With a population of only 3.7 million and a location that puts it about 1,000 miles away from its nearest neighboring country, New Zealand has nonetheless made the most of its unique demographic and geographic identity. Despite its potential handicaps, a vibrant music scene has developed, allowing several acts to go on to major international success. While Split Enz, Crowded House, and opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa are usually cited as the country’s main musical successes, Wellington’s Shihad emerged as another New Zealand act to gain a spot on the international stage. Although the band faced its own challenges on the road to international success—getting dropped by its record company among them—its concerts in the United States and Europe and genre-expanding, eclectic repertoire earned them the distinction of being New Zealand’s hottest musical export in many years.
The origins of Shihad go back to a band formed by high school classmates Jon Toogood and Tom Larkin in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, around 1985. Typical of many fledgling garage bands, their first band underwent many changes as various band members joined and then left the group. By 1988, however, the lineup crystallized with Toogood on vocals and guitar and Larkin on drums, with Phil Knight joining them on guitar. A permanent bassist was harder to recruit; eventually, Karl Kippenberger took up the position and the band’s permanent lineup was set. With a play list that emphasized basic rock tunes, Shihad in its first incarnation took much of its musical direction from Australia’s AC/DC, the most commercially successful act ever to come out of the Australiasia region.
In 1990, while all of Shihad’s members were still in their teens, the band took its first step toward a professional music career by enlisting Gerald Dwyer, a former singer for another New Zealand band called Flesh-D-Vice, as Shihad’s manager. The group scored two major successes that year, signing up as the opening act for local shows by American group Faith No More and the legendary speed-metal rockers Motorhead from Britain. The band also toured nationally throughout New Zealand. It was not until the following year, however, that Shihad entered the recording studio. The result, the 1991 EP Devolve, made the top 20 in New Zealand. The band further increased its visibility with dates as the opening act for AC/DC. Not only were the appearances a personal triumph for the band’s members, they also exposed the band’s work to audiences that numbered in the tens of thousands.
Despite the success of Devolve and its series of concert dates, Shihad’s first full-length album would not appear until 1993. The previous year, Toogood and Larkin had spent most of their creative energies on a side project, SML, a collaboration with fellow Wellington musician Nigel Regan. Regan’s own band, Head Like a Hole, was more funk-oriented than Shihad, and the influence rubbed off on Toogood and Larkin. The SML project resulted in one CD, 1995’s Is That It?, but when Shihad regrouped to record its own debut, the results were somewhat different than its fans might have expected. Larkin’s work with Killing Joke—a British goth band that had gone through several incarnations since its start as a heavy metal band in 1978—also influenced the refocused Shihad, which finally recorded Churn in 1993.
Added to the band’s basic rock direction was an industrial emphasis that gave Churn a more distinctive sound than the guitar-based heavy metal the group was previously known for. The album was an immediate top ten hit, powered by the single “I Only Said,” which went into the top three in New Zealand and seemed to fulfill the band’s early promise. Shihad immediately went on the road to promote its work in New Zealand and abroad, touring once again with Faith No More, this time in Europe, as well as undertaking a series of concerts with Head Like a Hole. The band achieved another breakthrough with record deals that secured the release of its albums outside of Australasia. Its signing with Noise International in 1994 meant that it would now have better access to Great Britain, Europe, and Japan for its second album, Killjoy. In 1995, Shihad also secured a distribution deal through Noise International for the American market.
Labeled “the country’s most exciting international rock prospect” by Billboard in 1995, the band hoped that
For the Record…
Members include Karl Kippenberger (born on August 26, 1973, in Wellington, New Zealand), bass; Phil Knight (born on December 14, 1972, in Wellington, New Zealand), guitars, keyboards, backing vocals; Tom Larkin (born on September 18, 1971, in Wellington, New Zealand), drums, backing vocals; Jon Toogood (born on August 9, 1971, in Wellington, New Zealand), guitar, vocals.
Formed in Wellington, New Zealand, 1988; first national tours, 1990; first EP released, 1991; album Churn released, 1993; released Killjoy, 1995, and Shihad, 1996; dropped by Universal Records, released The General Electric on Warner Music Australia, 1999.
Awards: New Zealand Music Awards for Top Male Vocalist, Top Group, Album of the Year, Top International Recording, 1996; Top Male Vocalist, Top Group, Best Music Video, 1997; Top Male Vocalist, Best Music Video, 1999; International Achievement, 2000.
