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Silverchair: ‘Boy’s Life’

For these Aussie teens, food fights are more fun than selling millions of records.

To coincide with the ‘Frogstomp’ 20th anniversary, here’s the original Silverchair feature that appeared in the April 1996 issue.

It is a cold, cloudy and generally cheerless night in down-town Detroit. But for a brief moment, from the sidewalk outside St. Andrew’s Hall, you can actually see a full moon – the bright white flash of 16-year-old Silverchair drummer Ben Gillies’ naked ass stuffed through an open tour bus window.

Gillies’ vertical smile is greeted with delighted shrieks and approving hoots from the shivering teenage girls and sweat-drenched mosher dudes who have been clustered around the bus since Silverchair wrapped up their feedback-laden encore of “Israel’s Son” nearly an hour ago, but that’s nothing compared to the celebratory testosterone now raging inside the vehicle.

“All right! Way to go, Gillies! The big brown eye!” raves the band’s 16-year-old singer and guitarist, Daniel Johns. He’s still breathless from the Australian trio’s dash from the St. Andrew’s backstage door, but his deceptively angelic features are bright with impish glee. Bassist Chris Joannou, who is also 16 and has his long, curly brown hair tucked up under a wool cap emblazoned with the logo of the band Korn, doubles over with laughter. The band’s manager, John Watson, just rolls his eyes in bemused resignation while David Gillies, Ben’s father, is spared the entire experience. He and the other Silverchair dads, Greg Johns and David Joannou, are still in the venue, packing up the band’s gear. When they accompany their sons on tour, the elders double as guardians and roadies.

“OK, who’s gonna give me $10 for that?” the younger Gillies cackles, pulling his caboose out of the frosty night air and hiking up his sweat pants. Nobody ponies up, but he doesn’t need the money anyway. Silverchair’s debut album, Frogstomp, a youthful blast of wham and commercial riff-smarts, has sold more than 1 million copies in the United States since it was released here in June 1995. Back in Australia, the LP has gone triple platinum (210,000 copies) while its signature hit, “Tomorrow,” ranks as that country’s fourth best-selling single ever.

Related: Photo Gallery – Silverchair ‘Frogstomp’ 20th Anniversary

By the time Frogstomp runs its chart course, Johns, Gillies and Joannou – all born to hard-working, middle-class families in the Australian coastal city of Newcastle – will have earned in the neighborhood of 1 million dollars apiece (safely held in trust accounts now being set up). Not bad for three high schoolers who got their big break only 20 months ago by winning a small-time demo-tape contest run by an Australian TV show.

But for Silverchair, all confessed adrenaline junkies, a good adolescent prank is truly its own reward. Like the wild dressing-room food fight (Chinese takeout) the boys had at Roseland, in New York. Or the birthday present they sent Watson last year – a strip-o-gram complete with flying cream pies. Or the stunt they pulled at the 1995 ARIA awards ceremony (the Aussie equivalent of the Grammys), where the band sent Josh Shirley, the seven-year-old son of Frogstomp producer Kevin Shirley, to accept its winners’ statuettes.

Sure, it’s juvenile. It’s also more fun than worrying about record sales, marketing plans and impending adulthood. “You always think that if you ever put a record out that it’s all fancy hotel rooms and chicks,” explains Gillies a few hours before the St. Andrew’s show. “And we’ve seen the other side of it. You gotta do all the shit – traveling, interviews, stupid photo shoots. All that other stuff is just a big pull.” He makes the universal sign for jerking off.

“If I was older, maybe I’d enjoy this a bit more,” Joannou says of overnight success. “I’d feel freer, not like people were watching me all the time.” So what do the members of Silverchair like about their instant stardom? “The music,” says Gillies without a moment’s hesitation. “Playing. It’s cool, too, because me and Daniel and Chris have been good friends since primary school, when we were 5 and 6.” He brushes aside the long, dark brown hair falling over his face and smiles with radiant satisfaction. “It’s really cool,” he says, “to be able to do this kind of shit with good mates, isn’t it?”

To appreciate the speed with which Silverchair have risen from practice sessions in the Gillies family garage to Buzz Bin and beyond, dig this: The first big-time rock band that Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou saw live was the popular Aussie group Screaming Jets in the summer of 1994 at the 3,500-seat-capacity Newcastle Workers’ Club. The boys were also the opening act.

“It was sold out, and we were pretty nervous,” recalls Johns, who was 15 at the time (Gillies and Joannou were 14). “It was just after we got a record contract. We played and then we got to go upstairs into the VIP area and watch the Jets. “But it was pretty weird,” he adds with colossal understatement. “The Jets sounded so good. We thought we must have sounded like shit.”

