By Rod Yates (Kerrang Magazine)
Daniel Johns' face lights up with a smile and he lets a slight chuckle
slip. It's not the word that silverchair's singer/guitarist finds
funny. Rather it's the context in which it's used. It's 19th October
2001, and silverchair have just completed recording their new, fourth
album. In a few weeks Johns will fly to Los Angeles to mix the album
with producer David Botrill, but for now he has the relaxed air of a
man whose job is, at least partially, done. And he couldn't be happier
- not only with the album, but most importantly and surprisingly of
all, with life itself.
The album will, he reveals, be called Diorama, meaning a world within a world. It's for this reason that he's made the reference to the somewhat sloppy substance a poorly prepared curry or kebab has the habit of producing. Not that he thinks the album is shit. But Daniel Johns has been playing this rock'n'roll game for a long time now - far longer than any other 22 year old, with the exception of silverchair bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies - and he knows the way journalists think. The fact that the word diorama bears a similarity to the word diarrhoea will surely be too strong a pun for any hack who doesn't like the album to resist. But he's one step ahead.
It's not the kind of thing you expect from Daniel Johns. Actually it's not the kind of thing you expect from the Daniel Johns we read about in the papers and see on TV. If that were the case, the man sitting in front of me in a nifty pair of pinstripe pants and a blu collared shirt would be slouched in his chair in an anorexic mess, barely able to raise his frail head from the weight of the world sitting firmly on his shoulders. But, as he sips on a water in the Sydney based office of silverchair's management, nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead I'm presented with a healthy looking young man with a dry but sharp sense of humour who laughs and smiles frequently, speaks fluently and excitedly about the band's new album - "I'll always remember the period where I wrote this album and we recorded it, it was just a magical period" - he beams, and impresses the fact that the feeling in the silverchair camp is currently better than it's ever been.
"There's a real enthusiasm that we haven't had since we were 14 years old," he smiles. "When we were first playing, even though it was derivative, 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 the music."
Part of the reason for this undoubtedly stems from the fact that Diorama is a truly astounding piece of work of which the band are justifiably proud. But there's more to this story than a simple band-makes-good-album, band-is-therefore-happy scenario. Daniel Johns, you see, has changed. After years of emotional turmoil stemming from his battles with anorexia, depression and the pressures of being a "public property" at such a young age, he seems to have taken his first steps out of the dark and into the light. Ask him, for example, to compare himself with the Daniel Johns at the same stage of the recording process for previous album Neon Ballroom and he paints a bleak picture of his former self. "With the last album, there was a whole period where I just felt sick. 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."
"I'm just happier in general."
Only those who have suffered from depression can probably appreciate the magnitude of that last statement. To most of us, the concept of happiness is as simple as day and night - something good happens, you're happy. For Daniel Johns, however, it's a concept he's spent years trying to grasp.
"I think the key to experiencing happiness is being open to it," he considers now, "and I was closed to it. I was scared of it because I thought that maybe happiness isn't as good as what 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. It's not something that just falls in your lap, you have to work at it."
This process began in earnest early in 2001 when the singer decided to stop taking the antidepressant medication he was prescibed at the age of 18. As intended, it would level his emotions out so that rather than feeling intense lows - or indeed excitable highs - he would simply feel nothing.
"Obviously I had an eating disorder and just everything was bad, and that was kind of what I was prescribed and it made me not feel as bad," he explains matter of factly. "And you just keep taking them, and two and a half years later you're kind of looking at your watch and you're like, I've really been taking these for a long time!" He laughs. "You realise you're not feeling anything, you're just kind of sitting there, you're not really living. I experience really strong emotions, and I was almost ashamed of that for a really long time so I took the antidepressants, 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."
He animatedly describes the process of weaning himself off the medication.
"At first it was really hard because I took them for quite awhile. 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. You start experiencing real natural human emotions again. It's a total buzz when you start to feel real, genuine excitement about things."
Ben Gillies admits he felt a sense of helplessness and frustration watching Daniel go through the worst of his depression. It's a period, says the drummer from his Newcastle home, that began towards the end of the Freak Show tour and lasted through the Neon Ballroom era of their career, one which he's amazed the band not only survived, but did so with their friendship intact.
"For a while there when Daniel was kind of sick and we were kind of in our mid-to-late teens and going through puberty, trying to deal with fame and trying to deal with a really different kind of upbringing, there was a lot of different elements in there that could have really fucked us up pretty much," he reflects. "So I think to come out on the other side of it and still be friends, it's brought us closer."
Attributing this to their stable home lives and the ability of family and friends to keep the trio grounded, each member also acknowledges the role their decision to take the year 2000 off played in the band's current state of mind. For bass player Chris Joannou - who, like Gillies, is savouring the last few days of peace at his Central Coast home before the Diorama promotional whirlwind kicks in - the luxury of not having to live to a tightly configured schedule of lobby calls, soundchecks and interviews afforded him some much needed time to relax and come to terms with who he was after the rollercoaster ride of the previous five years. It's a similar story for his bandmates, though Gillies opted for a somewhat different method of rediscovering normality. He got a job in a Newcastle record store for six months.
"I don't know what that was, looking back now it was a pretty silly thing to do," he laughs. "But I really appreciated it because it gave me that look into the other side that we've never really experienced."
