(From B-Side, US-based music magazine, October / November 1994)
Killing Joke - Ten Years Wiser
Record company conference rooms can be so sterile. Some have art hanging on the walls and a window or two if you're lucky, but all are basically just rooms with long tables surrounded by a bunch of chairs. With almost no atmosphere to speak of, they never seem totally conducive to the kind of free-flowing conversation that makes for great interviews. Places with a little more ambience and character are so much better suited.
However, none of this applies to telephone interviews. Apart from the mood of the interview subject, which is often beyond the journalist's control unless he asks inane questions, the most crucial element to a quality phone interview is a clear connection. So I couldn't grasp why someone had arranged for the folks from Killing Joke to call from a bar where chatter filled the background, or why they were calling from a phone in close proximity to a jukebox which started blaring rockabilly. To best capture the mood of the band in this piece, halfway through reading it please dig out you old Stray Cats albums and blast them at volumes that will have your neighbors scrambling for the landlord's phone number. (If you refuse to admit that you have at least one Stray Cats album, the Reverend Horton will suffice.)
Much has changed in the Killing Joke camp since their last album, 1990's Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions. Youth, the band's original bassist, has returned after a dozen years spent establishing himself as an in-demand producer. Martin Atkins, famous for his stint in Public Image Limited and more recently for founding Pigface, has left Killing Joke after one album and several tours. While the band's lineup sounded like it was on the brink of self-destruction a few years ago, the members now talk with great frequency about how much they are enjoying their work together.
One thing hasn't changed, though. The band has continued to fight the cliche about bands who go on hiatus only to return as a pale shadow of their former selves. While Killing Joke's sound has evolved, if through the magic of a time machine Killing Joke heard in 1979 what they'd sound like in 1994, they would have much reason to be proud of what the punk-era band had become. Their newest album Pandemonium continues the streak started by Extremities. Pandemonium is driven and forceful without being loud just for the sake of volume, with rich texturing and intelligent lyrics.
Back in 1991 when discussing Extremities, Atkins painted the picture of a band whose ties to their label and each other were tenuous at best. Much of that tension bore fruit, but Killing Joke appear to have now settled into a new era of stability. Atkins insisted that Extremities would be Killing Joke's last album for the label Noise International, observing that the label only wanted the band for quick cash and an entrance into the alternative market; he failed to point out that the label's own publicity department misspelled keyboardist and lead singer Jaz Coleman's name in their biography or that they identified Raven, the band's second bassist, as an original member. The band has moved on to Zoo Entertainment; like Noise, Zoo is part of the BMG family, but unlike Noise, Zoo is getting its facts about the band straight.
Then there was the fallout. When discussing Extremities, Atkins all but said the band could break up at any moment. Soon afterwards rumors started circulating that Raven, Atkins and original guitarist Geordie had kicked Jaz out of the band. The proof seemed to be in Murder Inc., a band headed by Atkins that featured Raven, Geordie and original KJ drummer Paul Ferguson with no sign of Jaz but plenty of Pigface / Revolting Cocks vocalist Chris Connelly.
So while the quality of Pandemonium isn't a surprise, the mere continuing existence of Killing Joke is. And even more surprising is how much they enjoy working together. Both Youth and Geordie repeatedly use the word "fun" when talking about recording and touring as Killing Joke. As for the problems of the past, the mere mention of Martin Atkins' name makes Geordie bristle - "Oh, I don't want to talk about him," he says dismissively, then laughs heartily.
Each of the three remaining original members of Killing Joke had taken a different path to reach this present level of stability. Jaz has done solo material and played with other musicians over the years. Youth left the band for over a decade, working mainly as a producer and recently setting up his own label. And Geordie had more or less stayed withing the Killing Joke fold.
While best known as a rock musician, Jaz is also a classically-trained performer and composer. Prior to Extremities, Jaz had recorded with the Art of Noise's Anne Dudley and the Cairo symphony Orchestra. He returned to the classical milieu between the two most recent Killing Joke albums to compose for the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as well as orchestras from Minsk and New Zealand, where he now lives.
Youth explains why he left performance to become a producer, and in doing so, highlights how being in Killing Joke is now different. "With a performance, you're always playing old material. If it's a long tour, you're just doing the same songs every night. It's too much like a show band for me. I can't get into that side of it. I don't find that very challenging. Also when you're touring, most of the day is spent travelling and being in limbo for just the performance. so the way we did it this time I really enjoyed it because we did it a more tribal way. We stayed on the buses and it was great. It was good fun. But we're going to make it fun this time. We're not going to do endless tours in endless countries and do the same set every night. We have to make it more challenging for ourselves.
"The other aspect of course is that when you're in the studio, you're contantly writing and being creative. You've got more mountains to climb. You've got a much vaster territory to cover and explore. And also, as a producer the perspective is realizing the artist's vision. By default you have to learn a lot about being a bit detached from your own vision, which I'm very comfortable with. And yet at the same time, it's your work as well. You've got to make the record complete. The real challenges come with working with the people involved. It stands to the personalities and the emotional chemistry between the people in the room at any one time. That's really where all the work's done, where all the benefits and satisfaction come from. It's on a very personal level with the individuals involved. And I find the music just reflects that."
