"Emotion Sickness" - Silverchair's Daniel Johns Delves Deep into his Heart of Darkness and Returns with "Neon Ballroom"

By Elissa Blake (Rolling Stone (Australia))

Photo by Danny Clinch"How's this? I taught my best friend how to seduce my husband!" says silverchair's Ben Gillies, reading from the latest copy of Cosmopolitan. It's 11:30 a.m. at Sydney airport and the members of silverchair are sitting on the carpet outside gate B13. It's the first day of their world tour. First stop. Brisbane.

"Here's one, here's one! When my boyfriend and I have sex, his penis sometimes slips out!" yelps Gillies. The others humph in unison. They've spend a lot of time together in airports. Magazines keep them amused. This time it's Dolly. The doctor column. "It keeps slipping out. What should I do?" reads Gillies.

"Araldite!" shouts Sam Holloway, silverchair's touring keyboardist.

"Practice!" suggests bassist Chris Joannou. They all snigger. The only band member without a magazine is frontman Daniel Johns. He sits cross-legged starting out onto the runway. Yesterday an Air New Zealand 747 narrowly missed crashing into a smaller plane parked on the runway. Low cloud and faulty communications were blamed. Outside the cloud is hanging very low. "Oh shit, we're all going to die really, really dramatically," Johns says. He looks out at the clouds and abruptly changes his mind. "No, I don't feel like that's going to happen today. I can't feel the headlines -- '100 Die in Air Crash' -- no, I can't feel the headlines." He laughs to himself. Then stares hard at me. "I don't know, maybe you can feel the headlines!" No, not today, not yet.

After almost a year off, silverchair are back on the road promoting their third album, Neon Ballroom. Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou, both 19, gladly grabbed six month's holiday before recording the new album. Joannou and his girlfriend went to Thailand for a bit of shopping, sitting on beaches and lots of eating and drinking. Gillies and his girlfriend went off to Byron Bay with a bunch of Newcastle mates.

Johns, 20, was bored immediately. He sat around his parents' house for two weeks before he decided to move out of home. Gillies helped him move all his stuff (and his three-year-old dog, Sweep) into a small rented house by the beach in Newcastle. Within a week, Johns was writing poetry that would eventually become lyrics for the new album. There would be no holiday for him. The concept behind Neon Ballroom is credited to Johns alone. The lyrics are full of sickness, needs, obsession, uncertainties and pain. It is obvious Johns had a much, much darker six months than his band mates.

A tropical storm is brewing outside the Dockside apartments in Brisbane where the band is staying. A voice in the radio says humidity is at 98 percent. Gillies, Joannou and Holloway head straight for the hotel pool. They swim in their boxer shorts until the first of the heavy raindrops come splashing down. Johns goes to his room to wash his face before settling into a comfy chair in the hotel café. He orders tea and watches the charcoal clouds drift lower and lower. "A lot of people have been very worried about me," he says slowly. "But I'm getting better now." 

Photo by Tony Mott Do you want to talk about it?
Yeah, I do.

What was going on while you were writing this album?
I was dealing with a lot of psychological things. I cut myself off from everyone that I knew for about six months and I didn't leave the house at all.

You never saw anyone?
There were two or three occasions where I saw a friend but the majority of the time I just couldn't communicate with anyone. I had to get my parents to ring everyone I knew and tell them not to come around and visit me. Some people took it the wrong way but Ben and Chris understood what was going on.

Were people worried about you at that time?
Yeah, they were actually. I went and saw a therapist to learn to associate with people. I was scared of the phone, if the phone rang I just ran out of the room, I couldn't even handle just the thought of talking to someone. So it made it hard to maintain any relationship with anyone or any friends.

Was it depression?
It was associated with depression. I started getting really bad anxiety trouble, I couldn't leave the house at all even to do grocery shopping. If I left I'd get really shaky and scared and have to go back. I ended up getting medication because every time I left the house I'd be really badly shaking and sweaty and I could feel my heart pounding.

