Men at Work, Boys at Play

(Sydney Morning Herald)

MissingFlukes? Freaks? Not any more. silverchair have outgrown the jokes, predictions and their own understated teenage ambitions to find they have become (gasp!) career musicians. BERNARD ZUEL reports.

A split is happening in the happy house of silverchair. Voices are being raised. Manhood is being questioned. A full and frank exchange is reaching its climax.

Artistic differences? A problem over division of the spoils? Girl trouble? Nothing that petty or resolvable, I'm afraid. While Chris Joannou looks on with the sort of smile which bespeaks deep wells of tolerance, Daniel Johns and Ben Gillies are once again debating the merits of specialisation and diversity, taking on the age-old artistic question of profundity and visceral connection.

It boils down to this: Gillies, who idolises Led Zeppelin's powerhouse drummer, John Bonham ("I'm pretty pissed off he passed away before I met him") sees Zeppelin first and daylight second. Johns, who could pull out a Tony Iommi riff at the drop of a hat, acknowledges the range of Bonham and co but says that when things need to get heavy it can only be Black Sabbath.

"Shut up." "No, you shut up." "You don't know what you're talking about." "Just shut up."

The film clip for Freak, the first single taken from silverchair's vastly impressive second album, Freak Show, features the three members playing in a sealed scientific hothouse, the temperature ratcheting up regularly as Daniel Johns sneers "Yeah I'm a freak, if only I could be as cool as you".

Sweat pours off them, dripping down into collecting trays or swabbed up by lab assistants. It's then taken and applied to the pores of an old crone whose wrinkles smooth away, her devouring mouth emerging from the folds like that of a buzzard circling the kill.

The message isn't lost on anyone. Exploiting the toiling artist, milking the creative juices, sucking up the essence of youth etc. It's enough to have those well-upholstered posteriors in record company land sitting a little less comfortably. "They couldn't mean me, could they?" Gosh no.

The clip's director, Jerry Casales, once a member of Ohio's finest men in pot-plant hats, Devo, knows a thing or two about nascent talent throttled by greed in sharp suits. But, thanks to a mixture of silverchair self-consciousness and Casales's own quirks, the clip doesn't make its point that obviously.

As drummer and livewire Gillies explains: "We thought at first it was a bad idea. We thought people might think we were saying we were like a fountain of youth if it stopped when she became beautiful.

"But when she turns into the lizard sci-fi girl with things taken out of her head, we thought that would be pretty cool."

The clip is a small but clear sign that some things don't change.

At first glance, silverchair today resemble the 1995 model of the band in little more than name. The three Newcastle teenagers who put out an album they thought would sell maybe 6,000, only to see it sell more than three million, are still at school but only months away from completing their HSC.

Two years ago they wore uniformly long hair, had nondescript builds and all spoke in fractured sentences, crippled with shyness or inarticulateness. Sitting in a nondescript room at Sydney Airport, waiting for a flight to Perth for the first in a series of outdoor gigs culminating at Maroubra Beach tomorrow, they are a study in contrast.

Missing Johns is slim to the point of thin, his jeans and shirt hanging loosely from him. His lengthening face is delicate and still caught between the near cherubic teenager and the more angular young man. While his now famous singing growl can still startle, his speaking voice is soft and high, sneaking out from behind the dirty-blonde hair clipped to just below his chin.

His energy is more internalised, showing up in the almost exaggerated languor of the head flopping to the table or prolonged staring at his hands (with their painted nails). He occasionally rubs at the fuzz on his chin, enjoying it even as he laughs at himself for thinking of it.

Gillies has a long, open face which looks permanently ready to laugh and a grin which could brazen out anything. His energy is more direct, in jiggling legs and tapping fingers, while on stage, stripped down to shorts, he pounds the drums with what seems to be murderous intent. ("The only way to play drums is hard. You can't play drums and not hit 'em, or go in there and be a pansy," he explains).

He had been on a mission to grow his dead-straight hair down "to the crack of my arse" but between the interview and the story being written he didn't just chop it off, he razored it right down. "I'm a gimp," he cackles later. "It's totally skin, it's pretty wild."

Joannou falls somewhere between the effort of Gillies and the studied calm of Johns. Like the other two, the bass player is a little below average height but Joannou is stocky and powerful -- his calves look like small brick outhouses. His deep-set eyes play off the close-cropped hair in the same way his slow smile counters the log-like forearms.

Where once together in a room they were a menace -- more likely to poke each other, fart or do anything but deal with what often would have been puerile questions -- now they are able to switch between business and pleasure and back again.

Their practice in interrogations shows up in the way they can talk in that quasi third-person manner of the experienced musician/actor. They are able to articulate the subtleties of this album -- an album which expands not just the palette of their debut frogstomp but leaves the way open for any number of directions in the future.

