Henry Oliver talks to Jon Toogood, best known as the frontman of evergreen rockers Shihad, about the new record of his collaborative project The Adults.
Last time I talked with Jon Toogood – Shihad frontman, wild rock’n’roll singer, wirey mass of relentless energy – he had recently got married and was preparing for the album tour for Shihad’s latest album FVEY. It was an angry record, inspired by the death of his father, the end of his first marriage and the Snowden leaks which revealed New Zealand’s links to the Five Eyes, a controversial (to put it mildly) intelligence network made up of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
He talked about sewing the seeds for what might be a new record by the Adults, Toogood’s collaborative project featuring Shayne Carter, Julia Deans, Anika Moa, Tiki Taane and Ladi6. He’d started making demos with Aaron Tokona (A Hori Buzz, Weta, Cairo Knife Fight, etc.) and Jean Pompey, a jazz drummer who’d played in Trinity Roots.
But, a couple of months ago, a new Adults single appeared. ‘Bloodlines’ featured Estère’s futurist-pop vocal lines and JessB’s body blow rhymes over a kind of MIA-sounding beat and an unplaceable sample of distant sounding voices singing something that to me, an English-speaker, were difficult to place or contextualise. It was percussive and bass-heavy, with a sprinkling of sparkling guitars. There was no obvious sign of Jon Toogood.
In the surrounding press, it was revealed that the samples were, in fact, Sudanese wedding music – Aghani-Al-Banat, which translates to ‘Girls’ Music’, intended to empower a bride and lend her strength for her ceremonial wedding dance. And Toogood had made a whole album like this, called ‘Haja’, building songs on top of samples from recordings he made of the Aghani-Al-Banat group that played his wedding nearly five years earlier, and featuring musicians like Chelsea Jade, Kings, Raiza Biza, Miloux and Aaradhna. He’d met his wife while he was making the first Adults record and had made a new one out of their union.
The Spinoff: Last time we talked you were recently married and had just released a Shihad record. Your life was full of change. And now you have a son too. How’d you make a record in the middle of having a newborn in the house?
Jon Toogood: I was writing the music before he was born and I had to shelve it because he hit us for six. I basically had to shelve music for the first year and a bit. Apart from going out and doing solo shows and making sure that the bills were paid – in a fun way. So I wrote all that music, thought, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s good,’ then he came along and it was baby, baby, baby, baby. It got a little bit easier as he got older so I thought, ‘I’m gonna have a listen to that … fuck, that sounds good!’
It was a total labour of love. When I was recording with those women in Khartoum it was purely because I just fucking love their music. They were like, ‘Why do you even want to record this? It’s a live music, it’s not played on the radio, don’t you understand that?’ And I’m like, no – because I’m a Westerner and I didn’t understand Aghani-Al-Banat at that point. To me, it just sounded amazing and I loved it!
But they’re only playing rhythm and vocal, so I thought, ‘What would it sound like with a bass guitar in there? I’m gonna do that – just for me.’ I went back, met them, tried to take them into a recording studio. It was unnatural as hell. They didn’t want to be there, the studio didn’t want them to be in there. Even though they’re revered – because if you get Gisma to play at your wedding, your wedding’s going to be banging.
I was looking at them at the time and seeing that their shoes were a bit more scuffed up than my wife’s family’s shoes, they speak differently, they’re going outside for cigarettes in an Islamic country – what the fuck’s going on here? People love them and want to pay them money to play, but wouldn’t want their daughters playing that music. There’s a whole history behind that music – it comes from the harder side of life in Khartoum, out of the ashes of colonialism.
The British came over and said, ‘No more slavery’, so all these people moved into the cities. Then, much like the blues, it became co-opted by the upper-class as the sound of Sudan. That’s why I can’t find someone to play it outside of Khartoum because the people you meet from Sudan in Melbourne or America – they’re all the educated class so they don’t get taught how to play it. They get taught how to dance to it at their wedding maybe, but their parents wouldn’t be happy if they played it. As an outsider, I was like, ‘Why are they revered yet looked-down-upon?’ I like the music! I like them too, I think they’re cool…
Who are “they”?
I worked with two groups. One is a group led by a woman called Gisma. She is a bit of a rock star over there – and she doesn’t just play your wedding, she comes to your house for six months to teach your daughter how to dance at her wedding.
The wedding is everything over there. It holds society together. Deals are done. It’s not about the two people getting married, it’s ‘Is that family right for this family? What’s their industry? What did they do five generations ago?’ So it’s an important role for the musicians – they’ve got to make sure the daughter dances really well and knows what the dance is about. So they’re educators as well as performers.
