Written by Angela Pulvirenti
Daniel Johns is currently experiencing an emotion that has alluded him most of his life – genuine happiness. As the front man and creative navigator of Australia’s most successful contemporary rock band – Silverchair, Johns was an international rock star at 15, had a fully blown eating disorder by 19 and sold over six million albums around the world by 21. But he has seemingly packed the most dramatic and significant turning points of his life into his 23rd year – simultaneously releasing the band’s most progressive and least marketable album, enduring a rare arthritic condition that has paralyzed almost every joint in his body in numbing pain and winning the devotion of one of the world’s most beautiful and famous women. Throughout it all he has remained one of music’s most intriguing and detached icons, rarely giving interviews and appearing uncomfortable or disinterested when he does. Over what has surely been one of the band’s most trying years I have managed to come face to face with John’s and fellow band mates Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou on four separate occasions. Each experience brought greater insight into how these childhood friends from Newcastle have traveled their respective journeys into manhood and survived the tribulations of maintaining a world wide presence in the music industry. After over four collective hours of uninhibited conversation with Daniel Johns, I began to unravel a complex, unexpectedly humorous young man who has finally let his love for a woman infiltrate those depths of his heart and consciousness once reserved exclusively for making music.
It’s about 11am on December 10, 2001. I am climbing a set of decrepit looking stairs in an old building in Newcastle on route to meet Silverchair for the first time. I’ve already been informed that Johns will be running late on account of an emergency visit to the doctor. Apparently it has something to so with a sore knee. While an amateur theatre company rehearses their latest production across the hall, one of the best rhythm sections in the world are playing around with their instruments in a dimly lit room in preparation for next month’s Big Day Out musical festival. “We can’t wait to get in front of an audience again”, says drummer Ben Gillies, “we’ve got all these great new songs and we’ve only really played one gig in the last year”. Mind you, that gig did involve an audience of over 250 000 at South America’s Rock in Rio festival. “It was just mind boggling”, says bassist Joannou, “we’d been doing nothing for 6 months and all of a sudden we were standing in front of a quarter of a million people who were all singing the words to our songs”. Life has been full of such out-of-body experiences since the boys from Silverchair entered a national contest at age 14, won a recording contract and rocketed to #1 in Australia and top ten in the US with their debut single “Tomorrow”. Before they new knew what was happening they were touring the US with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (and their parents) and had sold 2.5 million copies of their 1995 debut album “Frogstomp”. “I don’t think we really took it all in at the time”, says Joannou, “we were 16 and just having a ball and we had no idea what would come next”. But that was six years and 3 albums ago. And to whatever extent life has been irrevocably altered for Gillies and Joannou, it has been 1000 fold for their front man.
As Daniel Johns is limping through the door he resembles a movie star version of Jesus himself. He has cheekbones most women would die for (except for maybe – Natalie Imbruglia) and eyes that are as piercingly blue, as they are intensely unpredictable. John’s sits down in front of me looking a little pail, quite thin and rubbing his knee repeatedly. “The Dr’s aren’t quite sure what it is”, he says, “but we think it’s some kind of infection in my knee joints”. Over the next hour, the songwriter with the reputation for being distant and monosyllabic appears polite, engaging and despite being in significant discomfort, eager to discuss his latest and most courageous creative incarnation. “The last album was so dark and depressed and I was really sick when I was writing it and recording it”, he says matter of factly. “But with this album I made a conscious effort not to go back to that”. So it was out with the joyless, riff based rock songs like “Ana’s Song (Open Fire), which captured his life threatening relationship with an eating disorder, and in with the melodic opulence of “The Greatest View”.
“That song is about coming alive again after being in a very dark and numb place and watching the happiness it brings the people around you when you are free of it”. It is clear that Daniel John’s creative satisfaction is coloring his entire outlook with optimism. “I feel really positive at the moment and it just makes me want to keep creating what will keep fuelling that positivity”, he says. “This is probably the first album we’ve ever released that has so much hope on it. It’s is all about reaching the light at the end of the tunnel”. Less than a week later, Daniel Johns was diagnosed with a severe case of reactive arthritis, a condition only 6% of all males have a predisposition that causes chronic swelling in the joints resulting in impaired movement and extreme pain.
