Source: The Heard
Date Published: 16 July 1993
Title: Churning and Learning
Writen by: Graham Reid
Shihad have come a long way fast on a high-energy learning curve. Just listen to drummer Tom Larkin talking about how the sound of their new album, Churn, defies the convenience-labelling that the record industry and critics seem to require. "There really is no bag to put it into. But the industry needs a plug word; it's all become so prepackaged."
Plug words? Prepackaged? These aren't things that trip lightly off the tongue of most musicians unless they've been through these hoops for some considerable time. "That's what a car trip from Wellington with Murray Cammick does," laughs guitarist Phil Knight, referring to the band's Wildside label manager, a long-distance runner in the New Zealand rock scene. Yes, says Larkin, they've learned a lot lately...not the least from Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman, who produced Churn in the new York Street Studio in Parnell.
"I think we have at last found our own sound," says Larkin. "Previously we had just been a conglomeration of metal acts and taking out favourite metal hits, then remaking them as our own. "We made a progression out of the public eye in our practice room and really re-addressed what we were doing. We experimented a bit at gigs but it didn't really work and in the practice room it got a bit uncomfortable because we were treading into territory we were unsure of. "Out of that, however, we learned an egoless point of view to our music and not trying to impress people with how fast a guitar solo could be.
"That's painful," Knight points out there is only one guitar solo on the album and a solo "is not a particularly valid form of expression anyway, as it focuses too much on the guitarist." What Shihad discovered was a way of creating an equal opportunity for all members to work parallel on ideas and then have them recorded in one of the best studios in Australasia. "I've been in a lot of New Zealand studios and a lot of those 80s ones are designed around a tight drum sound. They are dead rooms and drums need the ambience of a big room," says Larkin. "We did some demos in a huge warehouse and got that [John] Bonham sound that I like. It worked great but that can be hard to find again in studios. York Street is built to accommodate that idea and is one of the biggest studios in Australasia.
"You can put on reverb and so on, but it sounds unnatural. York Street just has that ambience necessary. We miked it up and that was it... and they've got a Neve desk from Abbey Road in there which was used on the Beatles' White Album. It's great." The sound that Shihad and producer Coleman have achieved is quite breathtaking. From the whisking tap of high-hat cymbals which opens the album through the massive clean and open guitar sound, Churn positively roars off the disc.
With the band well rehearsed before they went in to record, Churn took a remarkably short time. The drums were tuned in half a day and four tracks laid down on the first day. By the end of day two, all the rhythm tracks were done and then it was two further days for guitars and vocals. "Physically the album was all done on four days and we kept the budget down by a long preproduction so we could spend more time on the mixing at the end. Jaz likes to record fast to capture the energy and he has an almost spiritual force," says Larkin. "I've never experienced that before from anyone and he would be in front of the drums right into it and conducting them. "He sort of worked with the planes of the interactions and got things to a white heat. He 's also very much a perfectionist." But there was also the creative tension between Coleman and Shihad's singer/songwriter, Jon Toogood.
"Jon is very much the creative force in the band and he felt the most threatened when Jaz was looking at his lyrics, which are often very personal and open. I think he felt uncomfortable being under the microscope like that." Whatever came out of that white heat and tension, a lot of people like it. The first single off Churn, the relentless but catchy I Only Said, went to number three on the charts, which caught the band by surprise.
"I thought it would do well," says Larkin, "because we've got a good fan base and have been working and touring a lot. But I never thought it would get into the public in quite that way." And as to the comment made in some critical circles that it sounds like Killing Joke, producer Jaz's band?
That's down to the keyboard line that opens it, says Larkin and that need to place music somewhere. Plug word. Prepackaged. But both Larkin and Knight acknowledge they are unashamed Killing Joke fans and Larkin says when the Joke's Love Like Blood video was on television in '86 he noticed how differently the drums were set up, copied it and tried to learn the part. "It certainly affected me musically because it was accessible, but dark. We were also into Metallica at the time and got on import their Garage Days EP, which had a Killing Joke cover on it. So we were very aware of them."
And in one of those I-liked-it-so-much-I-bought-the-company stories, Larkin now finds himself one if Joke's two drummers while he purses Shihad. Coleman's breadth of musical interests also appeals to them He has worked with north African violinists, made an album with Anne Dudley inspired by Cairo and is now in Venice mixing some Killing Joke material on which Larkin played. Guitarist Knight dismissively says he doesn't listen to guitar players but prefers songwriters ("like Jaz") and "my uncle has got me into Wagner."
With such finely attuned ears they single out AC/DC - whom they supported in Wellington - as achieving a great guitar sound ("It's hardly the ultimate band, but you can't help but appreciate them for the sound they get," says Knight). And they look forward to an Egyptian violinist friend of Coleman's coming to New Zealand for some recordings on which they'll play. When you add up that sliver of musical eclecticism revealed in a quick 10 minutes of casual chat, it is clear why they are dismissive of the industry buzz words. Are Shihad speed, thrash, heavy, grind...? "Janglecrunch we heard us described as," says Larkin. "We liked that. We thought we could start a breakfast cereal."
Whatever it's called, there's no escaping the pure power of Churn with its huge live drums and wall of guitar and vocals. It'll be interesting to see how it polishes up live as the band take to the road and play the Gluepot on July 30. And also how it is taken to in Australia where they head shortly.
Australians must be getting very confused these days. First the Dunedin sound to take them out of the post-Split Enz confusion. And now Head Like A Hole and Shihad. They will probably find a plug word for this stuff.