Killing Joke – Interview

Anyone who has seen the exhaustive, 150 minute The Death and Resurrection Show (and there aren’t many of you, the film has only been witnessed at a small number of film festivals, and is out of circulation for the time being) might remember the beginning montage of news reports and talking heads, all depicting war, tragedy and possible apocalyptic scenarios, both man made and natural. ‘Do we care. Do we have a moral compass anymore,” says one talking head before the film cuts to a film of a nuclear explosion, a scenario that has profoundly figured in the life of Jaz (Jeremy) Coleman: “I wanted to define the exquisite beauty of the atomic age in terms of style, sound and form… I visualised Killing Joke before Killing Joke really happened,” says Jaz. There was a stage, an anonymous band emitting sounds of a primeval worth…”
Extraordinarily, the band are back in their original state, with the original 1979 line up of Coleman, Martin Glover (Youth), ‘Big’ Paul Ferguson and Kevin Walker (Geordie), who apparently had said on the phone in answering the ad in the Melody Maker that Big Paul and Jaz had placed in looking for musicians: “I’ve never played in a band, but I am the best in the world.” Roll on 2015, and they have a new album out and have just set out on a marathon world tour. It’s been a most extraordinary journey, centred around the larger-than-life personality of Jaz Coleman, who inevitably dominates the film. “Oh my God, there are parts of it I cannot watch. I suppose that’s the good thing about a documentary; there are parts of it I find very difficult to watch, but I think it’s sincere. I gave Shaun Pettigrew (the director) free rein to include the sentient opinions of the I Hate Jaz Coleman Fanclub, and say what they want. I’m not sure it’s the same with Youth’s film (called ‘Youth’), because everyone in the rehearsal room was saying it kisses Youth’s arse, except me. They were laughing about it yesterday. I haven’t seen it… I’ll make judgement then. But I was told that Sir Paul McCartney says ‘Youth could even be a musician if he wanted to'”, followed by another one of those big cackling laughs.
Rewind to the late 70s, in the midst of one of the most fertile and creative periods in UK rock’n’roll history – the post punk era – and the moment they first played together. Coleman described the sound as like ‘fire from heaven’, and It was the song Are You Receiving, which was their very first release at the tail-end of ’79 that clinched it for them, as a unit. They knew they had nailed it (as did big early fan John Peel), and would continue to mostly nail it for the next few years: Psycche, War Dance, Requiem, The Wait, Follow The Leaders, Chop Chop, Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances), Eighties, Kings and Queens, and their big hit Love Like Blood, have all acquired classic status within the Killing Joke canon. Although they temporarily lost their way in the late 80s with the almost universally derided Outside the Gates album, since Pandemonium in 1994, Killing Joke have largely returned to that earlier sound. Indeed, they have turned it up over time, the levels of controlled aggression and ferociousness simply stunning for a band now in their mid to late 50s, a band I mistakenly viewed as part-time… “You’d have to ask the others about that, we’d have to have a big discussion,” laughs another of Jaz’s big, cackling laughs. “No, not at all. Geordie and myself work full time. We do have other things, like I work with orchestras, Youth’s a producer, Paul is a curator and art restorer, and Geordie just does Killing Joke. He doesn’t want to do anything but Killing Joke. We have 200 concerts ahead of us, so you couldn’t really call us a part time band. We put out a new record every 16 months or so, that’s not the hallmark of a part time band.”
In fact Pylon is their 16th studio album, recorded over a 35 year period with the odd break here and there. And, for some, including Jaz, it is perhaps their best yet, a relentless, ‘quasi-metal’ juggernaut of rare intensity and raw power, ‘the sound of the earth vomiting’ as drummer Big Paul Ferguson famously characterised it back in their early days. How did they manage it? “A combination of poverty and empathy,” laughs Jaz…. “I can’t stop playing it. I am in a state of amazement that we have created something, probably our best, this late in the day… the morale is high,” he says, as the band prepare for their UK tour. “The band is playing well, we are just trying to get the set together, it’s another day, and I’m looking forward to the tour.”
At the central core of the Killing Joke sound and attitude is the relationship between Jaz and Geordie, the idiosyncratic guitarist’s metallic licks, rhythms, chops and chugs, often providing the foundation for their songs, which he and Jaz work up together. Jaz sometimes provides the original chords on keys (he is an excellent pianist, apparently), which Geordie then interprets. It’s a tried and tested musical and personal relationship that has managed to weather all the madness (almost invariably emanating from Jaz), much like the best marriages do. Allied to that are the big and tribalistic drums of Big Paul, the bass work of both Youth and Paul Raven, who was the band’s on-off bassist for many years before his death in 2007, and Jaz’s notions of European romanticism mixed with paranoia, fear and distrust of political and economic elites, and his life long interest and devotion to the occult, mysticism and mythology. “”People need something that resembles the struggle they have in trying to make a living. They need this level of intensity in music, and we provide that,” Jaz has said. Pylon contains such tracks as I Am The Virus, a no holds barred litany of power, corruption and lies: ‘Death, misery and tears/Calculated waves of fear/Drawn up by think tanks/There’s a darkness in the west’, before he invokes the spirit of anger, optimism and hope: ‘I am the fury, the spirit of outrage/I am the fire, I am the virus’.
