Daniel Johns (Silverchair) Interview
By Skip Daly (www.modernguitars.com)
Daniel Johns, lead vocalist and guitarist for Australia's most popular rock-grunge group, Silverchair, met Ben Gillies (drums) and Chris Joannou (bass) before they were in their teens. By the time they reached 15, the trio made its mark "Down Under" as a major rock group. Today, Silverchair's reputation is global.
Silverchair’s entry to rock stardom came early when they were 14 years old and headlined as the Innocent Criminals at local shows. Johns, Gillies and Joannou proved worthy when they won an Australian record demo competition with “Tomorrow” that helped land them a three-album record deal with Sony Music. The song sat at the top of the Australian singles charts for six weeks. The group re-recorded the track for U.S. consumption and it became one of the most played songs on U.S. rock stations during the '90s.
The name Silverchair is a tribute that conjoins bits from the titles of songs by their two major musical influences, Nirvana and Australian alternative rock group You am I. They twisted Nirvana's track "Sliver" to Silver and grabbed "chair" from You am I's track "Berlin Chair."
At the ripe old age of 15 the trio recorded their debut album, Frogstomp, catapaulting the lads' CD to a number one hit in both Australia and New Zealand. With record sales reaching 2.5 million copies worldwide, Silverchair claimed a hefty fan base and a top ten hit in the U.S. Their reputation won them spots on tours with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blink-182. A second album, Freak Show was released in ’97 with three tracks, “Abuse Me,” “Cemetery,” and “Freak” jettisoning up to the top ten charts in Australia. The album went gold in the States.
Daniels vocals cut deep with lyrics that are sometimes uncomfortably personal. Wading through the trauma of anorexia he helped exorcise those demons by writing more songs for Silverchair’s third album, Neon Ballroom. Listen to the highly regarded “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)” and you hear him achingly, painfully yearning to climb out of the wreckage.
And you’re my obsession
I love you to the bones
And Ana wrecks your life
Like an anorexia life
Later, Johns would suffer from the effects of reactive arthritis that was debilitating and proved to be another serious challenge for not only his musical career, but his life.
Released as a video in 1999, “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)” was awarded the best video award by the Australian Recording Industry Association.
Daniel moved into producing when recording the group’s fourth album, Diorama. He worked with producer David Bottrill and the legendary Van Dyke Parks who added orchestral arrangements to a couple tracks. Upon release the album hit the Australian charts at the number one slot before going triple platinum.
Setting out briefly with Australian electronica musician Paul Mac, Johns and Mac put out an internet release, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock EP and later collaborated with his wife, pop artist, Natalie Umbruglia on her album Counting Down the Days.
Silverchair disbanded for a short while so members could pursue their individual interests, then re-formed in 2004 to raise funds in support of the victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami that killed 230,000 people. After the show, the three were reinvigorated and decided to regroup as Silverchair.
In October 2007, Silverchair made Australian music history by adding several new ARIA awards to their band's accomplishments, giving them a career total of nineteen awards, more than any other Australian artist in history, including AC/DC, Midnight Oil and others. The Newcastle trio’s 2007 awards included Album of the Year for Young Modern, Best Group, Best Rock Album (Young Modern), Single of the Year and Highest Selling Single for “Straight Lines.”
Modern Guitars caught the group's act at Washington D.C.'s popular 9:30 Club during their 2007 North American Tour and then later connected with Daniel once things settled down and he had a slice of time to share some thoughts with us on his music, career, guitars, and artistic instincts.
* * *
Silverchair just finished a fairly sizable tour in the U.S. How did that go?
Daniel Johns: It was really fun actually! We really enjoyed it! We got over there and we were really surprised at the way that the new record, Young Modern, was being received. Because when Diorama came out it was kind of overlooked.
We didn’t get to tour it, so we didn’t really know if anyone even knew who we were anymore. It felt really good to go over there and have people be really excited about the band and excited about what we’re doing.
Did you find the U.S. audiences much different those in Australia?
DJ: Really. I mean, a little bit smaller, but just as passionate. We really like playing in America! We always have. We’ve always had really good fans over there. All the shows were sold out and we really enjoyed it! It was a shock to us that that many people still cared. That was thoroughly enjoyable!
I attended the D.C. show at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and I thought it was great.
DJ: Thanks. A lot of that tour I still had laryngitis, so I wasn’t singing amazingly, but we had a lot of fun.
Despite the large arrangements, and the prevalent use of keyboards, Silverchair is, at its essence, a three-piece band. As a guitarist, you’ve got a lot of space to fill. Do you find the three-piece format to be restrictive or challenging or both?
DJ: I definitely find it challenging. I tend to do a lot of overdubs on keys and guitars and stuff in the studio. But when it comes to live performance, I really enjoy the idea of just having one guitar. You can just kind of prioritize the parts and just assign one guitar to one certain part. Essentially, it’s pretty much the same song when we do it live.
