Nirvana Out of Pyjamas

(The New Zealand Herald)

silverchairThose precocious Australians in silverchair have just cut their third album. Nick Smith finds out what it's like to be 19 and world famous.

"Angst Merchants in Touchy-feely Shock."

That could be the headline to describe silverchair's recording sessions for Neon Ballroom, the Australian rock trio's third album and first since finishing college.

Hugging, kissing, love and affection ... and that's just the first song, Emotion Sickness.

Actually, all the hugging and kissing was confined to that one song, says drummer Ben Gillies, and is attributable to the presence of David Helfgott, the inimitable Australian pianist and subject of the Oscar-winning movie, Shine.

Helfgott lets his ivory-tinkling fingers do the talking all over the opening power ballad, lending an air of insanity to the rich orchestration.

Helfgott was irrepressible in the studio, says Gillies, incessantly "hugging, kissing, mumbling. He's a very affectionate man ... the day in the studio was very memorable. It wasn't uncomfortable that he was always hugging and kissing -- it's just him and you have to accept it."

The trio were thrilled that Helfgott agreed to lend his manic musical charms to the song, which also features the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Gillies says it is the first time Helfgott has played rock.

"He was saying [silverchair's music] was classical jazz. That was his description of it, which we thought was kind of funny. But he really seemed to enjoy playing on it and seemed to enjoy the fact that he was doing something really different for him as well.

"The whole reason we got [Helfgott] was because Daniel Johns [guitarist, singer and songwriter] said he wanted a manic piano part, and who better than a fellow Australian and one of the most renowned piano players in the world."

So silverchair have left school, grown up and are playing with real orchestras and classical pianists. The record company and the band, all at the grand old age of 19, are promoting Neon Ballroom as silverchair's mature album.

And why not. Even by rock 'n' roll standards, to be cutting your third album by age 19 is extraordinary.

"I definitely think it's a mature album," says Gillies. "The reason we have done this album now is we started so young."

Indeed, the trio recorded the multi-million-selling frogstomp at the precocious age of 15, following it up with the only marginally less successful Freak Show two years later.

Because the band started playing at such a young age, they are musically mature beyond their years. "If we started now what we did at 12, we would be doing what we're doing now at 30," explains Gillies.

They have also worked hard at ditching the ghost of Kurt Cobain, but less successfully. For years, silverchair was taunted with the tag "Nirvana in pyjamas," and although they may now be more sartorially sophisticated, the obvious influence remains.

All of which cuts no ice with Gillies. "If anyone came up to me now and said, `That really sounds like Nirvana,' I'd just be like -- `You have no idea about music.' It doesn't sound anything like Nirvana."

Sure, the music is denser, and some of the song structures more elaborate, but Cobain's spectral presence is unmistakable in the ever-present angst mustered by singer Johns and band.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are going to imitate, mimic the best, and silverchair patently have the talent and desire to forge their own musical voice. They're only 19, after all.

There are no definite plans to tour New Zealand but Gillies hopes to make the trip sometime this year. Godzone has proved a troublesome market for the trio.

"The first time we went there it was really positive," says Gillies. "The album was going really well and there was a big buzz happening. But then when we went back the second time ... it was probably one of the only places where our fan base didn't stay as big as in, say, the United States or in Australia.

"It's kind of like the only place that has happened. It's really funny, New Zealand."

Not that the band are sweating tears over the New Zealand market. They have bigger fish to fry. Silverchair again tour America, home to their biggest audience, before again attempting to crack the European market. After that are gigs aplenty in their homeland, not to mention some much needed rest and recreation.

Home is still the industrial town of Newcastle -- "We're still in Newie," says Gillies. "We're really homegrown boys and we really enjoy coming home, seeing friends, family and recharging our batteries."

He seems refreshingly realistic about the music business and his and the band's future. Now finally able to concentrate on writing, recording and playing without the distraction of studying and exams, there are no immediate plans to pursue a tertiary education.

Gillies wants to go to university eventually, "but I'll wait until we break up."

Silverchair is not a job for life, he says, predicting its demise in three to five years. "It's not that I don't enjoy it, it's just that it's such a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

"If I look back to when I first started playing, I couldn't imagine seeing us here, particularly when you look out at the crowd, like at a big concert, with 10,000 or something like that.

"We're more well off then your average 19-year-olds, but basically we have to keep working. People probably think we've got so much money that we can stop now and live like kings, but believe me we can't."