(From Melody Maker, 23 April 1994)
Post-punk legends Killing Joke are back, good news for devotees of this often frighteningly intense rock band. Andrew Smith reports.
In all of rock, there is no more fascinating story than Killing Joke's. Setting out on their recording career in 1979, the last of the great English punk bands were a war in progress. The initial line-up - Jaz Coleman on vocals, Geordie on guitar, "Big" Paul Ferguson on drums and Youth (yes, the Youth) on bass - had all the attributes of a great band: terrifying intensity, epic clashes of ego and a sophisticated grasp of ambience and texture, most notably manifested in their irreverent use of dub rhythms and groove-based hypnotics.
In 1982, Youth left the band, strung out on drink and drugs, disillusioned with the business. Later, he worked with Brilliant and Zodiac Mindwarp. Later still he ditched the circus entirely and become one of the most respected dance producers in the country. Coleman, meanwhile, made the first of many eccentric career moves and disappeared to Iceland. After this, things were never quite the same, though 1985's gloriously evocative anthem, "Love Like Blood", did briefly establish the Joke as a major international act.
Even while the music lurched towards indulgence in the latter half of the Eighties, however, the fury remained. Coleman became increasingly obsessed with the black arts, the writings of Aleister Crowley, the collapse of civilisation into chaos, the destruction of the planet and the rise of fundamentalism in the East.
"I love the din," he says now. "when you get to your thirties, you obviously have to accept aspects of yourself which you may previously have found uncomfortable. One of the things I have to accept is a fury in my personality."
People thought Coleman was mad. lt's easy to see why. On one celebrated occasion, he turned up at The Maker offices after someone had written something unkind about him. Flinging a piece of maggot-infested liver at the reception desk, he uttered a black magic curse and left. That's the story as it's told down at the Stamford Arms, anyway. A short while after, he moved lock, stock and barrel to New Zealand. He commutes from New Zealand. Geordie lives in Detroit. Youth runs his burgeoning Butterfly dance organisation from a house-cum-studio in Brixton.
All of which is relevant because, late last year, Youth rejoined Killing Joke after a l0-year absence, playing bass and producing their new album, "Pandemonium". And contrary to all reasonable expectation, it's blinding. Listen to the first single, "Millennium", to the churning splendour of the guitars, the plasticity of the rhythms and the subtlety of the melodies. Listen to the menace in Coleman's voice. Gut-wrenching. And it's not even the best track. Forget the New Wave of The New Wave, man. Check out the Old Wave of the New Wave.
"In a way, I feel like everything I've done up until this point was a preparation for this album," enthuses Youth, sitting cross-legged, Buddha-style, on a settee at Butterfly HQ. "It seemed like I had to leave the band in order to establish myself in my own way and be able to come back and do what we've just done."
Was it easy to work together again, after all this time? There's a pause. A grin is playing around Youth's lips. His comrades are watching intently.
"It was the most ... challenging experience I've ever had," he eventually says.
The band guffaw loudly. What he's saying is that they fought like cats and dogs, just as they always did.
"See, we're very uncompromising the way we like to work," says Youth. "The parameters we set ourselves are very strict and they extend beyond the work into our personal lives, it's a assault course for the emotions. We explore ourselves, especially the darker sides that you're not made to feel so good about normally, such as guilt, jealousy, hate. We haven't lost our original aggression, though we have become more focused in how we express it.
To be sure, Killing Joke like to challenge themselves in unusual ways. Most of "Pandemonium" was recorded in Jaz's studio in Auckland, but the vocals for one song, 'Exorcism', were reputedly performed in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid at Khartoum. As the singer tells it, the lyrics were largely improvised.
Did you have the title already worked out?
Er, what exactly did you exorcise?
"Aspects of sickness within ourselves," says Jaz. "Let's face it, it's there in everyone. There are some unconscious aspects of the lyrical performance that I still find very difficult to listen to, they're too violent for my tender heart. You see, I can't differential between excitement and feat. They mingle in the same glass."
When it comes to mingling, Coleman knows a trick or two. An accomplished violinist, since 1990's "Extremities, Dirt And Various Repressed Emotions" LP he's been composing classical symphonies. Two of them have now been recorded, by the London and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras. They're to be released in a few months on RCA. After the interview we go upstairs to hear excerpts. They sound mighty good.
Does this straddling of cultures make Jaz feel schizophrenic? The "skinny half-caste kid" from a big Brahmin family in Cheltenham says he's used to feeling out of place.
"Napoleon said: 'Beware the man who sleeps with his eyes open' - I like that," he comments.
Which brings us back to the New Wave of the New Wave. I wonder how the old guard feel about it? Youth is straining at the leash.
"It's a media manipulation frenzy," he seethes. "There again, so was punk. We were always offended at being called a punk band. And New Wave was just an acceptable term for punk, so the big companies could sign it without cringing when they went home to their families."
Even so, hasn't rock, let alone punk, always been a young (wo)man's game?
"I never saw that," bristles Youth. "It's absolute bullshit. As I see it, you define yourself in your own way. It doesn't matter what age you are, what sex you are, what race you are. You can do whatever you want. I always react very strongly when people say it's cool to do something. I always do the opposite. That's precisely what Killing Joke has always been about."
It would take a much more foolish man than I to disagree.