It was back in NZM’s ninth issue, December 1989, that NZM first covered a Wellington speed metal act then called Shihaad. In short order the band gained a reputation for their fearsome live performances, reviews inevitably mentioning the skinny-as-a-rake livewire frontman and the solidly built powerhouse of a drummer who smashed the skins relentlessly, in the manner of a Kiwi John Bonham. Shihad also turned 25 this year and NZM wondered how they would celebrate the occasion. We’ve talked repeatedly with John Toogood (and occasionally to Karl Kippenberger) over the years so thought we might this time pass the mic to Tom Larkin. Richard Thorne found him at home in Melbourne and asked about the band’s long life, future plans, his Studios In The City and Homesurgery.
As good as they were in the day, it’s a safe bet that no one in or around the band would have imagined, back when they first got started, that Shihad might still be together 25 years later. Apart from anything else, the four guys seemed so awkwardly different to each other.
But Shihad are. And what’s more the music they make is still in demand and still relevant. John Toogood is still skinny and agelessly energetic, while Tom Larkin still inspires awe and admiration among fans and fellow drummers alike.
“Are you a busy man?” I ask Tom once we’ve got through the Skype preliminaries.
“Oh, yeah, retardedly so,” he laughs. “I lead a pretty relentless lifestyle these days, in terms of the stuff I have to cope with and manage. I would imagine I’m averaging 12 – 18 hour days pretty much.”
The next question is pretty self-evident. Why?
“Basically because there’s a lot of stuff that I want to do and I’m in the process of building new aspects of the business, new ventures that are coming up, and it ends up being a lot of responsibility, especially when you are in the building stages. You tend to work hard to make it all work.”
Tom runs his own Melbourne recording studio, called The Studios In The City, as well as a management company that goes by the name of Homesurgery. Alongside that of course are his obligations with Shihad, the band who won’t lie down.
“Between those three things it’s a pretty extensive set of responsibilities. Of course I have people who work for me, who are great and I couldn’t do it without them, but it does mean you kind of end up living the full entrepreneurial lifestyle,” he laughs.
And he hasn’t yet mentioned his evident busy-ness as a father to two daughters. Tui, the youngest, is just six months old.
Shihad’s monster 2010 album, ‘Ignite’ was done in his studio, recorded and mixed by him and produced by the band.
Tom says he developed a fascination with recording studios from the very first time he stepped into one. He describes himself “to a greater or lesser extent,” as the annoying band member who sits on the studio couch and tries not to be too obtrusive – but sometimes fails.
“I soaked up a lot and when we were working with a lot of people I was the one guy in the band who was watching every process. I loved it and wanted to know more. I started producing a few local bands early on and that gave me a taste for it, but it wasn’t until around 2004 when I really started taking it seriously.”
The catalyst was a personality clash with the engineer they used on ‘Love Is The New Hate’, which was recorded in Canada with Garth Richardson. Tom says he would deliberately use technical jargon to obfuscate and bamboozle them out of holding the line they wanted.
“By the end of that process I decided that I was never going to allow myself get into a situation where I can’t explain what I (or we) want to hear. That started the quest to actually learn what it was all about, so that if they disagreed with you, you could actually show them.”
Cut to Melbourne where the band first moved in 1999. Buying a “rudimentary ProTools rig” he started working with bands and producing in other’s studios. Any money made went into buying more equipment, which in time turned into his own home recording set up. He hilariously recollects the time his wife’s parents came to stay and he had leads running into a vocal booth in the master bedroom with the spare room his studio. Another catalytic moment you might guess.
“From there I found a place in Brunswick that had come up reasonably cheap and was fully kitted out for use as a studio. This was in about 2007, and of course as soon as you have a facility like that you start getting more work.”
And so it is that he now employs studio staff, notably Kiwi Samuel Kay whose band Gatherer he rates as astonishing.
“Sam is a natural producer, a sweetheart of a gentleman and really talented creatively. Being the age I am, 42, gives you some advantages and some disadvantages. Sam is in his 20s, so of course he’s bringing up some stuff that’s new and fresh. It’s invaluable, he brings different creative angles, but at the same time I have experience to know what works and can eliminate a lot of static pretty quickly.”
The Studios In the City got its name from Aaron Tokona, back in the Weta days when, Tom says, he was obsessed with a particular TV show. He describes it as niche in that he doesn’t advertise, people find him.
