Silverchair in L.A.
"On the stage we often feel like silly little boys who can't do anything..."
Thanks to the million selling debut album frogstomp in 1995, the three not very talkative boys from the Australian guitar rock band silverchair could definitely exchange the wooden school bench for a silver chair. Because of the release of their new CD Freak Show, OOR risked another interview fiasco and hooked up with the trio in Los Angeles...
Los Angeles, six weeks ago. With temperatures that exceed 20 degrees (Celsius) with ease during the daytime the streets are still nice and warm after sunset, as it is on this day. On the famous Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where in clubs like The Whiskey, Roxy and House of Blues, unknown bands are trying to get noticed and who are hoping to launch their careers.
Since I already have a goal for tonight, I leave the clubs behind to get in a taxi on my way to the Troubadour, where later on that night singer/guitarist Daniel Johns, bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies will do their concert. The feeling I'm on holiday, that I'm getting on my way there, disappears the second the taxi driver stops his vehicle with a bang in front of the Troubadour.
Even though the sign says that "the George Costanza Trio" is playing that night, the fans who have been standing in line like good kids for a while will not be deceived -- they know that their three Australian heroes will be giving a "secret" concert here for the American fan club. After I have proven myself over 18 with my passport I get a stamp that gives me access to the concert hall, and alcohol.
Inside I meet John Watson, the very nice manager who also is the "fourth" official member of the band. silverchair do their job on the stage and Watson takes care of everything else. With a job history that includes salesman in a record store, member and manager of numerous bands, freelance writer for Australian Rolling Stone magazine and A&R manager for Sony, he seems to be a spider in the music industry web.
In 1994, Watson signed the band for Sony. "As A&R manager I had certain criteria in my head, silverchair had it all... with them all the pieces of the puzzle fit, they played great, had catchy songs, good attitudes and they were fresh, charismatic and they looked good."
"Shortly after they got signed I even decided to become their manager because I thought they were really special."
And so thought the people that came to see the show that day. Most of the neatly looking audience is young and female -- two girls even brought their father along. Most of the fans are too young for beer and even after silverchair has taken the stage, the interest in alcohol is nil, so they start to take orders in the audience, which soon proved to be an impossible thing to do because of the fans that are jumping around between the stage and the bar. The two security people can't do anything about that either. The band is playing hard and driven and are trying to stop the teenies' screaming from overtaking their sound.
After covers of Minor Threat and Black Sabbath and the encore Israel's Son, a frantic Daniel closes the concert with an impressive sound blast as climax.
The next day I'm meeting the members of the band in a chique but deadly boring hotel where they are staying with management and parents (who are traveling along side their kids until they are 18).
I'm early, so I decided to go through the bands curriculum vitae again. Before the three Aussies became world famous they were just three normal 13-year-old boys from Merewether, a small town just in front of the industrial city of Newcastle (a few hundred kilometers above Sydney), going to school during the day time and at night surfing or jamming with the band which was still called Innocent Criminals at that time, and dreaming about all those "unreachable beauties."
After the band won a demo competition in the spring of 1994 with the song Tomorrow, those "unreachable beauties" didn't seem to be so "unreachable" any more.
The song got a lot of airplay in Australia and soon many record companies were waving contracts and dollars around. It was Sony that eventually signed them. In September 1994, Tomorrow was released as a single. The record company insisted that they changed their name from Innocent Criminals to silverchair, a combination of two song titles: Sliver from Nirvana (accidentally misspelled by Chris) and Berlin Chair by Australian band You Am I.
In March 1995, frogstomp was released, the first debut CD in the history of Australia to debut at number one. In America the album sold 2 million copies. The sudden explosion of attention by press and public took the Aussies by surprise; they didn't know what hit them and didn't like the Q&A of the journalists at all. In interviews they didn't have much to say and seemed to have more fun in mocking around and driving the interviewer near a nervous breakdown.
I wonder what I'm gonna do if the band members decide to limit their answers to two words again like the last time. Should I slap them out of it, try to get their sympathy by starting to cry or just keep on asking questions...
Then the lady from the record company shows up and gives me the solution to my problem. To let the interview go as smooth as possible, they have split the band up in two groups. In one room they have put Daniel, and in the other one, Chris and Ben. I have to switch rooms halfway through the interview, so I can talk to the whole band without losing it altogether. It was well meant but not really neccesary. The band members were really polite and helpful. They didn't have a hangover because lately their aftershow parties are really slow. When they were on tour the last time they were keeping hotel guests awake by playing knock and run, but that was THEN.
Daniel (almost 18 now) looks shy and vulnerable, his eyebrow pierced and wearing silver-glitter eye shadow, his fingernails painted with half peeled off black nail polish. The half-long blond hair in Kurt Cobain style and the friendly look on his face make his appearance of Rock Idol to be complete.
He speaks softly and makes an effort to answer the questions as good as he can. The short predictable answers make room for more questions:
"After frogstomp was released, we were chased by the media and all kinds of people. That was weird. We needed a while to get used to that. I realise now that that attention goes with being in a band, but it didn't change me. I travel around the world, see and learn all kinds of things but that doesn't make me any better then anybody else. I don't feel like a rock star or anything like that."
The media had different ideas about that. MTV, radio, newspapers and music magazines like NME, Request, Billboard and even Rolling Stone were in line for a chat with the band. Because of the limited time (most of the interviews and concerts took place during the school holidays) and the danger of being labeled as a "teeny band" the management were really careful with allowing interviews. TV and radio appearances were kept to a minimum and teeny mags were totally out of the question. Of course, the tabloid press were ready to write what ever they could, true or false.
