Late last month Shihad released their fourth album ‘The General Electric’. It is an eagerly anticipated album with the question being asked by fans, critics and the New Zealand music industry alike, ‘Will this be The One?’
Since the release of their debut album ‘Churn’ in 1993 Shihad have frequently been touted as being on the verge of greatness. While reviews have been widely favourable, local sales have never yet come close to more mainstream acts such as The Feelers. For many the elusive key to success lies in capturing their awesome live sound on a recording. With ‘The General Electric’ Shihad think they’ve finally done this, and with the album entering the charts at No. 1 – their first – it seems everyone else agrees.
So what was different? Singer/guitarist Jon Toogood says the main factor was Canadian producer GGGarth Richardson (the triple G a reference to his stutter) and his modus operandii.
“In the past we played a song and if we screwed up along the way we’d just stop and then start again, and we’d get a master tape from that. This time around we’d do a take and do it all the way through, and if you made a mistake you kept going. Then we’d do another take, another take and another take. We’d back and listen to them and Garth would go, ‘Ah man, that’s the one where you’ve just nailed it!’”
In addition to his ability to pick the track with ‘magic’, Richardson’s rock’n’roll contacts were also beneficial, with a plethora of ‘rock legends’ name-checked and studio associations with Metallica, AC/DC (who were recording downstairs), Van Halen – pretty much more metal than a scrapyard.
So apart from providing glamorous extraneous information for album reviewers, what did these people actually do? Well, they taught Toogood an Eddie Van Halen miking technique for one thing!
“All these rock producers we’d been listening to throughout our kiddie-era metal days were all from this studio [The Factory in Vancouver]. It’s nothing spectacular, it’s a nice big room, its got some really beautiful old Neve stuff – just like any good recording studio should have. What it has got is that Garth can call up Mike Plotnikoff, who’s Bruce Fairburn’s old engineer, to come and record the drums. So he comes down and mics up all the drum kits and gets his man to tune all the drums to suit Tom’s style – and he knew the Eddie Van Halen miking technique on the cabinets for the guitars, which is amazing!
“You plug in your guitar, just turn up the volume, but not play it. Then he puts on his earphones, cranks up the pre-gain in the desk so all he can hear is ‘hssssss’ and then you move the mic around until the hiss goes ‘shhhhhmmmmm’ and that’s the optimum it will play – so it was little tricks like that.”
(For those not familiar with the names, the late Bruce Fairburn produced Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, while Plotnikoff has engineered albums by AC/DC, INXS and Motley Crue.)
Rather than these people doing things differently, it was a matter of doing things well that made working with them such a thrill for the band. While their input was valuable, Toogood says they never took over, meaning ‘The General Electric’ sounds like Shihad — not Metallica, Van Halen or any of the others. It is somewhat ironic that it took the input of outsiders and their deftness with technique to capture Shihad’s live sound – surely the most natural form of the songs there is.
“It’s really strange because in the past we’ve miked up my Mesa amp that I use for my guitar live in demo studios in NZ and then thought, ‘Nah, let’s get a Fender Tonemaster or a really awesome amp to record in the studio with,’ to try and keep the sound big. But this time they just stuck a mic right in a nice place in front of my normal guitar set-up and it sounded like me, so I was like, ‘Choice! I get to use my own equipment and it still sounds BIG!’
“I did use other amps and stuff, I used a Canadian-made thing called a Garnet which is really fucking cool. It’s a high-watt kind of garky thing and also a white Plexi Marshall from ‘67 which is awesome — just creamy. Garth has spent all his money on equipment, he’s got a portable studio basically and he’s fully into technology as well.”
The decision to record in Vancouver was made to fit in with Richardson’s schedule and Toogood says the Canadian team’s affinity with new technology made a huge difference.
“I think the whole thing they had down was the complete sync between analogue and digital and it was all so smooth. They didn’t question the way they were doing it — it was just done. The mixes were all done into this new Sony format so it all stays in 24-bit, instead of mastering it to normal DAT which is 16-bit, and then it goes to the masterer who has a machine that also does 24-bit. So basically, they’ve got their shit together!”
A squizz at the Shihad website (www.shihad.com) will give you a glimpse at the impressive facilities used, including the studio and the mixing facility known as The Warehouse.
“The Warehouse where we mixed was gorgeous. I’d read about SSL J-Series 9000 desks but I’d never seen one. It’s like sitting on the deck of the Starship Enterprise! It’s this weird beast with all the detail in the world which is just beautiful to watch,” Toogood beams.
The result is an album (mixed by Randy Staub) that is quite different from the ‘Blue Light Disco’ EP released last year, which many viewed as a signpost for the new album style-wise. Shihad worked with Sydney-based producer Magoo on the EP but he was unavailable for ‘The General Electric’. However Toogood says the ‘Blue Light Disco’ experience left a lasting impression on the band. “Magoo really opened us up to sonics again. We used to be so into it. When we did ‘Killjoy’  the sonics were more of an important part than having the vocals at an audible level. It was like, ‘Who gives a fuck about the vocals — let’s create this wall!’
“Then with the Fish album [‘Shihad’, 1996] I thought, ‘I can actually sing, so maybe I’ll write some songs.’ Then it was straight-up, guitar in that speaker, voice in that speaker, drums, bass. I think some of that worked really well, like Home Again which I still really love, but on ‘Blue Light Disco’ Magoo opened us back up to the whole thing that the sonics of something can be just as important as the arrangement and the song itself.
“There’s a song on the new record, Pacifier, where one of the main hooks is like a tag-dyed guitar, it goes through an old Echoplex thing which is out of the 1930s or ‘40s and the sound you get coming back actually sounds like it’s from another time. There are mistakes all the way through the track but because it’s so beautiful and it’s doing all this rhythmic crazy shit — that to me is one of the best parts of the record because it was so spontaneous and it’s just this wave of melody that hits you.”
Talking about ‘The General Electric’ Toogood shows more enthusiasm than Jenny Shipley at a photo opportunity, and while it was certainly two months of hard work, I get the feeling the project has been one of their most creatively satisfying.
“You learn that, ‘This may not be exactly as I want it, but fuck it sounds good!’ I think we were more open to other people’s ideas than ever on this record but ended up getting something that we wanted — more than on any of the other records.”
For the first time Shihad now has the support of an international record company — Warner Music. The band is still signed to Murray Cammick’s Wildside label in NZ, but signed directly with Warner Australia last year. In the past Shihad’s international deals have been scattered with none of them seemingly seeing Shihad as a priority – something Warner Australia certainly does and the band’s move to Melbourne earlier this year was made to “honour” this support with a rigorous touring schedule of Australia, a 30-date tour supporting You Am I currently underway.
But if ‘The General Electric’ doesn’t move them from the brink of success into fame and fortune, Toogood says it doesn’t really matter.
“It’s never been about trying to write a hit single for radio and I think later on, even if we don’t sell many records we can still be proud of actually creating a piece of art, something different for people to lose their mind in for a little while.”