Silverchair: Monsters Under the Bed

By Neil Weiss (MTV Online Music Feature)

silverchair: Monsters Under The Bed, by Neil Weiss, MTV Cover Story, February 1997As soon as the van carrying the members of Silverchair lurches forward and pulls away from the Hotel Sofitel in West Hollywood, drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou snap around to the back window and stick middle fingers into the air at the members of the crew following in the second van. It's one of those nearly instinctive impulses that teenage boys are prone to, and the rhythm section of one of Australia's biggest musical exports in years is no exception.

Proud of themselves, the duo share a silent, wide-grinned snicker and turn back toward the front of the van. But as quickly as the impulse to flip someone off had hit them, another one take its place. Their devilish grins fall away, replaced with bored expressions similar to the one worn by singer/guitarist Daniel Johns, who is staring out an opposite window, ignoring this particular round of hijinks. There they sit, three antsy teen rockers in skate-rat duds, trapped in a fate about as fun as spending a Saturday night with the parents: an in-transit, back-of-the-van interview.

This is travel day for silverchair. The convoy is headed for Los Angeles International Airport, where they will catch a flight to Seattle for a gig that evening. The last thing they want to do is philosophize. And who could blame them? They've already spent an entire week talking to reporters, grinning and bearing repeated inquiries about success at an early age, the threat of the sophomore jinx, and the Seattle sound. Gillies had even climbed into the van and attempted to claim the front seat before the band's manager, John Watson, directed him, like principal to pupil, to join his mates in the back row.

MissingYou could count the week's highlights on one hand. There was the local unannounced gig at a small club; there was the Soundgarden show. But it was Johns' run-in with the local authorities just the day before that finally gave the press something to sink their teeth into. While hanging out with Chili Pepper Dave Navarro for a piece to run in Bikini magazine, Johns test-drove a Mitsubishi Montero onto Santa Monica Beach. An irate cop hauled him in for driving without a driver's license and for operating the vehicle sans special permit in a special-permit-only area. A mere day later, Web 'zines are already cranking out online reports; Rolling Stone is calling to get the lowdown. But here in the van, Johns sums it up with one brushstroke. "We got pulled over by the police, taken to a police station," he says, hidden behind gray, wrap-around sunglasses. "That's about as interesting as it got."

In other words, the guys aren't exactly feeling chatty. At times, the sound of rubber on asphalt rings louder than any insightful banter. We ponder Freak Show, the follow-up to frogstomp, their multi-platinum introduction to the world, but response is lackadaisical. Some answers sound tried and true, or even as if the band is walking the party line: Yes, they all agree that they've come a long way as a band since their first record; no, their lives haven't really changed much since the single, Tomorrow, had its massive exposure on MTV and modern rock radio.

Daniel Johns"It's kinda like we're living two lives," says Gillies with a shrug. "You've got your home life that's just like a normal teenage life where you go to school, go surfing and hang out with your friends. Then you got your second life where you travel around the world playing big shows, doing interviews all day."

 "I'm not a social butterfly," adds Johns. "I don't go around to parties and shit." In fact, he says, if he was back home in Newcastle at this moment and not rehearsing he would likely be doing no more than sitting on his bed, watching the tele with his dog. "It hasn't really changed my life, because I never really went out in the first place."

"A lot of people tell us that we got successful too early, and crap like that," continues Johns, confidently. "We don't think it's possible to be successful too early." He does readily admit that Freak Show is less accessible than its predecessor and believes, therefore, that it will not sell as well. But that does not deter him. "As long as you can keep being consistent and writing good songs that people like, and that you like, I think that you can just keep going for as long as you want."

MissingIf frogstomp was their model for writing good songs, then they have far outdone themselves with Freak Show. What was a riff and some power-trio jamming and dynamics on the debut has now blossomed into real songs with real structure -- ones that no longer make this group of teens sound like Pearl Jam junior. "We didn't sit down and say, 'Now we want to write some songs that don't sound anything like they're from Seattle,'" says Johns. They do admit to listening to a bit of Seattle sludge before they wrote frogstomp, but Johns claims, "it was never really a major influence." Instead, he says, it was their fathers' favorites that have left the greatest impressions. "Our biggest influences since we were about 11 or 12 years old have been Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and stuff like that. And they still pretty much are. I guess this album is just not as Seattle sounding, for one reason or another."

MissingWith Freak Show, silverchair does give a nod to the '70s hard rock heroes, just like every other spawn in the flannel nation. But it is definitely a '90s hard rock record: muscular but economical, agitated but hooky. Cobain-like sonics appear frequently -- the throaty, full-throttle punk rock of Lie To Me might as well be a Nirvana B-side. Other tightly-coiled riff orgies recall Helmet, and a moment like Cemetery, fueled by acoustic guitars, strings and timpani drums, suggests the proggy elegance of Smashing Pumpkins.

