Silverchair - Lighting Up the Neon Ballroom
It’s been an uphill battle since day one for silverchair. If the
Australian trio weren’t countering critics that couldn’t look past
their age- they were hardly fifteen when they recorded their platinum
debut frogstomp -- they were being accused of cloning the sounds of
Pearl Jam and Nirvana and even Led Zeppelin on sophomore release Freak
Show.Neon Ballroom should silence such cynics, the product of a band
proud of their achievements, at ease with their setbacks, and more
savvy and rational about their place in the music industry than many
veterans twice their age. And for good reason. Though Neon sparkles
with a maturity only hinted at on their previous outings, it stops
short of being pretentious, capturing the same spirit that has made the
band such an international success. In short, Daniel Johns writes for
an audience that he knows all too well -- himself, and whether people
realize it or not, acclaim hasn’t rid him of the problems that plague
most teenagers. He hangs his emotional laundry out to dry on
silverchair’s latest effort, and the results are their grittiest and
most convincing recording to date.Musically enchanting and lyrically
gripping, Neon Ballroom soars from the orchestral majesty of opening
track Emotion Sickness to the looming haze of closer Steam Will Rise,
pausing between for the adrenalized first single Anthem For The Year
2000 and turbo-charged Spawn Again and Satin Sheets, and fluttering
through the more pensive, piano and string paced solitude of Miss You
Love and Black Tangled Heart. While emptiness may have been the
motivation for many of the songs that built silverchair’s 12-track Neon
Ballroom, it’s the fulfillment you feel throughout that makes the album
such an emotional and musical success. Two months before embarking on
their first tour of America in more than a year, frontman and
songwriter Johns, bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies all
three are 19 now, and graduated from the Aussie equivalent of high
school in late 1997, phone the Big Apple from the other side of the
globe to shed some light on their Neon Ballroom.
P: That thing that immediately struck me about this record, is that is sounds like silverchair; Past records have sounded a lot more like the bands that influenced you.
C: it's another leap. I think Freak Show was more like frogstomp than this one, although it was still a huge leaps, we wanted this one to be even bigger.
B: Yeah I think it's a really big step for us, I also think it is an album that people can listen to and say, "That's silverchair." On the first album we were compared to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and on the second album, we were compared a bit to Nirvana and then Led Zeppelin -- although Zeppelin's fun, because we love them. This one is just basically us, right down the line, no question about it. But I think all new bands get compared to other bands anyway.
D: Exactly, I don't think this album sounds like anything else. Which, in a way, has already given me the kind of satisfaction that I desired, so sales really aren't that important to me now. I'm already satisfied with what I've done.
P: The last album didn't sell as well as frogstomp. Did that worry you? That's got to be a little intimidating heading into this release.
D: No, it doesn't worry me at all, I really could care less if it's successful or not. Of course, I'm going to do a certain amount of press and the business side of it, because I want it to do well, but if it doesn't, I'm not going to be devastated or anything. I could have easily written an album full of Tomorrow gotten the biggest producer in America to do it, and had songs that would get played on the radio so I could sell 10 million records, but I didn't because I wanted a record that was honest.
C: And Freak Show picked up where frogstomp didn't sell well. Where it didn't do well, it made up for it in different areas. We just need to get out more and do more shows. That was tough last year because we had school and a lot more restrictions. Now we don't have to worry about that stuff, it's music only. It feels so much better to just be able to concentrate on one thing, we can get into a routine instead of having to do half of everything.
B: We just do the music we want, if people like it, that's cool. If they don't, there's nothing we can do about it. The public is unpredictable.
P: Was Neon Ballroom approached differently than your previous albums?
D: Yeah, it was approached a lot differently. The first two albums were written with the music being second to something else -- like school, and everything else that teenagers go through. My mind was on many things, and music was just one of them. On this album, music was the only thing I was doing and the only thing that I had to concentrate on. I approached it differently in that all of the songs were written as poetry. In three months I wrote about 112 poems, and I made a collage out of the poems, and turned the words that meant the most to me into songs. Then I wrote the music around words, rather than writing the words around the music.
P: Was that intentional or was it just the way it happened?
D: No, I consciously did that because I wanted to approach this album this album totally opposite to how I did the last two. I wanted to keep the good characteristics of silverchair, but I also wanted to do something that was totally different and no one else was doing.
P: What do you think it was just that you did differently?
D: I think structurally the songs are a lot more abstract. I think the lyrics are a lot more vague but they mean a lot more because you have to really look into the songs. It's very much like a movie, in the way that ig you actually sit down and just lose yourself in the music, you will feel a certain mood. The last two albums were very traditional hard rock. There was nothing particularly different about them, they were just good rock songs. This album is quite different than anything else, and hopefully still good. I think it is.
