Back from The Brink
By Robyn Doreian (Rock Sound (UK))
As far as years go, 2000 has been a marked improvement for Daniel
Johns. The past five have seen the svelte frontman struggle with an
eating disorder, anxiety attacks and neuroses, leaving him little
opportunity to bask in the amazing success of Australia’s finest
musical export, silverchair.
Having racked up record sales in excess of six million copies worldwide, there’s not many musicians who can lay claim to starting a band at 12-years-old and some nine years later friends drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou toured the world several times over, and had more top 20 singles in Australia than any other band in the 90’s.
What appeared to be every teenager’s dream turned into one particular teenager’s torment, as evidenced by Johns’ painful lyrics on 1999’s ‘Neon Ballroom’. In songs such as ‘Ana’s Song’, ‘Miss You Love’ and ‘[Paint] Pastel Princess’ the frontman wrote of his loneliness, inability to form lasting relationships, reliance on anti-depressants and battle with anorexia.
Touring also became hellish for the trio, as Johns continued to wrestle with his demons. As well as being physically weak, the intensely shy frontman couldn’t cope with the never-ending stream of strangers who, everywhere they went, wanted to strike up a conversation. Instores and fan meet and greets became out of bounds as Johns failed to assimilate the mental overload.
“Halfway through the ‘Neon Ballroom’ dates I just didn’t want to tour anymore,” recalls the softly spoken vocalist. “To me we definitely played too much on that album as I am not really the kind of person who likes to be away from home for long amounts of time and be hanging around with a bunch of people who I don’t really know that well.
“I’m just not very good with people, and you meet people every night who expect you to be this rock star with these developed social skills which I don’t have, so I feel uncomfortable.”
Rather than face the demands of celebrity, Johns would often escape back to his hotel room and on days off, watch an endless array of rented videos. Anything rather than face the masses.
While he could hide from the people around him, he couldn’t hide from himself and the physical and psychological problems that were erupting in a not-so-subtle manner.
So it was decided that the year 2000 was officially a year off for the weary trio.
“One of the reasons for having a year off was so that I could go into therapy and get my shit sorted out,” muses Johns. “I am not 100 percent well because you can’t go from being terrible to completely cured in nine months but I am definitely a lot better. “I have learnt through therapy that I strive for impossible perfection in all aspects of my life and nothing is ever good enough. I have learnt to ease off a little bit and I think I’m a bit easier on myself now as well.”
Have you managed to make sense of what your eating disorder was all about?
“I had made sense of what it was about before I went into therapy,” he states with confidence. “It was basically a control thing which stemmed from my perfectionist way of thinking. It all happened during a time where I felt my life was spiralling out of control and that was my way of finding the one thing that no one could really take control of. Obviously from that it turned into a stereotypical eating disorder where you want to get thinner and thinner and sicker and sicker.”
With a gruelling tour across the USA, Europe, Canada and Australia it stands to reason that the vocalist must have felt physically exhausted. “Yes I did feel terrible,” he admits, “and when you’re dealing with something like that, nothing is in perspective. Everything you see is distorted and you don’t have a grasp on reality at all.
“There were people on my back about it as they could see I was really sick and I was really weak, and on top of that I had to perform every night. I just thought everyone was hassling me for the sake of it but I didn’t realise that at the time they were actually worried about me. “I was really irritable as well and it mustn’t have been very enjoyable to be around me. Other people did a good job stopping themselves from punching me in the head!” During his darkest hours he was prescribed that antidepressant Aropax which helped him to get through the bleaker days but is now proud to be totally drug free.
“I stopped all medication back in April,” he states. “Now I only ever take Valium if I have to go somewhere like an award ceremony where there are heaps of media, as I start to shake and do crazy things.”
DEAF TO THE WORLD
As if Johns didn’t have enough problems to deal with, during 1999, he was accused of threatening and harassing a woman calling herself Emily Spencer. The case was presented to the Newcastle court where her legal representative admitted that her allegations were untrue and unsubstantiated, with apologies made to the singer and his family for the trauma they had caused. The latest sensational development in a year of escalating drama earned Johns the front page in his hometown newspaper.
