Interview K-ROCK New York
By THE NOTORIOUS JRG (On Radio)
silverchair's 1997 release, Freak Show, stuck too close to the boys'
(and they were boys, only 17 years old each when it came out) Black
Sabbath-meets- Nirvana-inspired riffs that made their 1995 debut,
frogstomp, such an unrelenting -- yet derivative -- delight, the rock
and roll-buying audience were ready for something new. Admittedly
burnt-out and bored with the music on Freak Show, the silverchair guys
stepped away from the world of music, finished high school and took
some time to become regular people. If the band's third album is any
indication, the space did them good. Neon Ballroom -- the trio's most
thought-out and time-consuming piece of work -- is an immense album,
dense with sweeping melodies and huge orchestration. The band's ability
to rock still holds true but a new dimension has clearly been added to
the mix. We recently sat down with singer/guitarist Daniel Johns and
bassist Chris Joannou to talk about the new album, the state of rock
'n' roll, and feelings.
Q: I was reading that you guys were determined to make a different kind of record this time. In the past, you guys claimed you were just mucking around in the garage with your music. What was your mindset going into the making of this record?
Johns: Before this album, the music was always one of the many things we were doing. We were in school and stuff. So it wasn't quite a part time thing, but we couldn't really practice 100 percent of the time. With this album, I was able to focus on writing. I didn't want to create a new genre of music or anything, but I really wanted to do something that no one was really doing at the moment. So I just sat down and thought about doing a really traditional orchestral album with really futuristic sounds.
Q: So why the strings and orchestration?
Johns: Although having strings in rock songs isn't particularly original, no one's really written an album about strings. All of the songs that have strings in them, when I was writing them I pictured exactly what I wanted. So it was like I wrote the songs for strings as opposed to writing the songs and adding strings in as an afterthought. I wanted to also take the known elements of silverchair and put it all together with the strings and orchestration to make a great rock record.
Q: Have you grown up on this album?
Johns: Yes. We're 19 now. Between the ages of 15 and 18 -- those are the times when our first albums came out - I think those are the times when you do the most growing up. That's when you kind of discover yourself and you have different journeys and you're growing pubic hair and all that stuff. There's all these different things that come into your life. And music was one of those things we were kind of doing. We were growing up and doing all of this crap and doing all of this media stuff that we didn't really understand. We didn't really know what was going on. But with this album we really know what's going on. We were really focused on creating a really good album. We weren't focused on doing anything else.
Q: When you brought in all of these outside elements into it, did you always feel like you had control?
Johns: I was always in control. I talked to our producer and told him exactly what I wanted with every song. With all of these string parts, I knew I wanted these really crying string parts with these slow bending notes. Strings really provoke moods in people that no other instrument can do. You can write sad songs even if you just put a really generic string part on the top of it. So I think it really helped make these melancholy moods in the songs, they're very sad in some ways. I wanted to exaggerate sadness with the strings and pianos. But I didn't want it to all sound too lush and pretty. So in a song like Emotion Sickness I wanted a really manic and broken piano part to break up the album.
Q: With David Helfgott (pianist who was the inspiration for the film, Shine)?
Joannou: It was kind of hard working with him at first, because Ben and Daniel had met him and tried to explain him to us. And I had only seen the movie "Shine." So when he came in, people had to explain that he was really like this. It was just a real shock at first. But after hanging out in the room for 30 seconds it didn't seem like anything was out of place and it just flowed.
Q: Was he easy to work with?
Johns: Yeah, because he loves everything. Everything thing is a good idea. It's all like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, faster, faster, faster." And he's just playing.
Q: And he's kissing and rubbing you.
Johns: Yeah, all the time. He's kissing you and rubbing you. And there was one time he grabbed my dick. He didn't know that he was doing it. He just has to be intimate. He just has to touch someone and it doesn't matter what part. I was just standing there a little uncomfortable. But he's really nice.
Q: So with all of the work you've put into Neon Ballroom, is there more pressure to succeed with it?
Johns: We really want it to do well. I don't know a band that doesn't want their music to do well. I want people to get exposed to this album because I'm really proud of it. But if they don't, I won't be totally devastated.
Q: Looking back, how do you think Freak Show did? It came out in a really difficult time for rock.
Johns: Yeah, a lot of people said that. I think it came out just at the time when more mellow American bands like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind were coming out and it sort of made it difficult for rock like ours to get on the radio. And really, if your song doesn't get played on the radio, you can only achieve a certain amount of success. That's how most people get exposed to music.
Q: I think Freak Show came out in a time when there were a couple Next Big Things going on in America, like techno and ska.
