A Chat with bassist Chris Joannou of Silverchair, Chris Joannou interview, Young Modern

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If you haven’t been following the career of Silverchair in a few years (and speaking strictly from a statistical standpoint, most Americans haven’t paid much attention to them since their 1995 debut, Frogstomp) you might be surprised to find that they aren’t the same post-grunge bunch of Australian upstarts that they once were. They’re still Australian, of course, but they’ve spent the last 12 years evolving, from what frontman Daniel Johns refers to as “our teenage high school band,” into a group that fuses prog-rock and symphonic pop into their own unique sound. Bullz-Eye had the opportunity to speak to the band’s bassist, Chris Joannou, and we quizzed him about how Silverchair has grown over the years, the event that brought them back together after a hiatus to record their new album, Young Modern, and what kept him busy during that hiatus.


Chris Joannou: Hello?

Bullz-Eye: Hi, may I speak to Chris?

CJ: Yes, speaking.

BE: Hey, this is Will, with Bullz-Eye.com.

CJ: How’re you doing, man?

BE: Pretty good. Sorry I’m late calling you, man. I, uh, forgot that I was calling you.

CJ: (laughs)

BE: I was sitting here, waiting for you to call me, and after 10 minutes, I went back to check the e-mail to make sure I’d gotten the time right, and I went, “Oh, crap.” So sorry about that.

CJ: It’s fine.

BE: It’s a shame, actually, that we didn’t talk yesterday, because I live in Chesapeake, Virginia.

CJ: Oh, really?

“A lot of people were into Frogstomp and Freakshow and might’ve missed a record or two, and all of a sudden, Young Modern comes out, and there’s been this dramatic change. But I think if you listen to the albums in consecutive order, it seems to make a lot of sense.”

BE: Yeah. In fact, I’m only bout 15 minutes away from the Constant Convocation Center, where you were playing last night.

CJ: Yeah, you’re right, that would’ve been much more convenient!

BE: Yeah, but I was watching my 2-year-old daughter, so I wasn’t able to attend the show, unfortunately.

CJ: Ah, right.

BE: How did the show go?

CJ: It was cool, actually. I mean, it was a lot of bands playing, and quite a few I hadn’t seen before. It was one of those crazy days, I guess you’d call it, but it all worked out well in the end.

BE: So you were first up on the bill?

CJ: Um no, actually, I think we were third or fourth from the last.

BE: Oh, okay. I mean, that’s great! Because the list I saw … I dunno, maybe it was in alphabetical order or something, but you were at the bottom of it, so that’s why I thought you played first.

CJ: Yeah, right. No, I think there were, like, four or five people before us.

BE: A friend of mine heard you guys being interviewed on the radio yesterday, and, well, she said she was sad because one of you guys – she didn’t remember which one – had to remind the DJ about the name of one of your albums.

CJ: Oh, yeah. I did.

BE: Was that disappointing? Because I’m a big fan of Diorama. In fact, that’s where I actually first came in. But a lot of people…

CJ: Yeah, especially with Diorama, a lot of people haven’t heard our newer albums over here. It’s more of a pop radio format at that station, so I think it’s one of those things where they know Frogstomp and that’s about it.

BE: Which is weird, because I know that when you guys first came over here to support Young Modern, you sold out shows in New York, L.A. and Toronto.

CJ: Oh, yeah. And even on this run of the tour, too, it’s been a really good turnout for shows as well. People haven’t forgotten about us.

BE: But is it weird to have basically two groups of fans? Because, admittedly, the majority of Americans still think in terms of you guys as being this semi-grunge band because of your earlier albums, but then the people who’ve heard the more recent stuff are digging on, like, string arrangements and whatnot.

CJ: Yeah, there’s been a fairly large change over the last eight years, I guess. Yeah, we’re pretty conscious of that. We’re just trying new things each record and not getting stale and repeating ourselves. But, yeah, a lot of people were into Frogstomp and Freakshow and might’ve missed a record or two, and all of a sudden, Young Modern comes out, and there’s been this dramatic change. But I think if you listen to the albums in consecutive order, it seems to make a lot of sense.

