Escape Act

By Kelsey Munro (Photography by Tony Mott) (Rolling Stone (Australia))

SilverchairAfter fleeing from grunge, fame and each other, Silverchair have come back together, rediscovering the magic for the Great Escape festival and realising that there’s nothing quite as special as what they have.

On a sunny day in early February, Silverchair entered Sydney’s 301 Studios in Alexandria. The reunited trio were set to spend a few days recording demos of the new songs they’d been rehearsing up in the NSW Hunter Valley over summer. It’s four long years since they made their last album, Diorama, and they’re not going to rush anything now. Recording is pencilled in for a midyear stretch – some time after their bound-to-be triumphant return to the stage this month and next, at Rock-It in Perth, the Clipsal 500 Race in Adelaide, and the Great Escape Easter festival in Sydney. An album release date is not even pencilled in. But Silverchair fans can rejoice, because what once wasn’t likely, is now a fact: The band are back.

I’m waiting for Daniel Johns in the 301 courtyard. Kindergarten coloured handprints of past recording musicians adorn the exterior walls, names added underneath. A large wooden table and benches fills a shaded corner. Taciturn men in jeans with wallet chains, go to and fro lugging gear. Soon enough – actually early – there he is, entering from a side door, smiling broadly, looking implausibly fit and tanned. It’s Daniel Johns: Musical genius, Mr Natalie Imbruglia, erstwhile arthritis-and anorexia-sufferer, and, at times, Australia’s biggest rock star. He’s only 26.

This is all happening again – the rehearsing, the recording, the interview, the rousing of the many limbed Silverchair beast – because of a phone call Johns made to each of his bandmates last year, when he was still living in the U.K. He’d been planning a solo album, but suddenly realised it wasn’t what he wanted to do. He needed his band back. Accordingly, he came home in November, and in the lead-up to Christmas went with drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou to the Hunter Valley. The plan was to rediscover their music and each other. “We just went to a little house on a farm in the bush and stayed there for two weeks,” Johns says, “and just lived and breathed and played music. Got back together, got to know each other again. It was great.”

Silverchair Johns is personable and friendly. He chit-chats about the 301 handprints (“I bet Cold Chisel are up there somewhere!” Why? “Just a vibe!”), offers that he was up late the night before at Paul Mac’s house, working on ProTools. (Mac was working on ProTools; Johns says he doesn’t have a clue how to use the audio program.) For someone who was bedridden, unable to even play his guitars for several months a few years ago, Johns now glows with health. He is smoothly shaved blond head and goatee, beautiful skin, unnervingly perfect white teeth and delicate, large tattoos snaking out of the sleeves of a slim-fitting shirt. Presumably underneath he’s still wearing the nipple piercings he displayed at the Sydney WaveAid concert last January. His eyes are bright, wide, and there is the smallest hint of eyeliner or mascara at the middle of his lower lashes. There is certainly effeminancy to his beauty: an impression heightened by his habit of breaking into giggles after he says something he thinks is funny or silly. But Johns’ manner of frank, friendly consideration is undermined by restless body language. He slips and slides around the bench, constantly changing his position. It’s as if he’s hyperactive or desperately uncomfortable, but nothing in his words or voice indicates that. It’s and odd contradiction. It makes you wonder how Johns has been affected by his early stardom, or perhaps if his apparent fragility has always been an integral part of his creativity. Then again, he could just be keen to finish the interview and get to work.

Adolescent stardom has left no visible scar on Ben Gillies. Silverschair’s genial drummer doesn’t appear to have a gram of celebrity baggage on him. He’s just moved back to Newcastle with his girlfriend after two years in Sydney, because its laid-back lifestyle suits the couple much better. Novocastrians, he says, don’t care about fame; he gets hassled in Sydney more than he ever has back home. Unsurprisingly it’s different for Johns, who has always been the most famous member of the group. In the U.K., he has joked that people only recognise him as Imbruglia’s husband. But back in Australia he’s learnt his lessons well. “I don’t really go out very much in Newcastle,” Johns says. “Obviously there’s places you just don’t belong. For example, pubs between five and eight on a Friday evening. Just don’t! It’s alright, I don’t mind. I don’t want to go out to pubs and meet new people. I’ve got friends.” He laughs.

