Music

Daniel Johns On Writer’s Block, Grieving Silverchair, And Never Satisfying Fans

"At 'Neon Ballroom' they want 'Frogstomp'. When I did 'Diorama' they want 'Neon Ballroom'. Then the Dissociatives comes out and they’re like, 'What are you gay now?’"

There’s a moment in every interview, before the very first interaction, in which all the images, media and stories you have attributed to a celebrity over time rush forward in a concentrated burst and then, just as quickly, disappear, revealing the very human artist seated before you. And so begins my interview with Daniel Johns, as he swans into the room with enough gusto to flick the tails of his black waistcoat up into the air. “The coat? A friend gave it to me.” He’s in a good mood but so quietly spoken I’m worried my recorder won’t pick up a word.

I panic and desperately pull a name out of my pocket: “We have a mutual friend in Paul Mac!”

“Oh.” He looks puzzled. And I’ve fucked the interview in ten seconds.

“Oh! You’re that Brendan! Hello!”

Johns’ angular face is immediately softened by a generous boyish smile, as he settles into his seat and pulls out a silver vaporizer, marking each question with a puff of smoke and the flash of a little blue light.

“I’m stoked,” Johns says of Talk, his first album release in almost nine years. “I’m the musical director of the record. That’s my job. There were so many different producers [including Grammy award-winner M-Phazes and the mastermind behind Lorde, Joel Little], and it was my responsibility to keep it coherent. Making sure the palette was always correct – even if something sounded amazing you might need to veto it, otherwise [the song] ends up sounding like an out-take, and instead of an album and you have a collection of iTunes Exclusives or bonus tracks.”

If the album is anything, it’s coherent. Stripped of guitars and the drum work of Silverchair’s Ben Gillies, Talk leans almost singularly on the spacious blend of hip hop drums and RnB vibes perfected by James Blake in 2011, and later capitlised on by Flume and Chet Faker. “For me it’s all about Prince, D’Angelo and James Blake, that’s probably the triad of the future.” He looks upwards considering his list: “And vintage Janet Jackson. I’m not saying that to be ironic by the way – it’s a great sound.”

He’s nailed the genre. Tracks like ‘We Are Golden’ and lead single ‘Aerial Love’ perfectly capture a moment in time ruled by wobbly, sub-shaking bass lines, mathematic high-hats and bridges filled with Brian Eno-esque walls of synth — though whether or not this album’s production has advanced a musical movement or simply referenced it isn’t clear. It instead remains Daniel himself who has provided Talk with its most daring and unique elements:  his remarkable alien vocals and ingeniously bent melodies.

At nearly an hour playing time, the album is almost too much for one sitting, but after all these years of silence you can forgive Johns for having a fair bit to say.

“It was horrible,” Johns says of the band break-up, “I had the longest stint of writers block. When I left Silverchair [in 2007] I didn’t even know how to start talking about things going through my head. The dissolution of my band — that was like a marriage. I’ve been in that band since I was twelve years old and it ended at nearly thirty, a sixteen-year intimate relationship. That affected me more than my actual marriage breaking up. I had to grieve it – and then to rebel, and to protest against that loss.”

“I withdrew. I just withdrew real hard,” he says, his voice cracking a touch. “I leapt around the world. And then I just went home [to Newcastle], I felt like a puppy dog, I closed the blinds, bought a few toys: vocoder, drum machine. I just fucked around for years. I was just making noise. I didn’t know if I wanted to release a record, or even be an artist, or be this fuckin’ popstar anymore.”

He spits the word  “popstar” out with lashings of bile. It’s understandable: even when you put aside the unique national obsession with his sometimes-volatile personal life (just a week before we spoke, Johns was taken by paramedics to a Sydney hospital following reports of “an intoxicated man on the ground who had fallen”) , there is no artist in Australian history that receives the same amount of scrutiny as Daniel Johns. Behind a spikey mountain of ARIAs sits an oddly demanding and divided fanclub, whose criticisms of Daniel’s career are a largely hypocritical list of labels like “Nirvana in pyjamas”, “gone soft” or “too experimental.”

“It doesn’t matter a great deal to me. [But] it does seem to matter a great deal to other people.” He laughs like he’s in on a joke no one else gets. “Every step along the way, people preferred the last album. At Neon Ballroom they want Frogstomp. When I did Diorama they want Neon Ballroom. Then the Dissociatives comes out and they’re like, ‘What, are you gay now?’ I suppose I don’t care what many people think of it — maybe just Paul [Mac] and Jonny [Seymour]? They were the first ones to cook me a meal after I went through anorexia.” I ask what his parents think: “I don’t think mum likes this record very much.” He grins and blushes, making his blue eyes, outlined by a dash of black liner, just a little bluer.

Talk is a curious and brilliant pop album. You can feel Daniel actively playing against his usual vocal tones and rhythms, at times evoking completely new characters – like whoever the gospel singer is who decided to possess him during ‘Imagination’. There are also moments of simplicity amongst the complexity, the stand-out being ‘New York’ where, for a moment, Daniel is accompanied only by Mac at the piano, a much needed exhale within such a tense, jittery soundscape. Finally, we’re left  with what is possibly the most bizarre track of Johns’ career, ‘Good Luck’, best summed up as choir-boy-meets-Vincent Price on a B-Movie Horror Soundtrack — so odd, in fact, that it almost overshadows the entire album. I was left curious as to what might have happen had he released this all a little earlier, with less input from his gaggle of producers? Perhaps something truly new would have arisen — or perhaps it would simply turn into the train-wreck which was Lady Gaga’s mostly self-produced flop ArtPop.

His agent pops her head in to wrap us up, Daniel asks for five more minutes. I reach for the oddball questions I’d brought, initially intended as icebreakers. Last track he played from phone? He doesn’t listen to music on his phone. Favourite Youtube video? He doesn’t really have one. Who would you bring to dinner?

“Hendrix,” he blurts out without missing a beat. “I grew up with Jimi Hendrix — I’ve never heard anyone be so in love, so expressive on an instrument. I know how hard it is.” He pauses and looks down to his open palms, “I kind of… I’m aware of my hands. They are a bit,” he pauses:  “shitty.” Is it the arthritis again? “Not arthritic — no. But I’m constantly scared of getting too attached to playing an instrument just in case my hands ever go. I don’t want that to stop the music.”

What would stop the music?

“I could do it without my arms and legs probably.” He giggles and lifts his feet up onto the spinning office chair. “It’ll just be my head on a plinth! That’s the swan song.”

Could it be called, ‘Daniel Johns: What Are You Gay Now?’

“Absolutely! But the plinth is pivotal.”

Talk will be released this Friday May 22, through EMI.

Daniel Johns is playing at Sydney Opera House on May 28 and May 29 — tickets here

Brendan Maclean is a solo artist, actor and writer. He tweets at @macleanbrendan, and his new EP is available on Bandcamp.