"The Pursuit of Happiness"

By Rod Yates (Kerrang! Issue 882)

In a studio in Sydney, Daniel Johns has just put the finishing touches to silverchair’s new album ‘Diorama’. And he’s feeling more optimistic than ever…

The second you walk through the doors of 301 Studios, you can sense the buzz in the air. It’s nothing you can pinpoint – sure, it’s a beautiful sunny, spring day, but the atmosphere rolling lazily through this pristine, state of the art Sydney recording studio is down to more than Mother Nature’s kindness. At a pinch, you’d say it had the relaxed and expectant air of the last day of school before summer holidays. Appropriate, really, given that today is silverchair’s last day here.

Work on the trio’s fourth album ‘Diorama’ finished last night, eight weeks after it began. Save for a brief session in another studio located on California’s Central Coast, the band have been bunkered down here for two months with Tool/Muse producer Dave Bottrill. For a man who has spent every second of that time labouring over each note of music – he even slept upstairs in the studio’s accommodation – and had a few celebratory drinks last night, vocalist/guitarist Daniel Johns looks positively on top of the world.

Indeed that’s probably the first thing you notice about him. Gone is the pasty, frail waif of the past; instead, he’s beaming with health, smiling and chatting happily, barely able to contain his excitement at the new album. As Johns describes it, album number four is quite an adventure: if 1999’s ‘Neon Ballroom’ took a few tentative stylistic steps forward, then ‘Diorama’ – with its full orchestra, woodwind and brass sections, and influences lifted from ‘60’s pop (the band used the arranging talents of Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks) and ‘50’s musicals – is the sound of a band leaping wholeheartedly into the fray.

As bass player Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies entertain themselves by challenging their manager to games of table tennis inside the studio, Daniel sits in a small, leafy enclave in the studio’s sun bathed courtyard and prepares to give his first interview since completing ‘Diorama’. Or, as he calls it, ‘Diarrhoea’.

“I thought I’d chuck that in because the first journalist who hates the album is gonna say that, so right now I’m just gonna say it,” he laughs. “It’s no longer a good thing to say cos I’ve just fucked it for them!”

How are you feeling about everything?

Daniel: “Really good, yeah, really happy. When we first finished recording, which was yesterday, it was a real sense of relief, and then last night there was a sense of excitement, and then today there’s a sense of sadness. Because you realise, there’s eight months of writing and then months of preparation and then you do it, and now you feel like, ‘It’s done, see ya!’. The real sense of sadness comes when the albums’ released. Because then it’s done, you’ve kind of built up to this climax and then you’ve just got to tour and then do it all again (Laughs).”

What’s the feeling in the silverchair camp at the moment?

Daniel: “There’s a real enthusiasm that we haven’t had since we were 14 years old. When we were first playing, even though it was derivative, we were really enthusiastic: playing music was the best, there was nothing better. And then by the second album (‘Freak Show’) we were like, ‘Playing music makes me angry’, and by the third album (‘Neon Ballroom’) I was like, ‘I need to play music cos life sucks’. And now all of a sudden there’s this really youthful enthusiasm in the band, everyone around us, there’s this real positivity and everyone’s vibing off this music. Whether it be successful or not it really irrelevant to us, it’s been such a good experience in out lives. Like I’ll always remember the period where I wrote this album and we recorded it. It was just a magical period.”

How did recording this album compare with making ‘Neon Ballroom’?

Daniel: “With the last album, there was a whole period where I just felt sick. I just wanted to go home. I just wasn’t in a good space mentally, I shouldn’t have been doing it, I felt like I should have been recovering at home. With this album it was just smooth sailing the whole way through. It was partially to do with the people involved and also because mentally I was in a much better place and ready to do it and confident, and I didn’t really care what the outside response to it was.”

How are you different as a person now from when you recorded ‘Neon Ballroom’?

Daniel: “Well I’m not on anti-depressants, which is new.”

When did you come off them?

Daniel: “I don’t know, what year is it?! (Laughs). It was this year, the start of this year.”

Was that difficult?

Daniel: “Yeah, it was really hard, because I took them for quite a while. When you first come off them you feel really down, but then as you get used to it you also start to experience highs that I hadn’t felt for 12 months prior to that because they just equal everything out, you’re just in this holding pattern for such a long time. You start experiencing real natural human emotions again. It’s a total buzz when you start to feel real, genuine excitement about things. When I was writing I’d be getting these total highs. It would be four in the morning and I’d been writing since six at night and I’d just be totally high. I hadn’t done any drugs or anything, I’d just be like, walking around my house going, ‘Yay! This is fucking great!’. That’s one major thing. I’m just happier in general.”

Why did you decide to come off them?

