Art Of Darkness
Lynden Barber pursues the protracted preachings of Jaz of Killing Joke to Iceland and back.
Contained in darkness, a red glow hovers, as if newly arrived from Hades.
Inside the spectral haze stands a creature. The creature is hunched, twisted, deformed. Its tight- knit eyebrows swoop across its forehead like the wings of a carrion crow. Its face is contorted, eyeballs the size of tennis balls bulging outwards. Flecks of spume issue forth from its grimacing mouth.
With no warning, a hand springs forward, its palm turned upwards, its fingers gesticulating. The creature is displeased. The creature is in the grip of a monstrous fury. The creature is known in the legends as "Jaz Coleman" and is a singer in a group called Killing Joke. Welcome to their rehearsal room. It is in Shepherd's Bush.
"We take particular delight in our gigs, because the gigs are not just gigs, they're sacred" (Jaz).
The story so far: Having lost their bass player Youth and gone through a series of thrilling escapades in the frozen wastelands of Iceland, our intrepid three gained a tall, dark and silent newcomer who went by the name of Raven.
"Nuclear-wise, the world's-a-gonna- blow!" our chums hollered, and declared their intention to escape by settling in the northern snows. There they would await the coming storms of doom, and arise upon the phoenix of a new dawn.
But the world continued, so our pals hatched a new masterplan. They would record a new LP and put it out via Polydor. With the words "Fire Dances" emblazoned across its sleeve, the record celebrated the rites and rituals that had previously been left to rot in the ancient legends. They would make their way to the "new day", attend the festivals "where the wine and plenty flow"; they would "hear the horn sound" and "gather into packs". They would make their way to..."THE FEAST OF BLAZE".
Now read on...
"We make a ritual out of eating, right? We like fucking eating food I'll tell you." Jaz Coleman is camped in the windswept territory of Shepherd's Bush. His drummer, Paul, is nodding in agreement.
"Yeah, there's nothing like the ritual of banqueting together in course company, which there's a distinct lack of in people, and I would hope to inspire that in people. Dancing together... like together, eating together, that sort of thing, and that is ritual."
Continues Jaz: "We take a great pleasure in banqueting, in eating together all sorts of foods, in drinking together, not only Killing Joke but all people around KJ that are very important to us... like that scum out there, right?" he looks towards the door. "We basically like to drink, eat, all the things of pleasure, total fulfilment. It might be women ... we're very basic people, actually, and then we like our music. We like our music an awful lot. Totally, all these things are very irrational and great fun, and we make the most out of them, we take them to extremes. KJ on stage is just one part of that. The rest of that, that you don't see, is our lives, the way we live from morning to night."
Never noted for their co-operation with the press, Killing Joke - more an idiosyncratic concept than a rock group - have almost mellowed. Gone are the days when a member would fix a journalist in the eye, glare intensely, as if attempting hypnosis, and mutter darkly: "It's The Joke ... it's the Killing Joke! Don't you see that, moron?"
When I arrive at their studio they are waiting for me; ready to be interviewed, and keen for me to listen to them rehearsing for their forthcoming tour. When I depart all four members shake hands with me: not only are they prepared to talk, they're behaving in a civil and polite manner. What, then, of lyrics such as these? "Taking what is mine because now I'll have my day/Dominator soul, he takes what's in his way" (from "Dominator", on "Fire Dances").
Jaz, do you approve of that?
Dominating other people?
"No," says Paul. "The soul that has its purpose taking what is rightfully its own, basically."
"My idea is simply this," says Jaz. "If you commit yourself to whatever you do, whatever it is - music, cookery, whatever you like - then you have the right to reap all the benefits, you have your own empire; whether you're a cook ... your washing-up pans, your utensils, that is your empire.
"If for me to get good ideas it means I have to go to the other side of the world, the money I need to get there, that's mine, I take that. Do you understand what I mean?
"We enjoy quite a high standard of living. Actually, we live quite well, right, we feel that is ours, and we've no scruples about how we get it, we just take it. Because if that is what we need, that is what we get. We're gonna go to Easter Island in the Pacific, cos we all wanna go on a fun holiday where we can get lots of good ideas collectively. Us and our new manager, who's a very wicked character, as you'll see in a bit."
Surely, this is no different from the attitude of the ruthless businessman who is prepared to crush anyone in order to get what he wants?
"To get where we are now, we've often had to do things that are painful to someone, somewhere, right?" replies Jaz, without a hint of hesitation. "Tough. What's more important, where's your priority? Simple as that. And I like inspiring that, I love that stomp in KJ that inspires this willpower, that inspires this lust to tackle a situation. I listen to KJ at 3 o'clock in the morning walking around the streets sometimes and it rekindles the original spirit I had. This new album to me is a most remarkable album."
I worry about this. It seems disturbingly close to the ideology of fascism.
"It's not fascist," remarks Paul, laconically. "It's not people supporting one person's idea of what should be. It's not fascist, it's very individual, and if taken to I the very extremes of individuality I believe it can work ... as a collective."
"We love individuality, we adore this," comments Jaz. "I like seeing people literally as aspects of nature personified, if you like. I like to see ultimate potential. I like seeing people, whatever they do, people who've found themselves and know what they like doing.
"Recently, in the last two or three months, we've been around a lot of really rich people, who are not necessarily in the music business, and these people, they like us to do a little dance for them because they're bored shitless. They give us cash and we give them a little dance, if you like, do you understand what I mean?"