It was only with the aid of several steroid injections and 8 Panadeine Forte tablets that Daniel Johns made it onto the main stage at the Big Day Out festival in late January. “The Dr’s told me not to do it but I really, really wanted to”, he says. “I was off my head on pain killers but at least I got through it”. As “Diorama” was debuting at #1 on the Australian charts (writing Silverchair into the history books as the only band in OZ music to debut three consecutive albums at #1), the band were forced to cancel their headlining appearance at the “Gone South” festival in Tasmania. Despite the fact that most sufferers of reactive arthritis recover within a three-month period, John’s symptoms continued to intensify. It was around this time that I drove back to Newcastle to the Johns family home to record a track-by-track interview with Johns for US radio.
He walks out from the bedroom he grew up in with his hair tied back and the patterns of sleep marking his face. John’s has temporarily moved out of his own residence due to the immobility imposed by his condition. He looks thinner, paler and is limping more awkwardly. “You don’t want us in the house for this do you Daniel, we might go out for a while” says his mum Julie. “It’s up to you Mum”, John’s replies respectfully, “It’s your house”. Within minutes, we’re alone to conduct an official track by track on an album two weeks away from release. “I hate doing track by tracks. What’s the point in writing songs if you’re just going to explain exactly what they’re all about anyway”, he says grumpily. But what I’m beginning to realize about Daniel Johns is that even when he’s in pain, been woken from much needed sleep and competing with the roar of the next door neighbor’s branch cutter, he still responds enthusiastically to sincerity and questions he doesn’t deem inane.
John’s is only too aware that the fantastical lyrical and musical atmosphere of DIORAMA could not be further from the post grunge, angst ridden rock that his fans, (and indeed is record companies) were expecting from him. Infact, its operatic rock and pop sensibilities are probably more palatable to the Beatles/Beach Boys loving parents of the kids who bought 1995’s “Frogstomp”. “I’m only interested in making music that excites me and challenges me. I could never just keep repeating myself – I’d rather not make music at all”, he says with steely conviction. “Record companies are only interested in making money and I don’t really care about that”. As an artist who had sold 4 million albums by the time he was 19 – he hasn’t had to care about it. John Watson, Silverchair’s long standing manager acknowledges that while the band’s distinct lack of ambition for fame and fortune is the very thing that attracted him to working with them – it can be a constant source of frustration. “They could probably sell a lot more records if they were prepared to compromise just a little bit more”, he says, “but at the end of the day, you have to admire them for sticking to what they artistically believe in”.
Johns himself was taken back by nature of his current musical direction. “I actually frightened myself when I wrote songs like “Luv Your Life””, he says about the album’s third single, “I thought – Oh My God, this is such a pop song, should I go any further with this”! Not only did Johns go further – he enlisted the services of 60-year-old musical luminary and former Beach Boys arranger Van Dyke Parkes, who likens John’s musical sensibilities to those of Brian Wilson’s. “They’re both visionaries and so curious about the possibilities of music. They refuse to underestimate the intelligence or potential of their audience”.
But as Johns, (and his record companies) know only too well, it’s not just question of reaching your audience, its question of reaching the networks that deliver you to them. “I know it’s going to be a difficult for the radio stations that supported silverchair’s previous singles to adjust to this album, especially in the States”, he says, “ which is why we want to support it promotionally as much as we can”.
Johns had recovered enough by April to shoot the video clip for the second single “Without You” and appear in the first studio based television interview of his career on Rove Live. “I was so nervous my insides just folded up. I was finding it hard to breathe, I was sweating and shaking and I had this stupid looking cane and I was sitting on the chair thinking ‘just try not to be too serious because it’s not going to help the cause if you come on this funny television show and act all stern”. While trying NOT to be stern, Johns dryly told Rove McManus that doing daily aerobics sessions was an integral part of his recovery process. “I thought since he was a comedian he would know I was trying to be funny”, says Johns laughing at his own deadpan delivery. “When he kept going with it I just totally panicked and thought ‘how do I get out of this now’”. His band mates were back stage waiting anxiously to perform a three-song set. “We were all so nervous that night but we felt really positive and confident afterwards”, says Joannou. “That was the hardest thing about Johnsey’s condition, one week he was good but then the next week it would flare up again”.