This bizarre and totally unnecessary episode would have pushed most people in the musicians place over the edge, but Johns admits that it failed to have much effect at all. “At the time it happened I was already paranoid and assumed everyone was against me anyway, so in a way I expected it.” He states matter of factly. “It wasn’t until a few months ago when I started talking about it in therapy and realised it should have had a profound effect about how I went about my life but it didn’t. It didn’t change me at all because I was already in a headspace where I assumed that if I went somewhere or did something people would be against me.”
Why did you think that?
“It was the whole distorted reality thing where I didn’t have any concept of what was real and what wasn’t,” he says. “The only things that ever really computed in my head were the negative things which I have worked pretty hard in the past year to change. Now I tend to focus a lot more on the positive aspects of situations rather than always dwelling on the negative side.
“A lot of people wouldn’t think that I have a very exciting lifestyle but I am pretty happy with it. I am happy with my music and I have a family and a dog, so it’s alright.”
Daniel also experienced the break-up of his highly published romance with fellow Aussie star Natalie Imbruglia. “We just kind of broke up,” reasons Johns. “It wasn’t because we had a big fight or anything, it was just because we were so far apart an there was no way I was going to move to Europe. It just go too difficult so we called it off but we are still friends.”
Do you think you have progressed in terms of having relationships with women?
“I don’t really go out enough to meet women,” he laughs. “I’m still well and truly in the ‘make myself a better person’ phase rather than going out and trying to overcompensate with girlfriends and stuff like that.”
Time off the road has had a profound effect on Daniel’s outlook on life. He is more positive and upbeat than he has been for some time and even looks forward to touring again. The frontman has bought a house in Newcastle which overlooks the coastline and is a 15-minute drive from his parents abide. Not only is it home to his beloved dog Sweep, but also features a studio, enabling the lyricist to write music, and provides a convenient place for silverchair to rehearse.
The sensitive frontman is also scheduled to make an appearance in a new ABC (Australian equivalent of the BBC) TV drama titled ‘Love Is A Four Letter Word’. Set in a pub of an inner city suburb of Sydney, Daniel will perform two new songs in the drama, which will screen in April/May 2001. These songs are the product of a side project Johns has formed with electronic artist Paul Mac called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock. The two met as a result of shared management and Mac’s remixing of the ‘Freak’ single. Hitting it off immediately the pair resolved to do some writing together which resulted in the recording of five experimental tracks. Taking the form of an EP, it will be available online from December.
The songwriter has also made significant progress in terms of laying down foundations for their fourth studio album. “There was kinda two totally separate types of writing I got involved in, as when I started I really wanted to do a heavy rock record again,” he reasons. “It wasn’t like ‘Freak Show’ or ‘Frogstomp’ in that it was really riffy but it was a lot more sludgy. I started listening to a lot of Melvins and Kyuss but I was also listening to heaps and heaps of T-Rex.
“I wrote five songs I was really happy with in that shimmy rock vein, but then I changed my mind and decided that I didn’t want a heavy rock record anymore so I got rid of all of it bar two songs and started again.
“I started writing again in July and now its kind of another step on from ‘Neon Ballroom’. It’s not as orchestrally based but it definitely has that grand feel about it.”
Have a lot of the lyrics came from poetry again?
“What I am writing is not as intensely personal as the last album,” he explains, “as I sat down and wrote about the things I was dealing with. This time I’m writing whatever comes into my head, and because I’ve been in therapy all year, it definitely has a more positive twist as I’m working through my problems. With ‘Neon Ballroom’ I was totally stuck.
“I want the album to be more of a journey, more of more something that people can get into rather than a series of different pieces.”
Have you ever thought about publishing your poems?
“I got an offer from a publishing company to do it but I don’t know really, as a lot of it is too personal and so close to my heart,” he says with reticence. “Usually the stuff I am happy fro people to read turns into lyrics anyway. I also wouldn’t want people reviewing it as I don’t want it analysed. I just write it fro myself. Maybe in the future I might contemplate it, but I am not comfortable with the idea at the moment.”
You once said that the band would only record another three, maybe four albums. Do you still feel that way?
“If you had asked me that question this time last year I’d have said there wasn’t going to be another silverchair album,” states Johns. “I remember having a conversation with Ben, Chris and our manager and saying that I didn’t want to d it anymore and that I just wanted to do something by myself on a much smaller scale. I wanted to quit silverchair and put out solo records, record them at my own house, not tour them and basically just drop off the face of the earth.