I suggest that there’s been a consistency over the years, with the subject matter, and that there is no mellowing to be found in Jaz Coleman and Killing Joke: “Consistent over the years…” he ponders these words, “My father gave his life fighting for fascism in the last war, and I was kinda raised to never kneel down before fascism of any kind, and we seem to be entering a time where we are heading towards a technocratic elitism, if you like, and I don’t like it one bit. I don’t like the fact of the foreign policy of NATO, I don’t like the fact that the United Kingdom’s foreign policy is dictated to by a foreign power, I don’t like the fact we spend £3bn on updating Trident or nuclear weapons; weapons of mass destruction, lest we forget. That money could revamp the whole NHS, and we cannot even launch the Trident system without getting permission from the Yanks. I think this country is absolutely insane, I’m glad I left 30 years ago. To align ourselves with a country that has initiated 28 wars since the war, I don’t think is a good idea. But I must be in a minority…”
Passionate, articulate, forthright, and honest, and often bloody-minded. This is what Coleman has been throughout the years, and Killing Joke has provided that vehicle with which to express himself, not only as a musician and artist, but as a preacher and therapeutic class leader… Back in the 80s, Coleman said: “Our music is not a pleasure principle, we see it as a therapy, a social necessity. It’s primal, has deep emotion.” But within that ‘therapy’, it has acted as a catharsis, and an outlet for both band and fans alike. “I still believe our music is not a pleasure principle. I am a better man for doing Killing Joke,” he says. “Looking at the calibre of certain personalities in Killing Joke it would have been quite easy for us to become criminals or even murderers without our art form. Artistically speaking, Killing Joke is a supreme surrogate for war, the war impulse.
“In many ways I am a conservative traditionalist. Like males, for instance. I believe a male should be an adventurer, an outgoing war-like creature. The idea of house husbands, they don’t sit well with me,” heartily laughs this father of three. “I don’t know the future, but apparently the y chromosome that separates the males from the females is being depleted, which presumably means males are becoming a dying species. Does the future hold unisex toilets, and everyone looking like Marilyn Manson, and who have dicks that stick into their pussies? How do you like that!?” he laughs.
Not much, I say, unable to tell him that I think that what he is saying is perhaps a little suspect… Coleman is, as always, an opinionated fellow, one who thrives on an audience, whose claims are driven by a heightened fear and paranoia, as his mother says in the Resurrection film. A friend of mind thinks he is not only bi-polar, but tri-polar… “The control of human beings,” he says in asking about some of the ideas on Pylon. “Look at Kissinger’s (Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor) ideas: you have to control the food and water supply to get compliant human beings. Take that as you will… But, I am an optimist despite of everything in the world. Mankind will have to change its ways or become extinct. Simple as that.”
Famously, Coleman decamped to Iceland in 1982, without telling anyone except his mother, and for their scheduled Top of the Pops appearance, for the single Empire Song, a disguised person took the place of Coleman on stage. He went AWOL because he thought the end was nigh, and he had learned, through his deep reading, that Iceland was a possible safehouse in case of nuclear destruction. But, as always, Coleman wasn’t just hiding; he was being productive, not only partaking in ancient ritual and ceremony, drawn from his research into the occult, but also re-kindling his love of classical music. “As a child I studied classical music intensely, from 15, 16 years of age. And then when I was in Iceland, when I did the whole Individuation thing, I suddenly had this singular idea of becoming a composer.”
Individuation, in Jungian terms, is about the unconscious. each of us has a dark double, an adversary we must face. This is the process that Coleman committed himself to, and why he left for Iceland. “Apart from Geordie, no-one was really aware of my intentions. I honestly couldn’t imagine sitting down with the band and management and explain why I wanted to study a range of subjects from Nordic mythologies, study of radiations emanating from holy sites, let alone the location of my holy guardian angel. So, I made plans in secret,” as he says in the film.
