Alexander Bisley talks with Shihad singer/guitarist Jon Toogood.
AB: I saw you guys at the Hutt, Boxing Day 2012, and Homegrown 2013, and you're still smashing it — no competition between you guys and the other local rock bands.
Jon Toogood: Cheers, thank you very much. We definitely pride ourselves on making sure the live performance is as good as it possibly can be.
AB: That's why you still get people turning up after all these years.
JT: Yeah, I suppose so. Especially when you’ve got eight records. We've always got to have enough ammunition to make sure the set always kicks ass from start to finish. We pride ourselves on it; it's a matter of life and death to us. The standard is — If we ever went under it we wouldn't be able to sleep at night.
AB: I suppose the main thing is creative passion and pride, but also these days to survive, bands have got to be fucking good live.
JT: Definitely man. That's where you can actually still make a living out of being a musician. It's tough. It's a totally different game to when we first started. Not that we ever really made that much money off record sales because we'd always push our record budget to the limit, just so we could have experiences like recording in the same studio in Vancouver as Mötley Crüe and Dr. Feelgood just to see what that felt like. So we'd always overspend our budget and then sell so many records to recoup anyway. We’ve always relied on playing live as our main source of making a living. It's something you have control over as a musician. It's within your power to make that happen. If you rehearse more than the next band you're going to be better than the next band. If you play more shows than the next band you're going to know more tricks live than the next band. People want to have an experience; you can't actually replicate that digitally. Yeah, someone can pull out their iPhone while you're playing live and film it and stick it on the net, but it's never going to be the same as standing in that room full of a thousand people with a huge, loud PA and flashing lights and four people sweating on stage. You can only be there to actually experience it. I think people love it. That hasn’t changed at all. I think [for] people hearing music, whether it be illegally or not, there's just as much passion, if not more, now than there ever was, it's just the old way of selling music has changed.
AB: In the documentary — which I thought was bloody good too — you talk about the chemistry of bringing groups together: both in terms of the band and in terms of the audience, and I definitely believe that.
JT: Without a doubt. In a predominantly secular society like New Zealand it's the closest thing we have to spirituality. It's like going to church. You get a chance to really let go of your normal social constraints in a positive way; you're dancing, you're moving, you're singing out loud in unison with all these other people. It feels good, humans love that collective outburst. It's a really empowering feeling. It's a really positive thing — for me it has no negative side effects. For us, even though we came from this trash-metal background where it was moshing and circle dancing and crowd surfing and stuff, we're very conscious of anyone getting hurt. Early on we'd just stop if anyone was being a bully, because that's not what it's about for us. It's not about hurting people, it's about just dancing with people, it’s about being together with people. We’ve always stomped on that if anyone got too aggro.
AB: I guess you've got so many songs and so many songs that mean different things to many people, but for me that gig out in the Hutt, that mid-set stuff like ‘My Mind’s Sedate’, ‘Comfort Me’, ‘Home Again’; any of those three, are they particularly special for you?
JT: ‘My Mind’s Sedate’, definitely, it's like a bulldozer that can go as fast as a Formula One car. It was weird, but I remember writing it and going, "I want to write a punk rock song, a real punk rock song, not a pop-punk song". It just happened really quickly, my original demo only lasted for about a minute forty-five, but I thought that's all it needed. Then we played it to Garth Richards who produced that record — The General Electric record — and he went, "That's too good to waste on a one-minute-forty song. So let’s drag it out a bit like that, and do a bit more of that”, and turned it into a three-and-a-half-minute pop song, but the heaviest pop song ever by a producer. I still get really excited when that bass line comes in at the start knowing what I'm about to unleash on the guitar.
AB: I guess ‘Home Again’ really is such an anthem for New Zealanders, being the travellers that we are.
JT: Yeah, I'm really proud of that song. It's one of those ones where I nailed what I was thinking. Lyrics are something that’s always been a bit of a struggle for me; I think it’s hard work for everybody. I'd much rather be playing music all day rather than sitting with a bit of paper and pen writing. But with that one I knew what I wanted to say. It feels good to sing those words and it sums up how I was feeling at the time, living in London and missing home.
AB: What do you miss about Wellington? It seems like your life's going really well at the moment, but what do you miss about Wellington, being stationed over in Melbourne?
JT: I miss my family a lot. I miss my friends that I grew up with, and now their kids and stuff like that. But I get back there three or four times a year. There are restaurants I miss, but it's more about the people than anything else. When I first moved over to Melbourne, there were seriously good restaurants, and cafes, and venues, but I didn't feel at home here because I didn't know that many people. But now that I know lots of people, that's what I like about it. So it's the people I miss. My family, my friends.
