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Just give them time to grow

Special to The Times

MOST kids leave the memories of their first band safely locked behind in their parents’ garage. Not Silverchair. Since the release of its 1995 debut, “Frogstomp,” which came out when its three members were 15, Silverchair has been the most popular rock band in its native Australia.

But its U.S. sales have progressively diminished. “Frogstomp” sold 1.9 million, while the trio’s last studio album, 2002’s critically acclaimed “Diorama,” sold only 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

That slide makes the group’s two rapid sellouts at the El Rey Theatre next week all the more surprising. And no one is more shocked than Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns.

“I’m still baffled by it,” he says via phone from Toronto, where he was mixing the band’s new album, “Young Modern.” “We didn’t even know that people still cared.”

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But the sellouts come as no surprise to Rolling Stone critic David Fricke, who has followed the band since its beginning. He cites the fealty of early emotionally engaged fans, for whom Silverchair has “almost been preserved as that band from the ‘90s, even though musically that’s not the case.” He likens Silverchair to Pearl Jam in that its intentions and talent inspire a loyalty that transcends radio play.

“Young Modern” comes out in Australia in March on Eleven/EMI, but the band is unsigned here after parting ways with Atlantic following “Diorama.” Consequently, the El Rey concerts will double as showcases to help find a new label home.

“If [some label] wanted to give me $2 million, I’m going to take it, for real. I love the idea of being rich. I definitely don’t do it for that reason, but I’m not going to be a chump,” Johns says genially. “I don’t care who we’re signed to. As long as they support the band and as long as they don’t send A&R; guys into the studio, I’m happy.”

Johns, Ben Gillies and Chris Joannou landed a record deal after their song “Tomorrow” won an Australian demo competition in 1994. The tune, the biggest modern rock hit in 1995 in the U.S., was the cornerstone for “Frogstomp,” which entered the Australian album charts at No. 1.

But don’t expect to hear any songs from the grunge-inspired “Frogstomp” at the El Rey. Johns, 27, waffles on whether he’s embarrassed by the album because he knows it means a great deal to the millions who bought it, but adds “I just don’t relate to the songs.”

Innovation replaced derivation by the time the group released its third album in 1999. “Neon Ballroom” took a dramatic leap forward with lush, dramatic melodies and Johns’ willingness to write about the darkest passages of his life, including his battle with anorexia.

Johns credits the advancement with having time to absorb music once he graduated high school. “As soon as you aren’t going to school, I realized how much time I wasted learning things I wasn’t going to use,” says Johns, in a stab in the heart to teachers worldwide. Among those he studied were Australian pianist David Helfgott (the inspiration for the movie “Shine”) and Van Dyke Parks, best known for his collaborations with Brian Wilson. Helfgott played on “Neon Ballroom,” while Parks arranged and orchestrated tunes for subsequent albums “Diorama” and “Young Modern.”

Parks, 64, compares Johns to Wilson: “This kid has as much moxie as Brian did at that age. He is a most singular talent. Silverchair has a lot more to offer than people give them credit for.” Indeed, the new album spans several styles, but the phantasmagorical grandeur of “If You Keep Losing Sleep” makes My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” seem tame.

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“Young Modern” marks the band’s return from a long hiatus and confirmation that, despite rampant rumors, Silverchair had not split.

“I would be lying if I said I never contemplated breaking up the band,” Johns says. “After ‘Diorama,’ we all wanted to do other things for a while.”

That time was also needed to digest the disappointing circumstances surrounding “Diorama.” Shortly after its release, Johns was diagnosed with reactive arthritis, which affected him for 17 months and left him unable to play -- or even walk -- for several months. “It was one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me, just lying in a bed and being in hospital and being wheeled around in wheelchairs,” Johns says. “It’s definitely humbling, you know. I started thinking, ‘God, maybe I should have had a Plan B.’ ”

The situation wasn’t a total waste, he adds, with typical Australian humor: With his dominant right hand temporarily useless, he learned to use chopsticks with his left hand.

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The band resumed touring in 2003, but by then, any momentum for “Diorama” in the U.S. had died. (Despite the lackluster reaction here, the album debuted at No. 1 in Australia and took home six awards at the Arias, the Australian equivalent of the Grammys.)

The trio was also desperate to create lives that existed beyond the group, which they formed when they were 12. “Really, every memory I’ve got [through ‘Diorama’] is of being in Silverchair,” says Johns. “I just wanted three or four years where I had [other] memories.”

During the break, Johns married fellow Aussie singing superstar Natalie Imbruglia and the pair moved to the U.K.

While Johns declares Silverchair would much rather “be great than big,” he acknowledges that with “Young Modern” he wants to reclaim the success the band enjoyed in the U.S. 10 years ago. “I’d like to not just be known for the band that has the frog on the cover,” he laughs.

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weekend@latimes.com

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Silverchair

Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

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When: 7 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday

Price: $19 (both shows sold out)

Info: (323) 936-4790; www.

goldenvoice.com/concerts.htm

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Hear: “Straight Lines” at www.myspace.com/silverchair


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