(From Reflex, 'America's Premier Alternative Entertainment Magazine' from NYC, September/October 1991)
|Killing Joke: Rejuvenation
by Staci Bonner
Killing Joke is alive and well, and feeling very irreplaceable. Thank God. We could all use a reminder that bands like this still exist; that they haven't all been reduced to a memory -- or worse, exist and reanimated parodies of themselves. Killing Joke still has passion, and -- best of all -- they have vision as well, when no one else seems to have a clue. Veteran songwriter/performer/visionary Jaz Coleman was satisfied -- more than -- with his band's eighth album, Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions, released last year on the metallic label Noise Int'l.
"I've played Extremities alongside our first, second and third LPs," he says, "and I think it's the best thing we've ever done. It's so strange -- an intense and explosive comparison." Now 30, Coleman is, if anything, more intense -- more fused with passion -- than ever. "I'm more on edge than I was 12 years ago," he says. His piercing eyes are deep-set and framed by thick, dark brows, projecting a penetrating gaze that reeks with insight. Probably he'd be frightening if he weren't so fundamentally sane. A thoughtful and studious man who was only 18 when he started Killing Joke, Coleman has studied everything from the Book Of Revelations to Aleister Crowley to Nordic mythology. For eight years he worked on an immense orchestral entitled Idavoll, and recently -- along with Art Of Noise member Anne Dudley -- he led the Cairo Symphony in a performance of his Songs From The Victorious City. An enigmatic talent, Coleman remains a hero to many; the voice of experience, a reminder that music can be more than just music.
If this last album exudes frustration, it's because Killing Joke is -- and always has been -- one frustrated, pissed off, volatile band. To listen to Killing Joke is to assimilate their angst. But the great thing about them is, it's not just angst -- it's salvation as well. There's always a light at the end of the tunnel. For Jaz Coleman, life's not for nothing; ultimately it's a positive thing, worth some degree of hell just to live it.
"Before Extremities, Killing Joke had just been through the worst time in its collective life. It was the absolute pits, the rock bottom. I had a nervous breakdown, massive financial problems -- but our will to survive was strong. I feel passionately about Extremities. It's modern, '90s, light-years ahead. I don't believe anything else we've done compares."
Featured on Extremities were stalwart guitarist Geordie, newcomer Martin Atkins and returning bassist Raven. As always, the music fits into any one of a number of musical categories. Depending on your point of view, Killing Joke is either an impenetrable world, a hopeless chasm, or a heartless noose. Coleman says, "We get categorized as 'new-wave' avant garde or even metal. It says a lot -- it shows we don't have any one idea. 'Wardance', for example, seems to be becoming more significant as time goes on."
Killing Joke goes far beyond what one is accustomed to expect from music, mixing a cerebral and visceral nihilism with an intense, uplifting energy. Coleman describes the band as a "sanctuary." "Killing Joke is a relief from fears -- a way to keep our heads above water," he says. "It's so much harder for everybody now. It's harder to just pay your rent. People need a form of music that's more intense."
And Killing Joke, as always, strives to answer the need. "Why do I continue with this group? There are many reasons," Coleman says. "There is not enough money. People feel trapped. There is every reason for Killing Joke to exist." Giving up is not a real possibility for Coleman; as long as the world is insane, it needs sane, honest music. "Our music is a response to our struggle to exist in a mad world."
Coleman lives for the moment, and has no moments to waste. "Take a look at the people around us. They exchange the hours of their lives for cash so they can buy property." This is not meant judgmentally or vindictively -- Coleman is just a man who values life, and every second of it. "We're here for a short time. You close your eyes, you blink, and you're dead. I believe we've become so materialistic that we've lost ourselves as a race. And when I say that, I'm speaking to myself as well."
To deal with the incredible frustration he feels, Coleman meditates daily. He sees this as a prerequisite for survival, period. "We've become separated from God -- however you perceive She or He to be. We are no longer spiritual creatures." Meditation lessens this painful gap. "The way to survive is to stop all thoughts in your mind, and try to just be still. The answers come to you." Enlightenment comes from absolute silence, and release from exertion and cacophony.
Though a neophyte on the Killing Joke scene, drummer Martin Atkins is no stranger to intense onstage moments. He first paid his dues with the early '80s Lydon-Levene-Wobble version of Public Image Ltd. and, more recently, he survived last year's infamous double-drummer Ministry tour. "But Killing Joke are a much different beast," he says. "There are some forces unleashed in this band that are unlike anything else."
More attuned to the material world than Coleman, Atkins runs his own record label, Invisible Records, out of Chicago. "One reason I call my label 'Invisible' is that I want to be independent. The only way to change things is to understand the business you're in. Then you can manipulate it to change it." A firm believer in the Do-It-Yourself school of thought, Atkins says, "More people should subscribe to this philosophy. You need to take some responsibility for your situation and work to change things. You can't blame it all on your record label."
Atkins confesses that just before he joined the band, he listened to their pre-breakup release, Outside The Gate, and hated it. He has no such problem with Extremities -- he's quite proud of it, in fact. "It's what people think of when they think of Killing Joke. It's like the first three albums. it has that spirit -- it's Killing Joke again."
But it's in live performances where the true rages of Killing Joke -- its intense loves and hates -- are let loose. "It is and always has been violent," Atkins says with pride. "It's physically exhausting, pushing things over a certain edge -- over a wall of physical pain and exhaustion. Things just happen." He drums like a maniac, with his mind and body unleashed. "After a gig, I look at my hands and two layers of skin have come off, and I'm bleeding, and I don't remember it happening."
Performing is something of a mental exorcism. "You lose most of the chains that keep your mind anchored," he says. "You know, thoughts like, 'I must remember to get some coffee'. All those thoughts take up space inside your head, and make it hard to just play the drums or the bass."
More than anything, Killing Joke hates mental clutter. They resent it in themselves and their audiences. Atkins blames it on videos, at least in part. "At the old Ritz (in NYC), they had video just to film the band so people could see better, at first. Then, they started with special effects videos, and eventually happened was, everyone in the audience wound up looking at the TV rather than at the band."
Obviously, for an outfit like Killing Joke -- which comes without embellishment -- this is a step beyond the offensive. It ruins the point. "It's not enough for five people to get onstage and do it, man. It has to be something to pander to the video generation. People expect to have a remote control for everything. When they go to a bar and see a band, they want to see a video with all the edits. They want a remote control and a drink in their hands."
Atkins snorts in disgust, and reasserts his firm belief in independence and self-sufficiency. "When you take control very firmly, you cannot be dictated by other forces." This is a view he shares with Ministry cohort Al Jourgensen who, like Killing Joke, has left a major label for the level of control offered by an independent. But control brings with it responsibility. Says Atkins, "When you do it yourself, you have to work and deal with business shit in order to have the strength to put out vinyl. We have to have business awareness. That means an hour before a gig, I might be on the phone with some idiot negotiating a deal in a foreign currency."
One way or another, freedom costs. But it is a price Killing Joke is more than willing to pay. "As our heads get filled with all this business stuff, it gets harder and harder to clear it out and play the drums. So you do certain rituals to clear your mind, to get it into an instinctive state. I exhaust and hurt myself to clear my mind." Whatever it takes to clear one's mind is more than worth it, after all. "There's a point where you just don't pass the wall, you jump up and down and spit on it." Nothing is half-hearted. That's Killing Joke.