As grunge teeters on the brink of extinction, with Soundgarden hanging up its flannel, Nirvana but a lingering memory, and Pearl Jam a hermitish ensemble that will most likely call it quits, Australia's teenage power trio Silverchair is hoping to fight the odds and carry its head-pounding rock into the next millennium. Chalk up the band's determination to youthful enthusiasm -- after all, the musicians will each be only 21 by then.
Since surprising everyone with its raggedy 1995 multiplatinum debut Frogstomp and its alterna-rock anthem "Tomorrow," Silverchair has endured endless comparisons to Seattle bands. But on their sophomore release Freakshow, the Aussies prove to be anything but a fluke, stepping out of Grungeville as they expand their musical horizons, adding depth and darkness to their teen angst-ridden songs without being pretentious little brats. (That maturation is no doubt thanks to producer Nick Launay, who has helmed records for the relatively old men of Midnight Oil, PiL, and the Posies.)
Consisting of lead singer and guitarist Daniel Johns, drummer Ben Gillies, and bassist Chris Joannou, Silverchair sought to make a different kind of record with Freakshow and send their detractors packing at the same time. "A lot of people thought we were a flash in the pan, a one-album job," says Johns by phone during a tour stop in Denver. "Well, we're just out to say 'Fuck you' to all them people." The band does acknowledge that the new album is less accessible than the first. As Johns explains, "It's not as simple and radio-friendly. But as long as we made an album that was a big progression from the first and that we were happy with, that's all that matters. And that's what we did."
As if being dismissed as a one-trick pony wasn't enough, the trio also had to brave the media's assault on their callowness and too-familiar sound, suffering name-calling slings like Nirvana in Pajamas, Silverhighchair and Soundkindergarden. Johns, however, is not an angry young man. "That's pretty stupid, and we don't care," he replies calmly. He says the guys feel fortunate, period -- even if being young hotshots in the eat-or-be-eaten record industry is not always easy. "It's a lot harder than most people think. We're not going to complain, because we could always stop. But it's not just about getting up and playing in front of thousands of people and making a lot of money. There is a lot of crap you've got to put up with and try to adapt to." As for the band's critics, he is not the least bit fazed. "Every band has its critics. But as long as the people who like our music keep liking it, we don't care what the critics or anyone else says."
Johns also notes that with the new record, any Seattle-sound comparisons will fall flat. "On the first album, it was understandable with songs like 'Tomorrow,'" continues the recently turned eighteen-year-old. "We're not going to try to say that 'Tomorrow' doesn't sound familiar, because it has that Seattle feel to it." Johns claims there was never any particular grunge act that sparked Silverchair's musical trajectory; instead it was rock dinosaurs like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple that pricked their youthful ears. "I think when you hear the Sabbath influence on the first and second album, people just assume that we were too young to be listening to Sabbath. So they assumed it must be Soundgarden." (In fact, Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who was 32 years old when the lads in Silverchair were still wearing Huggies, recently joined the band on-stage during one of its shows in, of all places, Seattle.) Johns cites other influences as well, including Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin: "All that guitar rock and those metal bands from the Seventies, we really got into that." Now he, Gillies, and Joannou are into Eighties punks such as Minor Threat and Black Flag, as well as the dense, arty experimentations of Slint.
Themes of death and despair rank high on primary songwriter Johns's list of favorite topics. "I just like to write about that stuff because that's usually what I'm thinking. It's an obsession. I don't want to die, but I'm still obsessed with it." (His favorite song, he says, is Black Sabbath's "Killing Yourself to Live," from 1973's Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath. Cheery stuff indeed.) The conversation moves toward books on the subject: Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, Final Exit, The Book of Executions. "Did you read that one?" he asks of the latter. "I've got such a morbid curiosity. But if I wanted to die, I'd be dead."
Not all of Freakshow is quite so mopey, however. "Pop Song for Rejects Like Us" is probably the jangliest tune Johns has ever penned -- even if it does deal with the subject of rampant rock and roll drug addiction. "That's just a pop song with a heavy chorus. We wanted to write something and be happy and melodic," he explains, "then fuck it up and demolish it." The punk-powered "Lie to Me," dripping with cynicism, scorn, and abandon, sounds like something Ethan Hawke's band would have spewed out in Reality Bites; it concludes with Johns screaming bloody murder. And "The Door" rocks like a mutant update of the Monkees' 1966 hit "Last Train to Clarksville," with its fuzzy guitar line and ear-candy chorus.
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Many songs are simply bird-flipping displays to the outside world, as on the moody track "Freak," in which Johns croons, "If only I could be as cool as you" in a waning Vedderesque voice. "That's just about being different, growing up," he notes. That sarcasm, sliced with a little self-doubt, also lifts "Abuse Me." Here Johns is a somber Kurt C. as he pleads, "C'mon, abuse me more, I like it," an analysis of the relationship between rock star and fan. Elsewhere the minor-key ballad "Cemetery" is powered by a Smashing Pumpkins-like string arrangement. (Johns has been performing this song on tour as an acoustic solo.) And you can practically smell the incense (or is that an Indian water pipe?) on "Chlorine & Petrol," with its use of sitar and tabla.
Clearly these boys are growing up, blending riffs from Zeppelin, Helmet, and Tool with grandiose orchestration loaded with timpani and violins. And these guys know how to make some lively, piss-and-vinegar rock and roll. The problem at times is in the lyrics -- bitter and indulgent to a fault, almost a cartoon of angst that's beyond the experiences of these wee tots. With any luck, though, Johns will outgrow his pouting concerns.
Tourwise, Johns says that he and the guys have enjoyed playing live above everything else during their extensive roadwork over the last two and a half years. (They recently played a surprise gig in Los Angeles billed as the George Costanza Trio.) Of course, touring has its drawbacks -- they have to travel with a tutor ("He's a good mate, actually," Johns remarks) until they finish high school. Plus, their dads are along for the ride, ostensibly to keep them out of trouble. When Johns is jokingly asked about the sex life of a very young rock star, he cracks, "We pretty much get ten to fifteen chicks a night each. Just bring them on the tour bus and have sex with all of them." As for the other recreational indulgences of the pop world: "Yeah, we can [smoke pot]. But it kind of gets in the way when you're touring with your dads. They don't give a shit if we drink, but I think it would get a bit weird if we started rolling joints in front of them."
Silverchair performs Sunday, May 4, at the Theater, 3339 N Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale; 954-565-1117. Opening acts are Local H and Automatic. The sold-out show starts at 8:00 p.m.