From Despair to Here

By Steve Mascord (Kerrang! Issue 839)

Playing to 250,000 people in Rio is the biggest thing that silverchair’s Daniel Johns has ever done. After years of depression it’s remarkable that he’s here at all.

“This is so Spinal Tap,” says Daniel Johns, busting to use the men’s room. We have just been led down a secret passageway at Rio’s Intercontinental Hotel, into a kitchen. We may be lost. No, there’s another secret passageway, leading to a room with blacked-out glass doors. When he finally finds the toilet, Johns is escorted there by two six-foot, suited Brazilians who you suspect, as children, were taught not to smile.

Welcome to the biggest day in the life of silverchair ­ a day which almost never came.
This afternoon, the band are back on the media merry-go-round for the first time in a year. Tonight they are to reach the giddiest height of their live career, playing Rock In Rio to no fewer than 250,000 people.

Yet eight months ago, this trio of 21-year-olds from Newcastle, New South Wales, seriously considered never playing nor recording together again. Daniel Johns, suffering from chronic depression and an eating disorder, had brought things to a screeching halt just when they had begun to recapture the momentum of their early days as 15-year-old grungesters.

Weaning himself off prescription drugs, he had agonised over the decision to continue. A decision that has brought them here, to pick up where they could never have dreamt of leaving off. Daniel Johns’ journey from the depths of despair and loneliness has just about reached its end. Relief is in sight.

Daniel does not attend silverchair’s official Rock In Rio press conference at the Intercontinental. His tanned, short-haired associates, bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies, do their best to make apologies.

“He’s decided to rest his throat, because tonight’s a big show,” says Ben, a statement which his frontman will later concede to be ­ well ­ a lie.

Waiting in an adjoining room, Daniel stands in the corner, preparing for a TV appearance. He looks enigmatic, in baggy jeans, sneakers and a green t-shirt. Although friends say he has gained weight, he’s still extremely thin. Astonishingly, given our location, there’s not even a hint of a tan on his skin.
“They say I’m the palest man in Brazil,” he says idly. “It’s a title I’m proud of.”

The silverchair story so far has been brief but glorious. American mall rats first became aware of them in 1994 when they released ‘Tomorrow’, a Gen-X anthem of musical power but lyrical naffness (tellingly, they no longer play it live). Debut album ‘Frogstomp’ was devoured by a post-grunge world. 1997’s ‘Freak [Show]’, with its diversity and musicianship, was on a different plain entirely, and 1999’s ‘Neon Ballroom’ was a spectacular leap forward again. There was thrash, there was rock, there were ‘Miss You Love’ and ‘Ana’s Song’ ­ twisted ballads which challenged the sure knowledge they were written by a 19-year-old.

Then came the ‘Neon Ballroom’ tour, then nothing.

silverchair’s manager, former journalist John Watson, thinks for a while when he is asked to identify the precise moment Daniel Johns was transformed from scruffy schoolboy to fully-fledged rock star.
“I remember once,” he finally says, “in Germany. The band were still feeling their way on big stages. There was a camera on a track in front of the stage. For some reason, Daniel started stalking it. When the camera could go no further, Daniel spat on it and rubbed the spit all over the lens. There was this gigantic, blurry picture of his face on the giant screens. We looked at each other and said, ‘Where did that come from?’.”

Johns is not the tortured, awkward Cobain-esque figure you may expect, but he is probably the most gentle person I’ve ever met. He speaks softly and deliberately and seeks consensus, with phrases like “You know when you…”. When he points out that he did not become a musician to do interviews, he quickly adds “no disrespect to you, of course”.

“I just get really uncomfortable around lots of people,” he says, coming clean over the press conference boycott. “I tend to get really nervous and do things I’m not proud of after I’ve done them.”

It turns out that Johns crying off sitting in front of a room full of Brazilian hacks is actually quite significant. In fact, it’s a condition of silverchair still being around at all.
“After the recording of ‘Neon Ballroom’, it was like a whole weight was lifted off my shoulders and I felt really free and happy that I’d got that out,” he explains.
“But halfway through the touring…. the whole weight was back. It was like every day I was doing two hours of therapy with those interviews. It all came back. That’s why I needed that time off, to understand myself better.”

Johns’ illness ­ clinical depression ­ is a savage double edged sword. On one hand, it provides him with inspiration for his music. On the other, it makes it difficult for him to go out and perform that music. This remember, is the man who wrote lyrics like ‘C’mon abuse me more I like it’.
“A lot of the stuff I was writing last year, after the touring of ‘Neon Ballroom’…. I was in a pretty bad state,” he says. “Obviously that was one of the main contributors to having some time off. I was doing a lot of therapy, trying to sort myself out. But it was just getting worse. So a lot of it’s about dealing with that and going through that. ‘Neon Ballroom’ was more about…. a lack of hope, I guess. This time, it’s more about the light at the end of the tunnel.”

During 1999, Johns says he was in self denial, talking handfuls of pills to get onstage every night and spending hours alone in hotel rooms.

“I realised I hadn’t gotten over a lot of the stuff that I was claiming to have gotten over,” he explains. “I had to get off the drugs. I wasn’t doing coke or anything; I mean I was taking heaps of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication just to tour, to deal with it. Publicly I was claiming to have gotten over it, which was, I guess, a defence mechanism.

