When the trees started bending like rubber, Daniel Johns realised he should have taken the advance warning a little more seriously. As the “storm of the century” continued its assault on the New South Wales coastline on Wednesday, April 22nd – Johns’ 36th birthday, no less – his Newcastle house was well and truly in its path. Set on a cliff with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, Johns hadn’t been overly worried until he saw the trees growing more malleable, and then watched as a gust of wind uprooted his outdoor furniture. As the gale intensified, it started whistling through the myriad cracks of his house with such force the place began to shake. Then the rain started to seep into his kitchen. At some point the water was cut off. Then the power went. And then everything went black.
Two days later, on a distinctly sunnier Friday morning, he’s still without water and electricity, which is why we’re sitting in a booth at Surry Hills eatery The Winery as opposed to the lounge room of his house, where this interview was originally scheduled to take place. It’s a shame, not only because so much of his debut album, Talk, was recorded there – often with Johns in his pyjamas (“I was feeling quite slinky,” he chuckles) – but because the interior design sounds fucking bonkers. “Me and my girlfriend have affectionately named it ‘The Jungle’,” he laughs. “There are leaves everywhere, and trees in the house, plaster dogs and lions. It’s really tacky and artificial! But everything that implies the animal kingdom is all there.”
That theme extends to the back of Johns’ neck, where a tattoo of a lion’s head reaches from the top of his spine to the base of his hairline. His girlfriend of three years, Estelita Huijer, got a tattoo of a tiger at the same time, a shared ritual to mark the moment when Johns started work on his solo debut in earnest. “That was the turning point after years of experimenting, so let’s do something to mark the occasion.”
Rewind a month, and he and his seven-piece band have gathered at a studio in Sydney’s inner-west to rehearse for the debut performance of his solo material, at the APRA Awards in Sydney on March 24th. At the end of May there will be two full-length shows at the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid Festival, the success of which will determine whether Johns does any more gigs in support of Talk. (He initially planned to do none.) Dressed in a loose-fitting, moth-eaten singlet, his black jeans hiked up above his calf-hugging black boots, the first thing you notice is how healthy he appears: lean, tanned even, with a shock of sandy-blonde hair that looks like it’s been styled not to look styled. After some small talk, he leads the way into one of the complex’s studios, where the newly-assembled members of his solo band are running through the song he’ll be performing at the APRAs, “Preach”. Set up in stage formation, the vibe is warm, friendly, and not nearly as fraught as you might expect of the final rehearsal before a live debut. Johns steps up to the mic and starts singing a capella, before stopping to request a different microphone as the current one sounds “a bit boxy”. As he continues his a capella soundcheck he makes minor changes to his vocal effects and backing vocal blend, all the while quizzing the production manager and foldback engineer on minor technical details. As the band joins in, minute details are further refined – the backing vocalists aren’t quite hitting a particular line as sharply as Johns would like: “Think more like a horn section,” he advises – albeit with an amiable, self-deprecating manner that more than once sees him end conversations with the line, “Sorry for being a lead singer.”
Julian Hamilton, one-half of electronic duo the Presets and a longtime friend of Johns’, has seen this attention to detail before. “I can remember many years ago I was playing keyboards for Silverchair, and he’d be hearing the tiniest little things, like pianos out of tune microtonally,” he says. “He’s a sucker for the details.”
He is also, since the release of his debut solo single, “Aerial Love”, in January, back in the spotlight for the first time since Silverchair completed touring in support of 2007’s Young Modern. There have been some sightings over the years – in 2013 he was commissioned by Qantas to write a score for an ad campaign; that same year he played with Van Dyke Parks at the Adelaide Festival; last January he performed an R&B-flecked cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Triple J’s 40th Birthday celebrations in Sydney’s Domain – but mostly Johns has spent his time either collaborating behind the scenes with artists such as 360, Lisa Gerrard, the Veronicas and Luke Steele, scoring a yet-to-be-released film or working on his own solo material.
It’s a change of pace for a man who spent much of his teen years and twenties in the public eye with Silverchair, the band he founded in Newcastle in 1992 as the Innocent Criminals and which, alongside bandmates Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou, scaled the world’s charts with proto-grunge albums such as Frogstomp and Freak Show, before evolving into a group with a sound as multi-coloured as Johns’ imagination on 2002’s Diorama and, five years later, Young Modern.
