(from East Coast Rocker, a New Jersey-based weekly music paper, April 10, 1991)
Killing Joke: Outsiders Inside
by Mike Gitter
Killing Joke may be the most tense band on this planet. Britain's original practitioners of piledriving intellectual thrash rock with a penchant for the apocalypse, the Joke have withstood a 13-year career replete with enough dips and eddies, high points and embarrassments to make a less resilient outfit simply combust. From the pounding, pulsating molten lava onslaught of their first two post-punk classics, Killing Joke ('79) and What's THIS For . . . ! ('80), Killing Joke instituted the pummeling interface between art-punk and heavy metal felt today in the more visceral shapes of Ministry, Godflesh and Prong.
Successive releases saw a mellowing in the band's disaffected intensity, the frigid brilliance of anthems like "Requiem" or "Wardance" continually traded in for the dancefloor accessibility of "Love Like Blood" or "Sanity." Both internal and external pressures -- most specifically, a tremulous and dissolving relationship with the band's EG Records label -- brought matters to a near-standstill in the late '80s. After a year's work on what initially started out as a solo album, vocalist Jaz Coleman was forced by the label to release 1988's Outside The Gate, an album of indulgent symphonic ideas, as a full-fledged Killing Joke release -- simply, to recoup its excessive costs. Without realizing it, the band had driven themselves deeply into debt. The ever-volatile Jaz suffered a nervous breakdown and Killing Joke seemingly called it a day.
"It's a war between good and evil" -- George Bush's voice roared out of the PA at Killing Joke's mid-January Ritz gig. What followed was an hour and a half of thunderclap apocalypse dance; the Joke's finest and most harrowing New York performance in years. No surprise then that Extremities, Dirt And Various Repressed Emotions (Noise Records), the band's 10th and best in years LP, is filled with the same intensity.
Propelled by the surging rhythms of original bassist Paul Raven and ex-PiL skinsman Martin Atkins (who essentially put the band back on course with his joining in late '89), the sheer power Killing Joke seem capable of throwing off was at full-tilt. Coleman jerked about like a man battered by fits of intense paranoia. Guitarist Geordie mustered up swaths of sheet-metal guitar. It was as if, for a brief period of time, the tension in the Middle East had come West. Killing Joke played like a band worth their weight in SCUD missiles.
ECR: Martin, how did you come into the Killing Joke fold?
Martin Atkins: I was actually living in New Jersey when Geordie phoned me up for the gig. I first met them in 1979 when they were recording "Wardance" in 1979. I was working on Jah Wobble's solo album and playing in Public Image Limited at the time. We were running late in the studio when in come these irate members of Killing Joke trying to get us to wrap up our session so they could get on with their music. There was a band called Delta 5 around London in the early '80s and I was alternately seeing two out of the three female members of the band and we'd always go and see Killing Joke. Youth was playing bass at that point and he and I got along well. That was it. Probably by '81 we all lost touch. We both knew what each other were doing, however; they listened to Flowers Of Romance. Then, three years ago, a mutual friend was hanging out in London and gave Jaz and Geordie my phone number. Around that time, I was running a construction business in New Jersey, believe it or not!
ECR: It's been about three years since you joined Killing Joke. Do you think you've done a lot to turn the band's situation around?
MA: I've been involved with 'em for about two and a half years and over that period of time, I've tried to take a very firm grip on the band's business affairs -- obviously, with Jaz and Geordie's cooperation. They were in such a pickle from the EG days. There's an awful lot of shit to deal with and we're only now sorting it all out. Believe me, it's taken the past two and a half years.
ECR: What happened?
MA: What happens in the music business is that there are always people, especially around bands like Killing Joke, that will let you go into a studio and work for a year and disappear up your own arse. That's what was allowed to happen with Killing Joke. Specifically, what happened was that Jaz went into the studio to do a solo album and spent so much money on it that EG figured the only way they could make their money back was to release it as a Killing Joke album which surfaced as Outside The Gate. EG made sure they recouped their recording costs which move, in my opinion, almost destroyed Killing Joke in the process.
ECR: Certainly hurting the band in critical terms . . . .
MA: Yeah. It's my legacy from early PiL days where I actually believed John [Lydon] and Keith Levene when they said, 'This isn't a band. It's a corporation, a business first and a band second', and I've followed that line of thinking for the past ten years and tried to follow it to the letter. Before starting my current side-label, Invisible, I learned enough from starting and failing with a label I did called Plaid Records to not repeat my mistakes. Invisible now has a rehearsal space, offices, screen printing and a bunch of people working for us who aren't dangerous to the organization's survival.
ECR: Well, whoever was under the illusion that punk wasn't a business was a fool.
