Cover Story, Silverchair
By Jaan Uhelszki (Addicted to Noise)
Eating M&Ms with Silverchair - Australia's Teen Wonders Turn Up the Volume and Storm the American Charts, Frogstomp Indeed.
FRANCISCO -- The Mars/Hershey candy company recently added robin's egg
blue to their bouquet of M&M candy colors. To most of us, that
would not be earth shattering news. But to Daniel Johns, the coltish
16-year-old guitarist/singer/ songwriter of the Aussie teen sensation
silverchair, it's a BIG DEAL.
I'm sitting across from Daniel in the bowels of Slims, Boz Scaggs' trendy San Francisco night club, watching him paw through a basket of peanut M&Ms segregating all the blue "lollies" (as he is wont to call them) and gobbling them down.
I tell him he is having a "Van Halen moment," referring to the fact
that Van Halen used to insist in their contract rider that promoters
remove all the brown M&Ms before bowls of the candies were placed
in the group's dressing room. Johns looks up from under his spectacular
curtain of blond hair and simply says, "Uh, uh."
"What do you mean, 'Uh, uh?' It's documented fact," I insist.
"It was Ozzy Osbourne," Daniel states matter-of-factly.
"Yeah, he's right, it was Ozzy Osbourne," echoes Hayley, my 15-year-old daughter, who I've pressed into service as an interpreter for my trip to Boys Town. "You remember, it was in Wayne's World."
"See, I told you!" chortles Johns.
Patiently, I attempt to explain to them both that Van Halen really did it and Ozzy Osbourne merely goofed on it in a cult movie... They both fix me with pitying looks, as they sift through the rest of the candy, separating it by some criteria known only to them.
silverchair, this trio of teenage boys, are the latest new hard rock band to crash into the upper reaches of the American charts. frogstomp, their ferocious debut album, has been sitting in the U. S. Top 10 for weeks. The group's video for Tomorrow is in heavy MTV rotation, and the song has been getting the rising stars coast-to-coast Modern Rock radio treatment. Sales of the album are rocketing past the half-million mark, and if the frenzied response of fans at sold out shows is any indication, Silverchair are destined to go platinum sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
like the late Kurt Cobain's kid brother, and sounding like he's studied
at the feet of Eddie Vedder by way of Soundgarden and Helmet, Johns is
a star, even if he doesn't quite know it yet. His casual nonchalance,
one sentence answers, offhand attitude and mischievous ways (put the
members of silverchair together, within minutes they're bouncing off
the walls, smirking at private jokes, burping, just the kind of stuff
that immature kids do when they're bored, or cooped up with adults for
too long) all add up to a personality that his peers immediately
respond to. After all, for the kids at a silverchair show, it's not
much of a stretch to imagine being up on that stage in place of Ben,
Chris or Daniel. And you wonder why they've struck a nerve, first in
Australia, and now here?
Three years ago, four teenagers Johns, bassist Chris Joannou, drummer Ben Gillies and a guitar-playing buddy they refer to as "Tobin" (no last name mentioned) living in a small industrial town in the New South Wales district of Newcastle, Australia gathered in a sound-proof loft in the suburban home of Gillies, the son of a plumber, and decided to start a band. Gillies and Joannou, who will both be sixteen next month, have known each other since they were six. They met Johns when they were all in third grade.
Gillies and Johns are the closer of the three, gooning at each other,
trading barbs and knowing smirks. Daniel Johns is the more outgoing of
the three, a remorseless practical joker who is a master of
brinkmanship, continually pushing a situation a little further out than
is civilized, just to see it he can get away with it. And he always
seems to, peering innocently from under his thick lashes in a manner
reminiscent of an old forties screen vamp. This one is going to be
lethal when he comes into his own sexuality.
