Daniel Johns’ album Talk is intoxicating at 5.30am. Sensuous and intimate. Languid. Vulnerable. Beats slide into your ears easy, washes of synthesisers and messed-around voices; a constant low bass throb pulsating. A falsetto voice pleading seduction, inebriating in its sly confidence, echoes of Marvin and Curtis swaying through your synapses. Often, there’s just silence behind the bleeps and beats.
And no guitars.
I’m surprised to be here, frankly, listening to the record and interviewing its maker. When I arrived in Australia seven years ago, I got into a whole heap of controversy over a blog I wrote for the Guardian. “The idea of anyone [here] daring to criticise musicians for the sound they make is heresy,” I wrote. No one minded that, uh, not really. It was a throwaway line I included about Silverchair being “musical abominations” that really upset people – cue interviews with national TV, radio, Rolling Stone etc. I had totally missed the affection Silverchair are held in by the nation. People feel like they’ve grown up with them.
“I know of your past criticisms,” says Johns, affable and tattooed and so good-looking I find myself tongue-tied 20 minutes into our chat. “You’re entitled to your opinions. That’s cool. There are a lot of people I’ve met who I like as people but whose music I fucking despise, so …”
The most recent time I had a go at Johns was this year, over the piano-and-harp rendition of Smells like Teen Spirit performed live at Triple J’s 40th anniversary concert, Beat the Drum. He is aware of my feelings but does not think my Coldplay comparison was merited. Not at all.
“I thought it was really fucking lazy.” The singer holds his head in his hands, laughing all the same. “I guess they’re known for that piano in rock thing but, no. I was going more for Antony and the Johnsons. It was more in keeping with that Qantas thing I did” (he’s referring to Atlas, his 2012 collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra on a new soundtrack for the national airline and its branding).
Then Johns blindsided me with the release of the unexpectedly slinky and sensuous R&B EP Aerial Love. I’ve always joked about how I’m not biased against artists – if U2 ever put out a good song, I’d like it – and Johns proved my point.
“You’re like an elder brother,” he laughs again, “but you didn’t grow up with me. There are a lot of people who like what Silverchair and I, as a solo artist, do because we grew up together. The same applies to people who hate me. There are people who hated me from the moment we released our first EP at 14, and it’s pretty hard to win those people over.”
Not all of Talk is as good as Aerial Love. One out of every few tracks, perhaps – We Are Golden, the cheeky strut of Going On 16. It’s like Johns can’t help himself. Even without guitars, he references the bombast that marked so many years of Silverchair, and the occasional assist from Joel Little is unable to mask a lack of … not ideas, there are plenty of those … but solid songs. Sixteen tracks is stretching it too thin. As an album, Talk makes for a great EP.
Some of his (former) fans aren’t as kind. “I’m sorry,” wrote one. “The person once responsible for some of the most thunderous riffs and heavy cacophony with meaning has descended to the level of elevator music.” It’s a charge Johns denies – and he also denies that he jettisoned grunge to go more commercial: “What might have caused that change is losing my band and not wanting to start another.
“I wanted to sit in a room with producers and experiment with electronics.”
Johns says he loves pop music; that Janet Jackson was playing on the stereo while he was writing Talk. “This is not an out-and-out Top 40 pop record. There’s some great experimentation on there.”
I don’t agree with his (former) fans’ hypotheses either, I tell him. Rock is still massive. Johns approves. “It would have been a much safer move to release a big heavy rock record with a new band – that would have been a really safe and pathetic move.”
Johns has largely kept away from music for eight years. No explanation, but plenty of speculation. He sat in a darkened house in Newcastle with the blinds drawn for three years. He’s been out drinking. He’s got a new girlfriend. They want to buy a pig and walk it around Kings Cross. He experimented with other creative outlets. “I tried to paint a lot when I was younger,” he reveals. “It was not good.” He’s not about to become an actor any time soon, either. “Firstly, I cannot remember lines – my memory sucks. And secondly, being on camera shits me.”
Wherever Johns goes, the press will follow. Does he feel like the Daniel Radcliffe of Australian rock, much-loved but never allowed to grow up? He doesn’t think that’s such a ridiculous question.
“A lot of people were child stars because they were cute and charismatic and there’s nothing there to back it up. I don’t think I was cute or charismatic. I just happened to become famous when I was young. I’ve always felt slightly guilty about that and made it my mission to become worthy of that stature.”
You can either rebel against your image, Johns theorises, or take it in your stride: “And if you don’t become better, you’ll forever be Harry Potter and if you do then you can be Van Dyke Parks.” Pause. “I definitely feel like this new record is me protesting and spray-painting the wall, and putting a wall up and saying from now on I’m not going to let this affect me like it used to.”
As a musician and songwriter, how does he feel about this quote, possibly apocryphal but credited to John Peel: “There’s no such thing as good and bad music, only good and bad listeners.” Johns says: “You can say that about any art form. Some music is dishonest and some people make music for shallow reasons.” I assume you think neither of those charges – shallow, dishonest – apply to you? “I’ve been guilty of some bad music,” he says. Again that laugh.
He’s only ever done what he’s capable of writing, he says. “With the first two or three Silverchair records, especially, I could only play power chords and was only really familiar with 70s rock and 90s grunge. After I left high school, I got fed up with having such a limited palette so I listened to lots of film music and started trying to be a better singer and trying to find my true voice. All I can say is that I’m being 100% honest with what I’m doing; there’s no consideration for commercial anything.”
Johns believes he’s more passionate about music these days, but listens to a lot less. “When I was 15, my music was more like a homage to what I heard.” Does he use his song lyrics as a tool of seduction? “Yeah maybe. Not for anyone other than my girlfriend. The music [on Talk] felt sensual and I wanted to write some stuff specifically for her. So yeah, in a way, that’s me attempting to be romantic.”
And Silverchair fans? What would he like to say to them now? “Sorry.”
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