Silverchair In their extraordinary career, Silverchair have sold over six million albums – the lion’s share (2.5 million) being their world smash debut, Frogstomp, released in 1995 when the band’s members were just 15 years old. Gillies and I calculate that he, Johns and Joannou have been in Silverchair for more of their lives than they have not: they formed the band when they were 12, and Silverchair is now 14 years old. It’s a history with deep roots. Gillies volunteers a cute primary school anecdote about building a stage out of desks in their classroom, upon which he and Johns performed their original rap songs for their classmates, backed by a Casio beat. Music – and this band – was always their destiny.

But two years ago Silverchair was, in practical terms, non-existent: Johns was crippled by a bout of reactive arthritis. After being diagnosed with the condition in early–2002, he was unable to play guitar for 15 months, and the band were forced to cancel all tour commitments. It was another cruel blow for the singer, who had won his life-threatening battle with anorexia to make Diorama. That album suffered from the band’s forced lower profile in the U.S., although it still sold in excess of triple-Platinum in Australia - that’s some 210,000 copies. After marrying Imbruglia at a North Queensland beach on New Year’s Eve 2003, Johns moved to the U.K. It was there at Imbruglia’s Windsor home, in mid-2004, that he wrote the Dissociatives album with Mac. With the creative and moderate commercial success of that project – nominated for ARIA’s Album of the Year and certified Gold, selling 30,000 copies – Silverchair’s end seemed sealed.

The rumours that Silverchair had split were routinely denied or ignored by the band. But even they were never sure if it was over for good. “There was always that possibility,” Johns says now, “ but I didn’t ever close the door on that; I never said ‘That’s it.’” Reading between the lines, it’s as though the decision has always been down to Johns, the creative engine of the band. If he wanted to keep it going, it would. If not, it was the end of Silverchair. Gillies shrugs equably. “Every record there’s been that point where it’s like, ‘I wonder if this is going to continue or if we’re going to stop,’” he says. “I’m at the point now where I just think to myself, ‘Well, if it stops it stops and if it doesn’t, I’m up for the ride.’”

When the rumours were flying, Johns and his bandmates weren’t spending much time together at all. With Johns in the U.K.; Joannou was living between the NSW Central Coast and Sydney with his then girlfriend, singer Sarah McLeod (they split in late-2004); and Gillies was living with his girlfriend in Bondi. While Johns worked with Mac, Joannou dedicated his creative energies to co-producing work by the Mess Hall, and Gillies drummed for independent band Tambalane. It’s not that Silverchair’s members were fighting, but they certainly weren’t hanging out. “It’s kind of on and off,” Gillies explains. “Generally if Dan’s in town or Chris is in town we’ll contact each other and catch up for a coffee or a beer. It’s not that we don’t talk or we’re fighting. We keep in contact.” But apart from a handful of live dates in 2003, Silverchair were off the radar for a long time.

Silverchair The Apocryphal break-up of Silverchair has been, Johns now admits, something of a help to him: deciding it’s all over has repeatedly given him unfettered bursts of creativity. “It’s always the same fucking story with this band,” he laughs. “It frees me up creatively after every album to assume that’s it, so I don’t feel restrained anymore. I’ve only just started noticing there’s a very definite pattern happening! But I think that’s what gets me started. And once I’m about eight tracks in and I’ve got a real vision, I don’t have any of those problems, and then I can start seeing it as a Silverchair album and building it from there. But I always have to assume: ’That’s it, no-one likes us anymore; I’ve got to start something new.’”

The frontman’s creative digressions have ultimately only served his original band: you could argue that the Dissociatives saved Silverchair. The freedom to make whatever music he wanted with Mac brought Johns full circle. “After Diorama and doing the Dissociatives album, it felt a lot freer, he says. “Because I felt like maybe people’s expectations of what I do had changed a bit, maybe the parameters had widened. So it felt more comfortable not having to write a big rock album.”

Post-Dissociatives, Johns was vaguely working on a solo album - he refers to it as though it’s in inverted commas, sending himself up. But after a while, the new songs needed something else. “I started writing this ‘solo album’,” he laughs. “Then, yeah, as usual, I got about eight songs in and I just started missing Ben and Chris.” He re-enacts calling them in tears. “’Guys? Waaaaaah! I’m scared, I’m cold. Come back!’” He giggles. “So that was good.”

The seed of Silverchair’s future was planted at the WaveAid gig, on January 25th, 2005. Until about 10 days before the benefit show at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the trio hadn’t played in the same room for two years. “It’s easy to forget how good it can be, when we play together,” Gillies says of that show.

