By Dale Turner (Guitar One)
Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns draws on dark lyrics and orchestral sounds for the band's innovative new album, Neon Ballroom.
silverchair's Daniel Johns (guitar), Ben Gillies (drums), and Chris Joannou (bass) started out as just a small group of surfer dudes who enjoyed music together after school in Newcastle, Australia. Daniel and Ben - who had known each other since the age of five - graduated from composing rap songs in primary school, to playing together in a band called "Short Elvis", so named because they only played Elvis covers. Their second band, which eventually became silverchair, was called "The Innocent Criminals". The Criminals was also a cover band, playing mostly Deep Purple and Black Sabbath songs and a few original pieces. After winning an "unknown band" demo tape contest put on by a local alternative Australian radio and television station, silverchair took the prize - the opportunity to re-record one of their own songs, Tomorrow - and wound up with a #1 single in their own country without even having a "proper" album out.
So many requests poured into the station for silverchair's single, Tomorrow, that a mini bidding war soon broke out for the band. The group finally accepted a bid from Murmur, a branch of Sony Music Australia. Concerned that the band would be dismissed by the media because of their age, Murmur immediately imposed a media ban on the group and purchased circulating photos of the band, forbidding all press and publicity until after the band's first release, Frogstomp. Their introduction to the United States was as the opening act for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Since then, the band has made numerous U.S. television and stage appearances, from hosting MTV's "Alternative Nation" to performing on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Late Show with David Letterman". Back home, their audience and press have been fanatically loyal, awarding their first single hit, Tomorrow, Best Australian Single, Best Australian Debut Single, Highest Selling Australian Single, as well as Best Australian New Talent Overall and Best Australian Debut Album for Frogstomp.
Daniel Johns is silverchair's hyperactive, enigmatic 19-year old frontman, providing the howling vocals, depressing lyrics, and grinding guitar riffs - as well as a good deal of wild onstage antics - that make up what is silverchair. When addressing audiences at concerts, Johns fills the gaps between songs with strange and often confusing personal anecdotes usually concerning boy scouts, orange juice, and his fictional experience in a travelling freak show, claiming he was once "The Amazing Plant Boy" - a creature that sustained itself on sunlight and could provide enough oxygen for three other people in an airtight container for several hours.
Daniel's first guitar was an $80 Rocks Axe, models of which are still being sold in WalMarts everywhere. With fame came inevitable equipment upgrades: he now owns at least twenty Paul Reed Smith guitars (including Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton's green PRS Dragon, which Daniel picked up after Hamilton traded it in for a new PRS) for composing and performing.
Just days after silverchair finished recording their new album, GuitarOne hooked up with Daniel Johns to talk about his life as a guitar player, songwriter, and international rock star.
GuitarOne: How long had you been playing guitar prior to silverchair's 1995 record deal with Epic Records?
Daniel Johns: I started playing guitar when I was probably 12 years old and we'd been playing around together as a band from the age of 12 to about 15. In Australia, there's this really underground television station called SBS - it's pretty much an ethnic channel, it plays just really strange ethnic movies and things - and there was a music program on it called "Nomad", and they were having a competition (co-sponsored by Australia's national alternative rock radio station, 2JJJ-FM) to kind of "unearth" new bands. The show played "left-of-center" music - strange music that doesn't really get heard anywhere besides on that show. We just thought it was a cool show, so we entered the competition. There were about 800 entries or something, and we never expected to win - 'cause we were these little 14-year old guys just jamming in a garage - but for some reason we won, so we just went "Alright. We'll take it! Cool (laughs)!" Then we got signed to Murmur Records in Australia at 15 or 16 years old and then it was probably a year later that we got signed to Epic in America.
GO: You guys were touring the world at a very young age. What was that experience like?
DJ: When we first started touring, it was a really cool experience. We thought it was excellent to be able to travel the world and play our own music and stuff. But it kinda started taking its toll by the time we got to about 17 because we were also doing a lot of school stuff. We were being tutored on the road and doing our last years of high school, so it wasn't as fun as it should have been. The Freak Show tours weren't as fun as the Frogstomp tours because we were under a lot of pressure. But I think the tours for the new album, Neon Ballroom, are gonna be a lot better because that's all we have to think about: just music. We don't have to worry about schoolwork any commitments at home. We can just do what we wanna do and play music.
