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Shihad - MNZ Interview: Shihad

20 Dec 2021 // An interview by Shade

“Rupert Murdoch’s got a lot of blood on his hands,” Jon Toogood, Shihad’s front man and lyricist tells me when i start our interview. I’d asked, by way of a reference to the title of the first single Tear Down Those Names, which name would you tear down first?

To say the new album is loaded with venom would miss the point. “There’s a misunderstanding with the anger on this record” says Toogood, “it’s not anger so much at people it’s anger at seeing the potential for good in humanity and seeing it stifled by these crazy sort of fevered egos that are making a lot of money off of this fear and anger and stopping people from fucking evolving and getting to a better place”.

The new Shihad album is a dark, brooding slab of heavy rock that delivers from start to finish with a rhythm section that absorbs all the light like some obsidian hammer and dutifully sets the tempo as if it were tolling an apocalyptic warning. The structure and the melodies deliver enough twists and turns to keep you hooked and speaking of hooks, there are some blinders on this record. The aforementioned Toogood states his case for the guilty and Phil Knight’s guitar work is as exquisite as ever.

It’s also a brutally honest view of history and the role Europeans have played; it’ll make you think, and it’ll make some people uncomfortable. “We need to re-evaluate our history and our place in history” Toogood continues, “We need to see that though we may not have performed those original injustices. Taking land that was actually already lived in with cultures that were old and had their own ways of living, we still live in a society where we benefit from it as white men … we need to reassess our place in history and have a REAL conversation about it. Not only because we’re living in 2021 and a hierarchy based on race seems quite fucking immature … we need to grow up as a species and get over it if we want to move forward into a brighter future”.

Tom Larkin, the band's engine room as both drummer and de facto manager, has already seen some backlash to this message, “if you were to encapsulate the dialogue you receive from people going against what we’re pointing out or saying it’s some sort of act of self-flagellation - underneath all of it is an objection to change.”

The way both men talk about the new album they’re delivering it sounds like a statement of intent, “we are putting out a provocation” Larkin continues, “to (get people to) examine what you may have inherently as you’re born and how that affects others and how we can rebalance that.”

While Rupert Murdoch received a curt mention earlier, it is not just new names that need tearing down according to Tom. “There’s a massive problem with framing the history of a country from when the Europeans arrived...That instantly is wrong, especially somewhere like Australia where the 1st Nation people were here sixty thousand years before the Europeans even discovered that continent and this idea of year zero, that’s a complete colonialist framework and it’s not. What we’re really trying to communicate is, hey we just need to incorporate that and rebalance that story, once we do, we’ve got a better understanding of where we are and where we can move forward too.”

Talking to Jon and Tom it’s clear that there has been a lot of reflection between this record and the last and COVID has been a major factor in that. “I lost nine months of work but just before it (Covid) the sky was red because Australia had been on fire for three months, so there’s that humming in the background and then Trump’s been in power for … three years, Bolsonaro is basically killing his own people in Brazil. You know it’s the rise of the populist strongman and we’ve seen where that goes if you read a book or if you look at history. These people aren’t interested in you, I’m talking about the people who vote for them, these people are using you for power and unfortunately it never ends well. We’ve seen it historically and the pandemic really showed it up as well because outside of anyone being into Trump and what he was representing, five hundred thousand people died in your country. Ultimately when it comes down to it, he’s not interested in your wellbeing because when it comes down to it, he’s a traumatised individual whose been taught to distrust other human beings and to assume the worst in them so you might as well in quick before someone else fucks you over.”

If, like me, you wondered where the rest of the band were on these topics Jon and Tom confirm that the guys are all on the same page. “I do pretty much write all the lyrics, but I run everything past them” (the band) explains Toogood, “they’ve got to stand on stage beside me and you know what? Most of the lyrics come from conversations between the band anyway. We as a band have always been, politically are quite centrey, centre left … but when things get too extreme one way or the other way it’s never a good thing. We’re getting accused of being socialists or whatever blah blah blah ok but we’re not even thinking about that. We’re just watching con-men kill people you know and taking them for a rise, and they’re legitimising ideas like white supremacy and I’m a father of two bi-racial children myself so I’m not going to sit around and not fucking say something about that. Ultimately it’s (The album) a provocation for discussion.”

Old Gods is a political record but then every Shihad record has been with the exception of Devolve has been and it’s not just racial injustice that’s commented on here. “Everything is tied in” clarifies Jon, “you know you talk about racism, sexism, you know even like financial inequality, which is a massive fuckin issue as well, but I mean humming in the background is the fucking climate you know. That is massive as well so if we’re going to take these things on as a species, we need to have a common language at least, even if we disagree, we need to be honest with ourselves about history, where we came from and why we are what we are. Until we do that, it’s basically a block in the road and we’ve got real problems that need fuckin fixing, real world problems you know and I wanna be part of that movement.”

Unlike the infamous Rolling Stone, this band has gathered plenty of moss. Listen to this new album a couple of times through and you will hear many influences. There is the churn of a Killing Joke inspired rhythm section, the dissonant chugging guitar riffs that owe as much to Sonic Youth as they do Black Sabbath and Toogood’s vocal which can snarl like John Lydon, harmonise like Cobain and in between sound like something that can only be his own visceral wail. These guys manage to keep their sound fresh at each turn and Tom Larkin, whose day job is that of a band manager and producer, expands on how they as a band have managed to keep their identity and voice as a band. 