What kind of medication?
Antidepressant tablets and relaxant things so that if I was going to leave the house I'd have to take it about three house beforehand so that it would relax all my muscles so I wouldn't get all tense and start shaking, but I've got a lot better since I wrote the album.

Do you still take the medication?
Yeah, it's really good to even out your moods a bit more. I don't know if I need them any more but I'm too scared to come off. I'll definitely take them this year while we're on tour. But next year I want a normal life.

Was the therapist helpful?
I couldn't really do the whole therapist thing. I can't sit down and talk to someone about it really honestly, I was always holding back. So I only did it for about two months until I said, 'Just give me the tablets and I'm going.' I found it too exposing to talk about it, it's easier for me to express it through music and lyrics.


In the Tarago on the way to the Tivoli Theatre in Bowen Hills, Johns says nothing. Last night he was up until 3 a.m. at a friend's house in Newcastle, just talking and "getting stuff done." Silver eye shadow and smudgy black eye liner hangs around his eyes. "It's really hard to get off," he explains. He got up at 5 a.m. to get to the airport. "I'm really tired but I'm not sleeping so well." His backpack is thrown in the front seat. There are badges all over it: "Meat Free Body," "Less Meat, More Trees," "Even My Dog Is Gay." Inside his backpack are nine sheets of pills including two different sleeping pills. "I'm just trying them out," he says.

Gillies and Joannou are in the back seat singing alone to 2Pac's California on the radio. Gillies is singing the words. Joannou is making booming bass sounds with his mouth. When Britney Spears' hit single Baby One More Time comes on next, they sing along to that too. The song is number one in the charts, holding out Anthem for the Year 2000. The band isn't bothered. "I love this song, it's so catchy," says Gillies. Johns listens and smiles.

The backstage dressing room for silverchair is tiny but the food spread is lavish. Three BBQ chickens, chunky salsa sauce, two large packets of Original CCs, a plate of family-size blocks of chocolate ("My family would love me if I gave them this," says Johns), two loaves of sliced white bread, an avocado, a lump of Swiss cheese ("Is that fancy?" asks Gillies), a large packet of Weetbix which Joannou mistakenly pronounces the English way, "Weet-a-bix," much to everyone's disgust ("What are ya?" demands Johns. "Are you Australian or what?"), a bar of Imperial Leather soap, a deep tray of water bottles on ice, a tray of VB stubbies, a tray of Lucozades and bottles of squeezed orange juice, a plate of bananas, plums, peaches, oranges, pears, apples (red and green), a bag of sliced ham, a plate of broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, pineapples, a watermelon, rockmelon, four heads of iceberg lettuce, salt and pepper, plates and cutlery.

It's 5 p.m. and the band hasn't eaten all day. After the soundcheck, Joannou digs into Weetbix, Gillies devours a chicken and Johns, a strict vegan for over three years, takes a couple of carrots and an orange. None of them drink the alcohol. Gillies picks up the plastic bag of sliced ham and waves it under Johns' nose. "Go on, get some pork on your fork!" he hollers. Johns smiles and waves the bag away. "Fuck off, Gillies." Everyone sniggers.


Neon Ballroom was almost finished when Daniel Johns came to the Sydney recording studio with one last song. It was Ana's Song, soon to be the second single off the album. "It started as a very personal poem," explains Johns. "It wasn't intended to be lyrics to a song, but I ended up really liking the openness of it and liking the fact that I didn't censor myself."

What is it about?
When I was 17, I started suffering from an eating disorder, that's what Ana's Song is about. The lyrics are about relying on any kind of psychological disorder and hiding behind that mental condition.

What was it like having an eating disorder?
It was pretty bad, very uncomfortable. I always knew that I was getting really thin, but I couldn't really eat. It was very confusing, it's something I look back on and can't explain what happened.

Were you vomiting?
It was never bulimia. I just wasn't able to eat at all. I was only eating to stay alive but I wasn't enjoying food at all.

How did it start?
It wasn't a reaction to fame or pressure and it didn't start up with me looking in the mirror and thinking I was fat. It had nothing to do with being vegan either, I was vegan for about a year-and-a-half before this started. It was more like I was constantly challenging myself and seeing how far I could take it.