BE: Is it hard to put together a set list that meshes well sonically, since your sound has changed so much over the years?

CJ: It is, actually. It isn’t an easy task for us. And also, there are a lot of people there to hear stuff off Frogstomp, and we try to keep a balance, but we just play one song off it (“Israel’s Son”). We’d rather play all the new stuff that we’re more excited about and enjoy playing a lot more than the old stuff. We just feel that we’re a completely different band now.

BE: You guys worked with Van Dyke Parks on the last couple of albums.

CJ: Yeah!

BE: How did that association come about?

CJ: That first came up right at the start of Diorama. I’m not sure who suggested Van Dyke Parks, but at first we thought, well, that he was dead! But someone did a bit more research and found that he was still alive and well, and still making music and doing string arrangements and stuff. So we got in contact with him, and he was up for coming down to Australia, so he came down to Australia and worked with us in Sydney, and, yeah, he’s just amazing. And he and Daniel formed a kind of special relationship, and Daniel was in touch with him throughout all the writing of Young Modern, and we knew from the beginning that Van Dyke Parks would be working again with us. So, yeah, we recorded it in L.A., and he came down to the studio and kind of got a feel for everything. And you just know that what he comes up with is, I dunno, his ideas and concepts just seem to marry with Daniel’s songwriting. It just works really well.

(On concertgoers who want to hear songs from Frogstomp) “We try to keep a balance, but we just play one song off it. We’d rather play all the new stuff that we’re more excited about and enjoy playing a lot more than the old stuff; we just feel that we’re a completely different band now.”

BE: As far as the new album, what led to that? Was the Wave Aid reunion performance the impetus to reform, or had you been talking about it already?

CJ: Yeah, Wave Aid was the last intervening factor. We hadn’t talked about doing a record at all before Wave Aid, but we played that night, and Midnight Oil performed as well, and they hadn’t played in a while. And just to see those guys out there performing, and they’d been a band for a lot longer than we have, and it was something really special. And, also, for us, it had been a couple of years since we’d played live together, and after the show, we were all just bonding, and said, “We’ve gotta make another record soon,” and decide what from there.

BE: How was the recording process? I know that Daniel had been recording some demos on his own, but did ya’ll just kind of come together and flesh them out as a group?

CJ: Yeah, yeah. We got together on two separate occasions, just in a little house in the middle of nowhere, just set up in a large room and played music all day, and got drunk and ate food under the stars by night. And we just did that for awhile, and then headed over to L.A. to record.

BE: (Producer) Nick Launay you’d certainly worked with before. Was it weird with the different sound of this album compared to, say, Freakshow?

CJ: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the band’s completely different. I think Nick’s techniques are still very similar. He’s really good at capturing a band’s performance, and that’s exactly what we were after. The stuff that he did with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Abattoir Blues, one of the albums was recorded live in one or two takes, and that was exactly what we wanted to do, so it just seemed like he was the right man for the job. And we’d sit up in the studio, and all the drums and the bass and rhythm guitar and keyboard lines were kind of recorded live together.

BE: How much did Daniel’s Dissociatives album affect the sound of Young Modern?

CJ: I don’t think it affected it at all. If anything, it was probably a good thing. All three of us went off and did different projects, just kind of getting away from Silverchair a little bit. I think it gives you other freedoms and other avenues to explore. It gives us, in a sense, a bit more freedom just to get away and leave the pressures of Silverchair behind for a little while and just experience something else for awhile. I think it was pretty healthy for all of us.

BE: Well, you did pretty well for yourself as well, producing the album by The Mess Hall and getting nominated for the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Producer of the Year award.

CJ: Well, a nomination, yeah. But a buddy of mine (Matt Lovell), he got Engineer of the Year for it.

BE: Did you enjoy stepping behind the console for a little bit?

CJ: Yeah, it was great! It was one of those things…I dunno, it just came about by chance, really. I just really loved the band and got on really well with them, and me and my friend did the EP earlier on, and one thing just led to another, and we ended up doing the album as well, which has led to other recording projects. I’ve played on friends’ albums down in Sydney, just little things here and there when Silverchair’s not going.

