By STEVE MASCORD
“This is SO Spinal Tap,” says Daniel Johns, busting to use the men’s room. We have just been led down a secret passageway at Rio’s Intercontinental Hotel, into a kitchen. We may be lost. No, there’s another secret passageway, leading to secret room with blacked-out glass doors. When he finally finds the toilet, Johns is escorted there by two six-foot, suited Brazilians who you suspect were never taught, as children, to smile.
Welcome to The Biggest Day In The Life of silverchair – a day which almost never came.
This afternoon, the band which does more for Australia’s GDP than any other is back on the media merry-go-round for the first time in a year. Tonight, they are to reach the giddiest height of their live career, playing Rock In Rio to no fewer than 250,000 people.
Yet seven or eight months ago, this trio of 21-year-olds from Newcastle, New South Wales, at least considered never playing nor recording together again. Singer-songwriter Johns, suffering from chronic depression and an eating disorder, had brought things to a screeching halt just when they had begun to recapture the momentum of their early days as 17-year-old grungesters.
Weaning himself off prescription drugs, he had agonised over the decision to continue, a decision, which has brought them here, to pick up where they could never have dreamt of leaving off. Daniel Johns’ journey from the depths of despair and loneliness has just about reached its end. Relief is in sight.
JOHNS DOES not attend the silverchair press conference at the Intercontinental. His tanned, shorthaired associates, bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies, do their best to make apologies. “He’s decided to rest his throat, basically, because tonight’s a very big show and you want to give the best show that you can,” said Ben, a statement which his front man would later concede to be – well – a lie.
Waiting in an adjoining room, Daniel stands in the corner preparing to do a couple of television appearances. He looks enigmatic, in super-baggy jeans, sneakers, and a green t-shirt. Although friends say he has gained weight, he is still extremely thin, with longish blonde hair, stylish goatee and not a bit brown.
“They say I’m the palest man in Brazil,” he says idly. “It’s a title I’m proud of.”
When the band finished touring in support of their third and most recent album, the diverse and often splendid Neon Ballroom, Johns disappeared. Joannou and Gillies had little alternative but to sit on their hands.
Gillies, then a very wealthy 20-year-old, actually worked in a Newcastle record store – to find out how everyone else lived. Joannou surfed, hung out.
How close did silverchair come to breaking up? Is Daniel still sick? Are they ever going to overcome early perceptions of them as a some sort of loud, morbid Hanson? That is what we’re here to find out.
But questions like those can easily be asked and answered in a hotel room or record company office. Today we have stumbled across something much more special, a day when three kids who – metaphorically – have scarcely been near the water for a year are shoved firmly into the deep end.
“It’s really weird because we’ve just been home for 12 months and done nothing,” says Joannou, “and all of a sudden it’s whoosh, straight into it. “It feels like we don’t belong here. We feel like the odd one out. It’s gone from one extreme to another … to one of the biggest gigs in our career.”
HERE, AND at the Falls Festival in Lorne, Australia, on New Years Eve, silverchair debuted two new songs: “Hollywood” and “One Way Mule” (both tough works of rifferama). But when Chris and Ben are asked at the press conference what they are about, they look at each other and shrug.
“We’ve only played the new songs once live and at rehearsals,” says Ben. “When Chris and I are playing, we pretty much concentrate on what we’re doing. You listen to the lyrics but in a small room, where it’s loud, you can’t hear much. “So I couldn’t tell you.”
Later, in the room-with-blacked-out-doors, I suggest to Chris that Daniel could write a song hailing the joys of bestiality and the rest of the band would be none the wiser. “Yeah, probably!” he admits. “We haven’t sat down and talked about it yet, what the songs are about.”
American mall rats first became aware of silverchair in 1994, when they released “Tomorrow”, a Gen X anthem of musical power but lyrical naffness (they no longer play it live).
