Growing Up the Hard Way
By Paul Elliot (Kerrang!)
Anorexia, bullying, anxiety, and neuroses - the past five years have
been fraught with trauma for Daniel Johns. But as his band prepare to
make the leap to superstardom, the silverchair mainman admits that his
problems aren't over yet...
"People think you've got this big rock life, that everything must be so cool being a rock star and all this shit," Daniel Johns sighs, shielding his pale, thin face from the harsh sunlight pouring in through his hotel room window.
It's a hot afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the town where Trent Reznor and 'Interview with the Vampire' author Anne Rice are neighbours, where Marilyn Manson nearly lost his marbles making 'Antichrist Superstar', where Phil Anselmo smokes the Devil's own weed in his House of Shock, where voodoo queens are buried in Catholic cemeteries, where grave-robbing is front-page news in the local newspaper and where Mardi Gras - the biggest street party on Earth - wound up just yesterday leaving the whole of t silverchair are in the Big Easy to play one of a handful of key American shows to build up a buzz about their forthcoming third album 'Neon Ballroom'. A crazy town like this is as good a place as any for Daniel Johns to talk about exorcising demons: to reveal how he rid himself of all his fears and neuroses via the lyrics on 'Neon Ballroom' - ostensibly the band's most pop-themed record, but one with a heart of darkness.
We could easily stop whenever we want to," continues the singer with a shrug, "so it's not like I'm whinging about being in a successful band. I still want to be in a band because music is always what I've wanted to do. I still get a big kick out of playing live to people who can relate to our music, but this lifestyle still doesn't feel... normal."
If silverchair's singer hasn't felt normal in a long time, it is hardly surprising. It is in no way normal for a lad of 15 to make a multi-million-selling rock album and be feted as the new Kurt Cobain, but that's what happened to Daniel Johns - and it nearly finished him.
On the surface, the silverchair story is a teenage rock 'n' roll fantasy come true. Three school friends from the unfashionable Australian town of Newcastle form a band, sign to Sony subsidiary Murmur and release a debut album, 'Frogstomp', which sells millions around the world. A second album, 'Freak Show', proves they're no one-hit wonders and following a high-profile world tour, the trio return home to finish school and take a few months off while plotting their next move.
But life wasn't that simple. His bandmates - drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou - were happy to be back in Newcastle, having fun, spending time with their girlfriends, loafing about.
Daniel, meanwhile, was going through a very private hell.
"I was pretty lonely," he says, drawing the curtain closed to shut out the sun. "I wrote the new songs at a time when it really hurt. We'd just left school and all my friends were going to university. Ben and Chris were going out with their girlfriends, doing their thing, and I was living in a house by myself, just writing.
"I was having really bad anxiety problems. I couldn't leave the house, so I did this whole album trying to cleanse as much of my soul as possible, get it all out.
"Every song, with the exception of 'Satin Sheets' and 'Anthem for the Year 2000', are all about things that I've experienced. Most of the lyrics started off as poems. I never intended them to be silverchair songs, but I really liked them and I wanted to do an album which was very honest.
"On the first two albums, my anger was projected at other people whereas this album is more about feelings within myself. You can hear the nervousness in my voice on some of the songs: some notes are really sharp because I was a bit wary about whether I should've been doing it or not. But I think that gives it a certain energy.
"This album isn't quite as abrasive as the last one in terms of big heavy riffs, but lyrically it's angrier than anything I've ever done."
Daniel Johns suffers from a classic rock 'n' roll malaise. Like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder before him, silverchair's success has come at a price. Daniel loves playing music, but hates the bullshit which comes with the job.
No sooner had he formed silverchair than his problems began.
"I've been pretty lucky, I think, in terms of my upbringing and childhood," he muses. "There were no real problems. My parents were always together. I had a brother and sister - it was pretty normal. It was only at school that I had problems.
"We started the band when we were 12 years old, me and Ben just jamming together, and it was always looked at as being very abnormal to be in a band at that age."
Artistic, vegetarian, in touch with his feminine side, Daniel was never cut out to be a stereotypical Aussie bloke. The meat-heads at his school queued up to take a pop at him.
"I was always getting a hard time from people because I wasn't a football player and I wasn't out drinking beer and eating steak," he explains. "Later, it started getting violent. And after we released an album, people would be waiting outside school, gangs of people.
"It kept happening, so in the end I just left school. I never felt, 'Gee, I'd really like these guys to like me'. I thought they were fucking morons. But psychologically it damaged me.
