I’ve never interviewed Jon Toogood before – but I’m greeted like an old friend; the last in a line of interviews for the night. He’s upbeat, that trademark energizer-bunny vibe from him. Okay, so we had met one time, maybe shared a couple of ‘likes’ on Facebook too – but I don’t know Jon, I only know his work. And I know he likes to work. Some of his work I love, some of it is not meant for me and I haven’t enjoyed it as much. But I’m always interested in the fact that he’s doing something – always curious to see the outcome.
I think he’s the best frontman in New Zealand rock music a lot of the time. And he leads the best live rock band to have come from New Zealand.
And I’ve picked a good time to finally interview him. He’s full of news when we chat.
The first big news of 2014 was the wedding; he’s newly married, and just back from Sudan, which was “fucking amazing”. Back from Sudan and straight into rehearsals for tonight’s show, The Adults meet the APO. Back from Sudan and about to plunge back into the surreal and wonderful musical world of Jacques Brel. Back from Sudan with a new Shihad album to finish. And then – hopefully – a whole lot of rock’n’roll on the back of that. Does his new wife realise what it means to be married to Jon Toogood?
“Ah, yeah, thankfully when she met me she knew there’d be things like this going on but it’s great. It’s all great at the moment – happy times. And it’s good to be busy. Hopefully after the Arts Festival I’ll have a break of three weeks or so but in the meantime it’s over to Auckland then back to Melbourne then back to Auckland, back to Aussie and down to Wellington. It’s all go for now”.
The curse of the artist – you hope for work and then you’re flat-out, when there’s a break it means no work; it means no money.
“Yeah bro, that’s it exactly – not that I’ll do anything just for the money, and sometimes the most rewarding stuff you do isn’t as well paid as you’d perhaps like but it is really good to have work, it’s a blessing as a musician to have work, any work. So I’m just really grateful. And I do like to work, to keep busy. I need to do that”.
He’s happy with the success of The Adults – something neither he nor anyone could predict. Next thing he’s frontman for not one but two well-known entities.
“Yeah, The Adults thing is really crazy, I mean I couldn’t believe – at the time – I talked people into being involved. It was just a silly idea, just me dreaming, going ‘who do I want to jam with’ and I called up some favours and I used my profile where I could, talked to friends, wrote up a list and so many people said yes, and so here I was just travelling around the country with my laptop and making records. It was a whole new thing, a whole different comfort-zone for me. And the album was well-received and now here we are playing with an orchestra. You don’t predict this, you don’t expect it. But you do definitely go with it. I’m really chuffed”.
There’s also that thing of a new Shihad album – always there’s a hope for excitement, of recapturing the magic these guys are so capable of – and then that’s heightened when the band is back working with Jaz Coleman, producer of Shihad’s superb debut full-lengther; Jaz Coleman, legend; Jaz Coleman, loon.
“We’ve still got the vocals to record – but we’re there with the tracks, we just went at it, four weeks of jamming and it was all old-school rock’n’roll for us, on the back of that great Black Sabbath tour we were just so up for it. And Jaz calls and says he wants to make a record with us again, he says ‘let me make the record with you that I want to hear’ and you don’t turn that down! So, yeah, it’s been really exciting, we tracked 18 tunes in 12 days, the great thing was everyone was just so fucking up for it. It felt good man”.
I suggest that Jaz would have been interested in Jon’s trip to the Sudan.
“Yeah bro, he was like ‘don’t write your lyrics yet, don’t record your vocals, I want you to go there and soak that up’ so we had some chats about that amazing part of the world, yep”.
And then there’s the real reason I’m on the phone to Toogood – to talk about him reprising his role in Brel: The Words and Music of Jacques Brel, playing, this time, at Wellington’s 2014 New Zealand Festival.
So how does the Brel show fit in with The Adults and Shihad, with the marriage, with Toogood becoming an adult?
“Yeah, the Brel thing really works for me, for where I’m at as a 42 year old man who recently lost his father and here’s this guy – and this music – and it’s very existentialist, it’s talking about how awful we are, as humans, but also how beautiful we can be. It’s about love and loss and it’s timeless, really timeless”.
