They heaved and hauled and swung on the rope, and eventually 17th Century slave-trader Edward Colston fell to the ground with a surprisingly soft metallic clunk. Lobby groups in Bristol had been campaigning to have his statue removed from the city centre for decades. In the end, Colston was laid low by a crowd chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “No Justice, No Peace!”
Protestors rushed forward to kick him, jump on his chest, and attack him with cans of spray paint. One man knelt on the statue’s neck, in reference to the murder by asphyxiation of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. And then the slave-trader’s hollow bronze effigy was rolled down the street, creaking and scraping like a sack of tin cans, and thrown into Bristol Harbour.
This was in June last year, on the second day of anti-racist protests across Britain. Back here in New Zealand, I watched the footage and cheered. Shihad’s Jon Toogood watched it too, in his Melbourne home, then wrote a song.
“The idea for Tear Down Those Names came directly from watching those clips,” he tells me from the house where it was written. “Here’s a man who transported and sold tens of thousands of kidnapped African men, women and children, which is an abomination, yet he’d been glorified for years with that statue! That song is about the fact that many of us aren’t prepared for such people to be portrayed as heroic anymore, especially in the middle of the streets where we live.”
Tear Down Those Names is the opening track on Shihad’s 10th studio album, Old Gods, releasing on August 27. You had better brace yourself, is all I’m saying.
“There’s been a change in the weather” hollers Toogood over a churn of furious riffs. “We’re witnessing history. Throwing thieves in the river. We’re banishing bigotry”.
* Shihad’s Jon Toogood on being Muslim, changing his band’s name and keeping the faith
* A Shihad life: 30 years of Kiwi rock
* Shihad rockers suspended for Wellington High School AC/DC graffiti
It’s fast, angry, hot as any furnace. Tear Down Those Names lumbers along on huge detuned electric guitars, then sprints forward, then slows down again to a pounding stomp, lurching around like Godzilla in the grip of a panic attack. The band’s early history as snotty Wellington metal kids resonates through every note, but so does the roaring rebellion of punk.
And that’s just the opening track. Old Gods remains resolutely enraged through most of its duration, those crushing riffs ratcheting up a sense of urgent intensity as Toogood vents about racism, right-wing media, the rise of fascism, Islamophobia. He sounds livid, and he is. This time, it’s personal.
“It’s been seven years since we released our last album FVEY, and I was already very angry about the state of the world back then,” he says. “But in many ways, that was a utopia, given all the dark things that have happened since. And I feel that even more acutely now that I have vulnerable children to raise and a Sudanese wife who deals with racism and Islamophobia every single day.”
Jon Toogood married Dana Salih in Sudan in 2014. He gave up drink, drugs and cigarettes, and converted to Islam before the wedding. Their children are now three and almost six.
“For the first time in my adult life, I had no desire to write music; I just wanted to make sure my kids were safe and happy. It was weird because music has been a constant source of joy and solace for me, right back from the first time I wrote a generic Metallica speed-metal song at Wellington High School. But having children gives you a whole new set of priorities.”
Toogood hung up the rock star biz for a while to be a more present and committed father, but he was dismayed by the increasingly dangerous world his children were being forced to grow up in.
“Here I am, with two bi-racial children, in a world where ideas like fascism and white supremacy are being legitimised through the actions of leaders like Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in America, and in a more jocular way, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in England. And history tells us that story doesn’t end well. It struck me that I needed to say what I was seeing as part of a voice for change.”
So he started writing songs with his bandmates again, and we should be thankful, because you feel cleansed, somehow, by the power and majesty of this music roaring past you.
Title track Old Gods dishes up dirty, distorted guitars over an insistent kick drum, with lyrics about right-wing goons storming Capitol Hill, the inter-generational trauma of colonialism and immigrant “children thrown into cages”, all delivered with a sneer.
Mink Coat rails against ostentatious displays of wealth at a time when so many are homeless, broke and starving, and lays blame at the feet of media networks who support the selfish agendas of the rich.
Anti-fascist anthem Empire Falling conjures images of shiny jackboots clattering down our streets again when they should have been consigned to history’s dustbin.
Greed takes a kicking on Little Demons, and religious hypocrites likewise on The Hill Song. The Wreckage and Slow Dawning fall on you fast and hard, like a landslide of bricks.
It’s an album tailor-made for the live stage: the riffs lean and muscular, the choruses built to bellow along with, the whole shebang scattered with mighty pop hooks that stick in your head.
And despite the incandescent outrage in the lyrics, there’s more to these songs than just some irate howling from a soapbox. If you listen closely, Toogood reckons you might discern a driving force of optimism behind the more obvious anger.
“This record is really heavy, but it’s not without hope. The reason I’m angry is because I believe in the potential goodness of human beings. If there’s anything I’ve learned through meeting my wife Dana and converting to Islam it’s that you should always assume the best in people. You want to keep them in the conversation and give them opportunities to turn away from hatred. A lot of current politicians are opportunists, exploiting other people’s loneliness or anger. It’s a harder sell to appeal to the essential goodness of humanity than it is to be cynical, greedy or selfish, or lie and appeal to people’s baser instincts.”
Taken together, the songs on Old Gods constitute a manifesto of sorts: these are some things the band-members collectively believe are unjust and need to change, and they are seeking your support.
Much of the responsibility for articulating key issues falls on Toogood as the singer and lyricist, but he’s under no illusion that he’s an expert on anything except, perhaps, basic human empathy.
