Silverchair’s Daniel Johns wrestles with some very personal demons on
the fine new Neon Ballroom, proving there’s more to rock and roll than
power chords and fart jokes. By Jon Wiederhorn
Growing up in the spotlight can do strange things to your head. By the time they were 18, Drew Barrymore and Mackenzie Phillips had already dealt with addiction, overdoses, and rehab. At 21, Different Strokes’ Todd Bridges was accused of assault with a deadly weapon and, shortly thereafter, his costar Diane Plato was convicted of robbing a video store with a toy gun and selling counterfeit Valium on the street. So it’s no surprise that former happy-go-lucky Aussie band silverchair, whose 1995 album frogstomp launched them to worldwide stardom at the tender ages of 15, are undergoing some pretty turbulent growing pains.
No longer does guitarist and songwriter Daniel Johns spend most of his waking hours trying to perfect the smelliest fart bomb or throwing classmates’ backpacks out windows and onto moving trucks. These days, he’s far more likely to be cooped up in his apartment writing confessional poetry or agonizing over the settings on his effect pedals. "This past year has been probably the toughest year of my life," he says, sitting on a chair in the corner of his bedroom. "I had a lot of panic attacks at one stage, and I had to start taking antidepressants because I suffered from depression a lot. I don’t really go out much anymore. I like to stick to myself because I really don’t like being in big crowds. When there’s big crowds, that’s when I tend to lose it sometimes."
Johns’ emotional turmoil echoes through silverchair’s third record, Neon Ballroom, but not in the traditional high-volume, angst-ridden sense. Instead of lashing out with flurries of thick, grungy power chords, silverchair has avoided that path altogether, concocting a sonic odyssey of grandiose melancholy filled with textural guitar, weeping strings, and skittery piano. On songs like "Emotion Sickness," "Ana’s Song (Open Fire)" and "Miss You Love" the tangled melodies and woeful vocals bear a striking comparison to Radiohead, while grungier cuts like "Spawn Again" and "Dearest Helpless" build tension with dense, brooding rhythms and otherworldly guitar noises. "I wanted to do the opposite of what I’d done on the past two albums," says Johns. "Some of the songs are still full of heavy guitars, which I love, but on the mellower music, I wanted to make guitar pretty much a non-issue. I wanted people to know it was there, but not focus on what it was doing. I wanted to emphasize the strings and pianos and vocals more because no one’s doing that right now. I wanted us to make an album that was different from everything else that’s out right now."
To attain such a lofty goal, Johns had to remove himself from the very scene he had entrenched himself in since 1994, and seek new avenues of creativity. He stopped listening to music for nearly a year, and began writing introspective poetry and watching evocative art films. "There’s a really good channel in Australia called SBS, which plays a lot of really dark, ethnic films," says Johns. "If you’re into art film, and you really sit down and turn the lights off and lose yourself in a movie, it can be a really special, moving experience. I wanted to have an album where you can do the same thing."
On prior silverchair releases, Johns hacked out the power-chord backbone of his songs before adding lyrics, but for Neon Ballroom he didn’t even pick up his guitar until most of the words were written. As a result, the music tends to follow the moody tone of Johns’ prose. "Last year I was feeling pretty down, and I was writing a lot of poetry to try to cope with my mood swings," he says. "I wrote about 112 poems in six months. All of the songs started out as poems, and I just cut them up and made a collage of the words that made sense. I really want people to focus on the lyrics and what I’m trying to say in the songs and then focus on the music, rather than the other way around."
Throughout Neon Ballroom, Johns addresses such issues as depressive illness ("Emotion Sickness"), animal testing ("Spawn Again"), and upper crust snobbery ("Satin Sheets"). Some tracks are far more personal. "Paint Pastel Princess" is about how antidepressant medications reduce depression, but leave the patient feeling numb and zombified, and "Miss You Love" and "Black Tangled Heart" are about Johns’ inability to experience a lasting relationship. "I’ve had girlfriends, but I’ve never had a relationship that’s lasted longer than a month," he admits. "I think I’ve got some kind of phobia. I’m scared of getting too attached to someone. Just when someone gets close to my heart, that’s when I cut them off. I don’t know why I do that. It’s not like I have any family issues because I had a really good childhood. I didn’t really have any bad experiences in my life until I was in my teens and I got beaten up in high school."
