Storytellers: Shihad’s Jon Toogood
As part of our occasional Storytellers series and to coincide with the release of a new career-spanning documentary, ANDREW MCMILLEN talks to Shihad’s Jon Toogood about two tracks from their back catalogue: an unheralded gem from the mid-1990s and the most popular song they’ve written to date.
Shihad, one of New Zealand’s longest-running bands, have enjoyed a healthy career marked by experimentation. Now based in Melbourne, they’ve moved from industrial metal (1993 debut Churn) to include elements of pop and electronica (1996’s Shihad, 2008’s Beautiful Machine) while maintaining a central obsession with guitar-heavy rock music, as best exemplified on 1999’s The General Electric.
I met with singer Jon Toogood upstairs at Brisbane venue Black Bear Lodge – he was in town playing shows with new outfit The Adults – to discuss two Shihad songs in-depth: ‘Deb’s Night Out’ from 1995’s nine-song Killjoy; and ‘Home Again’, the first track from the self-titled album that followed a year later. Much has been written about how much energy Toogood exhibits when fronting Shihad on stage, and the same remains true when he’s engaged in conversation.
‘Deb’s Night Out’
I want to start with ‘Deb’s Night Out’. This song sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb, not only on that record but across your whole catalogue.
Musically, it was very, very heavily influenced by Skeptics, who we were listening to a lot at the time. They’re a New Zealand Flying Nun band, who were quite different again from the Flying Nun crew in the fact that they weren’t using guitars. It was a lot of sample-based shit, a lot of keyboards. They used Euphonics, or E-Sonics … Some fucking early sampler. They just sounded fucking unusual but they also had this edge … [that was] quite majestic, melodically. Hard to explain. Really beautiful, but really weird.
Anyway, we were listening to them a lot at that point. Phil [Knight, guitarist] wrote the loop the whole song’s based around, that thing that starts the whole song. That’s Phil on a sampler doing that. When he played it to me I was like, “Whoa, it’s really beautiful.” Then we wrote a bass line and then it was like, “Wow, that’s cool,” and then I just wrote a little poem over the top which was about a friend of my ex-wife’s who was a heroin addict. She came around to our house one night, in Wellington. At that point our daughter was one-year-old. She was asleep in the bedroom and her friend came around and was asking for money. We sort of chilled her out and then we ended up playing games, like Monopoly, but she was cheating. She also tried to steal some money so I actually said, “You – get the fuck out!” And it was pissing down with rain. So that’s where that song began.
It’s a pretty relaxed instrumental, paired with lyrics that describe a dark tale of a relationship dissolving.
It’s a song about disappointment, and a friend, really. She was more a friend of my ex-wife’s rather than mine. Oh, it was just the classic junkie thing. She was high; just never trust a junkie, really. She didn’t do anything to dispel that myth, or that cliche. She lived up to it. It was like, “Oh, that’s really disappointing”. I was a bit younger, so I learned, “Right, that’s actually how that drug works.” It was one of my earlier experiences with it. It was before Gerald [Dwyer], our manager, ended up dying of a morphine overdose.
I didn’t know that.
That happened after Killjoy  and before the fish album [Shihad, 1996], which is probably a reason why the fish album is all over the place. Our heads were all over the place because we’d lost our manager.
Was that in New Zealand?
It was at the Big Day Out in Auckland. He managed us and another band called Head Like A Hole and we both had really blinding sets. We had seen him in the day; he was backstage and he’d rubbed his nose raw … because when he was on heroin, he’d scratch … The last thing I remember, it was really tragic, us all going [at the BDO], “You look a fucking mess, man. Get the fuck out of here! What the fuck are you doing?” He’s like, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” He went back to the hotel between our sets: we were on the main stage earlier, and Head Like A Hole were on the third stage later. He went back and had a hit, and it was really strong and he died. There was no one there at the hotel to help wake him up. By the time we’d got back to the hotel, someone knocked on his door, and then got it open, and he was dead on the floor. We thought it might have just happened, or something like that. But, yeah, he’d been dead for hours.
Did you know that he had a problem like that?
We knew that he used recreationally. But he had cleaned himself up for a while, and I think that’s what fucking killed him. Because he’d cleaned himself up for a while and then got some really pure morphine and basically decided to hit up what he used to do when he was using it more regularly – which kills a lot of people, anyway. There was no one there go to, “Hey, wake up.”