GO: I understand that your parents accompanied you on the road during silverchair's first couple of tours. Will they be joining you this time?
DJ: No. The only reason they toured with us at the start was because they had to. It was illegal to play a lot of the venues we were playing without guardians. It's been like two years since we've had to tour with our parents.
GO: You guys graduated from high school at the end of 1997. Did that have a positive effect on your ability to write the music for Neon Ballroom?
DJ: Yeah. It definitely was very helpful to finish school because, with the first two albums, it was hard to really focus on the playing and writing. But with this album, music was more a full-time thing instead of something that you did after school or before school. It was more "You're living for music," so you've got as much time as you want to really focus on doing exactly what you wanted to do.
GO: Were you looking for anything in particular for inspiration when you were writing songs for this album?
DJ: Pretty much all the songs on Neon Ballroom were written as poems first. I was living in a house and writing a lot of poetry. It's just mainly about some mental difficulties and personal troubles, I suppose. And to focus more on the darker aspects of life in music, rather than "happy", "beachy" dog times.
GO: How would you categorize or label the music on this record?
DJ: Well, the whole reason we called the album Neon Ballroom was because it kind of represents both the "new style" (i.e. "neo") futuristic-rock sounds that are on songs like Anthem for the Year 2000, and "Ballroom" kind of applies to the more "traditional" orchestral sounds that are on songs like Emotion Sickness and probably the majority of the record.
GO: What are some of the differences between this album and silverchair's two previous records, Frogstomp and Freak Show?
DJ: I think that Frogstomp was just a real eruption of energy, really. We were just young and wanted to play heavy music like Black Sabbath, and stuff we'd always listened to. And then the second album, Freak Show, we tried to kind of establish a "silverchair sound". With Neon Ballroom, I wanted the music to still appeal to silverchair fans, but I wanted to take it in a whole new direction and do something that no one else is really doing.
GO: Frogstomp took nine days to record, Freak Show took three weeks. How long did this album take?
DJ: I think it took probably five weeks, including strings and stuff like that.
GO: Was the writing process a lot longer?
DJ: Yeah. We originally intended 1998 to be a year off. But after two weeks I couldn't really relax until I had written an album. So I just started writing, and that probably took between four and six months, to write the entire thing.
GO: Do you have to "work" at writing songs, or do riffs and melodies just kind of pop into your head?
DJ: Sometimes it's really easy; they just come into my head. But those periods where I have "writer's block", then I have to really work to produce the songs. So, it's both ways. But usually the best songs are the ones that come naturally just flow.
GO: Do you think that writing the lyrics first, before the music, made the end results different?
DJ: Yeah, I think in some ways it helped, and in some ways it made it harder. One of the ways it helped was: Since the poetry I write is pretty unorthodox - it's not really in any "set" form - and I was writing the music around the words, it made the music a lot more different and a lot less "generic". But it also made it a lot harder to write something good around the lyrics because usually you come up with music and then write the melody and lyrics on the top so the lyrics just fit in perfectly.
GO: Having the lyrics first, you'd have to come up with a good sound that fit the mood and subject matter of you poem.
DJ: Yeah, exactly. Which is why a lot of the songs on this album are really mellow and dark and orchestral.
GO: What kinds of things did producer Nick Launay bring to the table this time around?
DJ: Well, I had a conversation with Nick - I rang him up because he had done Freak Show with us - and I told him the kind of thing that I wanted to do for this album. And it was a pretty long conversation; we probably talked for about an hour. When I was talking to him I'd say, "I want this, this, that..." And he'd be like "Yeah. I know how to do that, I know how to do that." Nick's really good because he's really willing to listen and doesn't try to dominate the recording process. He'll just help you out with whatever you want to do. He's great. And he does a few unorthodox things. A lot of days, me and him just sat around fiddling with effects units and effects pedals and different miking positions and stuff. Not so much on this album, but on Freak Show we did a lot of speeding up the tape and then slowing it back down. We did that a little bit on this album as well.
