Shihad Interview Jon Toogood (vocals / guitar)By Dave Borgioli-Jones
They’ve sold more than a quarter of a million records worldwide, released 9 studio albums, and have over 100 singles and b-sides to their name. Yes, SHIHAD are truly New Zealand Rock royalty.
Over the past 23 years this band has embraced a remarkably diverse range of rock n roll sub-genres including Thrash Metal, Industrial and Hard Rock, with each distinct SHIHAD era producing classic tracks that all Kiwis know and love.
Finally these songs are about to be released in SHIHAD’s first career retrospective album ‘The Meanest Hits’ on 7 November 2011. Fans can choose from a 20-track disc of the band’s biggest hits or a limited edition deluxe package with 38 tracks, featuring all the hits and the band’s personal favourites.
Frontman Jon Toogood gives us the low-down on ‘The Meanest Hits’ and an insight into the career of his legendary band from 1988 to present day.
NZRock: There are a shit load of SHIHAD hits! How did you choose what songs to put on ‘The Meanest Hits’ album?
Jon: There are. There are a lot of songs. We sort of had a different tact for the single disc than we did for the double disc. With the single disc it was more dictated by the singles obviously, so we had to look back at our singles. We prioritised those into songs we loved and we also listened to what the fans we saying as well. But that was very singles based. With the double one we had a little bit more leeway to incorporate not only singles but live favourites because that’s what we do. Songs that resonate with us as a band also resonate with the crowd. We also took into account personal favourites between the guys in the band but also band favourites. So there was a little bit more haggling. It’s weird, after 23 years of doing that you think oh fuck, 38 songs, how the fuck are we going to fill that up! And then you get to it and you’ve done 38 songs and it’s like hold up, we haven’t used this song, this song, and this song. So that was when we’d have the debates and stuff like that. We’d have to haggle over songs getting on there. But ultimately I think we sort of asked, has each album been represented because each of those albums is like the story about where we were at for that period of time so it was really important for us to have those.
NZRock: So you pretty much all sat down in a group to decide?
Jon: Yeah and with Jeremy Morrow who’s the label manager here at Warner who has been with us for a while and knows all of us quite intimately and is definitely a big SHIHAD fan. So we just bounced ideas back and forth via email and then finally we had a day in here where it was like right, no running away from this, we’ve got to be brave about it and make some final decisions and we did it. And we actually walked out of the room without killing each other which is good haha!
NZRock: You managed to sneak a couple of tracks from the ‘Devolve’ EP on there as well which is cool.
Jon: Yeah well it’s important to us. Like I say, if you’re going to do a retrospective it’s important for us to have everything represented and that was part of the mission. Every single stage had to be represented because you only get a chance to do this once, so we want to make sure that we’re proud of it down to the artwork, down to the track-listing everything. Everything had to be right, that’s why it took a little while but we got it right.
I saw a video clip on your Facebook page which is of SHIHAD playing ‘It’ way back in 1989. It says RIP Bruce Rae on the post. Who was he?
He owned this specialist heavy metal label and retail store in Christchurch. He had a show called Metal Primer late on TV. We sent him our demo and he went “this is the best band in New Zealand” and fucken got us down and organised this Grunt Heavy Metal awards. And that was our first time on television. So he backed us and I just heard through that guy posting on Facebook that he’d died. I hadn’t seen or been in contact with him for years, this is 1989 you know, a long time a go. But he was the first guy that took a punt on our band.
NZRock: On the press release for ‘The Meanest Hits’ I noticed you had the old MOTÖRHEAD style SHIHAD logo on there which is great to see!
Jon: Yeah we played a show at our old high school recently which is for the SHIHAD documentary which I think is coming out in May next year. They wanted a show that had some sort of relevance to the story i.e. playing at the hall where we went to school – all three of us – and also they wanted footage of a lot of different songs up close. Because you know they’d shot us at the Big Day Out and they’d shot us at Rhythm & Vines and then they had fucken days and days of old footage as well to go through. But they wanted up to date shots of us playing. So it was probably the longest set I think we’ve ever played. It was almost an hour and a half and that doesn’t sound long compared to THE ROLLING STONES or AC/DC but for us that’s a lot because I jump around like a fucken lunatic and I’m usually fucked after 50 minutes. So that was quite a lot but yeah, because Karl was doing the poster art for that it was like oh, why don’t we use the original, original SHIHAD logo, the one that I drew. I drew that when we first came up with the name. When we were 18 years old I drew it by hand and that was on our posters up until ‘Devolve’.
