Chris Schulz

Chris Schulz is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

How Shihad made their explosive new album

Shihad have delivered the loudest, rowdiest album of their career. Chris Schulz met the band in Melbourne and found its origins lie in some unusual places.
Jon Toogood of Shihad.
Jon Toogood of Shihad.

Jon Toogood is playing like his life depends on it.

Bouncing on his tiptoes, his arms blur over his guitar as he screams ironic slogans like "Sell off all your assets!" and "Do a deal with China!" at the crowd in front of him.

There are no other words for it: he's rocking the f*** out.

As the grinding rhythm section of Cheap As - the ass-kicking closing track from Shihad's explosive new album FVEY - kicks into overdrive, bassist Karl Kippenberger leaps up and rushes to his side.

Together, they grind through the song's frenetic finale, a co-ordinated blur of wailing riffs, searing aggression and old-school Shihad attitude.

As the song's last ragged moments ring out, an ecstatic Toogood turns around, throws up his devil horns and bellows "F***ing yeah!" as flecks of saliva fly from his lips.

But there isn't a crowd in sight. Those instruments Toogood and Kippenberger are playing are air guitars. The music is coming out of Toogood's iPod connected to a bank of speakers set into the wall.

And the only other people in the room are drummer Tom Larkin, guitarist Phil Knight, and this writer, who's just a little scared to admit the volume is too loud for his tender ears.

We're crammed into a small Melbourne studio to listen to Shihad's new album FVEY - a full frontal metal assault that rages against the machine at ridiculous volumes.

Full review: Shihad's new album 'the angriest of their career'

It is, according to the band, the most important album of their 26-year career - but it wasn't an epic studio effort like some of their past albums. It was more about capturing lightning in a bottle.

As Toogood says proudly: "We spent two weeks on it, which is seven and a half months less than we spent on the Pacifier record."

The problem is, FVEY isn't out until tomorrow, and Shihad's foursome are stuck in the studio trying to explain the album's politically charged venting to an under-caffeinated music journalist.

It's obvious they just want to get on the road and start playing the damn thing live for fans. They won't get the chance to do that until mid-September.

In York Street Studios one last time


Shihad performing at York Street Studios.

Backtrack a couple of months, and Shihad are playing an intense and intimate showcase in Auckland's York Street Studios for about 80 industry types at the taping of a live Barkers Sundae Session.

It's the only time Shihad have played tracks from FVEY for an audience, and, facing each other on the now defunct studio's small circular stage, they're a picture of concentration as they hammer through the album's riveting first single, the GCSB-baiting Think You're So Free.

It's on this very spot they embarked on FVEY's tense recording sessions (an earlier idea to record in Egypt was flagged after outbreaks of violence and civil unrest) with Jaz Coleman, the Killing Joke frontman who produced their debut album Churn before an argument over his role on the follow-up sparked a rift that lasted 15 years.

Watch: Sundae Sessions: Shihad - Think You're So Free

Video

His return, after a backstage reunion at an awards show in London, means Shihad have been put through their paces, with relentless sessions that were so exhausting they were left nursing OOS-like injuries including tendonitis and tennis elbow.

YouTube footage shows the wild-haired Coleman conducting the band like an orchestra while barking orders of "Yes! Yes! Again ... From the top!" at them.

The punishing regime, which lasted more than two weeks without a day off as Shihad laid down FVEY's instrumental tracks, was worth it, says Larkin.

"He'd punish us like a brutal dictator. He wouldn't allow you to patch anything up. You'd be playing a nine-minute song and if you came in two bars early after seven minutes and blew it, he'd make you go back to the start again.

"Your arms are going, 'I want to be cut off' [but] the pain process meant you wouldn't want to make a mistake. It was like, 'F*** it, you've gotta push through the pain."


Shihad performing at York Street Studios.

The results are exactly what Shihad fans want from New Zealand's biggest rock band: a return to the sound of Churn, Killjoy, and their last "angry" album Love is the New Hate.

York Street Studios, Jaz Coleman, riffs that are bound to test necks and floorboards ... yes, Shihad are going back to their metal roots. But it was never the plan.

The origins of FVEY

Monty Python and an untuned guitar. The origins of FVEY come from these two bizarre and seemingly unrelated things.

Larkin explains: "The problem with being an older band is that you get competent. You get good - so you don't work. You get lazy. Our writing sessions, and even our recording sessions, started to suffer from this complacency.

"There was no sense of urgency. We'd gotten too comfortable, too confident. Everyone's other stuff started clouding in: you have to answer emails. You have to look after the kids. Have you seen this YouTube video? Let's get a coffee ...


Karl Kippenberger of Shihad.

"John Cleese talked about how Monty Python would run into these problems as well. What they did was they'd come in and give themselves three hours a day to work. The phones would be off, they'd do three hours, and productivity went through the roof. So we gave that a crack."

