Latest release: FVEY (Warner)
For their ninth album and first recording of new material in four years, Melbourne-via-Wellington quartet Shihad went back to the source, reconnecting with eclectic genius Jaz Coleman who produced their debut Churn twenty-one years ago and thus helped kick off a career that has so far led to eight Top 10 albums and an amazing 17 Top 40 singles in their homeland of New Zealand.
“It was awesome!” guitarist Phil Knight says enthusiastically of working with Coleman again. “I don’t know why we hadn’t gotten around to it sooner, actually. He’s still an old school punk rocker guy, but since we first worked with him back in 93 on Churn he’s learned how to conduct orchestras and write music for orchestras and he flies all around the world conducting symphonies, so he’s trained in all this music theory and he brings these two worlds together. He has this crazy energy so it was like having a mad conductor in the room.”
When Loud interviewed Jaz Coleman two years ago, he shouted down the phone for forty-five minutes like a soap-box orator, and that was him being very nice. Shihad hired Coleman to boss them around for months. One can only imagine what that must have been like.
“If you happened to fuck up during a take he’d scream his head off at you and almost threaten physical violence!” Knight says with a wary laugh. “He could get pretty scary. He grew up on the hard streets of East London, you know! It made us play a lot better.”
The Killing Joke frontman would have felt right at home working on FVEY. It’s an album driven by churning, repetitive guitar riffs and the palpable paranoia-fed anger of Jon Toogood’s urgent vocal delivery. This is by far the most aggressive set of songs Shihad has unleashed onto the world since Killjoy in 1995.
“Just the current state of the world these days,” Knight says of the inspiration for the album. “Pretty much that’s the theme of the album in general. And injustice, inequality, throughout the world.”
The band’s main inspiration was the Five Eyes global surveillance network – the FVEY of the title – the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand developed to spy on political enemies and suspected dissidents that, according to the revelations of international fugitive Edward Snowden, now keeps tabs on practically anyone and everyone. Little wonder that the stark tone of FVEY is one of exasperated fury.
“There’s a lot of references in the lyrics to this sort of intelligence gathering on us regular citizens… the collection of metadata through the telephone networks,” the guitarist explains. “They have these databases of all this metadata and there’s been instances of it all being sold off to private, commercial interests as well, not just to keep us safe from terrorism. I guess it’s a lot of paranoia about being spied on.”
Once again, Jaz Coleman’s involvement was kismet. With his own vast catalogue of material tackling precisely the same type of subjects, Shihad’s tirade against the clandestine oppression and betrayal of liberty was perfect fodder for him and he approached his task in typical hands-on fashion.
“He came over here – to Melbourne – to our rehearsal rooms for a couple of weeks and did pre-production while we were there and he helped us arrange the songs and he helped out with a lot of my guitar lines,” Knight says. “He was almost like a fifth member of the band for a while there. He’d just sort of shout notes at me. Then we went to York Street Studios in NZ for about fourteen days or something and we just worked every day.”
Coleman himself helped to establish York Street in the 90s, and FVEY was one of the last albums to be recorded there before it closed in April this year. His first idea, however, was to take the band to Cairo. The subsequent civil unrest that engulfed that city sank the idea and Shihad decided to return to the Auckland studio where their first three albums were made.
“This was about two years ago,” says Knight, “but then everything just went mad in Cairo and we couldn’t get there and we wouldn’t have been able to get travel insurance and what have you – it just seemed too dangerous.”
While the Coleman influence is definitely strong on FVEY, Knight reveals that the genesis for the album’s heavy sound took seed long before the band began working with him again.
“Well, you know throughout the whole thing I was thinking, Shit, this is the heaviest thing we’ve done since Killjoy but it has a different tone to it,” he explains. “About a year before we decided to start recording again, we started tuning way down low and started writing a whole bunch of songs with this new low tuning, and that sort of became the sonics of the guitars for the album. Slowly the Jaz thing came about again through meeting and stuff and eventually it all just made sense. We’ve got some fucking heavy songs here!”
There was another factor as well: last year’s “fortuitous” Australian tour with Black Sabbath, an experience the guitarist describes, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “amazing”.
“We were so lucky to get that slot,” he says with a sense of reverence. “It was through a personal connection. A friend of ours from when we came to Australia in 99, she ended up being a nanny for the Osbournes. She went to LA and ended up looking after the kids and it was through that connection that we got to tour, which was really fortuitous. Doing that tour played a part in the sound of this album too, because we just played as much heavy stuff as possible. We ended up playing a lot of early stuff, a song off Churn and stuff, on that tour. Just watching Tony Iommi play every night inspired some of the guitar riffs on this album.”
Since this interview was done, FVEY has given Shihad their fifth #1 album in New Zealand, making them only the second Kiwi act after Hayley Westenra to achieve the same feat. Following their complete fifteen-year estrangement from Jaz Coleman, teaming up again seems to have more than paid off.
“Oh it was a buzz!” Knight says. “I wanna do it again, eh! I don’t know how we’d top this one with him, but I’d love to do it again. It was so much fun. He’s such an energetic guy and he challenges everyone in the band to better himself, not just as a musician but in life. He really makes you think, What else can we do in the world, as well as being musicians?”
Shihad is touring in October with High Tension and Cairo Knife Fight:
24/10: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
25/10: Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW
31/10: Mojos, Fremantle WA
1/11: Rosemount Hotel, Perth WA
6/11: The Gov, Adelaide SA
7/11: 170 Russell Street, Melbourne VIC