NZRock: Why did you decide to drop that logo in the end?
Jon: Actually we got John Halvorsen who was the guitarist in SKEPTICS and BAILTERSPACE to take some photos for us for the artwork of ‘Devolve’. We were also fans of his artwork and at that point we’d just started getting into things like BAILTERSPACE and SKEPTICS. He did all the artwork for them and used that really simple font that you see on ‘Devolve’. It was totally a homage to BAILTERSPACE and all those bands because they used to have this wicked black poster that just said BAILTERSPACE in that sort of writing, on a big black poster and you just go, “I want to be in that band! I want to go and see that band”! So that was where we stole that idea. Ever since then we’ve just sort of kept moving and changing.
NZRock: What do you think that the Jon Toogood of 1988 would say if he could hear the evolution and the diversity of SHIHAD’s music and where your career has taken you?
Jon: I don’t think we could’ve even imagined what we were going to go though. I mean life is insane you know. And we’ve been very lucky and we’ve had moments of adversity and been in situations that sucked and situations that were out of this world good. It’s just life but it’s life doing a really privileged job I think. I’m really lucky you know and I think as we get older we realise how lucky we are and we appreciate it more. When we’re younger we’re a bit more like this is fucken owed to us you know, because we’re good and we were determined and young. I mean we’re still determined and we still believe that we’re a really good band but we’re a little bit more humble and little bit more sort of hey, this is actually fucken privilege to be doing what we do. Like a lot of people spend their time doing jobs that pay the bills but it’s not their passion. Their passion is something that they do after they finish work. Our passion is what we do during 24 hours a day so it’s a very, very lucky job to have and we really appreciate it.
NZRock: So during the occasional bad times that you’ve had in the past, have you ever thought about ending SHIHAD?
Jon: Oh dude, usually the moments that I have the most doubt is when it comes to creating and that’s when it comes to writing. Not so much to do with nature of the band being together. It’s more like what have I got to say? Have I said everything? Have I got anything left in me? And you get frustrated as a writer. I think everyone who has spent any long time in a band has those moments. They’re the bits where I get frustrated and wonder if I’m in love with music. And then something comes along and changes your mind about it and you fall back in love. Or you write something that you go wow fucken cool, didn’t think of that before! And that sort of pulls you back into it. But yeah, I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve had doubt. I think everyone does but I think I’ve spent far less time doing that than I have going this is the right choice.
NZRock: What was the last track that you wrote when you thought to yourself, shit this is awesome and it’s going to be massive?
Jon: We’ll I’m even more lucky than usual in the fact that I’ve actually got two outlets at the moment because I’ve got THE ADULTS as well. So I can say what comes to mind instantly is a song called ‘Most Important’ that I wrote with Shane Carter (STRAITJACKET FITS / DIMMER) which is to me like a soul song and it’s like wow, we get to talk about exactly what we’re talking about now but musically. Like all the sacrifices that you make, is it worth it blah blah blah. And you come back to what’s most important is that you’ve given your all. And it’s like, I got to write a song like that and I’m really proud of that. At the same time most recently I really love ‘Ignite’. I think the song itself is really beautiful. I mean I know it’s a mellower moment on that record but it’s a really nice sentiment and definitely close to the changes I’ve been through recently in my personal life and stuff and I think it articulates it really well. Also I really like ‘Final Year Of The Universe’. I think it’s a very weighty universal song and it’s very human but very grand. I really like that, it’s heavy but it’s sort of heavy-beautiful for me.
But yeah I mean there are always moments you know. There are moments on every SHIHAD record and it’s weird, sometimes it’ll be the quietest moment. Like on ‘Beautiful Machine’ it’s ‘Waiting Around For God’ where I nailed what I was thinking. There are no fucken heavy guitars in it but that song really sticks a lump in my throat because it resonates with me because I believe what I’m saying, it’s cool. But you know, then there are other moments like every time I play the riff in ‘The General Electric’ it’s like here it comes… and you just get that rush of adrenaline. I’ve played that song fucken what… hundreds and hundreds of times and I still have that same feeling when that riff comes in. It’s like this is going to fucking kick, and it feels awesome!
NZRock: Speaking of playing that live, what was it like playing ‘The General Electric’ and ‘Killjoy’ shows earlier this year?
