained there have been 40-year-olds sneaking into their gigs!

Would you agree that your audience is still pretty young? Is that what you are happy with, screaming teenagers, or are you longing for more adult audiences nowadays?

Ben: Honestly, I think we've got the weirdest crowds in the whole world, because if you come to one of our shows sometimes you can have like 80 percent males, 20 percent females and it's sort of totally nuts. It's like really sick and really violent and sometimes it gets really dangerous as well. But other times you've got 80 percent females and 20 percent guys and it's kind of really weird, and sometimes you have like all these different kinds of people. You have teenage girls, older girls, young guys and older guys and all the people in between. And sometimes you even have 40-year-olds. It's weird.

So it doesn't bother you that your audiences on the frogstomp tour seemed to consist of screaming teenage girls who went into ecstasy song after song? I cannot believe that, I mean you're not a group like Take That, are you?

Ben: We don't care, like, it's good. When you go to a show and there are lots of guys with skinheads, they're real sucker. When you do a show and there are a lot of girls you really don't care because they enjoy the music, and they buy our albums. It doesn't matter at all. I don't care who listens to our music, could be five-year-olds or 85-year-olds. I couldn't care less.

Since 1994 you have released two albums, played countless gigs around the globe, had hit singles and found yourselves on the cover of almost every magazine. Not too bad for a band who's been around for less than five years really. Does such a fast career not scare you -- at least a bit?

Ben: Not really, it's just the way it worked out. Because I think if we didn't get a first hit with Tomorrow, if it didn't hit just like that, like real quick, I think we wouldn't be here. If we didn't win that competition just like that, we wouldn't. We would be playing in a garage or we would be playing little pubs around Newcastle.

So would you have done the typical indie thing instead, like releasing an album first, then touring around and finally getting a mjaor deal?

Ben: I don't know. We were 14 and we got this deal and playing in a band and making money from it. I wasn't thinking about it, it wasn't even a possibility. It was like going to school, trying to get good grades, getting a job like a carpenter or plumber or anything like that. It sort of all happened out of the blue.

How do you actually mamage all this schoolwork in between touring, recording, doing promo work, etc.?

Ben: We can do schoolwork on a plane. Actually when we get home we usually catch up what we can. However, some of the teachers are real bastards. But we got some really cool teachers. They just say, "Yeah, we know what you do after school, so don't worry about it." They know about the band and they are really into it."

Do you ever think about an afterlife to the thing you are doing now? A rock 'n' roll career could be fun but it could all be over any minute.

Ben: We thought about all that stuff and we actually think that when in the year 2000 or some time in the next 10 years that our music will be out of fashion or uncool because that always happens, like the '80s now are uncool. But I wouldn't care. We return to the garage and do what we want. That's what we're doing now -- we just play what we like. We enjoy what we're doing. And we are still having fun when we are doing it in the garage. So we don't care. [laughs]

On Freak Show your Led Zeppelin references are fairly obvious. Have the band been travelling backwards in rock history?

Ben: On the first album when we started writing it was kind of starting to get away from the old stuff and getting into Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, the big Seattle thing. On this new album we are actually starting to get back into the older stuff. We're listening to Led Zeppelin a lot, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and all those bands a lot. And we are also getting into a lot of hardcore, hard-edge kind of music like Tool, Helmet, Korn, anything hard. We are just listening to a lot of Sepultura. I think that's why the album sounds like it does.

Most recently you started covering Minor Threat, which is like going back to the roots of hardocre?

Ben: I never really liked Minor Threat. Actually, I kind of thought they sucked. And then Daniel came into practice one day and said, "Oh, let's play a song it's called Minor Threat." And I just thought, "I don't want to play that fucking song!" And then I said, "Yeah, I will do it." And then we were playing it. And it's like grand and I ended loving this song and started listening to more of their stuff. I love them and they are great.

On Freak Show there is at least one real punk tune, Lie To Me, which is in fact the punkiest song you've probably done so far.

Ben: That was actually influenced by Minor Threat. There is nothing really much to say about it. It goes for 1 minute and 20, it's fast and loud and that's it! [laughs] I think all this going back and listening to the older stuff made this album a lot better than the first one.

Are you in search of an original sound?

Ben: Yes, I think we are. I think this album is pretty close. I think the third album will be the real silverchair sound. You will be able to hear one of the songs and go, "Yeah, that's silverchair." On this album you can tell it's Daniel singing. Like on the last one he kind of sounded like Seattle and it wasn't that original but now he's started to get his own sound as well when he is singing, although we thought about playing together to get our own original kind of stuff going.

You develop as a band by playing live. So what led you to use string instruments on this album? Was it just to create a larger spectrum of music?

Ben: Yeah, I think so. It's just because we write our songs on acoustic guitar and you listen to them back and you think we can't have drums on this one 'cause it won't suit it. And we thought, "Well, we'd really want to have something to make it bigger and more interesting," and strings was it. And although this was kind of the same with Petrol & Chlorine with the Indian instruments and all that. That was the same kind of thing. We just thought it needs something else to add to the song. That was actually influenced by Led Zeppelin. We thought it would be cool.