GO: Has you guitar collection grown beyond your Paul Reed Smith and Gibson G?
DJ: Yeah. I've got about 24 guitars, and they're up in my room in guitar racks. I use them a lot for recording, but when we play live I pretty much just use my Paul Reed Smith and SG.
GO: When you have so many guitars at your disposal, how do you decide which one you're gonna use for a particular track when you're recording?
DJ: Well, whenever I write a song I pretty much straight away know exactly what sounds and what instrumentation I want on the song. And I know what particular characteristics each of my guitars has, so it's not very hard. I just go straight to the guitar that I pictured using when I was writing the song.
GO: Do you record your guitar parts and vocal parts separately?
DJ: For some songs, yeah. The way we record, we go into a room and we put down the rhythm guitar track, the bass track, and the drum track all live, and then after that I go in and do the extra guitar track and the vocals. But it's always good to have the foundation of the song done live because then you get a really honest energy to the song.
GO: Has singing and playing the guitar always come naturally, or did it require a lot of practice?
DJ: When I originally started playing guitar I didn't pitch myself as a singer. I remember we were just playing - me and Ben (Gillies, drummer) were jamming - and we were like 12 years old, and we had just come to an agreement that I would sing until we found a singer. And we never got around to finding a singer (laughs).
GO: Did you use any unusual tunings on the album?
DJ: Yeah. Most of the songs are in some kind of strange tuning. I'm not too sure what they are (laughs). I know that on Point of View the low E string was tuned up to a G#, and the rest of the songs were tuned to an open G# chord. And Emotion Sickness, Paint Pastel Princess, and Spawn Again are all tuned down to C#. And that's also an open tuning but I don't know what it really is (laughs). In order to get a really different, non-generic kind of sound, I just wanted to invent some tunings. And I'm not really the kind of guy that sits down and says "Okay. I'll tune to 'this' and 'this' and 'this', and it should sound like 'this'." I just tune to whatever sounds good to me. I'm not really that "in" with what notes are what, I just play whatever sounds good and whatever feels right.
GO: I understand you use an unusually heavy string gauge.
DJ: Yeah. I use .011-.052.
GO: It sounds like you've been working on your lead guitar chops.
DJ: I haven't been working on it. The last two albums were pretty much just heavy riffs and really "rock" kinds of things. With this album, I wanted to kind of take it the other way and do exactly what people didn't expect us to do - which is what I think we've done because everyone that hears the new album says it sounds like a whole new different band with a bit of a silverchair influence.
GO: Freak Show featured a sitar on a couple of tracks. Can you talk a bit about the exotic, ethnic, and out-of-the-ordinary instruments you used on Neon Ballroom?
DJ: For a song called "Black Tangled Heart", we used an actual harp, which was played by a lady in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. There's a pretty large string section for a lot of the songs - I think it was about an eight-piece string section, which was all recorded live. There's a lot of piano. David Helfgott (the pianist who inspired the Oscar-winning movie, Shine) actually plays on Emotion Sickness.
GO: How did you hook up with him?
DJ: I was talking to Nick, saying that on a particular song I wanted to have a really manic, crazy, discordant, wild piano piece - not really chords, just really manic, discordant notes. And because that's the way David Helfgott plays, we thought that would be a really cool idea. And because he's Australian and has a bit of a profile overseas, people could kind of understand why we got him. So we got in contact with his manager, and then we hooked up and did it.
GO: I understand your dog makes an appearance on one tune.
DJ: Yeah. My dog Sweep is on a song, but it's really very hard to hear. It's on Steam Will Rise. I was doing a lot of vocals in a vocal booth, and my dog was in the recording studio and she was getting upset because I was singing and not paying attention to her (laughs). There was actually a break in the music, and she barked to kinda get my attention, and we kept it on there because she sounded so cool (laughs).
GO: It's admirable that you guys stayed in school during silverchair's early years, despite the fact that you were successful recording artists. Do you see yourself as a positive role model for other people your age?