I guess I just have to use a couple more effects, but I like the idea of it just being a rock and roll band when we do it live. And when I’m in the studio I like to work a lot more with textures and with arrangements and stuff.
Out of curiosity, were there any specific trios that inspired you guys when you were starting out? Bands that made you want to keep things stripped down to a small line-up? Or did it just work out that way?
DJ: We got together when we were twelve years old. We were originally a four piece and then our guitarist went and moved to England. So, we were kind of forced into a three piece situation. But right about the same time we were listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream and stuff like that from our dad's record collections. So, I guess we were inspired by that…definitely. When we were a three piece, we started listening to three piece bands, like a lot of the bands from the '70s and stuff, to get inspiration and to figure out how to do it as a three-piece, as opposed to having rhythm guitar and lead guitar
With this new record, I suppose it’s a little too dramatic to call it a “re-birth”, but it’s definitely a resurrection of the band, with you guys having each worked on individual projects in recent years. What were the goals, both for the band and you personally, with respect to the new album, "Young Modern"? Do you feel these goals were achieved?
DJ: Yes, I feel like the goal was definitely achieved! I was working on the record for about two years before we even went into the studio. I was writing and I had about 52 songs written for it.
I did about three rounds of demos and different recordings. I was basically trying to figure out different ways to go about making these songs. Finally, when I was happy with the remaining twelve, or whatever I got it down to, I went and showed Ben [Gillies] and Chris [Joannou] and showed them the songs and the arrangements and they were really happy and excited by the tunes.
I guess I just wanted to make a record that was very much, after Diorama, which was so expansive, I wanted to incorporate all of the ambition and the magic of Diorama, but still essentially make it sound like a rock and roll band.
I read that the title of the new album comes from Van Dyke Parks’ nickname for you. What has it been like collaborating with him? How has he served as a “mentor” to you, if that’s an appropriate word?
DJ: Ever since I first worked with him on Diorama, he was just kind of overtly supportive and really inspired by the music I was writing. I just think he’s an absolute genius and such a pleasure to work with. When I was writing this new batch of songs, before I knew whether it was a Silverchair record or not, I was playing him demos and playing him ideas that I had. He was just really supportive and excited by the idea.
Once we started [working on the record], we were hanging out quite a bit and just going out for dinner, listening to music, going and watching performances and things, and talking about stuff together. Eventually he just started calling me “Young Modern” for some reason, and then I just wrote it as a track. Before I knew it I just told the guys “the record’s called Young Modern, and they were happy with the title. It’s the first record we’ve done where we had the title before we’d recorded the music![Laughs]
Speaking of the record, I really love that song “Straight Lines”. I’m curious where that came from?
DJ: That was one of the last songs written for the record. I was hanging out with a friend of mine who plays in a band called The Presets, and we were just jamming on a piano when we decided to write together. We came up the riff for “Straight Lines” and I just really liked it and went away with the tape of it and started coming up with vocal ideas and melodies and arrangement ideas. I went back and showed everyone when it was finished.
Yeah, we’re really excited about the track. I just wanted to write something which felt like an anthemic Motown-style song, but a lot more modern.
What guitars are you using now? What do you consider to be your main axe, and why – what do you like about it?
DJ: I don’t really know that much about my equipment. But I know what my two favorite guitars are. I’ve got a ’75 and a ’76 Fender Telecaster. I don’t even really know what model. It’s the one with the double humbuckers in the neck and the bridge, but they’re my two favorite guitars. On the record, I was pretty much using Telecasters and Les Paul Juniors, and yeah, for a couple of, like the small tin-pot guitar tones, I was using an old, battered, '50s Telecaster, just an on-the-bridge single coil pickup…something that sounds nice and clean and fragile.
What do you consider the main secret to longevity in a musical career?
DJ: I think for me the secret to longevity is remaining ambitious and enthusiastic. I never want to be an artist that becomes complacent, because I don’t think it’s possible to be creative and complacent at the same time. So I guess for us all that I want to do is remain inspired and keep trying to find new, exciting things, and things that keep me going musically. Like listening to a lot of different stuff and coming up with new ideas and figuring out new ways to paint with color.
And I think that maybe goes into the audience. Maybe they feel that we’re not a complacent band. We don’t ever take anything for granted. We never try to repeat the process of the record before. I always try to come up with something different and come up with a different way of recording it.
How do you guys work out differences and how do you decide which songs go on a CD? Since this is a band that formed very young and you guys basically grew up together, does that closeness and history help or hurt the chemistry?
