This isn’t a love letter to Daniel Johns.
Writing about Silverchair isn’t an easy task. Not only because it’s nearly impossible to write about their impact on me as a person and a musician, but because to write about Silverchair is to essentially write about my childhood, which is a lot to sift through. The band wasn’t an interest I listened to every now and again, they were a permanent fixture, interwoven with the most pivotal moments of my life between the ages of 11 and 22. They weren’t just an outlet, they were an escape. And in my teenage and early adulthood, there was a lot to escape from.
I’ll set the scene – It’s 1995 and I was 11 years old, growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in a small town called Buford, just starting to understand I was gay. This was before the suburban sprawl hit us with its massive malls and endless chain restaurants and big-box discount stores. Buford was a small community where everything revolved around the lake it sat upon. Summers were about jet skis, wakeboarding and hanging out on the dock. I came from a single-parent household, so my mom was always working and hardly ever really around. It was mainly just my brother and I, making grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, exploring the woods in our backyard, and just doing anything to fight the immense boredom that growing up in the suburbs forced us to endure.
I couldn’t afford to be gay in an outward or expressive kind of way, but I knew I was gay-ish by the time I reached puberty. Most kids like me latched on to theatre or choir (or both), but I was more interested in tapping into the alternative. I was lucky to live next door to this kid named Ricky, who was a skater and punk rocker. He showed me something I’d never heard before by introducing me to bands like NOFX, Circle Jerks, Operation Ivy, Bad Religion, and other iconic punk bands. Ricky was cool. Not just because he was a punk rocker, but he was much older than I was but still let me hang around and take in his culture.
I became a certified skater when I got to middle school, and once you start skating, you end up just meeting other skater kids by default. A neighborhood over from me lived this real redneck bozo named Bryan, who was sort of a different kind of skater than Ricky. He wore Dickies and Airwalks and oversized Yaga and Billabong tee shirts. His mom was also a single parent who wasn’t home much, but they lived in a nicer home so I ended up hanging out at his place a lot despite the fact I thought he was a total meathead.
Back in those days, when kids hung out, it was mainly about sharing music we were listening to. One kid would play a song, and then we’d eject the CD, and then the next kid would go and play something. We did this for hours.
One day Bryan put in a CD from a band that had a frog on the cover. He hit play, and a bass part came on that was so low and thumping, his speakers were distorting. I didn’t really get it, but then there was a four-hit of drums and guitars that left as soon as they started. And then the four-hit again. And then again. Then a distorted strum, and then the music kicked in. It was a slow tempo, garage-y, lazy riff that anyone with a taste for rock at that time would be into.
“Hate is what I feel for you, and I want you to know that I want you dead,” the singer started in, low voice, sorta Eddie Vedder meets Kurt Cobain meets, I dunno, something smoother. Something a little less weathered.
“Is this band called Silverchair or Frogstomp?” I asked.
Bryan answered back, “Silverchair. You like it? I can let you borrow it if you want.”
“Yeah, I like it. I’ll borrow it for a couple of days,” I responded.
It’s been 26 years and I still haven’t returned Bryan his Silverchair CD.
Frogstomp played on endless repeat until 1997’s Freakshow, which is the record that certified my obsession with Silverchair. From Freakshow into Neon Ballroom. Neon Ballroom into Diorama. Diorama into Young Modern. Each record hitting an era of my life that felt totally aligned with what the band was expressing in their music. I say I grew up listening to their music, what I mean is I grew up with them listening to their music, which is why the bond was so strong.
And here’s what I mean when I say I was obsessed:
I had an entire wall in my bedroom dedicated to posters, magazine cutouts, and cheap inkjet prints I had printed from fan sites on the Internet. I had every guitar tablature book, every Australian import, every tee shirt, every keychain, sticker, and beanie, was a member of their fan club (shoutout to the Llama Appreciation Society), and saw them when they played in, or around, my hometown countless times. I also bought every DVD and VHS they released, and even bought the same clothing brands they would wear. Any time I went to a record store, I looked to see if, by some random miracle they had something I didn’t have.
I wasn’t into Silverchair because they were cool. Actually, despite the band having radio and MTV hits and selling out venues in America, hardly anyone my age really knew who they were. I had done enough class presentations and wore enough tee shirts for the kids at my school to know that Silverchair was Joey Holman’s favorite band, but when it came to it, there weren’t a lot of peers my age I could share my fanhood with. This reality forced me to find a community online, in chat rooms and message boards, with other kids all around the world. I was even lucky enough to be involved with a select group of fans who duped and traded six-hour long VHS tapes full of live concert footage, foreign music channel interviews, and behind the scenes footage of their tours – all stuff that I couldn’t find in my country.