“The thing about Shihad is, and one thing that’s been really great across the last two albums is there’s been, I think, a broad consensus that what these four people do or the voice that we have. Although we’re strong in all sorts of other areas … really what we do is this heavy, high energy, live focus material and that’s the difference between what we’re really good at and what we are fucking great at. You suddenly realise that life’s become more complex and there’s these other outlets for these things and when we’re together let’s focus on what we’re really great at and use that as a vehicle for that and that I suppose within Shihad it’s about understanding that and working it back to other artists and realising the importance of finding your own voice. It’s about looking for what you’re amazing at and not necessarily what you’re competent at.” 

Previously Shihad have had dalliances with other genres, and you can almost chart it through a period of their career where they released the “Pop” album and then felt the need for the heavier album next time around, from Killjoy to the Fish album, The General Electric into Pacifier. Love Is the New Hate into Beautiful Machine and that ebb and flow was noticeable until the run of Ignite, FVEY and now Old Gods. Tom expounds on not just his experiences but what he has seen other artists being put through. 

“The music industry is guilty many times of taking an artist and saying, you know, that you’re quite good at this or quite good at that, you should do this and pushing them towards something that doesn’t really come from them. What one would do with an artist that you’ve got is ask what are artists, what are songs that you connect to. What’s stuff you connect too, you know you love their art and all that and them you push them towards actually living those songs or those perspectives and bringing that back in to their art and then going you’ve got this lane, you’ve got this kind of identity but what happens when you’re attracted to this or attracted to that and bring that back into your art and all of a sudden it explodes what you do. I remember that was formative for Shihad, we’ve talked about it a lot. We were affected by our peers in bands like Bailterspace and the Skeptics but I was affected and I know others were of the jazz school we were in or anything like that and what made Shihad so compelling was that we had a context that worked for these four people but everyone in those four people were engaged in these other contexts and bought those references in and changed up what Shihad could or would be. That dialogue you have with other ways of thinking and other ways of playing music was always vital to finding an identity and injecting that in but then I think the mature context is kind of going when you are of that mind that you shape shift into identities as opposed to bringing it into something only you guys do.”

Pulling influences into who you are rather than just reflecting them is how Shihad keep things fresh for both themselves and their fans and sometimes those influences come from unexpected places as Tom goes on to explain. “Tear Down Those Names for instance, I went to see one of the very first, might’ve been the second show Dua Lipa ever did in Australia, and it was absolutely mind-blowing, and it was my 4-year-old daughter's birthday who loved Dua Lipa at the time. We went to the show, it was ballistic, it was incredibly loud - it was amazing, and this was just pop music but underlying it all was that kind of salsa beat but it was done at this level that was just lighting the crowd up. So, I just went ‘I fuckin love that beat’ and I’m just gonna kinda work it in and that’s the chorus for Tear Down Those Names. That bom dah boom bah da bof, you hear that and that’s the context, it sounds like a section that’ll fuckin light a crowd on fire, and it does, but I ripped that off Dua Lipa - that’s my context.”

There it is, the context of this record, both musically and lyrically. It’s about growth, finding a voice and joining those voices together for something better. Old Gods is not Henny Penny claiming the sky is falling, nor is it a vacuous wailing and gnashing of teeth. It's a dark, powerful, driving voice of dissent rallying against injustice, ignorance, and bigotry.

Jon, Tom, Phil and Karl should be celebrated in the same way that Rage Against The Machine and System of a Down are - read and listen to what Shihad has to say. It's every bit as poignant as anything from elsewhere on the globe and it’s more relevant because it was written and conceived by a band of artists living, evolving, and understanding the world from our place in it.


Many thanks to Riccardo Ball for providing Muzic.net.nz with this interview.


About Shihad

Picture this… 1988, Bob Hawke is Prime Minister, Australia dumps $600 million bucks of tax payer cash on Expo 88, Home and Away hits our tellies for the first time, Triple J launch the Hottest 100, Nintendo release the Game Boy, free University education is no longer an option, and over in Wellington NZ, the Southernmost capital city in the world, Jon Toogood and Tom Larkin are busily creating a heavy rock band…. A monstrous band that would end up becoming one of New Zealand’s most loved, respected and successful exports… Kia ora Shihad!

Fast forward to 2020… Jon, Tom, lead guitarist Phil Knight (who they found through a music shop notice board ad in 1989) and bass player Karl Kippenberger, who joined the band in 1993, (from being a fan) have released nine studio albums (five of which went to #1 in NZ). They survived a name change propelled by Jihad becoming a staple negative reference in the global vernacular thanks to 9/11 (Shihad became Pacifier, and returned to Shihad), personal triumphs and tragedies, travelled all over the world with endless tours, selling out headline shows and sharing stages at major local and international festivals, and touring with musical heroes like Motorhead, Metallica, Faith No More and AC/DC to name a few! In 2010 they were inducted into the New Zealand Music’s Hall Of Fame. And just like Neil Finn, Russell Crowe and every other successful person or idea to come out of NZ… Australia quickly adopted them as our own, showering them with ARIA nominations, adoration and ownership of their global success.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Shihad


Old Gods
Year: 2021
Type: Album
Year: 2014
Type: Album
Year: 2010
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Beautiful Machine
Year: 2008
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Love Is The New Hate
Year: 2005
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Year: 2005
Type: EP
The General Electric
Year: 1999
Type: Album
Blue Light Disco
Year: 1998
Type: EP
Year: 1996
Type: Album
Year: 1996
Type: Album
Year: 1995
Type: Album
Year: 1993
Type: Album
Year: 1991
Type: EP

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