Silverchair: Back for more Abuse

By Adam St. James (Circus Magazine)

No one expected an album called frogstomp by the Australian teenage group silverchair to be much more than a novelty -- least of all guitarist/vocalist Daniel Johns, drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou. But after a single called Tomorrow caught on in the States, Daniel, Ben and Chris began living the universal dream of rock 'n' roll stardom, traveling the world and playing to thousands of fans - and they weren't even old enough to drive yet!

Success did not come very easily for this trio of Led Zeppelin, Black Flag and Helmet-influenced musicians, but it did not take as long for them as more rooted bands like No Doubt or 311. As mere 13-year-olds, the three developed their anger-fueled sound by playing Black Sabbath and Zeppelin covers and rehearsing at Gillies' garage in their native Newcastle city. Then known as the Innocent Criminals, the group's lucky moment came when a neighbor of Johns told the guitarist about an amateur contest run by a local TV show. They submitted a four-song demo tape to the competition's organizers. The judges were floored over the first [version] of Tomorrow, so the band won first-place.

The song was rerecorded and released on an EP in September 1994. It went on to become the fifth most successful Australian single ever. Its follow-up single Pure Massacre sold gold sales Down Under, as well.

Word about the band's talents generated a massive buzz in Europe when they embarked on a European tour to coincide with the debut album's release. By the beginning of that summer, silverchair became popular in America after advance tapes of Tomorrow were being played on radio stations nationwide. These same three teens sold millions of albums and become international superstars before the age of 16.

Now music industry veterans at the ripe old age of 17, the trio has released Freak Show, the follow-up to their breakthrough debut. Will the dream go on? Was the hit songwriting on frogstomp a fluke?

Don't count on it. Freak Show's 13 tracks showcase a band intent on seething rhythms and heat-seeking hooks. With their first single Abuse Me, the disc shows the growth of experience, both musically an lyrically, as lead singer and guitarist Daniel Johns recently discussed in a posh hotel suite in Los Angeles.

Circus: You stretched out on the new album a lot. How did all that come about?

Daniel Johns: On the first album it was like we just wanted to play it live so that when everyone came to see us live they weren't disappointed and they didn't think we were just a studio band. On this album we kind of thought we had more freedom to experiment with different instruments and stuff, so we did it.

Did you play any of those other instruments, or did you hire people?

I played a guitar/sitar. That's a guitar that sounds like a sitar. You play it like a guitar. It has some weird thing in it. But I don't play the violin, unfortunately, so I couldn't play that bit. We got people in to do that.

Lyrically there was a lot of influence from TV on your first album. Did that inspire you for this album too!

No, there was virtually none. On the first album, being that the only thing we ever did our whole lives was surf and eat food, and sleep -- that was our lives until then. And then after the first album, all of the sudden our lives just changed. We just started doing heaps more stuff and got heaps more experience. So the lyrics are a lot more personal and a lot more about personal experiences. None of it's fictional, whereas on the first album there's a lot of fictional stuff. Dreams and stuff like that.

Do you like to be able to get out your personal feelings and opinions?

Yeah. If it wasn't for music, if you had all this kind of stuff, you'd just be like confused, all the shit going around in your head. But with music it's kind of like a chance to get it all out. You can write songs about it.

Do you think it's important for people to be able to get it all out?

For some people it is and for some it isn't. It's not an album full of colaining. There's a lot of advantages to traveling around, and then there's a lot of disadvantages, just like any job. I really like dark, aggressive music. There's no point writing a dark, aggressive piece of music and then putting lyrics about how good it is to travel around. That's just pointless. When I'm in a good mood I'm out at the beach walking my dog or playing football or something. When I'm in a bad mood and I just don't feel like doing anything I go off and write songs. That's why the songs seem to come out so depressing.

Have you ever tried to write songs that weren't that way?

No. I don't want to. I don't have any desire to write happy songs. It's heavy and moody, but it doesn't sound all that depressing. Some of it's sad and some of it's just aggressive and angry. I don't get any pleasure out of listening to music that's happy. Except for Zeppelin. I like listening to him [lead singer Robert Plant] sing about girls, and it's good music.

Do you consider yourself at all lucky?

Yep. Yeah, I guess because it's kind of weird. I know there's a lot of bands out there that would kick our ass, that no one knows. And you see it as a bad and a good thing. You say, 'That's bad there's bands out there that I know are better than us that no one knows,' and you say, we're pretty lucky for people to know who we are and to listen to our music and take it seriously.'

How has all this affected your home life?