The path to a solo career has not been a quick or simple one. As far back as 1999’s Neon Ballroom Johns had entertained the idea of going solo: “That was the first time it was like, ‘Unless you guys want to come with me on this journey I’m leaving.’ And luckily [Chris and Ben] said no, we trust you, and that’s when I took over all the production and songwriting.” When he finally made the call to cut ties with the band in 2010 and abandon work on what would have been a follow-up to Young Modern, it set in motion a period of experimentation where Johns sought to determine exactly what a solo career sounded like. He says he spent that period stuck “down a rabbit hole” as he lost interest in singing and traditional songwriting. As Hamilton points out, he’s effectively had to create a whole new universe away from Silverchair.
Joel Little, who produced Lorde’s debut and was part of the production team on Talk, marvels at “the sheer number of ideas” Johns has, “and how quickly they come to him. He’s always got another thing to try. It’s full on, in the best way possible.” Which can’t have made the process of defining his solo sound any easier.
The universe Johns has arrived at on Talk can best be described as electronic R&B neo-soul, the frontman abandoning guitar and rock & roll in favour of a sound that draws inspiration from Nineties R&B and artists such as Marvin Gaye, while existing in a tandem universe to the likes of Frank Ocean and James Blake. It’s not the first time he’s taken a left turn – there was the electronic-leaning I Can’t Believe It’s Not Rock EP with Paul Mac in 2000; in 2003 they teamed up again in the Dissociatives – but it’s the sharpest artistic deviation of his career. Assembling the album over a space of two years with the assistance of numerous producers – Hamilton, Little, Styalz Fuego (360, Seth Sentry), M-Phazes (Eminem, Kimbra), Louis Schoorl (Taylor Henderson), Damn Moroda (Drapht) – you sense a line has perhaps been drawn in the sand forever.
“If anyone’s out there waiting for the day I drop the guitar down to D and start ‘Israel’s Son’, it’s probably time to cut the ties,” he says, settling into a booth at The Winery. “If you still like it you can listen to it, it still exists. But you might not get a new one for a while.”
Over four hours and a liquid lunch consisting of one gin & tonic after another, Johns is open and honest, toking on an e-cigarette and regularly disintegrating into fits of laughter as he addresses the wild ups and downs of his career and the creation of Talk. The prevailing image of the troubled young man that characterised his years in Silverchair seems as far away today as the possibility of Johns picking up a guitar and rocking out.
How were you feeling in the lead up to that APRA performance?
I was pretty nervous. I always think I’m fine and then 10 minutes before my whole body goes crazy.
What does that feel like?
It’s like this stage fright thing I have and I can’t seem to shake it. It’s got worse since Silverchair stopped being on the road all the time. The longer we stayed away the worse the anxiety got, almost to the point where I wasn’t going to do any shows for this record. The whole time doing the record I was like, we’ll just make it sound fucking amazing because I’m never going to do it live. And then the record was nearly done and my manager calls and goes, “You want to do Vivid?” [Groans] Eurgh, all right, fuck! [Laughs]
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was an interesting choice for the Triple J gig. You’ve spent your entire career running from Nirvana and Kurt Cobain comparisons.
I think that’s why the idea was appealing – that was a reset button. That’s so far behind me now, it’s plagued me my whole career in Silverchair, and that was a rebirth kind of thing. We’re going to put that to bed once and for all and start again.
What was it like collaborating with the different producers on Talk, having spent so many years with Chris and Ben?
I was really excited just to have some new blood. Pretty much everyone I worked with on this record I’d never met until we walked into the room. No-one knows anything about anyone, so you’re just laying everything on the line in front of a complete stranger.
What did they pull out of you?
Louis was the first guy who got me to sing on one of my songs. I didn’t sing for years and years, and I didn’t know what to sing about. I was in a bit of a crisis. Julian [Hamilton] came up to my house [in around 2012] and was like, you just need to figure out what you want to talk about, cos I was so confused. I hated the sound of my voice. But then I started writing words and going through notes and scribbles, and the first song I got together I went to demo it with Louis and he was the first person to pull this amazing vocal sound. All of a sudden I didn’t mind the sound of my voice again. I went from refusing to make it so vocal heavy to wanting vocals everywhere!
What didn’t you like about your voice?
