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February 20, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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Home Again

Shihad are New Zealand rock legends. Even if you aren’t their biggest fan, their live shows are something to behold. Their shows are frantic and energetic- exactly how rock and roll should be played. As frequent visitors to Orientation, you’ll still find people who talk in hushed tones about some of their previous Ori gigs- such as one where people swear the entire Student Union Building was shaking, or their packed out Town Hall gig in 2000 (where Fur Patrol’s Now video was filmed), which is one of Wellington’s classic concerts. So with their sixth album Love is the New Hate behind them, Shihad return for another Orientation gig at the Union Hall.

I talk to a laidback, yet highly passionate Jon Toogood, the singer and principal songwriter of the band. When I mention that the band is eighteen years old, having been formed in Wellington in 1988, Toogood laughs. “That’s pretty weird isn’t it? It doesn’t pay to think about it too much for me. I just wanted to play speed metal and it’s all of a sudden, it’s eighteen years later and I get to make music for a living. It’s fucking great”.

Shihad originated from Wellington High School (and the line-up has remained unchanged, with the exception of Karl Kippenberger, the bassist who came in 1991) and immediately started getting noticed around Wellington bars. “We started off there, and I get to go pretend I’m James Hetfield from Metallica. I’m sixteen and I’m playing in bars and they’re hiding me behind bars when the police come in. It was exciting, you know.” The first major turning point came when Gerald Dwyer, a member of a local punk-band Flesh-D-Vice, offered to manage the band. He started getting them into other music – British post-punk (Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke – who Tom Larkin later drummed for in the studio), noise bands (My Bloody Valentine) and especially, “the harder version of the Flying Nun thing” – Bailterspace, the Skeptic and early Headless Chickens.

Their first album, Churn, was released in 1993 on the back of a growing live reputation in New Zealand. The album is a giddy mix of good old-fashioned metal, noise and good old-fashioned metal. With singles such as ‘Stations’ and ‘I Only Said’ (which, quite remarkably, reached number 3 on the New Zealand singles chart), they started making waves in the New Zealand music scene.

They made an even bigger splash with their second album, Killjoy, which is now widely regarded as a classic New Zealand album. Full of huge riffs, a menacing atmosphere and some killer tracks (‘You Again’, ‘Bitter’, and ‘Deb’s Night Out’- which Toogood concedes, “is a total Skeptics rip-off”) Shihad started becoming pioneers in helping to make New Zealand music cool in a mainstream context. Shihad were conscious of trying to incorporate New Zealand musical heritage into the album. “It’s a weird record because at the same time as wanting to have all these so-called alternative records we wanted the kick-drum to be as meaty as Tommy Lee’s kick-drum on Dr. Feelgood. You got a bunch of metallers taking a fuckload of acid and listening to a lot of good music and that’s sorta what comes out”. With the advent of radio station Channel Z, and being a few years before arts spending was really going to start making an impact- Shihad found themselves at the forefront of a new celebration of New Zealand music. That said, the album found favour overseas influential metal magazine Kerrang, musicians such as Kirk Hammett (from Metallica), Iggy Pop, and Mike Bordin (from Faith No More, who Shihad toured with around Europe). “We were getting to play 150-200 shows a year, and we were getting tighter and tighter and we were also seeing lots of other bands where we’re saying ‘right, that looks good, but that sucks’”. Toogood also admits they were “signing dumb record contracts like every young band does”, which may have sounded good at the time, but hamstrung their international opportunities.

Their follow-up, a self-titled album (commonly known as The Fish Album) was released in 1996. Lacking the full-on production of Killjoy, the album is more melodic and features a number of definitive Shihad singles, “Home Again”, “La La Land”, “A Day Away” and “Your Head is a Rock” (plus the underrated “Ghost From the Past”). “We were like, let’s do it totally opposite from Killjoy, ‘cause Killjoy – there are some tracks which have got fucking eight guitars going. But we had this sort of rock hard attitude – we’re only going to be representing exactly what we do live, so we did it like that. Sometimes it worked, but mostly production-wise it’s a little bit soft compared to how we are live. You live and learn, [but] I’m still proud of that record”.

The album was dedicated to their manager Gerald Dwyer, who had overdosed during a classic Shihad live performance at the 1996 Big Day Out (where the video for “Bitter” was recorded). Toogood admits Dwyer’s death left the band “a little directionless – we were clutching at straws”. The album however, consolidated their increasing popularity in New Zealand alternative circles, and moved them further away from their roots as an Iron Maiden cover band. “Well we only ever played Iron Maiden riffs, mainly when somebody’s broken a string. We’ve never been able to pull off an entire song”.

