Beautiful Noise

21 August 2012 | 8:00 am | Brendan Crabb

"I’m looking forward to making a really ballistic, heavy record, to tell you the truth. Which is what I think this band does really well, you know?"

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The various activities surrounding their new double-disc The Meanest Hits retrospective prompted Kiwi rockers Shihad to reminisce about the various aspects of their lengthy career – as difficult as that may be at times. Long-buried memories evoked, very public criticism evaluated and lofty career highlights celebrated. However, frontman Jon Toogood – instantly likeable and effervescent in conversation as always – encountered some other unexpected obstacles while preparing to tour in support of the release.

“When we did the tour in New Zealand it was a two-hour set, which was just madness,” he explains. “We did everything in chronological order, from our first speed metal EP, (1990's Devolve) from when we were 18, onwards. I actually re-learnt all that stuff, which I gotta say is pretty intense. Music written while you're not getting laid regularly, you know?” he laughs. “So your downstroke's a lot better,” he adds, chuckling again. “It was actually a really good form of physical exercise, doing all that riffing; it's about 50 riffs per song. The earliest speed metal stuff is like a real physical and mental challenge. But it was weird; like when we were doing stuff off the first album, the one we did with Jaz Coleman, (1993's) Churn. It just sounds different to now, just because of the way he recorded it, plus what we were listening to at the time. It's sort of metal, but without the guitar solos. Obviously heaps of Killing Joke, Ministry and stuff like that, and [it's] just rhythmically really smart. Obviously I enjoy the songs we play off of every record, but for some reason that made me listen to that record. I don't really spend much time listening to Shihad records.”

Maybe not, but the recent Shihad: Beautiful Machine documentary was the catalyst for reflecting on the origins of the band Toogood formed in 1988 with drummer Tom Larkin. It also indirectly paved the way for the new hits collection. “We're all just doing different things with our lives at the moment; it makes sense in a weird way. That documentary, [it] made us really have to think about our history, 'cause we haven't spent much time looking back on it. I don't tend to like revelling in what's gone past; it's what's next. So that movie, it asked us lots of questions about our past and things we hadn't thought about for years. It made me go, 'Oh man, we've got a huge body of work'. 'Cause we've been hassled for the last, I'd say three or four studio records; 'Oh, we've gotta do a greatest hits next time'. It's like, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll do that' and we never do it,” he laughs. “The movie made me think about the fact that we had eight studio records, which is really quite unusual for bands nowadays I think, for bands that are still together. So it was, 'Yeah, sure, but we'll choose it [and] we'll also ask the fans what they reckon', so it wasn't just being tied down to singles or anything like that, which is choice.”

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Trailer for the Shihad: Beautiful Machine documentary.

He's also quick to assure that said film is, “not a puff piece, bro.” It was helmed by Sam Peacocke, a young Berlin Film Festival prize-winning director. “He was more interested in, 'How does this all work, this whole band thing?' How come some bands split up and some stick together? What effect does it have on family life, on friends, people within the band? He just really nailed it. I did such stupid things when I was young; we gave him access to all the footage from when we were kids. I'm just such a dork, with some of the most ridiculous haircuts and fashion choices. Things that I thought were super important at 22 were just so ridiculously not important. But it's good because it's honest. It's not a band piece, which I'm really glad about. It's like a slice of life. Brutal, but sort of treated with care.”

This candid approach includes addressing their brief tenure as Pacifier, and the ensuing ill-fated attempt to crack the US market. Is Toogood a man for regrets? “Well, it is what it is, bro, that's kind of my approach to it and to most of my life now. I get to explain my side of things in the movie. It was like, shit A or shit B. Okay, option one – don't change the name, but say goodbye to your dreams of America, which you've had since you were a kid at school, and not find out what it was like, even though we found out anyway,” he laughs. “Or, option B – change your name, make yourself look like cockheads and feel like you've compromised. But, have a chance to have your record released in America on a big label with a big push behind it and get to find out what that was. After six months of telling everybody, 'Fuck off, there's no way we're changing our name', we finally compromised. I hated it; I regretted it as soon as we did it. I felt like I was in another band, like a fraud. It made me question everything about being in a band. I've done my two years of regrets; I did it at the time. The only positive thing to come out of it was we copped so much shit from everybody – from fans, media, ourselves, our friends and families – that it made us go out and be quite ballistic live at the time, just to prove everyone wrong. It was just like self-destruction. Any regrets I've had I've sort of lived with them, gone through them and got rid of them. It is what it is, it makes for an interesting story, and you move on.”

On the flipside, Toogood lists making 1999's The General Electric in Vancouver with producer Garth Richardson, touring Europe with Faith No More and supporting AC/DC in Auckland in front of 62,000 people as career highlights. The reworked Australian version of The Meanest Hits includes a new single, Right Outta Nowhere. As mentioned earlier, the 41-year-old is always excitedly looking to the future, and that's no different with regard to the next Shihad studio album.

“The thing with Jaz Coleman was like,” his voice shifting to imitate the noise legend, “'Stay on that riff, stay on it. Okay, build it up, build it up'. He actually taught us about songwriting, building up that sort of fire, which we didn't really know about when we were young. The plan at the moment for the next Shihad record is to go with Jaz Coleman to Cairo, meet some musicians there, write a record, then piss off to Spain and record it, do it all within the space of a couple of months. If it happens (referring to Coleman recently reportedly going AWOL)… If we pull it off. I'm looking forward to making a really ballistic, heavy record, to tell you the truth. Which is what I think this band does really well, you know?” We sure do.