DJ: I think it definitely helps! We’ve never had fights about what song goes on and what song doesn’t. I just usually kind of tell the guys “these are the songs we’re doing”, and it’s kind of decided, if you know what I mean. So, it’s not like [pauses], we don’t sit around the round table. If I feel like I’ve got a song and I don’t know if it’s good or not, I’ll ask them what do they recommend. If they like it, then sometimes they can convince me, but other times if I’m convinced that I don’t think it’s a good idea, then I just pull the plug on it.
We’ve never really had fights and we’re really good friends and we’ve been together from such a really young age. I think one of the positives of being in a band from such a young age is we all realize our role in the band and it’s kind of my job as a creative director and songwriter to kind of decide that kind of stuff. And then when I feel like I’m in a little bit of a hole and can’t figure something out, then I’ll ask them what they think.
Guitar tablature websites were recently told to “cease and desist” on offering free guitar tabs or were threatened with lawsuits because publishers or owners of the songs weren’t getting any compensation. Have any thoughts on that?
DJ: [Laughs] I don’t really care. I think the only thing with guitar tablature and all that kind of stuff is it’s so often incorrect. I’ve never really figured anything out by guitar tablature because you can usually hear when you’re doing that kind of stuff that it’s wrong. I don’t think I’ve read many guitar tab things that I think are 100% accurate, especially with Silverchair’s stuff. It’s very often misinterpreted on that stuff. But you know, if people want to figure it out for free or whatever, you know, I don’t really care. I don’t really know that much about tablature. I never really learned how to read music. I’ve never really understood that side of things. If I want to figure out a song, I just turn the record on and figure it out. You can usually hear the harmonics and what’s going on in there without having to refer to a book that usually gives you the wrong information.
What are you listening to now? Who are your current musical or guitar heroes?
DJ: The big influences on this record, guitar-wise, was definitely Brian Eno. Definitely listening to a lot of stuff by the Talking Heads, and when I was writing, I was definitely listening to a lot of that stuff, just because I was producing the record as well and felt like I just wanted to get some ideas. Me and Nick were listening to a lot of Talking Heads and Roxy Music and David Bowie and T-Rex just for sonic ideas.
I guess, guitar-wise, a big influence for me has been Robert Fripp and Captain Beefheart and Brian Eno. A lot of classic stuff, like Hendrix. Every time I hear a Hendrix performance, I definitely pay attention. It’s pretty genius! [Laughing]
I just like good guitarists that have an idea. Even people that aren’t necessarily technically good tend to be people I gravitate towards. Because I can relate! [Laughs]
How’d you end up with your first guitar and what songs did you start out with, when you started playing, as opposed to just being a listener?
DJ: I got my first guitar when I was 12, as a Christmas present. It was a $90 electric guitar from my parents. I told them I didn’t want an acoustic. So, that was the first guitar I ever got. The first song I ever figured out how to play was “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits. You know I was 12 years old. I think I figured that out because my dad was listening to it and I heard it on the radio. I just picked up my guitar and tried to figure it out.
Classic guitar riff…
DJ: Yeah, exactly. It was more that that was the song playing at the time that inspired me to figure it out, as opposed to falling in love with the song or anything. The reason I wanted an electric guitar is because I wanted to be in a band that sounded like Black Sabbath or Deep Purple or something like that when I was twelve years old.
It was only later on that I started kind of avoiding writing riffs. I started learning how to write good songs and started learning how to work with melodies and textures and things like that.
Do you have any old CDs that you still play over and over until they crack?
DJ: I still listen to stuff that I used to occasionally, but I tend to listen to a lot less guitar music. I like to keep my palette cleansed, so I listen to a lot of electronic music, interesting music from Berlin or some good hip hop stuff or, you know, if there’s a guitar band I only really pay attention if there’s something interesting going on. If I feel like I’ve heard it before, I tend to not listen to it.
What do you do when you get bored with your guitar? To be stereotypical for a second, over here Australians are considered a bit wild and into hard driving outdoor sports. What kind of stuff do you and the other guys in the band do when you get a break from music?
DJ: The other guys tend to have more hobbies than me. I don’t really do anything other than play music. I’m pretty sad like that! [Laughs] Whenever I’m not on tour I’m writing. And whenever I’m not writing, I’m on tour. The only other thing I do is hang out with my wife, or hang out with friends, and just have fun.
In terms of hobbies, I’m either listening to music or writing music, or watching films – that’s probably the only thing. But even when I watch films, I’m really paying more attention to the soundtrack.
Silverchair is a band that saw a whole lot of success very early on and at quite a young age. Did you find it difficult to keep your feet on the ground through all the craziness? How did such rapid and overwhelming success affect the band, both positively and negatively?
DJ: think the negatives are obvious. I think everyone’s kind of been exposed to the negatives of what happens when that kind of thing happens to a band at a young age. But the positives are really quite positive.
