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Jon Toogood is a man that needs no introduction. He is, of course, the frontman of New Zealand heavies Shihad and, more recently, the man behind The Adults, who have just released their second album Haja. KAREN LOWE spoke with Toogood about the inspiration and collaborations behind Haja, balancing his busy lifestyle, and what is happening with Shihad.

You have just released an album with The Adults – Haja. How did the recording process go? And what’s the meaning behind the title name?

Haja is a respectful Arabic term for an older woman and especially in Sudan where this record started. Just a back story; I’m married to a Sudanese UN Diplomat’s daughter. I met her seven years ago, fell in love and went “OMG! This is my best mate,” and she just happened to be from Northern Sudan but it just happened you know? I wasn’t planning on it to happen but pan to five years later – 2014 and I’m getting married in a traditional Sudanese wedding in Khartoum where the blue and the white Nile meet.

It’s a three day affair and the last day of the three day wedding is called the Jertig and it’s an all female ceremony apart from me being the only male in the room. My wife does a quite beautiful and traditional Sudanese Bridal Dance and there are 300 other females in the room made up from family members, friends of the family and neighbours – just to make sure that you don’t piss anyone off.

I was on stage where my wife’s performing to this music and the band; this group of musicians are all female too because no male is supposed to see my wife’s dance apart from me.

The music is basically a traditional form of all female music; it’s performed by females in Sudan; it’s mainly written by females and it’s called Aghani Al Banat which literally translates to girl’s music.

I fell in love with it instantly. I was worried before hand thinking “shit! I’m on stage! What if I can’t dance to this music in front of 300 Sudanese women?” but I didn’t need to worry because music’s fucking universal. It basically sounded like the start of a Beyoncè track if she’d gotten the right producer. It really did sound fresh and alive because of the instrumentation which was basically drums, rhythm instruments and vocals. It had a sort of street/hip hop vibe that I just loved.

I got talking with them half way through the ceremony because my wife did a costume change but the band had to keep on performing to keep the 300 women and one guy entertained so I basically sat down with them and started clapping along with the music. They saw that I was keeping up relatively well so they kept on throwing me more intricate and complex clapping patterns which I kept up with because I actually can dance for a white boy so I think that broke down the barriers between us because they only speak Arabic and I speak English.

Ultimately, at the end of the night, they enjoyed themselves so much that they ended up staying and dancing which was a bit of a blessing for us because the woman they were using was a woman called Gisma who is a fucking rock star in Sudan and you’re lucky if you get her to play at your wedding.

I said at the end of the night, I’m coming back next year and I want to record you guys and they went “sure, sure oh yes ok.” but not believing that I would but I did. A year later, I came back and they came around to the house, her family home and they performed all the songs they would perform in the studio and I recorded it on the iPhone and then there was another session with a different group in the garden which I recorded again on the iPhone and then took them into the studio and it was actually a bit shit.

I found out later because my masters is on the history of Aghani Al Banat and it turns out that traditionally, that music is only supposed to be performed live so being in a recording studio was actually quite uncomfortable for them. Also, the recording studio was like “why do you want to record Aghani Al Banat?” Well; it’s because they fucking ROCK but to a Sudanese guy it’s like “well, that’s girls’ music.” It’s like well good! To my ear, it sounds fucking dope!

In the end, what you hear on the album is all built around my initial iPhone recordings. What you hear is iPhone recording a whole bunch of music (laughs). We recorded over the top of it and then me and Devin Abrams who is the co-producer had to spend a bit of time making sure that it matched sonically to what we recorded with it and the collaborators that we were using. I think he did a really good job actually. It sounds cool.

It’s all built around celebratory Arabic Sudanese wedding music. That’s why it’s dancey – because you are supposed to dance to it.

You’ve collaborated with a few different people on this album. How did that come about? And if you could collaborate with anyone, who would you love to work with next?

A lot of them are dead now, like Bowie. Bowie’s dead. He was one I would have loved to have worked with.

I got really lucky with the collaborators; the ones that came back and said yes like Chelsea Jade, Raiza Biza who’s a Kiwi but has got one of the nicest voices; JessB, a female MC who’s got the biggest voice, I think of anyone I’ve heard – male or female, and people like Kings, he holds the record for longest number 1 in New Zealand chart history which is weird but he totally embraced the buzz and created this amazing pop song so we’ve been really lucky.

All I did was once we had got our arrangements and recorded all the music over the top of this Aghani Al Banat, and stripped away the original source just to see what we were left with, luckily we were left with all this cool pop music and dance music and I went, ok who are the people who are making cool music at the moment and because I’m listening to a lot of hip hop because to me, that’s the closest to punk rock, you know, that modern music is getting at the moment because it’s the only thing that is really speaking with power (in my opinion), I tended to gravitate towards people who work in the R&B or hip hop field but that’s what dictated the choosing of those people.