As familiar as Freak Show feels, it is nonetheless a victorious leap for a band that some might have considered little more than a cute and novel grunge by-product. Nowadays, silverchair is more assured, with better chops, better hooks, better song structure and yes, derivations aside, hints here and there of an original sound to come. On The Door, the band wraps itself around an aggressive riff and hammers home a song that blurs punk, pop and metal into a classic burst of garage rock. It may be silverchair's most organic and effortless composition yet, and a reminder that rock'n'roll and youthful vigor shaken together still make for an intoxicating cocktail.

Daniel Johns of silverchairBut if Johns' lyrics take the temperature of today's teens, being 17 ain't like Greg Brady once portrayed it. Songs with titles like Slave, Freak, Abuse Me and Learn to Hate include lines like "Body and soul, I'm a freak" and "Come on, abuse me more I like it/Come on, keep talking 'cause it's true." Some frighteningly gloomy jolts of self-examination for such a young age. But life seems pretty good for rock's most famous teens. They bypassed the grueling indie rock lifestyle, where a band on a shoestring budget points a beat-up van toward the next town, two-bit club, and a friend's floor to sleep on. We're talking airplane flights and pretty comfy digs. So, why so wounded? Where's the snotty, youthful charm to counter such psychodramatic messages?

MissingTo Johns, his themes are more about style than substance. "It's not that we're complaining about the bad side of our lives, it's just that we've always liked [our music] dark and kind of aggressive," he says, adding that he has never enjoyed listening to upbeat music and, like many a dark angel, doesn't think he'd even be capable of writing a happy song. "So when I'm writing lyrics, I just write about bad things rather than good things."

MissingReality is, fame has had its residual effects on the band, and bad things can happen. Forget mom and dad: if these kids get caught smoking pot, hundreds of thousands could potentially be informed and pass judgment. That pressure alone might have been enough to send Johns into the half-year funk that overcame the singer soon after the debut record started selling its four-million copies. "All I was doing was sitting up in my room and writing songs. I didn't go out just because of all the media kinda' crap that was going on. I didn't want to go out and have someone go, 'That's the guy from silverchair,' and fuck everyone else's fun up for the night. So I was just like, 'Fuck this, I'm just gonna sit in my room,'" he says, with an uncomfortable laugh. "And once the whole frogstomp thing was over, I started going out a bit more. When this album comes out and if the media crap starts again, I'll probably sit in my room for another six months."

When the convoy pulls up to the terminal at LAX, there seems to be a collective sigh of relief. No more predictable questions. No more canned answers. Once inside the airport, free of professional restraints, the threesome get back to the business of being teenagers. They suddenly race each other to the top of the stairs. They talk with anticipation of having "Mackies" for lunch (that's "McDonald's" to you and me). They shoot goofy glares at one another when a dude with a peculiar non-hairdo starts spieling and turns out to be an undercover Krishna.

Inside the United Airlines Red Carpet Room, a Vegas-like lounge reserved for upscale travelers, Johns spots "The Fonz," a.k.a. actor Henry Winkler. The guys are all straining for a peek. In the time it takes to clear way for a view, he's gone.

"Shit, I didn't get to see the Fonz," says Joannou.

"He was straight back there and he had a purple jacket on," Johns points toward an empty chair. "He still has the features, but he's not quite as cool."

MissingBeyond that brief thrill, though, the lounge is just one big bore. No tele, no food or drink, nothing. Johns strikes up an impromptu a capella version of Minor Threat's Screaming at a Wall. He's singing punk rock vocals and guitar riffs in hushed tones. Gillies quickly joins in by pounding out the rhythm on his thighs. Later, Johns discovers the courtesy phone and proceeds to crank call unsuspecting car rental clerks.

Daniel Johns of silverchair

"What type of cars do you have in your repertoire?" he asks in an over-the-top, snooty tone, plenty amused with himself. And then, "I see, do you have any Rolls Royces?" He then thanks the clerk for the information and says he will make a decision and get back with an answer.

Chris Joannou of silverchair

 "What type of cars do you have in your repertoire?" he asks in an over-the-top, snooty tone, plenty amused with himself. And then, "I see, do you have any Rolls Royces?" He then thanks the clerk for the information and says he will make a decision and get back with an answer.

Ben Gillies of silverchair

Meanwhile, Joannou, the quietest of the threesome, pulls up his pants leg to display his socks. They are colorful and cartoonish, and bear the capitalized inscription: "I'M JUST A SHY GUY WITH A BIG DICK."

"Ben bought them for me," says the bassist.

