Silverchair - Sonic Youth
By Rob Johnson (Request Magazine)On the outskirts of Newcastle, Australia, 104 miles north of Sydney, there is a pool of black sludge beside the road about the length of an Olympic swimming pool. Look back and you'll see rusting steelworks and weatherboard shacks. Drive for another 10 minutes and you'll be at the beach. Welcome to Newcastle, second-largest city in the state of New South Wales.
Daniel Johns thinks it's OK as far as big cities go. But Johns, who turned 16 in April, lives on the beach side of town with his father, Greg, a fruit marketer, his mother, Julie, and his younger brother and sister. Their home at Merewether Beach is 40 minutes drive from the "industrial stuff." Daniel goes to Newcastle High School, where he does all right in English, is "shit in maths and science", and does art because "it's a bludge." Every now and again -- roughly once every two months -- his friend Ben Gillies (almost 16), whom he has known since preschool, will come over, and they'll make up songs together. That's if they're not surfing or playing pool. Johns kicks his 14-year-old brother out of the bedroom they share in order to write.
Daniel's brother doesn't really mind. He'll go out to the back room and play on their Sega system. You see, he doesn't like his brother's band that much; he's into Alice in Chains and Green Day.
It all sounds like a typical teenage suburban lifestyle, if you forget for a moment that Johns and Gillies, along with another school friend, Chris Joannou, make up a band called silverchair, and if you forget that silverchair is currently the biggest-selling, most-popular band in Australia.
Newcastle is mirrored in the bass-heavy, riff-fueled blitzrieg that is silverchair's music. It's a working-class industrial town that built it's fortune on coal and steel, and was founded in 1804 as a colony for the most hardened convicts. The prettiness of the banks of the Hunter River (on which the city is built) belied Newcastle's description: "the Hell of New South Wales". With the coming of the First World War, BHP set up the first steelworks in Newcastle. The belching foundries were hailed then as a symbol of Australian independence from Britain.
Eighty years later, Newcastle is trying to clean up its act. Or at least gloss over the legacy of enviromental devastation resulting from its past. But some things are hard to cover up. Like 30 percent youth unemployment. And a tangible atmosphere of lost innocence, be it in the derelict factories or in the absence of anything to do for fun. A similar atmosphere pervades silverchair's music.
It was here, in 1992, that the Innocent Criminals were formed, comprised of Johns, Gillies and Joannou. They were the ripe old age of 13 when they decided it would be fun to be in a band.
In 1994, they entered their song Tomorrow in a contest run by a TV show called nomad that aired on the federal-government-owned multicultural channel SBS. The prize was a video shoot and a day at the studios of radio station Triple J.
Triple J would have agreed to play whichever song won the nomad contest. The station also is owned by the government and wouldn't have been shy about plugging a sister show from television, especially one that wasn't rating. Johns remembers that Tuesday morning they found out they'd won the nomad competition. "We didn't, like, go spastic or anything. But we were pretty happy," he says. Triple J's experiences with Tomorrow was later mirrored by 89X in Detroit and 99X in Atlanta. Once the stations played it, they were flooded with requests to play it again.
At the same time, Sony Music Australia hired John O'Donnell to start a development label for young up-and-coming bands. It was O'Donnell's label, murmur, that snared the most sought-after band in the country. It then proceeded to spend only $10,000 (Australian currency) making its first album, frogstomp.
By the end of the year, silverchair (by this stage the group had changed its name) was the most popular act at the Big Day Out, a travelling show much like Lollapalooza that goes to all the state capital cities in Australia and showcases alternative rock. The members of silverchair found themselves spending time with musical heroes like the Cult, Courtney Love, Ministry and the local rock-gods in You Am I.
At the same time, joke nicknames started appearing for the band. "Nirvana in Pyjamas" was a favourite, as was "Silver Highchair". One employee of the band's record company said it was "not Soundgarden but kindergarten". Although the band didn't want to talk about it, nobody could ignore the fact that the trio was so young.
'The last thing in the world
the guys in the band wanted
was to be a teen pin-up...'
I ask Johns whether it was overwhelming going from being a schoolboy to hanging out with people he admired so much. He just shrugs and mumbles from behind his blond fringe, "We didn't talk to them." Why not?
He shoots me a look that says this is the stupidest question he's ever heard. "We didn't want to look like cockheads or anything. O'Donnell is on the phone (as always) in the murmur offices, two floors above one of the grottier corners of downtown Sydney. He's talking to the features editor of the top-selling teen magazine in the country. And just hearing one side of the coversation, you can tell that she's desperate.
"Yeah, I appreciate that," says O'Donnell, a journalist himself for six years. "And I'll hear you out. But I just don't think the band will go for it." So she goes through the list: They could style their own photo shoot, she says. We'll let them choose their own photographer. Can one of our journalists interview them? No? How about one of our readers, then? O'Donnell knocks back every suggestion with a weary politeness. Yes, he knows she has a job to do. All he can promise is that he'll approach the band. But he doesn't think they'll do it.
