"In America, people have preconceptions about Silverchair as this band who made a record when they were 13 or 14," says singer/guitarist Daniel Johns. "But if you ask almost any musician about their first band, they're usually embarrassed by what they were doing when they were 13 or 14; we just happened to be successful."
The teenage grunge-era also-rans hit huge in 1995 with "Tomorrow," a Nirvpearlgardenana-sounding growler recorded when the Australian trio were still in junior high. "Up until then, all I'd listened to was heavy music: Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana," Johns admits. "I didn't know who the Beatles were, or what Pet Sounds was yet."
Twelve years later, the 27-year-old Johns clearly has been listening to a lot of Beatles and Pet Sounds, as Young Modern, the band's first album in five years, proves. There're winding, Bowie-esque glam narratives such as "Young Modern Station" and "The Man That Knew Too Much." There's the eight-minute, three-part "Those Thieving Birds," "about heartbreak," Johns says, anchored by the breathy couplet "Those thieving birds hang strong from an empty nest." There's even a high-pitched Coldplay swooner, "Straight Lines," already a No. 1 hit back home. "I learned a lot from listening to Kraftwerk," Johns says. "Like, the less emotion you sing with, the more it can evoke."
Conspicuously absent are post-grunge songs; not even anything like Chris Cornell's still-very-Chris Cornell solo stuff. Johns now sings higher and softer; his voice (and Bono-like penchant for short hair and vests) renders him a more delicate, mature post-rock star. "This is the first record where I've embraced all the emotions I've gone through instead of being embarrassed by them," he says.
It's funny that though Silverchair's members are still in their 20s, Young Modern is a comeback album. They've always been successful in Australia; the band has had more No. 1 albums there than INXS, Midnight Oil and AC/DC.
But that didn't stop Johns from freaking out when the band made their last American major-label effort, 2002's naively arty, electro-tinged Diorama, which saw Johns, drummer Ben Gillies and bassist Chris Joannou doing what any band bored of being together for a decade would do: reinvent themselves. Johns discovered electronic music (see U2's Howie B/Brian Eno eras; Radiohead's last three albums) through Aussie producer Paul Mac (of Itchy and Scratchy fame) and developed a thing for strings, hiring SMiLE arranger Van Dyke Parks.
The result was artistically satisfying fare such as "Tuna in the Brine" for Johns, who, while writing Diorama, had traded guitar for piano. "When I was done with high school, I had to make a decision to do something important with my life," he explains. "So I was going to be a musician instead of turning up my guitar and hammering out riffs."
Unfortunately, their label at the time, Atlantic, wanted "Tomorrow"-sized riffs. Johns, no stranger to internalizing his problems—he was anorexic during the band's early success—developed arthritis. "It started with this pain in my knee. Over the next few weeks, it spread to my spine, and eventually my arms and neck to the point that I couldn't move my right arm.
"I realized I'd been sick for a six- or seven-year period before I really started to prioritize things," Johns says. "I thought it was really terrible that these really bad bands were getting so big. I decided I didn't want to be in a competing rock band; I wanted to make music."
Diorama flopped the same way Weezer's Pinkerton did, which is to say it cemented the band's core fan base, getting them dropped from the label, but also relieving the commercial pressure. "I have the luxury that if I want to stay in my house for a year and make music on synthesizers and play around with drum machines, I can," Johns says. So he did—he and Mac made a "Heroes"-esque side project (2003's The Dissociatives).
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Now with Young Modern, he's satisfied enough to stay pain-free, even though that meant decamping to Prague with Parks to record 80-piece orchestras or adding Mac as a full-time member. "[Mac's] like our Billy Preston," Johns says, laughing.
"I wanted to write a rock & roll record with a lot of eccentricities without it turning into King Crimson or some prog-rock thing," he says of Young Modern. "I'm not putting us in a league with any of these guys, but it's like the Beatles or the Beach Boys. They started out making pop records, and 10 years later, they had progressed into something very different." He just hopes American audiences can forget "Tomorrow" and forgive his indulgences.
"We're the same three people who started making music in our parents' garage when we were 11," Johns says. "I've just maybe got this distorted optimism that people will pay attention to what we're doing now."
SILVERCHAIR PERFORM WITH WE ARE THE FURY AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-2583; WWW.HOB.COM . SUN., 7:30 P.M. $22.50.