Ben Gillies already has. Called "Short Elvis" by his friends when he was a youngster ("Because he was short and liked Elvis, that's why," Daniel tells me a little impatiently), Gillies was born knowing. He has a sardonic sense of humor, and only seems to share his jokes with the other two and silverchair's soundman Wardy, a grizzled old hand from Yorkshire. Their management never, ever let Gillies and Johns do interviews together, and won't say why. But it's not hard to figure out.
they've laid some big eggs on American radio winding each other up,
then deciding only to talk to each other, purposely ignoring the
Chris Joannou is another matter altogether. Softspoken and more of a loner than the other two, he tells me that for fun he plays pool and takes his German Shepherd, Khan, up into the bush. When the others decided to form a band, they convinced Joannou to learn the bass even though he was learning acoustic guitar at the time. One suspects that these two have been bullying Chris for most of their lives. Convincing him to eat orange crayola crayons and telling him it was cheese was probably the worst of their offenses. But it provides some insight into the dynamics of their relationship to each other.
They never practiced more than once a week and just got together for fun, mimicking their (then) heroes; guitar gods that their parents listened to like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. When they began the band in 1992, they were all of 12 years old and just got off on the noises coming out of their instruments. At the time, they didn't give a passing thought to girls, fame, drugs, or money. Well, maybe money. Because according to Johns, he didn't get an allowance. "I didn't get any fucking money," says Johns. "I never have, and I never will because me mum hates me. I'm just joking. Ben did and Chris did, but I never did because we were poor."
Son of a "fruiter" ("Someone who works in a fruit market," Johns explains) and a housewife, Johns looks like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, until he opens that self-same mouth. Once he parts those soft pink lips and a glint shines devilishly in his translucent blue eyes, you know you're in for a bit of a ride. An often amusing, sometimes tiring, and always time-consuming ride, for this kid is becoming an old hand at the interview process, his one creed being, "when in doubt, lie."
How, I wonder, did a steady diet of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin produce the Seattle-influenced grunge sound of silverchair? Bill Reid, Seattle native and afternoon drive disc jockey at 107.7 KNDD, thinks he has the answer. "Who do you think bands like Soundgarden were listening to? That's right. Black Sabbath. And Mudhoney was listening to Iggy Pop."
silverchair's sound was molded by Washington's finest as well, but they've already begun to take inspiration from the next generation of bands.
"Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were our biggest influences at one stage," says Johns. "Not any more."
So when did they stop being influences? I ask him.
"A few months. Six months," Johns says, nodding his blond tresses vigorously.
And not any more?
"Still like 'em, but we're more influenced by Helmet, Korn, Toll and the Rollins Band at the moment," he says.
THE BIG BREAK
How silverchair went from anonymity to Australian superstardom is the stuff of legend. They won Australia's Youthrock Encouragement Award in 1993. In June, 1994, the group entered a crude recording of Tomorrow in the "Pick Me" talent contest held by Nomad, an Australian television show. They won, over 800 other entries. The prize was having a video clip made and a day in the Sydney studio of Australian alternative rock radio station Triple J. They entered the studio in June 1994; the result was an EP, Tomorrow. The re-recorded title track was added to the Triple J playlist and went to No. 1. The EP went platinum (70,000 copies sold), then double platinum, and has sold more than 170,000 copies to date. Now Tomorrow is getting the same reaction all over again in the U.S.
"You know the only reason we entered that contest is because we wanted some money," Johns tells me earnestly.
"And how much did you get?"
"Nothing, we came in last," he answers.
"Wait a minute. Didn't you win, record a demo and immediately get signed by Sony Records?" I say abrasively, knowing full well the band's history. Or so I think.
"Oh yeah, that one," he breezily responds. "But we entered five before that. The one we won we didn't get any money."
"No?" I prod.
"Um, um," he says swinging his really tremendous blond head back and forth to emphasize his point before quickly countering, "Yeah we did, about half a million I think."
Just prior to the Nomad contest, their rhythm guitarist, Tobin, accompanied his parents to England for a year. Tobin, kind of the Stu Sutcliffe of the group, wasn't in Australia when the rest of his mates entered and won that last contest. Tough break. Gillies is very laissez-faire about the fickle finger of fate giving Tobin the bird. "It's not that he decided [to leave the band], what happened was he went overseas with his family for a year," says the drummer. "And while he was gone, we didn't stop playing. We thought, 'We're just gonna keep on playing,' and we actually won the competition while he was away. And we also got the contract while he was away."