It was one of those things. If you don’t [sing] for four years, it becomes the most intimidating fucking thing. Especially because I was getting into so much weird electronic music. Me and [producer and friend] Chris Townend would just sit in the mountains and smoke and listen to the weirdest, most hectic electronic music, like literally a sound going [makes crackling noise] for 45 minutes, and then the sub just goes “booom”. That’s what I wanted my record to be like! [Laughs] It wasn’t until I started playing people demos and they were like, “Dude, there’s no songs. It’s all these hectic noises.” I thought it was a masterpiece! [Laughs] At the time I thought it was a real artistic commitment: “I’m going to do a record post-Silverchair that has no chords, no songs [laughs], no words.” I thought it was a real protest!
A protest against what?
Just against the celebrity thing, and feeling confined by the Silverchair thing for so long. I always felt like I had way weirder music in me and wasn’t allowed to do it. Even though I never got restrictions from anyone, I was always allowed to do whatever I wanted, but I felt like it would be commercial suicide for Silverchair. Once that was over it was like, all right, I’m just going to go full Scott Walker, go fucking nuts, sampling the weirdest stuff. I’d like to release [the album], but the right time wasn’t the first cab off the rank after Silverchair.
Was management checking in with you throughout all this?
A little bit. I would play them early demos just to see if there was anything in it. I didn’t get glowing reviews! [Laughs] When Julian drove up from Sydney and listened to it he was like, it’s good but you need to get back to writing songs. That thought didn’t even occur to me. I needed to hear someone say it. I took about a week off, cleared the head, and first thing back I sat down at the piano and started writing again. And it sounds like the simplest, easiest thing, but I needed to hear it come from someone like Julian. Write songs! That’s a great idea!
When you performed at the APRAs, did you feel naked without a guitar?
No, I feel awesome without a guitar. Since I got the arthritis thing [Johns was struck with a severe case of reactive arthritis after recording Diorama], I’ve always been like, what if it ever comes back? I didn’t want to be reliant on a guitar, which was always my thing – I preferred guitar to singing. And as soon as that happened my brain just clicked like, I can’t rely on that anymore just in case that comes back. But I’d probably still be able to sing unless I get arthritis of the larynx. [Laughs]
In some ways did that plant the seed for the direction your solo work has taken?
The Dissociatives was a reaction to that. As soon as I got better I called Paul [Mac] and said let’s do something more electronic. Then after we did Young Modern I thought I’d exhausted the band thing. Silverchair went into the studio for quite a while after that, and I just wasn’t feeling it. There was nothing wrong with us as a band, but I felt flat. There’s only so many ideas you can come up with on guitar, and I was sick of my head, so I just wanted to re-learn every instrument and play shit I didn’t know how to play, and figure out how to write music again.
When was that?
Must have been 2010. The last Silverchair tour was Groovin the Moo, and we did that tour to fund the recording cos we were doing lots of jamming. And I just pulled the pin.
How did that go down?
I think maybe Ben and Chris would have preferred me not to. I don’t think there’s any really hard feelings, but it’s really hard to do a three-piece band record when you don’t want to hear guitar, bass or drums. So what are we supposed to do? I just want to sit and noodle and manipulate shit and get a bit more techno.
But you were also feeling an obligation to do a new Silverchair album?
No, at the time it was legit, I didn’t want Young Modern to be our swan song, so I felt like we had one real weird arty album. I wanted it to end on a real weird note.
Is that still a possibility?
It’s becoming less likely. I think that’s where this record was born. I was getting so into weird, real noisy and electronic [music], and I couldn’t figure out how to get myself on the [Silverchair] record. I wasn’t doing any vocals, I wasn’t playing any guitar, I didn’t want any drums, I didn’t want any bass, so it just ended up being these hours of electronic noodling, and at some point I just realised it’s not going to work as a band thing.
Did the other guys sense it was the end?
I think they did. Towards the end of those sessions it had started to fragment a bit, no one really knew where it was going, and how it was going to work. But it was a godsend in the end, cos there were little outtakes and little ideas from years of experimenting. I was like, I’ll take that and work on that. Chris Townend, he has a little cabin in the woods, and he gave me all these drum machines and vocoders and was like, you should write on this. He became quite a mentor figure when I left Silverchair. He was like, you’ve got to have some balls, you can do it.
You say you left Silverchair – is that the right word for it?
I think so. I don’t really know how to politically articulate it. It was my decision to end it, but it wasn’t like a protest or anything. I had something in my head I wanted to make, and it wasn’t working in that capacity, and I always put art first.
