Exclusive! Silverchair at Home
By Jade Petit (Rock Sound)
Daniel Johns is a strange young man. His band silverchair, are huge
across the globe. But on the brink of massive commercial and critical
acclaim for their third album, "Neon Ballroom," he's still a fragile,
tortured individual. His inner demons drive him to make incredible
music but they take their toll. Rock Sound went all the way to New
South Wales, Australia to talk to him to find out all about love,
anorexia, over-protective parents and the making of possibly the best
rock album of 1999.
There's nothing more boring than a 27-hour flight. OK, you get a choice of free drinks and a couple of rather out-dated films but squashed next to a snoring old woman who dribbles is hardly my idea of fun. Thank God and all his angels for giving me a copy of silverchair's stonking new album "Neon Ballroom" to keep me company. It's an incredible record that even during such a long flight delivers something new on each listen. Eventually we touch down in Sydney. It's the height of summer out there and hot as Satan's kitchen, and we still have a long, long drive ahead of us to get to Newcastle. Yep, you fly the whole way round the world and end up in Newcastle, like its English counterpart, is an industrial town. Not the prettiest place on Earth but it's where Daniel, Ben and Chris call home. We find the band in a dilapidated community centre battling against the noise of next door's pneumatic drills. When we arrive they are rehearsing for their forthcoming tour. They'll be spending practically all of 1999 on the road, a prospect that troubles Daniel due to panic attacks. He puts down his guitar, which is emblazoned with the motif 'Girls Kick Ass' and wanders across to us, a smile on his face. He's wearing a little bum-bag covered in eco-warrior badges and is barefoot. Apparently he never wears shoes. Ever. He exudes personality and charisma, but you get the impression he's as brittle as glass underneath.
Ben and Chris leave to go shopping and Daniel prepares to be interrogated. He's not a big interview fan, but he knows it's a necessary evil to promote the trio's masterpiece, "Neon Ballroom."
So Daniel, what's your problem? You're young, good-looking, wealthy and a rock star. What's missing from your life to make you happy?
A gentle soul:
He's a little taken a-back by the bluntless of the question. "I couldn't answer that myself," he says. There's a long pause before he continues. "What's probably missing is that I can't do what I want to do without being analysed or dissected. I don't want the feeling that everyone's waiting for me to screw up. I was 15 the first time round and you don't really know yourself then, you need time and space to live and grow. I don't regret any of it, but I've just found out all the negative aspects of this job." Stardom can be difficult sometimes for even the toughest of individuals and Daniel is definitely a gentle soul. It's inevitable that he would find it all a little weird. After all he was still at school when his band's debut album Frogstomp went supernova in America. He's one of Australia's biggest rock stars but his background hardly prepared him for this. He's a timid guy, quite close to his parents and he has an air of sadness about him. "I think all that comes from my early adolescence," he says. "I had friends but at the end of the day their interests were a million miles away from mine. Little by little that separated me from them. I began to spend my time painting, writing, making music and watching TV with my dog. I never really had a social life. People didn't bother with me because, to them I'd already given up on my youth. Since I was about eight years old I've wanted people to hear what I play. I wrote my first songs at primary school. That's all there has been in my life."
Homeboy at heart:
What about your family though? Some people would say that your parents are very over-protective. "Well, I am close to my family, and that can be a handicap. But when I'm away from home I feel really sick, even physically. I get panic attacks and anxiety. My house is the only place I feel 100% secure and at ease."
Would you give it all up for your peace of mind? "Yes, absolutely. If I stopped getting any pleasure from it and it turned into an obligation rather than a choice. When there's no more sincerity I'll stop."
Daniel took a lot of time out after silverchair's second album "Freak Show." The record label knew that pushing him too hard would not be a good idea so left him alone. He spent last year, watching films. "I spent over $4000 at the video store! All the films I watched have seriously had an influence on me and helped me see things more clearly, like 'Leaving Las Vegas' for example." Didn't you want to go on holiday and enjoy your new-found freedom? "Not really," he says with a grin. "I'm happier staying at home with my dog."
The time spent at home was invaluable though. He spent it listening to PJ Harvey and developing the new album. "Our last one struck me as not being that original," Daniel admits. "I knew we had to go down a different line altogether. We were only 16 when we wrote Freak Show and even if we're only 19 now, we have changed. Now we've finished school and we can take time to sit down and think about music and nothing else. I don't want to make traditional rock records anymore. I want to create something new."
So now that you've stopped school do you feel you can be treated as serious musicians? "Oh yes, absolutely," he grins. "It was hard work trying to keep both things going. We wanted to at least graduate from high school, so that we could say we'd had a decent education. But now that makes no sense at all. It taught us more about being able to juggle stuff rather getting an education."
Now that the distractions of school are behind him, Daniel's songwriting has matured beyond someone twice his age. The vision, depth and maturity of Neon Ballroom is staggering in one so young. Daniel agrees that it may throw some of their more metal orientated fans, but he's not unduly worried. "I've reached the place where I wanted to go. I wanted this album to be an illustration of a part of my life, like a new chapter of a musical biography. I wanted to create something interesting and captivating, to take things a bit further - out to another dimension."
Were Ben and Chris disconcerted by the calmer songs you came up with? "In a way, but they could see that these ideas were going round in my head and that there was no other option. We've known each other so long now that we know exactly what makes the other tick. Ben and Chris are enormously alike - they have the same interests and the same view of the world, whereas I'm very different.
"But I respect them y'know. They're my friends. Our temperaments are at odds with each other but that's OK. We complement each other, which is the essence of silverchair."
One of the most interesting aspects of Neon Ballroom is the amount of classical orchestration on it and the musical guests, in particular David Helfgott, who plays on the remarkable opening track, 'Emotion Sickness.' They bring a huge amount of colour to the music. Daniel acknowledges this. "I had a very precise image of what I wanted," says Daniel with passion. "David played his piano part like a classical composition. Then he started improvising around what he felt, which was exactly what I was looking for. Only a pianist as inspired as he is could have managed what he did. I'm really proud of that track and I think it's the best I've done so far. You can feel the spell being woven by the piano, guitar and violins."
Daniel is hugely motivated by being in the studio now. On silverchair's first two albums there's a very basic raw production but this time round he was searching for "other possibilities, a deeper dimension in the composition." He admires Nick Launay, the producer, who achieved the near-impossible sounds that Daniel was hearing in his head. But it's intensity of the lyrics that stand out. 'Ana's Song' is a tale about anorexia and Daniel is renowned for his slight physique. It's an obvious question but it has to be asked. Is the song about you? "Well," he pauses, "it's really about any fear that hides a mental disorder. Something that is in our nature." Yes, but is it about you? "When I wrote it I wasn't very well. I told myself to write something and that's what came out. I hoped I'd be able to sort out my own psychological problems... I was basically paranoid." He looks down at his bare feet for a while and we sit in silence. Eventually he looks up again. "I am a little more happy in myself now," he whispers. "I was really lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do anymore, whether I should just stop. I knew I hadn't done everything that I wanted to do. But I needed to take things one step at a time."
Again he pauses and then breaks into a smile. Daniel has found security and even redemption again through his music. It's the thing that keeps him alive. "When all's said and done, it's my only reason for living," he admits.
He goes outside to do some photos and we're left with one thought. With the music Daniel Johns and silverchair make, they may have just have a claim to immortality.