For Daniel Johns, linchpin of the popular Australian band Silverchair, the successful consummation of the band’s fourth release, Diorama, started way before the amps were powered up and the tape machines started to whirl. As Johns explains, the first step was finding a producer who understood where he wanted to go. “This was the first time I’ve ever done meetings with producers, because I knew that this was the kind of record that people were either going to be into or were really going to hate,” Johns says. “The majority of the people that I met prior to meeting David [Bottrill] either didn’t understand it, or understood it and didn’t like it and wanted to change it. They were all really supportive and nice, but I didn’t feel like I was on the same page with anyone.”
In David Bottrill — who has produced such acts as Tool, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel and Paul Oakenfold, and has engineered and/or mixed for many others — Johns found someone who was open-minded enough to see what the songwriter was trying to do. “As soon as we started talking, straightaway I thought that this was the guy. I knew he could get things to sound amazing, because the things that he’d recorded always sounded brilliant,” Johns says. “It was just a question of whether or not he was into the record and into what I was trying to do. As soon as I knew he was into it, I wanted him to do it because I knew that he makes things sound like gold.”
Silverchair first leaped into the spotlight with their 1995 release Frogstomp, which was recorded when the trio — guitarist/singer Johns, bassist Chris Joannou, drummer Ben Gillies — were just 15 years old. Subsequent albums Freak Show and Neon Ballroom found the group mining similar alternative-rock territory. With Diorama, they’ve moved into a completely new realm, using strings and horns and more complex song structures; it’s quite a radical shift. “I was more comfortable stretching that far than I would have been taking a small step,” Johns says. “In order for me to regain my passion for what I did, I had to take that kind of step. It was a big step, but it was definitely the most enjoyment I’ve ever had writing music.”
Bottrill was only vaguely familiar with Silverchair: When he got the initial call from the band’s management, he went back to listen to their catalog. “I heard that they were moving forward, they were doing something different on every record,” the producer says. When Bottrill and Johns met, the songwriter explained that he had a vision of where he wanted the album to go. “He was really experimenting with different instrumentation. It sounded like he wanted to do his Pet Sounds or his Sgt. Pepper’s or something that was more experimental, really stretching his musical knowledge and his compositional capability.”
Johns agrees that he took special care with song arrangements while he was writing. “I didn’t want them to be arranged generically; I wanted something special and different about them,” he says. “So there was a lot of time spent arranging them, and then David got to Australia and we polished them up. A lot of songs we didn’t really change. That was also one of David’s strengths: He didn’t change things because he felt like he needed to put his stamp on them. He changed things when he felt like he could make it more exciting and make it better.”
Of the album’s 11 songs, Bottrill and Johns worked most on “Without You” and “The Greatest View.” On “The Greatest View” sessions, Johns explains, “The way that I had it arranged was quite different from how it turned out. I knew the record company would gravitate toward that for the first single, but I didn’t want it to be generic; I wanted it to be challenging. But I think I had too much trust that the melody would catch people. David came in and helped me arrange it in a way that was palatable, yet still different. Before, it wasn’t palatable, but it was definitely different.”
From Bottrill’s seat, some of the songs were more realized than others were, but a major reconstruction was not needed throughout. “We nipped and tucked here and there and did a lot of pre-production work on tightening things up and rearranging melodic structure in a couple places,” he says. “The songs are Daniel’s; I’m not going to take any credit for songwriting. He writes the songs, we did a little arrangement work on them, and talked about instrumentation and how we were going to approach ’em.”
Two songs weren’t touched at all: “Tuna In the Brine” and “Across the Night.” “We had a lot of discussions prior to working together, and he knew those songs were my babies and I didn’t want them to be messed with,” Johns explains. Bottrill didn’t see anything to change in “Tuna”: “That was pretty much arranged in its structure,” he says. “That came straight out of Daniel’s head. It’s like a ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for him. He just had this thing in his head and he did it, and it’s just amazing. I can’t take any arrangement credit for that — it was all him.” However, during the pre-production dates, Bottrill made tempo maps for the rhythm section in Pro Tools.