Part of Youth's work as a producer is recognizing what he shouldn't do. "[Someone] will approach me with a view to commissioning me to producing work for them. And I'll meet them and I'll find that maybe it's not appropriate that they work with me. A band that comes to mind like that is Spiritualized. They approached me and they said, 'We really need you to sort these tracks we've done out and mix them and then produce these other ones.' And I heard the tracks and I said, 'Well, no. You don't really need me on this one. You just need a good engineer to mix these tracks.' And in the end the guy went off and used the engineer I suggested, got the mixes, still wasn't happy, came back, played me the mixes and I said, 'No, they're fine. They're fantastic! What are you talking about?' They went back, reevaluated them and put them out. And often do a lot of work on that level. I end up A&R-ing their project. It's like a consultancy. I'm very happy to give people my opinion of their work and if they can find some worth out of that and be benefited from that, it makes me feel very good.
"I've earned a reputation that people ask me to do these things. It's great. I actually end up learning far more than them, I think. It is very much an interactive process. It's a great privilege for me to be able to collaborate and work with all these artists. It's like you join the band for a little bit.
"That's really why I started the label, because I wanted to develop that even further than just one album and take it over a more long-term perspective," Youth continues. "Develop and work with them and realizing their dreams and visions over a period of time because I can be effective that way. That's where I'm at now. And we're still a small label and a relatively small operation. But I'm doing what I want to do. And it's great. It's really exciting, after 15 years of going through it, to be in a situation where you are doing what you want to do. And allowed to get away with it."
For his part, Geordie offers some anecdotes to explain why he hasn't ventured forth like his bandmates. "Faith No More rang me up and said, 'We've sacked our guitarist. Do you want to come down?' And I went and had a play with them, but they already had it really written, and I would have had to give up Killing Joke. And they like touring for 18 months. And I didn't like the idea of playing all their old songs. I said, 'Well, try this.' And I started playing some of my stuff. And the singer really liked it, but the rest of the band have very much their own [ideas]. Really nice guys."
Atkins approached Geordie about Murder Inc. "[Aktins] said, 'I've got some money. Let's record an album.' Formed the band, wrote the music, recorded and mixed it, finished it within three weeks. But then it didn't come out 'til a year later and some of the members did the Pigface thing and it turned ugly and a lot of them fell out with each other. And that was that. I throw away about 70% of the stuff that I write. So I keep it to Killing Joke stuff, to be honest. That's what I prefer... I want my own music, which is probably why I don't like working with other musicians."
Although Youth claims a bit of ignorance about why he was brought back after such a long absence, Geordie's telling of the tale implies that Youth took an active role in reclaiming his spot. "It was quite strange how it happened because we bumped into him when we did the previous Killing Joke album," Geordie recalls. "Youth was upstairs doing Bananarama. And then within about six months Virgin were doing the Best Of and I got involved in that to make sure the right tracks were on it. And I rang Youth to see if he had any old photos for the art work. And he was just like, 'Oh, we should reform then.' I thought he was joking. He said it one day, just the way he said it. And within about a month, he put an offer in and off we went. And it's absolutely wonderful having him back. 'Cause I think Jaz and I were working a bit hard and it's nice having Youth back and getting back to writing real fucking songs together. It's cool."
The relationship among Jaz, Geordie and Youth Hasn't been altered much by the passage of time. "People don't change that much. It's all strangely familiar," Geordie observes. Youth echoes his sentiments. Geordie does mention one thing that's changed, though. "It was just like being kids again. Fun to be bouncing ideas off of each other but being 10 years wiser." He adds that Youth's return has also brought greater stability to the line-up. "Chemistry-wise, I think it's the best we've had. Just how Youth deals with Jaz, et cetera, it's a real weight off my shoulders. It used to get a bit fraught. I'm a lot more relaxed these days having Youth at the controls."
Pandemonium was recorded in three sessions last year. They spent three weeks in the end of May and beginning of June recording the backing tracks in New Zealand's York studios, which Jaz co-owns. "Then Jaz and Youth went over to Cairo to do some of the verse vocals and the whole of 'Exorcism' in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid,'" notes Geordie, adding that he skipped that session. "I went to the seaside with my little boy who was one at the time and took him riding the donkeys and paddling in the sea." Geordie won't stake any claims on who had the better time, but he did enjoy himself. "Then we came back to England and did eight weeks finishing the vocals and putting on keyboards, then mixed it in London." They worked at Youth's Butterfly studios in Brixton, finishing up in the autumn.
According to Geordie, part of that reviewing process led them to their new drummer, Geoff Dugmore. "We use two drummers in New Zealand. And then when we came back to London and scrutinized, we thought we could do a bit better. And we got Geoff Dugmore to replace some of the drums on some of the songs. He just really understood the whole thing."
A less noticeable lineup change is the departure of John Bechdel, the keyboard player who only toured with the band, freeing up Jaz to concentrate on his vocals. Bechdel and Raven have gone off to tour with Prong. Although Killing Joke had recruited a new keyboardist for the first leg of the current tour, they lost him to session work with Trevor Horn and were about to face auditions. But Geordie notes another prospect. "A friend of ours is doing lights for Barbra Streisand... Barbra Streisand's keyboard player is a fucking Killing Joke fan. And Arthur's going to introduce us."
On one had Geordie expresses a bit of amazement at the disparity. "It's surprising the musicians that are actually into Killing Joke, where they're from. It's quite astounding sometimes." On the other hand, he is unfazed by the prospect of the album crossing over to a metal audience. "We draw from a lot of diverse influences. And it's nice that it's not all categorized. You can get people from all kinds of streams of music into it. They can find something in it they relate to."
Everything except, perhaps, the Stray Cats.