By Alan Di Perna (Guitar World)
They're not old enough to drink, but they're old enough to rock. Now,
with their new album, Freak Show, silverchair are out to prove that
they're no one-zit wonders.
At an age when most kids are entering their sophomore year in high school, silverchair's Daniel Johns has already faced down the sophomore jinx -- the record biz phenomenon whereby the follow-up to a smash debut album stands a strong chance of bombing. Seated on the bed in the penthouse suite of a swank Beverly Hills hotel, Johns looks unperturbed by such foolish adult worries. The boyish blond guitarist, singer, lyricist and co-songwriter radiates a confidence from behind a pair of silver wraparound shades that makes him seem older than his 17 years. He knows he's got something good in the can.
Freak Show, silverchair's second album on Epic, is a worthy successor to frogstomp, the 1995 surprise hit debut that made silverchair a household word via powerhouse tracks like Pure Massacre, Israel's Son and Tomorrow and a teen precociousness that led critics to dub them "Silver Highchair" and "Nirvana in Pajamas." The new album finds the three lads from Australia consolidating the guitar-heavy attack of their first album while also branching out into acoustic balladry, string arrangements and exotic sitar instrumentation.
"Compared with our first album, this one's gotten quieter and louder," says Johns. "We've expanded in both directions."
The guitarist removes his shades revealing a brow pierced by two small silver rings. "That sophomore jinx thing is always in the back of your mind," he adds. "But we weren't thinking, 'This has to be the best album or we're fucked.' All we wanted to do was make a good album. And I think we have.
Kneeling beside the bed like a tot at his prayers, silverchair bassist Chris Joannou nods his agreement. Laid out on the bedspread is a room service lunch, which Joannou is attacking with a decided lack of table manners. Good thing mom isn't around to see. Or the chef. The short-haired, chunky bassist explains that, while frogstomp was recorded in nine days, Freak Show took a whopping three weeks.
"That keeps it so you don't get bored of what you're doing," Joannou explains. "It keeps things moving. It would be too boring to be in the studio for three months.
Though fans may not realize it, fighting boredom is a major pursuit of rock stars. The vicious cycle of touring, recording, and doing press inexorably takes its toll on artists 10 and 20 years older than silverchair. But then, their youth is their best defense. The rock lifestyle is, after all, the ultimate teenage escape fantasy -- a fast-paced succession of hotel rooms, video games, food fights and trips to vintage guitar shops. Beverly Hills is a long way from Newcastle, Australia, where Johns and drummer Ben Gillies first joined forces with Joannou to form silverchair. But the guys seem content to be here, rather than back in some dull Aussie classroom with their mates. Wouldn't you be?
Guitar World - What would rock be like if the whole damn show was run by people your age-- record companies, everything?
DJ - It'd be fucked!
CJ - It would be anarchy.
DJ - It's good to have young people in the music industry. But it's also good to have people with experience.
GW - How old were you when you wrote your first song?
DJ - About eight.
GW - Do you remember it?
DJ - No. (laughs) It was just a little rap song.
GW - So you started with rap songs?
DJ - Yeah, 'cause I couldn't play an instrument.
CJ - He'd demo them on a keyboard.
GW - How old were you when you started playing guitar and bass?
DJ - I was about 12 and he was about 13. Me and Gillies were playing together and realized how shitty it sounded without a bass. Chris didn't even play the bass, so we told him to learn and he could join us. He just picked up a bass and started playing.
GW - Did silverchair go through a cover band phase?
CJ - Sort of, for a while.
DJ - We played both covers and originals. In Newcastle, no one wants original bands at all. But we needed money for new instruments 'cause ours were fucked. So we learned some Zeppelin and Black Sabbath songs and did some pubs. But as soon as we didn't have to do that we stopped. We still chuck in a cover every now and again at shows. We do Paranoid, and we hope to learn a few old school punk songs. Some Minor Threat and Black Flag songs. Just chuck one or two of them in.
GW - Was that your main influence growing up -- that combination of metal and hardcore punk?
CJ - Yeah. Mainly the metal, though.
DJ - The roots -- the stuff that got us interested in playing -- was Sabbath and Zeppelin and stuff like that. And we got more into punk later. We're not huge punk fans. We just like the old Minor Threat kind of stuff.
GW - Why did the band name change from Innoncent Criminals to silverchair?
