Setting the record straight

Shihad. Photo / Supplied.
Shihad. Photo / Supplied.

The measure of a good rock band is often the loyalty of its fans and for 22 long years Shihad has had die-hard dedication in spades.

Even when the critics panned the "once hard-rocking, attitude-driven" Melbourne-based four-piece for "going soft" on their 2008 album Beautiful Machine, the loyalists stood firm. And in return, Shihad did the same - the band members stood by one another and their work.

"Beautiful Machine was a softer record but we all think it was a f***ing cool chapter, man," says a defiant Jon Toogood, the band's singer. "We wanted to make a pop record. We just got shit for it - not that we haven't before."

But if there was ever any question that Shihad had lost their kick-ass shine, Toogood, bassist Karl Kippenberger, guitarist Phil Knight and drummer Tom Larkin are about to set the record straight with album number eight, Ignite.

Back for a fleeting visit from Melbourne, Toogood and Kippenberger are fuelling up on breakfast before the Vodafone New Zealand Music Award nominations announcement that confirmed Shihad as the 2010 recipients of the Legacy Award.

Toogood is tucking into a plate of eggs Benedict and Kippenberger's sipping coffee and smoking; his bowl of fresh fruit and yoghurt so far untouched. Toogood's not long kicked his 25-year long smoking habit and is feeling good for it.

Nevertheless, conversation turns to age. Winning a Legacy Award for "enduring influence" in Kiwi music and entering the Hall of Fame alongside Ray Columbus and the Invaders, the now-defunct Straitjacket Fits, and Johnny Devlin could imply that the game's up.

It's a point not lost on the ever-energetic Toogood, who has just turned 39, and the cool-as-a-cucumber Kippenberger, who has just celebrated his 37th birthday.

But if these guys are genuinely worried about middle age, they're not letting on. "We used to talk about what it would be like when we were old. Now we just talk about being old," laughs Kippenberger. "Now we just go, 'Oh Gawd, my bleedin' back!'," Toogood chips in, playing along, and before long the whole table has erupted in fits of giggles.

They're all still the best of mates and, with their new album, are ready to stick up a finger to all those who wrote them off. "There's always something to prove, whether it's to ourselves or whoever. But I guess it has become more and more of a personal thing," admits Kippenberger.

Little wonder. After all, the band has played a crucial part in shaping the Australasian rock music landscape. Since forming in Wellington in 1988 Shihad have had three number one albums; they also rank as first equal for the most Top 40 singles in New Zealand, with 19.

After the September 11 terror attacks in New York, the band briefly changed their name to Pacifier, but are now firmly back as Shihad.

They are, without a doubt, one of the country's most successful and best-loved bands. So, there has always been a lot at stake. "It's like, are we still a good band? Let's find out!" says frontman Toogood.

"You've got all these other records behind you and you never want to repeat yourself - that's one thing that we all really agree on. And when it starts to sound the same, it's like geeky - well, not even geeky, just boring. There's always something to kick against, man."

And kick they do on Ignite. The album roars into action with the menacing opening track The Final Year of the Universe, which sets the tone for a far darker album than the last and harks back to the band's early days.

Kippenberger admits that in the early stages of making an album there is always a niggling fear that perhaps the best has already been. "You're waiting for the well to dry up ... So far it hasn't." Anyone who saw Toogood and the band opening for AC/DC at Western Springs last year or perform their recent Killjoy and The General Electric gigs at the Powerstation will agree that Shihad is far from running on empty.

At Western Springs they did their Kiwi rock fans proud, working the 60,000-strong crowd into a frenzy before the Australian heavyweights took the stage. And at their sold-out Powerstation gigs, the room pulsated with a raw energy.

But Shihad has always been a band that knows how to perform live. Once he hits the stage, Toogood's boyish and boundless enthusiasm is catching. "It's basic physics - you throw energy out there and they throw it back at you. The whole idea is to just keep building it up, building it up, until it's just exploding," he says. "Seriously, it sounds so silly but I honestly feel when I walk on stage and I get handed a guitar it's like coming home. That is where I feel the most comfortable in my own skin. I'm a bit older now, so I'm relatively okay in a social situation but still I find that's more alien to me than being on stage with a guitar."

Toogood believes it's a feeling that comes from having played in the band for his entire adult life. The boys from Shihad have quite literally grown up together. As the singer points out: "It's pretty amazing that we can still sit in the same room together after 20 or so years."

But it's their sense of fierce loyalty to one another and what they do for a living that keeps them coming back for more. "We are not afraid to tell one another if one of us hasn't pulled our weight. We'd bloody kill each other after a gig if we didn't," says Kippenberger.

So once again, the lads are putting themselves on the line. Critics will inevitably ask and answer the same question all over again - does Shihad have what it takes to go the distance? The question is, does Shihad even care what they think? The answer is, of course, they do.

But Toogood says he's learned an invaluable lesson from Beautiful Machine. "I was generally surprised at the negative reaction that record got because I was so in love with it when we were making it. I've had to re-jig my thinking in the last two years. I can't afford to worry as much because I used to take it really personally. What I do think is that we've made a really cool record," he adds.

What really matters now, adds Kippenberger, is how they feel, and of course those staunch hardcore fans who have never stopped believing. "It does come back to pleasing ourselves, because that's all you can do, really. And I suppose the one thing I have always enjoyed is that every track on every album is represented by someone coming up and saying, 'That's my favourite song'. I kind of like that."

Shihad's eighth studio album, Ignite, is out tomorrow. The band will receive the New Zealand Herald Legacy Award at the 2010 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards on October 7 at Vector Arena (televised on C4).

- Herald on Sunday

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