The collaboration between Daniel Johns, former Silverchair frontman, and Luke Steele, of The Sleepy Jackson and Empire Of The Sun, is among the most mythologised in Australian music. Now, after 15 years, their art-pop project – named DREAMS – is materialising at last.
When in January the Coachella bill circulated, nerds mused about the identity of the mysterious act DREAMS – who had no output. In a first, the festival booked the Australian super-duo on legacy alone. In March, following a sly social media campaign, DREAMS debuted with ‘No One Defeats Us’ – an electro-funk catch-cry for their “gang”. Then, on Coachella eve, the combo shared ‘Silence’ – a collision of N*E*R*D and Arca. (DREAMS’ singles have just been remixed by legendary turntablist Grandmaster Flash.)
Live streamed via Coachella’s YouTube channel, DREAMS performed a visceral slot of grungy industrial – with Johns (aka Dr Dreams) and Steele (Miracle) as co-vocalists attired in apocalyptically glam costumes. Amusingly, on Setlist.com the majority of tracks still carry the title “Unknown”. “It was amazing!” Johns laughs, looking back. “That was literally the first time we’ve ever played the songs live, at Coachella, so I guess we kind of like to raise the bar. The pressure was on straight away. But it was really good ’cause we had to get good enough to play at Coachella in our first batch of rehearsals. There was no getting ready and warming up and seeing what worked with the crowd. We didn’t have anything but the album that we’d just finished. So it was like, ‘If they don’t like this, we don’t have a Plan B.'”
Today, Johns is sanguine. As an interviewee, he’s thoughtful, witty and gently self-deprecating. Only when his pooch suddenly barks in the background is Johns momentarily embarrassed. The polymath has often spoken about his mental health struggles. Yet, recently, a visibly apprehensive Johns guested on Andrew Denton’s chat show, Interview, disclosing the extent of his profound anxiety and self-medication with alcohol.
Then a Newcastle high schooler, Johns found global fame in the ’90s as Silverchair’s lead vocalist and guitarist. Initially associated with the grunge movement, the band gravitated towards post-rock – becoming an Antipodean Radiohead. In 2011, Silverchair signalled their disbandment. Johns eventually re-emerged as a solo artist, reinventing himself with the stellar avant-soul LP Talk. He launched the album successfully at Vivid LIVE but didn’t tour – due to performance anxiety.
The epic Johns and Steele relationship began in 2003 with The Sleepy Jackson supporting Silverchair. The two bonded immediately, jamming on piano backstage. Steele contributed to Silverchair’s fifth album, Young Modern, of 2007. The next year, he and Johns were recording together as Hathaway And Palmer. Years of Avalanches-level teasing, hype and speculation ensued. Meanwhile, Johns was snapped with “DREAMS” tattooed on his neck…
If DREAMS’ music shifted, their endgame didn’t. “I think our vision has never, never changed, really,” Johns ponders. “We started writing together – I think I was 22 or something and we’re the same age so Luke was 22. We’re now, like, 38, 39. So it’s been a long time. But the vision’s always kind of been the same. We’ve always been this two-man gang that had this kindred, almost spiritual, connection with each other – because we always felt a little bit on the outside. It’s always felt like, in whatever group we were hanging around, or separate groups, we were some weirdos! So, when we got together, it was almost like an accidental celebration of how much we wanted to express artistically. We’ve done at least three albums’ worth of material – and they’ve all been completely different albums. You would think they’re different bands – or different people in the bands. But we just kept pushing and pushing and writing and writing until we finally got enough time together to settle on a sound.”
It transpires that DREAMS lost their original collection of “traditional” songs in a way only these eccentrics could. While Johns was residing in the UK, the stoned pair buried the recordings near Windsor Castle for safekeeping – but forgot where. Still, the hold-up was ultimately less about procrastination than scheduling – with Johns based primarily out of Newcastle, and Steele in Los Angeles. They’d create music, then not reconvene for months. On reuniting, they had fresh ideas. “It always felt like me and Luke were on the cusp of something, but never had enough time to complete it until now.”