Watson’s management team and the US record company had the most impressive promotional schedule planned for the US/European release of DIORAMA of any album in the band’s history. Sell out gigs in New York and Los Angeles, radio appearances throughout Europe and Germany, even a performance on the highly coveted Jay Leno Show were all in place to plant the media firmly in Silverchair’s corner. The challenges were magnified by the fact that the band was forced to attack completely different radio formats to the rock stations that had built their existing fan base. “The rock format has become heavier and heavier in the US over the last three years and songs like “The Greatest View” or “Luv Your Life” were never going to fit on that format”, explains Watson. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to walk through the same doors but there still some windows we could jump through”. That jumping was scheduled for June.
By May, John’s symptoms had spread to other parts of his body including his left hand, rendering the musician incapable of even playing his guitar. As a last resort to salvage the band’s international promotional schedule, John’s was admitted to hospital and underwent an intensive procedure which involved having steroids intravenously pumped through his body to overpower the arthritis. “In almost every case, Doctors had seen a marked improvement in patients receiving this treatment”, says Watson. Not only did John’s not get better – he got worse. It was on a dark day in early June that John Watson went into the office and completely cancelled the band’s promotional and touring schedule both domestically and internationally. “It was like sawing off your arms”, he says. “But there was nothing anybody could do. We all knew that whatever we were going through was 100th of what Daniel was going through”.
John’s condition continued to worsen through June/July. “I couldn’t even stand the water pressure in the shower hitting my back or shoulders”, he says, “Just the motion of someone sitting down next to me on the sofa would send a rush of pain through me entire body”. With the assistance of animated video clips and Australian radio, the singles continued to roll out. His relationship with Natalie Imbruglia and speculation over the illness itself also kept John’s profile prevalent in the media. By the time I saw Johns again at his home in late July; he was rake thin and even with the assistance of a cane, was limping with the frailty of an eighty year old man. “I can remember watching him struggle to walk 10 meters in 10 minutes and being so scared for him”, says Gillies, “It made you think- ‘is this guy going to die”?
Johns seemed to remain philosophical about his predicament, calmly confronting speculation about whether or not his previous emotional problems had contributed to the severity of his current condition. “From what I can gather all illnesses are related”, he said. “My immune system was obviously very down when the arthritis struck which certainly wouldn’t have helped. But it’s hard to say whether or not I would have recovered more quickly had I not experienced previous illnesses”.
Daniel Johns first developed an eating disorder just prior to his 17th birthday. “I was being beaten up by some kids after school and I thought if I looked sick they would take pity on me and leave me alone”. For 12 months after Johns returned to school following Frogstomp’s success, he was targeted by a group of 8 delinquents 5 years his senior who would pull up in a van whenever John’s was alone and drag him inside for a touch up. “The first time I thought, ‘I’m going to be kidnapped and killed and I did try to fight back but there was 8 of them”, he says unemotionally. “Then I realized they were just going punch me in the stomach a few times and wind me so I’d just wait for it to be over and go home”. The event occurred more than a half a dozen times over a 12-month period but Johns describes the daily anticipation of it happening as having the most damaging impact. He ate less and less, began detaching himself from the world and absorbing himself more and more in writing music.
Silverchair’s 1997 follow up album FREAK SHOW captured the raging self deprecation of an isolated, misunderstood teenager – “I’m a freak”, “I live in a cemetery”, “abuse me more I like it”. Ironically, the more Johns creatively manifested his anger and isolation, the more the world wanted a piece of him, and the more he retreated. By the time he was writing songs for the group’s third album, he was physically disappearing and could rarely muster the courage to leave his house. “I was starting to black out a lot. I’d wake up somewhere in the house and not know how I got there”, he says. “At once stage Doctors said –‘you better change something or you’re going to die’. They were giving me weeks”.