 "They remind me of why I got into the music business in the first place," says silverchair's manager, John Watson. We are sitting in one of the fast food spots in the airport -- practically a stolen moment for the man in charge of all things silverchair. "When you're that age you don't make music to get laid or to make money or to see your photo on the cover of a magazine. You make music because you like the noise it makes when you bang on your guitar. All great music is born from that, and that really kind of natural, unaffected thing happens when you're 15 or 16. It's very easy to get jaded in the music business and a band like silverchair reminds you what it's all about."

 Once a music journalist, once an A&R rep, the thirty-something Aussie signed on as silverchair's manager soon after hearing a demo that the band had recorded with studio time earned by winning that now-famous local competition. But in Watson's case, the "manager" tag tells only half the story; he's more like manager/stand-in parental unit. Tasks on this day alone have ranged from coordinating the transportation for a dozen or so people for the trek to the Pacific Northwest and accommodating yours truly, to reminding his lead singer to eat something and contemplating the fallout from Johns' driving mishap.

 It's a gig that could drive a lesser man insane, but it's obvious that Watson cares deeply about this trio. When he talks about them his tone is sometimes wondrous ("It's completely uncharted waters, trying to take a whole band at this age and grow with them"), other times defensive ("It wouldn't bother me if Freak Show sold half as many copies, but got treated with a little more respect"). Sometimes he gets dreamy, pondering questions like, "What's their fourth or fifth record going to sound like? It's gonna be fuckin' awesome, I reckon. I really see the long term of this band as being a Zeppelin style band." Often, he is fatherly: "We want them to be long-term international artists, but the number one thing is to keep their heads together as happy, healthy human beings."

It's this "happy, healthy human beings" thing that is the tricky part. As tiring as the question might be, how, really, does a person live a normal life -- whatever that means -- after such youthful success? Images of former child stars robbing liquor stores and getting busted for consorting with prostitutes come to mind. And what about when Daniel, Ben and Chris turn 18 later this year and become legally responsible for their own careers and their own potential screw-ups? Watson knows that silverchair is a challenge, and he has weathered the occasional rough patch. But, he says, "Ironically enough, rock'n'roll has kept them cleaner and more grounded than they probably would have been if they'd have remained at home in Newcastle. Newcastle is sort of a surf, industrial town, where not a lot happens. So your average 16- or 17-year-old is bored because there's nothing to do. Every weekend they're out getting trashed and down at the beach getting stoned. The guys in the band, because they're not home that many weekends, have things to keep them busy. They haven't fallen into that lifestyle at all. You'd expect rock 'n' roll to lead to all sorts of depravity, but it has actually been a positive influence on their lives."

Johns interprets his manager's concept of rock 'n' roll as saving grace. "I think he means that, a lot of people, when they're 17 or 18, are experimenting with a lot of drugs, doing a lot of rebellious stuff. One of the things that's kept us away from doing a lot of that kind of stuff is the fact that if the media finds out we're doing anything, we're fucked. So it restricts us from doing a lot of stuff that most of our friends are doing. You're always worried about, 'Oh fuck, I hope the paper doesn't find out about this.' Like the arrest," he says, referring to the beach bust. "If it had been any of our friends, they would have done a lot worse than what we did. They would have been driving the four-wheel-drive through the water and shit."

Being under the media microscope... not leaving your house for six months... suddenly a lyric like "body and soul, I'm a freak" begins to take on a rawer meaning. And you can't help but wonder about that feeling Watson speaks of, about teens making loud music and about how guitars can make walls rattle and annoy adults and get the blood rushing and make you rule the world. Does that feeling begin to wane as pure passion is tainted by things like fame and sales charts?

 "A lot of bands get into the whole rock business because they want to be rock stars," Johns says. "We got into it because we enjoy playing music and wanted to kinda do something other than sit in our rooms and do nothing. We're not really big fans of the whole groupie/rock star/dickhead thing," he says, with a laugh. "As soon as it's not fun, we're going to stop doing it."

MissingIn the middle of LAX, a Japanese couple asks the band for a photo. Instead of taking the opportunity to be rock star dickheads, the trio delights their fans by politely obliging. Crowded around the couple for the snapshot, Johns and Joannou produce kind smiles, while Gillies offers an exaggerated scowl and middle-finger salute. At the gate a few minutes later, Johns faces the groupie temptation in a touching Beverly Hills 90210 meets Spinal Tap moment. A quiet, waify girl whom Johns had befriended during the week in L.A. finally gets her chance to spend a few minutes sitting aside the lead singer. But Johns, true to his word, seems more interested in the set of fake, rotting, buck teeth that he has inserted into his mouth. Gillies sits across from him, wearing his own set. They just sit there, making eye contact but not really saying much at all, just goofing on each other.

[At age 17, Neal Weiss played some pretty mean air guitar. Nowadays he is a Hollywood-based print and multimedia writer, whose work can be found on the web and in several national and regional publications.]