At one stage, DREAMS composed “these really beautiful, but almost morose, baroquey kinda pop songs.” But, Johns says, they switched lanes. “We’d go out on the balcony and hang out with our friends and we’d always end up listening to Daft Punk or some weird French electronic act and going, ‘What the hell are we doing? All the music that we love is nothing like the stuff that we’re labouring over in the studio.’ So we got to a point where we’re like, ‘Everything has to feel either really good or really up.'” Johns touts DREAMS’ forthcoming album as “quite eclectic” and “very energetic”. “It’s like this kind of weird pirate party.”
Compellingly distinct musical figures don’t necessarily partner convincingly. When Madonna duetted with Prince on ‘Love Song’ (off Like A Prayer), the pop icons negated each other. “It was something that was in the back of my mind when we were working, because we were both used to being in charge,” Johns admits. “We’ve both been in bands and had the reins the whole time. So, throughout the course of our collaboration, we both had to learn when to pull on the reins and when to let the other person drive… We had to kind of go, ‘Oh right, Luke’s onto this idea now, the best thing I can do is shut my mouth until he’s seen it to its logical conclusion’ and then I jump in with my idea and back and forth – which is something that I don’t think either of us had had to really do before. It was up to us to make sure that it was how we wanted it. Whereas with DREAMS, it doesn’t matter how I want it or how Luke wants it, the running joke was, If either of us said ‘maybe’, it was a ‘no’. Unless we were both loving it, we didn’t even bother seeing it through.”
Beyond the exhilaration of creating, Johns is unsure precisely what he’s taken away from his exchanges with Steele. “It’s almost like we were having an affair on the side of a marriage or something,” he cracks up. “It sounds horrible for me to say it was like that!” In fact, the DREAMS enterprise was innocent – with Johns and Steele imagining themselves as “teenage explorers” in the studio. “We might be crawling around on the carpet, plugging pedals in and finding loops… A lot of the time there were hours and hours of just crazy science experiments that would turn into drum loops and songs.”
Johns is a “super-big Bowie fan”. And, like the Thin White Duke, his own music career has been fluidly innovative. The rocker immersed himself in electronica early, linking with Paul Mac to conceive The Dissociatives. In later years, Johns has recorded with Slumberjack, ZHU and What So Not. He has also veered into the urban realm. Pre-Talk, Johns appeared on rapper 360’s Utopia and he wrote extensively with Kimbra for her psy&B opus The Golden Echo. “I just like exploring – trying things and seeing things through,” he says. “I’ve got a thousand records that I haven’t released because I just wanted to see if I could do it… So I kinda embrace everything until I’ve done it.”
Johns has revealed his personal ambivalence about the collective nostalgia surrounding Silverchair. At the core, he’s really a man of tomorrow. Rock fans have resisted his bold pop manoeuvres. Nonetheless, in 2018 Johns is unperturbed by such responses. “I think people are just sometimes really quick to jump on a judgement before they’ve given it time to properly marinate,” he reasons. “People go back to things in their own time.” He kids how people are now ‘getting’ Talk.
This week, DREAMS will make their Australian premiere with twin concerts at the Sydney Opera House, again as part of Vivid LIVE. The set will follow that of Coachella, but DREAMS intend to add “a couple of quieter songs” omitted from the LP. “It’ll be slightly different,” Johns says. “It’ll be a similar format because we haven’t had any chance since we finished Coachella to even see each other. I came back home ’cause I just needed to get my head straight before I go back to Sydney. I think we’ve only got two rehearsals. So it’ll be similar, but there’s a lot of stuff that we wanna try that we couldn’t try at Coachella – ’cause it’s a slightly longer set. I’d say it’s gonna be a bit stranger, hopefully better – I would hope it would be better!”
Vivid is promoting its DREAMS run as “exclusive”, but the pals might yet tour in future. “We’re playing as many shows as we feel like playing, but there’s nothing set in stone,” Johns notes. “But we’re just taking things as they come. We wanna get the record placed how we want it and release that and see where the dominos fall.”
DREAMS will make their live debut in Australia at Vivid in Sydney this week.