We’ve seen plenty of incredible drummers go solo over the years – it’s proven a great career move for Phil Collins, Dave Grohl and Tommy Lee. Now an Aussie icon is joining the ranks.
Silverchair’s Ben Gillies formed his first solo project Tambalane back in 2002, when the Newcastle natives were on a break due to singer Daniel Johns’ health issues. The band featured Gillies on drums and backing vocals, with (future) Australian Idol winner Wes Carr up front. They released a self-titled album and a couple of singles before disbanding in 2005.
By 2012 Gillies had stepped out from behind the kit, fronting new band Bento, and telling Tone Deaf at the time he was ‘shitting himself’ about it.
Now, Gillies has delivered his debut EP as… Ben Gillies.
So why, after three (successful) decades in the music industry, has he decided to finally step into his own name?
“I think maybe early on when I was doing my own thing outside Silverchair I needed to get some confidence, and I think doing these other things under other names that it was almost a bit of a security blanket to kind of feel safe and not feel like I’m having to expose myself,” Gillies explained.
“I guess I’m at a point in my life where I’m really comfortable and confident and happy with where I am, so it just felt like time to go, okay, I don’t need the security blanket anymore.”
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The Relative Relatives EP is the culmination of years of work, months of sessions and hours of trial and error with Gillies and producers Jordan Power in Byron Bay, and Konstantine Kersting in Brisbane.
“I met Jordan probably seven or eight years ago now, when I was asked to do a charity gig in Sydney – it was where I met Mikey (Bee) who plays guitar on ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ – the rehearsals were at a place called ‘Casa Corona’ in Byron Bay and Jordo was the in-house sound guy that was recording all the bands and musicians,” Gillies said.
“Then I was up in Byron again for some reason and I just said to him, ‘Hey, should we just maybe book a day in the studio and just hang out and see what happens?’ And we recorded this really cool song, I loved it.”
After initially ‘clicking’ in the laid-back surrounds of Casa Corona, Gillies and Power have taken their chilled connection into the studio which, Gillies said, helps with creativity.
“He makes me feel really comfortable in the studio like any idea isn’t stupid,” he said.
“You know, like sometimes you can come up with the most stupid ideas and you can throw it out there and you go, let’s try it. He’s always willing to explore it. Kon’s the same: nothing’s ridiculous.”
Working with talent like Power and Kersting, who has produced, engineered and/or mixed the likes of Tones and I, The Rubens, and The Jungle Giants (he had three songs nominated in last year’s ARIAs ‘Song of the Year’ category), had been a privilege, and their input invaluable, according to Gillies.
He also acknowledged the contribution of Silverchair’s producers in the past. People like Nick Launay, David Botrill, and Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley, who were working with the band when they were still recording on tape, not the digital audio workstations of today.
For Gillies, a good producer benefits the whole process “not from an egotistical point of view” but fellow creatives sharing a vision for the music. That outside perspective can literally make or break a song.
“It is sometimes hard to have perspective on yourself, and something you might genuinely think is amazing, you need that person to say, ‘You know, actually that just sucks’,” he said.
“Or you might have this other idea that you think is average, but they go, ‘That’s fuckin’ cool, let’s explore that.’ You just can’t see it because you’re too close to it.”
While Gillies himself plays a lot of the instruments on the EP, drawing upon a childhood playing drums, guitar, and piano, he recognized his own shortcomings and brought in guests to fill the gaps. Besides Mt Warning’s Mikey, those guests included Scott Aplin, who once played keys for Silverchair (and is now music director for The Voice) and Grinspoon’s Pat Davern.
“A lot of the sessions I did with Jordo, we’d be mid-session, say in the afternoon, we’d be like, ‘This would be really cool to have a guitar on it,’ so either I would try something and it would work, or if I couldn’t do something that was suitable we’d be like, ‘Okay! Let’s see if Mikey’s around, or Pat; let’s see who’s around and up for having a play’,” he said.
“So it had that real communal kind of vibe, I loved it.”
Aside from ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’ and ‘One Foot in Front of the Other,” the EP features the previously released single ‘Yesteryear’ and the fresh new single ‘Dangerous Distractions’ as well as ‘Chasin’’’.
“I guess it’s just kind of rounding out a bit of a moment; I’m taking those three (previous singles) together, two fresh tracks, putting it on an EP and tying it up with a nice little neat bow, and then I’ve got some plans coming into Christmas, and then some really fresh stuff in 2022 which I’m really excited about,” Gillies said.
“It felt like those three songs just kind of came out and they weren’t really part of anything. People have been asking me am I releasing new music, so it felt like a good opportunity to kind of tie it all up as a nice little package so we can move onto the next stage.”
Watch Ben Gillies new video ‘Dangerous Distractions’ here:
As an independent musician, Gillies is currently releasing music digitally only. For now, he doesn’t see that changing.
“I kind of feel like that’s just how people are consuming music now. I mean, that’s how I listen to music, like, if it’s not on Apple or Spotify, or YouTube… That’s just how we consume it. I think it’s important to move with the times,” he said.
“I’m not a huge Madonna fan, but I always noticed that she was able to adapt and move with the times, and I think that benefitted her career that she was always just able to evolve continuously stay at the top of her game.”