Gillies pauses, then adds: "It was a contract for three people not four."
"When Tobin got back from overseas, did he want to come back to the band?" I ask.
"I don't really know," Gillies replies rather innocently. "When he got back, he like fully understood, and he didn't like make a big deal about it."
'WE'RE NOT SUCCESSFUL'
Is it celebrity denial or are they just puttin' me on? Ask any member of Silverchair about their new found success and they'll flat-out deny that they've had any. "Since you've gotten successful and gone back to school do people treat you any differently?" I ask.
"We're not successful." Johns tells me woodenly.
"Nobody in the halls said to you, 'Hey I saw your video on TV?'"
"Nope, they just said 'hi,' " he maintains.
What about your fans?"
"We don't have any fans," he contends.
I'm starting to feel like an inmate in the hospital. Imagine how silly it is for a 16-year-old to attempt to put one over on a grown woman. What's the point? These three boys-to-men had the guts to enter five contests before they finally won one. You don't do that if you don't have at least a modicum of ambition. But Daniel's sentiments are echoed by his two partners in crime, Ben and Chris (It's no accident that they were originally called Innocent Criminals).
I ask about all those teenage girls mooning in front of the stage, trying to press flowers into silverchair hands.
"I didn't see any," states Joannou.
"See it's like this," Gillies explains patiently. "They all have boyfriends, and their boyfriends give them flowers and they decide to bring them to the show. They all come to see the support band, and then they decide to hang around to see us, to see how shit we are."
"That's what happens," Chris agrees solemnly without cracking a smile.
So I try another tactic. "Would you guys ever date a fan?"
"Date a fan?" Ben repeats incredulously. "We don't have any fans, but if we did, probably not."
Turning to Johns I ask, "How do you account for the fact that your video is played constantly on MTV, all your shows sell-out in a matter of minutes and you're climbing the US charts?"
"You're thinking of Nirvana," Johns insists.
I give up. silverchair are a total flop. Nobody shows up at their shows. Their video isn't played on MTV. Tomorrow isn't aired on American radio. In fact, silverchair don't even exist. They are a figment of the imagination.
NO COURTNEY, THAT'S NOT KURT
Courtney Love was aghast when she spotted Daniel Johns at last January's Big Day Out Festival in Australia, telling anyone who would listen that the blond teenager "looks like my fucking dead husband."
The comparisons are purely cosmetic. Both Johns and the late Kurt Cobain share cherubic good looks, but Johns' heart-shaped face is framed by two dark slashes of eyebrow, and a keen sense of mischief. He is not tortured by unnamed demons as Cobain was. Instead, he is disgustingly normal, and seems unencumbered by the sense of angst or doom that plague many people his age (although some of his lyrics are gloomy). Those lyrics began as poems he wrote when he was 14-years-old, stewing in his room over some injustice or slight. It is telling that none of the songs are about love or lust and if the band are interested in girls, they give no indication of it.
Ben Gillies is the only one of the three who has a girlfriend back home, a girl he calls sparingly from the road ("It costs an awful lot to call Australia," he says) and tells her about some of the wonders of America. Like the fact that the black spots on the pavement are actually formed from decaying wads of gum.
But back to Courtney Love's impression of Johns. He says that Courtney didn't say a word to him at Big Day Out, she just peered into the silverchair dressing room from the doorway. "I swear to God she just looked in," he says. "She was doing this really mental look and I didn't know what the hell she was doing. After that she just walked away and I didn't see her again," Daniel maintains. People tell me I look like him (the name is never uttered), but I don't think I do."
"It's the hair," I tell him. The hair is impossible to ignore. It's the kind of hair that belongs in a shampoo commercial. Golden and finely textured and only washed once a fortnight according to Johns. "Yeah, it's the hair," he agrees. "But I'm getting dreadlocks so it doesn't matter." Or he would if his mum would let him.
