May 4, 2022

Music

Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’

By Sam Twyford-Moore
Image of Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past

Daniel Johns, the once golden child of Newcastle band Silverchair, ended 2021 with a self-searching question. Who is Daniel Johns? asked a Spotify original podcast, wittily co-written and warmly hosted by Kaitlyn Sawrey. The concept of the five-episode series was dreamt up by Johns and his record label, BMG, in order to pre-promote a new album without Johns having to complete the typical touring, something he had long tried to avoid. Instead of filling a sports arena as he once might have, Johns invited a small team of audio producers into his home and agreed to sit with them for interviews with his inner circle of friends and colleagues. The resulting series knocked the notorious American contrarian Joe Rogan down the Australian podcast charts and went to number one.

It was canny of the producers to frame the title as a question. Having grown up just outside of the Steel City myself, Johns had, for me, long invited a sense of mystery, with rumours of his reclusiveness proving particularly bewitching. I had often imagined him, sitting up high in the hills above Merewether Ocean Baths, locked away and looking slightly feral, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Who is Daniel Johns? made serious efforts to draw out just how close to reality these imaginings were. 

The series also asked us to consider just how long Johns has been in our lives. He had put together his famous band while at Newcastle High, roping in his classmates Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou, with the trio originally going around town as Innocent Criminals. Silverchair, as they became known, were discovered in 1994 through a national music competition run by SBS TV and Triple J Radio. Hardened early listeners suggested they leant too hard on their grunge music forebears, namely the Seattle juggernauts Nirvana and Pearl Jam. In some ways, the comparisons couldn’t be helped because the similarities were baked into the DNA of the young, blonde Johns. Courtney Love, on seeing the singer perform, laid it out in her typically take-no-prisoners style: “He sounds like Eddie Vedder and he looks like my dead husband.”

As with any band, Silverchair were influenced by their contemporaries, but one need only listen to their first single to know that they had their own path to follow. When “Tomorrow” dropped, it spent six weeks at number one on the Australian music charts, and a recent ranking of their songs from Guardian Australia reckoned, after all these years, it remains their best. Listening to “Tomorrow”, you can hear why this case has been made, as it retains its central mystery: how was a young teenager – a child – singing in such a guttural adult register about bilge water and money not stretching far enough, and convincing us along the way?

That landmark song was included on the band’s debut album, Frogstomp, released in 1995, which was followed by Freak Show two years later. The same time period separated their next effort, but, by then, a totally new sensibility had gripped Johns. Neon Ballroom featured songs that were far more sensitive in lyric and lusher in sound. In the ’90s, heavier Australian bands of a certain age could not stop themselves from hiring a string section (Grinspoon’s “Chemical Heart” might be the nadir of this trend), and this was true of 2002’s Diorama, built as it was on a maximalist approach to instrumentation that often veered into overblown territory while it attempted something new. Young Modern, the band’s fifth and final album, pushed the band to breaking point, as Johns obsessed over production details and budgets were blown out. A sixth album was attempted, but the group ultimately dissolved.

Salad days over, and having successfully answered the question, What if Kurt Cobain had survived but had begun taking his musical cues from Leonard Bernstein?, Johns struggled to land on a stable artistic identity. He turned to increasingly eclectic collaborators, developing a taste for side-acts. New duos with Paul Mac (The Dissociatives) and Luke Steele (DREAMS) were hastily launched but failed to graduate beyond a standalone release. He would do better out on his own. Johns’ first truly solo record, Talk, arrived in 2015, wisely leaning further into his natural falsetto, and, in doing so, the songwriter found an unforeseen gift for R’n’B. A second solo album, FutureNever, was announced late last year, with a release date of April 1, 2022 pencilled in the calendar.

