Silverchair's Aims to Leapfrog Across the Pacific on Epic

By Christie Eliezer (Billboard)

MELBOURNE -- The pattern of silverchair's runaway success in its native Australia could be on the verge of repeating itself in the U.S., where several key modern rock stations are heavily supporting the schoolboy trio.

The group's members -- Daniel Johns (guitar/vocals), Chris Joannou (bass), and Ben Gillies (drums) -- are all 15 years old and hail from Newcastle, an industrial coast town some hours from Sydney. They formed the band in 1992, bonded by a love for early '70s heavy rock, surfing, and American grunge.

Tomorrow, the group's first single and a No. 1 hit in Australia, was released May 29 by Epic in the U.S.; silverchair's debut album, frogstomp, arrived June 12.

Tomorrow debuted on the Modern Rock Tracks chart last week, mainly on the power of heavy play at CIMX (89X) Detroit, KNDD (The End) Seattle, and WLUM Milwaukee. It climbs this week to No. 26 with a bullet.

The band was to do three U.S. promo dates in Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit from June 21-24, with press appearances following in Los Angeles and New York. Next, it is off to Europe to play large festivals such as Reading (England), Roskilde (Denmark), and Lowlands (Netherlands).

silverchair's use in Australia began last June when a six-minute demo version of Tomorrow won a competition on SBS-TV and earned the band the chance to make a video and spend a day recording in the studios of the JJJ radio networks. JJJ programmers heard the demo and put it in rotation.

"We'd been playing gigs for two years, with no advertising, in front of like five people," says Johns. "We were just a garage band -- suddenly, we were on national radio, and then we had a contract."

After a bidding war, the band signed with Murmur, the new "street" imprint of Sony Music Australia. Murmur managing director John O'Donnell remebers seeing the group for the first time at a Newcastle club with 30 people in the audience. "You knew they were special as they came on. At the end of the first song, we were speechless."

Murmur expected Tomorrow to sell 10,OO0-20,000 copies. Instead, it became one of the top five all-time best-selling singles by a local act, moving more than 170,000 copies, according to the label.

Concerned that the band members' youthful looks would deract from their music, Murmur imposed a media ban, even buying up every available photo. The strategy didn't hurt: A follow-up single, Pure Massacre, also topped the Australian charts.

Press and radio access to the band was finally allowed on the eve of the spring release of frogstomp.

The album, which debuted here at No. 1, was quickly made "to be as loud as possible... the recording level was on red throughout," says Johns. Australian sales are in excess of 100,000 copies, according to Murmur.

New York-based Epic VP of A&R David Massey signed the act for U.S. distribution after seeing a performance at the Big Day Out festival here in January.

Epic originally planned to release Tomorrow in the second week of June and the album in September. with the band touring the U.S. around the end of the year.

However, an import version of the single was picked up in late April by CIMX and became the station's most-requested track.

Says John Watson, Sony's director of international marketing, "We had a great marketing strtegy mapped out. Now that's just been shot to pieces -- but in a most pleasant way."

Other key modern rockers spinning Tomorrow include WNNX (99X) Atlanta and WKQX (Q1Ol) Chicago.

"Radio and the [U.S.] public have responded purely to the song and the performance on the record," says Watson. "They [did not know] what the band looked like or its history. The appeal is the same as in Australia. Its success was largely word-of-mouth."

That the members of silverchair have kept their feet on the ground might have something to do with the fact that they can tour only during school holidays and are still harassed by teachers about their hair length.

The band members' relative youth has caused quips like "Nirvana in pajamas" and "Kinder(Sound)garden," but their lyrical themes -- which include child abuse (Shade), teen depression (Suicidal Dream), and a deadly earthquake in Newcastle (Faultline) -- have struck a responsive chord with audiences.

"I don't write something until I can relate to it," says Johns. "It'd be easy to write a teen song about hating school, but who really [cares]?"

To tie in with the U.S. launch of the album, the Rusty Skate & Surfwear Co. will ship 25,000 silverchair hang tags and 10,000 samplers to surf stores around the country.

A videoclip for Tomorrow has been shot in Australia, directed by Mark Peliington (whose credits include Pearl Jam's Jeremy video). The band will embark on its first U.S. tour this fall.