Latest release: Old Gods (Warner)Website: www.shihad.com
After two years of disruptions, lockdowns, postponements and hopes of live music being back on the menu being dashed, it is a joyous turnaround of fortunes that Australia is now able to host music festivals, even if still a tad hemmed in by global events. The Uncaged Festival hits the east coast from this weekend and will see a variety of primarily Australian acts hitting stages to reignite the live music flame for eager punters. Top billing acts include Wolfmother, You Am I, Shihad, Tex Perkins & the Fat Rubber Band, Twelve Foot Ninja, and Killing Heidi, alongside Magic Dirt, The Superjesus, The Hard Ons, Tumbleweed and Psycroptic, amongst others.
Shihad, like many on the Uncaged bill, are tough as nails, seasoned veterans of the music festival circuit and have supported many huge international tours. In no uncertain terms, they’ve done the hard yards across the globe. There latest album, Old Gods is a fantastic and reliable addition to the Shihad discography. As Uncaged kicks off, Loud Online spoke to lead guitarist, Phil Knight about all things Shihad and how the New Zealand formed band are keen to play live dates in Australia again as part of this new Australian music festival.
Festivals and live music is back. How long has it been for you to be playing live again?
Yeah, I cannot wait to play and to get back on to that stage. We managed to play a handful of shows last year and the last show was in July or August in Queenstown, New Zealand, of all places. It was up at a snow festival. It was weird playing on a stage in the snow watching people snowboard down. We managed to sneak in a couple of new songs into the set too. So, yeah, it has been a little while since we’ve played live.
Given you’ve got a lot of songs, will your festival set list be mainly a selection of greatest hits?
Well yeah, it is going to be pretty compact with time amounting to forty five minutes. So it will be a greatest hits thing and I think that we will do three or four songs off the new album.
How is new material from Old Gods settling in since there hasn’t been a lot of live playing?
When we played that one show in New Zealand, we did Tear Down Those Names, Little Demons and maybe one other. But that was the first time those songs had ever been played in front of a crowd and yeah, they went down amazingly well. It just felt great on stage. We tried to, in our natural kind of way, to design most of the music to work, you know, just to work and get a crowd moving. I guess it comes from a sort of natural selection process from when we were writing riffs and writing the music for the album. Jon [Toogood – vocals, rhythm guitar] and Karl [Kippenberger – bass] will fly down from where they live in New Zealand, and we will reconvene in the rehearsal space. We will probably thrash out half a dozen of the new songs and hope to choose something that we haven’t played live before. I am really looking forward to doing that, playing the new songs.
Song writing for Shihad seems to fluctuate between having good melodies to almost industrial styled heaviness. Which do you favour?
Yeah, I like a mix of the two styles, really. I guess, industrial heavy is good but I always like a chorus with a certain amount of melody in it and then you can have those heavy, industrial riffs on either side of it.
Shihad’s Killjoy and The General Electric album shows at the Annandale were excellent, and it was good to see the shows back to back, to compare those albums. Even back then, it was evident how Shihad was growing and developing the song writing approach.
Yeah, totally. Speaking of melodic stuff mixed with industrial, if you take a song like The General Electric, you’ve got those sort of heavy verses and then you’ve got an extremely melodic, power chord filled chorus. That is one of my examples of mixing the two things well.
When you reunited with producer Jaz Coleman to work on FVEY, did you find that he was pushing you to go back to being more brutal in your delivery?
Ah, well no, because he was the perfect fit for that project. He had also produced our very first album [Churn] which was quite heavy too. But, we have already decided [to be heavy], and the material was mostly finished but he of course played a bit part in helping us finish the arrangements and so on. We pushed ourselves to be very heavy and I think that it wasn’t long after we had supported Black Sabbath in both New Zealand and in Australia. We played Factory on that tour because we just wanted to play some heavy stuff on that tour, and watching Black Sabbath every night…the whole thing just sunk in again and we decided that we were just going to tune our guitars down lower and to write some really heavy stuff. That is what we did for four or five years. We spent a lot of time writing for that album but I mean, Jon had a couple of kids during that period so he was tied up with other things for a while, as far as devoting time to writing lyrics and stuff goes. I would call him on the phone and he would be folding nappies. He’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got lyrical ideas but I am pretty busy at the moment.’ Ha-ha, but yeah, and then with the success of FVEY with a celebration of the heavy side of the band, which I think is what we really do best, we just decided that we’d keep heading in that direction, keeping the same low tuning of the guitars but trying to refine it a bit more and by trying a different producer. For Old Gods, we were stoked with how that all came out.