Is Petrol & Chlorine your version of Kashmir?

Ben: Yes, exactly!

How come, at the age of 17, you have already developed such a cynical view on the whole music industry? Why do you compare it to a freak show or a travelling circus?

Ben: We reckon the music industry is kind of like travelling freak shows. 'Cause, you know, travelling around from town to town, unpacking and packing up, and you meet all these freaks along the way. You meet good people as well but you do meet a lot of idiots. I'm not mentioning any names. [laughs]

Daniel's lyrics have been described as not being very positive. Maybe even a little weird?

Ben: I really don't know. His lyrics are pretty out there. Daniel's lyrics are pretty personal. They are mostly personal things and I don't really know what they are all about. All of us are a band and I still don't have a clue what the hell he's on about! But I don't care. I like his lyrics and i think they are really good. I don't think it's the happiest stuff in the world. It's like in some of the songs, it's got dark music as well as the dark lyrics.

Your lyrics actually create the impression that you must live some pretty miserable lives -- three innocent boys caught up in the dangerous music industry. Are you really that depressed?

Ben: Daniel did go through a stage where he was depressed for a while and a lot of his lyrics were written around then. It wasn't the kind of depression where he'd go out and kill himself. He didn't go out. He stayed home all day, didn't do anything. But, that's it, really.

Most of the songs on Freak Show must have been written on tour as there wasn't much time left to record last year.

Ben: Actually, they were all written at home. We don't really write on tour. We concentrate on playing our shows and doing our own thing. When we get home we usually try to write as much as we can.

But is there much time left for friends or socialising at home?

Ben: Yes, definitely! There's heaps of time. Whenever we are at home we hang around with our friends and we go to parties, we've gone surfing or shooting pool. Anything like that.

What's it like for teenagers being on the road in a band?

Ben: It's pretty funny when we go to countries where the drinking age is like 14 and we all go to bars and we order and drink some stuff and our parents go, "Hey!" and we go, "We're legal to drink here!" And it's so good! It's funny!

America is probably the most difficult place for a drink.

Ben: Oh yeah, it sucks! I actually think in France is the best! 'Cause you can drink so young and once people get 18 or 21 they don't care. They don't go out and get pissed. They might go out and have a social drink. Not like Australia or America. When they turn 18 and they go out and go apeshit! Actually in South America, where we toured with the Sex Pistols and Bad Religion, the price of alcohol was amazing! A two-litre bottle of Bacardi rum was 10 bucks! Ten dollars! It was so cheap! And we were just going, "This is amazing!" It was really fun. And there are a lot of nice females in South America!

Going through all the articles published on you over thelast two years, it seems to me that maybe you don't know how to deal with the press -- at least you are not very talkative and open to questions.

Ben: I think when we were younger and we first started we were like 14 or 15, we hadn't ever done interviews and we didn't know what to expect, so we were just going, "Yeah... yeah." We were just sitting there and didn't have a clue. But I think now we are getting a bit better and we start answering the questions. Longer answers. But it all comes through age and experience.

So it will all be long monologues when you become 18?

Ben: If we are still together when we are 25, I reckon the interviewer will have to ask two questions and he will have five-page articles just like that!

It took you nine days to record frogstomp and three weeks to finish Freak Show. For your standards, that's almost an epic!

Ben: Yeah, this is like a fucking epic! This is pretty funny. But I think the reason we recorded the first one in nine days is because we actually did quite a bit of recording in our home town and when you are 12 and 13 years old, you haven't got a big budget so you are going there and say, "We have this much!" You have like six hours to record six songs and that's really fast. So you bang out every song as fast as you could. So when we went in to record frogstomp we were kind of in that mood. We could have taken as long as we wanted but it was more comfortable for us to record it quickly. I also think it made it have a more live sound. It didn't sound really polished. But on Freak Show it wasn't rushed but it was still done pretty quickly. I mean, three weeks, compared to other bands it would take months! But I think we wanted to take a little more time to get things, parts a bit better than they were on the first one. Also it took quite a bit of time for the strings and the Indian instruments to be done as well.

You also cover Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Is it true that you were playing mostly covers in your early days?

Ben: Yes, we used to. What we always used to play was covers. So we've got stacks of stuff we could play.

Did you ever think about doing a pure cover album then?

Ben: Not really, 'cause we'd put covers on like B-sides of the singles and stuff like that. But we'd never put out a cover as a single.

Playing in a rock 'n' roll band, being part of this "freak" business with all that pressure, high expectations, alienation, jealousy and betrayal -- it's a nightmare but it's still enjoyable after all?

Ben: Yeah, it's very enjoyable! Like you have your bad days and you are really pissed off and you are tired and you just don't want to talk to anyone but then, you know, the next day you have a gig. You will be in high spirits and you just don't care! It all pays off. And you get all the travelling and seeing the world and it's not something you usually get to do when you're 17 years old!

[Thanks to Alia Wahid for the transcript!]