Daniel: (Pause) “I just started realising what was happening. After you’ve taken them for a while you realise you’re not feeling anything, you’re just kind of sitting there. You’re not really living. I experience really extreme emotions a lot of the time, and I was almost ashamed of that for a really long time, so I took the anti-depressants, and that’s what equalled it out. And I just thought, there’s no point being ashamed about it, just fucking live and be how you are, and ever since I did that everything is so much better.”

What role did that play in the sound of the new album?

Daniel: “A major role, actually. As soon as I started feeling every emotion, that’s when I really made the decision to write a record which caught all of it. A lot of the songs were written when I first came off them, which obviously have really dark moments, and then there are moments when I’d just be feeling ecstatically happy for pretty much no reason so I’d be like, ‘I’m gonna write a song!’. This album’s the only one we’ve had which has a real sense of optimism throughout the whole thing. Even in the darkest moment, there’s a real light there, which wasn’t really deliberate to be honest, it’s just the way I felt. It’s a real musical journey as well; if you’ve got the attention span to put up with it and actually give it a chance, I think it’s a really interesting listening experience.”

Tell us about a few of the songs on the album.

Daniel: “I almost had a fixation with fantasy and escapism on this album, cos the last album was so based on reality, I was kind of over that. It keeps coming back to this pit of reality and then going into this magical world again. There’s a song called ‘Across The Night’, which is about falling in love with falling asleep, because you go to a new world and every time you sleep you think new things and you wake up reinvigorated because you’ve just gone to a new place. After I wrote that song, I was awake for 24 hours, I couldn’t sleep! It kind of sounds like a ‘50s musical but you can tell it’s a rock band playing it. There’s a song called ‘Tuna In The Brine’ that’s about preserving yourself by not exposing anything about yourself. It’s about kind of lying in a sea of lies and using that as a preservative so you don’t have to expose yourself and become worn out by the realities of living.”

Is that based on personal experience?

Daniel: “Not so much lies. I didn’t lie, but I never exposed myself. I never showed anyone what I was really feeling, and I wrote ‘Tuna In The Brine’ after I decided, ‘I’m gonna live’.”

How many songs did you record for the album?

Daniel: “There’s 14 that we recorded, and we’re gonna put 11 on the record. There’s a song called ‘After All These Years’, it was written in about 15 minutes. I was just sitting at the piano and came up with this chord progression and just wrote a song about getting over hurdles. I was feeling happy and optimistic, and I thought, I’m going to write a song and try and capture this feeling. And it’s not corny happy, it’s not like life is beautiful so get used to it. That’s something I’d never done before so I was really proud of that song.”

When you first described your vision of the album to David Bottrill, what did you say?

Daniel: “I said that I’d written all these songs that – a lot were really fantasy based – I just wanted to take people to another world. There’s just so much music out there that’s just straight for the mob, it’s so fucking boring, and it keeps a lot of people happy, which is great, but it doesn’t make me happy. I wanted to do something that if I was a music fan looking for something that could take me somewhere else, get away from reality, I wanted to make that album, I wanted to make something that was just really heightened. I told him the instrumentation I wanted to use – French horns and full orchestras, brass, I wanted a woodwind section.”

Sounds like there are a few shocks in store for silverchair fans…

Daniel: “Yeah, definitely. I’m really excited about it, actually. There’s probably songs where I knew this record was going to be challenging to silverchair fans and different, so there are two songs where I kind of made a compromise and said I’ll write these songs because this is what I think silverchair fans will like. They’re back to what silverchair was originally about, just rocking out. And they’re the two songs where I kind of made a compromise and said, ‘I’ve got to be fair about this, I can’t just disappear into myself and be a total wanker!’.”

You write all of the music and have a co-production credit on this album. By taking the lion share of responsibility, you also have to wear the fallout if the album fails. Are you comfortable with that?

Daniel: “It did bother me on the last record, but on this record it didn’t bother me at all. I was fully aware that I was in control of this and the last album, it was my sole responsibility to make sure it was good. And I enjoyed it. I just thought, ‘If it fucks up, it’s my fault, but if it’s great, I’ll take the credit’.”

Complete this sentence: the key to happiness is…

Daniel: “Being open to it. I was scared of it because I thought that maybe happiness isn’t as good as people say it is, and I didn’t want to experience it and be disappointed. And although I always wanted to be happy, I was fearful of it. It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Oh, I want to be happy’, and then you’re happy. But if you really truly want to be happy, you have to be open to it and you have to try and get it. It’s not something that just falls in your lap, you have to work at it. It kind of happens after a few months of coming off these pills and saying, ‘I’m not taking them anymore, so I’d better fucking deal with it’.”

(Thank you to Emma for transcribing this article)