– interview by skye
Nearly seven years ago the music world was blessed with a package of 15-year-old Australian imports known as Silverchair. Their appropriately dubbed alternative/grunge rock album “Frogstomp,” sporting the heavy hits “Israel’s Son” and “Tomorrow” sparked the firestorm that would surround Silverchair. Two years later they released “Freak Show,” which proved to be a mediocre success in comparison to their debut. Redefining their hard sound and exploring the poetic writing abilities of front man Daniel Johns they created the emotion packed “Neon Ballroom” in 1999 with the sensitive and personal “Ana’s Song” being the defining single. In 2001 Silverchair already had a greatest hits album out in stores; all of this before their 21st birthdays. We now find Silverchair signed with Atlantic Records and releasing “Diorama,” an album with which brings Silverchair into 2002 once again reinvented.
After growing up listening to this band in a time when my life was full of teenage angst, the beginnings of what is known as high school, Silverchair stuck in my head over the years and as they changed their tune, so did I. I jumped at the chance to interview Silverchair vocalist/writer/and guitar player Daniel Johns upon hearing their new album. In a rush, the record company connected me with Johns via the telephone all the way to his home in Australia. Johns isn’t the furious front man he portrays in music videos and performances, but instead a self proclaimed introvert whom prefers the comforts of home where he can write his lyrics and compose his music alone.
What are your thoughts on the new album?
Johns: My thoughts…I’m really happy with it. I’m happy with where it’s going and I’m glad it turned out the way I envisioned it turning out.
So how did you guys end up breaking into the music business? This is your fourth album and you guys are still so young, how did you get involved backing 94-95?
There was a demo competition on a really small television station in Australia and we won that band competition. We got to record our song, which was “Tomorrow” at the time, in a professional recording studio. Instantly the radio started playing it and people really liked it and then we got signed and all around the world people were hearing our song, so we had to record our first record.
How did that feel to have all of that happen so quickly?
It was definitely a shock to the system. We never considered ourselves to be a good band or anything, we just thought we were playing for fun and we wanted to play music that sounded like Black Sabbath or Soundgarden or the music we were into at that time. We never really considered ourselves a real band. (Laughs).
So was it all just out of fun at first? Just three guys together in a band?
It was just fun. We’d turn it up really loud and just jam in the garage. Before we knew it we were signed and playing shows in America and in Europe and it was just weird.
How’s the music scene in Australia?
I think radio in Australia has a broader spectrum of the stuff that they play.
What about live shows and such?
It’s kinda….ah, to be honest you’re really asking the wrong person (Laughs). I haven’t really been out to see a band since I was 14-years-old. I don’t really know what the music scene is like. I just know the radio is different and the charts are very similar.
How do you like going to other places and performing like in America or Europe?
I really like going to different places. I’m not a huge fan of touring because I don’t feel that lifestyle, but I like experiencing different cultures I guess. America is always really interesting, whenever we are there, it seems really energetic. There is so much energy there and it’s quite strange because we come from Australia where everything is really laid back and then you go to Europe and it’s really strict and relatively regimented and in America it is full on…crazy. (Laughs).
Well what was it like for you to play in America, really for the first time, on top of the Radio City Music Hall for the MTV Music Video Awards?
It’s weird because at the time it didn’t seem like anything special. We really didn’t know what was going on, it’s only now that I look back and go “oh fuck, I can’t believe we did that.” Part of that was because it was just another performance, we didn’t care where we were playing and we didn’t understand what we were doing. Ya know? Here we are playing music and someone comes along and says to us, “okay you’re going to play two songs on top of a roof” and we’re like “yeah all right.” It wasn’t until years later when I understood the whole history of it and understood that we were playing the movie awards so then it became important to me, but at the time, we were just playing on a roof.
I was going through the CDs at the record store and I saw you had a Greatest Hits album? At 20-years-old you have a greatest hits album?