KIDS SAY THE DARNEST THINGS
The members of silverchair are accompanied on the road by their mothers, supposedly because many of the places that they perform in serve alcohol and they need a guardian to get in. From all accounts the mothers are wily businesswomen who watch the merchandising like hawks. The boys' parents co-managed silverchair up until two months ago. That's when they convinced John Watson, the Sony A&R man who signed the group, to become the band's manager. The job is a bit disconcerting for the former writer for Australian Rolling Stone. He still seems uncomfortable in the roll of having to look after three teenage boys.
I suspect Watson of coaching these teenagers in the fine art of bobbing and weaving in the interview process. He continually self-edits when he speaks to me during an interview, and leaves interminably long pauses between thoughts, frequently grasping for the correct word. A careful, circumspect man, who attempts to look older than his twenty-nine years, Watson gave up an executive position at Sony to take a risk on what could be Australia's Next Big Thing.
But why think small? This is a band that might go all the way to the top. The first night Watson and his then-partner John O'Donnell went to see silverchair play in their hometown of Newcastle, seventy-five miles north-east of Sydney, Watson now says he "just had a feeling."
During an interview in Seattle, Watson recalls: "We were driving home in August of last year. It was literally the first night we drove down to see them in Newcastle, and I said to John, 'If I ever leave this job to manage a band, this is the band I'd do it for."
"I've never seen a talent like this," he tells me. "You'll often find a good songwriter or a good singer or a good guitarist or a good looking guy or a together human being. But to find the full package is..." He breaks off abruptly when he realizes the direction he's headed in, and quickly switches gears. "It's not all about Daniel, either. It's about the support he gets from Ben and Chris. But there is no doubt that it's a very unique set of talents."
take on the band is that their music comes from a pure place, because
they just play music to have fun. "At their age they're doing it for
all the right reasons," he says, warming to the topic. "At some level,
this might sound a bit flaky, but at some level I think that's the
element of what they do that has caused people to respond so
enthusiastically. It's like a spark setting off this incredible blaze.
People smell that it is coming from the right place. It's coming from
the fact that they are creating just because they enjoy the noise it
makes. When you become eighteen or nineteen, that's when you start
making music to get laid or to see your face on the cover of the
But after talking to the young Aussies, it's hard to imagine them ever wanting their picture anywhere. Watson has an explanation for that. He calls it the "Australian Way." He elaborates: "They're fortunate that they come from a very small community who knew them before they were successful. And the Australian way is very much 'don't put on airs and graces with me, just because you have a hit record.' That's a very Australian character trait. It's their whole culture. Within the band they refuse to acknowledge any kind of celebrity, amongst themselves or even privately."
THE JEKYLL AND HYDE SYNDROME
Offstage these silverchair boys prattle on about surf wax, and riding their bicycles. But once they set their Converse-clad feet on that stage, a terrific transformation takes place. Daniel Johns' reedy voice drops an octave, and all his puerile ways fall away to reveal the man he will become. He's dramatic and charismatic as he leans into the microphone to growl the first line to Madman. The two dark, lazy parentheses that form his eyebrows shoot up towards his hair line as a fan tries to grab at his overdeveloped bare calf.
Neither Johns nor drummer Ben Gillies wear long pants, in the style of their countryman Angus Young of AC/DC. Rather, they favor low-slung surfer shorts and dirty trainers. Johns also wears a rumpled forest green t-shirt that matches his green guitar, a shirt that he will not take off for the three days I am in his company.
the second verse of the song, bassist Chris Joannou commences a head
thrash that would give Dave Grohl a run for his whiplash. His mass of
untamed hair gives a savage feel to the proceedings, as he prowls and
paces to and fro, marking off terrain on his third of the stage.
Joannou was born for the stage, and is more a fish out of water when he
is off-stage, uncomfortably avoiding eye contact and answering
questions in monosyllables.
