Ben Gillies of Silverchair
By Matt Peiken (Modern Drummer Online)Like a lot of other teenage rockers, Ben Gillies can air-drum with the best of them. Slap on Led Zeppelin's Moby Dick, and Gillies will work up a Bonhamesque sweat. Not one to discriminate, he's just as quick to air-ticulate a Jimmy Page guitar lead. Gillies, though, is unlike most others his age in two distinct ways: First, he's more likely to correctly mimic Zep's legendary licks, and second, while he's doing so, countless other drummers are undoubtedly at home somewhere air-drumming to his performances.
silverchair's story is enough to keep every teenage rocker fantasizing about their own chances at stardom. Gillies, guitarist Daniel Johns, and bassist Chris Joannou were just high school freshman, jamming in each other's garages in Newcastle, Australia, when their demo for the song Tomorrow fell into the right hands. A talent show crown led to studio airtime, leading to national airplay, leading to a show-stealing slot on Australia's Big Day Out festival tour, leading to recording deals, leading to MTV's Buzz Bin, leading to international touring, and, eventually, leading to triple-platinum American sales of their debut album, Frogstomp.
For his part, Gillies was simply excited to have a good seat from which to view the mosh pit. "Shows are the coolest thing, definitely," he says in a deep Australian accent. "I don't really care too much or even think much about the business side of things. We're still just three guys who get off on rockin' out, and it's cool that we can get other people to rock out with us now."
silverchair certainly lifted its headbanging factor up a notch or two with Freakshow, the group's new disc of mid-tempo, de-tuned, straight-time, riff-riddled rock. As with Frogstomp, Gillies and his bandmates still proudly flash their influences throughout the new disc: You can hear unabashed nods to Zeppelin, Nirvana, and, for that matter, the entire grunge movement. And much of Gillies' style is reminiscent of another heavy-handed Australian, 2-and-4 king Phil Rudd.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but on No Association, I'm playing almost the same drum beat that's on Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks," Gillies says. "Petrol & Chlorine also sounds like something Bonham would have done. I didn't try to make it like that at all, but I would kill to play like Bonham -- just his time and style. So if I sound like him, it's just because I'm a huge fan of his. Hopefully, I have my own style, too."
Still, at only seventeen, Gillies is already showing musical maturity and dexterity, playing with more confident attack on the band's explosive tunes, showing greater comfort with the more dynamically sensitive passages, and, through it all, keeping time more consistently. "I had to cut tape a lot on the first record, but I really didn't do that so much on the new one," Gillies says of the after-recording editing process. "I hit pretty hard live, but I didn't hit as hard on the new record. I still play pretty hard, but I think I was a lot more confident and in control of what I wanted to do. And I think we ended up making a tougher-sounding record than the first one."
That should come as little surprise to anyone who knows where the band comes from stylistically. It wasn't long ago that silverchair, then known as Innocent Criminals, were pumping out covers of Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and other heavy '70s-era bands. Before that, Gillies and Johns wrote their own songs -- vocals only -- and performed them under the name Short Elvis. Soon after his voice changed, Gillies stopped singing and began playing on a kit he picked up for $75 from an older teenager across the street.
"I took some lessons and learned some rudiments, but I never really gave 'em much use," Gillies says. "Flams do come in handy a bit, because I use 'em to go from a verse to a chorus and to kick a song right up the ass. But I don't do the paradiddles and things like that too much because there's no place for them in what we do. Someday, maybe, but not now."
By the time the sessions for Frogstomp rolled around, Gillies already had experience cutting his parts at various 8-track studios around Newcastle. Still, he says, he didn't begin to appreciate his growth as a drummer until listening to the mixes for Freakshow.
"At fourteen or fifteen, you think you're all right," says Gillies. "Now I look back and see how bad I was. I didn't hear how much I was messing up before. But when you do so many shows, it really straightens you out and makes you sharper. I learned some things by watching Chad Smith when we toured with the Chili Peppers. He's just the coolest. I got to play on his kit one night and it just blew me away, because I play with these tree-trunk sticks and he uses something like 5Bs. It felt like I was playing with pencils."
During the sessions for Freakshow, Gillies says he not only felt more aggressive and confident for the heavier parts, but also more creative, citing the song Cemetery, in which he adds timpani rolls, as a sign of his musical maturity. "It's not a very complicated part, but I think it really adds something to the song," he says. "I just made it up in the studio and went for it. We cut it a couple of times, trying different things. But I don't think I would even have thought to put something like that in there a few years ago."
For the new record, silverchair experimented with different recording environments inside Festival Studios in Sydney, Australia. The results were mixed (the "dead" room worked out best, the bathroom was a bust), but Gillies happily reports that at least his tempo was far less a concern this time around. "I'll either just count it in my head or keep track on the kick drum," says Ben, who shuns the mere mention of a click track. "Johnsy might give me a look or something if it gets too fast. Maybe it sounds better that way, maybe it doesn't. But I always want it to sound natural."
Gillies' kit has remained relatively unchanged, though he's now playing a Gregg Keplinger steel snare drum and, as a result, breaking fewer drums. "I've been looking for a real heavy-duty, hardcore snare, because I hit really hard and I seem to just trash 'em," he says. "So I ended up getting an 8x14 barrel of a drum. Someone told me it's a Matt Cameron reject, but I just love it. It's so loud. It sounds best with Ambassadors, but they dent up real bad. So I gotta use those Kevlar heads on it."
Gillies foresees a large investment in Kevlar, because with no school to return to after the spring, he and his bandmates expect to spend much of 1997 and 1998 on the road. And they hope to be able to take another young Australian band out as the supporting act.
"There's a good scene over there right now," Gillies says, "with bands like Magic Dirt, Spider Bait, Tumbleweed, and Powder Finger. The only difference between us and them is that we had the one song that got attention. But they'll get theirs in time, if they stick with it."
Beyond his involvement in silverchair, Gillies has interests in playing guitar, possibly singing in another musical project, and, someday, taking the producer's role in the studio. "Music has pretty much taken over my life," he says. "When we started at twelve or thirteen, we were going on no brains and all attitude. I told my dad I wanted to play in a band and make lots of money. He told me I should get out of my fantasy world because it was a million-to-one chance. Now when I'm playing guitar or drums and he tells me to go do my studies, I tell him I can't -- because I'm working. He just looks at me, shakes his head, laughs, and says, 'You lucky bastard.'"
© Copyright 1997 Modern Drummer Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.