Ballroom Blitz - The 1999/2000 Rock 'n' Roll Yearbook

By Craig Mathieson (Rolling Stone (Australia))

Over the past year, Daniel Johns has outgrown his eating disorder, shrugged off an Apprehended Violence Order, rocked most of the planet and bought the car of his dreams. So how come he's still not happy?

RIGHT NOW, SITTING BACKSTAGE AFTER soundcheck, he is Daniel Johns. Later in the evening, when the lights go down and the capacity audience of 8,000 start screaming, he will appear on the stage of Melbourne's Flinders Park as Daniel from silverchair. These two versions of the same person have spent 1999 learning to live with each other as the Newcastle trio spent much of the year touring Australia, Europe, America in support of their third album, Neon Ballroom. It's a complicated relationship. Daniel from silverchair puts Daniel Johns in the public eye, where he feels uneasy. But Daniel from silverchair also sells the albums which satisfies Daniel John's self-belief in his songwriting and quietly fierce ambition. And it's Daniel Johns who writes the songs that fuel Daniel from silverchair. Both sides of his personality swing back and forth, relinquishing the upper hand.

"Daniel's in better spirits, but in social terms he's taken another step back," notes drummer Ben Gillies of his childhood best friend. "Any chance not to be around people or get back to his room at the hotel, he'll do it." In fact everyone in silverchair is in better spirits compared to the band which spent 1997 touring their second album, Freak Show. It even got to the point where in the final two months on the road, "whenever we had a show I hated it," recalls Johns. The means to end this, both collectively and individually, are varied. There is, for example, golf. "Please include that I got an eagle," requests Gillies. ("Did Gillies tell you about his eagle?" bassist Chris Joannou later asks.) The rhythm section play the game, along with touring keyboardist Sam Holloway, whose presence, both on and off the golf course, has provided some levity to proceedings. They wear shirts with collars, but baulk at knee-high socks with shorts. "I'm not the golfing type," Johns adds with a sly smile. Then there are fireworks, which all the band members loaded up on after a visit to an Adelaide pyro emporium. There's also the fact that long after your Helmet obsession fades it's OK to admit that you like Madonna (Gillies again). And there's the fact that Savage Garden diverted the spotlight from silverchair and now Killing Heidi are the band with the hot teenage singer. So for Daniel Johns, who answered the following questions, 1999 was another momentous year. He plotted silverchair's first truly cohesive and enduring album, explained openly that he had written it in the wake of suffering from a serious eating disorder, became a compelling live performer, bought a car named Kompressor, had a deranged fan unjustly attempt to take out an Apprehended Violence Order on him - and he had a brief orbit around Planet Imbruglia at the ARIAS. For better or worse, he notes, "There's always something that keeps me on edge."

When you released Neon Ballroom you talked about honesty, both in songs and how you discussed them. What effect did that honesty have?
It had side-effects, but nothing I can complain about because it was self-imposed. I expected a lot of it. As far as doing it again I'm not sure. I'll always be honest in songs I write, but with this I opened the gates a little on how much I exposed to the public.

Exposed how?
Exposing myself through the songs and through the interviews with the media. I definitely don't regret it. I wanted to do it and it helped me personally on a lot of levels. I got to vent a lot of feelings.

Is it strange to be in the position where people - both close to you and strangers - are worried about you?
No, it's a little bit weird but it was worse before I was open about what I was dealing with. It was worse when no one knew and everyone was sceptical as to what was going on in my life. It felt really intrusive and I felt really angry at everyone for not leaving me alone. Now people know what the deal with me is, although I still haven't exposed anything and I wouldn't because that leads to more discomfort. But before this I was constantly being asked if I had AIDS. And it wasn't a little thing, it was a bit deal in Newcastle. Everyone thought I had AIDS. At least people can be worried for the right reasons now.

Are you more at ease in Newcastle now?
Yes, it's been a lot better lately. But to be honest we haven't been there long enough to know. At least now I can walk down the streets and not be abused.

When you have next year off will you live somewhere else?
I'd like to stay in Newcastle, depending on how comfortable my lifestyle could be. It looks like it could be good to stay at home, although we still have people camping outside the house. I think people have accepted me whereas before they didn't know how to deal with me because Newcastle is a very straight down line place.

Do you enjoy screwing with that mentality?
I still do like to fuck with people's perceptions about what I do, but I never lie about anything. With the make-up, that's not to get people to perceive me in a different way, it's just what I am. Whether I was in a rock band or not I'd be the same person.

Neon Ballroom was your first album where your honesty involved someone else - a person who was involved in your life. Did you ever get feedback from that person?
Not really because a lot of the time when I mentioned feeling hatred or negative thoughts it's not towards one person, it's towards a group or a sub-culture or a type of person who has excluded me or done something to in the past. As for personal relationships, a lot of it was a fantasy that I'd hoped for or wished for in my mind and directed it.

I get the impression that between Freak Show and Neon Ballroom you experienced a lot of things which rounded out your life?
Definitely. Leaving school had a big impact on me, because it was the only place I could go and maintain normality and feel a part of something and not be Daniel from silverchair. Once that safety blanket had gone I felt uncomfortable about only being Daniel from silverchair. So I had to learn to come to terms with that. In a lot of ways I did, in a lot I didn't.

Is it getting easier to deal with people without worrying about the "Daniel from silverchair" persona?
In some ways it is easier. There's certain personal things that I'm dealing with that have nothing to do with other people, that make it harder for me to talk to people. At least now I'm comfortable with the fact that people won't appreciate my need for personal space. I don't hate them for that anymore, which was totally wrong.