Although he acknowledged he could be losing potential income by not pressing vinyl or releasing CDs as well, weighing up the risk versus reward was a consideration at the forefront of his mind.
“Doing physical releases these days can get expensive, particularly with vinyl – and I mean, does anyone even listen to CDs any more?” he joked.
“There’s more risk to it. You have an upfront cost and then you have to get reimbursed for that cost and then whatever you make on top of it.”
As an independent artist now, Gillies said there was a crucial balancing act between business and creativity.
“I think there’s always a balancing act between creativity and finance in the music industry, and if you’re a creative person I think that’s got to come first and foremost,” he said.
“But also if the dollars and cents don’t make sense, then you don’t have to be silly and go and do things that don’t add up.”
Digital music also allowed Gillies a ‘sustainable’ approach to releasing singles, particularly with wife Jackie due to give birth to twins soon (expect to see more about that on season five of Real Housewives of Melbourne, airing next week) and ‘suits where he is in life’ now, particularly without the beast of the Silverchair ‘machine’.
“The format of doing single by single is great; it takes a lot of pressure off and means you can really focus on just enjoying your craft and enjoying music and not feeling like, you know, I have to create an album and I have to do a tour and I have to do this or this,” he said.
“You can just trickle them out in your own time, and then eventually hopefully in 2022, if things keep opening up as they’ve been promised, then I can look at doing a tour. For where I am in life and not having the machine behind me, it’s just a much more sustainable way to release music.”
In order to tour this material – given Gillies himself has performed so much of it – he said he would ‘just grab some mates’ and musicians he’s heard about to ‘put a cool band together’ if touring ever enters the equation. For Gillies, music is – and always has been – about enjoyment.
“Don’t get me wrong, if my music went through the roof and became super super successful I’d be really excited and thankful, but it’s not my motivation. It’s about doing it because it’s damn fun, and I really enjoy it,” he said.
“That’s why I’ve always done music, even when Silverchair was at its height, at the bottom of my soul I was doing it because I absolutely loved it. All the fame and the success, that stuff is great, and it kind of feeds it – like it means you can keep doing it – so again it’s that balance between finance versus creativity but the bottom line was, or is, that I just love it.”
The ‘height’ of Silverchair’s fame was, Gillies said, ‘just cool’ but with the perspective of maturity and hindsight, dizzyingly surreal. One of those moments came recently when he saw an old clip of the band on Canada’s Much Music.
“I know all these things happened, and I have memories of it, but when you again with a bit more perspective, you just go, ‘That’s fucking crazy!’,” he said.
“Like, we were in a TV studio and it was packed to the rafters with fans, and every word that Dan or Chris or myself said, people would just lose their minds. Like, you could say, ‘Hey! Nice weather!’ And they’d all go, ‘Argh!’ They’d lose their shit.”
In hindsight, it’s a really odd thing to experience, he said. But at the time?
“In the moment you’re going, ‘This is totally normal, this is cool, this is my reality so it’s totally normal to be surrounded by all these people losing their minds over everything that I say’.”
Many of those OG Silverchair fans have carried on to support Gillies’ solo work today – a fact he acknowledged with humble gratitude.
“Again it’s perspective, because Silverchair hasn’t done anything for quite a few years now, you just wonder if people care anymore, or are they just going, ‘Oh, I’ve moved on to other things.’ Because life does happen, right?” he said.
“But I think music is one of those things that just stand the test of time, so it is really cool that a lot of the Silverchair fans have been so supportive and come on my personal music journey as well. I love it, it’s great… I’m really thankful for that.”
Gillies is the first to acknowledge a solid fan base is something an artist can build a career upon, but the advent of social media has made this era of his career vastly different to the beginning of it.
“I think – and I’ve always had this attitude in Silverchair as well – the fans are ultimately why you get to do what you do. If you didn’t have people that listened and bought your music, then you wouldn’t have a career,” he said.
“Particularly in this day and age with social media, I think musicians and artists are a lot more accessible than they used to be, that it’s important to make fans feel like you’re almost having a conversation with them. It just feels more engaging, even for me.”
After inviting fans to contribute photos of their personal moments for the video to his last single, ‘Yesteryear’, Gillies personally sifted through hundreds of submissions.
“I basically had to download all the photos from Instagram and send them to the guy to put it all together for me, so it was a really cool journey to see all those personal, special moments of all those people,” he said.
“Like, I don’t know these people personally, but it felt like you were getting all these little glimpses into special moments in their life.”
Watch Ben Gillies ‘Yesteryear’ featuring special fan moments:
Gillies is philosophical about Silverchair fans’ connection to tracks like ‘Tomorrow’, which was added to the National Film & Sound Archive’s ‘Sounds of Australia’ library late last year.
“I think ‘Tomorrow’ is one of those songs like ‘Land Down Under’ or like an INXS track or ‘Blue Sky Mining’ – it is kind of hard for me to try and remove myself from it because it’s just so close to me – but, like, I get it,” he said.
“For me it was actually GANGgajang – do you remember GANGgajang? The “lightning cracks over cane fields” song? I know how that feels to me, so I just assume that when Silverchair fans hear ‘Tomorrow’ that’s the same kind of feeling they get.”