Down tuning is interesting since you favour Gibson guitars whilst Jon likes his Telecasters and Matons. The guitars have a different tonality even when tuned down.
Yeah, for sure. When you tune down…we’ve had some surprises over the years. When we did FVEY, I’d had a US Fender Jazzmaster for a few years and used that as a tuning down to F-sharp [F#] guitar. I used that a lot on FVEY for my guitar parts whilst Jon used one of his Telecasters. When we went in to do Old Gods with the same tuning, I ended up doing most of it with my ’79 Les Paul Standard and even though it is a shorter scale guitar, being a Gibson, than your Fender Teles and Jazzmasters, it just sort of sat better [in the mix]. Most of my rhythm guitar parts on Old Gods are the Les Paul but maybe a couple of tracks are one of my 70’s black Gibson SG. So it is weird, yeah, even though they are shorter scale [neck] guitars than your Fenders. That was strange.
For a lot of new bands, their idea of heaviness involves using a seven or eight string guitar.
Yeah, yeah, which is what I would probably be playing if those guitar had been around in the early 80’s. Ha-ha.
In that light, even back then, how big an influence was Sabbath and early Metallica on you and your bandmates?
Oh, huge, I mean, for any band that used to be a thrash metal band or just a heavy band, how can anyone not take some influence from Metallica? Of course, you wouldn’t have Metallica without Black Sabbath, there’s no way.
Around 1986, the sharp rise in Metallica’s profile was gradually popping up locally. But in import shops and community radio shows geared towards heavy metal, it was becoming well known. I gather that in New Zealand it was a similar situation?
We were just in the scene. You had your little metal scene and your friends would know about it, and there were fanzines from overseas. I think that Jon was working in one of the main record shops in Wellington and around 1987, definitely by the time that …And Justice for All came out, I remember he was working there. He got his mate in Boston to send over an imported cassette of it before it was released in New Zealand.
What are your recollections of supporting huge bands like AC/DC in New Zealand?
Ah well, one of many life moments…we supported AC/DC eight times over the last twenty five years, all in New Zealand. You know, every show was a life moment. Every show was like a bucket list moment but the first time that we supported them was on The Razor’s Edge tour in 1991 and we’d been going for a couple of years, but it was Karl’s second gig ever. I just remember that we had never seen AC/DC live before and we were sitting on the grass in this great big rugby field [Athletic Park] where they were going to be playing the concert in Wellington. We were just sitting out on the grass and AC/DC were coming out to sound check in the afternoon; they came out and it was like, ‘Oh wow, there they are!’ They just ripped straight into Back in Black and it was just the hugest thing that we had ever heard in our lives, at that point. You know, a giant PA, a giant stadium, with AC/DC, a giant metal band, it was just awesome. They are an amazing live act and that has always been our benchmark. I know that it is quite different stylistically but it has always been a benchmark for us, as far as how tight we want it to be live and how engaging we want the performance to be.
Speaking of festivals again, Shihad were on a lot of Big Day Out shows over the years. Do you think something like that could ever come back again with international acts?
I don’t know because financially it is just such a different proposition these days to have a travelling music festival without staring at the bottom line of the budget. It would be pretty tough from the back end and also, Ken West recently passed away, which was very sad. On the topic of something like a Big Day Out appearing again, look, maybe it could happen but it was weird how both the Big Day Out and Soundwave sort of folded around the same time. There is definitely a move away from travelling that much because of all the production and logistics stuff involved, these days.
In your view, would you say that Jon calmed down on stage nowadays or is he still the Energizer bunny, albeit with his shirt on now?