How difficult was that? Not only walking away from a “sure thing” in Silverchair, but on another level, the band employed people that would have been relying on you for income…
Silverchair had a pretty good legacy considering where we started. I made a real significant effort to get as good as we could get and not just exploit our success or whatever. But I think that was the hardest decision, realising the music isn’t where I wanted it to go, and sometimes you’ve got to chuck a lamb to the slaughter.
How did you come to work with Joel Little?
When I started working with Joel, Lorde wasn’t big yet. She hadn’t even released [her first] EP. My publisher sent me an advance copy and said, “Do you want to work with this guy?” I was like, fucking hell, that sounds amazing. I couldn’t believe it when I was told she was 17. How do you write lyrics that good? At 17 I was rhyming taps with water with I don’t know what. I was so lazy!
Did you empathise with Lorde and what she was going through at such a young age?
Yeah, I did. She seems a lot more equipped than I was. But I did think, Fuck, I hope she’s OK. Cos it only takes a bad family or something and you’re fucked. Luckily I had really good friends and family. I spoke to Joel and he was like, her family’s amazing, so she’ll be cool. I was worried for a sec, but she’s going to be fine.
Joel told me you have a million ideas in your head, that it can be exhausting working with you, in a good way. Can you describe what it’s like in your head?
It’s like a constant riot. It never stops, which sometimes is awesome and sometimes it’s an affliction. I don’t think it’s particularly great for my girlfriend but it’s sick for when you’re making music.
Do you try to calm it?
I try to calm it all the time. It doesn’t work. I can’t go to sleep unless there’s noise. If I lay there in silence it’s a guaranteed anxiety attack. So I always have stuff playing like Seinfeld or Friends. Tacky Nineties stuff that reminds me of being a kid.
I started realising when doing this record, just keep going. I didn’t want to take any breaks. Cos I keep thinking eventually it’s going to stop, but it just doesn’t. Even when the record was finished and mastered I was like, I think we should do a couple of EPs, and I wanted to get back in the studio.
Was it hard to hand in the final record?
To be honest it was kind of awesome, cos I didn’t have an off-switch and I still don’t. I had 250 tracks or something. I had 200 ideas in my phone before I lost it.
You lost all those ideas?
I think I remembered the good ones. I didn’t really care, I felt like everything happens for a reason. Maybe there was too much shit going on. There were another 20 tracks that were almost going to be on the record, and it was just picking what needs to be completed. I think I got it down to about 35 and played it to my management and was like, “I think it’s time for a double record!” They just looked at me like, it’s not time for a double record. [Laughs]
When you’re at home, are you ever not writing?
It’s easy for me to not physically write music, it’s almost impossible for me to not think about writing music. I can lay on the couch and write a song without getting up. I’ve written so many songs like that. And then if I can be bothered I’ll get up and try and figure it out, but most of the time I do it at my earliest convenience. [Laughs]
Imagine all the potential hits you’ve forgotten.
There’s been times I’ve been so lazy, laying on the couch, and I know it’s a good song, and my phone’s over there and the piano’s over there and it’s like, eurgh, I’ll remember it if it’s good. Then the next day I go, Fuck! I forgot it! I’m so lazy sometimes.
How has your songwriting changed, from writing for Silverchair to your solo album?
With Silverchair it was real specific. I’d sit down at a piano and map out everything. With this one I didn’t want to have any songs. Any time a producer turned up at my house I didn’t have anything ready – let’s just start with a drum beat, I’d play chords on a synth, every session was like that. The only song that existed was “New York”, and you can tell, it’s a different feel.
Could you argue that everything after Neon Ballroom has been a solo album?
Yeah, songwriting wise and arrangement-wise. That’s the weird thing with my career. [Those albums] feel a lot less collaborative than my solo album. But I don’t think I would have had the balls to release them as a solo artist, and I also wanted to share that with Ben and Chris. We’ve been mates since we were kids. So when I started realising my songs were getting heaps better I wasn’t going to just jump ship. It was more, let’s make the band sick!
By putting your name on Talk, is this you saying this is what I stand for?
[Pause] That’s a big question. I stand for art. I stand for always being on the move and never being still. So this is what I stand for now. But the next record might be a weird art project, or it might be a movie score.
Do you agree with Julian Hamilton’s assessment, that you had to create a whole new universe with this project?