Even with a hit album and six months of international touring behind them, Silverchair criticize themselves with an intensity that is worse than anything they’ve received from the rock press. It’s partly an Australian trait, a preemptive reaction to what is known there as the “tall poppy syndrome” – cutting someone down to keep his ego in check. For the band members, it’s also a self-awareness thing; they know just how fucking lucky they are.

“There are so many other bands our age that could really kick our ass,” says Johns quite earnestly. “But no one really knows about them because they’re still playing in the garage and can’t get gigs. Just like we did.” “In the early days, I’m sure a lot of people used to come and see us just to see how shit we were,” chortles Gillies. “And I think some of them still do.”

The cynics are missing out on a walloping good time. True, Frogstomp is not a record of deep originality. Johns concedes that “Tomorrow” “sounds a little like Pearl Jam,” and there’s a lot of mid-’70s Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in the grunt’n’thrash of “Leave Me Out” and “Pure Massacre.” Also, as a lyricist, Johns is, at 16, drawing on a limited range of life experiences. He wrote the words to “Tomorrow” after seeing a TV program, he says, “about this rich dude and I was thinking about what a cock he was. It’s just a song about any rich dickhead.”

But the unpretentious vitality of Johns’ singing and the precociously vivid ache he can summon in something like “Suicidal Dream” is a genuine treat. And the angular muscularity of Frog stompers like “Madman” and “Israel’s Son” shows that Silverchair have been taking their Helmet, Rollins Band and Shellac listening sessions to heart.

“I think the age card is a funny one,” says Kevin Shirley, who recorded and mixed Frogstomp in 10 days last winter during the band’s Christmas school-holidays. “George Harrison was 16 when he joined the Beatles. Michael Jackson was going a long time before that age. It’s nothing unusual in the history of rock & roll.

“The alarming thing is that the guys sound as mature as they do,” Shirley says. “You can definitely hear the influences. But they weren’t embarrassed about showing those influences.”

Joannou recalls a conversation he had with a guy “who said someone was going on about us, saying things like ‘Oh, well, those little 15-year-olds.’ And the other guy replied, ‘Well, you know, these people do grow up.’ I’m 16 now. I am getting older. People think that because we put out a record as teenagers that we’re going to stay teenagers, a teeny band, for the rest of our lives.”

Ben Gillies looks at his watch and mentally calculates the 16-hour time difference between the Detroit hotel room where he’s sitting and the East Coast of Australia. Then he describes a normal day at home in Merewether, the quiet Newcastle beach suburb where he, Daniel Johns and Chris Joannou all live within minutes of each other.

“I’d probably be in the shower right now,” he says. “It would be about 7:30 in the morning. I usually get up at quarter past 7, then I’ll have a shower. Get dressed, go to school. Stay at school all day. Come home. Do whatever I feel like in the afternoon. Go to the beach. Go to Johnsy’s house. Maybe play a game of pool. On the weekends if the surf’s good, I’ll get up at 6:30 and go surfing. And in the afternoons, do whatever. Go somewhere and pig out.”

School, he admits, “is not really my favorite pastime.” Fortunately, to accommodate Silverchair’s extended classroom absences due to overseas touring, the principal at Newcastle High has restructured the band members’ study load for their two remaining years until graduation. They now get special credits in music. “It’s really great because one of the requirements of this course is to give them a recorded piece of music,” Gillies says with a giggle. “So we can just give ’em the CD and go, ‘Thank you very much!'”

That little perk withstanding, Silverchair try hard to be regular dudes at school, rarely sharing their rock-god experiences with classmates. “It’s pretty much a non-subject,” Gillies contends. “People know to stay away from it, and we keep away from it as well. If you talk about it, people think you’re acting like ‘Oh, I’m in a band, I’m really cool.’ It sounds pretty dumb.”

In a white-rock culture full of young bands wailing about their broken homes, dysfunctional childhoods and generally pissed-off world views, Silverchair are happy-go-lucky paragons of male teenage normality. They belch, fart, swear, inhale their meals, bum quarters off their dads for video games and as yet have few cultural interests other than music. (Gillies has seen the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same more than 30 times; Johns has just discovered the Velvet Underground with a vengeance.) They don’t drink, don’t smoke and do their best to be blasé about all the female attention they draw onstage and off. (Gillies and Joannou have girlfriends at home.)

The boys are also tight with their families – Johns is the oldest of three children, Gillies has an older sister and Joannou has an older sister as well as a twin sister – while their parents have all worked on their sons’ behalf from the very beginning, going back to Ben and Daniel’s first preteen band, Short Elvis. Until Watson officially took over as manager in the middle of last year, Daniel’s mother, Julie Johns, managed Silverchair in league with the other moms, Annette Gillies and Sue Joannou. As chaperones and roadies, the dads have been taking increasingly long, unpaid leaves from their respective businesses – David Gillies is a plumber, David Joannou is in dry cleaning, and Greg Johns manages a fruit stand – to meet Silverchair’s touring commitments.