Did you ever act on that hatred?
One time I was in Newcastle and some group of jocks in a car were yelling out this shit, I can't even remember what, saying they were going to kill me and stuff, so I picked up this rock and threw it at their window and smashed it. Then I was really scared and I ran because there was five of them and I was just in Year 11. They turned the car around, I could hear them. I hid in the back of a grandstand. I could hear them - "where's that little faggot?" In some ways it was exciting, but I don't think I'll do it again.

If you meet someone who interests you, do you worry that your life interferes in their perceptions of you?
Exposing some of my problems was good, but it does make it hard to talk to people in a person to person level because they think they already know everything about me. They don't. You meet someone and they instigate conversation and then they stop and expect you to do the same, but they don't understand they know a lot of me and I know nothing about them. But that is something I'm getting more comfortable with.

Tell me about your new car, the Kompressor?
I got it in April because I had all this money and I had nothing to do with it. I have no expensive tastes, I just want records and books and videos. My accountant told me I had to buy something expensive for a tax deduction so I was like going out with Dad and we were trying all these fast cars. We drew it out for so long because we were enjoying it so much. We'd rock up, looking like bums, and they'd be like, "You can't afford this car". Then some young salesman would see me and he'd run over to the manager and all of a sudden we'd be cruising around in these cars. In the end I settled on a (magnetic blue two-seat) Mercedes, which I liked, but I got custom-made false-leather interior.

And was the title "Kompressor" already on there?
Yes, it's that crazy German engineering.

After soundcheck in Newcastle you mentioned that you got in the car whenever you wanted to drive fast. Just how fast?
When we test-drove it I hit 180kph, but I don't usually drive silly. But that day I had the urge and I wasn't even near the end of the gearing.

What other forms of release do you have apart from music?
Poetry. Whenever I'm feeling really congested I like to write poetry. Sometimes at the end of it I'm really happy with it, other times I'm more frustrated looking at the words. But when it pays off it's good, like a therapy session where you don't have to talk.

Why use the monologue from "Taxi Driver" as the intro tape at concerts?
Parts of it relate towards my feelings about making Neon Ballroom. (Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle) talks about doing 100 push-ups and getting in shape for what he has to do. The whole monologue is about self-discipline and it just felt right.

Ultimately, Travis Bickle's only form of expression is violence: do you ever wonder what you'd be like without your creative voice?
It's hard to imagine, but sometimes your frustration gets to the level where one more step and you don't know what you would do. But I've never been in the position where I've violently lost it. I've lost it a few times, but not violently.

What other films are important to you?
Leaving Las Vegas has had the most profound effect on me, ever. I watched it when I was dealing with my eating disorder and the whole self-imposed pain and suffering, the self-destruction. I could never watch that movie again, because at the time it helped open my eyes a lot towards self-expression and the writing of this album.

Did you know what the subject matter was the first time you watched it?
I had no idea, I just really liked Nicolas Cage and Wild at Heart. I assumed it would be a fucked-up crazy Nicolas Cage movie. I started watching it and by the end I just had my head in my hands, going "Fuck..."

Did you identify with Elizabeth Shue's character, someone who was unconditional in their love for this self-destructive person?
Not really, because I didn't want anyone to be around me, I didn't want anyone to see. I could relate to the movie on so many different levels. I wasn't an alcoholic, but I could relate to the self-destruction and the isolation even when people want to help you, and the stubbornness.

Have you found new positives about being Daniel from silverchair?
There are upsides, but none of them are new. I know I could do things the general public couldn't, like jumping a huge line at a nightclub by saying "I'm Daniel from silverchair". But as far as that stuff's concerned I've always been against it. I try hard to be a member of the general public like my friends. I stand in the line at a club and wait, I don't want to put myself on a pedestal.

Going to clubs with friends is probably something people don't associate with the Daniel from silverchair persona.
I don't go to clubs often, but once a month I'll go out with my friends and do what you do when you're out with a group of friends. It's good to have a release and get fucked-up at times and go all night and end up back at a friend's house at 12 noon fucking wired. It's good to have those memories and stories for when you're older. Until 12 months ago I didn't have them.

Are you writing now?
I've written a little bit on our break, three or four things.

Anything surprising?
Well from now on I'll always explore new things, but nothing surprising because I've pretty much got the next 10 years planned out in my head. I'm not following any trends, I've got these things I want to do and I don't care if they don't fit with the current genres.

Ten years?
Musically I have the next three of four albums planned.

Can you outline the next album?
Not really.

But is there a next album?
Well we're still talking about what we'll do at the end of the year, so I'm purely speaking in terms of what I'll write, not what I'm releasing or we'll release as a band. It's just what I want to follow personally, whether they'll be solo or silverchair or soundtrack albums we haven't planned.

You appear to have more options now.
It's important to expand. It's like getting a promotion, it keeps things fresh. If we just kept releasing silverchair albums for another 20 years it would get stale. And once you do that people can see falseness.

What intrigues you right now?
Writing poetry. I've got books at home just full of words.

Would you publish them?
I've thought about it, but I wouldn't water it down.

Is the poetry rawer than your lyrics?
Just more poetic, it's a lot more free-flowing because you don't have to follow any music. There's more words, less guidelines.

How should people picture you next year when silverchair's in recess?
I'll be doing a lot of self-help things. Next year is pretty much planned out in terms of getting to a level of happiness where I don't have to take anti-depressants and can be more emotionally stable. Hopefully that will be gratifying as anything we've done musically.

[Thanks to Helena for the transcript.]