Jon Toogood is a songwriter and musician.
Jon is the lead singer and guitarist in a band named Shihad. Formed in Wellington, New Zealand, the band are well-known among Australians following the success of their breakthrough album, The General Electric, in 1999. Jon and his bandmates have been based in Melbourne since around that time, and have released a string of great albums. The most recent was FVEY, released in 2014, a hard rock record with a political agenda, which we discuss in some detail in this episode.
I first met Jon Toogood in 2011, when I interviewed him for a Mess+Noise ‘Storytellers’ feature about two of my favourite Shihad songs, ‘Home Again’ and ‘Deb’s Night Out’. I also interviewed him about drug use for my book Talking Smack in 2013, when Shihad were touring Australia while supporting Black Sabbath.
He’s an energetic conversationalist and mad music fan above all else, which should become apparent pretty quickly. Our conversation touches on the concept of justice, which featured prominently in Jon’s writing for FVEY; how his marriage to a Sudanese woman changed his perspective and led to him undertaking charity work; his early interest in reading horror novels, which led to writing his first song for Shihad; the fine line between confidence and arrogance in musicians, and how he has learned to deal with negative reviews of his music.
This interview took place in Brisbane in early June, when Shihad was performing three shows in south-east Queensland. I’d seen the band perform a couple of nights earlier, at the Hamilton Hotel, where they were in incredible form. They’re simply one of the best live rock bands I’ve ever seen, and I decided long ago to never pass up an opportunity to see them live. Jon and I spoke on a Sunday afternoon in an inner-city hotel room that he was sharing with guitarist Phil Knight; you’ll hear Phil arrive partway through the recording and try to quietly creep past with a box of freshly bought Fruit Loops.
Jon Toogood is a songwriter and musician who has been at the helm of Shihad since 1988. A New Zealand rock institution that has consistently delivered churning riffs and soaring melodies over nine studio albums, Shihad have a reputation as a ferocious live act that’s been hard-earned after more than 1,500 shows. Their two decade-plus career was recognised at the 2010 New Zealand Music Awards, where they were ushered into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame; they were also recently awarded with ‘Most Singles in the NZ Charts by a NZ Artist’ (25) and ‘Most #1 Albums by a NZ Artist’ (5) by Recorded Music NZ. Jon also fronts The Adults, an extra-curricular project starring some of his favourite New Zealand artists, including Julia Deans (Fur Patrol), Shayne Carter (Dimmer, Straitjacket Fits) and Ladi 6. Jon took up guitar aged seven, but back then soccer and cricket were his still first love. A talented batsman, he captained the Wellington Representative cricket team, but at 15 he traded his bat and cricket whites for a guitar and black jeans and never looked back. Jon’s career highlights include playing in front of 60,000-strong crowds and Shihad’s gold albums, but says nothing beats the rush of knowing when he’s written a song that works.