P: Ben and Chris, did you guys write at all on the record?
B: Daniel wrote most of the album. In our year off, he turned into a hermit, we didn't see him that much. Me and Chris were keeping normal hours, and surfing and hanging out with mates. I didn't really think about the writing, I was just thinking about having a good time. I did have a hand in two songs, though Spawn Again which was actually for the movie Spawn, and Trash which is kind of heavy, a fast, punky one, but it didn't make the album, I am going to try and be more involved with the writing on the next album. This time I was just lapping up the great atmosphere here in Newcastle.
C: I must say I tried writing on my own, but it really sucked. It was pretty ordinary. Basically, Daniel wrote it all himself. We came into rehearsals after a long break, and Daniel had all the songs almost finished. We just went from there. There were little changes, but nothing major.
P: So what did you guys do while Daniel was holed up
B: We just had the whole last year off. It was sooo good! It was 12 months of pure leisure. We went surfing, more out with mates, hung with the girlfriends, and have got some good tans going, as well.
C: Well there was a large chunk of it where we did absolutely nothing, just went surfing, four wheel driving on the beach, and did a lot of camping. The rest of it was pre-production, getting the songs ready, then recording. The last of it has been getting the artwork ready for the album.
P: What was it like for you Daniel, doing all the writing…
D: It wasn't a good time all the time, but I'm glad that I did it now. It was very satisfying, I wouldn't say it was fun. It was really hard at times, and very tedious at times.
P: So you basically wrote the whole album by yourself. What does it mean to you? What is the Neon Ballroom?
D: The Neon Ballroom is pretty much the most special thing in my life. It's pretty much a musical diary of the hardest time in my life. When I was having a lot personal troubles and a lot of mental difficulties, the whole thing was documented into poems and then the poems were documented into songs. To say this album is just another album- although it might be to anyone else -- to me it's the most special thing that I could have ver released because it's just totally a musical diary.
P: So the songs relate to the times in your life?
D: Well, most of the songs are about anxiety and depressing and mental imbalances. Different forms of mental disorder and things I was going through in the period after Freak Show until now, and my way of dealing with a lot of the problems. I would write down poems and express myself through poetry and music.
P: What are some of these songs about? Can we start with Anthem for the Year 2000, the first single?
D: Yep. Anthem is about politicians looking at the youth and treating them like dirt like they don't exist like they're never going to mean anything, like they're just obsessed with drugs and sex. It's about politicians and their fascism and their yuppie mentality. It's just speaking on behalf of what my friends are feeling, and what I and a lot of young people in Australia are feeling.
P: How about Ana's Song (Open Fire)?
D: there was a time in my life when I had these really bad phobias of certain food because I though they would cut my throat or cut my stomach. I couldn't eat anything hard, and for like six months I was just eating soup and fruit. Everything was distorted and that's pretty much what Emotion Sickness is about as well..
P: How does the title Ana's Song relate to it?
D: It sounds like a love song, and it's kind of a love song to anorexia. Ana being the first name. Rexia being the last.
P: And Emotion Sickness?
D: It's just a play on words. I think it's a very captivating song title. It really sums up what the songs is about. It's about all sorts of emotional disorders and the problems in someone's head.
P: Spawn was written for the movie right?
D: Yeah, but the lyrics have changed this time around. It's actually called Spawn Again now. It's about animal experimentation and the exploitation of animals in laboratories.
P: Was that what it was written about to begin with, or did you change the meaning?
D: No, that was what that was written about to begin with but there's a whole new change in the middle, a new verse.
P: Miss You Love?
D: Miss You Love is about being stuck in a mental state and not being able to find any form of love outside tour family because you're too afraid to commitment and getting attached to someone.
P:It's based on a personal experience I presume?
D: Yeah, every song on the album is totally personal and straight from the heart, except for Year 2000 which is straight from my heart, but speaking on behalf of a whole lot of people.
P: Were these all problems that you were dealing with through the first two albums?
D: Yeah, definitely, but they kind of increased after Freak Show. I really went through a rough patch and had a lot of problems. There was a stage where I was going to leave the band because I just had to sort myself out. So yeah, that's all documented on the album, which is why it's so special to me.
P: Is that why there was such a long break? The other guys talked about taking a year off….
D: Yeah, partially. In that year off I just really wanted to focus on creating a really special album. I thought the third album is really the time where you say say "OK, I'm going to take a huge risk and just do something totally different from what people expect".
