In 1995, Silverchair's "Tomorrow" became the single most played song on US modern rock stations, quite a feat for three 15 year olds from Australia. Since then, Silverchair has become the most successful band in their homeland's history, winning more Arias, the Grammy's of Australia, and charting more number-one records than any other act.
Their sound has evolved considerably since their grunge-styled early work to their latest release "Young Modern," a meticulously produced masterwork that combines elements of glam rock and orchestration reminiscent of Sergeant Pepper's/Revolver-era Beatles and Pet Sounds/Smile Era Beach Boys. Starpulse spoke with Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns as the band makes their way through the final leg of their current U.S. tour.
I found it interesting that after the tragic events such as the ones that influenced your album Neon Ballroom, that there is a trend for artists such as yourself or Spiritualized, the Polyphonic Spree, the Manic Street Preachers, that they started to incorporate strings or symphonic arrangements into their music. Why do you think that might be?
Personally, I think I've always been interested in other instrumentation. It's kind of weird that we put our band together at 12 years old and our first songs were written between the ages of 12 and 14 and then that became Frogstomp. I think when you've got broad ambitions and limited abilities you can paint yourself into a corner unless you try and tackle something that is above and beyond your abilities. And on the second record we started working a little bit more with strings with a lady called Jane Scarpantoni, who now works for Lou Reed. She was really inspiring to work with and taught me a lot about string arrangements. And then for Neon Ballroom I basically stopped listening to rock and roll music because I just left school after our second record and I moved into a house and banned myself from rock and roll music and just started listening to a lot of cinematic stuff and film scores and watching a lot of film and listening to musicals. Neon Ballroom was very inspired by that and I worked with Jane Scarpantoni again to get string arrangements. Everything that I liked from Neon Ballroom was still very much a broad concept, but I still didn't really know what I was doing until Diorama. And that's when we got Van Dyke Parks involved and that's when I really started to know what I was doing with strings and know what I was doing with the sonics of the band, and I started producing more. By the time we got to Young Modern there were so many things I felt like I learned which is why the album is called Young Modern. It was a nickname that Van Dyke Parks gave to me. I felt like it encapsulated the feeling that, for, us we're starting again but with this series of lessons that have been learned over the last 10 years.
And what sort of musical scores were you listening to when you began listening them?
I don't remember the exact scores, to tell you the truth. I was just watching lots of movies. I was still anorexic and quite sick, so I never left the house. I listened to everything I could get my hands on, whether it was old seven inches or watching movies. I watched a lot of, especially for Diorama, I got really into very flamboyant musicals, Judy Garland stuff, a lot of big band stuff, and listening to 60s Frank Sinatra recordings, which was a real inspiration for Diorama. I think now I have a deep appreciation for a beautiful arrangement or a beautiful melody, a perfect pop song or a perfect avant garde piece of music. I just have a very well rounded palette, there's no particular music that I listen to more than anything else.
So that's what you find yourself listening to now?
Yeah, recently I've started really listening to a lot of electronic music, stuff like Kraftwerk. When we were making Young Modern I had a pretty deep Brian Eno obsession, I was listening to Remain in Light, which he produced with the Talking Heads and a lot of his solo stuff. I've started listening to a lot of Kraftwerk and a lot of electronic stuff that I'd never really used as an influence for a record before. Now I think it's pretty broad, what I listen to. My iPod is just full of stuff that I find inspiring, whether it's classical stuff or Charles Mingus or the Spice Girls or Brian Eno. If I think something's a good song, I just listen to it.
Are films scores something that you're interested in getting involved with yourself?
Yeah, definitely. It's a goal that I've got at the moment and I've been talking with a couple of people about doing some music for a couple of films next year. Hopefully one or two of those will pay off and I'll get to go to a studio and hide from the world and make music.
With film scores it seems like a problem today is that music is really just a means of manipulating the audience.
Yeah, I agree (Laughs)
It's a real shame because music has the ability to make people feel the entire spectrum of emotions. What are some musical pieces in the past that have made you cry?
Sometimes Beethoven makes me cry. (laughs) What else? Music to me, it's hard for me to pinpoint something that makes be cry because I don't think I ever cry because of the music. I think I cry from something I'm feeling and the music brings it on. I could cry from jealousy if I heard the perfect psychedelic pop song. I could cry from frustration that I can't write the same notes as Beethoven, you know? (laughs)
How about music that has brought out in you feelings of physical discomfort, say nausea or anxiety?
Yeah, all of Young Modern makes me feel anxiety. Just from recalling what was quite an extensive and time consuming and emotionally draining period of time It was quite stressful to make and to get right because we paid for it with out own money so now when I hear it I feel really proud of it, but sometimes I get the feeling I had when I was making it, which was an anxious running out of time feeling.
For Young Modern you've come back to America to tour, the first time in a very long time. How would you describe your experience thus far?
It's been awesome. All the shows have been really fun and the people who have been coming to the shows are really mad, and really into the music and dedicated followers of the band. That feels great. Every time we've ever come to America we've enjoyed playing the shows. We don't enjoy the travel as much, but the shows have all been really good on this tour. Around Diorama I think our fan base felt that despite the mainstream success of the first and second record in the US, I think people that are into Silverchair feel that they have possibly discovered something that not many people know about, even though it sounds weird to say when you've sold as many albums as we have. It definitely feels like the people that are there are there because they've been fans either from the start or they got into the band around the time of Diorama when nothing commercially was happening with the band but artistically we were moving forward quite dramatically.
Straight Lines - From Silverchair's latest album Young Modern
When you come to America, what are some radically different cultural elements from Australia that you encounter?
The serving sizes here are fucking huge. That always freaks us out when we order a meal and they send out our meal and it looks like it's for 10 people. That's a pretty significant cultural difference. And just how big the country is is crazy to us. Just driving across the country, we're seeing more truck stops than ever before in our lives.
So, once you finish this tour, what is next for yourself and Silverchair?
We finish this tour in the middle of December and then we have a couple of weeks for Christmas and then we start rehearsing in early January for The Big Day Out in Australia, which is a really amazing festival to be a part of. It's with Bjork and Rage Against the Machine and the Arcade Fire, and some Australian bands so that's going to be a lot of fun. And then inevitably we'll come back to America, if I was a betting man, and do more here.
When is it that you expect you'll return to the studio to work on your next record?
I don't know, hopefully soon. I like being in the studio more than being on the road. I guess being on the road for an extended period of time makes you appreciate the creative process more. It definitely gives me perspective. I look forward to going to the studio every time I'm on the road. I have no idea when it will be. Whenever I have time off, I'm spending it in a studio anyway, whether it's with Paul Mac or with a friend of mine in Sydney who owns a studio or whether I'm at home doing demos. I'm always recording something, I don't really have any hobbies or anything. That's what I do.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer