“I’m still talking about being anorexic in ‘Ana’s Song’ in interviews. I think, ‘Oh, fuck! Once you put it in a song, it never ends. Ever.’”
Blossoming from a grunge-rocker into an innovative pop-rock master, Daniel Johns has proven himself to be an ever-evolving entity. He’s ridden a rollercoaster since the age 14, wading through everything from depression to over-whelming international acclaim. But after all of these ups and downs, Johns now finds happiness on a Newcastle balcony with a bottle of red wine and his beloved wife, Natalie.
By Nick Milligan
Daniel Johns is loving life. Since being swept into the international world of rock music while in his early years at Newcastle High School, his home town has watched his evolution with personal interest and pride. The Silverchair lead-singer has blossomed from an angst-ridden devotee of Seattle grunge music into an orchestrater of grandiose pop.
For Johns, the ability to transform himself as a musician is why he continues to pour his soul into song-writing. His band, which he shares with drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou, achieved international accolades by releasing hard rock, but it quickly became evident that Johns’ musical interests were constantly shifting. The 28 year-old feels that the diversity in Silverchair’s back catalogue, is a map of the emotional journey he has endured. “If you listen from Frogstomp through to The Dissociatives (his side-project with friend, Paul Mac), then through to Young Modern, you can definitely see something happening there. You can feel the shifts in mood and you can see where things started to get better and you can see where things started to get really fucked up. You can also see where things were innocent and where things were considered,” explains Johns.
Despite the tumult of his past, Johns has emerged seemingly unscathed - and the past twelve months have been fruitful. Silverchair released their fifth studio album Young Modern, marking another giant leap in a different direction. “It’s been an amazing year. I’ve been having a good time and have been in love,” he giggles. “There’s been a great response to the record. Last year was a difficult year, pulling all the production together. A lot of hard work went into the record. But it wasn’t to no avail.”
Young Modern symbolises Johns’ finest achievement. With its rich and unpredictable harmonies, it exhibits a jubilance that has rarely appeared in his music in such a layered and textured way. “This is probably the most rewarding record we’ve released, both creatively and personally. I felt like I’d written my strongest and most eclectic mix of songs. When we started rehearsing them during pre-production, it felt like it was the best that the band had sounded too. We’re playing a lot better. It’s the first time in our career that I felt like I was writing to our strengths. I wanted the band to be the focal point of the record. With Diorama and Neon Ballroom, the band were pushed up the back and we made a lot of unusual sounds. [Young Modern] was about putting unusual sounds behind the band. You have to listen to this album a bit more carefully,” says Johns.
CHILDREN OF THE EVOLUTION
After the band’s second album, Freak Show, Johns began to expand on his songwriting, which included a collaboration with pianist David Helfgott on the song ‘Emotion Sickness’. Johns knew that heavy rock was something he needed to leave in his wake. “I think the moment came when we were coming to the end of touring on Freak Show,” remembers Johns. “We were finishing high school – I think it was literally a couple of days after I finished school. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be writing teenage, school grunge.’ I felt like our identity was wrapped up in being this teenage-grunge band that still go to school. It was all really novel, but it needed to be substantiated somehow. I didn’t feel like we really deserved the success at that point. I felt like I still had to prove myself as a writer. At the end of school I decided I wanted to do something more significant.”
So what would the 14 year-old Daniel Johns have made of the quirky and lush pop of Young Modern, had someone been able to play it to him all those years ago? “I’d probably think it was too weird. I was a kid – I had pretty simple taste in music. When I was a young, I just liked loud music,” laughs Johns. “Guitar riffs, loud, banging drums…but I was also into The Beatles. So maybe I’d like it. I’d probably skip a few songs. I’d give ‘Those Thieving Birds’ a miss.”
After the extraordinary success of Silverchair’s fourth studio album Diorama, which was a hugely ambitious production that required the input of Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, the mind-boggled as to where Johns would take Silverchair’s music next. “When I started writing [the songs on Young Modern], I didn’t know it was a Silverchair record. From the moment I started writing, I knew that it would eventuate into a record. To me, it would be really hard to write something bigger and more epic than something like ‘Tuna In The Brine’ on Diorama. You can keep going bigger and bigger, but at some point you’ve got to stop,” he laughs. “This time I wanted it to be more eclectic and more rock n roll than Diorama was. I feel like Young Modern is so much more ambitious than Diorama. But I think maybe it’s a bit more palatable, because it sounds like a rock n roll band playing eccentric pop music, as opposed to just eccentric pop music.”
REFLECTING ON A SOUND
After winning a band competition through national youth radio station Triple J, Silverchair found themselves in the middle of a media frenzy. As drummer Ben Gillies conveyed to Reverb in May 2007, the three boys felt obliged to continue making music, under the pressure of the record labels and promoters who had invested in them.
“We just take it one album at a time these days,” says Johns. “We started the band when we were 11 or 12 years old. We’ve always been Silverchair. After the second record, I started to get a bit sick and it started to take a toll on me. It wasn’t the music, it was just the pressure of being in Silverchair when I was that young. After that we’ve always assumed that it’s one album at a time and there’s no fear to commit. It’s a lot more enjoyable, not just with Silverchair, but with everything in life. It’s better if there’s no plan or if there’s always an end in sight. I don’t like it when things are infinite.”