“I’m just doing this from gut instinct, and also from the position of someone who has a different perspective now because he fell in love with a black Sudanese woman who has to navigate an often-hostile white society, even though she’s one of the most charitable, lovely, intelligent human beings I’ve ever met. I feel ashamed that it’s taken me so long to wise up to the sorts of injustices many other people are still facing. And I really think it’s important that I spend the precious little time I have on this planet to push things in the direction where the world is a safer place for my children to live in.”
Toogood admits he’s amazed to find himself making a raw, blazing record like this in his late 40s.
“I mean – I’m about to turn 50, and my life has really changed. When I was a younger man, I was much more arrogant, like, ‘this is what I f…… deserve, so get out of my way!’ Most of the time these days, my thoughts are more like, ‘have I got something out of the freezer for dinner? Have I got time to do the washing before I go and pick up my kids from school?’ And in between all that, I make music, and I need to make that useful, too.”
Toogood has been cranking out a bold, take-no-prisoners ruckus for more than three decades now. He formed Shihad with former schoolmate Tom Larkin (drums) in 1988, alongside friends Phil Knight (guitar) and Karl Kippenberger (bass).
Toogood was just 16 at the time, a self-confessed “dweeb” who once got suspended alongside Larkin for spray-painting “AC/DC RULES!” on the wall of the Wellington High toilets on the night of the Year 11 school ball. Since then, incidentally, Shihad has supported AC/DC on stage three times.
Over the intervening years, Toogood has peeled off for assorted side-projects – cajoling musician mates into a sporadic recording entity called The Adults – channelling his inner crooner by singing Jacques Brel songs at arts festivals, but Shihad has always been the main event.
“I feel blessed to still have such a special relationship with these guys, stretching right back to our high-school days. And we all come from very different backgrounds. Karl’s of Rarotongan and German descent, a part of the famous Kippenberger military clan. Tom’s dad was an Irish immigrant who became New Zealand Ambassador to Japan, and his mum Sarah was from the same Williams family as the priest who helped draft up the Treaty of Waitangi. Phil was the son of two Pakeha New Zealanders, brought up in Ngaio, and I’m the son of two working class Londoners that took up the opportunity to be ten-pound poms and start a new life on the other side of the planet.”
Their differences fall away when they play together, he says. It’s a long-standing alliance of equals, and the new record feels like the culmination of 30 years of work.
“This is what you can do with four people that have played music together for that long, and they’ve worked out their strengths and their weaknesses and exactly what it is that they want to say. We get together in a room every six months or so and just jam for two hours a day for maybe a two week period and then say goodbye and everyone gets on with their lives. But when we’re there, we’re really present, really concentrating. Is this music moving us? Is it coming from a special place? Are we conjuring that magic? Are we playing until we all bypass our logical brain and just feel it? Once that happens, suddenly, there it is!”
Some shared inspirations provide an enduring blueprint, he says.
“We all agree about some bands, like Fugazi, Led Zeppelin, Devo, and Kiwi bands like The Gordons, Skeptics and Bailter Space. These were bands that were f…… feeling it; they were right in the zone. In Shihad, we aspire to that sort of power and energy, and we often find it, because we’ve spent so long playing together and really listening to one another.”
His own musical interests have shifted in recent times. These days, Toogood is more interested in what a musician has to say than their method of saying it. Apart from British band Idles, he hardly listens to any guitar music now.
“I listen to Sleaford Mods, who don’t have any guitars, and Kendrick Lamar, who’s music is almost punk in the way it speaks truth to power. The times we live in demand that artists don’t mince their words, and these are musicians who realise the things we need to fix come with a great deal of urgency. I mean, the sea was recently on fire in the Gulf of Mexico. Just before the pandemic hit, here in Australia, the sky was red as Mars because so much of the country was on fire! And then Covid has rolled through, of course, and no one escapes the emotional effects of that.”
He speaks from experience. Toogood’s mum died just a couple of months ago, in the middle of one of the Melbourne lockdowns.
“She was in Wellington, and I couldn’t get out of Melbourne. My sister called to say she’d become particularly ill when our lockdown started, and then I couldn’t get back. It was just awful. I wanted to be there to hold her hand, bro, yet I couldn’t. But I guess my point is, these are very serious times globally, so we don’t have a whole lot of time to waste just making party music.”
Shihad has had five Number One albums in New Zealand to date: The General Electric (1999), Pacifier (2002), Beautiful Machine (2008), Ignite (2010) and FVEY (2014). Old Gods seems likely to follow suit, but Toogood is more concerned that another loud and thoughtful voice gets added to the chorus of those demanding change.
“Bro, I’m going to be 50 this year, and I’ve got two kids. I’m really concerned about the state of the world, so I’ve made this f…… combative record, but at the same time, I’m feeling quite fragile because my mum’s just died. But I don’t have many options. We’re living through precarious times and I really want the world to be a better place and music is the main tool I have available to me. Making a record sometimes feels like going into battle, but Old Gods is fighting a necessary fight. People will hear the anger in it, but I hope they also hear the love.”
Shihad’s tenth album Old Gods is released on August 27, with a NZ tour to follow in late November
Nov 23 – James Hay Theatre, Christchurch
Nov 25 – Shed 6, Wellington
Nov 26 – The Factory, Hamilton
Nov 27 and 28 – Powerstation, Auckland