IN the past five months, you may have spotted Chris Joannou riding around town on his "pushie" visiting family, enjoying a beer at The Burwood in Merewether, or downing prawn tacos at Newcastle East eatery Casa de Loco. The rest of the time he has been at the site of his parents' former dry-cleaning business in Newcastle West, clad in well-worn boots, dust-coated jeans and T-shirt.
Joannou and his two mates and business partners - Sydney interior designer Tim Leveson and Chris Johnston, owner of Good Brother Espresso and Suspension - have been working around the clock to transform the 660-square-metre Parry Street warehouse into a cafe, restaurant and bar. (You learn very quickly that almost everyone the Silverchair bass player works with is a mate and more than likely a Novocastrian).
It is a vast space and a daring undertaking given the scale and location. But The Edwards, as it will be known, is not a vanity project for the famous musician who could have simply thrown money at the venture. He has been living next door in the upper level of his older sister Nicole's event hire business and using skills picked up during labouring stints for builder friends when Silverchair wasn't touring or recording. Joannou even intends to pour beers and serve meals when they open for business tomorrow at 7am.
"I think that's the only way it works properly - if you're part of it day to day," offers the affable 34-year-old. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't anxious. Whether it's something like this, or making music, you're putting your heart and soul into it and it's going to be out there for people to judge."
We are sitting on vintage lounge chairs in what will likely become the venue's office, a glass-fronted room next to the main entrance at the quiet, western end of Parry Street. The room is otherwise empty and the setting sun has filled the space with coppery light. Each time Joannou expressively slaps his hand down on the arm of his chair, dust shoots into the air like a special effect.
I have known Joannou since he was a long-haired and polite 15-year-old with a blonde, beachy-haired girlfriend. I remember that he bought a pinball machine and installed it in the living area of the family's then Merewether home, a seemingly extravagant act at the time that now seems almost cute when compared to the excess of today's teen music stars with their luxury cars, large entourages and bling (Joannou still has the machine and it might make an appearance in the new office).
While Silverchair was reaching dizzying heights, the teenage trio continued to attend school and maintain as everyday an existence as possible. One week they could be supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers in New York's Madison Square Garden, and the next they'd be studying for their School Certificate. A teacher at the time, I helped in a very small way as the band's tutor to bridge the two very different worlds they inhabited.
Silverchair's meteoric rise is the stuff of music legend. The three 15-year-olds released their first single Tomorrow in August 1994 after winning a national demo competition conducted by SBS TV show Nomad and Triple J. The song went on to spend six weeks at No 1 on the Australia singles charts and 20 weeks in the top 10. In 1995 it became the most played song of the year on US modern rock radio and set the band on the way to 21 ARIA awards (more than any other artist in history), five studio albums that all made it to No 1 in Australia, the sale of more than 6 million albums worldwide and concerts such as Rock in Rio in January, 2001, before 250,000 people.
"It was one of the craziest [gigs] because we were having some time off and then [Silverchair's manager John Watson] Watto called and asked if we'd be keen to do it," remembers Joannou. "It was just mind-blowing because of the crowd, but also the people who were there - everyone from Jimmy Page to Britney Spears. It was definitely one of those moments."
Two and a half years after the trio announced on their website that they were putting the band into "indefinite hibernation", Joannou is gracious about their time together but it is also clear that he is firmly focused on the here and now. The three long-time friends stay in touch via text messages but they are all busy with their own lives. "It's been an amazing ride," Joannou says. "The care, love and appreciation for it all never fades. Every time we do catch up, it's like no time has passed."
His guitars are next door, as are his surfboards, but there's been no time for music or waves. "This is something I've always wanted to do," he continues, eager to move on from talk of Silverchair. "Ninety per cent of my mates own some sort of hospitality venue so I've noticed how things are done, and I've been to plenty of places," he says with a wide, cheeky grin. "I've worked on the odd music project here and there [outside of Silverchair], but I always wanted to get an awesome, relaxed space with good food, good booze and good tunes. Something like this that could be a great creative space. It's a bit of hard work, but it's amazing what you can do."
