INTERVIEW: Shihad’s Jon Toogood

Shihad FVEYShihad worship at the altar of The Riff. Few bands this side of AC/DC have managed a knack for instantly identifiable, eminently air-guitarable riffs. But although they’ve enjoyed a consistent career of killer albums and shows, new album FVEY stands above their immense catalog as The One That Will Probably Move Them Up A Notch. Produced by Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman, this album encapsulates everything everyone has always loved about Shihad – the riffs, the song craft, the energetic performance, the melody, the thought-provoking lyrics. But there’s something more happening on this one. I caught up with vocalist/guitarist/riffmeister Jon Toogood to talk about it.

First thing we all want to know is ‘Where the hell do these riffs come from?’

Okay, we’ve been experimenting with this tuning which is basically standard E with the bottom string dropped to a bass-register A. So you’re doing the A, an octave A, and then the rest of the guitar is tuned normally. And it’s quite hard to play because the low string is really floppy but once you get used to it it makes this wall of sound. You get a decent amp and turn it up loud, and then you play with a great bass player like Karl and a great guitar player like Phil, and when you all play in unison and are in tune it sounds like Satan’s bass player. It’s just a huge sound. But then when we started writing this record my guitar went on a flight and it got thrown around and the bottom string had dropped even lower to a G# or something and it was like this weird discordant thing going on. And the first thing I did with it was I wrote the riff to ‘Fine Lines,’ which is the second track on the record [sings riff]. “It’s basically like a detuned ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin. And it was like ‘Alright, that sounds gold – let’s do the whole record in this tuning.’ And it was! We’re doing the top end of the bass guitar in the riff and Karl is doing the bottom end. As long as everyone is playing in tune and in time and tight it just makes this huge sound.

Shihad

The bass seems very prominent on this record and you can hear everything Karl is doing. Do you, Phil and Karl agonise over how the tones are going to sit together? 

No, everything on this record is totally urgent, like ‘Do it. Now go. Now go!’ The thing is, on the last tour we basically had Tom’s studio in Brunswick and what it’s meant is that because we’re competent in the studio we got a little bit lazy, man. It’d be like ‘Cool, I’m coming to the studio, sweet… um… let me just check some emails and make some calls… I’m gonna go get a coffee.’ And everything was lazy. And the thing is, we’re a fucking rock band. And a rock band is supposed to be urgent, so a few things went into changing the whole way we make records and one of them was firstly, Jaz Coleman was going to produce the record. He produced Churn, our first album, and he’s very anti-radio, he’s very anti-industry, he’s very ‘Let’s make it fucking heavy,’ basically, and ‘don’t give a shit about anything.’ And his attitude was ‘We’re not making an album. We’re making a brand new setlist that you can go on stage anywhere in the world with destroy any band that tries to step on you.’ But beyond that we did a greatest hits tour and it was really evident to us, because we did everything chronologically live from the first EP right to the last album, that the Churn album was the highlight of the set for us because it was so super-tight and physical, and to pull it off everybody has to be in sync and in tune so it doesn’t fall apart. But because it’s hard to play you have to concentrate, and then you get this whole transcendent feeling along with the tightness, like ‘My arm’s gonna fall off but fuck it sounds good.’ So there was that, and then we toured with Black Sabbath. And Black Sabbath is another reminder of ‘heavy is good’ Because heavy is good. And Live Evil, even though it’s Ronnie James Dio singing on it, was one of the first records I ever bought, so it was pretty awesome to hear them live, and also to hear Tony Iommi turning up three hours before he played, and his backstage room was right next to ours and he would literally play for three hours every night before he went on stage, because he was in Black Sabbath and he wasn’t going to let anyone down. And I love that. That’s the sort of band I want to be in, where you’ve got a standard and you don’t want to drop below it because it’s a matter of life and death. It was awesome to see a guy 20 years down the track from me still doing that. Because we take it real seriously, the live show. So we did that, and then we had a writing session that was totally different to how we’ve ever worked before in that we would only work three hours a day and that was it. 10am to 1pm. Real un-rock’n’roll hours, but it meant that everyones’ phones were switched off and everyone was there to make music. With this mean-ass tuning. Every day for five weeks. And by the end of that we had 60 or so ideas and in retrospect we didn’t even try to write songs. We just wanted to write mean-ass riffs. So the ideas were only 30 seconds long or 45 seconds long. I think the longest one was 1:30, just one riff or two riffs, going from Riff A to Riff B and then back to Riff A, that was as song-write-y as we got. Then when Jaz got down from England he would say ‘Show us what we got’ and then he’d go ‘No, don’t like it… yeah, that’s good, okay, let’s work on that one.’ And he would basically make the song with the four of us in the room. Two songs a day for ten days, and we ended up with 20 songs. We didn’t have a day off while we made that record for two months. No weekends or anything, bro.

