GOING GLOBAL MUSIC SUMMIT 2017: Jon Toogood
An interview by Sarah Kidd.
Jon Toogood is the iconic front man of Shihad; the legendary New Zealand Rock band who have produced no less than five number one studio albums (nine albums in total), more Top 40 New Zealand Chart Singles than any other NZ artist and in 2010 – quite rightly so – were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame courtesy of a legacy award.
When I catch up with Jon he is at home in Melbourne where he has resided for the last sixteen years; married and father to a beautiful little boy named Yahia (Arabic for Jon), life is good if not very busy for the musician who consistently has several projects on the go at any one time. One of which was a flying visit to Auckland for an appearance at the Going Global Music Summit as a panel member speaking on the topic ‘Let’s Be Remarkable – Treating the Creative Process with the Reverence it Deserves’
With everything you have on the go at the moment are you still currently mentoring high school music students for the NZ Music Commission?
“I am still on their roster, I’m still on that as a supporter but this year I just haven’t had time to do anything, because I have been making this new The Adults record, as well as recording with Shihad as well as doing solo stuff! I’m actually doing a master of fine arts at the same time at Massey University, so I am extremely busy! I haven’t even been able to do my radio Hauraki show which I was really, really liking as well.
So I had to put a couple of things that I usually do on the side and the mentoring is one of them but it’s not to say that I won’t be getting back into it once I do get all that other stuff out of the way, because I love it; I really do enjoy it and it’s something that I actually find quite inspiring to do!”
Do you like punishing yourself with that sort of schedule?
“I do! I am one of those people – like many creatives – if we have too much time to sit around and not do things, then that creative energy starts going inwards and it starts to be a bit destructive, so I tend to keep myself going”
Who needs sleep right?
“Yeah who needs sleep? (laughs) Even though some days you go ‘Argh, I wish I hadn’t said yes to that’ (laughs) but you do. Like I said, I’m always much happier when I feel like I have got momentum and I am doing stuff you know? I need a mission – I need lots of missions!”
So speaking of the creative process – what (or who) currently excites you about the New Zealand music scene?
“All you have to do is look at the Top 20 Silver Scrolls short list; Chelsea Jade, an amazing pop writer, Kings, Amelia Murray from Fazerdaze, Aldous Harding; and then the metal band who sings in Te Reo, Alien Weaponry. It’s just like a loaded Top 20; it’s a really high quality.
It’s [New Zealand] more densely populated with talent than I think I have ever seen it before! I think it’s to do with initiatives like the mentoring in schools; I am noticing that kids are more advanced than I was at the same time in their lives. They are all writing songs way earlier – I didn’t write my first song til I was 16 or 17 – but these kids are writing songs at 12, 13…
When I was that age, if you wanted to learn how to play guitar you had to find out who the guitar tutor was in Wellington and then go to lessons with that person; now days you have got all the best guitarists in the world on YouTube, you can just teach yourself in your bedroom! Yeah it’s not quite the same as sitting with the person in the room, but it is just that wealth of knowledge sitting there [online]“
You yourself have been based in Melbourne for quite a while now; do you believe to be successful you have to get out of New Zealand?
“The world is a smaller place than it was; we are all connected, New Zealand is a great place to learn to be an individual and it’s a great place to observe the world – you can sit back and watch the whole thing. When we write or make art, we’re not just taking it from an American perspective, we are taking it from a European perspective, a Pacific Island perspective; we are mushing it altogether and it is a really good place to be creative!
But the problem is if you are a musician you’ll run out of people to play to quite quickly, especially if you want to do this for a living and play 180 shows a year or even more. You can only get good from playing hundreds of shows and you can’t do that just living in NZ.
Performance is a massive part of what we do, you know I love writing songs, love being in a recording studio watching as a record comes together; but playing live is where it happens for me. That’s the bit where I feel most at home, where I feel like I am doing what I was put on this earth to do. So to do that as a living you have to open yourself up to going outside of New Zealand”
You (fairly) recently became a new father; as an established artist balancing the two must be a little easier than say if you were just starting out?