“You never know if it’s going to come back because it’s medical but at the moment I’m feeling really good. It’s because I’ve just had time to understand myself and realise that the things that are different about me aren’t faults. It’s just the fact that I’m different to the rest of the people I know. Once you understand yourself and you’re comfortable with it, that’s when you’ve truly dealt with it.”
You realise that people do start to wonder what a rock star has to get depressed about.

“I think the answer’s really simple actually,” Johns replies. “A lot of people get depression and sadness mixed up, which is bullshit. I’m sick of people coming up to me and saying that they’re depressed when they’re not, they’re sad. There’s a fucking huge difference. You can be sad for two weeks but it doesn’t mean that you’re depressed. Depression is more medical. I was clinically depressed, I wasn’t sad. It’s got nothing to do with wealth or fame, it’s a medical thing.”

Thanks largely to their enforced absence, rumours began to circulate that silverchair were on the verge of splitting. How true is that?
“It was really close to the brink,” Daniel admits without hesitation. “But it was nothing to do with personal differences. There was never any tension in the band, we’re always been really good friends.

“It was more a personal thing. Can I handle it? And if I can’t, I’m going to leave. I’ve sorted myself out and I’ve realised I can handle it as long as I avoid certain situations, such as the press conference. If I was to do that stuff, it would defeat the whole purpose of getting back in the band. The whole reason I did this was because I understood there were certain things I couldn’t do.”
Joannou remembers the decision like this:
“We just went up to Daniel’s house, sat around as mates, really casual. Everyone voiced an opinion and everyone was still thinking the same thing. We said, ‘Let’s do it’. It was good in a way, because we decided at the same time not to be half-hearted.”

While Gillies and Joannou enjoyed a year’s anonymity, Johns didn’t have any such luxury. Sick or well, he has become a tabloid darling in Australia. Is he dating Natalie Imbruglia? Is he leaving silverchair? Is he gay?
He blames himself for saying too much in past interviews.
“The whole purpose of life, I guess, is to have an understanding of yourself and to have things which no-one knows about you,” he says. “That’s what gives you personal identity.”

A red Lamborghini is parked outside the Sheraton, the band’s spectacularly-appointed hotel.
“This is mine,” says Daniel, as his bandmates board a coach for the gig, “I’ll see you there.” He’s joking.

En route to the Rock In Rio site, the band’s bus crawling through agonisingly slow traffic, Daniel learns that Iron Maiden travelled to the venue by helicopter.
“Wow! How cool would that be? Can we get the chopper back? How long would it take? Only 15 minutes?”

Ben Gillies sleeps, Chris Joannou burns off nervous energy by just looking out the window. Daniel talks and listens, keen to keep his mind on something else.

When Johns talks, it’s the talk of a 21-year-old, not of a rock star. It’s curing the munchies after a joint, it’s the origins of the word ‘fuck’, it’s about other bands as if he’s just going out for a look. He calls his drummer ‘Gillies’, as if they’re jumping the queue together in the school canteen.
Then Joannou leans over the back of his seat and says, “Hey, guess what? It’s a sell-out. Two hundred and fifty thousand people!”

When Daniel Johns walks out onstage in front of a quarter of a million Brazilians, chaos erupts. A sea of faces stretching out to the horizon crane to catch a glimpse of his drop-dead cool mirrored jacket.

‘Pure Massacre’, ‘Emotion Sickness’ and ‘Ana’s Song’ all fly past. This might be silverchair’s finest hour, but Daniel looks nervous. Between songs, he struggles to think of anything to say. But then adulation on this scale is difficult to conceive. During ‘Miss You Love’, the video screen is filled with the image of a young girl hoisted onto someone’s shoulders, weeping.

They play two new songs, ‘Hollywood’ and ‘One Way Mule’ ­ both tough, riff-heavy stompers, before ‘Freak’ inspires the sort of mass pogo that most of us thought we’d only see on the television. When it’s over Daniel leaves his guitar, strings snapped, wailing in front of his amp and walks off in a faux huff. It lays there for a while before a roadie tugs it away by its lead.
It has all happened in just one day, a day that you would expect to conclude with sex and drugs and anything else that’s available.

When I return to the hotel I’m told everyone is ‘down by the pool’. I don’t know whether to anticipate the best or fear the worst. Instead, Ben and Chris are sitting at a table with the band’s inner circle, sipping lager.

“Want some pizza?” says A&R man Simon Moor. Pizza?
Daniel finishes the day as he began it ­ absent. Tomorrow, he will go to hospital with glandular fever.

There are better memories one might take away from such a day than that of a microwaved ham-and-pineapple pizza at 4:30am. The best of all comes from some eight hours earlier.

Just before the band are due onstage, it’s possible to peer through the chain-mail barrier at the rear, to the area the band walk through from the dressing room. Johns, his jacket so reflective as to be blinding, leads silverchair up a ramp. Workmen clearing equipment, ferrying amps and tugging at cables, used to the sight of rock stars, stop in their tracks and stare. Johns, looking straight ahead, keeps walking, right up and out into the spotlight, leaving his demons in the shadows.

Nigel Tufnell would be proud.

(Thank you to Emma for the transcript)