Of course at the time, the announcement that the band would not play live in 2000 was met with rumours that they were set to call it a day, and the word doing the rounds at the 1999 Homebake Festival was that their headline performance that year would be their last show ever. Was that ever really on the cards?
"It was pretty much always a break, but there have been some dodgy situations," explains Ben after a slight long pause. "There's definately been points along the lines where the band's been in question, like we've been there going, Is what we want to do? But I think that was just a combination of being really frustrated and sick of, you know, kind of [being] in the moment, and also just being kind of a little bit young and not being able to see the potential of what we'd produce further down the line."
Neither he nor Joannou spent a lot of time with Daniel over the break, nor did they discuss the singer's decision to stop taking his medication with him, both saying that it was a very personal thing for him to deal with. Ben admits, though, that Johns's more positive state of mind has had a positive effect on the band.
"If anyone in the silverchair family is really kind of down-and-out and they're feeling shithouse for whatever reason, everyone can feel it and you want to help the person and you want them to get over it," he offers. "But I mean Daniel being the frontman and the singer, it had a big effect, especially on Chris and I. Like musically you're thinking, is he enjoying this, is he into this? And a lot of the time it seemed like he didn't really want to be there, so it was really hard. But you know, he worked through it and we all worked through it and we came out on the other side, and I think it's all for the better."
That Daniel stopped taking the medication at the same time as he was writing Diorama naturally had a huge effect on the album. Written over an eight month period at his home in Newcastle, every mood swing, every high and every low - the "real natural human emotions" he was experiencing for the first time in years - is captured in a multi-coloured musical display that's about as far as you can get from the band's proto grunge roots imaginable. "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," enthuses Daniel. "A lot of the songs were written when I first came off [the medication], 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, [joyfully] I'm gonna write a song! 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 drugs or anything. I'd just be like, walking around my house going, 'Yay! This is fucking great!"
Recorded with David Botrill over an eight week period - six of which were spent in Sydney's 301 Studios, the other two at Mangrove Studios on the Central Coast - late last year, Diorama comes complete with a full orchestra, woodwind and brass sections and the arranging talents of Van Dyke Parks, best known for his work with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson on the Smile sessions. The album's lush orchestral instrumentation, involved arrangements and myriad of moods calls to mind a rock'n'roll take on a '50s Hollywood musical - revealingly, the frontman admits Hollywood musicals were the only kind of music he was really finding satisfying while writing the album. In an age where fake angst and corporate, radio friendly ear candy is being wheeled off the production line to cater for a public with the attention span of a goldfish, Diorama dares to challenge the listener, to invite them on a journey that becomes more exciting the more times you take it. It is, in short, the sort of album you just do not hear these days.
"There's just so much music out there that's so fucking boring," agrees Daniel, "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."
Nowhere is the album's emotional journey captured better than in its lyrics. After All These Years, for example, represents Diorama's more positive side, closing the album on a reflective but uplifting lyrical note with Daniel gently crooning, "After all these years/forget about all the troubled times". Tuna In The Brine, however, hints at the darker emotions that emerged during the writing process: "The light in my darkest hour is fear/Denies me of anything good sooo.../Don't lose your heart you'll need it/You'll have to take another pill and tell another lie/And lie amongst you lies like tuna in the brine."
"That's about preserving yourself by not exposing anything about yourself," he explains. "It's kind of about 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?
"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. "This album's the only one we've had which has a real sense of optimism throughout the whole thing," he continues. "Even the darkest moments, there's a real light there, which wasn't really deliberate to be honest, it's just the way I felt, it was just the way it came out."
Silverchair know that they are asking a lot of their fans with Diorama. Daniel recalls with a smile the time he first showed Chris and Ben the demos to the album, mimicking their confused expression as they stared at his stereo trying to comprehend what it was they were hearing. The question remains, then, that if the band members themselves took a while to come to terms with what it was he had committed to tape, how on earth are the fans expected to react? The frontman doesn't seem too concerned.
"Whether it be successful or not is really irrelevant to us, it's been such a good experience in our lives," he shrugs. "With this album, the only point I'm trying to prove is to myself. If people don't like it it doesn't bother me, which is a good feeling."
"It will definately throw some people," admits Chris Joannou, "and whether they take it or not that's up to them. You'd hope that a lot of people had just grown with the band. It's also broader again, so hopefully it sparks a light in a few other people."
Whatever the commercial outcome, silverchair as a unit are tighter, stronger and happier than ever before. Having accepted that this is no longer the high school band they started but a proper career - which, Gillies admits, he now realises "you've gotta have fun with" - they've created an album of immense depth that reflects the fact that they've grown as people and as a band. Silverchair have, it seems, come of age. Even better still is the fact that they're comfortable in their new skin. Hell, they're even enjoying it.
"The whole environment, the way things have panned out, everyone's just in a really good frame of mind," agrees Ben. "And to be in that position, it just makes life so much easier, cos there's nothing worse than being in a band and fighting and there's shit going down or whatever."
Would you say this is almost like the beginning of a second stage in the bands career?
"Almost yeah," concludes the drummer. "It's definately a different feeling to what it's been in the past. I think because it feels like we're no longer teenaged boys, like we're kind of young men and you just handle situations differently and you've got a different way of thinking so, definately, it's got a different spin on things than it has in the past. But in a positive way, it's not a bad thing at all, it's just kind of part of moving on. And everyone's happier. It's all good."