Home Fires Burning

(Weekend Australian)

First, conquer the world - then win over the locals. Iain Shedden joins silverchair on their triumphant return to Newcastle.

It's 3pm and the only noise to be heard in the cavernous, near-empty Newcastle Entertainment Centre is the booming, chest-battering thud of Ben Gillies' kick drum, the sound reverberating off the walls with each beat as the sound engineer does his best to shape it into something beautiful.

Outside, near the stage door and surrounding the main entrance, groups of teenage girls press their faces to the locked gates in hope of catching a glimpse of Gillies, or bass player Chris Joannou, or singer, guitarist, and songwriter Daniel Johns, the three components of the city's greatest musical export - silverchair.

Gillies - drummer, Novocastrian, budding golfer - is there with his two former school buddies, going through the tedious process of sound checking before the night's homecoming concert in front of 7300 locals. The show is a landmark in many ways. First, it's a sell-out.

"In Australia, when we first got success, there was big-time tall poppy syndrome and in Newcastle it was probably the worst," says Gillies, winding down after the lengthy soundcheck. "We could go round Australia and sell out 3000-4000 capacity venues and here it was more like two. But now, especially with this gig, everyone's just gone: 'So what, they're a real band and it doesn't matter what age they are.'"

The band's only previous encounter with the entertainment centre was supporting Pantera a couple of years back, a gig that sticks out in their minds only because the audience screamed for the main act during their entire set. So tonight is a chance to make the city's biggest indoor venue their own.

It's also an opportunity for five of Newcastle's other leading bands to strut their stuff in front of the biggest crowd of their careers. silverchair decided to use the first night of their latest tour as a showcase for local talent and so the Afterthoughts, Strength to Strength, Personal Choice, Eternia and Army of Prawns (featuring Johns' younger brother Heath on vocals) will grace the large stage for a precious half-hour or so.

The most noticeable aspect of this latest silverchair assault, however, is the boys-to-men transition of the band - as individuals and as a musical force. Neon Ballroom, their third album, is by far their most mature, ambitious, and inventive work, thanks mainly to Johns' development as a songwriter, but also in the cohesion and empathy that now comes as second nature to the three members.

"Daniel came up with the songs, but it was part of a conscious effort to do something really different," says Gillies. "We always like doing that to keep it fresh and not get bored. We'd done the rock thing so much that there weren't any other ways to go with it."

While the chair have maintained the same level of success here, the band's popularity overseas, particularly in the US, has waned since frogstomp took them from the classroom to world acclaim four years ago. Its successor Freak Show was poorly received and, although Neon Ballroom has fared better with the critics, sales have been disappointing. Gillies, however, remains undaunted.

"In [the US] it's really hard - if you're not a pop or a teen sensation like Britney Spears - to get big-time successful unless you're constantly over there touring," he says, "and we're not the kind of band that goes out for 18 months and tours constantly. If we did that, we'd get sick of it and we wouldn't want to do it at all.

"That's probably the reason Neon Ballroom hasn't gone as well over there as we would have liked."

He gives it some thought. "Maybe if we took our shirts off and baby-oiled ourselves up."

No need for that back home, judging by the reaction to tonight's performance. Johns, hardly the most outgoing individual offstage (he likes to stay home and watch telly), is on fire, cajoling and provoking the crowd and prowling the stage like a wild man.

Johns declined to be interviewed on this occasion. The recent court events involving a young woman who took out - then withdrew - an apprehended violence order against Johns may have influenced him further in avoiding the media spotlight, although he appears to make a veiled reference to the case during the show, uttering "I've had enough this week" when more than his requested few try to join the band on stage for the last song Anthem for the Year 2000 .

Aided by a keyboard player and an impressive state-of-the-art light show, the chair's performance is powerful, diverse and intensely exciting. The crowd goes nuts. The homecoming is complete. You can see why they like the place so much.

In fact it's that determination to stay in their home town, hanging out with their mates and their families, that is also a part of silverchair's charm.

"Coming back into a family lifestyle where you're just as equal as everybody else and don't get any special privileges helps," says Joannou. "No extra brussels sprouts.

"We don't really get recognized. We just blend in like any other Novocastrian. Newcastle's got a lot to offer. It's not a big city, but it's a fair size. It's good to come back to."

It's not unusual for a band's fifth year together to be their last, or at very best, their peak, so it's worth remembering that here is an Australian success story that's still evolving. Immediately after this tour the band heads for Europe, where they will perform at summer festivals. For some of them, they'll be teaming up with Red Hot Chili Peppers, with whom they have played before. There's also rumours that they could be involved in one or two events in Australia during the summer here.

It's a familiar cycle, so it's easy to forget that they protagonists are only 19 and have yet to leave the family nest. They even rehearse in Gillies' converted loft, just like they did in the, er, old days. "We started off in the living room when we were 12 and then we moved out to the garage," he says.

As to the long-term future, Gillies believes it's bright, collectively and as individuals. He cites the band's early success while they were still at school is the reason why they remain close friends and why they'll know when to move on.

"I think it's an advantage," he says. "We've done three albums and we've got the experience of a late 20-year-old. By the time we do call it a day we'll still have the time to do a lot of other things."

There's no date set for that, but he adds, "we don't want to overstay our welcome. We want to go out on top."