I’ve never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. It felt more like closing the universe to opening up a new one. It felt really withdrawn, at least at the start. It was more like cancelling the universe, and I had to go completely insular to figure out what the fuck was going on. In so many ways. The record sounds quite optimistic but it came from a pretty dark spot. I didn’t know who I was or what the fuck I was doing anymore.
That was when you were trying to find your direction?
I think I might have subconsciously cultivated it myself. I kind of went down a rabbit hole and then didn’t know how to get out of it. I wanted to go really insular and do something kind of bizarre, and then I trapped myself and didn’t really know how to get out of it. The rest of it was just screaming for help and trying to claw my way out of the hole.
And that’s where the various producers helped?
Big time. I couldn’t have done it without the lot of them.
What were some of your reference points for the album?
Each song I wanted to have a different flavour. It started as a cheesy thing – me and my girlfriend would always sit outside and put on these R&B Nineties playlists and I was like, this is kind of a vibe, if you twist it and make it cool. But that was kind of a catalyst. TLC and stuff like that, that’s what kind of got the ball rolling. I remember when I had quite a few tracks, I played it to Andrew [Wilson] from Die! Die! Die!, and he was like, “Dude, you would love Frank Ocean.” He played me Frank Ocean’s first record and I was like, “You’re right, it’s pretty sick.” And then Chris Townend showed me James Blake.
You’d never heard these guys?
I honestly didn’t even know that was a thing, a genre, until I was about halfway through the record and I started playing people where my head was at. And then different artists would go, “You’d love this guy, you’d love that guy”, and it all just started to make sense, and I started to feel like maybe there is a place for it.
Is there a unifying lyrical theme throughout Talk?
The only thing I can say is that there’s no song on the record that is specifically about anything. I’ve not sat down and said, I’m going to write a song about this. It’s all just been stream of consciousness, and I’m still figuring out what some of it means. But overall, I wanted it to be triumphant, to triumph over adversity, and somehow for it to be emotionally poignant but optimistic. At the same time I didn’t want to be quite as metaphorical as stuff that I’d done with Silverchair, I wanted to be a bit more heart on your sleeve. [John] Lennon really inspired that – just say it how it is, don’t try and be a fucking poet.
What’s the adversity you’re referring to?
A lot of it was just me struggling with my personality. A lot of it was also me trying to figure out how to be an artist again. I don’t know if I was frustrated with my work because I was unhappy, or I was unhappy cos I was frustrated with my work. But it’s kind of about getting out of that, and finding people along the way that help you, like my girl, my friends and family.
“Cool on Fire” seems like it’s about falling in love…
Yeah, it’s that triumphing over adversity thing. Same with “Aerial Love” as well. It’s about finding something or someone that brings you out of a shitty headspace.
The album ends with one of its densest moments, “Good Luck”. Is that close to what you were envisaging with your early electronic material?
I think that song was actually the first lyric I wrote for the album, and that’s why it’s called “Good Luck”. I was still in Silverchair but was like, I want to go real electronic now, so I was wishing myself good luck. That’s the closest to that noise stuff I was talking about.
What are you proudest of with the album?
I’m just proud I finished something. There was a moment I didn’t think that was going to happen. I didn’t have any intention of releasing anything for ages. I just wanted to work and do stuff, but it wasn’t until I started feeling I’ve got a bit of a vibe going that I thought maybe it’s an album.
You’re in a privileged position where you’re able to squirrel yourself away for a few years and work on this and, presumably, not have to worry too much about money.
I’m still haemorrhaging money. I was getting a lot of heat from my accountant. There was no income for years and years and years, and when it came time to release [the album] it was like, “There’s no money in record sales anymore, how are you going to pay for it?” Shit, we might have to do a couple of shows!
But this was fucking cheap for me. I know Diorama [cost] over half a million, and Young Modern was over that again, and with this one I was like, I’m going to keep it under a quarter of a million. And I’m pretty sure I came in massively under budget. Actually, that’s my greatest achievement – I came in under budget!
Is it a concern that you’re releasing this in an age where albums don’t sell?
It’s only a concern in that my longterm plan, even when I was a kid, was to do a Beatles. I wanted to tour and do all that stuff, lay down the foundation and then just be a studio artist. That’s been my plan since I was 14. I remember as a kid reading Beatles books and thinking that’d be sick, if we got to a stage where we could afford to go into the studio and just release albums and get quite arty, and don’t bother touring it anymore. The timing couldn’t have been worse! [Laughs] Right when I didn’t want to tour anymore it’s the only way to get any money back.