Quite frankly, no. You mean you perform?
"I wouldn't say 'perform'," cackles Jaz, with a mysterious glint in his eye, "we perform one way or the other!"
My mind exploding with visions of wild Bacchanalian orgies, I press the point. But disappointment, oh disappointment! They're not telling!
Luckily, I've been scanning my NME Beginners Guide To Pretentious Waffle, Chapter Seven, "What To Do When You Get Stuck", recommends that a quote from a fashionably deceased German philosopher always livens things up a bit. So here goes:
"Yesterday an oppressive storm hung over the sky and I hurried to a neighbouring hill called Leutch. At the top I found a hut, where a man was killing two kids while his son watched him. The storm broke with a tremendous crash, discharging thunder and hail, and I had an indescribable sense of well-being and zest. Lightning and tempest are different worlds, free powers, without morality. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect - how happy, how free." (From "The Life Of Nietzche".)
Any comparison between the general tone of these sentiments and the lyrics and conversation of Jaz Coleman is purely coincidental. Or is it?
"Believe it or not, I've only just started reading Nietzche," says Jaz. "I've read that 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', that one famous chapter. Apart from that I find it quite boring."
"We don't look to anybody or anything for our inspiration," says Paul. "Whatever we are, you might say it's Nietzche, but it's just us."
It's so easy to pooh-pooh the canon of Killing Joke simply because their attitude sounds potty compared to the incoherent mumbles of the hoi-polloi. But who goes to a Killing Joke concert and stands there singing the words? "Fire Dances" is not substantially different from the previous Killing Joke album, or the one before that, or the one before that. Which is to say that it has a brazen power that verges on the monstrous.
The first thing that will impress you upon hearing a Killing Joke record is the sound of Geordie's guitar. It is as if he has compressed the noise of all the punk and heavy metal of history into a single wedge. Geordie's guitar sound is probably the most fearsome rock noise in existence at this moment. Naturally I ask him about it, don't expect much, and don't get it. Jaz is the quotesman, so let's hear it for Iceland...
"We've all gone through a lot of strange things, myself included. I've always felt my actions in going to Iceland, whether right or wrong, I like to say they are actions of commitment to an idea that I had. And now that's washed away, basically, my aspirations failed with Iceland, and I'm not afraid to say this. But now I feel great, because I feel more part of KJ than I ever have been."
In what way did your aspirations fail?
"Because I basically got to the stage where I saw no future in this country. There you can see a definite difference in the two musics now - the new KJ and the old. I reached the end of the line in the old KJ insofar as I was just feeling as if I was in a civilisation that was about to end - and I still do feel that. But the way I feel about it, the way we work collectively now, is different.
"What I see as inevitable events now I use to my advantage. I didn't want to live in England any more, I wanted to be in control of my own environment. I wanted to let a different place affect me and my ideas. I find England a very oppressive place to live. See, I did it on my own, and that was the big mistake, but collectively I think we want to base ourselves out of England sooner or later."
What qualities do you particularly dislike about England at present?
"Mindlessness, escalation of patriotism, you name it, it's there. I don't like what's going on. I love the individuals in England, you just don't have that in places like Iceland. You're gonna get a few people who are okay, but in England I love the people I meet."
Do you want to go back to Iceland, Jaz?
"I never wanna live there, ever again, in my life!" He laughs. "I love the countryside, I love the place ... there's no pollution, there's no army, great. I cannot stand living among those people there, I just abhor it. I'm much happier living with KJ.
"It was your lot, it was the journalists that made my life there a real misery, because they attracted so much attention to me, and Iceland's a small place. Anyway, enough of that, because that is the past and I'm really not interested in that now. I'm very interested in the way we're going at the moment."
All the way through the interview Jaz has been telling me how strong the group is, how optimistic they are. I believe it. Like the wayward, wild space scheming of the decidedly unsaturnine Sun Ra, it matters not a jot that the philosophy's rot, what counts is the intensity with which they believe it. That intensity is reflected in Joke's metallic maelstrom with a degree of heat that can make a grown person wimper. And if this sounds too much like brute force, remember: "Fun And Games" on the new LP is in its own perverse way a "pop song", just as "Follow The Leaders" was a "disco smash".
But enough. Jaz is going to tell us about his First Symphony (you heard right). He says it's to be premiered by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, and reckons the Royal Philharmonic are interested.
"I wanted to describe landscape in music, and a particular prophecy in a mythology I saw. Ultimately it inspired me to score my symphony. I've been working on it for one and a half years, since I went to Iceland. A lot of it came from the fact that I wasn't playing in KJ and there was no other instruments but the piano.
"So I went for it, because I have the curse - or the talent, if you like - to be able to do it. And I don't like much classical music, so I thought it'd be a real laugh. And I think it'll be a real good night out for me and the boys, actually."
Will Joke be playing in it, I tentatively inquire, horrendous thoughts of Deep Purple In Requiem For Heavy Metal Group And Vast Orchestra crossing the mind?
"I 'ope not," sniggers Jaz. "We're gonna be getting out of it! I might conduct it. Just to give everyone an extra laugh."
So you think this symphony is the punchline in the biggest killing joke of all? I, too, had my suspicions ... until l heard someone playing some highly accomplished classical piano in the studio next door. I'm not going to tell you who it was.
But you can guess ...