But Johns would eventually absent April Fools’ Day, informing fans in early March that the record would be pushed back three weeks, to afford him time to make room for a new collaboration with the composer Van Dyke Parks. The Mississippi-born Parks had first worked with Silverchair on Diorama. The eccentric, chatty bandleader had helped a young Johns realise his theatrical ambitions through ornate orchestral arrangements. Any musician who worked with Van Dyke Parks would naturally be seen to be chasing the inheritances of Parks’ most famous collaborator, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Johns shared Wilson’s gift for layered melody. (Silverchair’s manager once said, of Johns overcomplicating his music on Young Modern: “He can listen to seven melodies at once, and understand all of them, and enjoy all of them. And that doesn’t work for most listeners, I mean, really doesn’t work”.) The similarities, however, didn’t end with strains of the musical kind.

Who is Daniel Johns? sensitively discussed Johns’ Wilson-like struggles with mental ill health, although the revelations contained within weren’t necessarily new. From a young age, Johns had been remarkably open about his experiences with anorexia nervosa, a disclosure particularly rare coming from a young man. The circumstances were made clearer through the reporting in the podcast; Johns had long been in a painful loop of mental and physical chronic ill health. As a result of his anorexia, he had been diagnosed with reactive arthritis in his early twenties, which affected his ability to play live without submitting himself to acute hurt.

Confessions, of course, can take their own cruel toll on the confessor. In the final episode of the podcast series, host Kaitlyn Sawrey asked Johns if he saw his relationship with alcohol as problematic and something of a work-in-progress. Johns admitted to needing two drinks before submitting to interviews. Five months later, at 10.30pm on March 23, 2022, Johns was driving in the Hunter region when he crashed his SUV into an oncoming van, forcing the van to tip over on a nature strip. At the police station, Johns returned a breath-test of 0.157 and was charged with high-range drink driving. In court, 10 days out from the release of his new album, Johns, via his lawyer, pleaded guilty. The singer posted to Instagram saying he had been experiencing panic attacks in the weeks leading up to the accident, and reiterated his diagnosis of anxiety, PTSD and depression. As a result, the release of FutureNever took place with its maker out of sight – Johns had voluntarily admitted himself into a rehab facility the day after the accident – and facing a sentencing that could result in jail time. I began to doubt whether BMG would release the album in light of these extreme circumstances, but it appeared on schedule on streaming platforms.

An eclectic mix of genres fires FutureNever up, spinning more like a pop-heavy playlist set on shuffle than a cohesive album. It’s a chance for Johns to continue the auditing of his past apace. The podcast had divulged that Johns, no longer able to co-exist with the memories of Silverchair, had excised his house of the band’s memorabilia – it was jettisoned to his childhood home to live with his parents – so it is curious to find the 1997 Silverchair hit “Freak” making an unexpected reappearance on the new album. Reworked as “FreakNever (feat. purplegirl)”, the track clicks Johns’ working theme into place, casting the album as an investigation of arrested development and an unshakeable party boy persona (“Cocaine Killa”, “D4NGRSBOY”), while drawing out a parallel universe where the singer never moved past his band. The timing makes sense: Johns has very nearly been working independently of Silverchair as long as he was in it.

Not everything, however, is quite so backward looking. Indeed, there is an unexpected prescience of recent events built into some of the song titles. The newly accommodated collaboration with Parks is called “Emergency Calls Only”, and a song late in the album, “Someone Call an Ambulance”, arrives as a plea: “No one’s tipping it to go too well”. These unnerving resonances cannot help but take us out of Johns’ new, fitful music and straight back to the reality in which the album has been released. The recent charge haunts, but this wasn’t even the first time Johns had pleaded guilty on the same count. He was charged for mid-range drink driving in October 2014, after being caught speeding in the streets of Merewether. A new question then begins to settle in: How do we achieve restorative justice when people who live with personally disruptive forms of mental ill health put others in harm’s way at the same time? A set of songs can’t answer that question; the story of Daniel Johns, however, one day might.

Sam Twyford-Moore

Sam Twyford-Moore is the author of The Rapids: Ways of Looking at Mania (University of Toronto Press). 

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