“There’s a website and facebook page and that kind of thing and I get people knocking on the door. But most of the work comes from people hearing records and a lot of the time I’m being tapped on the shoulder by bands wanting me to help with their songs.
“And that is a huge part of the whole thing, to work on the arrangement and structures and how songs flow. What works from the front end of the song to the end, making room for the centerpiece. I spend a lot of time doing that and that’s the primary reason people come to me.”
Fast rising Auckland rock act Villainy recently recorded their debut album with Tom in his studio for precisely that reason. Other bands he has produced for have included King Cannons, Fur Patrol, Reptiles and Red Ink.
Tom admits to having an audio Achilles heal – he needs to hear unresolved issues in songs in order to fire up his producer mode.
“I find solving those problems entertaining. Making things work so that you can bathe in that centerpiece of the song. If a band has their shit together and I really love them, then I’m a really bad producer. Because what happens is I’m just fan boy guy and I just press ‘record’ and go, ‘This is awesome’. I don’t trigger the part in me that looks to get things improved.”
Possibly on those days he instead lets his mind wander more into the realm of his Homesurgery management business, to which he currently has five acts signed, including Kiwi duo Cairo Knife Fight.
In detailing his history of artist management he recalls Shihad’s late and legendary manager Gerald Dwyer, who sadly died a very rock’n’roll death ahead of a BDO gig in early 1996. Tom stepped in and ended up managing the band for about 18 months and says it’s a job he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
“It taught me a lot, but it’s part of the reason to this day that I don’t manage Shihad, or want to. It’s literally like being Dr Who and doing surgery on yourself. There are positions a manager has to take and arguments a manager has to put forward that are no good putting to your bandmates – if you actually want to have a good band relationship. Sometimes you have to put the music first and the business has to come second, and that’s a position you have to maintain if you are going to be in a band.”
The Homesurgery name reflects the business’ DIY origins but remains relevant in that he almost specialises in helping bands who don’t have label deals in place.
“It was all about dealing with bands that didn’t have funding, and to this day the majority of bands I deal with don’t have deals or investment support. The management side of things is about how I can find that right kind of support for them without it screwing them or baking their career too early. I’m a huge believer in artist development, that’s really what it’s about for me.”
Showing perhaps that he is indeed over 40, Tom points out that most long term (arena-filling) bands and artists only hit their stride with their third or fourth album.
“Sometimes even later, and it’s a very difficult proposition to recover from a really big first album in a career sense. I think that at the moment the big dollar end of the music industry is obsessed with having primary albums work – and that’s fine, that’s their model and it is what it is. But my whole thing is getting artists to a position where they are finding their own corner without crushing financial pressure at the front end.”
“I’m looking for bands that are relatively stable. You’ve got to have a bit of craziness in there, otherwise you don’t have the special stuff, but on the whole I want to work with bands that are looking to work.
“One of the cool things about running a studio is that you get to see bands under pressure, in situations where they have to argue a point or defend apposition. If you aren’t able to have constructive conversations and if you have a delicate or fevered ego, if you’re obnoxiously self-involved or defensive – those things don’t last.
The Butterfly Effect are billed as an alternative metal (he suggests “prog alternative) band from who have seen their last three albums go gold in Australia. Then frontman Clint Boge left the band last year.
“He was particularly iconic and they now have a new singer and I’ve become involved with bringing them back into play with a new singer. I’ve also got a new band out of Melbourne I’m working with called The Sinking Teeth, who are a like a punk rock band who write amazing songs and are great, with all that youthful enthusiasm.”
He’s only lately realised himself that his roster is in four tiers of release history. One is onto the fourth album and already huge, one (Melbourne rock act Calling All Cars) is onto their third and building, Sydney heavy rock act Strangers are working their second album and he now has a starter act.
“And then your surprise package in Cairo Knife Fight, who are definitely the most sideways creatively, and possibly the most interesting prospect.
After two EPs Nick Gaffaney and Aaron Tokona are currently finishing their first LP, but as he says, in terms of their career path it is a much later album.