The result was a five-week demo session in Melbourne that yielded 55 song fragments, many made thanks to the help of a guitar that became seriously out of tune after a rough flight across the Tasman.

Those sketches were given names like "Billy's Balls" and "Gollum's Corner", then taken to Coleman in York Street Studios. It was there that the songs, and the band, were bashed into shape.

After their relatively complacent 2010 album Ignite, all four members agree that the aggression that "drill sergeant" Coleman bought to York Street was exactly what Shihad needed.

Toogood: "The screaming would start when we'd go into the studio and someone messed up. He would scream in your face. Phil got it more than most. It was excellent."

Knight: "There was the threat of physical violence ... it was awesome."

Kippenberger: "It's the type of tension we needed."

Larkin: "Loved it."

They left that session with nearly 20 fully formed instrumental tracks. But while the recording sessions for Knight, Kippenberger and Larkin were over, for Toogood they'd barely begun.

Behind the lyrics

"Didn't you realise this is a political album?" asks Toogood, leaning over the studio's mixing desk, his eyebrows arched.

Actually, yes. If lyrics like, "Signed off by men in suits that you won't recognise"/"It's a f***ing disaster"/"Have we had enough?"/"Get me out of here" didn't give the game away, then the 20 minutes Larkin and Toogood have just spent detailing exactly what's wrong with New Zealand and Australia's political systems certainly did.

Here's Toogood when he's warming up: "We're being lied to, and that creates apathy. Because people go, 'Are we going to vote for the red one or the blue one?'


Phil Knight of Shihad.

"But you know whichever one's in power, they'll sell themselves. The policies are bought by people who have way more money than the average person. So it gives people a sense of powerlessness and a sense of being detached from the whole process. Why bother?"

Then he really gets fired up: "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. It's a fix. It's not right and as a society we're morally obligated to look after the people who are hurting. My dad was dying and I watched how hard the nurses looked after him. They don't get paid anywhere near as much as the guy who's trading stocks that are keeping people in poor countries poor and ruining their ecologies.

"Why doesn't the person who looks after people selflessly get rewarded? What about teachers? They were going without pay for weeks. Why is being a ruthless merchant banker being rewarded? It's disheartening. It needs to be rebalanced."

Free speech, information sharing, free-market capitalism and John Key's "snapper quota" line are what inspired Toogood's lyrics for FVEY (the album's title refers to the information sharing agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, dating back to World War II), which he recorded with Coleman in the Melbourne studio we're sitting in.


App users: Tap here to view the 'FVEY Studio Surveillance' video

"There were things that were pissing me off that I really wanted to talk about," Toogood says. "Coleman is a singer, he's a political animal, and he's more extreme than we are. He'd go, 'What's this song about? Right, cool, f*** off, have a sleep, first thing in the morning write down everything about this subject. Don't even listen to the music. The writing, the ideas, were fine. I had an overabundance of material."

Despite politically charged songs like The Big Lie and The Great Divide, Toogood denies he's aiming for a career in politics.

"I'm not a political beast, that whole system corrupts people. The system is broken - I don't know what to replace it with. It's frustrating."

Outside of Shihad

Phew. With the final notes of FVEY still ringing in our ears and the political debate over, the banter begins.

There's an easy, entertaining camaraderie between Shihad's members - plus, there's some catching up to do. They haven't seen each other in a while, and they all have lives outside of Shihad - but they might not be what you'd expect from New Zealand's biggest rock act.

Knight, a recovering alcoholic with a wry sense of humour, jogs daily, writes a blog called What's Phil Worried About Today, and is deciding which local boxing gym to join.


Tom Larkin of Shihad.

Kippenberger has opened a successful organic produce store with his wife in Waiuku, and they have plans to expand.

Larkin is a producer and family man who can advise exactly where to get the best Lego presents (Myer, and he's correct) as well as riff on who the hottest Aussie rock band is (Violent Soho, ditto).

Meanwhile, Toogood is newly married and is living a settled, mellow lifestyle that includes making organic lemon curd using homegrown citrus following his mother's recipe.

"I spread it on toast and have eight slices and then wonder why I can't sleep at night," he laughs.

The other thing keeping him awake is the thought of playing FVEY live. Although they won't be doing that until their Christchurch show on September 12, Toogood says he's practising every day at home in preparation.

"When we play it live we're going to have to nail it because it means a lot.

"We can't let the message down and we can't let the process down either, because it was a really magical process."

Watch: Shihad - Think You're So Free

Video

What: Shihad
New album: FVEY
Essential listening: Churn (1993); The General Electric (1999); Love is the New Hate (2005)
Live: September 12, CBS Arena, Christchurch

* Shihad's Sundae Session performance will go live at midnight tonight.

- TimeOut

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