(From International Musician and Recording World, a UK mag targeted toward music professionals, July 1988)
The Killing Feel
With eight albums of fatalistic humour behind them, Jaz and Geordie are still pleasing themselves.
Punchlines: Andrew Smith
Happysnaps: George Bodnar
"You get to the second album and people like the first album, you get to the third album and they like the second and so on. You keep going like this and there's this whole group of people who say they don't like the early music because they can't listen to it, there's too much intensity. So you can never - you should never - try to please anybody but yourself. Yes, we've been quite faithful to ourselves in that way. We write the music and arrange it so that it suits us and we are happy with it. Each album is a victory for us."
When Jaz Coleman, singer, writer and ideological force behind Killing Joke, says in his usual aprocryphal manner; "We've got seven albums. We've got the most wonderful back catalogue in the world" it makes me smile, but when I listen to them again I realise that such a claim is certainly no more ridiculous coming from him than it would be from anyone else. Killing Joke have been around for an astonishing nine years now, and as Jaz points out, they have seen a lot of bands come and go. Originally considered a Punk band, they were always slightly out of step with their contemporaries - and on the evidence of the new album, Outside The Gate, they still are.
"When we have hit singles it's an accident" - Jaz Coleman. On the strength of notoriously powerful live performances, the band had featured prominently in the album charts almost from the first grinding power chord, but it wasn't until 1985 and the surprise chart success of the single Love Like Blood that Killing Joke crashed into the stadium mainstream. This was certainly not the first single that could have been a hit and I'm curious to know why it was. What forces conspired together to make it a hit?
"I don't know. No, I'll tell you what happened, actually. We were with Polygram at that time - licensed from EG - and they were holding a convention in Hamburg. There were 200 delegates there from Polygram International, and my managers invited me to that conference. I told those delegates exactly what it was like to be distributed by Polygram and I played them the new album. So they all pulled together and made it a hit. A lot depends on the relationship you have with your record company. Sometimes you're in favour and sometimes you're not: that's the life of an artist."
Outside The Gate will surprise a lot of people, just as the previous album, Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, did. Complicated time signatures and Eastern melodies, clean guitar sounds mixed in with the famous razored grunge, an acoustic piano and guitar coda on the title track and even angrier lyrics than before make for challenging listening. There is an almost self-conscious musicality about the new material. One often encounters a certain defensiveness in groups of their generation who have made this transition from the gut to the cerebrum, but Jaz and Geordie show absolutely no signs of this.
"Our rhythm section was the only thing that was Punk about Killing Joke anyway. As far as the new music goes, we had to really reorganise the rhythm section to cope with our aspirations of musical expansion. For example, if you're going along in 4/4 and you want to change into something like a 13/12 time signature (as on Outside The Gate), I want a band that has the musical articulacy and the capacity to do something like this.
"Playing with us at the moment we have Jimmy Copley, who used to play with Jeff Beck in a group called Upp. He's about 29 - younger than I thought he was. Interestingly enough, I was aware of him when I was about 15, so when I had the opportunity to play with him it was just brilliant, because he's a musician. As far as the bass is concerned, we've been working with Jerome, who played with the Detroit Emeralds, Automatic Man and a few others: he's done sessions with Santana. So we've got a very high standard rhythm section now. It's really improved me and Geordie as musicians too."
Not that Killing Joke were ever bad musicians, despite the manic intensity of the sound. As it turns out, Jaz is classically trained. He studied music at Goldsmiths College in London and has just completed his first orchestral symphony, which will be performed later this year. He is an accomplished piano and violin player, the latter skill being employed this time around on the largely acoustic, very Eastern-sounding Jihad, which is on the B-side of the America single.
No Grand Plans
Outside The Gate was recorded at their management's 24-track studio in London. Jaz and Geordie had the run of the place for a full eight months, producing the work they did there themselves. The freedom afforded by this arrangement seems to have suited them well.
"Obviously, this is an advantage for us," grins Jaz, " 'cos we don't have to fork out 30 grand to a producer before we can even start working!"
In contrast to current trends, the studio in question is a relatively simple setup, consisting of a Trident desk, budget machine and rudimentary outboard effects. As a result of this experience, they are now planning to establish their own studio along similar lines. Has the current fashion for SSL and all things digital had no impact on Killing Joke at all?
Jaz: "No I would certainly never record on SSL. I would always record on a more basic desk. I like the Trident desk myself. I think Amek are good too. I like things to be as spontaneous as possible. And when we have our own studio, I want the location to be as idyllic as possible. These are the important things."
Geordie: "It makes fuck all difference anyway. Apparently that George Harrison album was recorded in his house. All you really need are memory faders, 'cos if you've got fucking ears you can hear it - you don't need five pairs of hands on the desk."
Jaz: "I fear that the desk will become a thing of the past soon. An engineer I was talking to recently, who works on an SSL desk in West Germany, is already investing in new technology - based on computer. I was saddened by this in a way, because I'm a traditionalist: I like setting up certain things in the studio and relying on musicianship and, basically, someone at the faders who's trying to capture that as humanely as possible. But at the moment I'm still convinced that we should invest in a Trident desk and a basic 24-track machine and keep it at that. It's stupid spending £150,000 on a record when you can buy all the equipment for £50,000 if you look around."
As it stands, this will all be done in New Zealand, a basically non-alligned country that Jaz and Geordie are both fond of.