The Novocastrian schoolkids had come to prominence in the homeland by winning a contest run by national radio station Triple J. Originally called Innocent Criminals, they would later claim their new moniker was an amalgam of Nirvana’s “Sliver” and You Am I’s “Berlin Chair”. In fact, it was on a list of possible names their record company showed them and it was the best of the bunch.
Eventually, debut album Frogstomp was released and devoured by post-grunge America. As is unfortunately often the case, as silverchair got better, their sales in America declined. It is fortunately also often the case, everyone else began to switch onto them.
Freak (1997) was on a different plain to Frogstomp, with its diversity and musicianship, and Neon Ballroom (1999) was a spectacular leap forward again. There was thrash, there was rock, there were “Miss You Love” and “Ana’s Song”, twisted ballads which challenge the sure knowledge they were written by a 19-year-old.
Then came the Neon Ballroom Tour, then nothing.
SILVERCHAIR’s manager, former journalist John Watson, thinks for a while when he is asked to identify the precise moment Daniel Johns was transformed from being a scruffy schoolboy to a fully-fledged rock star.
“I remember once,” he finally says, “in Germany. The band was still feeling their way on big stages. There was a camera on a track in front of the stage. For some reason, Daniel started stalking it. “When the camera could go no further, Daniel spat on it and rubbed the spit all over the lens. There was this gigantic, blurry picture of his face on the giant screens.
“We looked at each other and said ‘where did THAT come from?”
Johns is not the tortured, awkward Cobain-esque figure you may expect but he is probably the most gentle person the writer has ever met. He speaks softly and deliberately and seeks consensus, with phrases like “you know when you ….” When he points out he did not become a musician to do interviews, he quickly adds “no disrespect to you, of course”.
Two more things: a dazzling set of milk white teeth and youth. Extreme, just-past-pimples youth. “I just get really uncomfortable around lots of people,” he says, coming clean over the press conference boycott. “I tend to get really nervous and do things I’m not proud of after I’ve done them.”
It turns out that Johns crying off sitting in front of a room full of Brazilian hacks actually quite significant. In fact, it’s a condition of silverchair still being around at all.
“After the recording of Neon Ballroom, it was like a whole weight was lifted off my shoulders and I felt really free and happy that I’d got that out,” he explains.
“But halfway through the touring … the whole weight was back because I was constantly reliving the experience with interviews. It was like, every day I was doing two hours of therapy with those interviews. It kind of all came back.
“That’s why I needed that time off to understand myself better, do that therapy and get comfortable with myself again.”
Johns’ illness – clinical depression – is a savage double-edged sword.
On one hand, it provides him with inspiration for his music. On the other, it makes it difficult for him to go out and perform that music.
This, remember, is the man who wrote lyrics like “Hate is what I feel for you, and I want you to know that I want you dead” and “C’mon, abuse me more. I like it”.
Because they don’t listen to lyrics, Ben and Chris were unable to tell the media conference what the next album will be “about”. It’s a question Daniel answers readily.
“A lot of the stuff I was writing last year, after the touring of Neon Ballroom … I was in a pretty bad state,” he says. “Obviously that was one of the main contributors to having that time off.
“I was doing a lot of therapy, trying to sort myself out. But it was just getting worse. So a lot of it is about dealing with that and going through that. Neon Ballroom was more about … a lack of hope, I guess. This time, it’s more about the light at the end of the tunnel.
“There’s some stuff which is more positive than anything I’ve ever written before and then there’s some really dark stuff. It’s definitely not an “I’m Better” album, a happy-happy album. That’s definitely not where I’m at, where I was at the time.”
Where was that place? To quote “Tomorrow” “the only way to get there/Is to go straight down”. During 1999, Johns was in self-denial, taking handfuls of pills to get on stage every night and spending hours alone in hotel rooms.
“The key moment was … I realised I hadn’t gotten over a lot of the stuff that I’d written about and was claiming to have gotten over,” he explains.