When I was in 9th grade, 99X (the radio station who was responsible for breaking Silverchair in the USA – shout out to Leslie Fram, the station’s program director who is singlehandedly responsible for any of us kids knowing about the band) was running a contest for two free tickets at The Roxy, a venue I saw the band perform at, at least five times over the years. This would’ve been during their Neon Ballroom-era, I think just a few days after (or before?) their album came out. The VJ of the station asked the question, “What was the original name of Silverchair’s band?” (Easy. Innocent Criminals, d’uh) and I called in right on time.
“99X,” the person on the other end the line answered.
“Innocent Criminals!” I said, hoping I was the first caller.
“Who is this?”
“And where are you calling from Joey?”
““Alright, Joey. That is correct. You’re the winner to see Silverchair live on March 14th at the Roxy Theatre.”
“Are you a big fan of the band, Joey?”
“I’m their biggest fan. I love them so much! I have posters all over the wall in my room, and…”
“Well wait, you don’t like them like that [gay], do you?”
(Pause)” Oh, haha. No, no!”
The truth was, I didn’t like them like that. By every metric, I should’ve been into fresh-faced, hot Australian dudes with a cute accent, but that wasn’t it for me. Still, did this VJ know I was gay? Could he tell in my voice? Did other people at my school think I was gay because I liked Silverchair? I remember vividly sitting on the floor of my bedroom as these questions came crashing down on me. It was the moment of total insecurity and fear. This should’ve been a moment of excitement (I had just been on the radio and I won tickets to see my favorite band), when in reality it was actually deflating and embarrassing.
Gay kids don’t get to be awkward teenagers. We don’t get to play out awkward sexual encounters at the same age as other kids, and we certainly don’t get to brag about it. There isn’t a cute “first date” scenario our parents champion. No prom or school dances we get to enjoy fully. And for most of us, we have to tip-toe around our identity, building up walls so high and so deep, hoping no one can see in. So when a grown man, an influential DJ on Atlanta’s number one radio station, live on the radio during primetime, accuses you of liking a band because you might be gay, you just have to laugh and say No.
Actually, this conversation with the VJ wasn’t unusual for me. As a teenager, I often had awkward conversations with grown-ups about Silverchair. My church’s youth group pastor thought they were evil. My mom’s friends thought they were Nirvana rip-offs. I even stormed into a teacher’s classroom in between classes to confront him because one of my friends said he was talking shit about Silverchair fans. Apparently, 99X had interviewed a bunch of kids who were waiting in line for the show to start (the same show I had won tickets for), and he heard them on the radio that night. My friend said he called the fans “stupid” and they “had bad taste in music”.
So, I walked right up to him, wearing the tee shirt I had just bought the night before, and said,
“We’re not stupid and Silverchair is an awesome band. You should buy their newest record and listen for yourself.” The teacher, not knowing who the hell I was, a little startled and confused just looked at me and answered reluctantly, “Okay.”
I won’t go into details about the first time I saw them play live, in 1995, but I remember the takeaway for me was that I didn’t have an excuse not to play and write my own music. I remember thinking they looked like the other skater kids I went to school with, just a couple grades above me. They were loud, loose, but so damned good. I thought that even though I may never be as good as a guitar player or singer as Daniel Johns or find a drummer like Ben Gillies or a bassist like Chris Joannou, the fact that they started a band in their garage, in Australia, and made it all the way over to me in America was reason enough to take my guitar playing more seriously. What I experienced the first show was a dream developing in me, to one day be in a band of my own.
The way I learned the guitar was more indicative of my personality than anything. What I would do is put in a CD, turn up the music as loud as it could go, and I would play along on my guitar, unplugged from an amp, moving my hands along the neck to fake chords that absolutely did not match up to what was happening in the music. But it was the nature of me “rocking out,” albeit not actually playing the song, that gave me some confidence. It taught me rhythm. How to sing and play at the same time. It gave me some swagger. It taught me how to connect to my instrument. When I would “play along” to Silverchair, I wasn’t becoming Daniel Johns; I was in Silverchair. I also sang into a microphone that wasn’t plugged in, which made the experience more real. I would know every pause, every down beat, every lyric, to every song.