So, ‘Deb’s Night Out’; how soon after that night did you write that song?
Pretty much straight away, the day after. It was like – bam. [Guitarist] Phil [Knight] had given me that bit of music … It sounded like the feeling that I had, sort of bittersweet. Just sad, you know? And it was good timing. “Here you go Jon, I’ve got this music.” Great … We recorded it at York Street [Studios, Auckland], and we’d wanted it to be a loop rather than a live drum track. At that stage, as well, the studio was still new to us so everything was recorded to a two-inch tape. Before we were using ProTools properly, we went, “Oh fuck it, we’ll just cut a loop of Tom [Larkin] drumming.” So we actually cut it, had the splice going and we had to hold a drum stick in place [so that it could loop continuously] because there was only a small bit of tape. That’s why it’s got this weird skip in it, because it’s not quite perfect.
That’s another cute thing I remember about that track. I remember laying down those keyboards right at the end, because it was always just one loop. I thought after that last line, “Pray for the rain/To wash you far away”, it needed to “rain”, musically. That’s the most Skeptics-y part, that whole [sings descending chord progression aloud]. It’s that sort of anthemic thing that the Skeptics did, but with keyboards.
Did you ever see Deb again?
Actually, I probably did see her once or twice, but nothing too deep. She probably was a little bit scared of me once we kicked her out.
Does she know you wrote a song about her?
I don’t care! [Laughs] I don’t even know if she’s still alive.
“I’m always a bit cagey with lyrics, even with the people who are close to me.”
At what point did you show your partner the song?
At what point did I show my ex-wife? I remember her being around while we were recording it in Auckland. She would have known what it was about. [Pause] I’m always a bit cagey with lyrics, even with the people who are close to me – even with guys in the band. They’re real personal and I was always real … I don’t want people to not like them, so I keep them to myself until the very moment where I can’t hide them anymore, because we’re releasing the fucking record. Which is probably why I’m so fucking overly sensitive to bad reviews! [Laughs] Because I live in denial all the time! [Laughs] I am getting better at it. I am getting better at going, “Oh, fuck it. I’ve been doing it 22 years, this is the idea I’ve got, boom.” But around that, I was, what, 26 when I wrote that? Still very, very uptight.
Are there many songs in the Shihad catalogue that are written about that kind of thing; a personal experience you tried to encapsulate in a song?
Yeah, I think so. ‘Home Again’, which is the next song we’re going to talk about, is very much about the feeling of being four guys living out of their element and hearing about the lives of all our family going on without us, and our lives going on without them … But yeah, there’s plenty of songs about little things. Like ‘Sport and Religion’, [which is about] getting stepped out by some munter and walking down the road. No, there’s tonnes of songs [like that]. There sort of needs to be, really.
The song has a very odd structure. There’s two verses and what could be a chorus run through the distorted effect. It was a bit different to the other songs you’d written before that.
The thing is, for us early on, we didn’t really give a fuck about the “verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, chorus, breakdown/middle eight, chorus” out thing. We didn’t know about that. We came from metal-land so everything was based on the riff. The riff was all-important. How do we get from riff A to riff B, and then back again, was the next thing you learnt. And then how to get riff A to riff B; and if you felt like putting another riff in, can you go into that one?
We learnt songwriting arse-backwards, and it became more traditional songwriting as we went along. But on Killjoy, we were listening to Skeptics, Bailter Space, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless a lot, Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. And also things like Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral, maybe. And a lot of those songs [from that period] don’t have traditional song structures. [‘Deb’s’] is a flow. All it needed to do was feel like it was in the right place, at the right time, all the time. That was it.
Was there ever a longer version of ‘Deb’s Night Out’? You kind of extend it live.
No, it is what it is on the album, but because we didn’t have two keyboard set-ups I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll transpose it onto my keyboard line onto a guitar.” And it was like, “Ooh, that works really well”, because it’s weightier than doing it with two keyboards. But ultimately that was just a wall of keyboard, that song – and bass, drums and vocals. There’s no guitars on it. But live, it’s like, “Fuck it, I haven’t got another keyboard so I’ll just use my guitar.”