Johns: I think everyone is constantly saying that rock music is dead, but it never really dies. The Prodigy was rock music to a certain extent. There are so many bands that are including techno into rock music and The Prodigy is just more extreme. But there's still rock elements in there. A lot of bands just put in drum loops because it's the thing to do. And a lot of bands do it well and it sounds really good, but a lot of bands also do it really badly. I didn't want to do it and have it come out horribly.
Q: Overall, the songs on Neon Ballroom are slower, so there's more of a focus on what you're saying. Is this a more personal album?
Johns: It's a lot more personal lyrically.
Q: Were you worried about putting yourself on the line like that?
Johns: It was nerve-racking recording it. I never wanted to contain myself with my lyrics. It's a lot more therapeutic to get it out and be honest rather than contain it and hope that people don't criticize you and your life. I was nervous when I was doing the vocals. You can hear that some of the vocals are a little sharp or flat at some parts. We purposely kept it really raw like that. We didn't polish the vocal tracks to the perfect pitch so I sounded like Bryan Adams. You can hear the nervousness in a lot of the songs, which I like. I worried about what people would be thinking when they heard it. But now that it's out, I'm not worried at all. I've had time to kind of digest it. I think a lot of silverchair fans will like it because we've always had people writing in and saying that they really relate to the lyrics and get helped by it or whatever. And I think that this album is going to have the same effect, but more so. People are just going to have to look deeper into it because the lyrics are more poetic than straightforward like the last two albums.
Q: They were taken from poetry?
Johns: This album's songs started as poetry.
Q: What happened, you fell in love or something?
Johns: No, I didn't fall in love. I was living in this house by myself. I was just writing a lot, just writing what was on my mind. The actual lyrics started out as poems, then I put them into lyrical formats. Then we turned them into rock and roll songs.
Q: Do you think that Freak Show was an angry period for you guys? The last time I talked to you guys, you seemed kind of pissed off.
Joannou: Well, I do think that there were some parts of Freak Show that didn't go as well as expected. It was a little bit frustrating at times when you're just out there and you're trying to do your thing and have a good time and people are over-examining every aspect of it.
Johns: It was just the fact that people expected us to be something else. When we recorded Freak Show we were 16 and we were getting all of this flack saying that we were playing this generic hard rock music; and we never said that we were not. We always said that we were playing generic hard rock music. That's what we like. They thought that they were really offending us, but we were like, "Yeah we've been listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for, like, six years." We've been listening to that stuff since we were 11. So of course it was going to be hard rock music. We never said that we were some ground-breaking new act that was going to change music. With this album, we just said, "[Screw] it, let's just do something that nobody else is doing." Without being too pretentious trying to be like some hard rock thing.
Q: Do you think critics are a bit hard on you guys and forget your ages?
Johns: Yeah, but we don't want any special treatment because we're young. But at the same time we want them to think about what they were doing when they were 16. They were probably listening to Duran Duran and dancing around to pop songs. We're just honest. I just don't like it when people make up their pasts. There are certain musicians that say, "Yeah my parents were on tour with Black Flag and listening to Husker Du." And they try to make it seem like they come from a real punk rock family, but they're probably sitting at home in some mansion and the most extreme music they listened to was Mozart. I just don't like it. We never made up our past. And because of that we got a lot of [crap]. We never tried to make it that "Oh, we're so cool." We just told it how it was. Which I'm proud of now, because we're never going to get caught in some lie.
Q: Honesty always pays out in the end.
Johns: It wasn't an intentional thing. We just didn't think of lying.
Q: Has Neon Ballroom captured the silverchair sound?
Joannou: We introduced the strings through the last album. They were suppressed though, so this is something we've been working toward.
Johns: I don't think there's ever going to be a silverchair sound. It's always going to change. There's so many bands that you really, really love their first album and you really love their second album and their third album is okay, then it just gets to be the same.
Q: Then you become Aerosmith.
Johns: Yeah, but at the same time I don't like it when I listen to a band and I really like their first two albums and then they go and totally change their sound. It's like, "[damn]." I guess you always want what you can't have. It's always really refreshing to experience a band that doesn't stick to a formula, especially the Smashing Pumpkins. When Nirvana ended, people turned to the Smashing Pumpkins like, "Bring back rock music. Be the cool ones." I think that anyone who takes the amount of attention and criticism they take while always trying to push their art should be respected. So I respect them even though I don't listen to their music.
Q: So how have you guys grown up personally, not musically, in the last two years?
Joannou: We're just getting a little older and wiser. We had a year off with nothing. That gave me time to find out what I'd be doing if I wasn't in a band.
