Daniel Johns: Why I spent four years in my house with the blinds closed
Ahead of the release of his debut solo album Talk, Daniel Johns talks to SARAH SMITH about losing his identity, his fickle relationship with fame and why he really just wants to be at home in a cave, cuddling a pig.
“I sound like a tripper, hey?” Daniel Johns asks at the end of our interview. We were allotted a painfully brief 15 minutes – about two minutes for every year he has been “on hiatus” – but on Johns’ suggestion managed to push it out to 20. We could have done with another hour. For a guy so clearly uncomfortable with fame, the former Silverchair frontman sure likes to talk. He launches into answers with a kind of child-like abandon, totally unfiltered. And while he does, perhaps, sound like a tripper from time to time, it’s not all that surprising. Johns has always danced to his own beat.
Finding worldwide fame at 14 with Silverchair’s debut album Frogstomp, with each consecutive album thereafter Johns deliberately went about dismantling the notion of Silverchair as just another Aussie rock band. Whether that meant putting down his guitar to write a record almost entirely on piano and enlisting the help of Van Dyke Parks (Diorama), or travelling across the world to write orchestral arrangements with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (Young Modern), Johns continually toyed with people’s expectations of what Silverchair “should” sound like. “I was always challenging the fact that I became very famous, very young and I didn’t think the music was very good,” Johns tells me. “So I was always trying to justify this commercial fame I had. You can almost tell chronologically from Neon Ballroom on it was like I was trying to justify something, it was out of insecurity.”
And it was this insecurity that kept Johns away from the limelight for so long. After he chose to end Silverchair in 2011 Johns says he felt rudderless. His identity for so much of his adult life had been defined by this band he didn’t know how to navigate the world without it. So rather than jump straight into a solo project he just sat in his house, blinds drawn, embracing the chance to “be weird” for a while. He made music (mostly noise with no vocals), hung out with his girlfriend, played dress ups and thought about buying a pig. And then somewhere along the way he started to sing again, and the floodgates opened.
The result is Daniel Johns’ debut solo album Talk, a record which skitters through moments of soulful R’N’B, hip-hop and indie electro. It features collaborations with Julian Hamilton of The Presets, Lorde’s producer Joel Little and Melbourne production duo Damn Morodor, among others. It has also pushed Johns squarely back into the limelight. Somewhere he still isn’t all that comfortable.
It’s been over seven years since you released music – was there ever a time during your hiatus that you genuinely believed you would never release music to the public again?
Yeah absolutely. As soon as I consciously decided to not be in Silverchair anymore my first port of call was to sit in a studio and just be weird, forever [laughs]. I honestly didn’t think I would ever release music again. For a good three years I was just like, “For now I’m just going to be an artist, and do stuff and see my friends, and my girlfriend”. It was only when I started to feel like it wasn’t as weird, or it stopped being less weird that I thought, “Maybe I should show people this”. And then when I did start showing people they were like, “You should release this”. And when they said that it was like well, ‘Fuck it, let’s release it”.
During that period what was your relationship with music like – was it positive?
I don’t listen to music like other musicians listen to music anymore. Something changed and I didn’t listen to music to relax, because I just couldn’t listen to it for pleasure anymore after a certain point. Even if I really loved something, I’d just think, “Shit, well the bar has been raised I should get to work. I should come up with a new chord progression or buy a new drum machine”.
“I just couldn’t listen to music for pleasure anymore”
Was there ever a time when you could listen to music for pleasure?
Yeah pretty much for forever until the dissolution of Silverchair. I used to listen to music for fuel, it used to inspire me. And I still hear stuff emanating from nightclubs and taxis and think, “That is an amazing kick drum sound” or “I love how they’ve recorded that bass or high-hat, or whatever” but now I watch movies or look at paintings for pleasure. Music has kind of become a bit of …it’s still an inspiration but I don’t listen to it consciously. I accidentally hear music.
What changed for you in what you were writing to make you want to share it with people?
