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Shihad: Turning rage into riffs

Old Gods is Shihad’s tenth studio album since forming in Wellington in 1988, and the follow-up to 2014’s FVEY. Despite the extended layoff, the riff-loaded, molten hot rock album is fuelled by a rage that belies their veteran status. “It’s weird that we’ve made this record now in our career,” main man Jon Toogood ponders. “We didn’t really have to make another record, but I’m so fucking glad we did, because [Old Gods is] my favourite Shihad record. It’s saying everything I needed to say.”

As listeners will learn quickly, the frontman has a lot to express on the Kiwi-turned-Australian rockers’ latest offering. As a new parent and convert to Islam, Toogood began to see perspectives other than those he’d been raised with. On the album, he explores themes of the killing of the ‘old gods’, conservative talk radio, the legitimisation of racism, and the age of misinformation.

Speaking from his native Aotearoa – his family narrowly avoided lockdown in Melbourne – shortly before Old Gods was delayed by several weeks, Toogood gives BLUNT the lowdown.

Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and ensuing restrictions, how frustrating is it to be in a band at the moment?
It’s basically impossible, man. It’s not just our industry – it’s everyone’s fucking plans. I just missed the death of my mother in the last Melbourne lockdown. I literally had to watch my Mum pass away on my iPhone via my brother and sister, because I couldn’t get home to New Zealand. There’s all these things that are happening – you can’t be there for births, weddings, deaths, or the memorials afterwards. No one can plan everything. The future looks bleak.

As many parts of the world open up again, it seems like every second day I’m seeing another band announce a new album that they wrote while lockdown. How did this record’s creation fit around the timeline of the pandemic?
FVEY came out seven years ago. I really like that record – it said what I needed to say, and the music was muscular and great to play live. Then my wife and I had two children, and all of a sudden – for the first time since I was 18 – I had no desire to write lyrics for music. It was all about the kids. I think if you talk to any new parent, they’d probably tell you the same thing, it’s like your whole perspective on life changes.

That was going on, but in the background, the Shihad boys would get together maybe once every six months, and we’d just jam for like two weeks – just music, music, music. Basically just writing riffs and collecting grooves. Every now and then I’d get a call from Phil [Knight, guitars] and he’d say, “Hey, have you got any vocals?” I’d go, “No, not just yet, but there’ll be a time.” That went on for, like, three years. Meanwhile, Trump goes to power in America, Bolsonaro goes to power in Brazil, Brexit happens in England. So I’m fucking horrified at all of this going on. 

That’s certainly evident on the album.
My wife’s Sudanese and I’ve got two biracial children, so when I’m seeing images of a modern-day America with all these white guys walking down the street going, “The Jews will not replace us,” it’s kind of reminiscent of World War II shit. I’m like, “This is not going well,” and, “Fuck this, I don’t really want my kids to be inheriting a world like this.”

There’s all this music sitting around… And then Australia catches fire. Then, just as we get over that, this fucking pandemic hits. After the initial shock of losing like nine months’ work, I just submitted to this reality and slowed the fuck down. I think this is the universe is telling us to sit back, reflect on where we’re going, and maybe realise it’s not the right direction. Just have a think about what’s going on, where you’re going, and where you want to go.

So there was ultimately no shortage of inspiration?
I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to have a listen to the music we’ve been making over the past three years.” And thankfully, it’s a pretty good band, this band – and when we write… We’ve written pop records, heavy records, records that have had an electronic bent… We’ve done all these different styles. And I think basically, ever since we toured with Black Sabbath through Australia, we went, “Ah, that’s right, that’s why we started playing in a band” – because we really like heavy, riff-based music. And you can do that in a way that’s still fresh and interesting.

So that’s basically what we’ve been aiming for – how do you make heavy music move bodies, and move us? Make us go, “Fuck yeah,” and get the same feeling as when we heard Rage Against The Machine’s Bulls On Parade for the first time, or Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song?

But then the lockdown happened. Luckily for me, I knew Cam from Bodyjar had a skateboard shop which was within the five-kilometre radius of my house. He let me set up a little studio in the basement of that shop, and every night, after I put the kids to bed, I’d just go into that space and scream my lungs over this apocalyptic-ally heavy, groovy music – the perfect soundtrack for getting those feelings out.

You turned 50 a little while ago. Does a milestone like that alter your outlook on life too?
I think having children was the biggest [milestone] for me, especially as they’re biracial. Dana is a black woman, and I’m a white male; the son of two British immigrants, both working-class, ten-pound Poms that came out to New Zealand to start a new life. But our kids are biracial, which is an experience neither of us have had. I’m just hyperaware of any time I’m seeing any racial inequality or injustice.

I’ve always seen it, but I’ve seen it from a white man’s perspective. So being married to a black woman, we’re in lockdown and George Floyd gets murdered, for example. I’m seeing, for the first time in ages, white and black people protesting together on the streets in America, and all around the world. I naively said to my wife one night, “That’s great, seeing white people out there protesting with black people.” And she’s like, “Is that all you think you have to do, after hundreds of years of inequality? You’re seeing the world through a white lens.” It was like, “Oh, yeah, right, I am.” It took me a little while to re-jig, because that’s just the world I was brought up in.

Since a couple of songs from this record have come out, I’ve had trolls going, “Oh, you self-loathing fucking white Libtard,” and shit like that. Actually, since I’ve recognised my place in this society and thought about the history of how we’ve gotten to the society that we have, and why we’re born with the advantages that we do have, and why we don’t have to worry about certain things that people who have got brown skin or other religions have to worry about when they go out, I actually sleep better at night. I don’t loathe myself at all… I feel better about being a white dude, now that I know I want to fight for racial equality. I’m cool with that.

>> KEEP READING: The Muslims: “F*** you. We’re having the best time of our lives” <<

Old Gods is out Friday, October 8th via Warner
Click here to pre-order and/or pre-save it