Gisma, she’s amazing. She studied under one of the originators, Hawa al-Tagtagah, who used to write rousing anthems against colonialism, saying ‘Come on boys, get off your asses and kick these motherfuckers out,’ then ended up doing the Girls’ Music. Gisma was one of her group.
Gisma is now considered one of the main women. She’s respected. To some, she’s over-commercialised some aspects of it, but when you meet her, she’s fucking dope. She’s hardcore.
How’d you meet her?
She played at my wedding! I’m on stage with this women in front of 300 women, about 10 of which I know. My wife’s doing this dance that she’s learnt quickly, over 12 days of being in Khartoum. My wife was a diplo-brat – her father was a UN diplomat, so she was born in Kuwait, schooled in Finland, went to Ethiopia, Virginia, Sudi Arabia, then AUT, studying at the College of Chiropractic in Mount Wellington. When I met her, she was in her last year and I was releasing the first Adults record. So there are all these weird tie-ins. Five years later, I’m getting married at a traditional wedding in Khartoum.
Because it’s an all-female affair – I’m the only man who’s allowed to see my wife do this dance, because it’s for the groom. So the females play the music – Girls’ Music, literally Aghani-Al-Banat.
There’s an interval in the middle of the dance for a costume change and the band keep playing. I sat down with them and started a bit of a clap-off with them – I was dancing the whole night anyway because I couldn’t not dance, it was such great music. I think they picked up on the fact that I genuinely liked what they did because a lot of the Sudanese guys are just like ‘Yeah, whatever’, but I was like ‘Fuck, what are you playing? What is that instrument? What’s this?’
That’s how we made the rapport. And they liked my wife because she’s such a genuinely loving soul. So that got me in with them. They were more surprised that I genuinely loved their music, and I was surprised that they were surprised because their music’s amazing.
How do you get from your wedding to recording them?
I went back the next year, after asking them. I think they thought I was making shit up and they’d never see me again, but a year later, I turn up. I record them doing a rehearsal on my iPhone and it’s fucking amazing. But then I record in a studio and it’s fucking awful. Because they’re uncomfortable – Why are we in this fucking place? The studio owners are uncomfortable – What do you want to record this music for?
I didn’t use anything from that session. It wasn’t natural. But it’s supposed to be performed live. It’s not supposed to be recorded. And the great thing about that is it gives them the freedom to say whatever the fuck they want. If they find out a government guy is going some dodgy deal, they can just slip it into a song. And they do! They’re not ‘political’ but they just tell it like it is, which I really like. There’s something really rock ‘n’ roll about them. But the songs are frivolous as well, like, ‘Tutti’s got a Toyota, toot toot, beep beep’. Then, ‘Look how beautiful she is, she’s like the moon’ – the most poetic thing ever. Then, ‘That General’s sleeping with that woman’. It just flows. It’s like rap in that way.
And the more I found out about it, the more I translated it, the more I liked it. I just had a feeling in my gut that there was something really cool going on in this music, even though I didn’t speak the language.
So how’d you get them comfortable?
Oh, I just didn’t use it. I only used the iPhone recordings. That’s why it’s this compressed sound in the middle of all this 3D music. There’s something good about that. It’s compressed naturally. It’s just right there in your face. I had to make it work around that. And it cranks!
I flew back two years later and played it for them and I was shitting my pants. I was like, ‘What if they fucking hate this shit?’ Gisma came to the house, we had tea, I played her all the music and she said, ‘I like this’. She’s intimidating. She’s 70 years old and she’s seen everything. I think she was pleasantly surprised that I was following through on what I’d said. A track like ‘Haja’ where I am reworking one of their songs, I just added a bass guitar, she definitely got with that. Even though I took 30 seconds of music and made it a four-and-a-half minute song. She loved it…
When did you know it was going to be an Adults record?
I found out it was going to be an Adults record when I said to Warners, ‘I’ve got all this music but it’s so different, I don’t know how I’m going to put it out, but I think its some of the best shit I’ve done.’ I was thinking about coming up with some bullshit story about meeting some young DJ in Sudan and they went, ‘Nope! We’re not giving you money. You’ve got an existing collaborative name, The Adults. We’ll help you out if you do that.’
I could make that work. The idea behind the first Adults record was collaboration. This is just taking that a little more global. In the end, I did throw it out to a whole bunch of Kiwi artists and gave them the story about the music and what it’s about and why I’m playing with them. I just let them go with it. There were days I hadn’t heard anything for four weeks and I’d think I’d just wasted $30,000! Then I’d get Raiza sending me a verse and then Chelsea Jade sending me something totally different and what if I just put them together. It’s really just trusting in the universe to provide. Like it could have been a disaster.
All over email?