Over time, I started actually figuring out how to play Silverchair songs. Well, learn is generous. Maybe I just figured out the intros and verses and got too lazy to figure out the rest. But it’s through these intros and verses that I figured out what chords meant. I learned about a clean versus overdriven guitar tone. I learned about an acoustic guitar versus an electric guitar. I learned structure in songs. By the time Neon Ballroom came out, I became liberated in my own songwriting, with songs like ‘Emotion Sickness‘ showing me that songs could have sections that were beyond just Verse-Chorus-Verse-Bridge-Outro. Neon Ballroom was about mood, not just the music. It was the first time I was seeing the band as actual artists expressing something beyond being loud.
As I wrote, I grew up in a single-parent household. Fairly standard of a broken home, I experienced a lot growing up. Yelling, arguing, domestic violence, drug use; really just seeing too much too quickly and not having a way to get out. So Silverchair became the equivalent of an emotional support animal. If things felt weird in the house, I would go to my room and zone out. To play it safe, I often fell asleep with headphones on so I wouldn’t be startled by the violence happening on the other end to the house (a habit I still have at 37). When Daniel would sing “We are the youth,” (on ‘Anthem for the Year 2000‘) it felt like he was telling me to get tough, to understand that my identity was valid and that I mattered. When he was open about his own emotional and mental struggles in interviews, though I didn’t have the tools to identify directly what he was talking about, I felt what he was talking about. Living in a small town didn’t afford me any opportunities to feel like I could do something bigger, but Silverchair forced me to dream. That even if I didn’t become famous, a passion for music could be the entry point into something that would get me the hell out of Buford.
Just a couple of weeks before I finished high school, Diorama came out. I had finished the emotional intensity of dodging every claim of being gay, living in a home full of drugs and violence, and things were feeling fresh.
I met a friend in my biology class named Priscilla, and though she wasn’t a total nut for Silverchair in the same way I was, we shared some level of passion for the band. We both got the record when it came out, also ordering the DVD of the making of the album, and we watched it as soon as it landed in our mailboxes (from Australia, of course). It was this era of making new friends, never needing to return to the bleakness of high school, and summer around the corner that made me completely tapped in to the emotional energy of Diorama. It couldn’t have come at a more perfect time, not just in my life, but what was happening with technology.
This is the same time Daniel developed crippling arthritis, so their American tour had to be canceled. Though I never got to see them during this tour cycle, the Internet was getting good with faster speeds and more formats to watch things. I got to see their Big Day Out performance (over and over again) and their European festival shows all online.
Through college, I was finding my voice. I majored in biology (I was totally not smart enough to do this), but my heart was still in music. I was in bands during high school, but at this point, I met a guy named Matt Goldman who was a notable indie rock producer in Atlanta. He took a liking to me and allowed me to be at his studio as he was recording bands I looked up to. This experience taught me to take my guitar playing even more seriously, and I eventually left college to move to Nashville to play in a band.
It wasn’t anything like I thought it’d be. I was living the dream – touring, writing, recording, rehearsing, doing interviews, playing shows, and I was deeply unhappy, mainly because I couldn’t be my true self. Oh, something I forgot to mention was that I became a Christian when I was 14, right before Neon Ballroom came out. I didn’t grow up religious, but I was always deeply jealous of the kids in my school that talked about youth group, church retreats, camps, etc., so by chance, I started going to a church nearby my house. And it was through this that I got deep into the indie Christian music scene, which admittedly does sound cheesy, but it’s the same scene that developed bands like Underoath, Anberlin, Paramore, Norma Jean, and a whole lot more. So the band I joined out of college was a Christian band in that same scene. We were cool, though. The music was interesting, we got compared a lot to Radiohead and (old) Coldplay. Our shows were emotional, and we took what we did very seriously. I joined the band just before 2007‘s Young Modern came out, and I was on tour when tickets went on sale in Atlanta. The show sold out super quickly, and I contacted the radio station and let them know my situation, and they got me a spot to see their pre-show soundcheck that concluded with a chance to meet the band and have them sign autographs (and get a picture with them). I also reached out to the band’s booking agency, and they said they’d put me on the guest list (they ended up not doing that, but my friend Priscilla, who I wrote about earlier, had an extra ticket that I got to use).
At this point of Young Modern, I was really coming to terms with who I was sexually. The residue of evangelical Christianity was so potent, so hard to wash off, but slowly I was finding myself. Though deep in the Christian music scene, a scene that was impossible to be openly gay in, I still found ways to survive and find community that nourished that part of myself. The music in Young Modern was fun and free, which is how I was beginning to feel. The band took risks in their music, and you could tell they were pioneering a new sound that bands weren’t comfortable being in just yet. Like Diorama, song structure at this point was out the window. Have you listened to ‘Those Thieving Birds‘? Fuck your standard sections in a song. This was a full on opera crammed into a single song.