By the second song, Johns is thrashing and moaning the words to Leave Me Out, as the mosh pit begins heating up. It wasn't that long ago that these three were habitudes of Newcastle's' pits, a town renowned for their punk bands according to the three. Except that Johns says they mosh differently down under. Straight up and down, a kind of '90s version of the pogo. None of this circle pitting stuff. "In Australia they jump up and down and get on top of each other," he told me during the afternoon interview. "In America they run out and there's a big hole in the middle, and they run around and crash into each other."
Tonight in San Francisco the welcome mat is out, as reformed headbangers and underage adoring teen dreams elbow each other for viewing space. A few over-excited fans advance on the stage despite the stern warnings over the PA about stage diving. "You will be thrown out of the club, your picture taken and posted at the door. You will never be allowed to attend another show here. "
Disregarding the club's admonishments about stage diving, Johns instructs the crowd to "Do whatever you want. Jump off of cars if you want." They might not understand him, but they like it, roaring their approval. Many sing along to silverchair songs, and only a very few line the back wall with their arms folded, judge the band from Oz, and find them wanting.
A sweaty frenzy overtakes some of them, and they abandon all hope as they stand on their toes, poised at the lip of the stage, deciding whether it's worth the risk. A few pitch boots at the drummer. Gillies ducks the missives and throws himself into another round of thunderous locomotive rhythms, cranking up the decibel level in retaliation.
Four days later, Daniel Johns isn't so lucky. A full bottle of beer catches him squarely above his left eye during the encore when the band plays a free show at the Santa Monica Pier. A trouper, Johns finishes Israel's Son, but is immediately driven to a local hospital, requiring six stitches in his eyebrow. According to all who observe the incident, the singer is rather proud of his wound figuring it to be some rite of passage, like losing his virginity. And perhaps he has.
SILVERCHAIR PLAY SEATTLE
Perhaps it is the fact that they are at the primal core, the birthplace of all that is grunge, but if the San Francisco show was explosive, the Seattle one is revelatory. Just three years after they first played together, they have become a formidable live unit. At Seattle's DV8, the seminal rock club, Johns introduces Findaway in a broad cockney accent, telling the audience, "the next song is a Sex Pistols song." More punk than the others, he almost gets away with it. Except that the song sounds more like the Clash than the Sex Pistols.
the manager, says Johns is not very adept at stage patter, but he's
learning his sing-song tenor voice straining to be heard. The
transformation from teen to rock troubadour is never more apparent than
when he's introducing the songs. It's the only time he really slips out
of the rock persona alternately introducing their debut single,
Tomorrow, as a song about cat's scrotums (Seattle) or about premature
births and premature ejaculations (San Francisco). I can't help
thinking that they'll have to grow into their lyrics. It's either that,
or on-stage they're truly 22-year-olds trapped inside 16-year-old
bodies, like a rock version of the movie Big.
Radiant, like brides on their wedding day, a strange power imbues them, and they fire off each song with increasing intensity and fervor. Johns isn't impervious to the crowd's reaction, and he begins to feed off their energy. I'm gratified to see it, because he has told me that he doesn't really get pumped up before a gig, which I interpreted as teenage ennui, but turns out to just be teenage bluster.
To their credit, the band claim they are unmoved at being in the Mothership of Grunge. This is not the Canterbury Tales, and they are not pilgrims making their way to Mecca. Yet it is disconcerting seeing Johns stand on stage looking in the eyes of the beholder, a little too much like their still-missed favorite son, Kurt Cobain, singing the lyrics of Suicidal Dream, with it's "I fantasized about my death/ I'd kill myself from holding my breath/ My suicidal dreams, voices telling me what to do."
crowd here embraces silverchair like one of their own, and there isn't
any indication of a backlash against these teenagers who have stamped
their still-forming personality onto the native art form. In Seattle,
reports of grunge's death are greatly exaggerated.