“Being an artist is more than a job, it’s an obsession, and it’s a lifestyle! It is something that you do 24 hours a day, you don’t just switch off at five o’clock; most of my ideas come to me just as I am falling asleep or in the middle of the night! Who knows when it comes, it just comes when it comes and you have got to be on call.
It takes dedication and it takes sacrifice; it takes time away from home. You know it’s a big call to have a baby and then be away for most of the year, you have got to have an extremely supportive partner and an extremely supportive family network. But all the boys in Shihad – I mean that’s the only experience I go on – we all left having kids til when we had started to slow down that touring around the world thing; you spend a lot of time away from home by the nature of what you do.”
On a personal note I do have to say that your wife Dana is fiercely beautiful
“Yeah I know I am punching well above my weight (laughs)! I am very, very lucky to have met her; one of the most charitable and loveliest people, beautiful inside and out which is actually really healthy for me. Being in a band you are often looking out for number one the whole time and she is just so opposite that; she will give everything away to everybody else. She has just totally flipped my whole world on its head.
When I saw her I just went, ‘Oh there you are’ it was one of those situations where it was someone I could just be myself around; yes she is beautiful but she’s also like my best friend, it’s very cool. She’s just amazing and honestly I am grateful every day”
Looking at the future of music, digital music in particular; do you believe the rise of the playlist will kill the idea of the album as it currently stands?
“I think there are always going to be people that like the escapism of that [album] journey; I love Spotify, it’s got a really user friendly interface, and it absolutely exposes me to a whole bunch of music that I wouldn’t normally have previously have got into. I like the way it rolls out stuff and suggests stuff and I do love making playlists, I love it! It’s still my own music, it’s chosen from all the albums that I have.
But in saying that when To Pimp A Butterfly [Kendrick Lamar] came out I consumed that as an album because it was meant to be heard as an album. The new J. Cole record For Your Eyes Only, I listened to that album as an album as he was trying to say something with that record and as an artist I want to hear that whole story you know?
If an album has got something to say that needs to be said over the space of 40 minutes and its genuine and the intentions behind it are good, then I’m going to consume it because I like that escapism, I love falling into that other world. [But] I really like playlists as well so I don’t know if it’s the death knell for the album, I just think it means that you better have something to say if you are going to make an album (laughs) there has got to be point behind it!”
There is no room for fillers anymore aye?
“No there really isn’t … there really isn’t!”
As a New Zealand artist trying to break into the scene what would be the one piece of advice that you would offer?
“Work harder than everybody else and that is basically it. There are plenty of talented people in the world, plenty of talented people in your local community, but what will differentiate you from the other talented person – you gotta be prepared to put in the hours. Because that will actually separate you from the pack, that will actually make you stand out when it comes time to play your stuff to the world. You need to be obsessive, if music is what you have chosen to do then that is what you do and nothing else. Forget learning how to surf (laughs) forget it, just forget it! You can do it later once you have proved to the world that you’re awesome!
If you want to be taken seriously as an artist then you have got to take music seriously, that means being obsessive, that means spending all your time doing it, that means forgetting about wanting to be a master of lots of different things. When I mentor kids – and there are so many talented kids out there – the ones that really make a living out of it are the ones who just work on that; they skip rugby practice, they skip everything else and they just write or they play. And they are the ones that will end up having a career because they are prepared.
It comes down to the fact that everybody has got to learn how to be good and not rely on a record company to come along and develop you over that space of 5-10 years, you gotta do it in your bedroom now, you have got to be good before you even get that record deal you know?”
Do you believe that many New Zealand artists hinder themselves for fear of the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ that sadly appears to be alive and well in New Zealand sometimes?
“It’s just part of our genetic and social make up to not want to stand out from the crowd; I still battle with it myself. Being brought up in Wellington, New Zealand there were times in my life where people were pointing at me and I just wanted to shrivel up and be invisible. It’s just part of our culture to not blow our own trumpet (laughs). We want to be part of the scenery in a lot of ways and there is actually something quite beautiful about that; that modesty. However it can also be ridiculous, like to the detriment of our own careers, to the detriment of expressing our creativity”
Yes, well we tend to be quite humble creatures…
“Yeah well that’s because your mates will crush you if you start being overly brash or overly loud (mutual laughter). In some ways that is what kept Shihad together because we have got big egos in our band but they are tempered by the fact that we are in this family of Kiwi’s so we can never get too big for our boots.