DJ - That pretty well speaks for itself, if you look at the name Innocent Criminals. It sucks!
CJ - We wanted something a bit better.
DJ - Short Elvis was our best name ever.
GW - But you decided not to go with that one?
DJ - No. We'd already had that. Me and Ben were called Short Elvis. Then we got Chris and we were called Innocent Criminals. Then we were called silverchair after that.
GW - Who are your favorite guitarists?
DJ - Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore -- all the old guitarists. I don't want to be like them. I don't want to play like them, style-wise, or anything, but I just like them.
GW - Were you a big Nirvana fan?
DJ - Not really. Everyone just thinks we listen to heaps of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. But we don't, really. I think all of those bands must have listened to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath the same as we did. And if people think we sound like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, maybe they're just hearing that common influence we share with them. But we don't want to sound like them. We don't want to sound like Soundgarden. We just want to sound like ourselves.
GW - The name of the album is Freak Show, and the concept, more or less, is that touring around in a rock and roll band is like being in an old-time circus freak show.
DJ - Yeah. We saw similarities there. And that's kind of the theme of the album, lyrically.
GW - Do you find that, because of your age, you're also treated that way by other bands you tour with? Is that also part of the freak show element?
DJ - Everyone thinks you're different 'cause you're young and you're in a band. But you're not. Just like the old freak shows. Everyone thought (the freaks) were different because they looked different from the outside. But they were perfectly normal people.
GW - When you're on tour, do you get a lot of older women coming on to you?
DJ - We wish! No, we don't. We just play and get on the bus.
CJ - I have a girlfriend, so I don't care about that stuff.
GW - Do you prefer girls more your own age?
DJ - It depends.
GW - On the girl?
DJ - Yeah. I mean, we're not total perverts. Well, Gillies is. His life revolves around the girls.
GW - But not yours?
DJ - No.
GW - So your parents come on tour with you?
DJ - At the moment, yeah.
CJ - Because of the age thing. But it's not that bad, really. They're obviously nowhere to be seen right now, so...They're not hounding us. They allow us to do pretty much whatever we want to do. It's not that bad.
GW - Is there a time limit on that? Like once you're 18...
DJ - Pretty much.
CJ - When we're 18, they're gone.
GW - What's it like when you're not touring and you're back at school? DJ - Good. We get to see our friends again.
GW - Being in a major rock band must make you pretty popular at school.
CJ - Oh, they don't really care.
DJ - 'Cause we've known them all for years.
CJ - They've grown up with us.
DJ - It's probably the most comfortable part of our life, being at school.
CJ - Most of our friends are in bands themselves.
GW - What kind of guitars and amps did you use on Freak Show?
DJ - I used heaps of different guitars on the album. But the big, fat guitar sounds are mainly a Gibson SG and a PRS. The amps were Soldanos, mainly, and some Mesa/Boogie stuff. And for the cleaner sounds, it's old vintage guitars and amps.
GW - What about you, Chris?
CJ - I had a whole wall of stuff. We had a switching system where I could mix different amps. I had an old Ampeg B-15, a new Ampeg head and speakers-an EV 15, that kind of stuff. I use a G&L L-2000 bass. And sometimes an old Gibson.
GW - What's the secret, Daniel, of getting that heavy guitar sound of yours? Do you guys tune down?
DJ - Yeah. A lot of songs are in dropped-D tuning. The secret to a good sound is more than just the guitar. You can have a good, big guitar sound on your own, but if the drums and bass are really shit, the guitar's not going to sound big. The thing is to get everything sounding big.
GW - You like a bit of distortion on your bass, don't you, Chris?
CJ - Sometimes, yeah. Just a little, so the sound is breaking up a bit.
GW - Do you remember what you used to get that phase shifter sound on Abuse Me?
DJ - yeah, a neat old Gretsch (Super Chet) I have that's got a built-in phaser and a built-in compressor. It's really weird. And that's the best-sounding phaser I've ever heard. It's better than any pedal I've ever heard. It sounds really trippy.
GW - What are the qualities you look for in a vintage guitar?
DJ - Most people go out for guitars that sound really big -- I just go out and look for guitars that look really weird and sound really different. I've already got a guitar that sounds really big. There's no point in buying another one. It doesn't even have to sound good, actually. It just has to look good.
GW - If it looks good, you'll eventually find a use for it.