“The dads are cool,” says Ben Gillies. “If we did something stupid and hurt ourselves, they’d just go ‘You dickhead, I told you not to do that.’ And they don’t care if we swear or not. Because they know if they weren’t here,” he says with a mischievous wink, “we’d do it anyway.”

Today, Silverchair maintain a strict embargo against on-the-record interviews with their parents. (Hey, if you were 16 and on the charts, would you want your mom reminiscing in public about your toilet training?) There have been other complications. Producer Shirley points out that during the recording sessions for Frogstomp the three moms “would rock up about 5 o’clock with a bottle of white wine, sit back in the studio and go ‘Hello, Kevin, how’s it going? Play us what you’ve got.’

“And 5 o’clock was the most creative time with the band,” Shirley says, laughing. “They’d been going since midday, they were roaring. And the guys would go ‘Fuck this, we’re out of here.’ They’d go play Super Nintendo or cricket in the passageway.”

“I know it seems incredibly unreal,” remarks Watson, a former A&R and international marketing exec at Sony in Australia. “See, we’re not talking about 16-year-olds from New York. We’re talking 16-year-old surfers from Merewether. It’s a place where 16-year-olds can have a genuine adolescence, a real period between childhood and adulthood, instead of being rushed straight into adulthood the way kids are in a bigger city.”

That innocence has already been violated. Watson is particularly incensed about the Australian newspaper photographer who ambushed Johns while he was riding his bicycle to school. The lensman paid one of Johns’ classmates $50 to tell him the route. “The headline in the piece was the 6 million dollar band,” Watson says irritably. “All they did was figure that the band had sold 300,000 CDs [in Australia], that CDs there were about $20 each and multiplied it to come up with $6 million. It’s breathtaking, man, and hard enough for you and I to deal with. Think about being 16 and having this.”

Johns doesn’t think about it at all. “We just wanted to be a garage band,” he says. “We started playing Black Sabbath and Zeppelin covers because we had nothing to do. We never expected to do anything.”

Johns does say that they did have one big ambition: “We didn’t think it would happen, but we always wanted to play at Wembley Stadium, in London.” For a while, the group had another member, a guitarist named Tobin Finnane, who went to England with his mother for a year. “He was really into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” Johns says, “and he used to tell us that’s where they all played.”

Actually, the Beatles never played at Wembley Stadium. So what? It’s the dream that counts.

The dream went into overdrive in the spring of 1994, thanks to Sarah Lawson. A young neighbour of the Johns family, Lawson told Daniel Johns about a demo-tape contest, simply called Pick Me, being run by Nomad, a cultish pop-music TV show. Johns had never heard of it. “We’d been in competitions before and didn’t do shit,” he says. “But we sent in our tape.”

It was one of more than 800 entries and nothing special to behold. The track titles on the four-song cassette were handwritten on the inlay card, and the tape was credited to the Innocent Criminals – the original name of Johns, Gillies and Joannou’s garage combo. But when Robert Hambling, video director and one of the Pick Me judges, heard the first song – a raw six-and-a-half minute version of “Tomorrow” – he knew he had the winner.

“It stood out even stronger because I’d just listened to about 80 or 100 demos back-to-back,” Hambling says, adding that other top Pick Me submissions included “a band called the Von Trapp Family Crisis, who did an a cappella song about tuna fish” and “a solo guy called Fishhead who had lots of samples of things from The Fugitive and Star Trek. But from my point of view, in a competition to find new talent, you couldn’t find a more perfect example than three young lads in their bedrooms in Newcastle with a song that, I believed, could be a No. 1 megaworldwide smash hit.”

The other Pick Me judges agreed. As the grandprize winners, the Innocent Criminals got to make a video for “Tomorrow” – directed by Hambling and shot at an old jail in Newcastle for $2,000 – and record a proper 24-track version of the tune in the Sydney studios of 2JJJ-FM, Australia’s nationwide modernrock station. In June, the “Tomorrow” clip was aired on Nomad, and 2JJJ put the song in light rotation.

Julie Johns was immediately besieged by Australian record companies including a new Sony-funded imprint called Murmur started up by John Watson and an ex-journalist named John O’Donnell. A week after the Nomad broadcast, the two Johns raced to downtown Newcastle to see the band at a suburban pub, the Jewells Tavern. The boys were actually set up in an adjacent bistro; being underage, they couldn’t perform in the main bar.