THE site of The Edwards also has sentimental value. It is where his parents, Sue and David, worked hard for 15 years before retiring last year and handing over the building to their only son (Joannou has two sisters, including a twin). The mesh drums from the over-sized clothes dryers are now artfully rust-covered and transformed into light shades in the industrial-inspired space, which features a 14-metre exposed concrete bar - the beer fonts include sections of the steam presses - that took builders two weeks to "form it up". A large exposed brick wood-fired oven takes pride of place in the open kitchen and will be pivotal to the "fire and meat" menu. There is the odd rust stain on the floor from where "dad's machines were sitting" and rather than prettying up the building's industrial features, Joannou and his partners have embraced them.
"It's about tipping our hats to David and Sue and their hard work," says Tim Leveson. "They're such lovely, straightforward people; there's no airs and graces. Chris has that same approach."
Leveson met Joannou at a Sydney gig about eight years ago through a mutual friend, ARIA-winning music producer Matt Lovell - another Novocastrian - who worked on three Silverchair albums. Lovell has also been on site at The Edwards in recent weeks; he and Joannou worked together on Lovell's boutique beer label, which is currently on hold.
"I crash-tackled Chris and we've been friends ever since," laughs Leveson, who has grown fond of Newcastle while working on various projects here. "It's finding its feet," he observes, "and I love Newcastle West. It reminds me of St Kilda 20 years ago, or the inner-west of Sydney."
Joannou's friends describe him as grounded and easy-going. In a 2010 interview, four years after their break-up, his former partner, Aussie rock chick Sarah McLeod, said he was "calm and lovely". (His most recent relationship - with TV presenter Laura Csortan - ended last year. The attractive pair was often photographed out and about in Sydney for newspaper social pages, but neither party has commented on the break-up. "It happened a little while ago, let's leave it at that," says Joannou).
"A lot of people when they meet him for the first time are in awe of him because of that history with Silverchair," continues Leveson, "but there's such a lovely sense of unimportance about him. He doesn't play up his background. There's no bullshit to him."
Says Johnston, who first met Joannou a year ago through Leveson: "He's an absolute gentleman. He's just a really earnest, modest guy."
Joannou has always seemed content doing his own thing and remains unaffected by the Silverchair roller-coaster. When I arrive at The Edwards for our evening chat - he's too flat out during the day to sit and talk - he is tucking into a meal with Johnston, Leveson, Lovell and a couple of other mates around a large timber table. "The takeaway industry in Newcastle is being well looked after," he quips. There's friendly banter in between mouthfuls of pad thai and spring rolls.
Joannou may be working 15-hour days, but he is buzzing with that excitement that comes from creating something new. It's my third visit to the site, and he appears to be unflappable. "We're like ducks," he says after we move into the would-be office, flapping his arms and legs comically. "It's crazy at the moment."
He is enjoying being back in Newcastle, though even when he lived between his home at Macmasters Beach on the Central Coast and Sydney, he returned here every few weeks to visit his tight-knit family. "I'm living here now and just loving life," he offers. And it shows. He is fit and tanned, and calmly charismatic. If you have seen Silverchair live, this is in stark contrast to the intensity of his presence on stage, hunched over a low-hanging bass.
He is unashamedly family-focused. There are nieces and nephews, and his dad calls by most afternoons to have a beer and check on the transformation. The doors are not yet officially open, but the site has already become a relaxed drop-in centre for Joannou's network of friends. During one Weekender visit, Johnston's partner and baby daughter were there, as was The Edwards' tattooed head chef and Joannou's Novocastian mate, Harry Callinan, another couple of friends and tradies. Joannou's beloved French bulldog Maggie was racing around the space with Johnston's kelpie. It was a chaotic, but welcoming scene. "The early signs are good," joked Joannou.
"It's all happened by meeting the right people at the right time," he says later. "Tim and Chris were looking for a venue for a while and when that fell through it was about the same time mum and dad were looking at retiring. One of the best business relationships has grown out of this.
"And the timing is right. Newcastle is changing; there are so many creative people working on projects around town, and new and interesting businesses like [Maryville bakery] Uprising opening in different part of the city. I love being back."
The Edwards takes its name from anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor whose two-volume, 1871 publication Primitive Culture includes a definition of culture which is widely recognised: "Culture, or civilisation, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society".
"We want everyone to feel welcome here," says Joannou, who is committed to opening seven days a week, from early morning to late - though on Monday they will close at 3pm to make sure all runs smoothly. "There's space set aside for community events and we really want to support people to get new projects off the ground. We want all cultures colliding - music, art, film."
It's an ambitious idea and as I leave Joannou to waterproof the laundry floor, I can't help but be swept up in his enthusiasm.