Art is larger than life; it needs to be larger than life; we need to learn to have pride in what we do if we create something that is worthy. It’s a different world now, it’s a far more global situation that the kids are growing up in and I think through having successes like Lorde and people like Taika Waititi we are seeing that you can still be very New Zealand and be extremely successful.
There are new waves of New Zealanders that are showing people that it is actually ok to be successful; as long as your intentions are good, your heart is pure and you are doing something that you totally believe in. And that’s the way it should be.”
What about when it comes to the subject of managers and publicists – how should an emerging artist go about choosing the right people to assist them with moving their career forward?
“Send all of your stuff to everybody and then find out who is actually genuinely passionate about it, and you will know – it’s got to come down to your judge of character. If someone says ‘this song is amazing and I want to publish your music’; you will know whether or not they are lying. You will find the people, but you’ve got to surround yourself with team players; surround yourself with people that actually genuinely believe in what you do.
Shihad have made some decisions in the past that weren’t financially lucrative; but they are with people that we know believe in us so in the end it paid off because we actually made more money by having someone actively working our stuff who believes in us and have forgone that massive advance in the front. So that’s basically it. It’s a family. You have got to learn to be a judge of character and your gut will tell you when someone is pulling your wanger…”
As a rock musician – do you believe that the steady decline of live music venues that cater to the genre will in turn see a decline in rock/metal bands being created?
“I don’t think it helps; no actually it does help because you have to be more self-sufficient and find other places to play! I mean we used to play at peoples parties or for anyone who would book us. We used to play at polytechs or schools or blah blah blah. There are always places to play, they may not be the traditional sort of venues, but at the end of the day if you are passionate about stuff you just do it!
Don’t whine about it, just do it, find a way; crash a party and say ‘my band is going to blow your socks off!’ You just gotta play. You have got to be brutal and you have got to be good and if that means playing at a crappier venue for a while to get good then do that. If you want to set the world on fire, you are going to have to set the world on fire no matter what. No matter what is in your way. If you’re that good – people will find out.
When I had a taste of doing this, there was no way I was going to walk away from it, because it was like jumping out of an aeroplane, it felt like having a massive orgasm, it felt like all the good things in life rolled into one! I’m compelled to do it. All art is the same. Because if we were really worried about paying the bills we would have done a job that we don’t really like as much but pays well”
I don’t think that anyone would disagree when I say that that tenacity, that drive inside you shines through each and every time you perform on stage. Shihad have always been revered for their live performances.
“The fact that you have been given an opportunity to find what you are genuinely passionate about … you fucking better give it up to the universe for letting you know what that is! You better pay homage, you better show gratitude and the way I show gratitude is to give everything, I think that’s the same for all the boys in Shihad!”
Of course I couldn’t in all good conscience finish this interview without giving you all a little insight into Jon’s latest projects music wise:
“I actually started this new The Adults record with an eye on expanding; the whole idea behind The Adults for me is all about collaboration. But this time around I started by collaborating with traditional Sudanese female musicians in Sudan and Khartoum because I just so happened to get married to a Sudanese woman in Khartoum and then met all these amazing traditional singers! And I went wow this music is dope as, I’ve got to record with these people and I did, but then my idea was to bring it back to New Zealand and see if I can merge the two worlds; so basically contemporary New Zealand music meets music that is ancient, that is like thousands of years old. Where does the crossover lie, are there universal themes etc.? And there are, because we are all humans at the end of the day. So my original idea was just to go back to all of the people that I have worked with on the last record, which is like Shayne Carter, Ladi6, and Julia Deans; people that I have immense respect for.
But then I thought ‘nah this is something completely new, so what’s happening in the NZ music scene now’ and I just started looking around at things. So I have been lucky enough to work with some of these people; Chelsea Jade, Kings, Estère, Jess B – who’s got a huge voice – and Miloux.
On top of that I have done three just musical writing sessions for the new Shihad record and they are sounding fucking heavy! I am really enjoying music at the moment”