Killjoy would be its breakthrough success. While the album earned praise from the magazine as “a rhythmic, near-industrial approach that avoids the usual heavy metal guitar indulgences,” it failed to make a significant impression outside of Australia and New Zealand. The band toured America for three months, playing numerous dates around Los Angeles and New York, but its records sales remained minimal in the United States. In its home territory, on the other hand, the album was another hit. The band reached another milestone in 1996 when it became the first metal band to play on the telecast of the New Zealand Music and Entertainment Awards, the official awards ceremony of the New Zealand music industry. The appearance was a stamp of approval for the band, which won four awards that night: Best Group, Best Album for Killjoy, Top International Recording Artist, and Best Male Vocalist for Toogood. The band capped its success with another series of tours in Australia and New Zealand, opening on a number of occasions for AC/DC. Unfortunately, the band also had to endure the sudden death of its manager, Gerald Dwyer, in January of 1996.
Although its first two albums were critically and commercially well received in Australasia, Shihad turned to a pared down, less experimental sound for its third album, Shihad, released in 1998. As Toogood commented in an interview on Warner Music Australia’s website, “On Killjoy we were into using the studio as a place where you can make fantasy reality. Then on the Shihad album it was more about making reality fantastic.” With a third hit album in its home territory, the band picked up another set of New Zealand Music and Entertainment Awards for Best Group, Best Male Vocalist, and Best Video. Yet the release of Shihad marked a period of frustration for the band, including troubles with its record company. After a record company merger, the band was unceremoniously dropped from its label. Shihad was the only band left behind in the deal, possibly because of its many international contracts with other labels to release its music outside of Australia and New Zealand.
Dealing with record company politics was frustrating, but the band tried to look on the bright side. Cut loose from a contract in New Zealand, the band could rediscover its own sound again. “Because we were going through the whole record company thing, we actually didn’t have any money for quite a long time,” Kippenberger explained in an interview on the Warner Music Australia website, “so we didn’t buy any music! In some ways that was quite good, even though we are quite interested in what’s happening in the now.” Fortunately, the band did not have to wait long before being offered a new contract with another record company. Released on Warner Music Australia in September of 1999 in New Zealand, where it immediately hit number one on the album chart, The General Electric was an all-embracing, post-punk album with some pop influences. “We’re unashamedly rock,” Too-good said in a press release on the Warner Music Australia website. “There’s been a long period, post-Nirvana, where bands have gone, ‘We’re onstage, but hey we know it’s a big joke and we know that rock is stupid.’ But I love being onstage and I love having my guitar cranking at a million decibels. It actually fires my spirit up. Why be ashamed of that?”
Once again, however, there was great disparity between Shihad’s domestic and international levels of success. As Q magazine commented in a back-handed compliment for The General Electric, “If they were American, Shihad would be massive.” Back at home, the band picked up another New Zealand Music and Entertainment Award in March of 2001, this time for International Achievement during the previous year. The presenter was none other than the country’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who had championed support for artists and musicians in New Zealand as part of her campaign platform. In fact, the federal government had already invested in Shihad as part of its New Zealand On Air program, which subsidized the country’s musicians in international touring, video production, and international marketing efforts.
While Shihad’s status as a government-assisted, alternative metal band might seem ironic, one record company executive explained the move as a pragmatic one: “It shows a belief that music export is a viable industry,” explained Sony Music’s managing director in a Billboard review of the New Zealand music industry in October of 2000. For its part, Shihad remained more concerned with giving explosive concerts and producing another great album than with the politics of export strategies. “It’s just walking onstage and sounding like God and just doing it!” Toogood exclaimed in an interview for Warner Music Australia for The General Electric.” Rock!”
Churn, Wildside, 1993.
Killjoy, Noise International/Modern, 1995.
Shihad, Universal, 1996.
The General Electric, Warner Music Australia, 1999.
Billboard, May 6, 1995, p. 47; May 9, 1998, p. 59; November 6, 1999, p. 57; April 8, 2000, p. 50; September 30, 2000, p. 53; March 31, 2001, p. 43.
Music Business International, October 2000, p. 49.
Q, September 2000.
New Zealand Music, http://www.nzmusic.com (June 30, 2001).
Shihad Official Website, http://www.shihad.com (June 30, 2001).
Warner Music Australia, http://www.warnermusic.com.au (June 30, 2001).