Had it not been for the escalation of public disorder and destruction of civil rights surrounding the ejection of Mohamed Morsi from his elected role as President, Shihad’s ninth album would have been recorded in Egypt, with Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman producing. The grand statement of that plan in itself indicates that the band of now 40-somethings felt they had a full-strength international album awaiting delivery. In the event the five came together last December in Auckland’s York Street Studio, closing a circle that began with them together recording Shihad’s very first album, ‘Churn’, in the same studio back in 1993. The result is the last big album to be recorded at York Street, and as Tom Larkin tells Richard Thorne, from their shared sense of history, antagonism and challenge, ‘FVEY’ has emerged as one of the band’s finest albums yet.
Considerable secrecy surrounded Shihad’s ninth studio album, the name kept carefully under wraps by their record company until the late June release of stonking intro single Think You’re So Free. The title of both single and album provide strong pointers to the album’s overarching anti-political/wake-up-people theme – ‘FVEY’ (pronounced ‘Five Eyes’ as the promo necessarily reveals), is the common abbreviation for an inter-governmental info sharing network of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and us here in NZ, widely known as Five Eyes.
Speaking from his Melbourne home, drummer Tom Larkin is at the beginning of what will be a busy Australasian media promo period, and eager to download his own thoughts on ‘FVEY’’s subtext.
“I think the album is an amalgamation of things that have crept up. We all talk about these things and in all sorts of ways. Shihad have always had a political bent and I just think the presentation has moved from blatant through to subtle, throughout our career, and back again. We had Jaz on board and he was challenging us to talk about what bothered us, or what we found abhorrent at the moment.
“The statement John Key made around the GCSB Bill – when he casually threw out that Kiwis care more about the snapper quota than the GCSB Bill – I think that was pretty alarming for all of us. I grew up in the ’80s and I remember not only going on a couple of the early Springbok marches, but also protesting against the nuclear ships in our harbours, and going on the homosexual law reform marches and all that sort of stuff.
“Considering all of that, to have a situation where a PM can casually pass a bill essentially legislating spying on the NZ population and say a statement like that – the problem was probably not so much what the government was up to but the fact that he was right. ‘You know John, you are right – and what the fuck is going on in this country?’”
It seems a question that had been bothering the band’s Jon as well, and with back-again producer Jaz Coleman urging him to write about issues that were really bothering him and his band, Jon Toogood delivered a string of powerful and politically charged songs that have particular relevance, arriving in a period of almost unprecedented global military posturing and just ahead of NZ’s general election.
“Governments do what they do. Power and collusion is always going to go on, and you have to have limits to that. Unfortunately we are at a point where as a society we are allowing those limits to exceed a sustainable capacity. We can’t allow that kind of untethered access to information.
“I think we are all so trusting of the fabric of society, that it isn’t going to be used for nefarious purposes. The problem is, if it ever was to be used to the advantage of those in power, and without consent, we’d be in a pretty difficult position to stop it from happening. The issue we are trying to highlight is that not enough people have a problem with this – and that’s the problem.”
Although he and his Shihad fellows have long been Melbourne residents (“Phil actually got his Australian citizenship back in the day because he wanted to vote John Howard out), there isn’t really any similar Australian-specific commentary within ‘FVEY’. Their Kiwi-ness remains to the emotional fore, although the message is universal.
“I think we talk about things that are going on globally. On the whole it’s about where we’re headed as a society. I think Jon mentions quite a bit that we are not purporting to have the answers, we just want to shine a light on what we see from where we’re at, and going, ‘Whatever the answers may be, THIS isn’t the way’.
“It’s merely highlighting the stuff that’s concerning us and not being afraid to bring it up, I think that’s the most important thing. The GCSB thing is endemic everywhere, but it has been crystallised in NZ.”
No matter how bad ours may be Tom points out, he’s no match for Australia’s current Prime Ministerial burden.
“Tony Abbott is really Australia’s George Bush – he’s a serious piece of idiocy. We really do have a tragic-comic political situation in Australia – it’s so dire it exceeds rational response. It’s ‘What the fuck?’ every day.”
Considering Shihad’s role as political awakeners, Tom recollects being in the States when Greenday’s ‘American Idiot’ came out in 2004.
“It’s funny. As pop and kind of innocuous as it was to us, people don’t realise how important that album was in turning the tide against Bush – because Greenday were one of the only acts that got to middle America and actually spoke to those kids, and brought them into a perspective they were not getting through Fox News or whatever. I actually think ‘American Idiot’ was one of the most important political albums of the past 15 years, and a lot of people don’t realise it cos it was such a pop album, but the effect was truly dramatic in the US and it was important.
“Obviously we’re not putting ourselves in a position to have an effect like that, but the more these things are brought into popular culture, and at least put on the table, I think the better for everyone.”
With only about half of NZM’s allocated 30-minute interview remaining, we turn to the more mundane aspects of ‘FVEY’, such as its importance for the band, its determinedly heavy metal sound, and the processes of writing and recording.
Almost a year ago, in NZM’s 25th anniversary issue, Tom described the band’s pre-album jamming/writing sessions as being “ridiculously productive”. They’d booked a rehearsal space for all of July and planned to do just a few hours there each day, leaving them free to head home (or, in his case, work) by the afternoon. It was a marked change in the way they had created new music previously.
“In the past we would get together, find an idea then try and formulate it into some kind of a song during the day. This time we worked for about a quarter of the time that we usually would. So instead of going in for eight or 10 hour days, we’d get together for just two to three hours and all we would do is jam and find ideas that we liked – and we’d only commit to getting two or three movements out of one session.
