NZ's hard rocker gone soft?

JON TOOGOOD: 'Music has always been the most important thing.'
JON TOOGOOD: 'Music has always been the most important thing.'

Whatever happened to the hard rocker with the long hair and the expletive-laced interview style? Who is this happy pussycat? It's hard rocker Jon Toogood, of Shihad fame, the group that toned up for their first, knockout album, Churn, more than two decades ago, by taking acid in Wellington's Botanic Gardens.

Shihad has always had that seriously black look that goes with the territory. But now: Toogood doesn't drink, he quit smoking a couple of years ago, he's got short hair, he goes to the gym, and the -word doesn't even come into it. And – the main reason for the changes – he's in love, and just married in the most exotic of circumstances.

His engagement to Dana Salih had hardly been announced when the nuptials were celebrated in Sudan, with Toogood clad in a traditional black jalabiya – "feeling like Bruce Lee turning into a ninja" – and in traditional snakeskin shoes bought from a huge Khartoum market. His bride is Sudanese. She wore a silver and white sari-like Sudanese dress and wedding henna. "She looked stunning, amazing."

Toogood is floating in the glow of the whole thing. "We got engaged and married. It very quickly turned into the full deal. We went and had the wedding with her family. I've never been to Africa or the Middle East before." Nor had he met her parents, though they'd skyped.

The three-day wedding was so recent that Toogood still has his bridegroom henna on his hands and feet. "I look like I've burned my hands. They hold the henna on for an hour and a half. You know when someone's newly wed. It lasts a month.

"You know what the most best thing was? I took my 76-year-old mother from Kilbirnie, took her to Sudan. She was treated like a queen." It was all, he says "pretty amazing, pretty surreal".

The wedding is Toogood's second. He and Salih have been together, but not living together – "we've done everything correctly" – for three years. "She's my best mate and just happened to be North Sudanese."

He met her when he was giving a talk on songwriting at the Auckland Museum. Salih was in her last year training as a chiropractor and crashed the party with a friend. "She looked interesting. She didn't know me from anyone else. I felt totally at home with this human.

"Lucky for me she quite likes rock'n'roll. I think she was quite taken aback when she saw me on stage. I'm pretty energetic. She knew me as just Jon and went to see me as Jon the Rock Guy."

She would have found he is not just "the rock guy" but the leader of one of New Zealand's best-known bands, formed when he was 16 with drummer mate Tom Larkin in 1988, when the two were pupils at Wellington High School. Since then they have – with Phil Knight (guitar) and Karl Kippenberger (bass) – put out about nine records ("I've lost count"), had more than 20 hits on the New Zealand singles chart and played thousands of live shows worldwide. Melbourne is now their base.

Toogood detached himself from the band temporarily to perform in Silo Theatre's production Brel with Julia Deans, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tama Waipara.

"It's one of the best things I've done. I wasn't completely familiar with [Brel's] music, mainly David Bowie's Amsterdam."

He's discovered Belgian-born Jacques Brel created "angry, existential stuff to really joyous stuff to funny and very witty and very cutting. There is no way you could write what he wrote without loving life intensely."

Toogood says, at 42, he's at an age where Brel's work resonates, in songs like Amsterdam – which he sings in the show – and Ne me quitte pas: "I know what he's talking about, universal and timeless."

Away from Brel he's working on Shihad's latest album with the same producer, Jaz Coleman, and in the same Auckland studio as their first album, Churn. But it won't be fuelled by LSD, as Churn was all those years ago.

"I was 18 years old. I remember it pretty clearly. It was a little too much for this young, protected brain. It was a bit of a one-off.

"Music has always been the most important thing, never the partying. We wanted to be the best. No matter where we were, we wanted to demolish the stage. I think it helped we all came from the same school and were great levellers for each other. It didn't mean we didn't have egos, but we always had a way to give a reality check. We're lucky in that way. It's a family that's always been there, pretty much. Of course we've dabbled because everything's available, but luckily when anyone's stepped out of line, it's 'come on, pull your head in'."

That, "and I met a woman I love so, so much, who encourages me to do things as well. I was enjoying myself so much out of Shihad I thought maybe I wouldn't come back". (He also performs in the group the Adults, and mentors in schools.)

He did go back, and the music for the new album due out this year is "potent and powerful and free and exciting".

A bit like his fledgling marriage, which is playing out mostly in suburban Melbourne. "If I get my way we'll have kids. We'll see what happens. She's the most beautiful person I've seen.

"To tell you the truth I'm a lucky guy and I know it."

Brel : The Words and Music of Jacques Brel, is on at James Cabaret at 8.30pm from February 26 to March 2.

The Dominion Post