“We had to quickly get our shit together, and I had to relearn all those songs,” Johns adds. “I’m useless. But you remember ‘em pretty quick.”

Silverchair Onstage, in front of 50,000 fans, the old magic came back. Johns was still a brilliant frontman, his band an unstoppable force. Despite the probability that most of the fans present had grown up with the band, Johns wasn’t troubled by the palpable nostalgia in the air; he has no delusions about their early success. “I don’t feel bad if a record doesn’t sell as many as Frogstomp is as high as we’re ever going to get, so from now on it’s just a question of getting better and better, instead of getting bigger and bigger.”

The chemistry between the core trio is the stuff of Oz-rock legend, even if it took them a long while to realise it. “Being a little bit older, we can recognise now that we’ve got a special musical connection,” Gillies admits. “For years I think we denied it. When we were younger we just took the Silverchair thing for granted. Now we realise it’s … something that doesn’t come around that often. I don’t know about Daniel, but definitely for me – that was one thing Tambalane made me realise. It’s just that thing that sets bands apart, that certain something you can’t really put your finger on. You can’t replicate it with a bunch of guys you call up and go, ‘Let’s have a session.’ It’s something that builds up over time. It’s not even musical either, it’s something else – like you can almost anticipate what the other person’s going to do.”

Johns says that he has written around 45 songs, but the band have rehearsed only 20 of them. “I don’t want to be part of this double-album tidal wave,” he quips. He talks happily in colourful abstracts about his vision for Silverchair’s fifth album. Mac will play piano again; Julian Hamilton of the Presets has co-written four songs. They are also likely to again “do some stuff with Van Dyke Parks”, the legendary composer who contributed some string arrangements to Diorama. “I like the process of having the core of it as us but then we’ve got all these guests,” Johns says. “I like guest! I’m very hip-hop.” He laughs. “Silverchair featuring Julian Hamilton of the Presets!’” Later, he offers: “If Diorama was like a painting, this is more like a sculpture. It’s not going to sound as professional or nice. I’m really proud of Diorama, but this one I’d like to make more dirge-y and swollen and infected. Some of this album is heavy, but not like heavy rock; it’s not Wolfmother. Its more angular and heavy in terms of the emotion, a lot of Kraftwerk-inspired zone-out, done by a rock band. I want it to be sprawling and unpredictable. If people like it, they like it. I know I’m going to like it.” Later he mentions Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets as important influences on the forthcoming album.

Silverchair If anyone has missed it, Silverchair have come a long way from the grunge-influenced “Tomorrow”, the song that made the trio famous. And that’s something that record companies, with their formula-driven profit-models, have not always appreciated. While in Australia, Silverchair are still signed to their long-time manager John Watson’s label Eleven, overseas their record contract lapsed. They’re free men – and after the interference they had from A&R people at their American label during the making or Diorama, it probably does feel like getting out of jail. “You’ve got to take the risk,” Johns shrugs. “If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. A lot of problems started happening in the music industry when people began realising what valuable currency a formula is. Once they realise what people want from them, it can get manipulated. Then the creativity is just like a wick in a candle that can’t be reached. But artists that just keep doing music for the fun of it. You’ve got to have holes and risks and troughs and valleys in a career for it to be remarkable.”

The downside of this creative freedom is the relative penury – no corporate trans-national to bankroll your studio time. With visions as elaborate as Johns’, Silverchair albums don’t come cheap. But Silverchair are in the fortunate position of being able to raise money for the independent recording from their festival appearances this month.

Life, for Silverchair, is good. Daniel Johns, of the troubled adolescence and illness-challenged young adulthood, has grown up happy. “Most of the time people are pretty nice these days,” he says. “It’s not like the olden days, the Frogstomp days.” No more bottles hurled at the band onstage, no getting beaten up outside of school. It’s no wonder Johns took a while to appreciate his celebrity.

“I resented it for ages,” he says. “From like 18 to 23. That doesn’t do anything for your sanity or health. A lot of it is just adjusting; it took me ages to adjust to the position I was in. Once I did, I was comfortable with it. If that happened to me now, I’d have handled it a lot better.”

Dismissing any suggestion that he’s an entertaining frontman, Johns know there’s no power in novelty, only in quality. “I’ve said it before: You’re new once and then you’re old forever,” he says. “You can’t get too caught up in being too entertaining, you’ve just got to be good.”