The Boys are back in Town; Silverchair take their "Freak Show" on the road

(Cleveland Scene)

Get ready, Cleveland. The circus is coming to town.

And this is no ordinary, average circus, mind you. With a brand new record, Freak Show, in stores this week, Aussie brats silverchair are back with a grown-up attitude and edge, once more balancing the heavy melodic-aggressive musical themes that launched their 1995 debut, frogstomp, to its chart-topping success.

Having toured the world both as headliners and as openers for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Newcastle, Australia power-rock trio has re-emerged with a more worldly view and a renewed enthusiasm as the band prepares to hit the U.S. for another of its patented whirlwind tours. As Freak Show's first single, Abuse Me, works its way into heavy rotation on MTV and radio, silverchair will kick off the U.S. leg of their tour this Monday at the Roxy in Atlanta, before heading north to Cleveland, where they'll headline the Odeon with labelmates Handsome Thursday, February 13. In between, they'll squeeze in a February 7 appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, which is currently all the rage with their pals back home.

All this, and they're still only 17.

Freak Show portrays a marked maturity for the trio of Daniel Johns (vocals/guitar), Chris Joannou (bass) and Ben Gillies (drums). Produced by Nick Launay, the album infuses a wealth of new sounds and feels into the band's trademark grungy grooves, which should effectively put an end to an undeserved Nirvanabe tag that dogged the band since its inception, due largely to Johns' slight resemblance to Kurt Cobain.

Putting their experiences to work for them, slverchair show a remarkable resilience and lyrical maturity on Freak Show.

"Most of the songs on the album are about being perceived as different just because you tour across the country," Johns relates. "People throw negative comments at you all the time when they don't really know what you're like. That's what Abuse Me is about. It's kind of an aggressive lyric in a mellow song."

Says Gillies of the album, "I would describe Freak Show as having a lot of variety on it. It's got a punk song (Lie To Me), it's got a song that's six minutes long (Nobody Came), it's got loud and soft. It's even got strings and timpani and sitar (Petrol & Chlorine). The way this album's turned out, I'm really pleased with how we did it."

Phoning from Australia pre-tour, an anxious Gillies admits some excitement at the prospect of touring with Handsome, the hard-rocking New York outfit whose ensemble cast includes former members of Helmet (guitarist and fellow Aussie Peter Mengede), the Cro-Mags and Quicksand. Silverchair, you'll remember, are amongst the staunchest of Helmet supporters.

"It should be pretty fun," Gillies enthuses. "We really like Handsome. We just got the new album and have been listening to it. It's pretty cool."

With both bands being particularly adept at juxtaposing jagged, aggressive rhythms and intense melodies, the double-bill is a particularly compatible one, to which Gillies reasons, "It's always good to combine melody with the hard stuff."

Gillies credits the musical growth and stretching on Freak Show more to sheer happenstance than to any grand scheme or plan.

"It just kind of turned out that way, I guess," he says. "We were just listening to lots and lots of different kinds of bands.

"I think [touring] probably made us better players," he adds, "because the amount we were playing live was a lot.

"Practice makes perfect, and we've been getting a lot of practice. We're not perfect yet, though," he says with a laugh.

One touring highlight for silverchair was the opportunity to open for their friends the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their North American tour last year.

"That was pretty cool, 'cause we were playing to something like 10,000 a night, and while we had done concerts like that before, not night after night after night. That was a pretty big thrill."

The biggest thrill, Gillies says, was playing at Madison Square Garden. "That's where Led Zep played in The Song Remains the Same video," he gushes unapologetically. "I love that video. That's why it was such a thrill to be up there playing."

During the course of that tour and immediately after, silverchair found their songwriting process evolving along with their sound, as the members began writing separately and in different combinations.

"I think we are writing a lot differently," Gillies explains. "A lot of the songs on the new album were written by Daniel by himself. The ones we did we did write as a whole; what would happen was someone would come up with a tune or a riff or something, and then we'd bring it into practice and show everyone to see if it got the thumbs up.

