Shihad, or Pacifier? Two decades on, the debate over whether or not New Zealand’s biggest rock band should have changed their name still rages.
When four Wellington lads needed a name for their new band, they turned to Dune. Jon Toogood, Karl Kippenberger, Tom Larkin and Phil Knight had become huge fans of David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi film, which incorporates many Arabic phrases and ends with a “Jihad”. Calling themselves “Shihad” was a mistake. “We couldn’t even spell it,” Larkin, the band’s drummer, has been reported as saying. Toogood, the frontman, confirms it. “It was a name that we came up with as a bunch of stoned bogan metal fans,” he says. “We were … 16- or 17-year-old kids. It was, ‘Far, that’s a cool name for a speed metal band’ … I stole the Motorhead font and wrote ‘S.H.I.H.A.D’. I misspelled it because I didn’t know what the fuck it was from.”
Formed in 1988, Toogood, Larkin, bassist Kippenberger and guitarist Knight released their first four albums under the name Shihad. It’s the word that adorns the covers of their debut Churn, then Killjoy, 1996’s self-titled “Fish Album” and 1999’s No. 1 hit The General Electric. It’s also the name their growing fan base were chanting before and after Shihad’s pulsating live shows. “It was the name,” says Toogood. “That was our name. And we’d made that name what it was.” It wasn’t until Toogood was a little older that he began thinking about the word’s real meaning. “I’d be waking up in hotel rooms when I was 26 going, ‘My God, I’m in a band called ‘Holy War’.”
By 2001, Shihad were living out their wildest rock and roll dreams. The General Electric was turning them into a huge drawcard across Australasia, with constant airplay making ‘My Mind’s Sedate’ and ‘Pacifier’ their most popular songs. With a freshly-signed contract with Warner Music, they were lured to America to record their next album and attempt to crack music’s toughest territory. At Hollywood’s Pulse Recording Studios, producer Josh Abraham added a radio-ready sheen to their metallic angst. “It was just that dream we’d had,” says Toogood. “So many of our favourite bands came from America. We wanted to see what it was like.”
Looking back, Toogood describes that time as “craziness … the whole thing was madness”. It was, he says now, “the worst timing in the world”. Soon, the Taliban would send New York’s Twin Towers crashing down. In response, President George W Bush went to war in Iraq. “Jihad” was suddenly a household word in the US, and it was clear that any band using it – or even a word that sounded like it – wasn’t going to be embraced by radio stations or television networks. With their fifth album nearly finished, Shihad faced an impossible decision: change their name and continue chasing their US dreams, or tuck their tail between their legs and head home. “Shit A or Shit B” is how Toogood described it at the time.
The band chose Shit A, and changed their name. At the beginning of 2002, just before Shihad were due to play the Big Day Out, they announced it would now be known as “Pacifier”. It sparked a furore: band members were split about the decision, fans refused to accept it and labelled them “sellouts”, and reporters would not stop asking about it. A NZ Herald story covering the announcement put the boot in by including a dictionary definition of a pacifier as “a baby’s dummy”. At that Big Day Out, fans refused to use the new name, defiantly chanting, “Shihad! Shihad!”. “No one’s ever chanted, ‘Pacifier’ at us,” says Kippenberger.
Now, 20 years on, Shihad are finally ready to reclaim that period of their lives. On a Zoom call, Toogood and Kippenberger admit they have a fresh outlook on the outrage. Occasionally, they can even laugh about what became the toughest time of the band’s career. But it’s taken time. In the aftermath, they couldn’t play Pacifier songs live. Hearing them again brings back memories, often not good ones. “Five years ago [is when I] probably came out the other side of this album,” says Kippenberger. “You can look back more fondly on the experience. You fall back in love with songs you’ve fallen out of love with. Things start to become more nostalgic.”
Toogood puts it another way. “That album had so much baggage that it was fucking hard to listen to,” he says. “We compromised our name. We made the biggest compromise possible. That was the problem.”
In 2002, Toogood was happily wandering around Wellington city with his step-daughter when a Shihad fan approached them. This wasn’t out of the ordinary – as the frontman for New Zealand’s most popular rock act, Toogood was a familiar face around his home town. But this wasn’t to be a pleasant interaction. “This kid walked up to me going, ‘Ya fuckin’ sell out c***,’” says Toogood, shaking his head. “It was like, ‘I get it.’ But you shouldn’t be saying things like that in front of a six-year-old … It was coming from all sides, man.”
Shihad had spent months agonising over whether or not to change their name. It divided the band. Toogood and Kippenberger were firmly in the don’t-change-it camp, while Knight and Larkin felt there was no other option. “I was just hoping that one day I’d wake up and it wouldn’t be a problem,” says Kippenberger. “Like, we could just keep that name and everyone would sort of forgive and forget. But it just got worse.” Toogood: “We were between a rock and a hard place. It was a real test from the universe. It’s like, ‘You can have everything you’ve been waiting for since you signed that terrible deal when you were young, you can finally release an album in the States and give it a go. But you have to change your name.'”