Was there a turning point?
When I was getting blackouts and I realised if I kept going I'd probably die. So that changed my outlook on it. I was forced to go to the doctor and I was told that I was suffering from pretty bad malnutrition. Our doctor has known us since we were babies and he was looking really worried. Once I saw that, it just clicked, I thought, 'This is really fucked up.'

Did you ever feel like you might die?
I was never suicidal, I never considered suicide an option at all. But when I was really bad with the eating disorder, I though that I might die and I think everyone that knew me thought I might die if I kept going.

Were you hospitalised? Where you put on a drip?
(Johns pauses.) No, I didn't get put on a drip, I was always too stubborn to admit that anything was wrong. I virtually got told that if I kept going, I'd die. At that stage I was just eating to be able to move. But I wouldn't eat anything complicated, I'd just eat things that I knew, I was too paranoid. I was also really paranoid that people would put poison in my food. We'd go to restaurants on tour and I wouldn't be able to eat because I was paranoid that there was poison in the food or someone had dropped a pill in the drink or something. I'm not as bad now, I'm a naturally paranoid person but I can eat at restaurants now without immediately looking for poison.


Gillies and Joannou are tucking into the BBQ chicken backstage. They have two hours to kill in between soundcheck and the gig. Johns has gone back to his hotel room. "How was that last night in New Orleans?" shouts Gillies. "I was so sick the next day. Me and Scott from the Living End were at this bar in Bourbon Street. We'd been drinking these cocktails called Grenades and they actually had little plastic grenades in them."

Gillies is laughing and trying to keep the chicken in his mouth. The pair have endless spewing stories to tell. There was the time Gillies spewed into his hand at his girlfriend's school function, the time Joannou was so sick he couldn't move after his girlfriend's 18th birthday party, the time they went to the pub that had naked dancing girls and someone, not a band member, had sex on the floor with one of the girls, then there was Johns' 18th birthday party in Chicago... "Oh, we better not talk about that," says Joannou, laughing. They respect Johns' absence.

Gillies is throwing his head back asking Joannou to check his nostrils for "boogas." "Nah, you're fine," Joannou says. "We always do that," explains Gillies before he goes on stage.


When Johns returns before the gig, his eyelids are plastered in silver glittery eye shadow and he's wearing a black, glittering body shirt. The crowd of mostly teenagers are mesmerised as he walks onto the stage to begin Emotion Sickness.

Tell me about Emotion Sickness.
It's about fighting against the need to get some kind of medication and trying to pretend that you've got a normal state of mind when you know for a fact that you haven't. All the song are about my psychological state except for Anthem for the Year 2000. Paint Pastel Princess is about using an antidepressant as a metaphor for a kind of saviour. You can hear in the recording that I was nervous because the songs are so emotional. There are some flat notes and some sharp notes but we kept them in because it made it more intense.

Is performing a good outlet?
It's good to express all this when we play live but it's also emotionally draining. After a show I just don't feel like communicating for a while because I've basically just told the hardest period of my life through music.

Will you be OK on the world tour?
Once it starts hurting me emotionally to sing, I'll just have to stop because I won't be able to deal with it. I don't want the songs to lose their meaning. I don't want to sing empty words especially if people are paying money to come and see us play these songs that might have helped them emotionally. So I'll keep singing them until I stop feeling it. I might keep feeling this way all the time or I might stop in two months, you just never know until it happens.


"We were all pretty concerned about Daniel," admits Gillies. "We just wanted to go over to his house with a lump of meat and, 'EAT IT!'" He starts sniggering. Both Gillies and Joannou treat life as one big adventure. If something gets them down, they jolly each other up. "We can usually fix it with a joke or a funny story about stuff we've done in the past," says Joannou. It usually works for Johns too, but not this time.

"I guess we just had to wait for it to run its path," says Gillies. "But you get so angry, we just wanted to make him eat. It was a pretty shitty period just before we stated rehearsing but he seemed much happier and healthier when the songs were written."