“But I realised after having a year off that if you are really passionate about something the passion returns and it came back in a big way, and I am really psyched up again. I was writing more stuff and I was thinking that it had to be another silverchair record and I even feel like I am ready to tour again. It could be one more album or it could be 10. You don’t really know until it happens.”
Which brings us neatly on to the ‘silverchair Best Of: Volume 1’ album, a double CD being released by Sony to mark the end of the band’s contract with the label. Released without the band’s co-operation or approval, disc one will feature tracks from ‘Frogstomp’, ‘Freak Show’ and ‘Neon Ballroom’ with the second CD featuring rarities such as cover versions, B-sides and an acoustic version of ‘Ana’s Song’. The album will be followed by a VHS/DVD including Australian footage, the American videos for ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Pure Massacre’ and ‘Israel’s Son’ plus a 40-minute movie titled ‘Emotion Pictures’. These packages are something of a sore point with the band and management alike. “We don’t want to blow the whole thing out of proportion because we know if we are too negative about it, it’ll blow up like most negative quotes you say,” reasons Johns. “It came about because our contract with Sony came to an end and we decided that we didn’t wish to renew it. The label has the rights to reproduce whatever we recorded under the old deal so I guess it’s basically Sony getting whatever they can out of what they have left.
“I don’t endorse it and I definitely would not buy it if I was a purchaser. If someone is going to buy it I guess I can’t stop them but I really don’t care.”
silverchair already have another deal in place with a new independent label called Eleven created by the bands manager John Watson and a music industry colleague. Under the banner of EMI music, it aims to develop and sign a handful of burgeoning Aussie bands, with priority given to ensuring their careers flourish abroad.
“A lot of people are under the impression that with Sony there was this big war and that we were never comfortable,” Daniel says, pausing for breath, “and that they were always treating us badly. When we were with them we pretty much had creative control over everything and very rarely did they step in to say we couldn’t do this or that.
“Our manager said that he could organise a label where we would have complete control over everything and the record company wouldn’t even have the right to step in. When you get an offer like that it is pretty hard to refuse.”
GOING DOWN TO RIO
silverchair will only play two shows in the foreseeable future. The first headlining the Falls festival in Lorne, Victoria, Australia on New Year’s Eve and the second at the Rock In Rio festival in January where they will entertain 250,000 people. The band are currently rehearsing on a daily basis for both commitments. While it is rumoured that Guns N’ Roses will join the line-up, Daniel, Chris and Ben will also rub shoulders with the likes of Iron Maiden and Britney Spears.
“I think we’re playing different days to both of those bands,” he says with a hint of relief in his voice. “I know we are on the same day as Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Deftones but I don’t really care who we play with.” South America is renowned for its huge festivals, manic crowds and obsessive fans, but Daniel has his own special memory of the country. “There’s this guy and girl from there who think I’m their child,” he says in-between giggles. “Every month they send these giant foam dummies addressed to me at our fan club and childrens toys and stuff. They also send letters calling me their baby. I’ve never met them and find it really crazy but funny.”
Seeing as you’re playing a New Year’s Eve show in Australia, are you going to make any resolutions?
“I don’t do that anymore, because every time I make one, by January 7th I decide it’s too difficult to keep,” he explains. “I want to have a new silverchair album completely finished by the end of the year but I don’t think that will be too far from what will happen anyway.
“I’m also thinking about going to live somewhere else for a while. It’s not that I don’t like Australia because I love it, it’s just that I’m a bit bored with my house. I’m thinking of living in New York for a few months to complete the writing process and then get back together with the guys and start pre-production. I am hoping that New York will give me a new angle to approach lyrics from.”
Does it bother you that some people still view silverchair as three Aussie schoolkids who made it big?
“Yeah in England the do it more than anywhere,” he says. “In Germany and France it’s just amazing the support we have. We love playing both those countries because the fans are wild and are so into it. No one seems to buy our records in England but they come to our shows which is pretty weird.”
You’ve also had some pretty scathing attacks at the hands of the English press. “It is not something we really worry about these days,” Daniel states calmly. “It was more something we worried about before putting out ‘Neon Ballroom’ because it was our first album after leaving school and we weren’t sure if people would accept that or dwell on our past. These days we don’t feel like we have to prove anything to anyone. We’ve proved we can make good music together and that we can play live. If we get good reviews great, but if we don’t it doesn’t matter to any of us. We are over it.”
Thank you to Emma for the transcript