Aussie band silverchair have achieved in the past five years most bands
can only dream of. Daniel Johns tells Robyn Doreian that on third
album, Neon Ballroom, they've finally found their own sound.
silverchair are an easy band to hate. Not only did they release their first album, frogstomp, when they were all 15 years old, but the Australian three-piece have gone on to sell four million albums worldwide. To add insult to injury, they achieved all this and more when they were still attending high school.
Some people find it difficult to cope with the band's astronomical success, preferring instead to dismiss them out of hand, insistent that they must be crap.
The most common accusation levelled at silverchair is that are merely a Nirvana copy band.
"There have been lots of things which have been said that I don't agree with," comments blond vocalist Daniel Johns, "not necessarily coming from the public but things that I have read. I think the main thing, although I can understand it, that really knocks me over the wrong side of the fence is the Nirvana comparisons.
"We were playing the type of music we were playing before we had heard any of the Seattle bands. The bands that I was listening to were Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, so I think we just had a lot of similar influences to the Seattle bands, which is why we got thrown in that category."
But silverchair are hoping to dispel the cynicism with the release of third album, Neon Ballroom. Recorded in Sydney and mixed in Los Angeles, they set out to make a record that gave them a reflective distance from the previous two.
The plan was to combine the abrasive elements of second album Freak Show with melody and beauty, hence the inclusion of a classical orchestra. Guesting on the album is the Sydney Symphonic Orchestra, the distinguished New South Wales Public School Choir and pianist David Helfgott (the inspiration for the Oscar-winning movie Shine).
For the duration of the writing process, guitarist Daniel Johns lived
alone for three months, during which time he came up with riffs and
expanded his poetic jottings into lyrics.
Surprisingly for someone whose future is incandescently bright, the vocalist has been expressing an unhealthy degree of anxieties and phobias.
"I am very scared of being outside my home for long periods of time," explains the 19-year-old. "I start sweating and shaking and having panic attacks if I am not at home. I get very anxious and am scared in crowds and things like that. Before I go onstage I just take medication and I'm all right."
It is hard to tell whether the laugh concluding the sentence is one of nerves, or whether he's taking the piss by talking a load of shit. A media sport which dare I say it, Kurt Cobain got down to a fine art, but as the interview progresses I get the sense that there is a seriously introverted side to the singer.
"I take antidepressants which help level it out," Johns continues, "I still feel the anxiety, but it doesn't show as much. I just get all drugged up before I get to the stage."
But how can a vegan, straight-edge person such as yourself advocate addictive drug usage?
"I'm definitely not straight-edge, but have always been into the whole straight-edge movement and that scene and that kind of music. I can understand how people can get into drugs, but personally I think you have to have some form of control over it and I think that some people when they get in powerful positions come up against problems they didn't expect to come up against, so they try to bury their problems with drugs which is very sad, but is reality."
What's the biggest problem you've come up against since you've been famous?
"Probably just that I have always been a very private person who stays in my home and watches movies and paints, and stuff like that. But when people are actually camping outside my house and are following me places I feel really cramped. I just can't handle not having my own privacy."
The Australian press crusade to corner Johns' privacy has been well documented, particularly when he was still in secondary school where photographers would follow him from his house to school for that essential uniform shot.
The title Neon Ballroom reflects silverchair's desire to position their post-grunge guitar sound alongside classical music. Johns is particularly happy with first track Emotion Sickness, as for him it sums up the inherent honesty and progress achieved with their third album.
Whereas Freak Show directed a lot of anger towards those who had been critical of the vocalist and the success the band had achieved, this time around Johns' lyrical focus is on emotions and events which have shaped his life since 1997.
There's even one track, Anthem For The Year 2000, which ventures into the previously unchartered waters of politics.
"That whole song is about the political view of young people these days," elaborates Daniel. "Politicians impose these ridiculous laws on young people to try to make society like it was years ago. They perceive youth as this bunch at messed-up drug addicts, just out to commit crimes.
"What they are really doing is preventing us from having the freedom that they had. It is really just an ironic look at that."
That particular song also pokes fun at the hysteria surrounding the arrival of the millennium.
"That's one of the things I actually find funny," adds the songwriter. "It's strange that all these people expect to wake upon the first day of the year 2000 and have spaceships and things flying past their windows. In reality, they are going to wake up to a big anticlimax. The only thing that'll be different is that every computer in the world is going to be fucked!"
On a more serious note, Johns makes further mention of antidepressants on 11th track, Paint Pastel Princess.
"That whole song is a reference to them," says Johns, "to drugs, just referring to antidepressants as a princess and a saviour. I use them to level out my moods which is why the chorus goes, 'It's all the same to me,' because they make everything the same. You don't experience highs or lows as everything is levelled out."
Have your moods been diagnosed as a medical condition?
"I don't know whether it is medical or not as I try to stay away from being analysed by a psychiatrist," he explains. "I went to a few therapy sessions and I just hated being in a chair being analysed by someone who didn't know me, so I left."
With everything you've achieved you should be the happiest guy in the world right now...
"I know," laughs Johns, "so I'm told. I'm still happy, its just that I write at times when I'm not and the music seems to be very negative. I still have fun. I'm not in the dark all the time."