I just don't go out as much as I used to. That's the only thing that's really changed. Chris and Ben seem to go out a lot.

Why don't you go out?

I just got sick of going out and people were going, 'silverchair!' I just said, 'Oh fuck that.' The only time I go out is at night with a whole group of friends with a beanie on.

Dark sunglasses too?

Yeah, I do that too, actually. Though it looks pretty stupid going out at nighttime with sunglasses on.

You still have to deal with school at this point, right?

Yeah, one more year.

Do you have to bring work with you when you tour?

Not really, just when we get back, we've got tutors and we have to catch up with all the stuff. It's not too bad.

Where do you see yourself in, like, 10 years?

I don't know. We probably won't be in this band. I'd kind of get sick just being in the same band. I'm not sick of it yet, and I don't think I'm gonna be sick of it for a long time. But 10 years, that would be 15 years together. And 15 years together would kind of suck. But then maybe in 10 years we'll just start enjoying it more and we'll still be together, but I doubt it. It's like we'll be in different bands just playing around. 'Cause in 10 years we'll still only be 27.

There's probably a lot of people that would like to be in your position. What does it mean to you, the stuff that's happened?

It's good, but it's like any job. We don't see it as a job, but it kind of is. Like any job, it's got its advantages, it's got its disadvantages. We're not gonna complain like a lot of bands about how bad it is to be in the music industry. We've gotten to do a lot of stuff that we wouldn't get to do otherwise, so it's good.

Did you start as a singer or a guitar player?

I started as a guitar player. I didn't ever want to be a singer. When I first started, I was about 12 and I just loved Ritchie Blackmore. Everything that he did I wanted to do and I never wanted to sing because I hated just thinking of a mic being there and playing and not just concentrating. I wanted to stand in front of 10 Marshalls. Then me and Ben were together and we were playing an Elvis Presley song when we were about 12. We didn't have a singer and the mic just happened to be there, so I ended up singing. From then on, we didn't end up getting a singer. It was me.

And you felt pretty comfortable right from the start?

I hated it. I was really embarrassed. I hated singing. But now it's grown on me. It doesn't bother me. It's just part of what I do now.

Who else do you listen to?

I listen to Zeppelin a lot. A lot of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. A lot of that kind of stuff. I'm really a big Black Sabbath and Zeppelin fan.

What is it about those bands you like?

I like how different they are. If you listen to Sabbath now, 20 years later, it still sounds heavy. I like the fact that it's kind of... it's like the Doors. If you listen to the Doors now it still sounds out there. Whereas other stuff that was heavy at the time, it's not heavy now. You just listen to it and go, 'That's not heavy at all.' And I like how Zeppelin's really... they just experimented with so much different instrumentation and stuff. That's what I wanted to do on this album and the next album. I just want to keep experimenting with different stuff so that in 20 years time people go, 'That's kind of different. That sounds good.'

So which Zeppelin album is your favorite?

I don't know because I don't have any Zeppelin albums. I have box sets and remasters and stuff like that. I never saw the point in getting an album if I could get it all in a box set. One of our friends has got every Zeppelin album, and box sets, and he knows every Zeppelin song on guitar. He's a freak. It's cool.

Did you sit down and learn all that stuff when you started playing?

Yeah, I used to just chuck on the Zeppelin and the Sabbath stuff and just figure out songs and sit in my room and play them and pretend I was in Zeppelin.

Eddie Vedder was also a big influence. How did you get into Pearl Jam?

I think just through listening to Sabbath and Zeppelin and stuff, 'cause we'd never really heard Pearl Jam and Soundgarden or anything like that. people would say, 'You sound like Pearl Jam.' And we were like, 'Who is that?' Then we went out and bought a Pearl Jam CD to see who everyone said we sounded like. And I think it's because Pearl Jam also must have listened to a lot of The Who and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and stuff'. Then we listened to Pearl Jam when we were like 13 or 14 and we said, 'That's cool.' Then we listened to a lot of Soundgarden 'cause we heard they sound a lot like Black Sabbath. Then from that we got into Helmet, and gradually we started getting into these more underground kind of bands. Like bands that influenced Helmet, like The Melvins, and we started getting into Albini's stuff, and we gradually got into different stuff.

Do you have plans for what you'll do next?

Kind of, in my head. But nothing's real yet. I think it'll be different again. This album's kind of got really fat guitar sounds and stuff. On our next album there'll be a little bit old that, but not as much, I think. I'm kind of getting more into the cleaner but still heavy sounds, like Fugazi and Shellac, stuff like that. Kind of cleaner sounds that still sound abrasive.