They searched for historical precedent, something to base the decision on. Surely another band had gone through the same thing? There was none. “Like, ‘What would The Who have done?'” says Toogood. “Well, they never had to fucking do that.” The more they delayed it, the more opportunities went begging. A representative for Rob Zombie saw the group play at Los Angeles’ Viper Room and asked if Shihad would join his tour – with one stipulation. She told them: “I love the band – but we can’t have that name on the poster.” Radio stations said the same thing: “I love the song [but] I’m not gonna say their name on the radio.” “It really became something that just choked our opportunities,” says Kippenberger. “It became apparent that if we didn’t change our name, we were probably gonna be sent home … If we were living in New Zealand, we probably wouldn’t have given a shit. But we were over there trying to work it. It really did matter.”
Hindering the decision was what their new name would be. Choosing one wasn’t easy. “Every time we came up with a name, it was like, ‘Well, there’s about three bands called that,'” says Toogood. He continued struggling to make the call. “Right up to the last minute, it was, ‘Do we really have to do this?'” Pacifier was chosen because, by then, it had become Shihad’s most popular song. “Pretty average band name, but at least it’s a song that everyone knows,” says Toogood.
But there was another problem. A Brooklyn punk band also called Pacifier told them they couldn’t have their name unless they paid them. “The American record label had to pay them $40,000,” says Toogood. Pacifier’s album wasn’t able to be released until a contract was signed. “Held ransom,” is how Kippenberger describes the incident. To the band, it was another situation they didn’t want to deal with. Toogood still can’t believe the last-minute wrangle. He refused to sign the contract that would go ahead without his signature. “Who would call a fucking band ‘Pacifier’? Seriously? Unless you had to …”
Finally, Shihad bit the bullet. The album was finished. The payout was made and their name was officially changed. Toogood wrote Pacifier’s fiery first single, ‘Comfort Me,’ about the situation they’d found themselves in. “This was about being in LA when the World Trade Center went down, the Pentagon got hit, 9/11 is happening and the whole world is fucking going crazy,” he told Rip It Up magazine. “The last place I wanted to be in the world was LA. I wanted to be home. I just wanted to get the fuck out but I couldn’t. Planes weren’t flying. I had an album to make. What the fuck was going on? I was extremely confused and extremely frightened and anxious.”
Back home, the decision tanked. No one liked it. Everyone had an opinion, and not just Shihad’s very vocal fan base. Backstage at the 2002 Big Day Out, New Order’s Peter Hook told Toogood: “I can understand … but it sucks”. On the same tour, Faith No More’s Mike Patton had a more visceral point of view, telling Toogood: “Jonny, if you change your name, I’m gonna find you, and I’m gonna slit your throat.” “It was just … shitty,” says Toogood. “We were going, ‘Fuck this’.”
They channelled their anger into incendiary live shows. Fan chants for “Shihad! Shihad!” got louder, and the band responded in kind. The stage was the only place they could take out their rage. “It almost made us more determined to be an even better live band because I was like, ‘Well, fuck you,‘” says Toogood. Fans stayed after shows, continuing to chant their original name. Why so much hate? “It was symbolic because not only were we changing our name for a market, but we were also changing our name for a market that had invaded a sovereign country and was run by Republicans at that time.” In fans’ eyes, the band had, for want of a better term, caved in to the man.
But the decision allowed Shihad to live out their American fantasies. “We got to do what touring bands love to do, which is we got to see the world,” says Kippenberger. “We got to see more of America than a lot of Americans see.” But it wasn’t on their terms. The name change made them feel like frauds, and it infected their entire American experience. “We played shitloads of shows, and we played some really good shows over there,” says Kippenberger. “We played those like nothing else really mattered. There was a point on the road over there where there was nothing left to our lives but to do these shows … wake up every day and play in Fort Lauderdale, Florida …”
It didn’t last. It couldn’t. When the band’s four members returned home, recoupled and began making plans for their next album, the reality sunk in. The name couldn’t stay. When it came time to release Love is the New Hate, Shihad reversed their decision and disowned the name Pacifier. “As much as we believed in what we were doing, and the reasons for doing it at the time – the truth is we were wrong,” they said in a statement posted on their website in September, 2004. “…We are going to continue as we began – under the name Shihad.”
Back then, their regrets were obvious. Ask them today, though, and they’ve got a different opinion. “Was it worth it? We don’t know any other alternative,” says Toogood. “It is what it is.” He lists the band’s subsequent albums – Love is the New Hate, Beautiful Machine, FVEYS and Old Gods – and says they may not exist without the Pacifier experiment. “If that hadn’t happened, maybe they those records wouldn’t have happened. Or [we wouldn’t have had] those moments of, ‘Aha, that’s why I’m in this fucking band’. So we don’t know what else would have happened.”
Many of Pacifier’s songs haven’t been played live. Music videos from that time aren’t on YouTube and are hard to find. But, from today, Shihad is reclaiming the Pacifier era. For the first time, the album is being re-released on vinyl, only this time it’s under a different name. It’s called, ‘The Pacifier Album’ and the name on the cover is the same one Toogood messed up the spelling of all those years ago: Shihad. With it comes a new attitude towards the hardest times of their 35-year career. “I love those songs. I love them being part of our history,” says Kippenberger. He pauses, thinks, then says: “It’s OK to fall in and out of love with your own stuff, you know?”
Shihad’s The Pacifier Album is available on vinyl now.