Over the past four years silverchair have toured Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the USA. During that time they have supported the Red Hot Chili Peppers, [have been supported by] Everclear, Handsome and played Australia's own Big Day Out Festival. At that very festival Hole were also playing, and Daniel had a strange encounter with Courtney Love.
"I don't know whether she was trying to hunt me down or not, but she definitely found me," recalls Daniel. "She stood there and just stared at me for about a minute. I was just sitting there and ended up saying, 'What do you want?', but she didn't say anything, kept staring at me and then after a while left. I think she thought I looked like her husband.
"I was really young and scared as I was 15. I kept thinklng, 'What the fuck is this woman doing?'"
The band's North American tour with the Chili Peppers failed to offer anything quite as daunting, but did cause the three-piece considerable embarrassment when two strippers were brought onstage during the last show to rub up and down the legs of these young boys while they tried to concentrate on what they were meant to be doing. Some what trying for three 16-year-old guys who, by the singer's own admission, were sexually frustrated at the time. They also had the pleasure of meeting '70s porn star Ron Jeremy, whose work Daniel has been a fan of since seeing his first skin flick when he was just 14.
1999 will see the band on the road for almost the entire year. Unlike previous jaunts which have seen the boys' corresponding parents in tow, this time, as they are over 18 and have completed school, they will be off the leash so to speak.
"We have already toured Australia without them and it is really not that different, just a bit wilder I suppose, elaborates the singer. "We don't really act much different and we don't perceive the whole touring thing as any different. We're just a bit freer and a bit less restricted."
So will it be sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll this time?
"I don't think so," he laughs. "There will be lots of rock 'n' roll, but there certainly won't be much of the other two."
With his perfect skin, sparkling blue eyes and glowing health, Daniel Johns is nothing short of a babe magnet.
At one time he had the attentions of Ozzy Osbourne's teenage daughter Aimee, but when the topic is raised he prefers to explain it away as her just being a nice friendly girl. But some of their fan attention offers the promise of something much more intimate than correspondence.
"We've had some pretty weird ones," admits Daniel, "but there hasn't been any sexual letters for a while. They have all been a bit boring lately. I remember one where they described how they wanted to dip Ben [Gillies - drums] in honey and lick it off every part of his body. There were also all these chocolate references and they wanted to incorporate part of his genitalia into a fruit platter and eat it. We were reading this thinking that it was really funny. We loved it."
So how do you cope with the female attention?
"I don't cope with it very well," he laughs. "Ben is really good with the fan thing. I have nothing against them but when there are crowds of people I just can't handle it at all, so I try to stay away from crowds as much as possible. I let Ben take care of all that."
Despite Johns being a household name in his native Australia, his lifestyle is a far cry from that of an indulgent rock star. It's no secret that financially he is possibly secure enough never to have to work another day in his life, with the band's accountant having invested their money wisely for their futures. But instead of flaunting it, he's content to continue living in Newcastle (an hour south of Sydney) and enjoys a vegan lifestyle with his canine friend Sweep. Not having surfed for over three years, he prefers the life of a couch potato along with other less strenuous activities, such as painting and watching movies. Daniel recalls the touching tale of how he and Sweep became acquainted.
"I found my dog in a garbage bag along with some dead puppies. There were three that were alive, so I took her home, fixed her up and now she lives like a queen. With animals it is different to when you're with people, as animals don't like you because you've got money or because they can get something out of you. They either like you or they don't and they can feel love a lot more. You don't have to tell them that you love them - they can just feel it and they know it. Me and my dog are best friends."
Another one of Daniel's passions is watching films.
"The other day I tallied up how much I had spent at this video store hiring movies. It was about £600 [$US 1000]. I pretty much watch a movie every night of my life. I don't have a particular favourite genre, I just like films about all kinds of topics, but I really like the ones that inspire me to write."
What most people fail to realise about the Aussie trio is that they have been around for more years than they get credit for. Their success certainly didn't come from nowhere.
"We started playing together when we were 12 years old," explains Johns. "Back then we were always getting ridiculed and people kind of saw us as these little morons who played music. They couldn't handle the fact that young kids were in a band. I don't think it had anything to do with jealousy, just more to do with the fact that we were doing something other than surfing and watching telly."
So what do you have to say to cynics who still dismiss silverchair as Nirvana clones?
"I don't have anything to say," he retorts. "I don't care. I couldn't give a shit if they think we are a Nirvana copy band or not. If they hear this record I don't think they will think that. They might want to, but they can't honestly think it once they hear it."
THE SILVERCHAIR CHART PHENOMENON
September '94 - Tomorrow EP released in Australia. Spends six weeks at No. 1, making it the fifth most successful Australian single ever.
March '95 - frogstomp released in Australia, certified platinum in one week and goes on to sell in excess of 210,000 copies. Sells over two million copies in the USA.
January '97 - Freak single released in Australia, debuts at No. 1 and sells over 70,000 copies.
February '97 - Freak Show released in Australia, debuts at No. 1 and goes on to sell over 140,000 copies. Debuts at No. 12 in the USA, selling over 500,000 albums.
March '97 - Abuse Me single released in Australia. Sells in excess of 35,000 copies.
June '97 - Cemetery single released in Australia. Sells over 35,000 copies.