"I think that's what caused a lot of my anxiety problems. Now I can't be in crowds. I can be onstage in front or crowds - I'm fine if I'm playing to 50,000 people, but as soon as I'm among maybe 20 people I just overload. One-on-one interviews are fine, but meet-and-greets and in-store things we don't do anymore, because I can't deal with it."
Daniel's anxieties are compounded by the fact that so many people want a piece of him. In any rock band it's always the frontman who gets the most attention, but Daniel Johns is much more than just another rock 'n' roll singer. He is a second-generation grunge superstar and the object of terrifying teenage lust.
Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou wouldn't swap places with Daniel for a second.
"I thank my lucky stars that it isn't me," Ben says with a shake of the head. "Sometimes you think it'd be kinda cool to be the frontman, but then you see what he has to put up with like these crazy chicks following him everywhere. I wouldn't be able to put up with it."
"We still see him as our old mate," adds Chris. "How the public perceives him is probably quite different."
"Ever since the band started I was never really perceived as being real," Daniel says wearily. "I was seen as the next Kurt Cobain by the press, or the guy that everyone wanted to beat up by people back home.
"The only people who saw me as a real person were my family and friends. That's why I'm very close to all those people who've always treated me as real.
"At times it was hard but I'm over it," he says, loosening up a little. "Now, if Nirvana are on the radio, Ben and Chris will joke and say, 'It's you, Johns!'.
"In truth, the media were never aggressive to me over the Kurt thing, but there were times when everything seemed to be so magnified that even little things rubbed me the wrong way. Now I couldn't care less."
How do you feel about the more obsessive female fans? Some are old enough to be your mum, others are stalkers, plain and simple.
An embarrassed smile. "For some reason there's always someone who's around my mum's age that's just absolutely crazy and psycho about me. On this tour there's one lady from Europe who's showed up in London, France and New York. She's crazy, following us everywhere. She gets in cabs and follows out cars. We have to lose her.
"She even has photos of me when I was three years old. I've only seen them in a photo album at home, so I was like, 'How the fuck did you get these?!'. That's the kind of thing you see on 'Australia's Most Wanted' shows, those criminals that end up killing everyone."
Stories like this go some way to explaining why Daniel Johns has not had a serious girlfriend for many years. He writes about his loneliness in 'Miss You Love', from the new album.
"I wanted a song that people could perceive as a love song, while the lyrics are actually very angry," he reveals. "That song is about not being able to establish a relationship with anyone, not being able to experience love outside of family. I've been with girls but only for short periods of time because I'm a but scared of commitment, so after a month it's like..."
His gaze drifts. "I'm scared that if I really like someone it won't happen, so I cut it short. A lot of the time it just feels like it's not real love. We've got girls screaming and stuff, girls saying they love us, but I think they're in love with the idea of being in love with someone onstage or in love with people they see in magazines or on television. That's not real - it's totally false."
Bullied, harangues, stalked, disillusioned. Perhaps inevitably, Daniel Johns ended up on a therapist's couch. "I went to therapy for a while and that helped, but I ended up hating that too. Sitting in a chair and talking about yourself is not good."
Daniel smiles, acknowledging the irony in his last comment, then reveals the startling truth behind his decision to try therapy. In 1998 he was diagnosed with a form of anorexia. Even now he is conspicuously thin.
"I wasn't hospitalised. I didn't have anorexia, but I had a psychological problem where I had a distorted image of myself. I was basically just bones, but when everybody was telling me I was very thin I didn't think I was thin at all, or even fat. I thought I was an average weight. I had these little phobias - certain textures of food I'd be scared to eat because it felt like razor blades going down my throat.
"I'm a lot better these days," he insists. "I've got tablets which level out my moods, so I'm a lot more comfortable now. I hated the idea of therapy. I think you can get a lot more satisfaction out of putting all those feelings into words and performing it.
"Every time I play these new songs it's like a cleansing experience. Although I remember the first few times I listened back to 'Ana's Song' and 'Emotion Sickness', I felt sick. I couldn't listen to the finished mix the whole way through: it kept bringing back bad memories. Basically it's a musical diary of a period in my life."
How did the people closest to you react when they heard these songs?
"Some people have asked about it, but I don't think I really had to talk about it to my family. They knew.
There was one period when I was totally scared of telephones. If the phone rang I had to go in another room. I didn't want to have to talk to people. My mum was really worried when she has to keep telling people I wasn't there. She even had to ring the therapist because I couldn't do it.