Well, I guess I was writing music for ages with no lyrics. I couldn’t figure out how to write lyrics again, I couldn’t figure out how to sing anymore. I think it’s because my friend in Tasmania gave me this vocoder. When he knew Silverchair were no more, he gave me this drum machine and the vocoder and just said, “Start writing on that”. And I just got so addicted to the sound of this vocoder and this drum machine, that I started to think “I’m never going to sound better than my voice sounds on this vocoder” [laughs]. I couldn’t sing anymore and I was kind of freaking out. And I guess I had so much crap in mind, I just didn’t know which avenue to open the floodgates to. There was so many directions I could have gone. I could have gone into a dark territory, like Scott Walker dark. Or really Kanye bravado. And I guess it just took a really long time. It was kind of like spin the bottle, and wherever it landed was where it landed. And then it landed after I watched like 10 million John Lennon documentaries, and that documentary on the Double Fantasy classic albums. I watched that over and over and over and over again until I was like “Okay I’ve got to tell the truth and stop being such a pussy”.
Was there one moment or song in particular where you felt you’d started to tell the truth?
Yeah, the first song that pretty much informed the direction of the record was ‘Too Many’. It was the first one I sang on. I had so many songs where I thought “Oh that sounds so great”, I almost felt like there was a moment where it would be cool to have an album with a bunch of different singers, like Mike Watt or something. But ‘Too Many’ was the first one where I went in and I didn’t have lyrics written down and I just started singing. I don’t know if you do fresh juicing, or whatever, but when you don’t open the valve [on the juicer] it just keeps building up, and building, and building until it’s about explode and then you open the valve and it’s like [makes sound like explosion]. ‘Too Many’ was like the opening of the valve, and then from then on I couldn’t stop talking about myself.
I thought it may have been ‘Preach’ which sounds like the obvious mission statement on the album with lyrics like “dance to my own beat” – where did ‘Preach’ come in the process?
‘Preach’ came really late actually. It was one of the last ones and I was working with [production duo] Damn Moroda and they had that beat. Originally I was going to be a guest on that song for their demo tape. They were really good friends of mine and they were going to do mixtapes to send out to rappers and stuff, like Kendrick Lamar and was like “I’ve got this topline that’s like [sings] “Now I dance to my own beat, I could only try”. So I was like cool “I’ve got a topline, and I’ve also got a verse and I’ve also got some lyrics”. Then the guys from Damn Moroda rang me from the airport the next day and they were like “Dude, I’m pretty sure that should be on your record”. And I was like, “Thank you so much, because I didn’t want to offend you but I really wanted that”.
So you were actually willing to let that song go?
Well, once you make a handshake – a handshake is a handshake [laughs].
It’s interesting you mention hip-hop, because tracks like ‘Imagination’ and ‘Faithless’ that tap into that aesthetic are the record’s strongest moments. Where did that influence come from?
I was actually referencing the last Massive Attack record Helligoland. When I first heard that song ‘Girl I Love You’, I was driving around and I think I was going to get fish and chips, maybe just chips. And that song came on triple j – for some reason my radio was triple j – and that song came on and I just kept turning it up, and turning it up, and turning it up, and I was like. “What the fuck is this?” And then from then on I went back and revisited all this Massive Attack stuff.
That guy [that I mentioned earlier] who I was working with in Tasmania, Chris – was the guy that once I left Silverchair was kind of like my godfather. Because I was freaking out when I left the band. I was like, “I’ve lost my identity, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m lost, I’m just going to disappear and adopt 10 million puppy dogs,” or something. And Chris was the one to assure me there was a lot of shit I could do that doesn’t involve bass and drums. And he played me a lot of old Massive Attack and Aphex Twin, who was an idol. So then Stylz came in with that breakbeat for ‘Faithless’ and was playing it to me and I said, “Dude, is there any chance I can run on that?”. And he was like, “Yeah that is why I’m playing it to you”. There is a lot of stuff on this record, even though we are forging towards the future, that is a nod to the past. Like [Mark Morrison’s 1996 track] ‘Return Of The Mac’, that influences this record greatly even though it sounds like a joke but it’s not. And old R’N’B stuff. It started as a joke because my girlfriend was listening to Boyz II Men and Mark Morrison. And we used to listen to it while we were playing dress ups and partying and then I was like, “There is something in this, if I can bring truth and some genuine melody instead of that clichÃ© shit I think there is something in that palette”. And then the next think you know people are showing me James Blake and Frank Ocean and I was like “Shit, game on!”