What did you think of the lyrics?
"He started singing and because the music's so freakin' loud and he doesn't exactly give us a lyric sheet I didn't even know what they were until we got the album. But I was surprised that they were so personal. He never usually opens up about things, he's very private."


The next morning, Brisbane's Murdoch newspaper, the Courier Mail, has slapped Johns' eating disorder on the front page with the headline, "Eating Disorder Rocks Teen Star." The caption below Johns' photo reads, "Lightweight heavy metal... silverchair's Daniel Johns performing in Brisbane last night."

"It's disgusting," says silverchair's manager John Watson, pacing around his hotel room. "I'm sure there are more important things in the world to put on page one." Johns had admitted his eating disorder two days earlier in an interview with a newspaper journalist. The story has also appeared in Sydney's Daily Telegraph and Melbourne's Herald-Sun. Watson has been up since 7 a.m. taking calls from the States about the band's upcoming U.S. tour. Two phones are ringing while Watson stares at the newspapers. He turns off his mobile and takes the other phone off the hook before he speaks again.

"I have a great deal of concern for Daniel as a human being," he says carefully choosing his words. "There have been many occasions when I've been greatly concerned about the health of the members of this band. All three have had different phases of difficulty but generally the way they've dealt with the pressure that came to them has been remarkable." Watson would have preferred to keep Johns' personal problems private. "It was Daniel's decision to talk about this," he explains. "He wanted to help other people and now we just have to do our best to help him."


Anthem for the Year 2000 is the number one most added track to American radio this week and is already in the top five requests. The global picture is mixed. In the U.K. silverchair are considered a hard rock act with strong support from the metal magazines Kerrang and Metal Hammer. Through France and the rest of Europe, where Freak Show outsold frogstomp, the band is perceived less as a metal band and more alternative rock. In Australia and Canada, silverchair have back to back platinum success. But America is still a problem.

Despite selling 1.4 million copies of frogstomp in the U.S., Freak Show only sold 600,000. Watson puts this down to the release of Abuse Me as the first single in the States instead of Freak, the single that was released first across the rest of the world.

"Sony in America were so sure Abuse Me was going to be a big hit. It's a great song, but Freak would have been a better call," Watson says. "The video for Freak was so strong but it didn't get the kind of support it needed when Abuse Me didn't turn out to be a hit."

As a result, silverchair have to rebuild their fan base in the States. Next week the band will spend two weeks promoting Neon Ballroom in America before heading to Europe for three weeks. In June, they return to America to perform at the key radio station shows. Last yaer these shows featured Radiohead, Alanis Morissette, Oasis, Bush, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters and Garbage, and drew crowds of up to 75,000 people. The band has also been offered spots on the U.S. Van's Warped Tour, Lollapalooza and Edgefest, the Canadian equivalent of the Big Day Out. Then there's the Australian tour in July followed by the summer festivals across Europe.


Daniel Johns goes out of his way to watch Beverly Hills 90210. "It's the original. I remember seeing it when I was in Year 6 and I hated it because it was so uncool but I decided about a year and a half ago that I liked it and now I watch it all the time," he says smiling. "It's not like I'm sitting around writing poetry every day of my life."

The last movie he saw was Will Smith's Enemy Of The State and before that, Ronin. "It had the best car chase, it was just so long." At home he reads his brother's music street press and his 12-year-old sister's teen magazines. "I keep in touch with what the Spice Girls are doing." Now he's starting to snigger. "I read everything! Even my dad's car mags." What about books? "I like Egyptian architecture kind of books but I don't read novels. I just find it interesting, all those links to Egyptian architecture and alien life. I like a good conspiracy."

He looks at his now cold cup of tea for a moment before looking up with a big, lazy smile. He has one last thing to say. "There's also some aspects to my personality that aren't depressing you know," he says as if this will come as a big surprise. "When I'm not on tour or writing music I'm just at home being an average guy. I don't want people to think I'm whinging and I don't want people to feel sorry for me, I couldn't give a shit. I just wanted to be honest."


Photo by Danny Clinch