Interviewer – Jason Beardsley
Photo – Kane Hibberd
Many would know Jon Toogood as the front man for Kiwi legends, Shihad, a band that for more than 25 years have been pumping huge riffs and catchy vocal hooks into our airwaves. However 7 years ago Jon formed a collaborative side project called The Adults, calling up a bunch of his mates, jumping in a studio and churning out some soulful and catchy tunes.
Now after all that time, Jon has brought The Adults back for round 2. Once again though, with a completely different direction to the past works, inspired by Aghani Al-Banat, traditional Sudanese music which was performed at his wedding in 2014.
Jon states, ‘I’m doing such a balancing act at the moment, I’ve got a 12 week old baby girl, I’ve got to hand in my Masters assignment next week that I am undertaking at Massey University, which is all based around the history of Aghani Al-Banat, which is also what has inspired The Adults record. My wife is Sudanese and that’s where we got married so yeah I’m pretty f**king busy!’.
So clearly Jon has a lot on his plate. So how does a man with such a decorated music career with Shihad and The Adults balance being a musician with University and family life?
‘Just try your best bro, honestly just do your best. I’m just a typical guy. I’m not very good at multi tasking, I just get very passionately into whatever it is I’m doing at the time weather its making Lego monsters with my son, or doing a masters, or writing a record’.
So after 7 years, a lot of water has clearly gone under the bridge in that time, and most recently Jon has been out on the road in Australia and New Zealand doing solo acoustic tours. So what inspired Jon to bring The Adults back from the abyss?
‘To be honest it wasn’t originally for The Adults. I just literally fell in love with this music that got played at my wedding in Khartoum, Sudan. It was the third day of a traditional Sudanese wedding where it was an all female affair, purely for the female members of the family and friends. My wife did this beautiful dance and I’m the only guy in the room of 300 females, and I’m on stage watching my wife do this dance I’ve never seen before. Even the group performing the music are female and they teach all the girls how to dance so I’m thinking what do I do!?
Lucky for me, as you can hear in the new Adults’ music, its really groovy, so I’m thinking this is like some cool new form of hip hop and R&B. It’s literally just percussion and vocals with no melodic accompaniment. It sounds fresh as hell, even though they’re singing in arabic because thats the language of Northern Sudan where I got married. In my head I’m thinking I could sing along to this, this would sound really cool with a punk rock bass line, I wonder what that would sound like!
So I pretty much started off this record by going up to these musicians and saying hey I really like this music, could I come and record you guys? They said yes, I’m not sure why you would want to but sure. So I went back, recorded with them before taking it back to Melbourne and basically just spent 3 or 4 months playing bass, drums, guitar and keyboards over the top of this music, which I cut up in 3 to 4 minute pop arrangements, just so I could hear for myself. You know like a sad bass line going with the happy singing, or a punk rock bass line that would go with what sounded like world music.
So it was purely for myself then all of a sudden my son was born so I didn’t touch any of this music for over a year and a half because to tell you the truth having a baby knocked us for six. I had no idea how to balance being a dad and being a musician. This all happened just after the last Shihad record came out. Once we got a handle on being parents I started listening to these songs again and thinking this was amazing, how am I going to get it out? I started having a conversation with Warner Music who both Shihad and The Adults are signed to, and they suggested that I already have a collaborative project in The Adults, why don’t I put it out under that label. I thought that was a good idea, its an extension of the collaboration idea, just take it out of New Zealand and into Sudan’.
With all this in mind, a new sound for The Adults was beginning to surface as well as Jon’s view of the world, so what are the biggest difference for Jon between the debut album in 2011 and Haja?
‘Well literally the first album I was making calls to friends of mine that I loved and respected and would spend a couple of days with them and just collaborate. With this record I started with a group of female musicians that I didn’t know, performing music that had never been part of my musical diet at all, and these families were also from a totally different social class as well. So how do you make this work? I just pressed record and let them do their thing.
Then with the collaborative aspect with the New Zealand artists, my musical diet had totally changed at this point. Punk rock used to be the kind of music that spoke truth to power without consequence and now Hip Hop are the kings of that. So I was drawn to that with my rebellious side, the sort of stuff that said hey f**k you! So I was drawn to New Zealand artists that play that music, like Jess B, she’s only 21 years old and comes from a Hip Hop background. She was kinda like, what is this music?, sure Ill give it a blast. I told her what the lyrics were about, that the singers were saying, ‘hey your Aunties from your Mothers side and your Aunties from your fathers side are right behind you now, you can go dance, don’t worry’.
It was a sign of empowerment from the female side of the family. Jess just ran with that idea and talked about how the females in her life empowered her to do what she does. I just wanted to see if their were common themes or unified themes between people from the west and people from the Middle East, and there were. I knew there were because we’re all human. But I didn’t know these people. I would literally cold call and go ‘hey, you might know me from that band Shihad. Yes, I used to play in that metal covers band but hey, I’m doing this, here’s the story behind it, this is the history of Aghani Al-Banat, this is where it comes from, this is my personal connection through it and this is what we sing, are you interested? And the people that you hear on the album are the people that went yeah Im interested, it sounds fresh to me’.
Now I was lucky enough to get a listen to the new album Haja ahead of its release on July 20th. Haja means an older, more experienced woman in arabic. I was curious to see if there was a theme of female empowerment throughout the album and if there was a story of Jon’s experience of what it is like to be a woman in the Middle East.
Jon states ‘Definitely! Before I met my wife Diana, I had never really met a muslim woman, so I had some lame ass preconceptions which were broken down by meeting my wife before I went over to Sudan and even more so when I met these musicians over there. These women are colourful, vibrant and opinionated and they do speak truth to power. I just wanted to bring that music back to show people that that idea that some people have, or that right wing politicians are trying to push that these women are oppressed. Well that’s not completely true at all and I wanted to illustrate that by putting New Zealand female artists that I thought were doing inspiring work next to these artists and see what the common themes were.
Like I said we’re all human. So there is a female aspect to it but theres also a sort of cultural aspect to it, and a religious aspect and a political aspect. Basically today I was asked how do you go from Five Eyes with Shihad to this record? Well Five Eyes was basically me screaming at the world and what I hate about it, whereas The Adults is going “this is the world that I would like to live in”. I want to live in the world where we’re not worried about the differences between religion, between countries and all that, just let the best ideas win out and lets celebrate that, celebrate the commonalities rather than the differences’.
After bringing the original ideas back from Sudan, Jon began working with producer Devin Abrams (Shapeshifter), to be the critical ear for the record.
‘What he’s done with Shapeshifter and Pacific Heights is huge, its cinematic. He also comes from a dance background which was a perfect fit for this record, ultimately that’s what this music is. I wanted it to be more than that though and that’s where he comes in, and he’s the guy that goes yeah, nah, nah, yeah, nah, yeah haha!
I gave him a hard task at the beginning too from a sonic perspective where a lot of the original recordings we ended up using were just rough iPhone recordings I did in Sudan because the women I worked with there had the magic and the groove. So he had to turn these Lo Fi iPhone recordings into a super Hi-fi album. So his job was to record all this with all the big studio gear and turn it into what it is now’.
It’s a very fresh and unique record with a lot of personal history in it for not only Jon, but something that people from all walks of life can relate to. Its positive, uplifting and has a groove fit for the gods. The next best thing would be to see it live in concert.
‘At the start of September I’ll be bringing the show to Australia, September 7th at the Brightside in Brisbane, September 8th at the Landsdowne in Sydney, and September 9th at The Workers Club in Melbourne.’
Haja by The Adults is out July 20th
at all good music retailers.
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