“They were literally playing to 15 people,” says O’Donnell, a former editor at the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. “Some of them were bikers who kept calling for ‘Born to Be Wild.’ They were playing on this tiny stage, and Chris stood stock-still. He was still new to playing to an audience. The important thing,” he adds, “was they had good, well-written songs, and Daniel’s voice was amazing. I remember how we tried to hide our excitement, because you don’t want to look too uncool when you’re trying to sign a band.”

In September ’94, Murmur issued “Tomorrow” in Australia under the band name Silverchair. Johns, Gillies and Joannou had come up with the new handle by combining the song titles “Sliver,” by Nirvana – unintentionally misspelled by Joannou – and “Berlin Chair,” by the Aussie band You Am I. Within four weeks “Tomorrow” was No. 1 and on its way to selling 175,000 copies. (In a country with just over 17 million in total population, that means one person out of every hundred bought one.)

The most compelling visual evidence of Silverchair’s dizzying ascendance came in January 1995, when the band hit the road with the Big Day Out, Australia’s annual Lollapalooza-style roadshow. In Sydney, playing in the middle of the afternoon on one of the festival’s auxiliary stages, Silverchair drew a madhouse crowd of 15,000 people – three times the regular capacity of the stage area – and inspired fits of moshing by fans who had climbed onto an adjacent rooftop. In Melbourne, kids were actually diving off nearby rooftops into the audience and trampolining on the protective canvas hanging over the band.

Ask Johns, Gillies and Joannou about the ballistic pace of those eight months between the Nomad show and the Big Day Out, and they just go all shy and mumbly. “We were lucky bastards,” Gillies maintains. “If we hadn’t won that contest, we probably would have been a garage band for the rest of our lives. I don’t know how we would have gotten a record deal.”

The members of Silverchair also take the post-Nirvana aesthetic of being driven by music instead of the music business with a teenage seriousness reflected in the names of heroes and influences that pepper their conversation: Henry Rollins, Soundgarden, Steve Albini, Jimi Hendrix. “The way the band would phrase it is ‘You don’t do stuff that sucks,'” says John Watson. That is, if they can be bothered to articulate it at all. The beauty of Silverchair’s success is that they are too young to be self-conscious about the jive or blinded by the light. They simply don’t give a shit.

“I was in a hotel room in London with the three of them,” Watson says, “and they were all watching a video. I was on the phone and got a call about the album’s chart listing in the States. And it’s like ‘Whoa!’ So I turn to the guys and go, ‘So, the chart in the States. . .’ and they go, ‘Sh! We’re watching a video.’ ‘Don’t you want to know the chart number?’ ‘No.’I thought, OK, I’m going to wait and see which one of them eventually sidles up to me at dinner or on the tour bus and asks me, ‘What was on that chart again?’ “To this day,” Watson concludes with a flourish of mock disappointment, “none of them has ever asked.”

Chris Joannou already knows what he wants to do if Silverchair’s wild ride to the top hits a dead end tomorrow. “If I wasn’t here now,” he says, “I’d probably be an apprentice to become a motor mechanic.”

Until recently, Ben Gillies was thinking of joining his father’s plumbing business. Now, he says, “if the band stuffs up, I’d like to take a sound engineer course. Do something with music.”

Daniel Johns isn’t terribly concerned about his, or the band’s, long-term future. “We don’t think about the money side of things at all,” he says with the casual disdain of the truly young and innocent. “The only reason we’re playing is for fun.”

With “Israel’s Son” going to MTV and modern-rock radio, the band is now three singles deep into Frogstomp, and its February arena dates with the Red Hot Chili Peppers mark the group’s fourth U.S. visit in eight months. Since last June, Silverchair have probably spent more time here riding tour buses than in Newcastle doing schoolwork.

Still, Silverchair are caught in a weird squeeze between their freakish good fortune and the accelerated expectations generated by it. Ken West, a co-producer of the Big Day Out, says that after he first saw the band play live, he told its booking agent that “what they should do is put out their first album, have a huge hit with it worldwide, announce that they’d broken up for two years, finish their education, then re-form under another name when they’re old enough to handle it.”

That didn’t happen. Silverchair now have to find a way to outlast – and live down – their success in order to grow into their career. “They’ll make more money out of this album,” says Watson, “than they would have ever expected to make in their whole lives. But I don’t think that really has much meaning to them. What do you really care about when you’re that age? What kind of view you have from your apartment? The designer label on your shirt?

“No,” he says. “The only thing that mattered was that you looked good in the eyes of your friends. That you weren’t a geek.” Young, loud, and sometimes snotty, Silverchair are not geeks.

“We don’t try to convince people of anything,” declares Johns. “Think what you want. This is what we are. And if they don’t believe us,” he adds with a big smile, “we say ‘Fuck you!'”