Mostly. Then with Dev [Devon Abrams AKA Pacific Heights], when it came to arrangement and production, I sat in a studio with him. My demos are totally lo-fi, I was doing it all on Ableton Live and iPhone recordings. I don’t know how to EQ shit – I’m not interested in EQing shit – I just know if I put a kick drum there it sounds cool and I can play a white boy bassline over the top of it, based on my history with rock and punk. But I can’t get it to a state where people can listen to it. But Devon can. Then I threw it out to people – anyone I thought was doing something interesting. There were people who I sent it to who loved it but couldn’t do it. Some didn’t get it. What you hear are the people who came back and said, I kinda get it.
It’s a really young sounding record…
That’s to do with the collaborators. It wasn’t a conscious effort to try and do something with young people, it was more like what sounded good to me.
The first record is very much of your generation…
And the generation before me as well. Being in a room with Gary Sullivan on drums and Shayne Carter. As much as I was playing it cool, I was like, I’m fucking jamming with two of my fucking heroes. This was the opposite. This was going forward. I don’t know these people! I know Estère because my step-daughter went to Wellington High School with her and she was the drummer in the school band. Also, I’ve been doing work with the Music Commission, doing mentoring at high schools, and there are talented kids every generation. It’s just I haven’t seen them yet. It gave me a lot more trust to be able to give up control because they know what they’re doing.
So, you’re in Shihad…
And everyone knows me as that…
… and it grows and develops incrementally. You’re a big ship, you can change direction slowly over albums…
I can’t release ‘Boomtown’ under Shihad, no fucking way. But to me, that sounds like what Big Audio Dynamite would have done if they were around now or if they’d met those musicians.
At the same time, everyone who makes music tends to listen to an eclectic mix of music. So what’s it’s like to make music that’s…
More like my music collection?
It feels fucking great. It sounds like music I’d want to listen to. And that’s what we’re doing with Shihad. Okay, I’m 45 years old and that last record [FVEY] was about what I’d want a rock band to sound like nowadays. That’s what I’m always trying to do. Sometimes I blow it, but you’re always trying to make music that you haven’t heard in the world just yet. And I think, with this one, it’s good because it takes my love of what I heard in that room while 300 women were looking at me going ‘That whitey can keep up’. And then I love The Clash and I know if I throw this in with that it’s going to work.
But your voice is largely absent…
I sing on one song. I didn’t want to hear me. I’m bored of hearing me. I didn’t make the record to hear me.
What about the bass guitar?
It’s the best instrument in the world! You know it! I know it! We all know it! It’s all about the bass. Because all the best bands are all about the bass. Even AC/DC, it’s still hooked on that guy holding that one note down. That’s what gives those riffs that power. Massive Attack’s Mezzanine – it’s all about the bass.
Bass is the best instrument for jamming because you can push things around subtly and you’re part of the rhythm but also, by moving one fret, you can change it from a verse to a pre-chorus. It’s just the unsung hero of rock’n’roll basically. So the bass is the king on this record.
And the guitar is very subtle…
It’s just textural. Or a little rhythmic, but mostly textural. I’m not interested in the guitar. Well, I am texturally, but it’s not the riff. The riff is the bassline.
And what’s great is that it’s the left-handed Squire copy P-bass that Shayne left at my house after we did an Adults tour of Australia. So I played a left-handed bass upside down, so I was just using my ear, I wasn’t relying on my normal playing.
The kind of multiculturalism on the record is obviously inherent in your family life…
Yeah, my son’s half-Sudanese and my daughter’s half-Sudanese…
What were your considerations bringing Sudanese music into a Western popular music context?
To me, FVEY was a scream of, ‘Fuck! I don’t want to live in this world if we’re going to get all nationalistic.’ This was another way to do it. Let’s just rise above the argument for a minute and by the actual practice of doing it, you can actually do something better when you don’t have those lines. That’s the rebellious aspect of it. I don’t want to fucking live in that world. I don’t want my son to live in that world. And he can’t really hide behind a flag because he’s not one flag. He doesn’t have that luxury. Good! The more mixed up things are, the more we realise that flag-waving nationalism is bullshit anyway. But the record’s existence says ‘Fuck you! Actually, you can live in a world without borders and do something positive.’ And it proves that theory of ‘We should all be separate’ or ‘We’re better than you’ is such bullshit. It’s just not real.
And Sudanese culture is in your life, all the time…
Absolutely. I had to learn how to speak Arabic because my wedding vows were in Arabic. I didn’t want to mispronounce my wedding vows in one of the oldest mosques at a packed wedding where the blue and white Nile meet.
This piece (as well as The Adult’s ‘Haja’) was made possible by NZ On Air and, like all of The Spinoff’s music content, by Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.