Ha-ha, yeah he is with Shihad once we all get going, he sort of leaves it all on the stage, as they say. He gives 110% but we’re not teenagers anymore.
Do you have any fears that he might try clambering up the scaffolding again?
It might not be the climbing scaffolding thing, these days.
Some Big Day Out shows saw the band performing under the alternate name of Pacifier, following the terrorist attacks of New York in 2001. In hindsight, what are your thoughts on going to the States and do you still regard that step, which involved a band name change, as a good idea?
Oh yeah, definitely because we had already toured Europe three or four times. We never recorded in Europe but it had always been a dream of ours to go abroad, you know, to go to where a lot of the bands we loved came from, mainly the UK, Europe and to also go to America. We wanted to tour America and we were very lucky to spend that amount of time and to have that much money spent on recording, and to be concentrating on recording a project in Los Angeles with some of the best engineers and studios around. It was awesome.
Did you pick their brains at the time and gather more information on how to record?
Oh, always, yeah. Tom [Larkin – drums] was the main guy for that and he went on to have a career as a producer. So he would always take note of everything that they were doing, you know, special microphone techniques and stuff like that. Mike Plotnikoff, who was the engineer for the drum tracks on The General Electric up in Vancouver, showed us a special miking technique that Eddie Van Halen had showed him, which was a sort of secret miking technique. You would have white noise coming through your headphones and through your amplifier at the same time, to give you phase alignments on exactly where you would place the microphone on the cabinet; cool stuff like that.
What were American audiences like at the time? It can be disheartening for a band with a big following to start anew in an unfamiliar territory where you have to work hard to win over people.
Yeah, some places where we went, there were bigger audiences than other places. But, a rock audience; when the music is going and the people are there, it is pretty much the same energy, whether it be a giant metal festival in Denmark or a smelly, blue vein cheese nightclub in Berlin or in Shepherd’s Bush Empire, or at the Big Day Out festival stadium back then. When the music is going, and it is moving the crowd, it is the same energy, or the same vibe from humans.
The vinyl format has proven to be a lifeblood for some bands. Shihad have done a number of excellent staggered releases over the years. Is there any chance that you might reissue the FVEY and Pacifier Live releases on vinyl? The demand for the initial pressings of those titles at the time far outweighed the supply.
Yeah, that is very possible, yeah. I don’t have a record player myself but I like to have them sort of mounted on my wall and stuff because I love the artwork and the size of it. When I hear it, it is amazing. Both Jon and Karl have got nice vinyl setups, and I remember hearing FVEY on Jon’s stereo and that sounded amazing. I am probably more of a listen to music in the car guy, or one to listen to it on headphones when I am out for a run, or something. For some reason I have been listening to a lot of The Amity Affliction when I have been going for a run recently.
Going over your discography, is there a favourite album within your back catalogue?
That is a tough one, it is like picking your favourite children. I don’t have ten children though, I’ve only got two. Ah, I mean, that is so hard to answer. I could try to pick ones that re not so favourite but then I will look at them…say something like Pacifier but then you look into the album and it has got some classic songs on it that I love to pieces, like, Comfort Me, Run, and maybe some other songs that didn’t quite get there. But there are songs on there that are very different and really connected with people for totally different reasons. I met someone in a folk band the other day who used to do a cover of Walls off Pacifier. It is a great song but it is completely different to anything off Killjoy or FVEY or Old Gods, but it is still a great song.
What was the guitar tuning on the actual Pacifier song?
For that song, off General Electric, you drop every string down a tone but then you drop the bottom string down to C [aka dropped C tuning]. When we play it live, it is a tone lower than that again.
Every band says their latest album is their favourite mainly from being recently immersed in it.
Yeah, this band has always been about playing live and delivering live. There is an X-factor about a good or a great band playing live that you cannot capture on an album no matter what you do. Maybe AC/DC did and maybe Black Sabbath did but I am just really looking forward to playing the Old Gods songs live now, as much as I love the album. Maybe I have listened to it too much but I want to play those songs live and I just want to hear them connect with crowds.