Sitting Down with Silverchair

(San Francisco Examiner)

Four years ago, when silverchair first burst onto the national music scene, the three Aussie lads were just 15, rambunctious surfer boys with talent far beyond their tender years - and viewed as more of a curiosity than a legitimate music phenomenon. This, despite selling 3 million copies of their first album, "Frogstomp."

At that time, Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou were happy to admit their music was derivative of their heroes' (including Helmet, Tool and Primus), but they didn't care. They just wanted to thrash at live shows with garage-band joy (they play Tuesday night at Slim's), flirt with their female fans and pull pranks on gullible reporters. ( "We cultivate bah-sil on the tour bus as a hobby," I was gigglingly told.)

Then they ran into the reality buzzsaw.

"I see, looking back on it, how naive we were," says Johns, the band's singer, guitarist and songwriter, calling from his family home in Newcastle. "Because we were so young, we had no idea there would be all this music industry bull---t, or how crazy (stardom) would get."

While most kids their age were trying to pass algebra, the trio toured the world to sold-out venues packed with moshing boys and shrieking girls. Paparazzi in Australia chased them while they were riding their bikes. The less-kind press fixated on Johns' Kurt Cobain-like fragile blond beauty, dubbed then Nirv-annabe's or Silver-highchair.

Johns, now 19 (although he laughs, "I definitely don't feel like a veteran yet" ), says the powers that be were so anxious for a follow-up album that they hurried the boys into the studio and gave them a scant four weeks to record "Freak Show." Not surprisingly, it's filled with angry venom: Johns' reaction to feeling like a freak on display.

"Freak Show" only sold half the units that "Frogstomp" did, but was a better album - broadening their sound and indicating talents just breaking the surface. After that 1997 world tour, the three graduated from high school and took a brief break before beginning work on their third album, "Neon Ballroom."

That was when Johns crashed and burned. The sensitive young musician suffered through bouts with phobias and anxiety, which resulted in an eating disorder. Johns, matured significantly since I first interviewed him, says he's now conquered it.

"I saw a therapist, and I'm definitely eating better now," he says. "I never really figured out why it happened, but I knew I had to get well before we went on tour."

He adds, "It helped to turn my problems into poetry rather than internalizing them."

One direct result: "Ana's Song (Open Fire)," a beautiful power-ballad that gives vent to his pain. "Please die, Ana," sings Johns in his breathy tenor, "For as long as you're here we're not . . . I love you to the bones / and Ana wrecks your life / like an anorexia life."

Johns has also rechanneled some of his angst into activism: The longtime vegan and animal lover (his favorite companion is his dog) has come out for the Animal Liberation movement. In the song "Spawn Again," he rages: "These are the facts so eat what you murder / this is animal liberation / 8 billion killed for human pleasure / a new hypocritical look and ambition / the time has come to make the decision."

Drummer and longtime friend Gillies - a cheerful, strapping youth who bludgeons the skins so hard he's been compared to Keith Moon - says he was aware of Johns' struggles.

"Daniel's pretty private, but being his friend I'd ask him "are you OK?' " he says, also by phone. "I'm just glad things are OK again and we're going on tour. I think finally we may be past that "teen band' crap and are now just "the Australian trio!' "

His optimism is shared by Johns, who is enormously pleased with how "Neon Ballroom" turned out. He credits the fact that they graduated from high school (ergo, had all day to play) and record company support, for letting them take their time in finishing.

The result is evidence of Johns' growing versatility and ambition, a surprising pastiche of musical genres from vintage Silverchair thrash-grunge to the swirling orchestral opus "Emotion Sickness," a rambling six-minute suite by Johns that features piano work by David Helfgott (subject of the movie "Shine" ) and backing from the Sydney Symphony.

The young musicians were thrilled with their brush with Helfgott's brilliance.

"He was really amazing," says Johns, "I was describing what I had in mind - a discordant passage behind the music - and he really understood."

"We really seemed to click with him" adds Gillies. "It was a very cool day, very memorable."

Critics have been confounded by "Neon Ballroom," ranging in response from raves (MTV Online) to pans (Sonicnet) to congratulatory "nice try!" None of that bothers Johns.

"We're all really kind of proud of this album," he says. "We knew some people, some fans, wouldn't like our new material. But most are pretty open to it. And you have to keep pushing yourself creatively, right?"

You can hear him smiling.

[Thanks to Karen for the transcript.]