By Jim Tremayne

NEW YORK -- When Epic releases silverchair's Neon Ballroom on March 23, the company hopes the Australian power trio will have fully shed its teen-titans-of-grunge image in favor of a more mature stance and sound.

Perhaps most important, the Sony-distributed label is counting on an audience that pushed silverchair's first two albums to platinum status to embrace the group's newer, more polished musical endeavors.

As flannel-clad 15-year-olds with a high "cute-band-alert" factor, silverchair-singer/guitarist Daniel Johns, bassist Chris Joannou, and drummer Ben Gillies-broke out quickly in the wake of Nirvana's early-'90s breakthrough. Grunge-soaked radio hits like Tomorrow and Abuse Me helped make global best-sellers of 1995's frogstomp and 1997's Freak Show.

Now with the Nick Launay-produced Neon Ballroom, silverchair has ventured further musically from what principal songwriter Johns admits were "simply structured songs" by releasing a collection that includes sweeping orchestral moments (Emotion Sickness, with David Helfgott of Shine fame), hooky pop confections (probable future singles Miss You Love and Ana's Song [Open Fire]), and familiar torrents of thud-rock (initial single Anthem For The Year 2000).

"I think structurally the songs on this album are a lot more creative and a lot less generic than our previous albums," says Johns via telephone from Australia. "There are some songs on the album that appeal to people who like straight-ahead rock songs. But the majority of the album is very structurally different, instrumentally different. It's based more on orchestral rock sounds rather than traditional rock sounds."

With so many changes in the tastes of young pop listeners in particular -- less emphasis on rock, more on rap in the States, electronica in Europe -- one must ask: How much silverchair audience is left to access in 1999, and how will the group gain new fans?

"That's always a concern," says Ron Cerrito, Epic's VP of marketing. "That's our job with our marketing campaign -- not only to focus on who we feel the existing fans were but also going down into high schools and to the younger teens to focus on them and introduce them to the band or reintroduce them to the band.

"For instance, lifestyle-wise we're planning several targeted promotions and competitions to take our message directly to those audiences-high schools, snowboarding, concerts, surf-and-skate retailers," Cerrito says. The silverchair plan includes an extensive tour of North America and Europe beginning March 10.

According to Epic and Sony brass, the biggest advantage the young men of silverchair enjoy this time out is their age. At 19 and free of compulsory educational obligations, the trio can expect to rack up road miles and frequent-flyer points in the coming year.

"In the same time that these guys have matured so much musically, we also have really for the first time the tools to get down to serious business around the world, because they've graduated," says Robert Bowlin, president of Sony Music International. "They can now do the kind of touring that a band like silverchair needs to do -- that's the tour-tour-tour sort of drill. When you also have to worry about them having to graduate from high school, you don't have that kind of luxury."

In the band's native Australia -- where silverchair has sold a staggering 1 million units to a population of 17 million -- Neon Ballroom hits stores March 8, with a quick blitz of shows to follow. The American pre-release setup includes a concert tonight, Feb. 18, at New Orleans' House of Blues, which will be broadcast on the Internet through label and band World Wide Web sites.