There is a theory that critics fresh out of university like to espouse called “the death of the artist”, which suggests all art should be judged separate from its maker; that all pertinent information can be found within the work, and anything outside of it – say, a recent drink-driving charge and a redemptive three-part documentary series – will only colour the art in a detrimental way.
Of course, this isn’t at all how it works. Australia’s quarter-century fascination with the personal struggles of Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns shows the art and the life of this particular artist are deeply linked. Johns’ highly publicised struggles don’t just feed into his music, they directly inform it. His fans love him due to the unflinchingly personal nature of his music.
Both Johns and his management team are well aware of this. Which is why, less than a year since his psyche-trawling hit podcast we have three more officially sanctioned dives into the dark depths of Daniel Johns: an autobiographical featurette created by Johns, whose trailer is out now; a three-part docuseries which just premiered on YouTube; and an art installation-meets-archival excavation which opens in Melbourne on Friday.
The exhibition is titled Past, Present & FutureNever, after the album Johns released in April; his brother and label manager Heath calls it “a multilevel sensory experience that is equal parts art exhibition and theme park”. Featuring ephemera and keepsakes from throughout his career – including original handwritten lyrics, school reports and diary entries – it also acts as proof positive that proud parents make the very best hoarders.
The first episode of the series, titled Inside the Mind of Daniel Johns, is now streaming: a sit-down interview, during which Johns is gently probed by KROQ announcer Megan Holiday into candidly discussing his recent breakdown, his struggle with self-medication and his guilt and shame over a drink-driving incident in March that could have landed him in jail.
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“I like being reckless,” Johns admits of the accident, “but I only like being reckless when I’m hurting myself. I don’t like that I put other people in a situation.” He explains how he disassociated in the days leading up to the crash and that he thought he was dying. “Every day I felt like I wasn’t in my body; it was like a bad trip.”
The series is part mea culpa for the drunk driving, part promotional tool for an album he was unable to shill due to a subsequent stay in rehab and unwilling to tour after retiring from the stage.
As with five-part podcast Who Is Daniel Johns?, this is a sanctioned production, released through his official channel. And as with the podcast, Johns completely controls the narrative, revealing only what he wishes to as he traces recent mistakes and addictions to their not-so-hidden roots. “I just kept really masking what the real issue was,” he admits. “If I was feeling really awful, I’d focus on work, or I’d focus on drinking – anything that wasn’t the actual problem.”
Holiday admits she is a massive fan who was flown to Australia by Johns’ management team to conduct the interviews from his Newcastle home. She does the job well, lobbing softballs that act as thematic launchpads for Johns, but this isn’t an FBI grilling. As Johns explains, “It’s the best of all the options. I don’t really enjoy doing interviews that much, but I really don’t like doing interviews and not knowing how it’s going to be spun.”
It makes sense that Johns would want to control the message. In Silverchair, he was a vulnerable teenager propelled to global stardom, being followed by photographers in his school uniform. His adult life was derailed in 2019 by a smear on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph (Johns later won a six-figure settlement after the story was proven demonstrably untrue). The media is clearly baying for Johns’ story – but just how many trips do we need to take inside his mind?
The musician has been opening up in a controlled format since 1998’s Neon Ballroom, which was preceded by an SBS documentary about Johns’ eating disorder. In 2002, in lieu of touring, he sat down with Rove McManus to discuss his struggle with arthritis and to lightly joke with Rove about maybe drinking to fight interview nerves. (“Alcohol exacerbates the problem, I think,” Johns said, not untruthfully.)
Another one-on-one happened in 2004 with Andrew Denton, and then with Denton again in 2015, when Johns tackled the fallout of his first drink-driving charge, explaining: “I was medicating my anxiety with alcohol a lot.”
Of this new interview, the biggest reveal is that Johns asked Silverchair bandmates Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou to contribute to Reclaim Your Heart, the bombastic opener to FutureNever. His olive branch was declined, but Johns seems at peace with the gesture and what it meant. “I asked them not out of necessity, I asked them because I wanted to make it clear that I don’t have an issue with them as people – I just didn’t want to play under the banner of Silverchair,” he said. “When they didn’t want to, I didn’t care.”
The most interesting revelations in the first episode of the series come at odd moments.
Holiday attempts to nudge Johns towards the idea that his anorexia and arthritis led to his first attempts to self-medicate, only for Johns to admit it was actually his related fear of a wasted life that led him towards hedonism. “I really thought that was the end,” he recalls. “I remember so many nights in bed, not being able to move, regretting that I hadn’t had any fun.”
As his body repaired, he was determined to correct the course. “I remember having a moment going: ‘I’m gonna make up for lost time’,” he tells Holiday. It’s the only time his eyes really sparkle.
Inside the Mind of Daniel Johns is a weekly three-part series, with episode one available now. Past, Present & FutureNever is a ticketed event, which opens at Rialto Melbourne on 26 August. The short film What If The Future Never Happened? is coming soon. The album FutureNever is out now