Isn’t there something addictive about touring? About walking onstage in front of thousands of people?
Not to me. It’s really amazing when you get over the [stage fright], I really appreciate it, especially when the audience is feeding me energy. But I wouldn’t say it’s addictive. I’d be happier to be locked in a studio for five years pumping out albums.
Two days on from your 36th birthday, how do you feel about getting older?
Good, I like getting old. I just think you lose that dumb youthful concern about everything. You don’t lose it, you still have it, but your perspective gets clearer. The things that used to worry me don’t even appear on my radar anymore really.
Just little things like walking down the street. I’ll fucking just walk down the street. As you get older you kind of know what you want out of life. I never knew what I wanted, I never knew if I was just in transit. [Now] I just want to be an artist, and I’m really happy to just be an artist. I’m not that fussed on having a family or anything like that, I just want to work, and have a good body of work. And try and be a good human.
How conscious were you that Frogstomp turned 20 this year?
I was only conscious because my manager told me Sony was going to do something for it [a 20th anniversary reissue was released in March]. I think the first two Silverchair records, the masters are owned by Sony because we signed that deal when we were kids. So they’re allowed to do whatever they want with that forever. They’ll probably release a 21st-year anniversary with additional footage or whatever, remixes [laughs]. But we learned our lesson a bit later on – we own all the masters [on the later albums]. I wasn’t all that concerned about it. I had no say. It’s not like I’m going to take them to court, they own it.
Is the re-release frustrating timing though, given you’re trying to establish a solo identity that’s completely different?
No, I kind of think it can’t do any harm. If anything it might be interesting for people to go, that’s where it started and this is where it is now.
Now you’re in your mid-30s, do you have more perspective on what you went through as a 15-year-old, when Silverchair broke?
Yeah I do. Even when I was in my 20s, I still don’t think I was over it. I think maybe I was still traumatised. Even though it’s a first world problem – you were in a rock & roll band and you were famous, whatever – but I don’t feel so fatalistic about it. I used to think that shaped my personality and that’s why I was paranoid and that’s why I was sad a lot. I used to get quite dark about it and go, fuck, if I hadn’t done that stupid record maybe I’d be normal. But I probably wouldn’t have been.
In the past you’ve said you always felt like you had to prove that your success with Silverchair was warranted. Do you still feel that?
Not so much anymore. More to myself now. I think with Silverchair I felt like it was handed to us on a platter a little bit. There’s not many people that record their first EP and then someone in America spins it and it sells three million copies or whatever. So it was kind of handed to us and it was kind of derivative, so from that point, I think from 14 ’til about 25, all I could think of was, I have to make it legit. Otherwise I’m just a little lucky chancer. So I worked really fucking hard to become what I thought people thought I was going to be. [Laughs]
Is it fair to say that back then success was a catalyst for being bullied?
It was so shit. There’s no getting past it. From 14, when we became famous to about three years after we left school, I was completely fucking damaged by that. I couldn’t have normal relationships with anyone. We would go from playing sold out arenas in America for six weeks and then come back and go to school and have to hide in the garden behind the library. I felt like such a dork! [Laughs]
Did that give you a skewed idea of what success is?
I think so. That’s definitely why I maybe have the reputation for being sheepish towards the media. I know what it’s like to be all over the front page of everything and it’s shit, so I don’t want to do it. Rolling Stone for sure, because it’s part of the rock & roll fibre. If you do a record you’re proud of you have to do that! But I know what it’s like to be exploited, and with that red carpet stuff I’ve always avoided that shit. I try and keep it about the art. I don’t try and promote myself as a celebrity figure. Cos I don’t actually want to be famous, never have. I just want to be really good.
Did the fact that from the age of 15 you had to start defending yourself – against accusations of being derivative and having everything handed to you – set a tone for your career?
Maybe. To use a cricket metaphor, I think it’s made me more Vivian Richards now in the longterm. I just want to smash shit everywhere. Because I spent so much of my youth defending myself, now it’s like, Fuck this, I want to be the best. I don’t know if that’s me being competitive, but it has made me fearless, because I’ve already put up with whatever you can put up with. So what could possibly go wrong? [Laughs] Breakout quote! What could possibly go wrong?!