Jon: know getting back inside the head of a 26 year old version of me and then a 29 year old version of me and going oh, that’s where I was at. And also remembering little subtleties that you’d forgot about the songs and seeing how your voice box changed. You know like wow, fuck, I could sing that? I can’t sing that now or I have to really try harder. Or some bits where you think, I always used to have a problem with that but now I can actually nail that shit. It was interesting to see the way I played guitar differently in the two different concerts. ‘Killjoy’ without a doubt to make it sound like it sounds I would have to bleed because that’s how I play guitar. But ‘The General Electric’ was more oh I’ve got a sore throat after the gig because there’s a lot of singing on that record.
NZRock: Songs like ‘Pacifier’ you actually tune those down lower now is that right?
Jon: Yes, well we always did from word go. From the first time we performed it until now it’s always two semi tones down because it’s just too high to do it every night. It was more about survival on a long tour. Now days, because we only play 30 shows a year rather than 150, I could probably do it but I’ve got used to where it is in my vocal range. I mean ‘Run’ is fucken high as well.
NZRock: Just going back to what you were saying about ‘Ignite’ before and the tracks on there… the bonus material is amazing too, it adds a different dimension to the songs on that album.
Jon: Like ‘Beatlab’? Yeah, ‘Beatlab’ is cool. See that’s me really having a go with Ableton this program on the Mac that I’ve got. It was given to me by Paddy Free from PITCH BLACK and taught to me by Tiki. It’s a live DJ-ing thing but actually it ends up being a really fucken good writing tool. Pro Tools is just like a digital tape recorder but this is like an instrument as well as a recorder all in one. It means I can write in the back of vans while we’re travelling around or write in a hotel room which is really good. Without having to plug a whole bunch of shit into my laptop I can just do it with my headphones and my laptop. I mostly wrote that on my laptop and then played it to the band and I think it just resonated with them and they went fucken cool, lets play it. If we’d had more time that probably would have made it on the record but we had to zip that through at the very end. I never like to make decisions on songs that we’ve just finished. I like to be able to sit with them a little bit before we put them on a record. That one was just too fresh to actually take that gamble but it ended up being really popular with everybody so it was like a fuck, we could’ve put it on.
NZRock: There are probably not too many bands in New Zealand that have the same amount of b-sides and singles as SHIHAD…
Jon: Yeah well because we do write quite a lot. I mean the only album that wasn’t like that was ‘Killjoy’ where the 9 songs that made it to the record were the 9 songs we wrote. That sort of says to me that if your head is in the right space you don’t need to write all the time you know. But in saying that I really do like writing all the time. I really like waking up and creating something even if it’s not going to get used. Even if it’s just a sketch it’s nice because out of those sketches come really good ideas. Not all the time but the more time you do it the more times you have a chance of going oh, there are all these ideas I can draw from and I can play those to the band. Even if you were thinking frivolously at the time. Like we did a song recently in York Street and it was just out of a retarded jam that I’d done by myself and it ended up being a monster of a riff. I just wrote it on a keyboard, a Korg MS-20 and just jamming with a friend. It’s just good to be creative, it’s my version of someone coming home and sparking up the X-Box 360 except I’m writing my own story rather than playing somebody else’s story. Because I’ve had my fair share of smoking cones and playing PlayStation like everybody else but I always feel sort of empty after it. It’s like living in a brand new suburb where all the houses are nice but they’re all identical. I’d prefer to actually build my own house and have something that’s unique and it came out of my brain, not someone else’s story. And I’m not dumping on people that do love gaming because I can totally see the attraction but I find I feel a little bit more at ease with myself at the end of the day if I’ve created something. I don’t feel like such a waste of space. I feel like I’ve done my job.
NZRock: Out of all the albums you’ve released so far, what are the stand outs for you and why?