As any former high school misfit can tell you, the formative growing years tend to have a profound effect on the fragile human psyche - especially if those years are spent with one’s head in the toilet or the words "kick me" taped to one’s back. "Come to think of it, I never really suffered from depression until I was 15 or so and I was in school," says Johns. "When I was growing up, people where I lived just couldn’t understand someone that was in a band and didn’t play football. I think that had a lot to do with my anxiousness. I was scared to go outside because I always thought I was going to get attacked."
Unfortunately, Johns’ neuroses didn’t begin with his fear of bullies and end with his inability to get laid. In between there was a rather bizarre eating disorder, which he expounds upon in "Ana’s Song (Open Fire)." "When I was about 17, I had this great phobia about different foods I couldn’t eat because I thought they’d cut my throat. It seems silly when you look back on it, but at the time it was scary to eat cereal because I thought it was sharp and it would cut my stomach."
Once the lyrics were written, Johns began matching the sentiment of his verse with the flow of the rhythms. To achieve an atmospheric feel, he abandoned the Gibson SGs and Paul Reed Smith guitars he had used on silverchair’s 1995 platinum album, frogstomp, and its 1997 follow-up, Freak Show, and plugged in some older, more classic axes. "I tracked down these odd Gretsches and some old Fenders, and they really appealed to me because I was used to getting these newer, more metallic sounds, and the tones I got from these older guitars was much more honest. With amps, I was using a lot of ‘60s Fenders. In the studio, I had this wall of vintage Fender amps and combo amps, and it just sounded so much warmer than anything I had done in the past."
Of course, that doesn’t mean parts of Neon Ballroom don’t still rock like a tenement building in an earthquake. Fans of silverchair’s grunge- saturated back catalog will thrill to "Spawn Again," "Dearest Helpless," and "Satin Sheets." And radio audiences across the heartland will probably undergo massive bouts of ‘80s- style headbanging when they hear the BIG RAWK sounds of "Anthem for the Year 2000," which sounds like nothing less than Def Leppard’s encore classic "Pyromania."
"It’s very glam rock and stadium rock without the wank," says Johns. "That song came after I had a dream one night that we were playing at some huge stadium, and we had no instruments because everything had broken. Thousands of people in the crowd had their hands in the air clapping. And I started singing, ‘We are the youth. We’ll take your fascism away!’ over the handclaps in order to compensate for the lack of instruments. So I woke up and straight away wrote ‘Anthem for the Year 2000.’ I did it from start to finish in like five minutes. It was the quickest song I’ve ever written, and the first verse starts with just drums and vocals, just like the dream only with the handclaps."
For the most part, the recording process was straightforward. The band started out at Festival Studios in Sydney, Australia, with producer Nick Launay, and finished the record in Mangrove Studios in the small town of Gossford, Australia. Along the way, the band added strings and piano as it saw fit, and for "Emotion Sickness" silverchair recruited piano virtuoso David Helfgott, the eccentric artist whose life the film Shine was based on. The only real hitch came at the end of a two-week period Johns spent laying down vocals for the tracks. "Everything was done, and then we discovered that there was a very strange, high-pitched sound all the way through it because I was standing in this doorway when I did the vocals. I had really put everything into the vocals, so we had to take a two-week break just so I could regroup and start again. In the weeks that followed there was a lot of smashing things that occurred because of the frustration, but it was very gratifying when we were finally done. In the end all the struggles were well worth it."
There’s no question that Johns and silverchair have matured since their halcyon days of video games, crank calls, and fart jokes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t still enjoy a good laugh at other people’s expenses. "I still love practical jokes," laughs Johns. "We really like to ring up local music stores and invent names of guitars and ask if they’ve got them. They always tell us that they don’t exist. And then we go and get one custom made, and bring it in and say, ‘Yeah, they exist. Can you fix it?’ They get really confused because they thought they knew what they were talking about, and suddenly they have no idea what’s going on. I’m going to do stuff like that forever because when you don’t have a social life, you just tend to sit around and think of ways to fuck things up."