Raging Against the Machine

By Jon Weiderhorn (Request Magazine)

It seemed like a good idea at the time: A small pop-culture magazine wanted Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro to write a story about Australian teen ubergroup silverchair test-driving the new Mitsubishi 4-by-4 utility vehicle.

Drummer Ben Gillies started out by motoring around a parking lot adjacent to a breezy Los Angeles beach, but he soon got bored, and since he was expressly forbidden from taking the vehicle onto the highway, he shifted it into four- wheel-drive and revved it onto the beach. Howling with glee, Gillies drove tight circles and figure eights, spewing sand as he went. After a brief pit stop, vocalist/guitarist Daniel Johns took over the wheel, but he didn't get far before the trio heard a siren wailing behind them.

"This police car pulled up and this big black guy got out, and he was the meanest f--- you've ever seen," says Gillies from the safety of his parents' home in Newcastle, Australia. "His eyes were wide open, and they were popping out of his sockets. Basically, we knew we were f---ed."

The band expected a stern warning and maybe a fine, but the officer led Johns into the back of the squad car and drove him to the nearest police station, where he was held for six hours until his label publicist could provide press photos and a copy of silverchairs latest album for identification. The process was nerve-racking for the publicist, but for the members of silverchair ir was just another bizarre episode in an excellent adventure. "I couldn't stop laughing," Gillies says. "The whole thing was serious, but it was also so funny. I was laughing the whole time."

If Beavis and Butt-head were Australian and played in a rock group, they'd be silverchair. In school, childhood chums Gillies, Johns and bassist Chris Joannou have been know to drop fart bombs in the hallways and fill lunchroom bags with water and loft them onto unwary students at near by tables. They also take great pleasure in grabbing other students knapsacks and tossing them out the window onto moving trucks.

"It's great watching people running after a truck to get their schoolbag," Johns gloats. "That's really funny."

But don't mistake silverchair's immaturity for arrogance. Ever since 1995 when the bands debut album, frogstomp, reached No. 1 in its native land and went platinum in America, silverchair has had a reputation for being bratty and standoffish. The trio has expressed little interest in doing press interviews and photo shoots, and have frequently greeted reporters with vague responses and recycled quotes. But the members of slverchair aren't unappreciative or conceited; they're just capricious, rambunctious kids who would rather play video games and make crank calls than deal with the obligtory hassles of self-promotion. And while they're cognizant of their success, they certainly don't embrace it.

"In some ways, it kind of sucks, because sometimes we want to go out and do stuff our friends are doing but we can't, because if the media finds out about it it will be like exaggerated 50 times," Johns says. "Like, if we go out and throw an egg at a house and get caught, all of a sudden it will be made into this big thing about us attacking people on the street. That pisses me off."

silverchair's second album, Freak Show, chronicles the band's struggle with stardom in a bleak aural landscape of tense rhythms and turbulent guitar riffs. Unlike frogstomp, which was loud and crafty, but not terribly visceral or eclectic, Freak Show shudders with originality, rage and frustration.

Songs such as Lie To Me, Slave and Learn To Hate writhe, stomp and howl, expresing the jubilant hostility of youth, while others like Cemetery and Petrol & Chlorine vibrate with strings, tympani and Indian instruments, highlighting a more reflective, experimental side of the group.

"We're more experianced now, so we've branched out a bit more," Johns explains. "We've always admired Led Zeppelin for the way they had different sounds on every song and different instruments and just made everything real interesting."

"I think that last time, a lot of people thought that we were just a one-shot wonder," Gillies says somewhat disdainfully. "This album is basically gonna shove it in their faces and say 'look you f---ers, we're here to stay.'"

When frogstomp was released, silverchair immediately climbed the charts, thanks largely to the single Tomorrow, which flip-flopped between a plaintive folk-rock rhythm and a surging metallic riff. But while the public eagerly lauded the band, curmudgeonly critics had a field day on its somewhat naive, formulaic album. They attacked the groups lack of originality, dubbing it "Silverhighchair" because of the band members' tender ages and "Kindergarden" because of its simalarity to Soundgarden. What really irked the press, though, was the uncanny resemblance between Johns' voice and the vibrato-laden yowl of Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder.

Ironically, the band's naysayers are largely responsible for the vast improvements on Freak Show. After all, they're the ones who put the band memvers on the defensive, invaded their privacy, and prompted them to create an aggressive record of the abusive, back-stabbing nature of the music industry. Already, many former mudslingers have taken a shine to Freak Show, but some are still condemning the band's seeming plagiaristic tendencies.

Although Freak Show doesn't sound much like Pearl Jam, the simple melodies and loud/soft dynamics of many songs do sounds a bit like Nirvana, and this time around, many of Johns' agressive vocals are near carbon copies of Kurt Cobain's tattered screams.

"People who compare us to Nirvana are full of s---, because we don't listen to Nirvana," Gillies says. "Personally, I don't really even like Nirvana. The thing is, people don't realize that Nirvana was influenced by the old '70s bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, and that's who we're influenced by. That, and heavier stuff like Helmet and Korn."