"So my family knew what was going on. I guess when they read the lyrics they knew what they were about already."
In April, Daniel becomes the first member of silverchair to reach his 20s. Ben follows in October, Chris in November.
Gone are the days when silverchair were just three excited kids. By Chris' reckoning, the trio remain close friends but have developed very distinct personalities. If so, it is Chris and Ben who appear to have most in common.
Leaving Daniel back at the hotel to gather his thoughts ahead of the gig, the pair enjoy a typical New Orleans meal of Cajun fish and gumbo at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the famed Bourbon Street, home to countless jazz joints. Ben and Chris discuss the future with an easy optimism at odds with Daniel's soul-searching.
Asked whether he feels at all jaded after such an astonishing degree of success in his teens, Ben replies candidly: "To some extent the novelty's worn off, but the opportunity we've got - there's thousands of bands that would swap places with us. We know how lucky we are."
How loaded are you?
"We're not like most people probably think we are," he smiles. "Not secure enough to call it a day. But whatever happens, I don't think we'll do too many more albums. Whether we make a filthy amount of money or not, we won't stick around for 15 years like some bands do."
Daniel Johns is not looking too far into the future. He is simply happy and relieved to have got this album done. For him especially 'Neon Ballroom' is a watershed, a life-changing record.
"When I started writing it, I didn't really have anything else happening in my life," he admits. "I just wanted to focus on doing a really good album that I was happy with.
"After the last tour, Ben and Chris went from being in silverchair to a totally normal life once again, but I pretty much came home and couldn't deal with a normal lifestyle. I had to lock myself away and do what I knew would give me personal satisfaction - writing music.
"But," he adds, brightening, "I'm a lot better now than I was at the time of writing the album. Back then I was pretty wrecked!"
Did you ever try to cancel out the pain and frustration with booze and drugs?
"We've never been totally straight-edge. It's not like I totally avoided everything, but I definitely didn't get a drug addiction. I'm not really into drugs, but between 16 and 19 you still experiment with things - everyone does. People just look at it as being worse if you're a singer in a band.
"You know," he laughs, "when I was 13 I'd read interviews and people in bands would be saying how hard it was, and I was thinking, 'Fuck off! I'm gonna get out there and do it and it's gonna be kick-ass!'. But now I wish that when no one knew who I was, I'd gone out and gone totally crazy and not had to worry about the implications of it. These days I walk around trying not to do or say anything that people might take the wrong way."
At your lowest ebb, did you think about splitting the band?
"Yep," he sighs heavily. "At the end of the Freak Show tour, that's what it came down to. That's when it was getting to a bad stage. We were either going to stop, or keep going.
"I decided that music's been my dream ever since I was a little kid, and to throw it away would have been something that I'd regret when I was 30 years old. I'd look back and go, 'Fuck!'.
"There's definitely a side to being in a successful band that no one really knows about, unless you've actually done it. But," Daniel concludes with a smile, "when you're onstage and people are getting into something that you've put everything into, I don't think there's a better feeling in the world."
Daniel Johns on his fellow grunge icons...
"If I say I'm not influenced by him, no one's going to believe me, but it's true. The only Nirvana album I own is 'In Utero', and I think that came out after I was compared to Kurt. I was 14 when Nirvana became huge, but we'd already been playing Black Sabbath songs before that. I guess through Nirvana's popularity I was exposed to the underground music scene and I got into bands like Big Black and Minor Threat. I love Nirvana's song 'Milk It' - it's really slow and heavy."
"According to a review in Kerrang!, I sound like Eddie Vedder. Whoever wrote that review, I'm gonna kick him in the head! Not that there's anything wrong with Eddie Vedder. I can't respect a band more than I respect Pearl Jam. They've done exactly what they want without ever giving in and sucking anyone's dick. They're very honest. I love the first song on 'Vitalogy', 'Last Exit'."
"I never really liked Alice in Chains. It's all a bit too polished for what I like. My brother likes them, though."
"Soundgarden were always my favorite band from that scene. I loved 'Badmotorfinger', it was so heavy and so cool and so much like Sabbath. We're not worthy! Listen to that album now and it's still fucking amazing. It reminds me of Kyuss and Sabbath and all that stuff."
"I don't have any Bush albums. I've only heard a few songs on the radio. But we played a show with them in Germany and Gavin was really cool. I can't say much about their music, but I'm sure their best songs aren't their singles, and I've only heard their singles."