Jon Toogood on Twitter: @JonToogood
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3.30 Writing words and music with the physicality of live performance in mind
5.00 “Whenever I’ve thought about other peoples’ reaction to my writing, lyrically, it usually stops the flow entirely, and usually ends up sounding not like myself”
7.00 “I need to write because it helps me to make sense of the world, and feel like I’ve got momentum in my life”
10.00 What sparked the writing for FVEY, Shihad’s most recent album, released in 2014
11.00 “My parents were working class British immigrants; Dad was a cabinet maker, we had no money when we were growing up”
14.00 “Now I’m getting older, I realise [politics] is a constant battle, and it can’t be one way, because there are good ideas on both sides”
15.00 FVEY is rooted in the concept of ‘justice’, which was influenced by Jon breaking up with his ex-wife and having to deal with the legal system
16.30 The video concept for first single ‘Think You’re So Free’, which features a dog running in slow motion – emblematic of the ‘underdog’, perhaps, which Jon has always barracked for
18.50 The composition of music and lyrics are always completely separately processes for Shihad
20.30 Jon married a Sudanese woman, who as soon as she got to Melbourne, joined a charity group called AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Services), which helps out refugees
23.00 Writing lyrics has always been like “homework” to Jon, as it’s the hardest part of the process
25.30 How producer Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke) helped to shape Jon’s writing on FVEY, by giving him an assignment while visiting Sudan
31.30 “It was great that my wife dragged me into this world of doing stuff for other people, without expecting anything for it”
33.30 “With FVEY, I wanted to do something good with our music, that could maybe help – with full knowledge of the fact that it’s just rock and roll”
35.00 “Being cool is such a fucking waste of time. I don’t care if I’m not cool, because there’s no fucking point to it. It doesn’t do anything”
36.00 “I’m gonna be 44 this year. I don’t have much time; maybe I’ve got half my life, but that’s not much time. So I’ve got no time for worrying too much about being cool. I want to try and just be good”
38.30 Jon has gotten better at trusting his instincts; “I knew we’d made a really good record, it was a really calm feeling”
41.00 The difference between thinking that an album is good (Beautiful Machine and Ignite), versus knowing that it’s good (FVEY)
43.50 “Whenever we produce ourselves, it gets a bit hairy, when we don’t have that outside perspective”
44.40 My negative review of Ignite for Rolling Stone, and how that tore me up inside as a huge Shihad fan
46.40 How Jon and the band recovered from the back-to-back disappointments of Beautiful Machine and Ignite
48.00 Jon was in a theatre show in 2012 called Brel, about the life of a Belgian singer-songwriter named Jacques Brel
53.10 When Jon first realised that he wanted to be a musician, as the youngest of three children, enthralled by watching vinyl records spinning up close
56.00 Jon’s first guitar was a three-quarter sized instrument at around the age of eight or nine; he hated classical guitar lessons
56.50 Meeting Shihad drummer Tom Larkin at Wellington High and returning to guitar after becoming obsessed with competitive cricket
58.00 As a teenager, Jon was reading horror novelists like Stephen King and Clive Barker: “the more horrific the better”
60.30 Jon got a job working at Wellington’s coolest record store, Chelsea Records, at age 17
63.30 “When I got [Metallica’s] Master Of Puppets, that record was religiously played at least twice a day, for months”
64.40 Jon’s parents have been supportive of his career aspirations all the way through, though his father was “a little bit bummed out” when he decided to quit playing cricket
67.00 The fine line between confidence and arrogance, and the band’s aspirations for their career
68.00 “I reckon FVEY is as good as anything we’ve done, but I’m not prepared – as a 43 year-old man – to sit in a van and eat shit for two years of my life, ‘cause life’s too short for that”
68.30 Why Shihad always tuned their guitars two semitones down, from ‘E standard’ to ‘D’, in order to match Jon’s voice
70.00 Switching to ‘E standard’ tuning for Beautiful Machine, which is why that record sounds completely different
71.00 One of Jon’s guitars got damaged by an airline baggage handler, which sparked the writing for FVEY around a weird tuning
73.00 Whether Jaz Coleman will be required as a muse for the next Shihad album
74.00 Artists that Jon is currently enjoying include Kendrick Lamar, Aphex Twin and Bjork
81.00 “I’m going through a renaissance right now with music, and I think it comes out of buying myself a new record player”
82.00 Jon’s new job playlisting Planet of Sound, a radio show for Radio Hauraki in New Zealand
I can still remember the first time I saw you and Shihad play it was a free concert outside the Cathedral in Christchurch ( I had actually come to see the feelers??). It was magic and so different from all other experiences of live music so far I had experienced I was not cool, but felt connected to the moment is such a cool way. In a way your evolution has been part of mine. Since then there have been others that have kept that fire burning like tiki, salmonella dub, trinity, Kora, shape shifter, ladie6 and so on. It was kind of like you guys were my gateway band. You were there when I saw my first live piercing, liquor lounge Queenstown still the
Best venue I have ever experienced, New Years in Hawea when the fence collapsesd and you totally out shone the Datsuns, and my favorite Rippon when you grew back your luscious locks lol. Now you drift into my Saturday afternoons and awaken, the connection for me and I smolder on. So thank you. You rock!