Daniel Johns refuses to look back at his rock legacy and is relishing the new voice he’s found with an old mate … but don’t hold your breath for a tour, writes Cameron Adams
DANIEL Johns knows how lucky he was that his first band Silverchair existed in that distant era when people still paid for music. Ten million album sales and canny investments has meant Johns, who turns 40 next April, is fairly comfortable financially, for life.
“It is very fortunate and I’m super grateful because I do not know how to do anything else,” he says.
Modern musicians now rely on touring for their main income. Which is a problem for Daniel Johns, who has also stated he wouldn’t even reform Silverchair at gunpoint.
“The feeling of being an artist outgrew the feeling of being a rock star quite early for me when we got a taste of success at age 14 (with Silverchair),” Johns says. “By the time I was 20 I was really over that and just wanted to be an artist more than a performing monkey. Obviously the timing wasn’t great to make that decision. That screwed me up, because touring’s not my thing.
“I had a plan that for the rest of my career I could be like The Beatles and just stay in my studio and create music. I don’t even know how the record industry works any more. I don’t even care.”
Johns played precisely two live shows to promote his 2015 solo album Talk, this year admitting he suffers from crippling anxiety which can be triggered by live performances.
He’s played twice that many shows for new project, Dreams, with Empire Of the Sun’s Luke Steele.
Dreams played two shows at Coachella in April, then two at Vivid in Sydney in May.
The first Coachella gig, also the first time the two friends of nearly 20 years had ever performed on stage together, was streamed live to the world.
“We actually just put an iPhone on the mixing desk, and it fell off for the last few songs,” Johns laughs. “It didn’t sound great.”
All four shows happened months before Dreams’ debut album, No One Defeats Us, was to be released, boldly playing a full set of songs people had never heard.
“No one left,” Johns says. “It’s a big ask, we were quite proud and appreciative of the audience bearing with us through our sonic experimentation.
“But the album was never designed to be played live. So when the offers came in for live shows we were thinking ‘Holy sh--, how do we actually do this live?’ Once we figured out all the technicalities, Coachella was really good and by the second Vivid show we were so confident. It was one of those classic things, you’re nervous and anxious until the first show and after the fourth you want to go on tour.”
Spoiler: there are still no tour plans.
“The whole thing with Dreams is to wait and see where it flows. We’re really, really happy with the record, that was the thing we were obsessively controlling about.
“When it comes to anything post the album we’re happy to let it take us down whatever rapids come up.”
Johns says his blissful ignorance about the modern music industry works for him.
“Part of the reason Dreams is so liberating is the bit we wanted to get right, the album, is right. From now on we leave it in the hands of the gods. We’ll do some press, we’ll see if there’s more shows, but the main focus was to make sure the record was uncompromising.
“We’ve both got very poppy mindsets, there are pop moments on the record but also some wild moments I’m sure the record company would prefer to be gone. We don’t care about radio play or how many records we sell. Dreams is what it is, it’s a thing unto itself. It’s not really comparable to other projects I’ve done.”
Which is why Johns is also shutting down the most obvious way to market it.
“That’s the fight we’ve been waging. We’ve always tried to avoid the ‘supergroup’ tag, the American record label wanted a sticker saying ‘Daniel Johns from Silverchair, Luke Steele from Empire Of the Sun’ on the album. Why? Why Why? It’s obvious that would be a more commercial way to do things, but we don’t feel like those people when we’re together in Dreams. That’s not who we are. It’s a completely different animal.”
Hearing the use of vocoder on Dreams has already angered some who’d prefer to freezeframe Johns in the Silverchair era. “Vocoder is an essential part of the Dreams sound,” he says. “It’d be like getting upset with Kraftwerk. There’s a lot of natural vocals on the record, but also a lot of heavily processed vocals. We don’t really do things by halves, if we’re going to go there we’re going to make it wild.
“I don’t pay heavy attention to it, but it’s impossible to not be aware of peoples’ reactions, they can’t help but tell you. A lot of people say ‘You’ve lost the plot, go back to (Silverchair’s) Frogstomp’, but there’s a lot of people who’ve been on my entire journey and are still there and love the transitions and the changes. It’s just art. I don’t understand why people get offended. No one’s forcing anyone to listen to it. If you don’t like it I’m not going to cry.”
“WE DON’T CARE ABOUT RADIO PLAY OR HOW MANY RECORDS WE SELL. DREAMS IS WHAT IT IS, IT’S A THING UNTO ITSELF”
HEAR NO ONE DEFEATS US (EMI) out Friday
DANIEL JOHNS AND LUKE STEELE, THE CREATIVE MINDS BEHINDS DREAMS