A journalist from the Australian newspaper The Telegraph Mirror, for instance, waited for Daniel after school, paid a schoolmate $50 to point the blond guitarist out to him, followed him home and published a photo of Daniel riding his bike home with a full route to his house the next day. Another time the newspaper's headline was "Six million dollar band," based on the estimate that silverchair would have sold about 300,000 CDs at $20 each.
The nicknames like "silver high chair," "not Soundgarden but kindergarten" and "Nirvana in pyjamas" were made up quickly, the last one being a favorite of Courtney Love. In January 1995, she closed the Big Day Out Festival (Australia's Lollapalooza) with her band Hole. After Love saw silverchair play on the skate stage there in the afternoon before 15,000 insane fans, she said during her own performance that the boy from silverchair really looked like her husband but what was worse, he sounded like Eddie Vedder. Daniel, who had heard that almost every day, said that he didn't go near Love for exactly that reason. "I could not be bothered by that," he said with a smile. Daniel understands the comparison to Pearl Jam and has a simple explanation for it:
"When I was 13, I tried to sound like Eddie Vedder because he was my hero. I really admired Pearl Jam and Soundgarden because of their attitudes and the way they did things. Of course there will be comparisons but I never tried to copy them or to follow a new trend. When grunge got popular in Newcastle round 1991-1992, we were still playing songs by Black Sabbath, Zeppelin and Purple, those were the bands we were listening to that inspired me to write Tomorrow and Israel's Son.
Still, Courtney was closer to the truth than she thought with her remark than even she expected because last year in the spring when Daniel was supposed to be writing new songs for the new album Freak Show, he suffered a severe depression and he didn't want to leave his house for a month.
"I still remember that time well," John Watson says. "That was the month Israel's Son was doing really well. Because I was really worried about Daniel, I had him stay at my house in Sydney for a while. He was wrestling with the fact that he had become 'famous' and that life can be really strange sometimes. This was a really difficult time for him. The pressure of writing new songs were all a part of that as well."
Still, to draw a line to Cobain is wrong. Cobain comitted suicide because of a lot of problems; being a rockstar was just one part of that. Daniel's breakdown had one good side, according to Watson. "His depression was really at its worst when he was writing songs for Freak Show and he got better in the months after that. A lot of people are gonna think that Daniel is really depressed while he is stronger now then he was a year ago."
Chris and Ben (both 17) seem to have less of a hard time with their sudden fame then Daniel. They seem to balance the luxurious position they are in by constantly criticizing themselves to make sure that their egos don't grow faster then their popularity.
Ben: "We are used to the attention now. When we're at home, we say to each other, 'Oh yeah, we're going to New York next week.' It's no big deal any more. We still have the same friends, they really don't give a fuck that we're famous. Naturally there will be idiots coming up to me that I don't know and who are being extremely nice, girls too. I don't trust them, but I'm always nice to them and chat a bit."
Chris: "I know we're rich and famous but that's not important. The money is kept by our parents, doesn't really matter to me much. I'd rather concentrate on the music. Concerning our popularity, that can be over and done with any second now, you never know if people still would wanna listen to your music in a few years."
When I say that they don't really seem to like the interviews much Ben jumps in right away: "We don't mind, really, but many of the journalists always come with the same questions about our age, they seem to find that more important then the music. A while back this lady came to interview us and she asked us questions that already had the answers in them. What the hell are we supposed to say then?" He laughs. "So all we had to do was say 'yes.' And then if we don't have any meaningful things to say, they get mad at us. We can't help it, we don't HAVE anything meaningful to say!"
So still trying to get them to say something meaningful and prove them wrong, I ask if making music is a form of communicating for them. Ben (after I asked the question twice): "There are people that call us ambassadors of our generation. That's cool, because that means that kids look up to us and we could inspire them to start their own band."
When I ask who they look up to, Ben says: "Our dream would be to play a concert with Korn or Helmet, Tool or Rage Against the Machine, but we would rather not do that 'cause we might leave a bad impression. Compared to them we're nothing. On stage we often feel like dumb little boys who can't do anything right. We have low self-esteem." How come? "Because we suck!" And that sounds really serious.
The new CD Freak Show proves Ben wrong, though. It's more then a worthy album after frogstomp. It proves that silverchair would rather have the music do the talking then them having to explain it in the interviews. The quality of the songs are better and more stable and the sound is harder and darker then the debut frogstomp. The use of violins, acoustic guitars, sitar and timpani drums had a lot to do with that.
Daniel: "We wanted to make the songs more extreme and different, so that means we made the fast songs harder and the slow songs softer. We also experimented with different styles and instruments." That lead to potential hits like Cemetery, Petrol and Chlorine or the new single Freak.
Even though Daniel seems to have shaken the vocal comparisons to Eddie Vedder on this album, the influences of bands like Bush, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana are there. The song Lie To Me, for instance, could be compared to Nirvana's Territorial Pissings.
According to Ben, this is pure coincidence: "I know Nirvana, but never listen to them. I do listen to the old hard core like Minor Threat. We just wanted to do something in that style."
silverchair will never be a punk band. Daniel: "That's way too trendy for us -- we would never submit to that. The most important thing is that I'm making music that I enjoy the most, if it's in this band, another one or solo. I'm still discovering new things every day and I'm improving myself constantly."
According to Watson, it's an ongoing process: "silverchair's talents are unlimited. If the boys can produce an album like Freak Show when they are 17 years old, then I can't wait until the next one."
[Thanks to Charlotte for the transcript.]