Nick Launay, who produced Freak Show, describes the Nirvana similarity as a happy coincidence. He says that when Johns scrunches up his voice, his vocal chords create a condition known as harmonic distortion, where two notes come out at the same time. "Some singers have a huge problem with this because the extra note that comes out isn't always in tune with the main note," Launay explains. "Daniel, on the other hand, is pretty much pitch-perfect. So, he has this incerdibly thick voice with this harmonic distortion, and that is exactly what Kurt Cobain had."

The members of silverchair named their new album Freak Show to reflect how touring rock bands are exploited and abused in a manner similar to sideshow freaks. Events over the past two years have brought the trio riches and recognition, including a sold-out tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but left them feeling somewhat awkward and alienated.

"One day we were normal teenagers, and then all of a sudden, when frogstomp started doing well, people started saying 'oh they're rock stars now.' And we're like 'f--- no, we're not,'" says Johns, who is quick to emphasize that they still hang out with the same friends they hung out with before they became rock stars.

"Sometimes we get special considerations for things, like getting into shows free and stuff, and at first it seems really cool," Gillies adds. "But then you go, hang on a sec. Why should I get special treatment just 'cause I'm in a band?"

Such comments would seem strange coming from any 17-year-old, let alone someone whose intellectual pursuits include having food fights and squirting shaving cream under hotel-room doors. When you're young and beautiful, the world is a cherry ripe for your picking, and every brimming beer (or, in this case, soda) glass and silicone-augmented groupie is a reward for a job well done. Yet, for all its childish antics, silverchair is a fairly principled trio. They don't drink or take drugs, and they tend to avoid the groupie scene.

"I guess it would be easy to get girls, but a lot of the time you don't want to because you don't want to take advantage of people," Johns says. "Some people are pretty dumb, and they'll do anything just because you're in a band. I don't want to get too involved in that kind of stuff. People in KISS might take advantage of it, but we really don't."

For many teenagers, going to high school is like being in jail, and like hardened prisoners, they count the days until liberation. Strangely, the members of silverchair see school as a haven, a place where they can get away from the pressures of the adult world. It also keeps them grounded.

"If we showed any sign of the whole rock-star thing going to our heads, our school friends would all totally rip us off our pedestals," Gillies says. "Nobody in school really gives a s--- that we're in a band. They just treat us like anyone else."

Johns claims the band members are average students. "We don't fail anything," he says, "but it's hard, because we're only there for about half the year, so half of the stuff we miss out on we get tested on anyway."

Besides, they aren't in school for the academic enlightenment, they're in it for kicks. Many of their teachers understand this, and the ones who still try to knock some learnin' into the boys' noggins are pretty much doomed to fail.

"Some teachers don't really like us because we're in a rock band," Johns says. "Our music teacher especially really hates us. She thinks that classical music is the only music in the world, and she's always calling me and Ben to stay after class. One time she was yelling at us that we don't take her seriously, and we were just laughing. She started crying. I felt so bad, but we couldn't help it."

There's a dramatic contrast between silverchair's clownish antics and its dark confessional songs. On Freak Show, Johns writes about abuse, addiction, betrayal and hopelessness in the tone of the manic depressive at the end of his rope. But he insists his hostile lyrics are simply a way to cope with the pressure and intrusiveness of the media and the music industry.

"The aggression comes from all the things I've had to deal with. I was going to school, and there'd be photographers there and stuff like that," he says, then pauses for a moment.

"I love violence," he continues more candidly. "I'm not a violent person. I've never been in a fight in my life, and I don't want to, but I love violence in movies and s---. I don't like it if it's true. It pisses me off, but on video games and stuff it's always a good laugh. I love in the game Mortal Kombat when you rip your opponents' hearts out and set them on fire, and they turn into skeletons. That's so rad."

Watching B-grade horror flicks and playing ultraviolent arcade games are typical ways for young people to try and comprehend a brutal, unstable world, but Johns' antisocial tendancies go a little deeper.

"I'm just not a very positive person," he says. "That's not saying I'm some depressed person that walks around sad everyday,'cause I'm not. But I like to write my lyrics when I'm not in the best of moods."

Some of the vitriolic verses on Freak Show were written last year when Johns fell into a funk at the end of a tour. Gillies had just hooked up with a new girlfriend and was spending all his spare time with her, leaving Johns feeling alone and betrayed.

"I just sat at home, and I didn't want to talk to anyone or even do anything," Johns says. "I just sat in my room and wrote songs."

Tension and frustration may be important elements for spurring creativity, but they're not recommended for keeping a band together. Realizing this, Gillies broke up with his girlfriend and mended his relationship with Johns.

"I figured it was either my friendship that's been going for nearly 10 years or my girlfriend, and I kind of decided which one takes priority," Gillies says. "I think it worked out for the best. We weren't fighting or anything, but we were starting to lose contact, and now everything's happy and jolly again."

Indeed, these days Gillies and Johns are back to their impish pranks and eager to return to the road, where there will be plenty of opportunities to terrorize those who get too close.

"After we recorded the record, we got to do this limited-edition video," Gillies says. "We walked around the airport interviewing all these people. There's this one part where Daniel put the camera on me and I said, 'Do you have a large or short penis?' Then he turned it off and went up to this guy and asked him, 'Do you like long or short plane trips?' Then we turned it on real quick and he said, "Short." It was really good."

[Thanks to blahrock@aol.com and Katie for the transcript.]