“People were asking me ‘how did you deal with it’ and halfway through the tour I realised I was just hiding it with medication. In order to deal with it, I had to get off the drugs. I wasn’t doing coke or anything, I mean anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication.
“I was taking heaps of it just to tour, to deal with it and publicly I was claiming to have gotten over it which was, I guess, a defensive mechanism.
“You never know if it’s going to come back because it’s medical but at the moment I’m feeling really good. It’s because I’ve just had time to understand myself and realise that the things that are different about me aren’t faults. It’s just the fact that I’m different to the rest of the people that I know.
“Once you understand yourself and you’re comfortable with it, that’s when you’ve truly dealt with it.”
It’s quotes like these, which sometimes earn Johns derision. “He answers questions honestly, and people think he’s whinging,” says Watson. I put it to Johns that people do wonder what a rock star has to get depressed about.
“I think the answer’s really simple, actually” Johns replies. “A lot of people get depression and sadness mixed up, which is bullshit. I’m sick of people coming up to me and saying they’re depressed when they’re not, they’re sad.
“There’s a fucking huge difference. You can be sad for two weeks but it doesn’t mean you’re depressed. Depression is more medical. I was clinically depressed, I wasn’t sad.
“It’s got nothing to do with wealth or fame, it’s a medical thing.
“Obviously it’s not the best idea to take 12 months off when you’re at the peak of your career but you can’t put career first all the time.
“Also, I didn’t want to write another album of self-loathing, another album that was the same. So it was an artistic thing as well. I wanted to have something new to write about and be enthusiastic about life again, I guess.”
SO HOW close did silverchair come to breaking up?
“It was really close to the brink,” Daniel admits without hesitating. “But it was nothing to do with personal differences. There was never any tension in the band, we’ve always been really good friends.
“It was more a personal thing of: can I handle it and if I can’t, I’m going to leave. I’ve sorted myself out and I realise I can handle it as long as I avoid certain situations, such as the press conference.
“If I was to do that stuff, it would defeat the whole purpose of getting back in the band. The whole reason I did that was because I understood there were certain things I couldn’t do.”
Joannou remembers the decision like this: “We just went up to Daniel’s house, sat around as mates, really casual. Everyone voiced an opinion and everyone was still thinking the same thing. We said ‘lets do it’ It was good in a way, because we decided at the same time not to be half-hearted.”.
While Gilles and Joannou enjoyed a year’s anonymity, Johns didn’t have any such luxury. Sick or well, he has become a tabloid darling in Australia. Is he dating Natalie Imbruglia? Is he leaving silverchair? Is he gay?
He blames himself for saying too much in past interviews. “The whole purpose of life, I guess, is to have an understanding of yourself and to have things which no-one knows about you,” he says. “That’s what gives you your personal identity.”
While the two new songs currently in the ‘Chair’s repertoire are heavy rock songs, Daniel has been writing other material on a piano.
Having split with Sony, they now have distribution throughout North and South America on Atlantic. At the Intercontinental, they meed their new label mate, an English guitarist of some renown called Jimmy Page.
So far, there is no distribution deal for the UK and Japan.
Johns also became involved in a side-project last year, the electronic I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock. The EP cost A$300 to make (“the cost of hiring a cello player”), there are no plans for any shows and the music is available on the internet.
In the meantime, Sony have put out a Best Of silverchair set without the involvement of the band, something that clearly rankles. “To teach us a lesson, they put out a greatest hits album,” says Johns. “I think its stupid because it’s obvious. They’ve put every single we’ve released on there.
“They didn’t have much to chose from, we’ve only had three albums, we’re only 21 years old. If I was a silverchair fan I wouldn’t buy it but I understand why they did it. They had to cash in for Christmas, I guess.”
A RED Lamborghini is parked outside the Sheraton, the band’s spectacularly appointed hotel. “This is mine,” says Daniel, as his band mates board a coach for the gig. “I’ll see you there.”