P: it sounds like you've succeeded the album is really a step up for silverchair.
D: Yeah, definitely! I've achieved everything I wanted to achieve with this album, so anything good from here on in is a bonus.
P: How about the emotional traumas? Have those been alleviated a bit?
D: Yeah, I've learned to deal with them a bit more. A lot of it was just frustration in not being able to create something I wanted to create, and a lot of it was that I was just too obsessed with creating an album that was totally satisfying. I pretty much live for music, so it kind of relieved a lot of the pressure once I had done that. On the last two albums, I was too obsessed with creating an album that was totally satisfying. I pretty much live for music, so it kind of relieved a lot of the pressure once I had done that. ON the last two albums, I was too bust trying to please other people. I think that took a toll on my brain -- I was just too worried about what other people thought. On this album I was purely trying to please myself, and that was it. Musical masturbation. I think a lot of this album as being wanky, because it's so grand and big, but that doesn't bother me. I know a lot of it I just wanted to make as grand as possible. It’s not a wank album, but I can see how some people are going to perceive it as being some big musical statement, like some Pink Floyd guitar thing.
P: There’s nothing wrong with Pink Floyd!
D: Exactly, I just wanted to create music that was actually art, not just music.
P: So it’s definitely more fulfilling for you to make an artistic statement?
D: Oh definitely. I have never understood bands that just go and get the biggest producer in America. They totally just write these songs that are obviously just written for radio -- they start the song off with a chorus and just do verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc… Although a lot of people like it, I certainly don’t understand what’s satisfying or gratifying about it. I think it’s a lot more satisfying to do something different and make an artistic statement and sell no records, because then you can look back on it in 40 years and say, “yeah, that was good!” Rather than 'Yeah, God I’m rich,” I’m glad I did this, rather then sell myself out just to make money.
P: The money’s important though. If you don’t make the money, you’ll need to do something else to survive.
D: Well, of course money is important. I’m not saying I don’t like money- everyone likes money! I’d love to be able to have a house that looks like a jungle and be able to drive around in a BMW, but if I don’t have it, I don’t particularly give a shit as long as I have a bike and I’ve got a roof over me. We were lucky with the first album that we got signed when alternative music was so popular. I think that set us up financially, anyway. That gave us a lot of room to experiment with the next two albums. Especially with this album.
P: I think that’s something a lot of music fans don’t realize. People always get mad when bands “change their sound,” but as an artist there’s no challenge in doing the same thing over and over again. You need to evolve and grow.
D: Yeah, it’s like any occupation or profession. You’ve got to set yourself new goals and new challenges in order to keep it interesting. A lot of bands are so dull and boring because they’ve been doing the same thing over and over again because they know that if they keep doing it, they are going to keep achieving commercial success. That kind of thing just doesn’t appeal to me at all. It’s definitely what I’m talking about with the whole radio thing. It would have been so easy for me to sit down and write Freak Show all over again, but to get a certain level of satisfaction , you have to take risks. I think we’re taking a big risk in changing our musical direction, but I think we’ve kept enough of the positive elements of Silverchair to keep Silverchair fans satisfied.
P: That leads to the whole issue of credibility. Does it bother you guys when critics just write you off as a “boy band”?
C: Everyone has their own opinion but at the end of the day, you have genuine fans who keep coming back. We’re not really worried about pleasing the people who aren’t interested. We’re just happy about getting out there and playing for the people who want to listen.
B: It does piss me off to a certain extent. A lot of our songs are harder than some people might think, if they’d only sit down and listen to them. I don’t understand human beings sometimes. It’s just silly.
D: With the first album, the only reason we appealed to the whole teenage audience is because we looked young and fresh and we looked like a healthy version of a rock band. But, as people get older, you lose that whole fresh-faced image. People just get sick of seeing your face. That’s when people have to say, “OK, are they good at music or did they just totally rely on looking nice for teenage girls and shit?” We never purposely appealed to that audience. We always avoided doing interviews with teen press and stuff, because we knew that if we could just see the whole teen thing out, people would eventually start listening to the music and judge us for the music rather than what we look like. I was worried about what people thought of us on the first two albums, I was always obsessed with wanting people to think we’re cool. I didn’t want to see records, I just wanted people think we’re cool, that was it. But I’m at the stage now where as long as the music I am writing gives me satisfaction, and as long as I’m achieving what I want to achieve, then I’m totally cool with however people want to perceive us. I don’t care. I don’t want to try and have to convince people.