When Tomorrow broke in Australia, I was editing a national rock magazine. For every few calls to O'Donnell like the one described above, I'd get a similar call from an "old friend" at some publication (read: someone I'd once bumped into at a lunch) asking whether they could just "borrow" out silverchair photo file, because theirs had been "momentarily misplaced." Go figure.
I had no choice but to refer them to murmur, because the record company owns virtually every photo ever taken of the band. It's part of the label's anti-marketing strategy, an attempt to control the band's publicity and ensure it's longevity. Overall, they want silverchair to be treated like any other band, not like a phenomenon.
"We knocked back every national TV show, including A Current Affair," says the band's manager John Watson, "every national press publication, did no daily press and no mainstream radio interviews. And the thing was still on the Top 10."
To get a handle on silverchair's success, compare what's happened to the band to the overall performance of the Australian music industry. Observers of the industry are concerned about it's health. Last year, total record sales by units grew by 0.002 percent -- in other words, nothing. And compared to 1992, sales dropped by 0.06 percent. In the United States and Great Britain, total sales have climbed significantly. Very few local artists have reached platinum sales (70,000 in Australia) over the last four years.
Notable exceptions often took years to build their following and have seldom matched their success with subsequent albums.
Now, look at the global ship for frogstomp: 700,000 untis. The album went platinum in it's first week of release in Australia. This followed double-platinum sales for the Tomorrow single and the Pure Massacre EP. "It's the most bizzare record I can remember," Watson says of Tomorrow. "Our initial marketing plan was to sell 16,000 copies. It was just one of those things that spread by word-of-mouth. I don't think anyone could really pretend to have known just how much it was going to catch on. We thought 'Hey, there's a lot of potential there, a long-term investment, a lot of credibility,' but if someone had turned around and told us it was going to sell 140,000 copies in the first three months, it would have been laughable."
Watson has staked his career on silverchair. Last year he was director of International Marketing/A&R at Sony Australia and had the task of helping O'Donnell establish murmur as a development label. Now he's resigned that position to manage the band, a duty previously performed by Julie Johns and O'Donnell. The seeds of his decision were sown the first time he saw the band -- at a gig attended by seven people at the Jewells Tavern, Jewellstown, Newcastle.
'Like, in hotels we go to,
we do heaps of knock-and-runs
on people's doors and, like,
chuck eggs out windows and stuff...'
As he and O'Donnell were driving back to Sydney that night, Watson recalls he said, "If I was going to leave my job to manage a band, this would be it." At the outset, though, business was the first thing on his mind. "From my point of view," he says, "previously I had wanted to sign other bands I felt similarly strongly about and missed out. I was saying to John, 'I really don't think I can cope if I miss this band.'
"I've never come accross a band that's this much fun to work with. It always had its own momentum, and they're in it for the music, which is why you get into this business."
The next day O'Donnell and Watson sat down together and wrote a full career plan for silverchair, including plans to change the bands name. Later, they took the guys and their families out to talk about music.
"They liked the same music as us," Johns remembers. "Stuff like Helmet and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam."
"And the credibility thing appealed to them as well," O'Donnell adds. "The last thing in the world the guys in the band wanted was to be a teen pin-up."
silverchair signed with murmur around the same time that radio station Triple J realized it was inundated with requests to play the DAT tape of Tomorrow. As the single was being cut, all agreed that the name Innocent Criminals was too stupid, and someone came up with silverchair. At the time, O'Donnell tried to propogate the rumor that the band had thought of it themselves.
In some ways, Watson is facing a huge task looking after three teenagers who have their own version of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Where many bands reliever their boredom by trashing hotel rooms, silverchair has a safer trick. Says Johns: "Like, in hotels we go to, we do heaps of knock-and-runs on people's doors and, like, chuck eggs out windows and stuff."
Maybe Courtney Love said it best -- or at least said it in a way that got everybody talking. Love was in Australia in January this year to headline the Big Day Out, and while in Sydney, she played a terrifying solo gig. The young baby-doll clothes left the venue that night confused and scared. During the evening's performance, bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur had to be taken to hospital after being hit by one of Love's shoes; Love climbed a speaker stack, swaying precariously above the mosh pit while desperate roadies scrambled up after her; and Love also announced to the audience, "I'm not going to be on this planet in 24 hours."
While some of her comments were funny, the overall effect was like watching someone eat themselves in public. You could never escape the knowledge of what she'd lived through, which made it especially ghoulish when she announced, "Doesn't that boy from silverchair look just like my husband?"
There was an uneasy silence as people digested this: Well, yes, Courtney, he does, a bit. Love broke her own spell by continuing, "But he sounds like Eddie [Vedder], and that's not so great."
There's a simple reason why Daniel Johns sings like Eddie Vedder. He made himself sound that way, after spending hours copying Vedder's voice while listening to Pearl Jam's Ten.