I think we put our first record out when we were fourteen years old. All the songs on the first record were written between twelve and fourteen years of age. I think once you put that out and people have heard it and it’s successful, then it made me, as a songwriter, want to really get better and step up to the plate. I felt like we didn’t really deserve that kind of success that early. I wanted to get better as an artist and, I don’t know, “justify the success” to myself in a way.
Not to get real personal, but I was reading on your site about your bout with reactive arthritis. Frankly, I found it to be really inspiring and your comeback from that.
DJ: Yeah, thanks man. It was a pretty hard period of time, but it all passed over. For about two years I couldn’t really do music, or anything…couldn’t walk. So, it was a long two years in a bed.
How did that experience affect your outlook on life? Did it give you a new viewpoint on how to approach life?
DJ: It made me more appreciative. I definitely appreciated the situation we were in after I got sick. I started to embrace…I guess just being able to play in a band and play music. Just waking up in the morning and making a cup of tea, that was a good day after I couldn’t do that. So, it makes you more appreciative and gives you a bit of perspective.
Is there any lingering affect on your ability to play?
DJ: No. The only real lingering effect would be those two years where I couldn’t play guitar. I forgot all of the stuff and had to relearn all of the stuff. But that’s alright. I figured out new ways to play and figured out how to go about playing the guitar again, which was kind of good in a way. As opposed to getting bored with all the old tricks.
On a lighter note, I love the story about you covering up the make of your amplifier on stage because the manufacturer wouldn’t give you an endorsement. How did that end up working out? Did you ever make peace over that? Did the manufacturer ever come groveling…?
DJ: [Laughs] No, no, there was never any kind of war or anything! I didn’t say “I’m not gonna do it!” I’ve always covered up the brand of my amps and stuff anyway just because I don’t want an endorsement. I think we’re in a position now where we can afford a guitar amp. The last thing I want to do is a guitar amp endorsement and get my photo taken in front of an amp and have it splashed all over guitar mags. I’m not a tech head and it would just give the wrong impression. I only do it just to be difficult.
It sounds like you’re saying your feelings on that aren’t based on any kind of anti-commercial stance, so much as just you aren’t that interested in equipment so you don’t want to go out on a limb and endorse something.
DJ: Yeah, exactly. And also it’s just like, it always looks a little bit funny. Whenever I see that kind of stuff, it just looks like you’re kind of owned by a company or a brand. It’s like people in America that go out on tour and they’re sponsored by some fashion label or something. It just looks, I don’t know, everyone can make their own decision, but to me, that would make me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of sponsorship if you don’t need it.
What kind of amps and electronics did you use during this tour?
DJ: During the tour, I still used Soldano heads live, just cause I’ve used them since I was fourteen. I know how to manipulate the sounds and I’ve got all my effects pedals hooked up and I’ve kind of based all the settings and everything on the tone of the Soldanos.
I tend to use those live, and sometimes I hook up a vintage Vox as well, just for the cleaner tones. We didn’t do it on the last American tour because we couldn’t afford it! [Laughs]
And in the studio, I pretty much use Vox amps on every song and funny distortion pedals and weird pedals.
At home are you more likely to pick up an acoustic or plug in an electric?
DJ: I actually mostly play acoustics. I always write on acoustics and play acoustics. I don’t really play electric guitars unless I’m on tour now. It’s really interesting when you haven’t toured for a month and you’ve just been at home writing on an acoustic guitar and then you turn up for soundcheck and plug in your guitar and it’s a totally different feel. So, it always takes a couple shows to get used to playing an electric guitar again.
It’s interesting you mention that about writing on acoustic guitar, because I was recently reading some stuff where David Gilmour from Pink Floyd was talking about one of the benefits of writing on an acoustic without any effects was that it truly shows whether the song itself is good or not, as opposed to writing on an electric with a lot of effects. Sometimes the sounds can cover up whether or not it’s actually a good song.
DJ: Yeah, exactly, I agree with that. That sounds really old school, but I agree with that. I like to write on an acoustic and then once you plug everything in and you start getting keyboard ideas, or textural ideas, whether it’s guitar or keyboard or bass or drums and if you’ve already got a really good song, once you start really working it up, the job’s a lot easier than writing with a million effects and thinking it’s really interesting and then being really bored by the time you record it.
With six million records sold and a lot of successful touring under your belt, what goals remain to be achieved? Is there anyone in particular you still really want the chance to work with? What are your plans for the future, if you have any at this point?
DJ: I still want to do some stuff for film, some film scores and soundtracks. And I still think I have a lot of albums left in me. I’m already looking for a new direction on the next record and writing a little bit.
I guess the goal is just to remain inspired, like I was talking about before. That’s all that I want to do, just keep coming up with new, interesting things, and remain inspired, and stay in love with music. Don’t get complacent and don’t just sit comfortably on the ideas you’ve already got and milk them. It’s better to use them once and then move on.
* * *