BE: You guys are the first Australian band ever to have five number one albums in your country. Was that surreal to realize that you’d accomplished that?

CJ: Yeah, it is pretty crazy. I mean, we’re not really big on the stats or anything like that, but, yeah, when we got told that, it was pretty overwhelming.

BE: And I’ve heard you also hold the record for most wins (19) at the annual ARIA Awards. Did you hear from John Farnham when you topped his record (of 18)?

CJ: Oh, yeah. (laughs) No, we haven’t heard from John Farnham yet.

“I’m not sure who suggested (working with) Van Dyke Parks, but at first we thought, well, that he was dead! But someone did a bit more research and found that he was still alive and well and still making music and doing string arrangements and stuff.”

BE: He’s probably bitter. So how’s Daniel’s health doing? I know he’d suffered pretty badly from reactive arthritis at one time.

CJ: Yeah, no, he’s all clean from that now. It took him a full two years to fully recover, but he’s fighting fit now.

BE: Y’know, when you guys played Lollapalooza, my editor said that you took home both the silver and the gold medals for Best Quotes of the Weekend.

CJ: What was that for, then?

BE: The runner-up was, “The band wanted me to tell you that we’re not gay,” because I guess you were sporting the porn-star mustaches.”

CJ: (chuckles) Yep.

BE: But the winner was, “I had a dream that I vomited dolphins.”

CJ: (laughs) Yep. That’s Daniel.

BE: Does he usually have words of wisdom like that for most every show?

CJ: Oh, yeah. I think it keeps things entertaining not only for himself and us but also for the people in the crowd. Lollapalooza was probably one of the funnest shows of that last run, actually.

BE: Do you generally tend to enjoy the touring, then? Because I’d guess that, at least in America, the size of the audience probably varies kind of dramatically.

CJ: Yeah, I mean, it’s still really enjoyable. We did a really small show just last week, to maybe 500 people. It was just a tiny little room, but it was packed, and there’s something still really enjoyable about the small shows. To me, sometimes they’re even more nerve-wracking.

BE: And I read a little bit about the “Across the Great Divide” tour of Australia. That sounds like it was quite a huge success.

CJ: Yeah, that was a great tour, actually. I didn’t think you could ever tour Australia for more than two or three weeks, but apparently you can, because we just did about 10 weeks there with another band, called Powderfinger, and in the smaller towns, where they didn’t have venues, we’d just find a big open area, set out the tarp we’d carry around in the trucks, set that up and play. It was really, really cool.

BE: Powderfinger was one of those bands that never really made it here. They did pretty well with Odyssey Number Five, but not enough to get anything further released.

CJ: Yeah, but their last album…I’m not sure about this latest one, but the last one sold really well in Australia.

BE: Was that Vulture Street?

CJ: Yeah, I think it was.

BE: Are there any other Australian bands who haven’t made it to the States that you think we should check out?

CJ: Actually, The Mess Hall just put out another record, and I’ve heard a few tracks off that already, and that’s amazing. There’s another new band called Operator Please, one called The Scare. The Presets, which are kind of like electro. There’s loads of great music in Australia in the moment.

BE: I actually discovered quite a few Australian bands I’d never been familiar with before through the CDs of Andrew Denton’s Musical Challenge.

CJ: Oh, yeah!

BE: Did you guys ever do that show?

CJ: No, I don’t think we did, actually.

BE: Okay, well, I’ll keep you on schedule, or, at least, try to, since I kind of screwed things up by calling late. But I’ve heard that you guys have been declared by Tenacious D as the holders of the Pick of Destiny. True?

CJ: Uh, yeah. Well, I guess we still do. We don’t physically have it, as such, but it’s here with us in spirit, and I’m sure one day we’ll pass it on.

BE: Well, if we could get a scoop on that when you do, that’d be awesome.

CJ: Oh, yeah, man. But we’re still making full use of it at the moment.

BE: Cool. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, and here’s hoping I have a babysitter the next time you come to town.

CJ: (laughs) Right! Thank you!

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