What do you recall about that recording [Killjoy] with [producer] Malcolm Welsford?
That whole record was a fucking joy, and what was good about it was, we were just in the throes of reading about The Beatles recording, or reading about how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was recorded and going, “Can we try that? Can we try that?” Even though we’re this weird metal band that’s taken lots of acid and fucking mushrooms, and listened to all the interesting shoegazer music from Britain, and then also cool music from New Zealand, and tried to shove it into this weird metal thing that we were doing. It was one of those “right time, right place” sort of things. We had nine songs when we walked in there, finished and ready to go, and that’s all that was on the album.
Nowadays, we write for a year-and-a-half, or two years, write 40 songs and choose 12. Which is cool because I like writing music. It’s fine, but that record is exactly as it is. There’s no, “Oh, we’ll get rid of that song because it’s not as good as the others.” It was just, “There’s the nine songs for Killjoy, let’s go and record them”. We even had it sorted in our heads how we were going to record them before we went. ‘The Call’, it’s stupid, but we wanted Tom to do the drum take once in the left speaker, and then Tom to do the drum take again in that speaker. Even though that’s just retarded, we wanted to hear what that sounded like.
Then doing the loop [in ‘Deb’s’], we knew we didn’t want to get Tom to play drums live through the whole thing, but we wanted his real drums. So yeah, cutting it, finding a fucking loop, cutting it with scissors, Sellotaping it back together and using a drumstick to try and get it in time to groove with the music. Shit like that. We were really experimenting at that point, because everything was new. And the material was good. It was purely luck.
There’s a video for the song. When was the last time you watched it?
I saw a little outtake of it in the new Shihad documentary. I looked over it, and went, “Fuck, that’s a really cool video.” I really love it, because it’s all my parents’ friends who came over on the boats. They’re all British immigrants that came over on the boats in the ‘50s to New Zealand, and the whole community still stayed together because they were the only family they had in the country. We just paid for a big party for these guys. So there’s people from Manchester, Brighton, London, all parts of England, who’ve grown up in this country at the end of the world, and took a punt on fucking immigrating to [New Zealand]. We just hired the Island Bay Primary School Hall, where I went to school, and put on a party for them. And just took some cameras along. It’s fucking cool.
Who are the folks in the car with you, while you’re singing?
That’s my Auntie Jean and Uncle Tony. They’re two of the immigrants that came over. They’re just massive Shihad fans, and I just went, “Oh, well, fuck, you should be in the video then.”
‘Deb’s Night Out’ is one of, if not my favourite Shihad song. Is it special for you, too?
Very special, and it’s probably my daughter’s favourite song. She’s 20 now. She thinks it’s the best song we ever wrote. It resonates with people, I don’t know why … It’s a very honest, straight-up bit of music. It’s not a slave to any sort of songwriting, or need to be finished by a certain time, or need to have a chorus, because there is no real chorus. It’s just a piece of poetry over quite a nice bit of music. It is what it is, which I really like. It’s not trying to be anything apart from what it is. It’s quite natural.
What do you feel when you play it live nowadays?
For me, I just always hear the groove. It’s a really nice groove. It’s a nice opportunity to dance for me. I’ve become a massive dance fan. Most the music I listen to now is electronic music, so I like getting my groove on.
Now to a song I think you still play most nights: ‘Home Again’.
Yeah. There was a period where we probably didn’t play it in the set for a while, because Tom – he’s played it a million times, and he’s got over it. Personally, I don’t give a fuck about playing it whenever. I really like it. I really like playing it. The lyrics are honest. It’s a real slice of how I was feeling at the time, and I really like the groove. It reminds me of ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin. It’s really nice. It always reminds me of LA freeways and driving fast. It’s good. I really like it. It reminds me of the place I was and the place I was missing. It’s quite a cool song. Good groove.
I’ve read that you wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes.
I did. Having to sit there going, “Fuck, this music’s really good.” I knew it was a really good bit of music. When we jammed it, we were all homesick as fuck. We were hiring a studio out in the San Fernando Valley. I was using Tracii Guns from LA Guns’ JMP Marshall, which actually sounded really fucking nice. We used to go in every day, and some days we’d literally record feedback for five hours. It would be cathartic. We just had to get that out, because we were signed to a fucked-up record label and nothing was really happening. But we had the music.
