Learning the Ropes

By Bobby Wilson (Hit Parader Magazine)

Just imagine what it would be like to be 18 years old and finally complete your high school responsibilities. That shouldn't be too tough an image for most of us to handle. Some of us have already been there, done that... for others, that experience is waiting just around the corner. Ahh, but for the average Joe, getting out from under school's various responsibilities is when the real fun starts... worries about getting a job... concerns about trying to get into a college... having to find a place of your own away from your parent's restrictive grasp... just scratching together enough cash to buy some gas for the car or a burger at Mickey Dee's.

But all those are the problems faced by us mere mortals. Don't bother Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies, and Chris Joannou with any such mundane matters. For the members of silverchair, their liberation from the rigors of school only meant one thing-- more time to focus on their already-successful rock and roll career. Considering that these three young Australian aces had already sold more than five million albums and toured the world three times before they finished their high school gig last July, it was almost a scary notion to consider what these teens might come up with when they had plenty of time (and plenty of cash) to spend on their next musical project.

Well, the results of silverchair's latest efforts have been with us for a few months now. And while the band's third album, Neon Ballroom, has received mixed reviews from cynical rock critics, and has yet to enjoy the kind of run-away success garnered by the unit's two earlier discs, Frogstomp and Freak Show, there's no denying that this is the disc where the silverboys have come of age. No more weak-kneed Nirvana or Zeppelin rip-offs. No more three chord tunes about the impending apocalypse. This time around the band has created a series of dramatic, complex and all-together invigorating rockers that show that their exciting past has only laid the groundwork for what promises to be an even more intriguing future.

"My intention from the moment we started thinking about this record was to make something that was different from anything we had done before," Johns said. "We wanted it to sound different, and feel different than what we had presented on our first two albums. So much had changed in our lives since we made those records. We had seen the world, had a little success and gotten done with school. We had the time and the focus needed to make this a very special record."

Some might say that in his intense desire to expand silverchair's creative scope on Neon Ballroom, Johns lost touch with some of the seminal rock ingredients that had first made his band so successful. In place of the three chord guitar romps that had distinguished such early hits as Pure Massacre, was now the pomp and circumstance of Emotion Sickness, a tune which features the classically-inspired piano interludes of the noted David Helfgott. Instead of the raw energy of Israel's Son was the plaintive wail of Black Tangled Heart. From the first note of their latest disc to the last, it was apparent that these silverlads had grown up quite a bit over the last few years. The only question that remained was how their ever-loyal following would react to the group's more mature sound.

"We've been very satisfied by the way the fans have responded," Johns said. "This is still very much a rock and roll album, even if we have presented a few things that are a little out of the ordinary-- at least for us. But we felt that our fans would understand what we were trying to do and they'd come along for the ride. I imagine they were getting as bored with some of the basic song structures as we were."

Maybe yes...Maybe no. The simple fact is that silverchair was a world-wide phenomenon when Freak Show emerged from nowhere (actually it was the Aussie town of Newcastle) to first establish these then 15 year old kids atop the hard rock mountain. It was a mixture of their age, their energy and their commitment that made so many followers around the globe instantly jump aboard the silverchair rock and roll machine. Sure, you had heard virtually everything in the band's song catelog before-- but silverchair was reinventing the rock and roll wheel with such fervor and such passion that nobody cared to notice... at least until Freak Show hit the scene in 1997. Then critics began to note how the band's various influences had so infused themselves into the group's creative core that at times it became difficult to tell exactly where those influences left off and silverchair actually began. Johns heard those charges, and somewhat amazingly, he agreed with them. That fact, perhaps more than anything else, stands behind the bold musical departures that characterize so much of Neon Ballroom.

"It was time that we carved out our own piece of rock and roll turf," the blond-haired vocalist said. "We heard some of the comments that we being made about us, and to some extent, we couldn't disagree. But we were all just a bunch of teen-aged kids who were getting off on playing loud, energetic rock music. Now we may still be a bunch of teenagers, but we have five years of experience and we feel quite ready to test ourselves in every way."

The "test" that young Daniel alludes to may well come about as silverchair continues on their world tour throughout the remainder of 1999. Already the band has entertained North American fans with their heavy blend of powerful old tunes and more eclectic new material. And European and Asian followers will soon be treated to their latest dose of "silver-mania." Indeed sales for Neon Ballroom have been higher in certain parts of the world than they were for either of the band's earlier discs. Certainly their current status in the music world presents a myriad of tests for these three younf rockers. But it also seems quite apparent that silverchair are more than able and more than willing to stand up to any challenge that may confront them.

"This is an album about our experiences and our lives," Johns said. "It's not about rage, and it's not about innocence. It's a lot more personal. It may take some people a little longer to respond to it because of that. If that is so, it doesn't bother me at all."