P: Emotion Sickness immediately grips you, it has a big, orchestral sound, and that carries throughout the record. What led to your working with David Helfgott (the pianist who inspired the movie Shine)?
D: I was talking to the album producer and I was saying that I wanted a really crazy manic, discordant piano part on top of this song because it’s kind of beautiful. I wanted something crazy and manic and dark over the top of it. I had seen documentaries on David and the movie Shine, and I thought he’d be really good for the part, so we got in touch with his manager and he agreed to do it. That was really good!
P: Did you feel comfortable working with him?
D; Yeah it was strange, but it was really exciting. It was one of the most satisfying days of my life. Just having someone that special playing on a song that meant that much to me was really good.
P: Continuing through the album, is Dearest Helpless a reference to yourself?
D: Yeah, it’s like every song is a page of a diary. There’s nothing in any of the songs that I’ve made up for artistic benefit. It’s all totally honest, just written in a lyrical, poetic manner.
P: What’s Satin Sheets about?
D: That’s about the corporate world looking down on people. If I walk into a restaurant or a café or something, there’s this whole Yuppie mentality of people who think I shouldn’t be there because I don’t brush my hair. But I’ve probably got more money then them. It’s about people who think that unless you look rich, you’re not rich, and if you don’t look rich, you don’t deserve to be at a café having a cup of coffee.
P: Paint Pastel Princess?
D: That’s about anti-depressant drugs that totally level you out. You no longer feel high and you no longer feel lows. It’s all just the same.
P: As the closer, is Steam Will Rise a song of fulfillment, tying it all together?
D: That’s just the perfect song for the end of an album. It’s very cryptic, I think. It’s very repetitive and in ways it’s very boring. It’s supposed to get you in a frame of mind.
P: Did the album succeed as therapy for you?
D: It’s very therapeutic. I think without writing this album I would be a bit of a wreck. This is my therapy and the way that I express myself. Hopefully, when people hear it, it can help other people who are going through the same kind of things.
P: I know a lot of people felt that way about songs on the last two albums, and I’m sure it will happen again. I think a lot of fans can relate because your frame of reference is better then that of someone twice a listener’s age.
D: Exactly. I think it’s because we’re in the same age bracket. Our fans are growing with us and they might not go through the same problems, they can appreciate how hard it is.
P: Ben wrote some on reak Show. Was there ever a chance of him writing with you on this?
D: Yeah, Ben co-wrote a few of the songs on the last album, but this time around, I just had this vision in my head. I just wanted to do it. If I didn’t do it with the silverchair album, I would have done it myself because I just had this vision and I needed to do it. They totally understood what I needed to do, so they said “Go for it.” I presented them with the songs and they really liked them, so it worked well.
P: Does that distract from the whole element of being a band? When it gets to that point is it more of a Daniel Johns solo project than a band?
D: No, it’s still a silverchair project, but I think it’s a lot closer to me than Ben or Chris because I am just very close to it. They’re close to it because they played on it, they just didn’t actually write it.
P: So there’s no rule that someone couldn’t write a song with you, it just happened to work out this way?
D: Yeah, exactly. I just wanted to do everything my way. I said “If you don’t want to do it, that’s cool, we’ll do another album and I’ll do this another time.” They understood what I wanted to do and were col with it.
P: This will be the first time silverchair tours without their parents… Is America safe?
C: I don’t think it will be that different since our parents were always off doing their own thing anyway and we never really saw them that much. I think it should be good though!
D: There’s going to be a lot more freedom because we don’t have to worry about anything but playing music. Whereas before we had to worry about the music and keeping up with what we were doing at school and keeping up with what we were doing at school and keeping our families happy, this time we just have to worry about playing music, so I think there will be a lot more freedom on the road. Whether that’s a good thing or a band thing, I’m not sure yet.
B: I’m looking forward to just playing live, it’s one of our preferred pastimes . The actual traveling though, I hate, it’s one of the crappiest things in the world. Unless you’re traveling to the coast for a holiday, but sitting on planes and busses for 20 hours id just a nightmare. It just pisses me off!
D: Live performances are a whole different thing. The album is more of a piece of art. With live performance it’s about projecting a certain energy at the crowd. We’re not going to try to reproduce the album live, that’s just not something that’s going to happen. We’re just going to play with as much energy and integrity as we can.
P: What does integrity mean to silverchair?
D: Well, just being true to yourself and not selling yourself out. Not saying, “OK, I’ve got this song and we’ll sell 10 million albums, but we won’t like the sound.” Anyone who will do that is just copping out, and I just don’t have time for it. I’m just not going to be like that. Unless I like it myself, I’m just not going to present it to the public.