Johns: It gave us time to escape the rock and roll industry for awhile. The music industry is so false and [screwed] up, it was good to just have a year where we were just at home being people. That put us in a good frame of mind to go out and tour and promote the new album. We hadn't been subjected to constant media stuff for a year and it gave us time to get reinvigorated again.
Q: Was there a time after Freak Show where you were like, "Oh [man], we can't do this anymore?"
Johns: [Hell] yeah.
Joannou: I think if we would have gone straight into the studio after Freak Show to do another one, it would have just been like "Oh, well, this is work. I guess we should play something."
Johns: Toward the end of Freak Show we were just up on-stage bored and just hated every interview. Everything was just monotonous and boring. Everything was tedious. Everything was just [screwed]. It was good to have a year where we didn't have to do any of that.
Q: Is there a part of you that's bored with rock music?
Joannou: I listen to the same old albums. There's always the same albums you take on tour with you, like Led Zeppelin and they never seem to get boring.
Johns: As long at there's new interpretations of rock music, I don't think it's going to get stale. As long as it keeps progressing. There was a period about two years ago, around the time of Freak Show, when a lot of bands who were once popular were putting out albums, I think rock music stopped progressing for awhile. It just stayed and it just stopped and wasn't doing much. And then I think bands kind of had an awakening period and realized that they can't do the same [crap] all of the time and I think it's brought a new level of creativity to rock music. It's on the way up again.
Q: So you think your interviews will be happier now?
Joannou: Yeah, I think that we're just happier all around since we've had that time off. We're more comfortable. We don't have to worry about what's going to happen. We're done with school, so this is all we have to do now.
Johns: When we first started we felt like we had no control. Everyone was telling us what to do and we didn't want to tell people off and say, "No we're not doing it." We did everything, even when we didn't want to do it. We were just way too nice. Now we have a lot more control. If there's something we don't like, we don't do it. So I think we're a lot more content overall.
Q: How are the kids back home? Are they friendly to you or are you too popular?
Joannou: There is some jealousy going on.
Johns: It's weird because as soon as you're not in the papers or not doing anything, they don't care. You can go hang out and do anything. People just kind of let you be. But as soon as there's another article in the paper, it's like, "Oh, they're stars again." It's really neat, for like six months there was like nothing about silverchair anywhere. All of the sudden, I could walk down the street and nobody would say anything. It was cool. As soon as I got my picture in the paper - there was one article - I was walking down the street and people were going, "Oh silverchair, silverchair." It was just like, "[Damn]." One article in the paper just reminds them, "Oh, don't treat them normal."
Q: So, where do you go to be treated normal?
Johns: Home. I moved out for awhile when I wrote the album, but I got kicked out of that place because I had a dog. I wasn't supposed to have one. And the neighbors complained because I was playing music too loud. So they gave me an ultimatum, "Turn the music down and get the dog out or leave." And I said, "Well then, I'm going." And then I moved back home to my family.
Q: So you got kicked out?
Johns: I didn't get kicked out, I was given a choice to stay or leave. I decided to stick with my dog.
Q: Dogs are great.
Johns: It's great that you can have a friend who's a part of a different species. It's excellent that two totally different species can get on so well. I get on better with my dog than I do with most people.
Q: Are there any parts of the recording process that you think weren't going to work out, but came out better than expected?
Joannou: When we recorded "Anthem For The Year 2000" there was this half a minute where everything just stopped and Daniel just had to tell me to just trust him because this is not how it's going to sound at all. And now that it's finished, it's just awesome.
Q: The title is perfect for "Year 2000." I can just see the crowd chanting and pumping their fists in the air.
Johns: I wrote the whole song based on a dream. I always used to dream that we were playing Wembley Stadium. In my dream the PA blows up and the crowd is just pumping their fists and chanting. And then I woke up with that image in my head and said, "I want to write a stadium rock song. I want the crowd to do that. I want it to really rock." I wrote the song in about five minutes.
Q: I like it for its raw personality, the purity of it.
Johns: I think it's a really good step into the new material. If we released anything else, I think it would be too much, too dramatic of a change for the audience. That is the best first single I think we could put out for this album.
Q: In the song, you comment on innocence being short-lived. Considering your age and your past, it's kind of ironic. I think the song says a lot about you guys.
Johns: The song draws a parallel between politicians and how they view youth and how they put on certain restrictions on them. It draws a parallel between that and the record industry and taking away from young stars and using young people and taking their innocence.
Q: Do you still have your innocence?
Johns: Yeah, in some ways. But growing up is much more interesting than being young and innocent.