One of the most immediately striking features of the new LP, and in particular the first single, America, is the paucity of digital sound. The opening chords of America are delivered in the pure language of classic analogue strings. It says something profound about our culture that this should sound so traditional now. Why no sampling?
Geordie: "Because it's pointless. You'll never get a sound as good as a beautifully performed instrument. You never will. The nearest thing you can get to a guitar, for instance, is a person whistling. It's a very personal instrument: it's all in the lyricism of how you play and the technique. Add to that the fact that the best sample record is done by the BBC and it's all very frightening!"
Jaz: "I still use an OBX synth. I've done bits and pieces with the Mirage, but quite infrequently, 'cos I like to mess around with the sounds and the thing that I've found about sampled sounds is that I don't really have much control, and certainly nothing like the control you can enjoy on the OBX, which is such a manual keyboard. I've got two OBX's, and I've stuck with them - I'm only just learning how to use them now!"
|For Outside The Gate, Jaz and Geordie developed a system for recording
which is aimed at helping them capture the rhythms of life pulsing around them
outside the studio doors. They call this the Gometria system, and it is based on
a book: 'The Cabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley'. Crowley was a writer and
practician of the Satanic arts who was at the peak of his influence earlier this
century. Jaz explains:
"Cabalistic Numerology has enabled us to be much more specific about the atmospheres we're trying to create. The way we've done this is that, I have an idea for a song, or Geordie does, and we go into the studio, then I sing the song and play it on the keyboard, and we'd get the basic tempo of the thing. Then once we'd done that, we'd have the natural tempo and we'd get the metronome and pinpoint the actual beats per minute. Then we'd take that number, let's say it was 103 as in Outside The Gate - and in that particular case I was trying to describe some explosive events, events in the Middle East - and look it up in the Gometria, which is this Cabalistic system. 103 is the number of the Prophet, and I
thought, 'Well, as it's inspired by Mohammed or the 12th Imam in Iran at the moment, and the changes that were happening there, it's bang on the nail.' "
A self-proclaimed irrationalist, Jaz gleefully admits that this system owes nothing to reason, but shrewdly adds:
"We try to capture what's going on in the unconscious in civilisation. When you have a whole country or race voting for people like Ronald Reagan or George Bush or Margaret Thatcher, you start wondering what's going on in the collective mind."
So in an irrational world, why rely on reason? At the very least Cabalistic Numerology is a system for obtaining unexpected results in the studio, not unlike the random choice cards which Brian Eno made famous. As Jaz says:
"There is a relation to a certain philosophy - it's a system of a type, but it's irrational. As long as it works, that's all I care about."
Last year Jaz and Geordie gave a series of performance-lectures on the Gometria System, and more are planned for later this year.
The lyrics of the song America are unusually vitriolic, even for Killing Joke, and are based around a trip to Latin America which Jaz undertook last year. Having witnessed the incredible poverty which exists in a country like Bolivia or Colombia, he then went directly to California to visit his brother, who works - "ironically", says Jaz - as a nuclear physicist in Santa Barbara. It was this contrast between abject poverty and glutinous affluence that inspired America.
"Everthing I love about art and music, everything I love that inspires me about the culture of Europe...America is the antithesis. And I see this alien influence in Europe now, where everything from architecture to music is just based around economics - it's ugly. I see this new influence in Europe as being American. I, as an artist, reject that."
|Interestingly, Killing Joke are just on the verge of signing their first
American record deal in nine years of existence. After such a time, what can we
learn from the experience of Killing Joke?
"Get radical. Explore. It's only by not compromising and doing music that you believe in that you're going to get anywhere. You've got to be hard - and that's the only way that any management company or record company is going to respect you, if you are uncompromising about what you write. It's very difficult now, very difficult to exist and explore with music. But trends change. I see on the horizon the album market picking up again: I mean, look at the singles charts - it's so shallow. Serve the music. If you have conviction about your music and your style, it carries you through. That's all I can say. You've just got to trust in yourself."
Just as one of the most characteristic aspects of the Killing Joke sound has always been that huge, throaty guitar, so one of the most memorable visual images is debonair Geordie Walker slinging around those big gold mid-50s Gibson ES295s.
|"I got them both in London, the first years ago - about '81 or '82. I paid
double for the second one, 'cos they'd got trendy by then."
The noise they make seems to have been refined over the years. How were they recorded on Outside The Gate?
"We used the same amps I've always used, the Burmans, but DI'd them this time for more control, and then put it through the effects - a bit of echo and a stereo expander. It's funny, 'cos after having these Burmans for eight years, I didn't realise they had DI sockets on the back, then some roadie somewhere told me! I also overdubbed most parts with this old Gibson acoustic that I've just bought, so you get this kind of invisible guitar part. When you distort top end, it just goes into a fizz, but if you overdub with the acoustic it doesn't take any of the force out of the sound, and it gives a lot of clarity where necessary.
"The only other thing I do is that I tune the whole guitar down a tone so it goes from D to D. Especially with the semi-acoustic, the bottom D is just a touch more rich. It changes the voice of the guitar from, like, a violin to a viola. It was an accident that I changed to that tuning: one day I started tuning by ear and everyone followed because I could tune up the quickest, and suddenly it ended up a key down. I think it was round about the Revelations time. The others still use concert pitch and I just transpose. It sounds really good."
"The guitar's just an instrument you write music on. You don't have to follow Blues scales and certain chord structures, but guitarists like to be in work if they're sluts, you know, so they learn all that stuff. I mean, I actually learnt it - I could play the whole of Live At Leeds by the time I was 15!"