Silverchair Stomp Preconceptions with "Neon Ballroom"

By Anni Layne (Jam! Music)

Daniel Johns is that soft-spoken, shaggy loner who scribbled poetry in the back row of geometry class and secretly aroused every girl in class. Polite almost to a fault, the nineteen-year-old silverchair frontman vacillates between Yoda enlightenment and Han Solo rebellion in his private conversations about his most recent public musical offering -- the wildly spirited and schizophrenic Neon Ballroom, due out March 16.

Neon Ballroom does not sound like Nevermind or Sixteen Stone or even My Own Prison. It is the unique embodiment of whatever classic rock & roll three guys from Australia could get their hands on: Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Who, Cheap Trick. The album, however, was not born from a stack of old vinyl found in a Newcastle record shop. Its true heart, its lyrics, can be traced back to Johns' wandering mind.

"I was living in a house by myself for three months, and I didn't leave the house even to go grocery shopping," Johns says about the era following silverchair's relentless 1997 Freak Show tour. "I was suffering from some psychological things, and just writing a lot of poetry. They weren't intended to ever be songs, but I really liked the words, so I changed them into a more lyrical format and then wrote music around the words."

The result was an album of disparate, distinct songs linked only by his self-professed mental breakdown. All things considered, it seems appropriate that Neon Ballroom opens with a six-minute orchestral composition titled "Emotion Sickness" that features classical pianist David Helfgott (subject of the biopic Shine) and effectively introduces old silverchair fans (old enough to buy cigarettes, that is) to the new silverchair. From there, the album spirals into a stadium rock battle cry ("Anthem for the Year 2000"), a tender love song ("Ana's Song (Open Fire)"), an incensed punk frenzy ("Spawn Again") and around again.

"We were told that if we were to do a more poppy album like Freak Show again, we would sell a lot of records because we would appeal to a certain market, but that wasn't what I wanted to do with this album," Johns says. "With the first two albums, although I really like them, I never got total creative satisfaction from them, so with this album I really wanted to do something I could be proud of."

Drummer Ben Gillies says silverchair concentrated more time and energy on Neon Ballroom than either of their previous albums -- the 1995 debut, frogstomp, and 1997's Freak Show. "We didn't have to worry about school, or doing assignments," says Gillies, who graduated from high school with his bandmates just last year. In addition, the sound of Neon Ballroom benefited from the addition of keyboard player Sam Holloway, who joined silverchair late in the stages of this album, but will tour full-throttle with the band this summer.

The album's first single, "Anthem for the Year 2000", is already garnering shouts of approval from adrenaline-charged concert mobs. Gillies calls that song "a gradual introduction to the new sounds on the album," which may smooth the transition for fans accustomed to the Kurt Cobain-inspired silverchair of old. But "Anthem" does not open Neon Ballroom. Instead, Johns ignored the advice of his record label and chose the decidedly radio unfriendly "Emotion Sickness" as track number one.

"We were warned not to do it because it would alienate and confuse people, and turn them off of the album," Johns says. "But I found that really intriguing. As soon as someone said that to me, I said, 'Yeah, I'm definitely going to do it.' It shows the ambition behind the album and it sums up what I was trying to do."