Shihad gets physical

The death of singer Jon Toogood’s father, a chance stroll along Auckland’s Hobson St and a week Toogood spent mentoring high school pupils have conspired to produce what Shihad believe is their best work in 15 years.

FVEY, the ninth album from the veteran Wellingtonians, has even restored Toogood’s once-lost passion for touring, and marks a return to the harder sound of their younger days.

FVEY which Toogood describes as a “blistering” and “intense” record, is at heart a protest album about society’s inequality. He knows he might be mocked for that, and doesn’t particularly care. But that passion, he believes, has delivered work he is truly proud of.

“There has never been a time in our career when we have been so in love with an album from start to finish,” Toogood enthuses, on the phone from Melbourne. “There is something really magical about this record.

“It’s hard and heavy and it needed to be, because the world is pretty heavy at the moment.”

The political aspect helps explain Shihad’s unlikely reunion with Jaz Coleman, the eccentric British-born New Zealand-resident frontman of the band Killing Joke, who produced their first album, Churn, and then barely spoke to Toogood for two decades. Coleman’s concern with the modern world extends to not owning a cellphone or laptop to prevent state surveillance.

“When we first worked with him [Coleman] he was intense and angsty then, but he had this added meanness from the fact he was drinking, which wasn’t great,” says Toogood. “That’s gone now. He can be just as gnarly but there is a logic and reason to it.”

Toogood says Coleman drove them to work in the studio without a day off for nearly three months, leaving him with a damaged elbow and torn rotator cuff in his shoulder.

“But I felt cleansed, like I been worked to the bone.”

Shihad intend to play FVEY end-to-end at the start of a one-off album launch gig at Christchurch’s CBS Arena on September 11.

Do they have the energy

“Luckily, all of us tend to look after ourselves a lot better than we ever did,” says Toogood, now 42. “My health is better now than when I was 20. Yes, the music is very physical and requires a certain fitness level and presence of mind to actually pull it off.”

He’s been drug and alcohol-free for three years, goes to the gym four times a week and eats well. “When I first decided to do that with my life, I thought ‘shit, will I be able to make a good rock’n’roll record without that stuff’ I always thought it went hand in hand. But the proof is in this record.”

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Now living in Melbourne, Toogood says the band have grown “very uncomfortable” with the right-wing Australian government of Tony Abbott, and perceived a mean-spiritedness and unfairness in society.

But the big triggers came when Toogood was staying in Auckland and walked out of his hotel past a long line of people he imagined were queing up for gig tickets – only to discover it was the queue for assistance at the City Mission. Then he spent a week mentoring aspiring musicians at a high school and was deeply impressed by the selflessness of their teachers, who were working just as hard despite the uncertainty of the Novopay pay scandal.

But in particular, it was his father’s death that had the biggest impact.

“I was around these nurses working their arses off to keep my dad alive, and then finding out what they got paid – its criminal for the amount of work they were putting in to keep alive this person they didn’t know,” he says. “They were amazing.

“Then there are people being rewarded in jobs like the stock market, or for things that cause a lot of misery – and people doing selfless jobs are being paid almost nothing, and that to me is not right.”

If all this, says Toogood, makes him sound “naive or hippy-ish”, he’s unperturbed. “If I see we are being lied to, we will say that, and that’s what this record is about . . . I’m glad we have this outlet, because I am only saying what all my friends are saying.”

* FVEY is released on August 10.

– Sunday Star Times