“That might just be 45 seconds or a minute and a half of music, but it wasn’t structured in any form, just a passage of music that we liked and inspired us that came out of a jam.
“That meant we worked much, much faster cos we had a high output of ideas and those which inspired us would go onto the table for getting lyrical ideas and those that had resonance would attract the strong lyrical stuff. So honestly, we worked for five or six weeks, two or three hours a day and we ended up with 55 songs!
“We had a recording rig set up and we’d jam, then push record and play through it. Then maybe through another couple of passages of jamming then stop, agree which bits we liked and colour code those sections, then jam some more. At the end of the day you’d have two hours of music recorded and you’d just look for those blocks of colour, grab those off and print them. That would be the result of the day.”
Having built quite a catalogue of musical possibilities they started to overlay lyrical ideas. Producer Jaz Coleman joined the band in Melbourne several months later, in late November, for two weeks of pre-production.
“Some stuff we’d worked on a little bit further, some had lyrical ideas, but the essential thing was we’d start playing through those ideas and if he didn’t like something he’d just say, ‘Nah, it’s boring’. And if he liked it then we’d start turning it into a song from that point. Then we were in York Street for about a week in December and that was it!” he laughs.
It sounds all casually friendly, but there has been much talk of the 15 year rift between the band and the producer of their very first album, ‘Churn’. The fall out was only recently overcome, leading to Coleman suggesting that recording somewhere edgy – like strife-torn Cairo – was what they should next do together.
“We had this thing called ‘Jaz’s instituted digital democracy’. When he came over we got it down from 55 to 20 [songs] in our pre-production sessions. Then when we went to York Street basically everyone voted on each of those, and we recorded them in the order of popularity.
“So all the favourite songs got done early on We were doing two songs a day, and by the time we’d done 18 we didn’t need to bother with the last two – and the good tracks had spoken for themselves. It got filed down to 11.”
Asked if, being so efficient, it had been a relaxed recording session, Tom laughs that it was and it wasn’t. He describes Coleman as being “like a dictatorial drill sergeant, admitting that is exactly what the band needed.
“Jaz forced us into performing live together, so there was a standard of excellence everyone had to live up to on every take, then we weren’t allowed to overdub anything. If we fucked up we had to go back to the beginning and play it again, so there was this massive focus on performance. And if you did fuck up he’d scream at you. It was like having a personal trainer pushing you through stuff you didn’t think you could do.
“That mindset was incredibly powerful for us and really, really needed. Basically, [we] fat, lazy, middle-age rockers need a caning! It was brilliant,” he laughs.
“The first time he worked with us we were young and scatterbrained, and had enormously idealistic and entrenched ideas of how things should work. So that requires someone to kind of take a hammer to your ideas about life, because you are inexperienced. The larry of that is when you’re at our stage now, is you have so much experience and are so comfortable that you become lazy and unengaged. You are so sure of being able to do something good that it doesn’t create a tension anymore.”
Keeping with the time-saving song development process, they agreed to eschew the standard drum tracks, then guitars, then vocals etc. routine in favour of recording live.
“Jaz didn’t bring any specific plans of what he wanted to hear, but we kind of put together a couple of things – I’ll call it an accidental manifesto – like the writing process. We’d been experimenting with really low tunings for quite a while, but they’d always been for a song where we wanted to have some fun. This time we decided to create a limitation and make every song low.
Studio-shot video shows Jon Toogood tuning his Telecaster down to Drop G, which he describes as “…a ridiculously low tuning.
“It’s basically drop As, drop B sharp, drop B, all those kind of sub-sonic guitar tunings that sound tough,” says Tom. “Funnily enough they are hard to control as well, the guys had to really work out how to massage the guitar to sit properly. Both Jon and Phil and have been in the habit of giving the guitar a good belt and you actually have to stroke the guitar to get that tuning to kind of hold nicely.
“But the interesting thing is that when you tune that low it’s actually sonically smoother, the way the notes act. I think that at higher tunings the notes shimmer more, whereas when you tune down low those frequency arcs tend to sound sludgier, but also smoother. Things operate in a more even fashion, it’s a really strange texture.”
Of course his own powerhouse drumming style is as much a part of the Shihad sound as the three axe-wielders he sits behind. This time it comes courtesy of a new DW kit, one of three, he says, the brand ever made in chrome.
“I got given this new kit by DW and I ordered large size drums – 26” kick drum and big toms, 13″, 16″ and 18″. These days I always tune the kit to the song – get someone to give me the fundamental notes and I tune all the drums to the song. Being that size they already sounded right for the lower tunings. I love it. I’d always wanted a chrome kit and they made me one.
After some finishing work in Melbourne mixing was handled there by Forrester Savell in Sing Sing Studios. The highly regarded Savell is one of Australia’ most prolific producers and also has album production/mixing credits with Karnivool, The Butterfly Effect as well as I Am Giant’s debut and recently released ‘Science & Survival’ albums. Tom’s clearly well-pleased with the result – as well as the process.
“It’s definitely had a very strong reaction so far, and I think something special has been captured on this one. Particularly after this amount of time you kind of know when all those facets come together to give you something special and I think this is one of them.
“I think back on when we made it, it was a total pleasure. I listen to it and think it’s fuckin’ awesome’, I don’t get cringed out by it… I feel it’s one of our strongest albums. It was a challenge to make and we all rose to the challenge. It echoes some of the things we’ve done before – because of the four people and the producer in the studio – but it’s different.”