Toogood is full of good things to say about the show, which has already played to Auckland and received strong notices.
“It’s a well directed show, the right songs for the right people, it takes people on a Journey and our director Michael Hurst has just the right approach, he’s put together a great show, the arrangements are really beautiful, there’s a great live band – so it’s this show, it’s theatre, but there is that live feeling to it, though we sing the same songs in the same order and there are set pieces, there’s a set, there’s an order to it – but all of that is still a little bit different every night because it is live. It is live music and there’s this amazing camaraderie with the singers, we’re all really going for it. Everyone is great [here he’s talking of his co-stars Tama Waipara, Julia Deans and Jennifer Ward-Lealand]. And we hear someone sing a song – and they nail it and you’re like, ‘I have to do better than that!’, ya know…” here he breaks off for a chuckle, before explaining, “it’s really competitive – but we’re not trying to steal the show from one another, it’s just all for the show, we all care so much about this stuff, about making this so good”.
Toogood wasn’t really a Brel fan prior to the show. But it didn’t take long for him to see the importance of the man as writer and performer, as soul-barer.
“I’m a Bowie fan, a big Bowie fan, so I really just knew about Brel through Bowie’s covers and I was like, ‘he’s not as good as Bowie’ and then I heard the originals, you know, properly. And I saw some clips and interviews, and I’m finding out about his life and watching this footage and it’s like this guy was Iggy Pop before there was ever Iggy Pop, ya know. I mean there’s that thing of embodying the song – well Brel is just so much about that, he embodies the song every time, he becomes the song”.
It’s been inspiring for Toogood – but he isn’t trying to emulate this great lyricist in his new work with The Adults and Shihad.
“Well, it’d be great if I could I guess, but I’m just not going to ever get to that level – and so it’s good to know that. I don’t know many people who consider lyric-writing their favourite thing, it’s hard. I think we all find it pretty hard, I know I do – but certainly I go to my work newly inspired by playing this role, by singing songs like Next – which is just, ya know, ‘wow!’ So yeah, definitely it’s been a great thing to be involved in”.
There’s also a hint of new recordings as The Adults too.
“The way the Shihad records have worked is that we’ll make a hard rock one then a pop one, then a hard rock one, then a pop one and now it’s great that I have my outlet with The Adults and Tom [Larkin] has his outlet with producing – because the thing about Shihad is we’re all massive pop fans, so that’s always there, but now I think we can channel some of that stuff into our own projects. I’ve done some jamming recently with Jean Pompey, a Wellington drummer, she was playing in TrinityRoots and has done a bunch of stuff, well she’s over in Melbourne and we’ve hooked up and man, she’s got something. She has got her own thing going on, there’s a groove some drummers have that is just all their own, like Riki Gooch – you know he has his own sound, his own groove, where it’s just him. You know it’s him and it’s his personality coming out in his playing. Well Jean has her own thing like that, and she’s very versatile. So I’m hoping to shape some of these jams into songs and maybe, if there’s time, get some more people to play over them, and we might make that into a new Adults record”.
So that’ll somehow fit in and around the completion of the new Shihad record, and then the second half of the year is all about touring and promoting the Shihad record.
“We’re all really ready for the Shihad thing this year – you know. We’re all really pumped. It’s been great doing the Meanest Hits tour and then the Sabbath tour and our favourite part of recent shows was just playing the Churn set, all those songs, so it’s certainly time for us to make a big, loud rock record and just go out and fucking crank it again”.
We’ve just time to do a final plug for the Brel show.
“It’s amazing how these songs go from comedy to, ya know, scream of horror, they’re terrifying and they’re beautiful all at once. They’re so heartfelt. It’s really an amazing show, I’m excited we’re doing it again and doing it down there. It’s such a great fit for Wellington and for the Arts Festival. I think audiences are gonna love it”.
Thank you, sir. Best of luck to you for 2014…