Shihad

I really liked listening to it on headphones because you can hear details like in ‘The Great Divide’ where you can hear someone yelling out ‘Woo!’ and stuff like that, y’know? 

Yeah! Cos we’re live, man, it’s live! It’s like ‘Hey, what’s something that can make us stand out?’ Well, let’s utilise the fact that we actually know how to play with each other. We’ve been playing with each other for 20 years, let’s just make sure we record it really good. Like, amps-wise we were using a mixture of our normal Orange heads and an original Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. The original Dual Rectifiers were fucking mint. And then they brought out the Triple Rectifier, and even the later Dual Rectifiers were too compressed-sounding, but the original ones, it just roars, y’know? So for writing and recording heavy music the combination of Orange and the original Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier… yeeeeeaah! We ended up getting a Mesa endorsement years ago and the thing is, when you’re travelling you always know that the hire companies are going to have a Triple Rectifier. If you’re playing gainy music I’ve always found them to be super compressed and they just didn’t bite, they didn’t bark out. And the thing is, we originally started as a speed metal band. Slayer. Metallica. When you’re first starting out you do the usual thing of turning the preamp volume up really fucking high and the problem is that you think you sound like the god of thunder but it sounds like a bumblebee flying into a window, and it’s not real. But then a couple of things happened to the way we looked at guitars. One was supporting AC/DC and hearing Malcolm Young’s guitar rig onstage and going ‘There’s no distortion on that at all! It’s a clean guitar sound! How does AC/DC sound so heavy? Oh it’s the way he plays the guitar.’ He’s hitting the guitar really hard when he needs to but pulling it back when he doesn’t. But he’s also turned up really loud so he’s got the master tubes working. The only problem with that is if you play badly everyone hears it! The more you’re going to sound awesome when you’re awesome, but the more you’re going to sound shit when you’re shit. So it really comes from your right hand, that grunt, y’know? From your riffing hand. Then you need a good Fender or Gibson guitar, a classic guitar through a good amp. I’ve played around with pedals in my time but I’ve gone back to plugging my Fender Tele into my Orange head and turning the fucking thing up full. And that’s how those riffs sound like that. Oh and that crazy tuning as well.

So tell me about your Tele. I remember seeing you use them back in the day, and then for a while you were using Maton.

Yeah, I went for Maton for a while because I didn’t want to destroy all these nice Fenders, basically. And Maton were really good. They based the wiring of the pickup on the Fender I was using and stuff. It was good that they did that. But I sort of hooked back up with Fender, and luckily for me they decided to give me a cost deal. And then also by the time I hooked back up with Fender I was out of my smashing-guitars-onstage phase, so I could actually have a Fender endorsement and afford it. [Laughs]. When I was really young a friend sold me an original Fender Deluxe Custom which is basically a Telecaster with a Strat neck that Fender put out around the start of the 1970s, and they were trying to compete with the Les Paul by making it a double humbucker thing. It never sounded anything like a Les Paul because it was a Fender, but it was cool! So I use one of those which I got in Wellington, New Zealand – an original. And then I got another one in New York at this awesome guitar store. But they’re both as old as I am, they’re like 1970, 1971 and I was born in 71. But they’re really heavy. I don’t know what sort of wood they were using but they’re really heavy. More recently I bought a standard Telecaster that the Custom Shop people put out and it’s way lighter. I love the sound of it. It’s got the single coil, traditional pickup and I can make that roar just as much as the humbucker ones. Especially now that we’re tuned really low, it can get a bit bassy so having that single coil brings that top-end roar back up. You can get away with that low tuning a little bit more with a single coil, I find. I still have the old Teles, I still use them but my favorite is now the reissue blonde thing, and that’s the one I ended up using all through the album. They sound angrier. I still love the Tele Deluxes, but this record is angry as fuck so it needed to jump out of the speakers.

FVEY is out on August 15 via Warner Music.