It goes without saying that when Silverchair announced their “indefinite hibernation” back in 2011, no one – especially the group’s members – knew what the future held. While frontman Daniel Johns eventually launched a solo career, drummer Ben Gillies released material with Bento, and bassist Chris Joannou even opened a record store, this news undoubtedly left fans content knowing these musicians they had idolised were still in the game.
For Gillies though, there hadn’t been much new music arriving as the years went on, with some wondering when and if his crafts will one day grace our ears again. Now, it’s been revealed that the last five years have seen the ARIA Award-winning artist hard at work, sporadically working towards the launch of his career as a solo artist, with “Breathe In, Breathe Out” arriving as the first taste of these efforts.
A hazy rock number with pop influences, “Breathe In, Breathe Out” may come as a surprise to some fans of Gillies’ work, but serves as a continuation of his stellar legacy as one of Australia’s most celebrated musicians in the process.
“‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ is a microcosm of the human experience,” Gillies explains of the track in a statement. “To recognise every moment. To stop, be present, take it in, and not to take it for granted.”
A lush, sonic journey, the track sees Gillies drawing upon his vast musical experience by performing the majority of instruments on the track. Created alongside Byron Bay-based producer Jordan Power, “Breathe In, Breathe Out” serves as the first taste of a larger body of work still to come, which features the talents of Grinspoon guitarist Pat Davern, and one-time Silverchair keyboardist and Music Director for The Voice, Scott Aplin.
While the track is out today, accompanied by a Joel Colthorpe-directed music video, Gillies spoke to Rolling Stone about the creation of this new music, the journey it took, and what’s next in this new chapter of his musical career.
When did you make the decision to start creating music as a solo artist? Or was it more of a natural thing that had no start?
There was definitely no start to it, or a conscious decision to say “I’m going to do this now.” In the early days of Silverchair, I always wrote – I wrote on the first two records, a little on the third, and Dan took over the major writing role for the last two records, but I still had a creative input into those. If you’re a songwriter, a musician, or a creative person, I think it’s just part of who you are. It’s what you need to do to stay healthy.
My old man was a plumber, right? He just has to go and build shit, and he just has to do stuff with his hands. It’s this in-built mechanism to stay sane, and to make sure that you’re in check. That’s kind of what it is for me – it’s just my thing. Anything musical, whether it’s listening to music, writing music, or playing music… I mean, writing music, that’s where you get the most satisfaction.
Playing live is pretty bloody awesome too, but the creative side is just so rewarding, and to me, it’s kind physical. This thing gets stuck in your head, and you have to purge, because soon enough there will be another one in there, and another one, and they build up, and you can feel this pressure.
For a little while, when Jackie – my wife – and I were staying in Melbourne, I wasn’t as focused as I would’ve liked. I’d have liked to have been doing music, and those ideas were just getting built up, and they weren’t getting satisfied. I found that I was getting more antsy.
I didn’t really know why, but when I started focusing more on my music, I was like, “Oh god, okay, well I won’t do that again. I’ll make sure I’ve always got some kind of [outlet].” I’ve always been kind of like that, and I think most musicians are, but it gave me that perspective to realise that I really do need to purge those ideas in order to have my own personal equilibrium.
It’s surprising that the need to create often takes on that physical aspect. I’m assuming that’s the sort of thing most people who aren’t musical or creative wouldn’t quite understand.
I think that’s why I compare it to my dad. I think we’ve all got something, and a lot of people do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be music, but I think whatever your thing is that you need to do… Surfers, right? Guys that are diehard surfers, or sportspeople, or academics – whatever that thing is that you need to do to satisfy yourself, it’s just important that you satisfy it. For me, music is my thing.
Once Silverchair went on their break, you seemed pretty busy right away, with Bento releasing an album in the years after that. Had you always thought you’d be playing with bands, or did you have some inkling you’d probably have a solo project at some point?
I guess I didn’t really have a plan. The plan was always music, but how it was manifested, I didn’t really know. There is something about playing in a band that has a certain [something to it it], if you can find the right alchemy in a band. I’ve been really lucky, blessed to have the Silverchair experience, because I think that’s what make Silverchair so special, the alchemy of Chris and Dan and I playing music together, and playing off each other.
If you compare that to flying first class, it’d be hard to go [back to economy]. I’d have to have some pretty killer musicians. And you could even have the best musicians in the country, but you still might not find that alchemy between the players. So there was no real plan to be a solo artist, or anything like that.
I would love to put a band together and play some live shows as well. I’m always open to collaborating, too, so if the musicians that play with me, if there’s a bit of magic there, I’d certainly be open to bringing them in on the creative stuff as well.
This new material has been in the works for a while now. I’m assuming you would be feeling rather eager to finally release it and allow everyone to hear it?
One hundred percent. I think I started working with Jordan about five years ago, and that’s probably part of that refocusing, right? I think at that time, I still wasn’t completely focused on it, and the little windows of time that I did get to work on with Jordan up in Byron Bay, it was a welcome time to be able to get up there and get those musical ideas.