Like Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, Queen, and others, Silverchair embraced this idea of allowing a song to express all sides of one mood. It can feel sad and quiet, but it can also be loud and orchestral and energetic all at the same time. It’s what you’re seeing happening now in rap and R&B in artists like Drake and Ty Dolla $ign. It’s much more about the full range of a mood than just trying to fit in one idea into a traditionally structured song, and Silverchair were even a known inspiration as artists as huge as Kanye West. I’m not sure at this point if that’s a compliment or not, but I think it is.
And then they ended. After the Young Modern touring cycle, the band tried to make another record but the popcorn just wasn’t popping. Which, in my opinion, is totally fine. The band gave us what we needed and they went on (and are still going on) to do great things. Ben Gillies is still an amazing drummer who is releasing music that is great. Daniel Johns did his solo project and is now doing Dreams (which is also so good). Chris Joannou is… well, I have no idea because he’s not on social media but I’m sure whatever he’s doing is great.
And I’ve moved on from Silverchair too. Not that I don’t revisit their music anymore (when’s the last time you listened to ‘Without You‘? Wow.), but I’m just at a different place in my life. Now, I have a band called MAN ON MAN with my partner, Roddy. We started our project during lockdown last year in quarantine, and it evolved into a full expression of our queer love. We shot a video that got some attention, and we eventually signed to Polyvinyl and put out our self-titled record in May. This project is everything I could’ve ever wanted and is a nice answer to the oppression I was forced to live in as a kid and someone in my early 20s. The damage of those years has been hard to wash off, like a cheap perfume, but it’s almost gone, and its smell is more like a memory than an actuality.
My partner Roddy [Bottum] is in a bigger band called Faith No More, and he was actually responsible for the scene that Silverchair was inspired by. The band that Silverchair was so often compared to, even accused of ripping off, he was friends with. Does he think my love for Silverchair is a little silly? Probably. But to be fair, he isn’t a fan of most bands who were labeled as grunge – he was more of a Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and L7 kind of guy. And that’s okay, too.
I often recall Silverchair’s music in my own inspiration when I’m writing songs – the guitar tone in ‘One Way Mule‘, the snare sound in ‘Findaway‘, the vocal warmth in ‘Straight Lines‘, the bass feel in ‘Steam Will Rise‘, the simple strings in ‘Paint Pastel Princess‘, and so on. This band is in me and they’re not going away. I know a lot of you reading who had the same affinity for the band feel the same way. Do we miss them? Sure. But would I turn into a fanboy if I were to meet any of them today? Probably not. We’re grown-ups now.
Not to take a hard left, but I guess this is all more of a love letter to my mom. In just a couple of weeks, it will be the two-year anniversary of her death, so I’m thinking about her a lot lately.
While she lived paycheck to paycheck most of her working life, she made room for me and my music interests by buying me CDs, guitars, guitar strings, pedals, amps, concert tickets, show merchandise, amongst other things. When I was in college and gave her the news that I’d be moving to Nashville to play music for a living, she didn’t tell me what a waste of time and money college was, rather, she was so excited for me. Every time Silverchair played in my hometown, she let me skip school and wait in line with the other Silverchair freaks, 8 hours before the venue’s doors even opened, a place where I made friends and experienced community. She drove me to the radio station to pick up the tickets I had won. She let me put up all those posters in my room. She never, not even once, banged on my bedroom door demanding I turn down the music while I was playing out my musical fantasies. She brought me to the festivals and hung out with me all day until Silverchair played in the evening. She let me play them in the car. She let me use her credit card in the 90s to purchase import CDs and tee shirts from Australia when this is the time no one was purchasing things from the internet for fear of identity theft. She let me sit in the living room and watch hours and hours of footage that she’d heard me play a million times before. And, actually, she liked Silverchair, too.
My mom passed away in my childhood bedroom. The same place the posters hung. The same place the music was cranking. The same place I called the radio station to win the tickets. The same place I learned to play guitar. The same place I prayed God would take my gayness away (thankfully, he never did). Though the room looked different from when I was a teenager, it still served as a portal to the other side. It provided a place to experience life beyond life, an escape from pain – both for me as a teenager, and for my mother in her last days.
Even though I may never be able to fully understand or know what that room and my mom and Silverchair gave me, I’ll keep all of it forever.
Written by Joey Holman Insta: @holmanholmanholman
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