Other days, we’d go in … I remember Phil played [sings aloud the opening chord progression] And I was like “Keep playing that, keep playing it”, and I played those chords over the top. Then Karl [Kippenberger, bass] just went, “Right, that’s just E and G, E and G.” It was like, “Wow, it makes me feel like I’m in Led Zep, when they were travelling through America”, or something. It was great, real cool. So we used to listen to it heaps, as a bit of music and go, “We rule, we rule, we rule!” And then I think I was a bit afraid of fucking it up with lyrics. I have blown some really good music with some shit words before.
Very much so.
Is that just you being hard on yourself?
No, no. I think all lyricists are hard on themselves though. They have to be. You have to be because you’re striving for something good, but if it doesn’t reach there, it hurts and it’s frustrating. It means that bit of music you associate with trying and failing. It’s like, “I fucking never want to hear that bit of music again” – even if you loved the bit of music previously…
With that one [‘Home Again’] the pressure was on … I am quite good when there is nowhere to hide from something, like when my back’s against the wall and I’ve got to do something. Sometimes it brings out the best in what I do. It’s like, “I’ve got to do it because we’ve got to get this record finished.” And it just came flooding out … I hadn’t heard it for a little while, so I listened to it on a tape deck, and it reminded me of being in LA. I’d been back in New Zealand for a while and it was a perfect place for my head to be in to write. I had a good perspective on being there, even though I wasn’t there anymore. And I was back in New Zealand talking about the place that I was missing, while I was over there. It all just flew, you know? And it did happen in like 20 minutes. It was weird. It was like [writing] it from her perspective and my perspective; two different people.
That first line is quite provocative, “Put your clock back for the winter/She asks when I’ll be home again.”
Yeah, totally. [Laughs]
Did you write the song straight through? Or was there a bit of editing?
No, no, no. I wrote that straight through. I really just went, “She asked when I’ll be home again.” That’s literally the thing she [Toogood’s ex-wife] asked a million times, and “How’s it going,” and all those [questions]. My favourite line is, “It’s been a day of tiny triumphs/It’s been a week spent in despair.” I really like that line…
What were you getting at there?
Basically, one day I’d ring her and she’d be like, “Fuck, it’s been a great day. I got this done and this done and this done.” And then other times just going, “I fucking can’t handle living by myself, this is bullshit. What the fuck?” It was more talking about how it was usually more painful to talk on the phone, than not … Just hard, long-distance relationship bullshit.
It’s a bit of a rock cliché to write a song about being on the road.
"In New Zealand, you get slapped for being successful, and you get told to keep your fucking head under control."
But this one’s interesting because it’s focusing on the two emotions that two people are feeling.
True. And also we weren’t actually on tour. Like I said, we were stuck in LA, in limbo. But it was something we’d always wanted to have, but we got it, and there was nothing going on. We’d just toured through Europe and things were sort of starting to happen, but nothing was happening in America. We did a remix of ‘Deb’s Night Out’ which didn’t work. We were put up in a hotel, the Magic Hotel, which is fucking seedy as all hell. All we had was the music and each other, and it was weird. It was a holding pattern.
We were writing what came to be the “Fish Album” [Shihad], in the end. It was like being in limbo and not being able to do anything about it. Limbo in a city that I found quite surprisingly devoid of soul; the antithesis of where I’d been brought up. There’s no mountainous terrain, and there’s lots of people from everywhere else but LA, all clamouring over each other to get somewhere, which is a complete fantasy. It was weird. In LA, you’re awarded for being successful. In New Zealand, you get slapped for being successful, and you get told to keep your fucking head under control. Egos are stroked and built up in LA It’s the antithesis. Everything’s opposite. I even wrote about it again, in ‘La La Land’, on that record. It was just like, “There’s something fucking wrong about this place.”
How many of the band members were in relationships at that point? Was it just yourself?
I think all four. I think Tom ended up being still with the same person. Karl [is still with the] same person. Phil, different person. Me, different person as well. Yeah, me and my ex-wife’s relationship was like 18 years old [when it ended]. It was quite a serious one! [Laughs]
How did they react when you showed them the words for the first time?