He had previously learned classical piano and violin while a teenager, aspects of his life he is open about, but which he keeps separate from Killing Joke. “After that (Iceland) it was a matter of finding out how to go about it (composing). I didn’t want to go through the conventional route of studying orchestration. I ended up going to East Germany, and Minsk, and I then settled with a Hungarian master, and I studied with him for seven years; the whole thing took me about 11 years of hard study. And then I got my foot in the door. I consider myself fortunate. I’m with the United Nations orchestra now, and they have given me a mandate to create the United Nations chamber orchestra, so I’ll be doing a lot more concerts for charity, to bring awareness to events around the world, in conjunctions with the United Nations. There’s a turn up for the books,” he laughs hard again. “It’s amazing in light of the fact I left school at 14; I don’t have a CSE or O’Level to my name. I lecture at universities; I’ve become an architect, a composer, conductor, a priest… I left school with nothing. Anything is possible! Youth and my colleagues have done even more, incredible things that blow me away.”
“My philosophy is: dive in the deep end and start fucking swimming,” he laughs. “There are lots of things I want to do. Working with the UN is the beginning of the next phase of my life. The United Nations is shocking. I want to do something about that. There are some very, very good people there; it’s the only credible global institution that we have. Without it the world would be a terrible place.”
As well as his continuing work as composer and conductor, there’s the small matter of the continuing Nirvana saga, which first appeared when Nirvana unleashed the song Come As You Are, which was a track off their second, and breaking album, Nevermind. With it’s riff and sound stealing guitar from Killing Joke’s hit song Eighties, Killing Joke apparently took umbrage at this, particularly when Nirvana’s management were less than respectful when they were first ‘approached’ about the matter. It is still in dispute as to whether or not writs were issued, but upon the suicide death of Nirvana’s iconic lead singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, the mater was quietly dropped… fast forward to 2003, and Nirvana’s drummer at the time, Dave Grohl, joined the band for the eponymous Killing Joke album, waiving fees to do so. As the film documents, Grohl explains, much to Coleman’s delight, how Nirvana used to get ready to get on stage by playing Killing Joke songs, and were huge fans.
Fast forward again to the present and Coleman has another project on the boil, involving the legacy of Kurt Cobain…. “I recorded with the St Petersburg State Orchestra last year, doing a Requiem Mass for Kurt Cobain, which is coming out in April. That was an incredible and moving experience to work with an elite orchestra in Russia. It’s a homage to him. He was very passionate about Killing Joke; I didn’t realise this until I became friendly with Grohl. We were his favourite band. The reason I chose this as the theme, apart from the ‘Eighties’ problem between us was the theme of suicide, because I’ve had a suicide in my family. To address society’s taboos, that is essentially what the work is about. I put my take on it, with the choir singing in Latin. They aren’t any of Nirvana’s lyrics in there, that’s why I called them a dialogue; they are a dialogue between myself and Kurt Cobain. It’s an dialogue with somebody in the other world, a collaboration with somebody who is behind the veil.”
Now mainly based in New Zealand, where he has been on and off for the last 20 years, Coleman’s appetite for alternative living seems unabated. For instance, he still adheres to the so-called Golem Diet when on tour. “It’s porridge, miso, and raw fish, with some mangoes thrown in when I’m a good boy. I don’t need much food, when I want to get energy I only need 800 or 900 calories. After midday I don’t eat anything until the next breakfast. I can’t because I throw it all up. I tried it once in Paris, I thought I could have a bit of sashimi closer to the gig, which I did. But then I vomited by the side of the stage… I can run five miles, and I’m not bad at boxing,” he adds, definitely a man who once abused his body badly with booze and drugs, but is now on a stricter (though not 100%) regime in order to stay the course. And he believes in collectivism, as a way of living. “Part of the year I live in a collective where seven other people live in the same house, and once a week we each take it in turns to cook. I am a green collectivist, you could say. Not a Marxist, I can’t stand Karl Marx,”he laughs. “I like to live with a group of people, in a collective, where we have enough of our space to allow for our individuality and yet to function as one unit. My dream is that every village becomes sustainable and green, and we can get rid of the petrodollar for importing food everywhere. A really simple idea.
And, as Coleman likes to sermonise when he’s preaching in a New Zealand church (one of his qualifications!), it’s all about self-education: “Our legacy is the duty of self-education, the duty of each one of us to self-educate. In the Coleman family, you know what, you don’t even need to say anything… My mother never used to say ‘how are you doing’? She’d say, ‘what are you doing’? We’re a family of achievers, and that’s what I love about my family’s heritage.”
Coleman was always great at the one liners, and soundbites, a trait that helped to get the band noticed, particularly with such lines as ‘I will define the atomic sound before I’m dead’. What about now? “Just about everyone in Killing Joke has been sent mad, has been burnt by this fire…”
Long may they live
Jeff Hemmings