DJ: I don't know, I guess our public personae could be perceived as being a little bit influential for teenagers to stay in school, but I don't think we're role models. We're definitely not the kind of people you wanna model yourself after. We definitely work hard, so if that's what people wanna do - if they wanna work hard - I guess they can take a leaf out of silverchair's book and "work hard". But, in terms of being "normal people" and "socializing" and "being cool", we're not the kind of people you wanna be like we're not "cool" in the sense that everyone tends to use the word "cool". We don't hang out and party all night and surf and do all that crap - well, actually Ben and Chris are pretty cool, I won't speak on behalf of them. They're pretty cool; they do some pretty cool stuff. But I pretty much sit down and watch soap operas all day (laughs).
GO: What initially inspired you to pick up the guitar?
DJ: I was always into rap music - I took breakdancing classes and stuff like that. When I was little, I listened to just about anything. I was really into that whole "beat" music until about the age of 11 - when mom or dad showed me one of their Black Sabbath records. I just heard it, and I went, "Fuck yeah! I wanna play that instrument (laughs)!!" I really got into mom and dad's old records - like Deep Purple, too. The whole first year of playing guitar, I was just figuring out Black Sabbath and Deep Purple riffs.
GO: Would you say that Tony Iommi (of Black Sabbath) and Ritchie Blackmore (of Deep Purple) were your "guitar heroes"?
DJ: Yeah. Definitely. They still are. I love listening to the way they play. There's something about Ritchie Blackmore: He's really eccentric, and sometimes it's really "wanky", but it's cool. I just love how it's crazy, untraditional guitar work - especially live. He does stuff like Hendrix did, like play with his feet and play solos with his teeth. I just reckon it kicks ass (laughs).
GO: I understand that Ritchie Blackmore inspired you to study classical guitar.
DJ: Yeah. At one stage, when I was 12 years old, I was obsessed with Deep Purple. I had Deep Purple everything; my whole room was Deep Purple posters, Deep Purple albums, Deep Purple t-shirts, and Deep Purple videos. And on one of the Deep Purple videos, Ritchie Blackmore said that he "studied classical", which is something that no 12 year old would really ever want to study - I was just too into rock music. But because Ritchie Blackmore did it, I said, "Yeah! I'll do it (laughs)!" So I did classical lessons for about a year, which I suppose helped to a certain extent. But it didn't really do that much in terms of "technique"; it was more just a good experience because it kind of broadened my musical horizons.
GO: Did you develop your rock guitar approach by figuring out things you learned by ear?
DJ: Yeah. Definitely. I think it's good for at least the first year when you're first learning guitar just to kind of feel your way around the instrument, even if you don't play it that much - just so you've got a really natural approach to the instrument, rather than getting the guitar and then someone saying "Okay, this is where you put your fingers. This is how you do it." and then just having a really generic guitar technique. It's a lot better to "feel out" the instrument and see what feels right to you. And then once you've done that, I think it's cool to go and take lessons.
GO: Have you always had dreams about becoming a professional musician?
DJ: I never really wanted to become a "professional" musician until I saw the "Queen: Live at Wembley Stadium" video when I was about 13. And then I just thought playing at Wembley Stadium would be the most kick-ass thing ever. So that was always my dream, and still is my dream: To play at Wembley Stadium. I never did say, "I wanna be a famous rock star." I just said, "I wanna play music, and at some stage I wanna play Wembley Stadium. I don't care if it's empty, as long as I'm there (laughs)."
GO: What are some of your other lifetime musical goals?
DJ: My main lifetime musical goal was pretty much achieved with Neon Ballroom. I think. My main thing ever since we were playing music was to create an album that was not only "contemporary music" but also a kind of statement. And in a way, a lot of the pieces of music on this album aren't just "rock music" pieces, they're actually pieces of art. Whether they're "good art" or "bad art", it doesn't matter. It's just a very big expression on my behalf; it was just a good way to express myself. And I just wanted to do an album that was very different from what I've heard before. So, yeah, I think I achieved my main goal with this album, which is kind of sad because I've got none left (laughs). I'm very happy with the way it turned out.
GO: Did you ever think playing guitar would take you this far?
DJ: No, never. I always wanted it to, but I never thought it would. I didn't know what I was gonna do. I didn't have any goals when I was little (laughs). I just wanted to play music, and whatever happened, happened.