DJ - Exactly. If it sounds good and looks like shit, I'll never use it. I'll only use guitars that look good. (laughs)
GW-The intro to No Association has some backwards tape effects.
DJ - Yeah. That's just the guitar part in the actual introduction, but they took the drum and bass parts and ran them backwards.
GW - Whose idea was that?
DJ - The producer [Nick Launay]. He was a really weird kind of guy. He'd done Killing Joke and bands like that, so he was really into those kind of strange sounds and trippy effects. That was good, 'cause we're not really into effects and stuff. We're different kind of people. So we kind of got a mixture.
GW - He encouraged you to experiment?
DJ - Yeah, well, we wanted to experiment, but we weren't keen on using a lot of guitar effects. We wanted to experiment more with different instruments and things like that.
GW - Is that an electric sitar on The Door?
DJ - Yeah. And on Petrol & Chlorine, as well as a real sitar.
GW - Whose idea was it to use exotic instruments like sitars?
DJ - It was just because Petrol & Chlorine already sounded Indian and Arabic. Because of the guitar chords and stuff. We thought we'd exaggerate that. It was like it was meant to be.
GW - The Door is probably more poppy than anything on your first album. So is Pop Song For Us Rejects. Are you guys pop music fans? Are you changing direction?
DJ - No, we're not pop music fans at all. To us, the only real poppy song on the album is Pop Song. That's only poppy in the verse, and it's purposely written that way. We wanted the chorus to be really heavy. So we wanted the verse to draw the listener in, like, "Yeah, that's sweet" and then just go to that real heavy bit and fuck things up. That's what that was written for. And we don't see The Door as pop. That's more just '70s rock.
GW - If you could go back in time and be part of any era in rock history, which would it be?
CJ - The '70s.
DJ - I want to be in this era. This is the best. I definitely wouldn't go back to the '80s. There are a lot of good '80s bands, but there's a lot of crap too.
CJ - It's like they found technology and then really exploited it.
GW - Are kids in America the same as kids in Australia?
CJ - Yeah. I think it only changes in the mosh pit, because they're so much rougher here.
DJ - I don't know if they're that much rougher. It's just that circle thing that doesn't happen in Australia. In Australia they're just as rough, but in different ways.
CJ - They do a lot more stage diving, stuff like that.
GW - What's the Australian music scene like now?
DJ - It's really good, really healthy. There's heaps of good Australian bands. We've been to America, Japan, Europe and South America, and Australia still seems like the most healthy scene. It's got a real good vibe to it. All the bands seem to know each other. They all get on really well. There's a lot of festivals with the same kind of bands, 'cause everyone knows each other and it's really cool.
GW - So who's good?
DJ - Spiderbait, Regurgitator, You Am I, Midget, Magic Dirt....
CJ - They're really starting to release that stuff over here in the states now.
GW - Back to your new album, which songs did you write first?
DJ - I think Slave, No Association and Nobody Came were the first songs written. And then came Freak.
GW - Did you write them on the road?
DJ - No. We didn't write on the road. Can't be bothered. I don't ever want to do that.
GW - How does songwriting work in the band?
DJ - Heaps of different ways. Sometimes me and Gillies will get together -- he'll have a riff and I'll have a riff, and we'll just join them together. Then we'll go to practice and jam on it. But a lot of the time, I'll just totally write a song and come to practice and say, "I've got a song." And they say, "cool," and we'll just play it.
GW - Does Daniel always write the lyrics?
DJ - Yeah. I usually do those when I get home. When a song is totally finished, I'll write the lyrics.
GW - Is that a burden -- having to be the one who comes up with they lyrics all the time?
DJ - No. I want to be the one who writes the lyrics. I'm the one who has to sing them. I want to sing about stuff that I relate to and that means something to me. Otherwise it's stupid to sing. So writing lyrics isn't a burden at all.
GW - The lyrics on Freak Show are more mature than those on your first album. But there are a lot of the same basic themes -- alienation, frustration...
DJ - On the first album we didn't really have much experience. Like our whole lives were mainly just going to the beach, eating food and sleeping. So we didn't have much personal stuff to draw on. And we were never big fans of happy music. We always preferred the darker side of life. So I had to take stuff that was on television and things like that. On this album, we had a lot more experience, so I had more stuff to write about. Whereas the first album was a lot of fictional stuff, this album is all true, all personal stuff. It's more real.
[Thanks to Sara for the transcript.]