At what point do you think you took control of your career?
I reckon about Neon Ballroom. That was a real poignant record for me. I don’t think it’s an amazing record, but it’s the first record where I felt like, at least there was a vision. The first two, I’m still proud of them, it’s rock & roll, it’s supposed to be young and dumb, full of cum whatever. But I remember leaving school and thinking, I can’t just play on the schoolboy thing. Even though I wasn’t playing on it, but the media was. It was like, now you’ve got to be legit. You’ve got to do something good.
So much has been written about the doom and gloom surrounding Silverchair. But you must’ve had some amazing times.
That’s what does my head in a little bit, especially about the early part of Silverchair. Because by the time we got to the end of Diorama, Young Modern, we were having so much fun. When it got to Young Modern, I’d been sick, I’d just gotten better, I wrote what I thought was a pretty good album – maybe not as good as the one before, but still pretty good – and we just pushed the boat out. On the road we were just really wild. That was the rock & roll dream. But the early part, I just feel like . . . It was probably my fault cos of the nature of my songs and stuff, and probably my personality. I was quite a depressed kid, but I kind of regret that, because there were some real funny times. Especially being on tour with wild rock & roll guys, and we’re 14-year-old kids with our dads as our roadies. It was the fucked-up Brady Bunch.
Were you aware as teens of the ‘benefits’ on offer to a touring rock band?
I think I was aware of it. Like I remember touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers when we were 15 or 16 and that was our first American tour, and seeing some goings on. And thinking, “Oh, that’s what it’s going to be like when we grow up! It’s going to be sick!”
What did you see?
I can’t say. Red Hot Chili Peppers, piece it together. I remember seeing that and not feeling so innocent anymore. But I never felt like I was going to get trapped in that to be honest, because I never wanted to be a rock star, I wanted to be an artist. That’s the god’s honest truth. If anything I saw that and went, I’m going to be better than the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It wasn’t about being famous, or a rock star, I wanted to learn more chords and get better and be able to sing better and be able to sing less like Eddie Vedder. And the more famous we got, the more I wanted to push it away, because it was getting in the way of me getting better as a songwriter.
Can you see a throughline in your work, from Frogstomp all the way to Talk?
Yeah, I think so. Every time I get close to completing a record I’ll go back and listen to the two records prior and see how the narrative works. I remember doing it especially when I started writing Neon Ballroom. It was like, where can I go after Freak Show, we need to take a massive turn and start moving. And then doing Diorama I was constantly listening to the last few tracks of Neon Ballroom; if you listen to everything in a row, where’s it going to go? Same with Young Modern. I listened to Diorama heaps to try and figure out what not to repeat. And I did the same with this record, but only when I got close to completion.
It’s like, how does that narrative work?
And what was the answer?
I think it’s the biggest departure to date. Julian’s right, it’s a whole new reality.
So where do you think this is all going after Vivid?
We’ll see how Vivid goes. That’s the plan. It’s kind of a bold soundcheck, but it is the soundcheck. If that goes well I’ll consider doing more, but I’d never commit to any more until I know we can pull it off.
What is your definition of success now?
Having a really great catalogue of music. [I] always reference Bowie. At the time, when Bowie released the three Berlin records, Low, Heroes and Lodger, they were almost commercially ignored, except “Heroes” was a massive song. But now in the scheme of things, every music fan’s favourite Bowie period is the Berlin period. That to me is so important. Preferably I’d like people to notice [my work], but I want to have a really good body of work when I die.
Do you wish you’d released more music?
No, I’d rather have a nice narrative than just a bunch of stuff. So far I think the narrative is pretty interesting. I could definitely have put more out, but I’m probably going to put fuckloads out when I turn 40, I reckon that’s going to be my crisis point. An album a year.
Artists like Springsteen seem to grow more prolific with age. Can you see that happening to you?
I feel like that might be something that would happen to me, especially if you’ve got no plans to have kids. I don’t know when it will be, but at some point I’ll hit a point and be like, fuck, all we’ve got is each other and art, let’s just live in the studio, let’s turn everything into a studio, and just work forever. Maybe by that stage it’ll just be finish a song, leak it, finish a song, leak it, and once you’ve released 100 in a row, go on tour. For two days. [Laughs]
From the latest issue (#764, July 2015), available now.