Not even his band mates could reach Johns over the period leading up to the recording of the group’s darkest studio album, “Neon Ballroom”. Nic Launay, a close friend to the band and the album’s producer recalls John’s reluctance to play his new batch of songs to Gillies and Joannou. “I think Daniel was really scared about what Chris and especially Ben were going to think of these very dark, almost ballad like songs he was writing”, says Launay. “I was assuring him that if he wrote them and Chris and Ben played them – they would become Silverchair songs”. Launay also acknowledges that the simple process of growing up and the subsequent changes in their respective life styles was also changing the nature of their relationships with each other. “Daniel was becoming more and more arty and withdrawn while Ben and Chris were becoming incredibly social and getting girlfriends and behaving the way strapping young men should”. Johns himself acknowledges that “I guess they grew more like each other and I was just heading to a different place altogether”. The estrangement didn’t just take its toll on Johns. “Ben was as heartbroken as Daniel was”, says Launay, “he felt as though he was losing his best friend”. Launay finally managed to bring the three musicians together in their rehearsal room to work up John’s most personal batch of songs yet. “After they were playing for a while Ben said something like ‘these are great songs mate’ and everybody just started laughing”. Silverchair’s third studio album represented a huge creative leap for the band and went on to sell two million copies worldwide.
It’s five days before the 2002 Arias and Daniel Johns and I are walking down a main street in Newcastle in search of a café. It’s an event the 23 year old would have been physically incapable of 5 months ago and emotional incapable of 18 months ago. Infact when I ask Johns for venue suggestions, he replies cheerfully, “I wouldn’t have a clue. You know me – I don’t get out much”. If there’s one thing Johns realizes the public at large probably doesn’t understand about him – it’s that he finds humor in his own compulsions. “I know they’re crazy and I do think it’s pretty funny”.
Johns has made several visits to Las Angeles in the last 6 months to receive a number of alternative therapies across the areas of acupuncture, physiotherapy, nutrition and massage. Something is clearly working. The colour is back in his skin, his mood is lighter and he’s gained some much-needed weight. His band mates only laid eyes on him three days before I did. “When I first him I thought, ‘alright – it’s all going to cool’”, says Gillies.
Silverchair finally have the confidence to announce their long awaited 2003 Australian tour. Kicking off in January, the usual stadium-housed mayhem and mosh pits will be traded for a more intimate theatrical experience. “This concert tour will really be the ultimate way of demonstrating that silverchair is now a band that can appeal to an audience much wider than the one that built them”, says Watson. The “Across the Night” experience promises a spectacular lighting show and the opportunity to see Silverchair perform the hits of the past and present in 2000-5000 seat venues. If the band’s impact on the Aria Awards is any indication, Silverchair may be about to launch their “Diorama” right back into the mainstream consciousness. Not only did they win 6 awards (including Best Group and Best Rock Album of the year), but the emotionally charged standing ovation that followed their closing performance provided one of the night’s most significant highlights. “It’s probably not wise to get too excited but it feels like the momentum is building back up”, says Joannou, “it feels like take two”.
For the first time in Daniel John’s life, he has transcended ill health in the absence of making music. “When I was really sick in the past – it acted as creative fuel”, he admits, “I think it took for me to be riddled with so much pain that I completely lost the ability to even play music for me to realize that health has to come first”. The change in John’s priorities has also had a major impact on his personal relationships. “Before I was with Nat, I hadn’t ever been in a relationship longer than 3 months because I would intentionally jeopardize them in case being too happy meant I wouldn’t be able to write the music I wanted to,” he says, “I felt like there was no way I could devote myself to both”. John’s couldn’t be happier about the fact that his girlfriend’s love and support will be easier to access once she moves back to Australia. “The whole chasing each other around the world thing is pretty tedious”. He also credits Imbruglia with helping him come to terms with his aversion to belonging to a celebrity couple. “We used to argue about it because I’d be all ‘I only want people to focus on my music’ and Nat would be like – ‘get over it’’, he says playfully. “She’s much cooler about the whole celebrity thing than I am because she’s made for it. She’s beautiful, talented and she doesn’t mind answering lots of questions about herself. I mean – let’s face it – she dated Lenny Kravitz”.
Daniel Johns is as committed to his girlfriend as he is to cutting himself some richly deserved creative slack. “I know I won’t be able to write for at least year and it’s not because I’m happy it’s just because I’m exhausted and I need to let myself recover properly”. Now that he has found the distinction between life and art, Daniel Johns is finally heading for the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of surviving his future artistic endeavors, perhaps he can actually enjoy them. Not to mention “life” in-between.