MA: It comes down to the whole concept of anarchy. Right now, I'm a dangerous anarchist. I have my own business; I don't rely on anybody else. I can go into the studio tomorrow with whoever I choose, in just about any studio I want and get my product out in the stores, packaged exactly the way I want in approximately eight weeks. That to me is anarchy. Now I'm in a position to be a positive influence on other bands. Invisible is on the ascent, so is Killing Joke and the other projects I'm involved with. The more capital I can manipulate, the more good I can do, the more dangerous I become.
ECR: Dangerous? How so?
MA: Just in a sense that I can walk into my lawyer's office, not be intimidated and understand what people in this supposed business are saying to me. In turn, I can talk back, if need be intimidate them in a way they'll understand. That's what's so satisfying about the new Killing Joke; it's not just the music that's in focus but instead the whole band and the whole machinery behind it. The band is only onstage for an hour and a half a day; there's another 22 1/2 hours that there are 12 other people working their nuts off. That's very gratifying to know that the work we're doing now is moving us very positively into the future.
ECR: How did the deal with Noise Records come about? You've got to admit that they, being known as a straight heavy metal label, might be a strange choice for Killing Joke.
MA: It is a strange label. The deal with Noise came about because they were the most enthusiastic people around that wanted to deal with the band. there aren't many people that want to deal with Killing Joke. It's not easy to deal with a band that's been around 12 years like us. If you have a new band, you can basically tell 'em anything you want and they'll believe it. That's not the case here. Plus, why be buried on a major as a nostalgia act?
ECR: You've been playing in Ministry as well as another band called Pigface. What do you get out of those outfits that Killing Joke don't offer?
MA: Ministry was interesting. There's an unleashed power with Al [Jourgenson] and Ministry that's explosive and fascinating to work with. It's also very interesting to feel and hear the influence of PiL and early Killing Joke on Ministry's material. I have a tendency to somewhat cynically sit back and smile while playing these beats and working on these songs that are so heavily and obviously influenced by the other bands I've been in. It's a whole circular thing. It was a blast, a total blast to go out on the road and do that. Then, Pigface came out of Ministry's other drummer Bill Rieflin and my warm up sessions on practice pads. We came to the conclusion that there were all these people on the Ministry tour like Ogre [Nivek, also in Skinny Puppy] and the guys in KMFDM who were opening for us and wouldn't it be great to work with them and the two drum kits. In Ministry, it was fairly straightforward. We were just regurgitating Ministry's songs off a record. Pigface was more of an attempt to explore the interaction between two drummers.
ECR: Do bands like Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails seem like spiritual children?
MA: Ha! They're great fun to jam with.
ECR: Do you prefer living in Chicago rather than London?
MA: Absolutely. I've been telling every American person I meet that it's a nice place to visit if you happen to have a million dollars. Really, it's a bunch of people crying into their beers moaning about the government this or Maggie Thatcher that. One of the things I've always liked about America and American people is that if something's wrong, people just get off their butts and do something about it. In England. everybody just goes down to the pub and complains.
ECR: Watching Killing Joke perform live, the band seem possessed of an intensity, a fire you haven't touched on in years. What's driving Killing Joke these days?
Jaz Coleman: Speaking for myself, it's time to complete the course I've started and been running on for so many years now. It's a very important time for the band. We've just done Europe and England and it was sold out everywhere we went. I think it's got a lot to do with the war which has strangely enough increased demand for Killing Joke. There's a lot of young people with anxieties and uncertainties about the future and for them, Killing Joke is a sanctuary where they can express themselves through the music and the intensity of the performance. I don't think there's any other group that deals with the same intensity as us or a group that serves the same function -- the way we express uncertainties about the war situation through the music.
ECR: What's your opinion on the recent Middle East conflict? Was it the made-for-TV war? Did it serve any greater purpose than one massive cultural rally-round-the-flag?
JC: It certainly was a war being fought through the media more than anything else. What did I think about it? Let's just say I count every day that I am here in the United States. I'm looking forward to leaving this country. What is George Bush doing? Does he even understand his actions? Obviously, Saddam Hussein is a murderer but that's just the surface of it. America will never win in terms of winning and losing because their cause or incentive is false. The truth is that the U.S. are trying to establish a strategic base in the particular region to secure oil reserves in the beginning of the next century. I find it immoral. I find U.S. foreign policy usually quite inexcusable. I travel all over the world and I see America as the erosion of all culture, the death of anything of substance. The Americanization of the world and the destruction of ancient, time-honored cultures is something I find very difficult to live with.
I spent a lot of time working in the Middle East last year, in Lebanon and Egypt, and the Arabs live in fear of their ancient and beautiful culture being eroded by American nonculture. They will go to any lengths to prevent their homes from becoming a satellite state of the U.S. They'll back any immoral nutcase to halt the tide and flow of American influence in the region. It saddens me greatly when I see the actions of the West in the Middle East. I'm ashamed of it. War isn't any real response to the circumstance. It's a last resort. It saddens me. I feel very torn.