Again, I didn’t show them those words. They heard it and took from it what they thought. I imagine she’d be pretty happy with those words. The funny thing is with my ex-wife, I could write the most scathing attack on her, but as long as it was about her, she was happy. Because at least it meant I was thinking about her. That was always what I found surprising. A song like ‘You Again’ off Killjoy is the most ultimate … the first line is, “I hope I never see you again. I hope I never touch you again.” But she loves that song, because it was about her. [Laughs heartily]
Oh my God! That’s pretty dysfunctional.
Oh, totally. It’s amazing we lasted for 18 years!
To me this song is one of the authoritative pop narratives on long-distance longing.
That’s how I think of it.
Yeah, right. It’s really funny because in New Zealand it’s like a … real New Zealand song. It’s about New Zealand in comparison to the rest of the world. I think it’s more universal than that. I think it’s like you say; it’s more about being away from someone you love. But the thing then is that you’re away from someone that you love, doing something that you love. The thing that you love is taking you away from someone that you love. It’s like, “Oh my God, how do we work this out?” There’s no real easy answer to that one, because I fucking love playing music. And I also loved her, you know?
There’s also the line about “watch you grow tall”. Was that in reference to your daughter?
Actually, no it was more about watching my wife gain a bit of confidence in the way she conducted herself. “Watch you grow tall” is more about standing up and being proud of who she was, really.
I learned this song on the guitar a few years ago. I like the way the open chords progress. It’s very natural.
It’s very simple. What is it? [Sings aloud] D, A, G, D … E. [Laughs]
I have a theory that song that started your fascination with open chords, which you then transferred into one of the best open chord riffs of all time in ‘The General Electric’.
Oh yeah, right. It’s Es and Gs, totally. And then you hit the chorus: D. Umm … massive AC/DC fan. Basically that’s it, you know? The reason it sounded different from AC/DC is because A) we probably have more gain; and B) our tuning’s all two semitones down [from standard tuning]. I’d have people trying to work that song out, and play me it on a standard E tuning, and I’d be going, “You’re so wrong! [Laughs] It’s way easier than that.”
Tell us about the middle-eight riff [in ‘Home Again] … It’s very simple, but really nice.
It’s just jamming over those notes [E and G]. The thing that we don’t ever play live, which I always miss when I hear it back, is we used a Moog at the end … We were listening to a lot of The Verve’s A Northern Soul record, which we really loved. Again, there’s a British band trying to be Led Zeppelin. But more shoegazey in its approach. They used [a Moog] in a song called ‘A New Decade’. It was doing that octave thing. It was like, “Oh, cool, here’s our chance to get that idea in.” [Laughs] So there you go. I always miss that live.
We’ll finish off with the video. It’s a pretty wacky one. What do you recall about shooting it?
I remember loving it, because it was a one-shot video which we had to shoot three times. We formulated a plan, and we got to run around like idiots. It was done within half a day, which I loved because I don’t like making videos. That was what I really liked about it. And it’s funny how people like that video, because it’s just ludicrous. It’s like Benny Hill or something. I remember getting it done really quickly, and going, “Now that’s how you make a fucking video!”
Is it fair to say this is the most popular song you’ve ever written?
Definitely … for some reason, people connect with that song. It’s definitely a song that I like to play and I’ve played a million times. I’d say it’s probably the most popular song we’ve written, without a doubt. It’s off a record that was highly slammed critically when it came out, because we’d just made Killjoy, which is a fucking wall of sound and then we did an arse-about-face and it wasn’t about production at all. It was more about, “Can we write songs?”. I just smoked so much pot while we were making that record, that I didn’t give a fuck about making that wall of sound that we do live. I was more about, “Does this song work?” Which, in hindsight it would have been nice to have presented those songs more like how they ended up sounding live, but it is what it is, and it was a learning thing. It’s of its time. It’s cool. I wouldn’t change it.
Did it feel special the first time you heard it played back?
Yeah, definitely. I was a bit surprised by Adam Kasper’s mix. He’s done the Foo Fighters and stuff like that. I thought the guitars were a little soft at first, but I have come to like the way it sounds. I think a live version is cooler, on the Pacifier Live record. It sounds more like what we sound like. It’s actually quite blistering.