People really, really love Daniel Johns.
The Spotify podcast delving into the life and music of the enigmatic Silverchair/Dissociatives/Dreams frontman, Who is Daniel Johns?, has supposedly overtaken Joe Rogan on that platform for listens in Australia.
But what’s most notable about the podcast is that it exists at all.
Johns has had a difficult relationship with the media and is notoriously averse to interviews – possibly because the few he does are always such high-stakes affairs. Last time he was in the public eye he was being grilled by Andrew Denton on national TV; now he’s letting podcasters into his childhood bedroom to fossick through his teenage diaries. Kudos to podcast creators Kaitlin Sawrey, Amelia Chappelow and Frank Lopez for getting this level of access without some sort of elaborate heist.
Across five weekly episodes – the third launched on Wednesday – Johns and various important people discuss his life and work, jumping from his childhood in Newcastle, to stalkers on international tours, to the reactive arthritis which sidelined him for two years. There’s a chat with lifelong influence and Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan; and in an upcoming episode, Natalie Imbruglia. It’s like you’re wandering through Johns’ brain and being distracted by whatever catches his attention.
It’s been suggested that this five-part podcast, whose third episode launched on Wednesday, tells the Australian equivalent of Britney Spears’ fame-trauma story – and there are definite parallels between these two artists, both thrust into an unrelenting global spotlight in their teens, and both saddled with significant trauma as a result. Johns was just 14 when Silverchair’s Frogstomp came out – is it any shock that 30 years of attention might have left him not entirely comfortable in his skin?
Johns agreed to the project as a way to launch new music without having to play live – although the only hints thus far have been some tantalising passages of instrumental piano, and background bursts of sound. But the deeper reason to undergo such scrutiny appears to be a desire to be understood – while maintaining a safe distance.
Who is Daniel Johns is explicitly not a Silverchair podcast: in fact, it’s entirely possible that devoted fans of the ‘Chair will be feeling rather more ambivalent about them after listening to this.
Obviously the band are talked about throughout – the entire third episode is essentially about the artistic triumphs, industry pressures and medical catastrophes around Diorama, the album generally regarded as Johns’ masterpiece to date. And there are extensive interviews with people close to the band including Paul Mac (who played keys with Silverchair and was Johns’ partner in the Dissociatives), and producers Kevin Shirley (Frogstomp), Nick Launay (Freak Show, Neon Ballroom and Young Modern) and the legendary Van Dyke Parks (who did the orchestral arrangements for Diorama and Young Modern) – as well as longtime manager John Watson.
But there have been two very notable absences so far: bassist Chris Joannou and drummer Ben Gillies, Johns’ childhood friends and Silverchair bandmates. In the podcast, Johns says he wouldn’t consider a reunion “for a million dollars and with a gun to my head”, and there’s no Silverchair paraphernalia in his house at all (his parents have hung onto it, though). This doesn’t seem like someone who is just a bit over his old band; it’s as though he wants to put as much distance as possible between the past and the present.
From the stories told by Johns and Watson, it’s not a surprise. The band became famous before Johns felt he had any sense of himself as an artist – and what 42-year-old wants to be compared with their 14-year-old self?
More than that, what Johns experienced was downright traumatic – from the utterly obsessive adoration of potentially suicidal fans, to the anorexia he articulated in Ana’s Song, to the violent bullying he suffered at school. “It was so brutal, I was scared every day, everyone wanted to bash me,” he tells Sawrey. “You go on the road and everyone would love me, and I’d go back to school and everyone would hate me – and they wonder why I have a mental condition!”
The absence of his ex-Silverchair bandmates is the yawning vacuum at the heart of the podcast. That’s especially true of Gillies: Johns speaks warmly about the popular drummer, who took him under his wing when Johns was forced to repeat year three (not least because “Ben was the coolest guy in primary school”). Gillies changed his life, Johns says, and the obvious affection with which he speaks of his oldest friend makes their seeming estrangement genuinely heartbreaking.
The final two episodes will take listeners to the end of the band, covering Johns’ four-year marriage to Natalie Imbruglia and whatever comes next – and perhaps a clearer picture will emerge. At this point, however, the question of who Daniel Johns is remains as opaque as ever.
• Who is Daniel Johns is available to stream on Spotify