"If it got the thumbs up from everyone," he continues, "we'd jam for a while on it and see what other shit we'd come up with, and how it felt played as a jam. Then we'd organize all the verses and choruses and bridges in it and what not, and then after we'd finished all the music, Daniel would go off and write the lyrics."

While Johns has emerged as the main songwriter, the process, Gillies says, has remained largely collaborative.

"Even on the ones that Danny wrote himself," he says, "we'd all put our opinions in and change it a little bit."

Between balancing touring and school, one has to wonder when the members of silverchair were able to find time to just be normal kids. Not a problem, says Gillies.

"The last few weeks, we've just been bumming around, going to the beach and going surfing," he says.

"We did a tour in South America, and while we were in Rio, we had like four days off. We were staying at the Sheraton, and it was really, really nice. There were like three pools and three tennis courts, and it had a real tropical kind of feel."

Going into the studio for the second time, he says, was a much smoother experience than was the recording of frogstomp.

"Especially after all that time on the road, playing live. On this new album, some of those takes were first takes, and others were only like the second or third take. It didn't take us very long to get the best ones."

Part of that was having a better-formed idea of what they wanted going in, Gillies notes.

"That's the kind of difference to this album from the last one. When we went in the studio [with frogstomp], we basically didn't know what the hell we wanted. We were really stupid."

Working with Launay, who has produced PiL, Killing Joke, the Posies and Gang Of Four, among others, proved to be the right choice as the band went in to cut Freak Show.

"It was really good with Nick," Gillies says. "With Kevin [Shirley, who produced frogstomp], he had his ideas set in stone. And that was good, because he basically did what he wanted because we really didn't know anything at all.

"But with this album, it was really cool -- we had all of our ideas and we knew what we wanted. We wanted certain things done certain ways, and it was good because Nick was really open to all of our suggestions, and he'd put his 50 cents in, and then we'd put ours in, and blah, blah, blah. That worked out really good."

silverchair have teamed with another Nick, director Nick Egan (Oasis, Alanis Morissette), for the Abuse Me video clip, which debuted on MTV's 120 Minutes and has been in steady rotation on MTV and MuchMusic ever since. Gillies says the band generally enjoys the video process, but the reservation in his voice would indicate that they're not altogether sure if making videos falls under fun or just part of the job.

"It's all right -- it depends what you make it into," Gillies admits. "With Abuse Me, it was all right making that, but it wasn't great. It was kind of like a lot of the other videos we've made."

Gillies says the band is even more enthused about the clip for the second single, Freak.

"It's probably the best clip we've ever made, with no doubt," Gillies says. "It was a lot of fun making it."

silverchair officially launched the Freak Show tour, fittingly enough, under the big top in Sydney last week, with a crowd of more than 1,000 in attendance. They played a 55-minute, 11-song set, including six songs from the new album, to enthusiastic response. Gillies says he and his bandmates are stoked to be getting back on the road, where they plan to work in most of the tracks from the new album alongside frogstomp hits like Israel's Son and Tomorrow.

"We'll throw in some here and there, and we've got a couple of covers that we'll probably throw in," he says of the set.

"Basically, we can't play Petrol and Chlorine, because that's just too hard. Sometimes, but not very often, we play Learn To Hate. The chorus in that f**ks up Daniel's voice. But other than that, I think we can play most of them."

First things first, however, and the most important stop on the itinerary at the moment is their debut with David Letterman.

"That should be fun," Gillies says. "We actually get Letterman over here pretty well, like on the same day but with a 13-hour delay. All of our friends love Letterman, and all of them have been kind of like, 'F**k, you're going to get to meet Letterman?' It's going to be pretty cool."

In addition to the Late Show appearance, silverchair will be in Los Angeles to talk about the new album and answer listener questions on this Sunday's edition of Modern Rock Live. And on February 4, they'll appear live on MuchMusic's Intimate & Interactive segment. MuchMusic will preview the appearance all weekend with a silverchair Spotlight segment beginning February 1.

Beyond that, Gillies says he's taking road life one day at a time, and he isn't even sure where they're headed after.

"I really don't know," he laughs. "I don't even know where we're going right now. Basically, I just get on the plane and, you know, go wherever it's going."

Sounds like a plan.