AB: That was beautiful in the documentary — the relationship with your parents. That was really nice to see that.
JT: They're always so supportive of me. They never put any pressure on me to do anything other than my passion. It was like, "Okay, the kid likes music, let's buy him a guitar, even though we can't really afford it". And they did, and then when I got sick of that, at the age of eleven, I wanted to be a New Zealand cricket player. They bought me a cricket bat and I did that pretty passionately for four years. Then when I got back into music, at fourteen or fifteen [when] I met Tom Larkin at school, they helped me out with buying an electric guitar. I’m sure they would have had days where they [said] “this isn’t your real job”, but they never showed that to me, they were always like "do what you're passionate about", and I reckon that was the smartest move. It’s not a conventional job, but my job satisfaction is very, very high. I wake up every day and I go, "Wow, what am I going to do today?" I can mix it up; I can do whatever I want. Trust me, its hard work. But you know what? At the end of the day we all fucking die and we're not going to be taking our money with us.
AB: That's right, man.
JT: We'll only be taking our stories, our friends that we made, and the experiences we had, that's all we've got at the end of the day. It’s really important to fight to do what you love. I do mentoring for the New Zealand Music Commission as well. I give the kids who are considering a career in music a heads up that if you want to be getting money, maybe you should look at other things. But, if you want to do something that you love, and you work really hard, and you do it with everything you've got, you’ll always be looked you after by the universe. It's a bit hippie but that's pretty much how it works.
JT: As long as you give it everything, the universe will— whether it's in the form of a free T-shirt, or being at somebody's house — you will be looked after, because people will appreciate people who give it everything, and if you do it honestly, and with guts, and with power. That's what I try to say to them, and “practise, practise, practise”, which is the truth.
AB: You're still in favour of people voting, right?
JT: Without a doubt. There's still always the option of the lesser of the evils, without a doubt. But, I think it needs to be relooked at and regulated harder. At the moment there's this infiltration of money — you can see what happened in America. I was so happy when President Obama got in. I remember hearing that news and getting a lump in my throat and saying, “finally, that nightmare’s over”, because we were in America when George Bush was in power and it was so hard to live through that and see it, and the effect on the world. The way the system is set up is that they have these system lobbyists who just pay people off, like their representatives from the medical, oil, gas industries, and they go in and they go, "How much does it cost to get this law passed? How much does it cost to get this law axed?"
AB: Actually speaking of that, I thought the song was really good on the new record, ‘Model Citizen’, about the over prescription of anti-depressants. I thought that was a powerful statement.
JT: It's all distraction. It's like, "Keep the population fearful, tell them the jihadists are coming, therefore we can take away their civil liberties by saying we're going to protect them. We’re not going to spy on you, we can but we're looking for the bad guys, so trust us, we'll change the laws that make you safer". But really what it’s doing is taking away their civil liberties. With the GCSB Bill for example —The Five Eyes agreement at the end of WWII [was] quite justifiably a security pact between America, Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand, where they could share information and let each other know if there was a threat. But with this new technology, texting and [so on], the GCSB bill got passed in New Zealand, which now means that no matter what John Key says, as in, "We're not listening to everybody's phone calls, we're not looking at everyone's texts", that in essence is true but what they are doing is — the metadata of every call we make, emails, texts, they’re recorded so that if a foreign government goes, "What did Jon say on July 19th?" they can go back and have a look. That, to me, is treachery. It’s selling one of your own people out to a foreign government.
AB: I was impressed with how you guys seemed to be putting everything into the recording. I figured that after such a hard out effort you might have needed some chiropractic work.
JT: Seriously man, the thing is that we are putting everything into this record because as far as we're concerned, as forty-year-old men, things aren’t going in the direction that they should be. People can disagree with us, that’s cool, but we're uncomfortable with the way the system is being run. And we're uncomfortable with the future that's being generated by decisions that are being made now for our kids. Like, they're repealing the carbon tax in Australia, because they got leant on by big business. [They're saying], "Fuck the environment, fuck the kids, we want to have a short gain now and our pockets will be filled.” It makes us angry and we’ve got to say something about it. And we’ve got the right soundtrack to do it because it sounds like the fucking apocalypse.
AB: I think creativity is important as a response to mediocrity and apathy.
JT: Without a doubt. Creativity — you're creating something, you're not destroying something. People create in so many different ways; not just artists. People can be creative in the way they teach somebody, or care for somebody. It's just about working with love, trust, and care. Even though there's a lot of anger on this album, there's also a lot of love. Without a doubt. To the point where I’ve got injuries, to the point where ever since making this record I pretty much get up and I sing, and I play that record through on my guitar at home because I know that I'm going to have to go out there and play it every night. And I want it played as good as possible, and it’s physical out there.