But it was probably only in the last couple of years that I focused on it. And I think it comes through in the music too; the more recent ones are the ones that kind of boiled to the top.
What I find with songwriting is that you go through ebbs and flows, right? You write a group of songs that all feel like brothers and sisters, and from that group of songs, there might be a few that boil to the top and they’re the strongest of the pack.
I feel like out of all the brothers and sisters I’ve written over the last five years, the most recent ones are the strongest, because I’ve been so focused on writing and being creative.
I don’t know if that answers the question, but I’m very excited to have some new music out there, because I feel that part of that purging process is releasing it to the public for other people to listen to.
I’m assuming then that the new single, “Breathe In, Breathe Out”, is one of those that boiled to the top?
It was definitely one of the stronger tracks. I like to also show friends and family the music that I’m recording and writing, but that seemed to be the one that people just gravitated to. So it just felt like the perfect track to lead with.
The track is definitely very hazy and a bit more pop-influenced than I think I expected, and honestly, moreso than I think most fans of your work would expect. Was there any particular sound or influences that you had in mind while putting this one together?
Not particularly, I think you get to a certain point with songwriting where you’re just writing music that comes purely from yourself. You don’t really have external influences. I think when you’re younger you experiment a lot more, and I mean, you’re always experimenting when you’re writing songs, but you’re finding yourself musically when you’re younger.
I guess at this point in my career, I just feel like what I’m producing is very much me. It’s funny, some of the people I’ve been chatting to have been saying the same thing, “It’s kind of like a pop/rock sound, a bit of ’70s flavour…” I just don’t hear any of that. Maybe I’m too close to it and just don’t have perspective. To me, it just feels like me.
It’s funny you say that, because when I first listened to it, I even had trouble working out what it does sound like. As you say, it sounds like you, and I feel that’s the best way to describe it.
It’s funny, because the guys that are distributing it for me – it’s a company called Believe – they’ve been awesome. It’s the first time I’ve used their platform since I’ve only recently signed with them, and I had to call the label manager Troy [Barrott] to walk me through how to upload the music and get it ready for release.
When it got to the genre of the song, I was like, “Dude, I actually don’t know what to put in here. It’s not a rock song, and it’s not a straight-up pop song.” And he was just like, “Yeah, just put pop/rock – that’ll do!”
I’m only an amateur musician, but I feel it would be very difficult to put yourself into a box like that. To yourself, you sound like yourself, and you don’t have a specific ‘sound’.
Yeah, one hundred percent. I think it’s good to have some rough goalposts just so people can decide if they want to have a listen it, but once people listen to music, it just becomes its own thing eventually.
How are you thinking fans will react to it all? Obviously your name is so inextricably linked to Silverchair, so do you have fears that people might just compare it the band’s music, or are you hoping it might help bring in some old and new fans at the same time?
My gut feeling is that it’ll probably be a mix. I think it’ll probably pick up some new fans. The Silverchair fans are awesome. The majority of the Silverchair fans have been really willing to go along on that Silverchair journey and the musical evolution that we went through. Also, we started that band when we were 12 – it was inevitable that we were going to grow or change and want to explore and try different things.
So I think the Silverchair fanbase is generally pretty open to being pulled in different directions. But I don’t know, it’s all speculative, right? I could put it out and people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I thought Ben was going to do.” I don’t know, that’s why you’ve just got to put it out there, strap yourself in, and hope for the best.
And the ride that everyone is strapping into also has a larger body of work coming the line. Obviously we’ll be hearing more as time goes on, but Is there anything you can tell us about that at this stage?
Being an independent artist, I think the current musical environment with streaming, it’s almost a little bit ‘fast food’, right? I find that people don’t generally sit down and have those big extravagant degustation meals any more that you get with an album. Y’know, there’s playlists, and you just hear single songs. So it actually works well for me and what I’m doing, because y’know, albums can be expensive, and once you put an album out, you just get one hit of ten songs or so. People will hear a single, and the diehard fans might hear the whole thing, but a lot of that stuff gets lost.
So this time around, I’m just going to go single by single, and really give each song that I think is worthy the focus it really deserves for people to be able to hear it. I think over the next six to 12 months, I’ll just have a string of singles, and then maybe sometime in late 2021, package it up, do another fresh single, maybe do a vinyl? I’m not sure, but that’s also the great thing about it; you can be agile, and you can move quickly. I think once these first three or four singles are out there, I’ll have a much better idea of how the music’s been received as well.
It’s great to see you’re open to any possibilities, and also just willing to take it as it all comes.
I think for an artist like Silverchair, or something like a mega artist that has the whole machine around them, it makes sense to do a whole body of work, or an entire concept, and then you present that to the world. It’s just an entirely different way of thinking. For me, at the moment, I’m an indie artist – that’s how I’m doing it – the current environment is almost kind of helpful for how you can roll out new music these days.
Ben Gillies’ “Breathe In, Breathe Out” is out now.