"When we first started, when we were, like, 13, I was trying to sing like Eddie Vedder so much," Johns says. "Because he was, like, my hero and I was going 'Yes, I'm going to try and be like Eddie Vedder.' And I tried to sing like that, but by the time we started recording the album, like, I just sung. "My voice is different now, and different than it was when we were recording frogstomp. It's just changing naturally.:
And rather than being flattered by the comparison, Johns is indifferent: "I say, 'Who gives a shit?' Like, he's a hell singer, like, he's got an unreal voice, but I don't really want to sound like him or anything." There are tracks on frogstomp where the similarity is less noticeable; while Tomorrow could be an adolescent Pearl Jam number, Israel's Son has an edgier, more desperate bocal. But again, there are earthier explanations of that artistic expression. Halfway through recording (which took 10 days all up), Johns lost his voice. "Yeah, I couldn't talk for a few days." He laughs. "I think I just caught a bug, and I just totally lost my voice, and I was going, like, 'Aaarrrgh'. So we recorded some of the songs, and I only had half a voice."
When frogstomp was finished, everyone's favourite track was Israel's Son. Joannou's pendulous bass underpinning, the machine-gun staccato drum attack from Gillies, and Johns' rasping vocals echoed their alterna-rock predecessors beautifully. The song was simultaneously visceral and comfortable. It had "hit" written all over it. But there was something else, which only became apparent after a couple of listens: Johns' lyrical detachment, which sets him apart from the painful empathy that characterizes this genre of music.
"That [song] was about an execution I saw on tele," he says in the same way you'd say "that was an ad I saw on tele." "I got this video of an execution, and I just saw it, and I was watching it one night, and I had a dream about it, and I woke up and thought, 'Oh yeah, that's pretty cool', and I wrote a song about it."
Johns offers that many of his songs are influenced by watching television. Take Shade for example, which, in its expression of compassion without soul, comes across like a community-service announcement. "Shade is on abuse. I saw [a program] on tele about it, just mental and physical abuse," he says.
And the anthemic Tomorrow, the song that started the band's climb to the top, one of the first songs the guys had written that they'd liked? "That's about... I saw on SBS once this documentary about a poor guy that takes a rich guy to a poor persons' hostel to experience what it's like being a poor person and that. And the rich guy is complaining to get out and that, and he has to wait till tomorrow to get out of the hostel and that.
"So its probably one of our least serious songs, but it's still kinda got a good meaning to it."
It's a sympton of his youth, but indicative that the best is yet to come from silverchair. Old enough to sympathize but too young too empathize, they've gotten this far on a combination of good luck and resonance. Imagine what they'll be like when they grow up.
'Israel's Son was about
an execution I saw on tele,'
Johns says in the same way
you'd say 'that was an ad
I saw on tele'...
"We always knew," says Watson, "that if we could make this band last eighteen months, we could make them last for fifteen years. We've been able to get over that first hump in Australia. Now we have to do it all again overseas."
Watson puts this down to the strength of silverchair's live performances. The first one I saw was the single launch for Tomorrow. The crowd was very yound and when I saw O'Donnell, I asked him whether they'd invited their whole class along. He didn't talk to me for the rest of the night.
The Big Day Out was another story. In Sydney, the band was scheduled to play one of the smaller stages to the side of the main stadium. Five minutes before silverchair came on, the area was packed, the crush of bodies making movement impossible. A lot of people saw the band that day solely because they couldn't get out of the crowd.
The start of the set was plagued by sound problems, but that didn't bother the crowd. At one point, the band looked up to see a guy had climbed a light pole and was swinging from it by one arm, 50 feet directly above the crowd. About three songs in, I was distracted by some people clawing their way up a plastic drainpipe on the side of a building. First one guy, then another, and then another, and with each climber, the pipe would pull a centimetre out of the wall. But every person who made it up was greeted by a cheer, which inspired the next one.
Finally, just as silverchair played the opening chords of Tomorrow, some moron and his girlfriend decided to scale the pipe in tandem. By the time Johns launched into the opening chords of the songs chorus, they were halfway up, when the pipe slipped out just enough to send them both crashing back into the crowd.
Most of the silverchair entourage was nonchalant about it. A few days before, in Melbourne, the audience had taken to dancing on a tarpauling stretched above the mosh pit and only held on by a couple of ropes. Now that was dangerous.
The band members enjoy it. "The people that come to our gigs usually go pretty nuts," Johns says. "People just come there, they jump around, they hurt themselves, and they go home."
You can't help but suspect that the band members themselves can't fathom the way people react to them, it's just too far outside their experience. Take, for example, Johns' answer to a fundamental question: How do you sell hundreds of records and still concentrate on your math homework?
"Yeah," he replies, "sometimes it does put you off. Not because you think you're too good to do it, just because you don't have much time because you''ve got a lot of stuff to do in the band. We think the band's first priority, so we do that first."
Johns said that two days before embarking on a tour that will take the band through Europe, which they kicked off by playing the Reading Festival, before moving on to Canada, then Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. He says this sounds like "pretty good fun."
I tell him he can set a record for doing more knock-and-runs in more hotels around the world than anyone else. He laughs in such a way that you know he's going to try.