(From Mean Street, US music magazine, April 1996)

Killing Joke: Built For The Future

When punk happened two decades ago, it changed the world in a sense. You probably wouldn't be reading this magazine if it hadn't happened, or if you were, the subject matter might be entirely different. It did happen, thankfully. But whole most of the people who helped bring about the changes involved have since gone on to other things - or are considering a comeback for whatever reason - one of the widely acknowledged and influential bands never went away. Killing Joke has weathered all of the interim storms, and is every bit as relevant now as it was when it exploded onto the London scene in 1979.

And Jaz Coleman is every bit as outspoken as he has ever been. A half-hour phone conversation with the Killing Joke singer veers of its own accord from the new record, Democracy, to politics to romance to his favorite restaurants in Chicago. You don't ask Coleman questions, as such - you merely nudge him in a particular direction, and wait for whatever happens next.

Democracy is Killing Joke's tenth album, and its second for Zoo Entertainment. The first, Pandemonium, saw Coleman reuniting with original members Geordie Walker and Youth, after several years of pursuing other projects that included everything from Coleman's classical composing, Youth's long list of production and remix credits and Walker's participation in Murder Inc. (a deliberately loose coalition of former Killing Joke members Martin Atkins, Paul Ferguson and Paul Raven with Revolting Cocks/Pigface/solo singer Chris Connelly). Depending on which account you read, Coleman either bumped into Youth on the street, or Youth was working upstairs in the studio where Killing Joke was finishing up 1990's Extremities, Dirt And Various Repressed Emotions. The "how" is irrelevant - what's important is that they decided there was work yet to be done.

The latest work, Democracy, is Killing Joke's trademark wall of noise: swirling, howling guitars; brutal percussion and lyrics that require actual brain power. This is, and always has been, a thinking person's rock band, updated for the end of the millennium. The anthem could now well be "living in the 90s."

"This is our tenth album," Coleman muses, sounding almost surprised. "It's been 17 years, and I've been doing this since I was a teenager." He pauses, then laughs. "The average age of people who come to see us now were six or seven when we started. It's a strange thought, and no one is more surprised than I at the continuity of Killing Joke. But for me, it's always been so much more than a band. It's been a means of freedom, to go where you want, do what you want, write what you want. We've had that sort of punk outlook since we started, and I don't think much has changed there."

There is an ongoing debate about whether music should be communication or entertainment, and people tend to fall squarely on one side of the fence or the other. Coleman doesn't see it as either. "It's a social function," he says. "I have a lot of energy, and misdirected, that could turn into anger or all sorts of negative things. So for me, Killing Joke has been more of a social function, or therapy or catharsis. We were open about that in 1979. We said basically that most music is perceived as a pleasure principle. You put your CD or your record on when you come home from work, and you escape to a more desirable reality. But with Killing Joke, we were one of the first bands to really start an alternative function." He laughs again. "If you keep listening to Killing Joke music when you come home from work, you're going to end up losing your job, because it's essentially a lifestyle, you know?"

And an intense one at that. "It took two weeks to write this album," Coleman explains. "It was like a serious dialogue between the three of us. We live in three different countries (Coleman in New Zealand, Youth in the U.K., Walker in the U.S.), and this year all three of them are having elections."

Hence Democracy. But it isn't all about politics. It's more about the things that drive people to become political (or apolitical) in the first place. "The first thing we looked at was what to do with the rest of our lives," he says. "We talked long and hard about that, and we all agreed that it had to do with possibilities and the dreams of an alternative lifestyle. My interpretation of that is basically, 'Do what you want, not being enslaved to a job or a source of money, engineering that situation for yourself'."

Engineering your own happiness, basically. "Sure, absolutely," Coleman says. "I heard a sad story the other day. A friend of mine was on a boat crossing the Pacific, and he talked to the captain. It was the captain's last voyage, and he felt bad that he'd been away from his wife for so many years, and he wanted to make the time up to her when he retired. He dreamt of seeing seagulls fly past his window. But he died on that trip. So the moral of that story is that you have to take your retirement every day. When you're in a high pressure business, you're living from contract to contract, and stress levels are high. It takes years off your life unless you know how to deal with it."

He's heading off on another tangent, and he catches himself. "So this album is good, because we're looking at how we can be an answer to the problem. Collectively, we're looking 100 years into the future, and we're encouraging and enticing people to become visionaries. Anyone can do this."

He has an example all ready to go: "America is desperately in need of a new American Dream. It desperately needs visionaries. We don't need any more heroin icons. We don't need any more of Generation X. We need something that's inspiring, unifying, that builds a foundation of hope for the future. I find it so dark, the absence of spirituality, the weight of despair. It's no good. I don't identify with it, with what's gone on in terms of new music, where it's coming from and where it's heading, which is nowhere."

Easy to say, but how does one go about changing it? "By providing alternative information," Coleman says promptly. "By talking about the ways we can turn the situation in the world around. Small things.  For example, if every child in New Zealand were to plant six trees a year, within five years, we would have reforested half of New Zealand.  People think all these things are hard to do, but the Soviet Union broke up, people are flying around in outer space ... what is so crazy about reforestation? What is so crazy about the idea of an agrarian-based economy?"

He says he personally "voted with his feet" by moving to New Zealand and establishing citizenship there. This isn't an example everyone can follow, but Coleman at least put his money - literally - where his mouth is. "My children are there," he says. "And I choose to live there because it's a better life, essentially. It's the kind of place where I can see 100 years into the future, and it makes me pretty optimistic. And you can see thousands of years into the past as well. I always get very depressed in the U.K.  It's such a closed-in, urban environment. I don't like it. So I live in isolation, and then jump on a plane every five weeks or so. It's the best of both worlds. It gives me a sense of freedom that I never had in the past.

"I'm as happy as a man can be in his life," he adds, then switches gears abruptly. "And I'm in love." He laughs. "Can you imagine Jaz Coleman in love? Congratulations are in order - it's a hard thing to do, Jaz Coleman or not." He laughs again. "And she's American, as well."

--Karen Woods