I hated it. I couldn’t stand the whole idea of it. We went out of our way to tell people not to buy it when it came out because when our contract was up with Sony they decided to release it without management or the bands consent so no one was really an advocate of the whole thing. I don’t like the fact that there’s a greatest hits out (laughs) I hate it so much.
Do you feel that you’re not ready for that yet?
Yeah, definitely. How can you have a greatest hits album? When it came out we were 20 years old and it seemed like we were just starting – well not just starting – but starting to find ourselves and then we had a Greatest hits album and it just felt uncomfortable.
Okay so who are your musical influences? Who would you say inspired you to play the music that you play?
When we first began and I was 14, my influences were the stuff that was in my parent’s record collection like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Then as we started getting to know music we started liking Soundgarden and the whole grunge movement and we were into all that at that age. Then we started getting into bands like Helmet and Tool. When it came time for me to write “Neon Ballroom” that’s when I just started writing music for a different reason, my motives were different I didn’t want to write the music that sounded like things that I liked or enjoyed. So I started writing music from an entirely different approach and for this album [“Diorama”] the only thing that really inspired it was old Hollywood musicals from the 1950s. That was the only real musical element I wanted to incorporate into what I was doing.
Do you think that it really shows throughout the entire album?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to capture that glamorous flamboyancy that was present in all those musicals in the 50s and I think you can hear that influence. I don’t think it’s incredibly strong.
How do you think fans of yours that were avid “Frogstomp” fans are going to respond to this record with this totally new sound?
I’m sure a lot of them will hate it and I’m sure some of them will like it. It’s not something I take into consideration when I’m writing a record. I write what feels good and I want to challenge myself and I think anyone that’s still doing the exact same thing that they were doing when they were 14 is kinda, I don’t think it’s really healthy. I’m doing music that appeals to me now, not music that appealed to me when I was 14 or 15.
How have your run-ins been with the music industry as far as record companies and promotions go? And how big of a part do you guys play in your signing deals and so forth?
We play a huge part in it. We haven’t really had any major record company problems that you hear of with other bands and they’ve had really serious problems. We’ve always associated with people that we’ve trusted, I guess. We sign contracts, ones that we are comfortable with and we make alterations to the deals to make them comfortable for us.
Was it tough when you were younger to deal with all that? Being in the band and trying to finish high school?
Yeah it was pretty unusual. We’d go on tour for two months and get back and have only one day off then we’d be in school. It was a weird feeling but in a lot of ways it was beneficial because it kept us grounded and we felt like normal teenagers we didn’t feel like rockstars because as soon as we got back from touring we were back in the same school and same environment we were in before we even had a record deal. I guess it didn’t affect us as bad because we were going to school and living a normal life as well. It really balanced us out.
You were telling me a little about touring and you said you’re not big on it, but what’s the overall experience like for you and the rest of the band?
We all really enjoy playing live and the other two guys really love touring and the whole lifestyle of it but it’s generally a positive experience. There are different stress factors involved with being on the road. It’s not something…well I’d rather be at home writing or recording and that’s what I get pleasure out of, not by being on a tour bus, and ya know.
How has your band evolved from the first album? Especially since “Neon Ballroom” came out because it was so much more emotional and personal, how did the band collectively evolve into that?
As I said before, I just started approaching music differently when I was 17 or 18 years old and a lot of it was just growing up and I think “Diorama’s” really the first album I’ve written when I haven’t been a teenager. I think the thing that is most apparent with how we evolved is how we’ve brushed off influences. On our first two records it was apparent what music we were all into and the music we were all listening to. The last two records are more of a personal expression on my part and I was writing the music that was within me rather than the music that I wanted to play because I heard it somewhere else.
Was it therapeutic for you to share a song like “Ana’s Song” with your fans by putting it on “Neon Ballroom” and then making even a music video for it?