“Calling All Cars are defining that three-album model for me. First album comes out, second album builds on that and gets accolades like Triple J album of the week, touring with AC/DC and Queens of the Stone Age, and now for their third album they are signed internationally [to big UK indie Cooking Vinyl], and working with people like Tchad Blake who did The Black Keys. It’s just exploded on that front. It’s quite a different album, it’s turned out nothing like I thought it would when I first started working with the band five years ago. It’s brilliant, almost exactly the model.”
Time we covered off the reason for this issue’s NZM feature – Shihad also turning 25. The guys are all living in Melbourne so did they celebrate the milestone?
“No. It’s a funny thing. Shihad have been pretty short on celebration and maybe that’s a product of the personalities involved – I know I’m pretty short on celebration. What’s celebrated is often in my book ‘expectation’, it’s what should happen.
“The Shihad 25 year thing is… it’s fucking strange when I think about it. How the fuck did we manage that?” he muses.
After a bit of thought he talks about some cornerstones to how it has worked. No real surprise that the first to mind is regarding money.
“From a really early time we shared all the profits, and all the risk, between the four members. It hasn’t always been absolutely even but the majority of the time it has – publishing, live returns, all that stuff, it’s egalitarian. I think that means you get people who have been able to invest in the whole thing and not feel they’ve been cheated or need to go other places in order to maintain stuff.
“Also I think it’s a real helpful programme in the songwriting department because no one becomes overly invested in having their idea win. Especially early on, unevenness in financial pressures can lead discussions to become very skewed into each individual’s agenda, and the music doesn’t win the agenda wins. When you eliminate that structure the only argument is about whether the idea’s good enough, and that’s a really important thing.”
Very respectful of Gerald Dwyer’s memory, he says his management was great in certain aspects, but fumbled in others, particularly long term international legal stuff.
“He had how to deal with us in NZ down and he had a vision for the band, which was tremendous and critical. But I think his lack of experience in being able to punch evenly with US and European labels meant he hadn’t had the experience of living through the consequences of those kind of deals. That’s just an experience thing, but it meant we got cornered into some arrangements where two years or five years down the track we got pretty screwed up by those deals.
“When we got free of it, it all fired up again. From there we again had some good and some bad advice. That was an interesting period when things really started to look like they’d go mega, everyone’s advice becomes really weird, but the band does too! At the end of the day the band has to take responsibility for that – even if you are abdicating responsibility you still have to take responsibility for that decision – it’s your fucking band!”
Shihad’s success and longevity has meant they’ve spent way more of the last 25 years away from NZ than here. At times they’ve lived in different cities and countries, but he points to the repeated living in close proximity as another fundamental band issue.
“One thing that used to drive everybody crazy was just the rooming situation on tour – it can have a huge impact on your life.”
When they first moved to Melbourne they lived in the same house, together with partners, a necessity in order to manage band costs.
“That was a really, really hard 24 months, but the fact we survived it was the great thing. No group of men at that stage is going to be happy families when they’ve got partners living there and everything, it’s going to go sideways. The collective agenda of four people in an eight-person household just isn’t going to work.
“One of the [cornerstone] things is that when you start to actually go past resenting each other for your differences, and it being an issue, to understanding and allowing for those differences.
Recording their 11th album in Egypt with Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman would have been pretty different, but in August the band advised fans that because of Egypt’s renewed internal violence they wouldn’t be following through with the plan. Tom says they now have 52 tracks for the new album (!) and are trying to figure out how and where to complete the recording.
“We blocked out a month at a rehearsal room and we would walk in there for between 1½ to two hours a day. We’d go in about 10 in the morning and leave at midday and recorded what we played in that time. It was ridiculously productive and the reason is that everyone knew it was a limited time so we’d all turn up, turn the phones off and just give as much as possible in a short burst.
“Usually if we were doing a month we’d do eight hour days. We’d talk a bit, then jam a bit, then get a coffee and punish ourselves on something. This way we didn’t overthink it, just got the ideas to a point where they were coherent then moved on. It worked brilliantly. Now we’ve got the job of actually massaging it into songs.”
He expects they will do the vocals and arrangements in the practice room situation but not take the pre-production too far as they have a deliberate recording plan in mind.
“When we enter the studio we want that to be the first time, we want to save that excitement. Keep it grimy and shit until we make it special, which is the time you are perforoming it properly to record. Cutting yourself off from the thrill, rehearse then just launch in the studio.”
The plan is to record over December and he expects the new album will be out in the second quarter of next year.