I just emailed them or Facebook Messenger’d them and said here’s the music; here’s the back story; what we are saying in this particular tune is that and how does that relate to you? Are you interested? And that’s basically it. I had to put my faith in them as musicians to come up with something cool.

You are the lead singer of both Shihad, The Adults, you frequently tour your solo show across the country and you are at uni. How do you balance home life with band life? Especially now that you are a dad?

You know what? I just try my best and sometimes, that’s a complete mess. I’m a typical guy – when I’m doing something, that’s what I’m doing. I find it really hard to multi-task and I’m very passionate about whatever I’m doing whether that’s playing with my son Yahia making Lego trains or coming up with a paragraph to describe trying to break down Western stereotypes about the role of the Muslin female in Islamic countries that we have that isn’t true or writing some music. I don’t do things by halves which can be a pain in the arse for people around me.

If I’ve got my head in something, it’s really hard to do something else at the same time but I try my best. That’s all I can do. It’s tough.

During this process, I did actually go and hang out with Dave Dobbyn because he’s a bit of a mate and I really respect him to ask him how he did that because I was finding it quite tough and he went “ahh making music is actually a terribly selfish act. You have to block out the world and create that space to make music. You’ll always come back but you’ve actually got to do that.”

The Adults music is uplifting and melodic and the new tracks are far-removed from Shihad. Was it a freeing feeling to be able to write something that is so different?

My first records that I bought were Bob Marley and The Human League. I just love music. I’ve loved music since I first watched my parents’ Beatles A Hard Day’s Night going around on the turntable when I was two and making my teeth black from fucking setting my teeth on the plasticy thing on the record player going fuck! This is magic! I mean literally, that’s what I’ve done for my whole life but it just so happens that those formative teenage years when you finally get a life; it just so happens that I was listening to Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Slayer and things like that. That was what I was into at the time.

When you are a teenager, you want to be part of a gang – especially if you were a little mummy’s boy as it empowers you and makes you feel strong and I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of musicians who were like-minded and wanted to go on this crazy trip of wanting to be one of the biggest live rock bands in the world. I wanted to feel what that was like, especially after seeing bands like AC/DC. I wanna do that.

I also had my older brother and sister bringing home fucking post-punk albums, pop records and myself buying that sort of stuff so I use Shihad as a vehicle to get out the riff-mob that lives inside me and scream at the injustices of the world as I see them and it’s a perfect canvas to do that and there’s plenty to be fucking angry about. If you are an artist or if you believe in equality and the fact that we are all fucking the same at the end of the day; there’s plenty to sing about.

With The Adults, rather than critique that world, I want to show that alternative world that I want to live in where it doesn’t matter that I am working with Muslim musicians that are female and that I am working with someone from Rwandan descent and that he’s male and there’s no boundaries. It’s just there you go; you can make something fucking beautiful when you’re not worried about waving a flag going “I’m from here so I can’t fucking work with you” or “you’re a girl, I can’t work with that”. Bollocks to that. I’ve got no interest in living in that world.

The Adults is more of a “here’s an alternative world”, that’s what it is to me and also, I love collaborations because I’ve written music since I was 16 years old and I know how I work. I’m more interested in learning how other people work and going “ahhh shit! That’s another pathway that I never even thought existed. Cool! I can walk down that with Shihad next time we go to write”.

It all feeds into each other for me, anyway.

With The Adults, can we expect an Australian tour any time soon?

Definitely, definitely. Where are you based? Perth? Ahhh yeah….(laughs)

At the moment, we’ve only got three shows booked on the east coast – Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Hopefully in the future, we could do that. It’s a totally different line up. I’ve got Estere who’s this amazing soul singer who sings on Bloodlines, Raiza Biza who’s the MC, Emily Browning who’s an amazing guitar player and it’s going to be a kick arse band but that’s all of Australia that we can do this time, sorry.

It’s ok, Perth always misses out… we’re used to it…

(laughs) but it’s not ok! Perth is always amazing!

Lastly, Shihad fans will want to know, are you guys writing any new material and when will you be touring Australia next?

We’re half way through a new Shihad record and it’s certainly similar in that it’s heavy as fuck – similar to FVEY in that way and a lot of what I sung about in FVEY, I still feel quite the same but I’ve sort of said that so I’m trying to work out a way of bridging the gap between the practice of showing the alternative for the fucking world rather than just screaming against it – that argument that you can never win on social media. It’s like nah! Fuck it!

I wanna write stuff that creates the world that I actually want to live in but how do I do that with Shihad? I’m still working that out. I think it’s slowly bubbling away and formulating in my head but I have no doubt that it’s gonna be fucking heavy.

And will Shihad be touring Australia soon? Especially Perth?

I think maybe in October or November because I think we’re finally going to release The General Electric on vinyl for its 20th anniversary and that’s something we are really excited about.

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