After their sweaty, fever-pitched set, Johns thanks the audience ever-so politely for coming, reverting back to his gawky persona before my eyes. It's after midnight, and the coach is turning back into a pumpkin. Unaware of any such transformation, the crowd is reluctant to leave and hang around the stage area before they're swooped out into the night by the security guards.
LEAVE ME OUT
After the last of the civilians have filed out of the club, the VIPs and hangers-on carefully make their way downstairs to a room that looks like nothing so much as a finished basement in some '50s sit-com. Painted cinder blocks and burnt ochre wall-to-wall carpeting stretch across the cavernous expense of the VIP lounge. The sea of putrid orange is relieved only by the occasional barrel chair and by the two scarred Formica bars that are littered with half-empty paper cups and doused cigarettes. It isn't a glamorous crowd. They seldom are in Seattle, but it is an curious crowd. A little younger than usual perhaps, but that's due to the fact that the headliner's average age is fifteen. No, the denizens of this Northwestern musical oasis are curious to find out if silverchair is just a grunge tribute band, or the real deal. Even former Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic is here to scrutinize silverchair on this mild September eve, under the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle.
The music biz hoi polloi are not quite sure how to approach these three. silverchair have not yet acquired the necessary social graces to make it easy on them either. Instead they stand awkwardly around the picked-over cold-cuts, uniformly shifting their weight from one foot to the other. Some bear gifts of surf-wax and promotional boxer shorts. Another brings a snowboard. "It is winter in Australia now, isn't it?" the gift-giver inquires.
"Nope. Almost summer," Ben answers savagely.
music director from the local radio station has the foresight to bring
squirt-guns, and this proves to be a much better ice-breaker than the
snowboard. Johns and Joannou spend the next hour in mortal combat with
him, as well as ambushing their ever-patient manager until he has to
change out of one promotional t-shirt into another.
Hardly anyone approaches the band members, and it's as if the partygoers and the band exist in two parallel universes. Tired of the chase, Johns plops himself down on the dirty pile carpeting and sits alone for a time, in silent contemplation of God-knows-what, as the frivolity goes on around him. It's not that he's unfriendly. He just doesn't know what to do. And neither do his admirers. They're more used to the standard issue self-absorbed rock star who is only too happy to accept their compliments. This model confounds them.
After a while Johns gets up and rejoins the squirt-gun battle.
"How's it going dude?" demands a 14-year-old fan, as Johns dashes by.
"Good, dude," parries Johns, without missing a beat, not stopping to chat. He is uncomfortable when asked to pose with nubile grunge princesses who drape their thin arms around his shoulder and pout at the camera. As soon as the flash fades, Johns is off again to find his mates.
"I've never had a social life, don't ever want one because it's boring." Johns told me back in San Francisco. "Parties suck."
If Daniel Johns was old enough to own a car, the bumper sticker would read, "I'd rather be surfing."
"What do you think happens when you die?" I ask Chris Joannou.
"I'm not gonna die," Joannou ventures tentatively. It's more of a question than an answer.
Gillies has worked it out a little more elaborately. "You do go to heaven, but you come back as somebody else. But you can't remember who you were. If John Bonham (Led Zeppelin drummer) died a year earlier, that's who I would have asked to come back as... By the way, do you know exactly when he did die? When I first started listening to the Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same video, I thought John Bonham was like number one. I love him."
says he doesn't have any rock heroes, but did seems awfully impressed
with meeting The Offspring this past year. "They were great. They're
"Did they offer you any advice?" I venture.
"Yeah, everyone gives us advice."
"Yeah, but what did they tell you specifically."
"Don't be a sell out," says Joannou tells me reluctantly. "And don't let anyone boss you around. Things like that."
They may be starting to take control of their careers, but for the moment, they're still teenagers.
When Unwritten Law, an Los Angeles band who opened up for silverchair in Los Angeles last month, invited them out to party, but the trio had to tell them no. The wafts of marijuana smoke drifting out of Unwritten Law's dressing room scotched it for Chris, Daniel, and Ben once their mums got a (if you'll excuse the expression) whiff of it. So instead they retired to a local video parlor and played Daytona until closing.