Johns continues, “We were signed when we were fourteen and then we were huge in America when we were fourteen. Then before we knew it, we were 21. We didn’t really sit down to discuss what we wanted to do with our lives. It’s a weird feeling, but it’s also a really good one. I’m glad that we didn’t think about it too much, because you can scare yourself out of things. But at the time, I remember thinking that I was the only one that felt that sense of obligation.”
Does Johns wish he’d had the opportunity to live a conventional teenage existence? “Part of me, but not a very large part of me,” says Johns, after a moment of consideration. “When I was a teenager, I didn’t have very much fun. I didn’t have much of a spring in my step,” he laughs. “I didn’t really enjoy much. I spent a large portion of my adolescence being mentally unstable and not well. Part of me wishes that I enjoyed being younger, when I was younger. The larger part of me is glad because it gave me some perspective - I’m quite enjoying my life right now.”
SUFFERING FOR ART
As much as Johns enjoys filling his lyrics with sincerity, he admits that he doesn’t give enough thought to the consequences of wearing his heart on his sleeve. “It’s cliched, but it’s cathartic to write when you’re in a darker state of mind. I feel like I suffered for my art. You do it and it’s been purged, and you feel really good and you’ve gotten it off your chest. But when you’re writing the song and trying to get it out of your system, you don’t really take into account the 18 months of interviews you’re going to be doing. It doesn’t feel cathartic to me to put all your problems down on a bit of paper and sing it to the world, because then you have to justify it, talk about it, dissect it and discuss it for 18 months. I’m still talking about being anorexic in ‘Ana’s Song’ in interviews. I think, ‘Oh, fuck! Once you put it in a song, it never ends. Ever.’”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Johns regrets not being able to relax in his home town more often, but tries to squeeze in some visits between touring, recording and his home in England. “I haven’t been home heaps in the last twelve months. I’ve just been working so hard in many different countries. My wife lives in London, so whenever I get some time off, I head over there. But every time I’m back in Australia and we’re not working, I always come back to Newcastle. I definitely enjoy being here, it’s just unfortunate that it’s hard to stay there when you’ve released a record. You’ve got to be in places like Sydney, London or New York. You can’t tour from Newcastle unfortunately,” laughs Johns.
So what does he miss the most about Newcastle? “I miss my house, my family and my dog,” says Johns, with little hesitation. “Culturally I think [Newcastle] is a great place and it’s got great restaurants, but I try to keep a low profile when I’m in here. I usually sit at home, writing songs, relaxing and occasionally going to the beach. I usually take the opportunity when I’m back in Newcastle to relax and not get wake up calls and run around like an idiot doing what people tell me to do.”
Last time Johns was in Newcastle, he took the opportunity to write some music with his wife, actress and singer Natalie Imbruglia. “We don’t really ever do it as a work thing. We were back in Newcastle one day, sitting out on the balcony, drinking wine. We have little sing-alongs anyway, so we decided, ‘Let’s write a song – see what happens,’” explains Johns.
Writing a track for Natalie’s release Counting Down The Days, is just one of many collaborations that Johns has explored. “When you sit down and write from someone else’s perspective and you have to try and write a simple pop song, it can be a really good learning experience – to work within the confines of those classic pop structures. You can learn a lot of things about the importance of simplicity.”
PAINT AND POLITICS
In a true rock n roll stunt, Johns grabbed a can of spray-paint during Silverchair’s performance at the 2006 ARIA Award ceremony. The band had just delivered a powerful performance of Midnight Oil’s ‘Don’t Wanna Be The One’ and, in a tribute to politician and ex-Oils singer Peter Garrett, Johns spray-painted the letters ‘PG 4 PM’ on the wall of the auditorium. Many journalists perceived the statement to be a pre-meditated publicity stunt, but Johns maintains that Garrett had no idea that it was going to happen.
“I probably should have asked him,” chuckles Johns, meekly, “he didn’t know. To be honest, it was really a last minute thing. It seemed like a good idea, given the nature, politically, of what Midnight Oil meant and the statements they made, and the ideals they had. Given that [Silverchair’s performance] was a tribute to them."
So does Johns regret grabbing the spray-can? “I felt that it was a good opportunity to put my distorted political views on display for the world to see,” replies Johns, with self-deprecating wryness. “[Peter] was really flattered. The band were really sweet about the whole thing. We didn’t want to steal their moment. We really wanted to make it about them. We’re big fans and friends of those guys. They’ve always been so good to us. [Peter] just said he was flattered. I think I’ve probably put him in a few awkward positions in interviews,” giggles Johns. “I didn’t really think it through as well as I should have.”
Silverchair will perform with Powderfinger at Newcastle’s Entertainment Centre on August 29 and again on October 26. Newcastle has the special opportunity of witnessing both the very first and very last dates of this massive national tour.
*This article was published in Reverb Magazine in 2007.