Jon: ‘Killjoy’ definitely, ‘The General Electric’ definitely. There are always certain tracks on every record though. I mean just having to do this [career retrospective] I heard ‘One Will Hear The Other’ for the first time in ages and fucken whether or not it’s hard enough for people or anything, that song is a kick-ass pop song man, it’s real sugar rush. It feels right and it moves in all the right places and it was a real thrill hearing it the other day. That was really interesting to me. I really loved making ‘Love Is The New Hate’. ‘Saddest Song In The World’ is probably one of my favourites and live ‘Empty Shell’ is a fucken blast to play. ‘Ignite’ was a blast to make, it was a really good experimental heavy record for me and a really fun record to make. Everyone really enjoyed being around each other and it shows in the music which is cool. Then fuck, you write song like ‘Home Again’ on the fish album which becomes a song that people identify with New Zealand music and it’s like how did that happen? Because I just remember writing that and when we wrote it, it was just like our version of a LED ZEPPELIN ‘Immigrant Song’ while we were living in Los Angeles. But I think the words sort of resonate with people you know.
NZRock: ‘Home Again’ is definitely a classic SHIHAD song, I’ve talked to people who say they were playing it overseas when they’re homesick or flying back home etc.
Jon: Yeah I mean that’s a massive compliment because we do make music for ourselves you know. Selfish act is a mean way to say it, but it is ultimately for yourself. It’s to prove to yourself that you’re worthy of being here or taking up the space. You do it because you’ve got ideas in your brain that you can’t quite understand but until you articulate it or write it down on a bit of paper and go oh that’s what I’m thinking, it’s a cathartic experience and also that performance experience aspect is why SHIHAD is good as well I think and why I still like doing it. We’ve always loved that live thing because nothing quite gives you that feeling… well maybe sex or food or stuff like that, but nothing quite like that. You know it’s communal, it’s bigger than just you, it’s people who are there to see you and you also get the best view of the house from the stage. I mean like Big Day Out this year, playing ‘General Electric’ watching people’s hands, everyone is doing something at the same time but it’s not reliant on religion or anything, it’s just everyone is there at the same time. It’s fucken cool.
NZRock: Actually, what happened at the end of that set you did at Big Day Out 2011? Did they give you a guitar that was out of tune or something?
Jon: Oh what happened was Shrimp our guitar tech thought it was for a different song in the set list. He’d got the tunings around the wrong way for two different songs. So yeah, he tuned the guitar wrong for that song and couldn’t understand why I was… it’s great because I’ve seen the footage he was filming from his guitar workshop at that point and you can just see me turn around and go “I’m gonna fucking kill you! I’m gonna fucking kill you!” haha! And then you see the whole crowd just going mental in the background and it’s such a surreal situation haha!
NZRock: Truly a rock n roll moment, and then I think Phil almost kicked his amp over before leaving the stage?
Jon: Oh yeah because his guitar stopped working at the same time so it was just bass and drums and vocals so that was really cool. But the thing is bass line is really important in that song so luckily that was still there. It was munty haha!
NZRock: On the topic of live gigs, I’m from Taranaki originally, do you have any fond memories of playing at The White Heart Hotel or anywhere like that back in the day?
Jon: The last couple of gigs I remember were around summertime and we were playing outside behind a pub [Butlers Reef]. The older ones… I actually remember watching a guy get fucken so beaten up so real bad. It was just two fucken massive pissed skinheads. One of the skinheads went down and then I remember our sound guy at the time Nick Rowan, he used to have this little dog called Skinny which was a Jack Russell and I just remember him licking the shit that was coming out of this guys head and I was thinking go Taranaki haha! This was years back bro, it’s way mellower now. Actually you know what, my biggest memory of Taranaki is writing ‘General Electric’, ‘My Minds Sedate’, ‘Wait And See’ …a lot of songs that ended up being on ‘The General Electric’ in a marae in Waitara. We had the view of that mountain while we were writing a lot of the ‘The General Electric’ so Taranaki is actually quite important to the SHIHAD story. The marae belonged to my ex-wife’s father’s tribe. We needed a place to get away from the city and he said as long as you treat it with respect… So we made a lot of noise in a marae in Waitara which was fucking cool.
NZRock: Just before I let you go, what’s the plans for next year with regards to new albums etc.
Jon: Definitely, just doing that bit of music live at York St recently I just went oh yeah, definitely up for doing another recorded because it was just fresh and new so I think probably middle of next year maybe. I’ve got some crazy shit coming up too. I’ve got THE ADULTS and Christchurch symphony orchestra doing the whole of THE ADULTS live with an 80 piece orchestra, fucken gold! So the doco comes out May, we’ll do a best of tour around that time with SHIHAD, then I go straight into symphony land with THE ADULTS, then after that straight into the next SHIHAD record.
NZRock: Busy times!
Jon: Yeah busy times. I’m loving it!
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