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POP MUSIC

Keep On Stompin' : Those Aussies in Silverchair have a debut hit album, are touring the United States for the fourth time--and they're only 16.

March 10, 1996|Sandy Masuo | Sandy Masuo writes about pop music for Calendar

If Bill and Ted were real-life Australian teenagers with a bass-playing buddy, they would be Silverchair, a trio of schoolboys whose first album, "Frogstomp," has abruptly launched them into rock stardom.

Powered by the singles "Tomorrow" (a Top 10 hit), "Pure Massacre" and the new "Israel's Son," "Frogstomp" has sold 1.5 million in the United States since its release last summer and is still going at the rate of about 20,000 a week. It spent three weeks in the Top 10 of the national sales charts, sending the group onto the tour circuit in such prestigious positions as the opening slot on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' upcoming East Coast swing.

Daniel Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou's excellent adventure began in high school in Newcastle, a blue-collar town two hours north of Sydney, where singer-guitarist Johns and drummer Gillies spent a fair portion of their adolescence jamming in their parents' living rooms and garages.

When the two decided to get serious and take the next step in their rock 'n' roll quest, they enlisted Joannou to play bass and dubbed themselves the Innocent Criminals. By June 1994, they'd renamed themselves Silverchair and submitted a song to a demo tape contest sponsored by an Australian video show.

Their prize was some studio time, and they used it to re-record "Tomorrow." The record became an alternative radio hit and caught the attention of Murmur, a Sony-affiliated Australian label that signed the band and released "Frogstomp" in Australia in June 1994. Epic Records in the U.S. then signed Silverchair and released the album here last June.

The three 16-year-olds have managed to fit four trips to the United States into their equivalent of our junior year of high school, and their single-minded pursuit of rock 'n' roll nirvana remains unencumbered by record industry rigmarole, the international dateline, occasional physical injuries--and, on a recent afternoon during a tour stop in L.A., an appendicitis scare that has sent drummer Gillies to Cedars-Sinai to have some mysterious abdominal pains checked out.

Johns and Joannou have just returned to their West Hollywood hotel after dropping Gillies at the hospital, and they settle into the cushy lobby furniture as if it were home.

Johns, whose streaky blond hair seems to be in the formative stages of dreadlocks, munches on a lettuce-and-tomato sub sandwich and sips apple juice. The pensive Joannou, deeply tan from the Australian summer sun, is an intent observer who listens carefully to Johns and inserts an occasional aside. When he starts to explain the rationale behind his new buzz-cut, Johns suddenly cuts him off.

"He's rebelling against metal," Johns says with a smirk. "So he's shaven his head to avoid a metal kind of image."

"He's just being stupid," Joannou says of his bandmate. "I just got sick of [having long hair]."

"We're just joking," Johns chimes in. "It looked crappy long."

Welcome to the world of Silverchair--a realm where nuances, implications and inferences don't exist. People, places and things fall into basically two categories--the good and the bad.

On the eve of their fourth American tour, where they'll open for the Chili Peppers, and with their album still going strong, things are pretty good. The band just had six weeks off, which was also good, but its only warmup gig before tonight's headlining show at the Hollywood Palladium was, according to Joannou, pretty bad.

Tied to this sense of good and bad is an equally unshakable perception of right and wrong that underlies the appeal of Silverchair's music. The songs don't dwell on the gray areas of the real world or the subjectivity of adult life, but neither do they offer the usual "I Just Want to Be Your Everything" sentiments.

"You say that money isn't everything, but I'd like to see you live without it," Johns sings in "Tomorrow." Though some might chalk up the statement to youthful idealism, it's also about actions speaking louder than words, a concept that has resonance with adults too.

"I find it incredibly refreshing," says David Massey, the vice president of artists & repertoire at Epic Records who signed the band.

"When you get to know them, they very much speak their minds. It's not complicated for them. It's just black and white. They know what feels right. They've got a lot to say, but it's a no-bull---- zone."

Having polished off their Subway fare and exhausted their store of observations for the afternoon, Johns and Joannou dart off to the elevators as soon as Gillies returns from the hospital, still a little uncomfortable but feeling well enough to down a sandwich. He's every bit as no-nonsense as his bandmates, though more inclined to talk about things than simply talk.

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