Since forming the Innocent Criminals at age 12 with school mates Daniel Johns and Chris Joannou – the trio that would become Silverchair – Ben Gillies has lived two decades inside the music industry machine.
But when Silverchair announced its “indefinite hibernation” on May 25, 2011 – which some pundits believe was a sugar-coated announcement of their permanent break-up – Gillies was able to explore his own songwriting and record an album.
“Being part of something as awesome and mammoth as Silverchair required so much of myself and at times there was very little energy left for other things,” Gillies says.
“Now I feel as if I’m freed up and can satisfy my own creative output and get about doing what makes sense for me at this point.
“It’s been a while in the making and I’m excited to finally share it.”
The result is a solo project under the moniker Bento and a debut album called Diamond Days.
While “bento” derives from an ancient Chinese slang word for “convenience”, in modern times it’s a popular menu item at Japanese restaurants.
A bento box contains an array of small portions – an ensemble of varied flavours.
As a metaphor it highlights Gillies’ desire to explore his musical tastes.
“Because some of the ideas were really old, and some new – [Diamond Days] was just a mix of ideas I had built up over a few years,” Gillies explains.
“I didn’t really know what the album was going to turn out like.
“The whole process started out as a consolidation of all those ideas and it rolled into a record.
“I didn’t really have any preconceived thoughts of what it was going to turn out like.
“But as a first step in the evolution of Bento, it was a good one – I flushed out all those ideas that were really starting to weigh down on me.
“Now it feels like I can move forward and really hone the sound of Bento.”
Diamond Days shifts from pop-rock to space-rock reminiscent of the late ’70s.
Gillies has left his options open for the sound of the next album.
“When I decide to do another Bento album, it doesn’t matter where I take it because the fans won’t know where it’s going to go,” Gillies says.
Gillies put together a group of sterling musicians to play and contribute creatively to Diamond Days.
The band includes Papa Vs Pretty’s singer and guitarist Thomas Rawle, former Silverchair and Voice musical director Scott Alpin, Missy Higgins’ musical director Dave Symes on bass and fellow Novocastrian and guitar virtuoso Adam Miller.
“My best instrument is definitely the drums, but I can get around piano and guitar– give me any instrument and I reckon I’ll figure something out on it,” Gillies says.
“But if you get one of those killer players to just rip it apart, then you can take the song to another level.
“It’s the same idea, but it’s the V8 version.”
Putting himself at the forefront of a musical project – and writing lyrics – has given him a better appreciation of the media dissection Johns coped with for 20 years as the lyricist of Silverchair.
“It was the first time I’ve had to structure a whole record of lyrics,” Gillies says.
“By the same token it’s really made me appreciate the [enormousness] or what Dan’s [Johns] had to do with Silverchair over the years.
“It is confronting to have to bare your soul and be criticised and have people ask what you’re trying to say.
“But you get the most reward if you’re honest and open.”
Being in the driver’s seat of a self-funded musical outlet also allows Gillies to set the pace.
“Between Silverchair records we’ve always had big breaks and I would have preferred to keep pushing through and keep working,” Gillies says.
“But there’s three guys in the band – everyone has to be on the same page for it to work.
“The great thing about Bento is that I can make music as much as I want and put it out as much as I want.
“With the internet, I can do an EP over the weekend and be up for sale for fans that afternoon.
“Bento’s my baby and my creative outlet and that’s something I’ve been yearning for since I took that step back from writing after Neon Ballroom.
“I’m really excited about that side of it.”
In Bento it is all eyes on Gillies and while performing as a frontman on stage will take some getting used to, the famous drummer is ready to shoulder the responsibility of a solo project.
“I love Silverchair, it’s such a big part of my life and I love playing music with Dan and Chris, but I guess I’ve always had that safety net of management and record companies,” Gillies says.
“There’s always minders and people looking after us.
“It’s not that the three of us didn’t want to take on that responsibility, but we were told not to worry about that stuff and to focus on making good music.
“Because Bento is so DIY, I’ve had to take so much more of the responsibility, from writing all the songs and funding it myself.
“I’ve had to look inside and grab the bull by the horns.”
Gillies doesn’t have plans to tour the album extensively.
His focus is on spreading the word about Bento.
“I’m concentrating on getting the Bento awareness out there and letting people discover the band,” Gillies says.
“It’s basically like starting a brand new project – it takes people some time to get on board.
“We’ll probably look at doing a tour early in the new year.”
While promotional work will now take him to major cities, Gillies remains based in his hometown of Newcastle.
“I was talking to my wife the other day saying that I love going down to Sydney – there’s plenty to do,” he says.
“But there’s something nice when you drive into Newie – you decompress instantly.”
At the time of our interview Gillies is preparing for his album launch party in Sydney – and Bento live debut.
“It’s nerve-wracking because it’s the first time I’ve ever sung in front of an audience like that,” Gillies says.
“I’m not getting a practice run – it’s straight in the deep end.
“Once I get up there and start, there’s no turning back.
“It’s like a rollercoaster.”
The Maitland Mercury has three signed copies of Diamond Days to give away.
For your chance to win fill out the coupon in today's edition of Alive and return it to the Mercury’s office by noon next Wednesday.