But it is when the future is brought up that it starts to emerge that -- wrap-around glasses, joyrides on L.A. beaches and not inconsiderable wealth notwithstanding -- the core of these three remains. As Gillies explained with their initial reservations about the Freak film clip, the keen sense of never overreaching yourself in front of your peers is still there.

They're asked if they now -- two years after saying they thought they would probably play in a band for a while then get real jobs and real lives -- see music as a career. Joannou says: "We could work in recording, doing people's sound", but stays away from saying something as presumptious as that he could produce somebody's album.

Johns looks up from his nails and deadpans: "I think we could do this for a few years. And with our contacts now we could probably get work -- you know, small jobs, $50 a go."

It is Gillies who takes it further: "We'll see how it goes. We don't want to plan ahead too far because we might get sick of it. But I'd do it for a good 10 years."

Career options which may have been laughed at two years ago are not just reasonable but the bare minimum on the evidence of Freak Show and their recent live shows. Live, they are simple and powerful: Joannou's bass playing so authoritative that Johns has the freedom to roam above the firestorm of Gillies.

Herald music critic Bruce Elder last year described them thus: "Let's say it out loud. silverchair is one of the best rock bands this country has ever produced. Not since the Easybeats and AC/DC has there been a band with so few pretensions and so much talent."

Freak Show isn't just a good second album, or even a really good album from three 17-year-olds. It is a well-constructed, sometimes awesome, blend of power and adventure which stacks up against their contemporaries.

The more complex and diverse songs show a maturity in their songwriting, with only the naivety of the lyrics reminding you that the trio are not four or five albums into a career but still at school.

What has surprised some is the use of strings, timpani, Indian instruments and a general feel of imagination beyond the simplistic expectations of a heavier or a poppier album. And it reflects the confidence of a band not just wanting to make an album they could reproduce exactly live.

"I don't want to make gigs sound like the album," says Johns. "The gigs are about that energy, recording is about testing yourself. We just knew more about recording this time. It wasn't just us mucking around in there."

Gillies explains further: "We didn't put [extra instrumentation] on there to be kind of cool," he says. "When you heard the songs on acoustic guitar they kind of suited it. When you heard Petrol and Chlorine on guitar it had that Arabic feel so we thought we'd spice it up a bit. Cemetery [which Johns sings on his own live] is a strong song with acoustic guitar and singing but the strings add a lot of mood."

Importantly, silverchair are starting to see themselves not as upstarts who have fluked a chance to play with "serious" bands, but as a better-than-average working band.

A year ago Gillies told Craig Mathieson in his book on emerging Australian music, Hi Fi Days, that "the last album sucked but this one is going to suck majorly" and Johns dismissed their performance with "we just hate the way we play it. We don't think we do them as well as other bands could."

Now, as Joannou admits, "we're pretty happy with [Freak Show]", Gillies relaxes in his chair and sighs: "We're not totally down on frogstomp, it was a good starting point."

"We do think it's not the best album in the world, we didn't play the best in the world, but it's a good starting point by giving us room to improve. We've become a lot better songwriters."

If they are taking themselves seriously now, then so finally are most of the hype machine who turned silverchair into one big circus. They now joke about the antics of a tabloid paper which paid a schoolmate to tell them the route they took home from school and last week went back for another shot of them walking to music class.

But they are grateful that the teen crush/your favourite colour/what Daniel has for breakfast brigade have moved on to another target or are having to deal with silverchair on, shock horror, a musical level.

"A lot of it was all the hype that people made," Johns says. "Now they have to say something else about us. There was the age thing -- we were 15 or 16 and there weren't many 15-year-old bands around but now we are almost 18 and there are a lot of 18-year-old bands."

Of course, the other side to the hype is that Freak Show has not made the splash that frogstomp did on the charts. Although it debuted at No. 1 in Australia (as did frogstomp) and made it into the American Top 10, it has been a solid rather than spectacular seller. Gillies reveals that in most territories in its first seven weeks of sales it has sold about half what frogstomp did in two years.

While their record company may wish for bigger numbers upfront, those around the band are quietly pleased. Everything is much more manageable now and the long-term prospects are considerably improved. By the time Cemetery -- a bare-bones ballad amplified to anthem level and destined to be a huge crossover hit a la Smashing Pumpkins -- is released as the third single, silverchair will be confirmed as a stayer, not a flash phenomenon.

Not that that is on the minds of Gillies, Johns and Joannou as, with another hour to kill, they walk down the passageway to what passes for food at Sydney Airport. Their ambling walk attracts no attention, their conversation catches no ears. Just another bunch of kids hanging out, really.