AB: It's really physical the way you guys do it.
JT: This is the most physical record since Churn. Getting back to the styling of the music for this new record, it came out of doing the greatest hits tour, which you saw. It wasn't so much the middle section of that set that was exciting to us, even though we enjoyed it, don't get me wrong. What was really exciting was playing ‘Factory’, ‘Screwtop’ and ‘Derail’ — the three songs off the Churn record — because it was like, "Wow, this requires discipline, a level of physicality we haven't had for years." You have to be so tight and play until your fingers bleed to pull that music off. That was every night. "Heavy without the metal" is how a friend described it. Then we'd go on tour with Black Sabbath and we'd remember that big wall of sound that got us into playing.
AB: As I mentioned before I've always enjoyed your sense of humour on stage and obviously you had that costly joke in the Viper Room. Comment a little on humour as performance philosophy?
JT: My humour is based on my father's sense of humour. He passed on to me a genetic disease called Foot-in-Mouth disease, and basically I've got it. Sometimes it's good to say the truth, other times it's good to be tactful. I don't have that tactful gene, which is a bit of pain in the ass at times. But sometimes it does make for a good joke. But yeah, that was an expensive joke, that one.
AB: Shihad actually was a misspelling of "Jihad".
JT: Yeah, totally. We didn't realise that Frank Herbert, the guy that wrote Dune, had basically stolen that idea from “jihad” from Arabic, which means “struggle”. It's not a bad name, and if any word sums up this band’s career “jihad” would be about right. It's been a struggle and we've worked really hard. But life's like that. That whole name change was weird, I remember Mike Patton from Faith No More telling me to slit my throat if we ever changed our name. I remember Peter Hook from Joy Division saying, "I understand why you have to do it, it's such a bummer that you have to but if I was in your band, I'd do that too." Then I had the guy from A Tribe Called Quest, this little dude go, "You shouldn't change your name because it means, struggle, man and that's what you're doing, man." And all these people outside of the band were saying different things. We had our friends and family saying different things, we had our record company saying different things, but ultimately it had to be between the band. For a long time it was two people voting one way, two people voting the other way, and I finally caved, because I was really against changing it, and I was like, "Let's fucking get on with it", it was holding us all up from releasing the record, and I wanted to release the record. But I knew as soon as we changed it I felt uncomfortable with it. Even though I was feeling uncomfortable about the name change — but I think with some of those shows we were playing around that time, we ended up playing better than we would have if we hadn't changed our name, because we had more to prove. We'd really kneecapped ourselves. It was really hardcore and made us more determined in a weird way. The whole time, feeling uncomfortable in a band called Pacifier, it was an ok-sounding name but it wasn't our band name. It was just an in-joke really. Two years later we changed it back and it was much more comfortable.
AB: How’s it working with Jaz Coleman now?
JT: The thing is we've already been playing it. It's the same feeling as what we got when we had The General Electric. Like, "Oh, we're in that band again. We’re in a good band." As an artist you just know, and you have periods where you go, "yeah I think that's good, I think so", and others where you just go, "Yup that's it, let's get on with it." This is one of those records. Jaz was really important in making it sound that good, and he's really good at making sure we didn't think just about New Zealand or Australia, but the world. He reminded us that when you're young you want to take on the world if you're good enough, and you still are but you forgot, and you're capable of it so let’s do it. He heard all our demos and he said, "Lets smash it." We worked for two months without one day off. No weekends, no nothing, bro.
AB: You and Jaz too, you've given up drinking and smoking.
JT: Yeah, I was never a massive drinker, but I was sick of waking up with hangovers and feeling sick. You pay for it.
AB: You get more done, and save money too.
JT: You get way more shit done; you’re lean, mean, and ready to destroy. You just get on with things. And Jaz is on the same on the same page politically, we're all on the same page musically — he was like “forget fucking radio, the industry. We're not even here to make a record; we're here to make a new set-list for you that ensures that when you go on stage you will destroy any band on the planet. That's what we're doing.” [laughs]
AB: ‘Love's Long Shadow’ that's obviously a very personal song—any others that are particularly personal?