Jealous? It’s OK, he’s joking. En route to the City of Rock in Jacarepagua, through agonisingly slow traffic, Daniel learns that Iron Maiden and others travelled to the venue by helicopter.
“Wow! How cool would that be? Can we get the chopper back? How long would it take? Only 15 minutes?”
Ben Gillies sleeps, Chris Joannou burns off nervous energy by just looking out the window. Daniel talks and listens, keen to keep his mind on something else.
When Johns talks, it’s the talk of a 21-year-old, not of a rock star.
It’s curing the munchies after a joint, it’s the origins of the word “fuck”, it’s about other bands as if he’s just going out for a look. He calls his drummer “Gillies”, as if they’re jumping the queue together in the school canteen.
Then Joannou leans over the back of his seat and says: “Hey, guess what? It’s a sell-out. Two hundred and fifty thousand people!”
Now, how would you feel, at this stage, if you’d been to work once in a year and had to perform your duties tonight in front of a half a million transfixed eyes. Oh, and you’re only 21.
Daniel, the alleged recluse, is actually the most animated of the trio. The others stay in the flimsy, temporary dressing room (you thought leather chairs, champagne and groupies, right? Wrong). Then, an hour before they are due to go on at 11.45pm, they are transferred to another flimsy, temporary dressing room, right next to the stage.
“Daniel doesn’t like crowds, he gets nervous,” Watson said earlier in the day. “Once, we had a really big gig one night and Daniel had an English exam the next, when he had to speak in front of his class.
“He played in front of 25,000 people one night. He’s really good at English but he got a zero the next day. He was too nervous to get up in front of his classmates.”
When he walks out in a brilliant mirrored jacket with loose black pants, there is chaos. A sea of faces stretching out to the horizon crane to see him as Chris and Ben take their posts.
When he poses, pointing towards the sky, it does not look natural but it’s still cool. With a “Jesus Loves You” sticker on his guitar, he launches into “Israel’s Son” The next day, Johns admits he could not play his chords on this song because his hands are shaking so much.
“PURE Massacre”, “Emotion Sickness”, “Anna’s Song”, “Miss You Love” – they fly past. Seen from the side of the stage, the scene is astonishing. Members of the band’s management videotape themselves standing in front of the crowd.
Between songs, Daniel struggles to think of anything to say. “We own this place,” however, stands out as a masterful – and accurate – proclamation. Adulation on this scale is difficult to conceive. During “Miss You Love”, the video screen is filled with the image of a young girl, hoisted onto someone’s shoulders, weeping.
“The Door” and “Faultline” whistle by and then things become insane, thousands of fists thrust into the warm night air as “Anthem For The Year 2000” begins.
“Freak” inspires the sort of mass pogo that most of us thought we’d only ever see on television. When it’s over Daniel leaves his guitar, strings snapped, wailing in front of his amp and walks off in a faux huff. It lays there a while, before a roadie tugs it away by its lead.
It has all happened in just one day, a day that you would expect to conclude with sex and drugs and anything else that is available. When the writer returns to the Sheraton and is told everyone is “down by the pool”, he fears the worst/anticipates the best.
Instead, Ben and Chris are sitting at a table with the band’s inner circle, sipping lager. “Want some pizza?” says A&R man Simon Moor. Pizza?
Daniel finishes the day as he began it – absent. Tomorrow, he will go to hospital with mild glandular fever.
THERE ARE better memories one takes away from such a day than that of a micro waved ham-and-pineapple at 4.30am.
The best: just before the band are due on stage, it’s possible to peer through the chain mail barrier at the rear, to the area the band walk through from the dressing room. Johns, his jacket so reflective as to be blinding, leads silverchair up a ramp. Workmen clearing equipment, ferrying amps and tugging at cables, used to the sight of rock stars, stop in their tracks, and stare. Johns, looking straight ahead, keeps walking, right up and out into the spotlight, leaving his demons in the shadows.
Nigel Tufnell would be proud.
Filed for KERRANG!