A three-year hiatus followed (aside from their EP Blue Light Disco) which ended with the band’s fourth album, The General Electric. The General Electric is another classic album – tighter and more focused. Produced by Garth Richardson (producer of Rage Against the Machine’s first album) who had decided to have the band “set up like a live band and then layer it to fuckery”. The band felt settled and creative, and experienced one of their most productive periods. “I remember writing so many fucking songs for the General Electric, like trying so many different avenues from ultra-industrial to ultra-country- what the rest of the band called Jonny’s-gay-songs-for-Jesus”. The resulting album featured singles such as “My Mind’s Sedate”, “The General Electric” and “Pacifier”. The band found popularity in Australia (having been told by their new record company Warners to relocate to Melbourne), while consolidating their popularity here. The band were all sharing a house, which “even though it was hard living together, it just made us really focused again, ‘cause we weren’t focused for a while after Gerald died”.
Their next target was the United States. Having finally been released from the contract they had been stuck in, which they had signed in Germany in 1995, they were finally able to try and build on a buzz they had generated in America. Shihad finally got a deal. “That was like a fucking dream that we’d had since we were kiddies and since we first started. We wanted to go to the home of rock and roll, take it to those fuckers and show that, you know, we do it just as good here”. They used the global success of AC-DC as their template. “AC-DC was a classic example of a band from the Australian suburbs very much like New Zealand suburbs, except no black people – ‘cause Australia’s weird like that. We always had respect for that band in that they just toured and toured and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They knew they were in a good band and wanted to take it to
the world”.

The United States is a notoriously difficult market to break and doubly hard if you are foreign. Fellow labelmates, Straitjacket Fits fell apart on their United States attempt. Success in your home country is no guarantee of success in the highly patriotic American market- see Robbie Williams or Oasis for working examples. Bands either achieve through incredible hard work or incredible luck. Unfortunately for Shihad, luck just wasn’t on their side. “Some crazy shit happened – September 11, and all of a sudden people are going, ‘ha, your name’s Shihad, that’s pretty silly. That’s not going to fly over here’”. The story of their name-change is well known. Shihad becomes Pacifier because Americans could be offended by its similarities to jihad. It’s an interesting story about how much a band is forced to compromise what they believe in, in order to try and make it. If it were a Hollywood movie, the band would have been rewarded for all their hard work with something big. I asked if New Zealand just couldn’t accept their compromises. “Dude, I struggled to accept it. I mean more than anything else, I empathised with people who were calling me a sellout cunt because I felt like a sellout cunt. At the same time I knew the reason. I was backed into a corner where the decision was two options. One option being you change your name and be uncomfortable yourself and feel like a dickhead but you keep those doors open that you’ve been trying to get open for fourteen, fifteen years and give it a shot. Or you be a hard arse and a proud cunt and you keep the name the same and basically say goodbye to everything you’ve been fighting for, for fifteen years. Either option sucked as far as I was concerned”. The album they released (which almost became forgotten amidst all the controversy) certainly felt compromised, musically and lyrically. “It was weird, a lot of the songs were sort of angular drum and bass played by metal musicians. It was weird because the record doesn’t reflect that at all because the producer we worked with at the time. Josh Abrahams was like ‘nah, drum and bass does not fly in America, that’s what people associate with MTV adverts’. We were like ‘that’s a real shame ‘cause when drum and bass is being played by a live band, that’s really fucking exciting and it’s really different’ but he wouldn’t have a bar of it”.

Shihad found themselves being offered advice from various sources and co-wrote songs with the likes of Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots/Velvet Revolver). “We were making all the mistakes of a band that comes out of nowhere and gets signed to a major label for a million, jillion bucks. We had all these outside influences, but we were on our fifth/sixth record. We’d always thought this is the way it happens – you write a bunch of songs, and if your record company doesn’t like the demos, the record company can go and get fucked – it doesn’t matter, this is the record our band is making. That was a totally different scenario – there was a lot of money pumped into the record and a lot of people in the studio going I think that, I think this and you’re sitting there in another country and you’re going well they live here, maybe they’ve got better ideas than me. That’s all bullshit.”
But how hard is it for a band who have worked their ass off, only to end up at the point they started? “Even through all the feelings of loneliness that you experience from being away from your family for the long tour, I could always fall back on ‘oh well, I’m in a kick-ass band’, and that makes it worthwhile doing the shit, but then it started to be questioned. It was like, ‘what band am I in? Fuck I don’t even know the name anymore.’” The band decided to “do it on our own terms or not do it at all. We had definitely made a lot of mistakes with that record. But then because we made those mistakes we came out with such a brutal record as Love is the New Hate. Even though I think the chip on our shoulders at times was fucking big, it’s a retardedly heavy album but I’m still glad we made that record because it was cathartic”.

So Shihad have survived. Their importance in New Zealand music history may still be underrated (though they are certainly mainstream enough), but no one can deny the classic status of albums such as Killjoy, The General Electric, or tracks such as “Home Again” and “La La Land”. There’s a note of justified pride in Toogood’s voice when he mentions how guys come up to his 14 year old daughter at Wellington High School and ask her for autographs. “It’s interesting. I’m really fucking pleased kids are going to the same high school I went to and are still wearing the fucking tee-shirts and rocking out to our sounds. It’s so fucking out of it”. As a live band, there are few bands around the world, let alone New Zealand, who can match Shihad for energy, passion and intensity. And what could be better than seeing them in their home city?

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About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

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