Once the preliminary ideas were worked out, the band and producer retired to Studios 301 in Sydney, Australia, where the bulk of the recording was done. Johns had one last mission before the sessions began. “It was really important for this record to have a really positive atmosphere in the studio, and everyone I chose to work on this record had to have an almost naive enthusiasm about them,” he says. “I think that when you’re recording something, the atmosphere in the room is also captured on the tape. If the intention of the record for me was to make a record that was uplifting and motivating, then it needed to be a motivational, uplifting atmosphere in the room. I was constantly trying to keep the vibe up because there needed to be that enthusiastic approach to it in order to get the record to sound how I wanted it to sound.”
The tracking sessions were recorded analog to a pair of Studer A800 24-tracks through Studio A’s Neve 88R console with Encore Automation; then, it was transferred to Pro Tools for editing. “But these guys are good players, so I didn’t need to do much nipping and tucking of their stuff,” reports Bottrill.
Bottrill has a standard drum miking setup, which includes a Neumann 47 FET outside the kick and an AKG D-112 inside. “Then, I’ll use a lot of dynamics on the toms, sometimes [Shure] 57s on top and [Sennheiser] 421s underneath, and mix them together,” he says. “I like to make sure all of the cymbals are going, so I’ll often use four mics on the cymbals and an extra on the ride. They are usually directional condensers.” He also likes to put up a couple of big capsule room mics — a Neumann U87 or a U47 — and run them through an SPL Transient Designer. “It gives me a big, boomy room sound,” he explains. “So, if you need a section that is really kind of huge and kicking, you can just pull them up and away they go. It’s super-compression. You can also make it quite tight and attack-y.”
Johns’ guitar setup and Joannou’s bass rig were kept simple. Johns played through a Soldano amp into a Marshall 4×12, while Joannou used an Ampeg SVT and PortaFlex along with a DI. When Bottrill was looking for a grungier sound from the bass — as in the songs “Lever” and “One Way Mule” — Bottrill threw some Amp Farm across the DI.
The final sessions at Studios 301 were orchestral, with noted composer/arranger Van Dyke Parks. Johns, who composed the orchestral parts, is still shocked that Parks would lend his talents to the songs “Across the Night,” “Tuna In the Brine” and “Luv Your Life.” “When you’ve written a song and put so much work into it and you’ve got a vision in your head, and then someone like Van Dyke Parks comes in and is into it and really likes it, that is the ultimate compliment,” he says. “We spoke about the three songs that he worked on and I told him the kind of feeling that I wanted and the kind of instrumentation that I wanted. He didn’t change anything, he didn’t alter the path of anything, but he definitely exceeded my expectations on every track.”
Parks warned Johns and Bottrill that he might do too much in the way of orchestration, but that was fine with them, because it gave them more choices to work with. “If we used everything that he arranged, there was so much going on that you couldn’t distinguish anything,” Johns remembers. “So, we just had to pick what we thought were the most important moments and use those.”
Parks originally sent over some rough MIDI mixes for Johns and Bottrill to work with. “We were trying to listen to all of the parts that he’d written as they were trying to record them, and I’d have to run in there and say, ‘Okay, this part of this bar, we don’t want this much movement from the cellos,’ or something like that,” Bottrill says. “It was a great experience, and it was a lot of fun. There’s pictures with me and Van Dyke and Daniel pouring over the score and I felt like, ‘Yeah, it’s like Sinatra. I’m a real producer,’” he says with a laugh.
Like the tracking sessions for the basics, the orchestral dates were recorded on tape, but to digital — a Sony 3348 48-track machine — and then dumped into Pro Tools for editing. Bottrill did some premixing in Pro Tools, but the album was ultimately mixed at Larrabee North Studios on an SSL 9000.
Diorama‘s final recording dates for vocals were done at Mangrove Recording Studios, owned by INXS bassist Gary Beers, a couple of hours north of Sydney. Bottrill did not do much treatment to the singer’s tracks. “For the most part, it was really subtle delays and reverbs on the voice and really nice compression,” Johns recalls. “I think on ‘One Way Mule,’ David put my voice through a SansAmp to give it that aggressive quality.”
Johns and Bottrill completed Diorama with the same determination and purpose that characterized the initial writing sessions. “I knew the world that I wanted to create musically, and I knew that in order to create that accurately, I had to be there mentally,” Johns explains. “I was really focused and my mind never strayed from that path. In order to feel good about myself, I knew that I had to prove to myself that I was more than what I’ve been in the past.”