JT: The single ‘Think You’re So Free’. That's my personal take; without even talking to the band, without talking to Jaz, it was my journey, what’s happened to me in the past three years. I've been doing things like giving up crutches: cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, just to see what the world looked like. I've started to look at the world like I did when I was sixteen or seventeen again. The world was full of fucking magic and potential. All of a sudden I could see things that were — clearly people cheating the system, people cheating other people, people fucking people over. I thought, “This is the viewpoint I need, I need to be straight to be able to comment on this shit, I need to be clearheaded.” I'm not a politician but if I see someone lying to me I'm not going to pretend they're not lying to me. I need to be able to talk about it. What everyone wants to do — is that the final conclusion of our existence? To get a real nice car, to make money, is that it and then we die? Fuck that, there's got to be more to life than that.
AB: I've been playing it loud a lot and I'm going to continue to do so.
JT: It’s a weird one. I remember when the mix was done, I stuck it on in the car and I literally did the bogan thing and put the car on the motorway and when that first line of “I walked for miles” and then finishing on “Looked for a leader/ Who’d stand and speak the truth”, when the drums came in it almost took my fucking head off because it was on full. That is what I want from my rock and roll, I want to be arrested, I want to be punched in the chest by my music, I want to feel it. And then finally, at the end of the second verse when “I was afraid/ For my own privacy/ Cause there was none” and Tom finally hits the cymbals for the first time in the song, it's like "Whoa, holy fuck!" It's like listening to Led Zeppelin, or Rage Against the Machine, the bands I love in rock and roll. We finally managed to make that big sound. It's real simple; it keeps me rolling all the way through. I'm really proud of that one.
AB: It seems like you’re in a really fertile creative place at the moment. You're thinking of doing a project with Jean from TrinityRoots.
JT: I've been planning with her in Melbourne. I remember seeing her with TrinityRoots at Coro Gold. She's got such a beautiful feel, I wanted to jam with her. I wanted to play bass with that feel. And so basically I snuck her into one of the Shihad sessions on a day off and got her to play Tom's drum kit and I played bass and the jam sounded mean — real simple, but she's got a beautiful feel.
AB: I look forward to hearing that too. And getting married in Sudan, that must have been invigorating.
JT: That was totally amazing. It was surreal. It was nothing like I was expecting; it went as well as it possibly could. Every single day was magical: we were there for twelve days. I got to see all the different sides of Sudan. I arrived but then within two days I was travelling on a bus at five o'clock in the morning for four hours into the countryside to meet her father's family, because she came from a village. Then had a real traditional introduction to his family, her father's family. It was fantastic. Then back to Khartoum, then like, two days dealing with the infrastructure there — having to get permission to marry Dana — this crazy bureaucracy that the British left behind. Before this guy can sign it you’ve got to take it to another building and he’s got to photocopy it and so on, before you do that he’s got to go and see this guy. It was literally a comedy, two days to get through and a lot of money as well [laughs].
Then there's other sides where you go, "Oh you could probably use a bit more of that down here [in New Zealand]". Everybody in the neighbourhood knows everybody's names, and beyond that they know everyone’s history. If any one is sick, they help them. If anyone needs food, they help them. Its just part of their deal. You have to help your community. So even though there's this government, this crazy thing that in some ways doesn’t even work — perhaps no one collects any rubbish. The houses are beautiful inside then you go out into the road — I don't know, it's full of these crazy contradictions. It was beautiful and amazing and they’re such an interesting people, because they're Egyptian, Libyan, but they're African, but they're sort of mixed race; you've got Turkish, Arab, Egyptian, Lebanese, all sorts. And they look totally different, yet they’ve got African traits, they’ve got Arabic traits and part of the way they dress reminds me of Indian. They totally looked after me, totally accepted me. I brought my mum all the way from Kilbirnie in Wellington. There was this moment where we were walking down the Nile River — at the place where the Blue and the White Nile meet — of all the places, who would have fucking thought when Dad died that ten years later we’d be doing this. It was just amazing, it was really healing. Dana’s family treated her like a queen. People got amongst it with the celebrations; Dana got the traditional Henna, the stain on your hands. The female henna is way more beautiful; really intricate designs all over your hands. Like I said, it was really healing. I've married her because I love her and we're best mates. That pulled me through the culture shock. It made me go, "Well I'm going to jump on a bus and drive four hours into the countryside through Sudan and not worry, because this is what I do to marry my best friend." We amended the traditional marriage contract so that it was equal rights for men and women.
AB: Life's taking you everywhere, Jon. You've been to the Katowice Metalmania, Woodville Mountain Rock, all over. And it's still happening. You're coming up to thirty years of it.
JT: It’s interesting. We're a little bit older, and all of a sudden we're making this record, it's like, "that's right, we've got to go touring!" But life’s different and I think we were surprised by how good it was. I knew it was going to be good but we didn't know it was going to be that focused. I’m gonna ride that beat while I can.