It taught me a few lessons releasing that song and it was definitely therapeutic to write the song and to record it and release it on the record but it backfired on me when it came to doing interviews and touring because a lot of that record is painful to play live. It makes it hard to get over a certain period of your life when you are constantly revisiting it every night. I was constantly talking about it with journalists and singing it every night songs like “Emotion Sickness” and stuff like that made it really hard for me to get over it because I was constantly reliving the whole thing.
Do you feel like you’re over it now and is it comfortable for you to go on stage and sing “Ana’s Song” or “Emotion Sickness?”
Yeah because we had a lot of time where…well I guess it was time off where I was writing this new record so I feel a lot more comfortable now and healthier as a person and I feel like I can perform those older songs and view them as songs rather than diary entries.
Which of your albums or which of your songs can you say was the most personal to you and had the most meaning?
This record, “Diaroma” definitely holds the most meaning to me, “Neon Ballroom” is the most personal as far as divulging my inner thoughts and feelings, but this record is one I wrote to pull me out of an emotional rut I’ve been in for the past three or four years. I felt I wrote to make me feel better about myself and to feel good about music and life again. Both albums are important for different reasons.
Why was it three years between “Neon Ballroom” and this new album?
After “Neon Ballroom” we toured for 18 months and I never write on the road and when we got home I started writing for about six to eight months, I spent writing this record. Most of the time after that was looking for a producer and waiting for a chance to record and we were ready to go after the album was rehearsed for a month, but we couldn’t get things together so we ended up rehearsing for another three months which proved to be beneficial for the record because it sounds really natural when we play it together.
How big of a part did you personally play in the production of this album? Aside from the obvious being in the band…what about technically?
I definitely have a really clear vision of what I want the record to sound like and whenever write a song I’m clear on what instrumentation I want on different parts and how I want different sections to sound. I play a relatively major part in that, as far as microphone placement and different effects. I have no idea what I’m doing, I wouldn’t know where to place a microphone on a drum kit so that’s where David Botrill [“Diorama” producer] came in handy because he knew how to do the things immediately. He is brilliant.
Were you happy with all the people you worked with on the album?
Very happy. I was really strict when it came to the people we’d be working with on this record because I found it incredibly important for the records sake to have people that are enthusiasm about music. People like Van Dyke Parks and Daivd Botrill and everyone in the band was animate about having a positive attitude. I think you can feel a positive vibe from the new record and tell what the people were feeling at the time of making it. It’s intent is to be an incredibly positive experience for everyone involved and everyone who will listen to it.
How was it working with someone like Van Dyke Parks who has worked with artists like U2 and The Beach Boys?
Amazing. Him and David were the two most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. Right form the start when we had our initial phone conversation we had a really strong connection and a strong musical bond and a really good understanding on where each other were coming from musically. I knew he was right from the start because he’s so amazingly talented and a really beautiful person anyways.
Fans are obviously concerned with your health because they see that you’re not touring due to your health problems can you elaborate a little more on that?
I’ve got something called reactive arthritis, which basically it is intense pain in all of my joints. It affects my face my hands, knees, my back and pelvis and my writs so it’s really inflammation of the joints and I literally cannot stand up and walk or play guitar. I’m just doing phone interviews and lying on a bed hoping that it gets better soon so we can tour.
Is it something that can be cured?
Apparently it can last anywhere from three months to three or four years so, I mean I’ve had it for about 10 months now so hopefully it will start getting better soon.
I really hope so.
Do you consider yourself to be an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m definitely an introvert. I don’t think there’s an extroverted bone in my body really. (Laughs). I’m relatively introverted as a person.
How does that work out when you’re on stage and you’re performing, do you just try to forget about what’s really going on and focus on something else?
In a lot of ways I create just a character to go on stage. I’m definitely not myself when I’m on stage, which is why I don’t really enjoy touring as much.
What can we expect from Silverchair in the future?
Um…I don’t really know to tell you the truth. It’s one of those things, we could be together for another five to 10 years or it could end next month. It’s not really something I can predict so I suppose whatever happens will happen.