This September marks 20 years since the release of Shihad’s eponymous third LP, commonly known as ‘the fish album’. To celebrate, they’ve remastered and reissued the album on vinyl, and the Kiwi hard rockers are heading out on a national tour. Now, it’d be an exaggeration to say Shihad sounds new, but the production doesn’t flag it as coming from a definite place and time, which lets the songs speak loudly. The fish album was recorded in Auckland with producer Malcolm Welsford. Drummer Tom Larkin casts his mind back to the recording sessions.
“The band was in a real state of flux. I think that’s what you get with that album,” Larkin says. “In terms of the people in Shihad, we were an inner city band and we came from the metal scene. And once we toured Europe and we were paired with a lot of metal festivals and metal bands, we found ourselves not enjoying our environment on a musical level. With some notable exceptions, we didn’t feel a strong kinship with a lot of the bands that were going around at the time. That meant that our music reflected a want to escape that tonality and that slant on things.”
In contrast to Shihad’s first two records – Churn (1993) and Killjoy (1995) – the fish album is far more melodic and concerned with the art of storytelling. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but Larkin notes one rather unexpected influence. “I remember Oasis were really huge at the time, and it had blown open the doors in the UK,” he says. “And we were very impressed having seen them live, when they were just breaking, in Denmark. That affected the songwriting team and the songs started to be much more melodic and not necessarily along the lines of the heavier stuff that we were known for.”
“That placed the band in an unusual situation whereby half of the band were like, ‘We need to continue the narrative we’ve set up and the style. I still enjoy heavier stuff.’ And the other half were pulling away from that, wanting to explore more pop music, more colourful stuff.”
While the band were unsure about persevering with their established style, Killjoy had put Shihad under the spotlight and saw them make their mark outside of New Zealand. Meanwhile, the band’s creative resolution became even more muddled when tragedy struck. “We’d just had the death of our initial manager and then we were thrown into the recording studio within a couple of months after that,” Larkin says, referring to Gerald Dwyer who died in early ’96. “We lost our balance, so to speak. From our artistic end we all had thoughts on how we should do it. Instead of having someone to tether it and [tell us] where to go, we threw ourselves in the studio. Also our producer, his father had died before we went in. Everyone making the album was really confused.”
There was no clear direction at the outset of the Shihad sessions, so the album’s personality only started to become apparent during the recording process. “It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt,” Larkin says. “There’s a couple of things that really come into focus: to this day one of our biggest songs, kind of our calling card, is the song ‘Home Again’. We explored song stuff that we’d never explored before. So there are songs like ‘La La Land’, which is a really great lyrical narrative about living in LA. ‘Home Again’ [is also] about living in LA and missing home. You’re seeing the songwriting side of things really get some focus and attention and actually developing really strongly, particularly on a lyrical level and moving into themes and stories about life as it happens to us.”
There are, however, some songs that illuminate the band’s confusion. “You had other tracks which were much less focused and really out of kilter, particularly considering where we’d come from on a musical level. I think that a lot of fans perceived that the band had come off the boil on an impact level. That’s certainly a fair assessment. A mistake we’ll never make again is having a pot budget, because we literally had a bowl in the control room. Making high-energy rock while stoned actually doesn’t work. It has peaks and troughs, and that’s the beauty of it.”
The fish album is distinguished from Shihad’s two subsequent albums – The General Electric (1999) and Pacifier (2002, made during the short-lived stint when they’d adopted the name Pacifier) – which were enhanced by a major label budget and have a bigger, slicker sound. By contrast, although the self-titled album isn’t Shihad’s heaviest album, it possesses an appealing rawness.
“Even in comparison to our first two, [the fish album] was under produced. At times that worked and at times that didn’t, but it will always retain a charm. There’s tracks I hear now and I go, ‘Wow that’s actually unique. We’ll never sound like that again.’ The whole album was a confused band with no clear agenda and the album’s strengths and weaknesses reside off that fact. That process, when you look at it now, was tremendously useful for the long-term career of the band. The General Electric had searing focus as to delivery. It wouldn’t have come together the way it did without the inspiration we undertook on the fish album.”
Shihad will be touring nationally in support of the anniversary of 'the fish album' from June 23. For tour dates, click here.