“I’m like an insecure little fucking artist that sits in his house with the blinds closed and wants to breed pigs”
It’s not all that surprising to hear you say you felt like you had no identity at the end of Silverchair, but for the most part you always seemed like someone who had such a strong identity and was very sure of themselves in their song writing…
I think it’s quite the contrary – I’m never sure of myself. I was always challenging the fact that I became very famous, very young and I didn’t think the music was very good. So I was always trying to justify this commercial fame I had. You can almost tell chronologically from Neon Ballroom on it was like I was trying to justify something, it was out of insecurity. I’m like an insecure little fucking artist that sits in his house with the blinds closed and wants to breed pigs.
How do you feel about the idea of fame these days – are you more comfortable with yourself and how people respond to you?
I hate it. You know I went to a Noah Taylor art exhibition last night and I think if only there was a way to do that musically I would be a really happy man.
What do you mean by that?
Just like, there is so much fucking hullaballoo about all this fucking shit and at the end of the day it is just art. I would love to be able to present my work in a gallery, and people that were interested could come and look and buy instead of it being a public domain.
Do you feel like perhaps you can do that if you just don’t listen to what everyone is saying about you?
Nah I don’t think there is any fucking way of that ever happening. Because I’m always going to be in the newspaper for whatever. I’ve got a girlfriend: that’s in the newspaper. I’m catching a train: that’s in the newspaper. I hit my head: that’s in the fucking newspaper. I feel like a sitcom star.
It is kind of unique in a way, because there aren’t that many musicians in Australia where the press cares about that stuff.
I know, I feel like I’ve drawn the short straw.
Well, in some ways I suppose you have. Because the press don’t follow your ex-bandmates around or Bernard Fanning from Powderfinger.
I’m just looking at this printout of this Good Weekend article I did and it’s like everything is so exacerbated. Just in the way that everything is a fucking big deal. I mean it’s a great article, it’s a great writer, it’s good, and it’s beautiful. I just feel a little bit trapped because everything I say could possibly be a breakout quote and offend 10 million people. So I’m just sitting here in a fucking office in EMI talking to people. You know? No offence! It’s kind of bullshit because I’m not that interesting. I’d prefer to be sitting at home in a cave with a pig and just cuddling something nice. You know?
I think you definitely need to get this pig.
I think I do now [laughs]. Have I said that more than once?
[Laughs] Yeah I do need a pig. My girlfriend wants a pig too. It’s going to be great, we’re going to get one. I can put it on a leash and walk it down Kings Cross.
Then you’ll have a reason to be in the papers.
Yeah! Well, if you’re going to do it you may as well fucking go right? [Laughs]
You said in the press release announcing your album that you’ve always thought people hated what you do – why do think that?
I don’t think that. I’m not really present on social media and stuff like that so I only get told what the chatter is through other people. I think people like to tell me that someone doesn’t like me or apparently there’s some massive rebuttal about something you’ve said. But at the end of the day I don’t give a fuck, I don’t care. It’s all just music. At the end of the day it’s just music – it shouldn’t be offensive. It shouldn’t be anything. It’s just a bunch of fucking notes and a bunch of words and if you don’t like if then don’t buy it.
What about playing music live – do you still enjoy that?
Yeah I can’t wait!
Why just announce the two shows then?
Because I can’t wait to do two shows. If it was like 20 shows, I’d be like “Nup, I’ll see you at the New York mental hospital”! Two shows – the Vivid thing – I said in an interview before, it’s like the most expensive high budget sound check you’re ever going to get. And it doesn’t get much more risky you know? I haven’t been to rehearsal yet.
Well that’s good to know…
[Laughs] Yeah, there’s a scoop!
Do you even get nervous anymore – is that an emotion you feel when it comes to performing?
Yeah I get really nervous. I have the most insane stage fright! You don’t even fucking know. I’m going to need some serious…I wish there was a med. Well, there is a med but I’m not allowed to take it. But I’m really scared, but I’m sure it will be good.
Daniel Johns will perform at the Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall on Thursday, May 28 and Friday, May 29 as part of the Vivid LIVE festival. His debut solo album Talk is out on Friday, May 22 through EMI.
Lead image and insert images taken from Daniel Johns ‘Cool On Fire’ video – due for release tomorrow.