(From CMJ magazine, August 2003.)
Killing Joke: This Is No Joke
by Gerry Hart
|Twenty-five years from the
Youth first joined forces,
legendary demi-industrial postpunk act
Killing Joke has returned with a new, self-titled album (Zuma–Red
Ink–Epic). But this is no Eagles
reunion, kicking up old dust on even dustier hits just to make a few
post-midlife-crisis bucks; this is the group’s best album to-date. And
whether you know, loved or never even cared about the body of work that
precedes this new release, Killing Joke will turn your every question mark
into exclamation points — in fact, it will change all your punctuation.
Yes, Dave Grohl played drums on this album, and, yes, Dave Grohl seems to be doing this a lot these days — but his work with Killing Joke this year proves it has not been without purpose and not with indiscriminate abandon. Years ago, Nirvana was accused of ripping off Killing Joke, when it recorded “Come As You Are”, a track from 1991’s Nevermind that includes a riff suspiciously like a slowed-down version of the moderate KJ hit “Eighties.” Last year, Grohl finally got to meet KJ singer Jaz Coleman at a festival in New Zealand. Hatchets were buried, Coleman joined the Foo Fighters onstage to perform “Requiem” and, when it was all over, Grohl agreed to drum on a KJ song. When he heard the demos, he was floored and offered to do the entire record. Now that’s a story — even a nice story, but Dave Grohl is not the story, and for those who have listened to this new record, you know why. Fortunately, Killing Joke does not simply trade on its past or cameo lineups to make and break this album.
Killing Joke brings the band’s trademark view of an apocalyptic world moving quickly from horizon to home into even sharper focus. The band does it with conviction, commitment, audacity, even courage — a rare attribute in today’s music, where “daring” means wearing the latest ironic trends. War machines and the wealthy, lawlessness and banking, manmade hells and manmade devils, corruption at the highest levels; in Killing Joke’s world, there are too many with “Blood On [Our] Hands.” But this album has more hope than any of the killing jokes told before; amid the drama and genuine despair with which the band has made this record, there’s a kind of joy and faith in humanity — that there are still people within the sound of Jaz Coleman’s voice who can be moved to action. “Give me courage,” he says, “it’s time for celebration.”
CMJ caught up with Coleman at his rehearsal space in Prague, where he also acts as composer and sometimes conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra.
Killing Joke just ended a long period of
inactivity. What made it possible for you to make this record? What brought it
History and astrology, I think. When there are times of international tension, it’s always good for us. I see everybody in the band at least once every month or two on a personal level. So it’s not simply that we “got back together.” I hang out with these guys, work with them on other projects. We eat together — you know, that sort of thing [laughs].
How did Dave Grohl’s participation on the record
affect its direction?
When I talk of Killing Joke, I talk about it in the third person.We all serve Killing Joke. I consider myself a listener, a fan — a big fan of this sound I could never find in a record shop before and which became the impulse to make this music. Dave heard five tracks and when he heard the demos of the last five, he wet his pants.We have a strict style and tradition [laughs] and Dave fit into that great. It just seemed so natural. I barely noticed anything.
Where do you feel this album ranks overall in the
Killing Joke catalog?
Going back to the final mixes, when we were all in the room, it was very emotional. It was like God walked through the room; it was a rich, spooky experience. I mean, let’s be honest, reaching your best album after 25 years? You’re only meant to do that on one of your first two. I love what we’ve done before, but never before have I loved every single track on an album — on this one I do. I know it because I can start the album anywhere and I love it.
What kind of response have you been getting from
both new and diehard fans?
We’ve played 18 shows, and the gigs have been like white heat. It’s like 50,000 volts going through your body at a Killing Joke show. I hardly remember anything when we’re playing. As soon as I finish the gig, I shut my fucking mouth and go to bed, because there’s so much energy. Our shows today are great — great celebrations, not concerts. “Killing Joke”— those two words stand for a level of awareness about the world we feel our audiences share. It’s like a gathering of like-minded people, beloveds — it’s them who make [the shows] almost ceremonial, deeper, spiritual. It’s more than just buying a record of your favorite band and listening to it. It’s virginal. For us, it’s religion. We just serve this music.We “honor the flame,” as we call it.
As you look at music out there today, are there
artists, trends or albums that encourage and excite you?
I look at bands like System Of A Down and I’m encouraged. But I really haven’t heard anything that makes me want to get down on my knees and give thanks to God, because what I’ve heard feels like I’ve glimpsed the face of God through some new almighty sound [laughs]. All that Brit-pop just makes me vomit. It’s regressive and I don’t like regressive music.We’ve always been searching for the innovative, right? The explosive. We can only really play Killing Joke when our lives have been completely fucked up and we’re pissed off with the world we’re in — just so completely pissed off that we really need each other’s company.
How is the music business different today than it
was when you were last releasing records?
When we started, there must have been, I don’t know, 4,000 labels. Now there’s five going down to four, and then three, two and one [boisterous laughter] — and then what are we going to fucking do? You know, in the end, it all explodes into a college industry again. Today, people are just ripping us all off. I mean all this fucking downloading is taking 40 percent out of the pockets of musicians and we don’t get that much anyway. For that reason, I think live music will be on the ascendancy. I like the personal touch in records stores, too — places where you can come in and discuss music with people. The whole sociology of the world’s changing. I mean, the nuclear family isn’t exactly happening, is it? Today we talk about villages and new social structures forming. We take great interest in things like sustainable resources, non-musical things we’re passionate about. For example, [KJ guitarist] Geordie is a qualified architect, so we designed my house, built it and now we’re designing a temple. For us, Killing Joke’s music is the flagship, but what keeps us together are relations. I think of how many individuals along the way have seen Killing Joke and have gone on to do amazing things — not just musically.When you’re looking at us on stage, we don’t have much of a light show and we’re not the prettiest characters in the world; but when you see us, there’s this feeling you end up wanting to do something in life — that if Killing Joke can do all this, then what the hell are you going to do?
Is this what you mean by the music serving Killing
Joke? Why you talk about it in the third person?
Yes, I do believe in that. I think it’s common knowledge in the world that Killing Joke is a pretty close-knit family. I’ve still got my band after 25 years — look at the rest of them, eh? It’s amazing when I look at these photographs when we were all 17 or 18 and I think of all the years. I’m just happy.When you think about just how vast the experience has been, how we’re all alive and still together — much happiness. When I look at what’s happened in my life, sometimes it tears me.What can I say? We’ve been sincere. The fans have been the ones who kept us going during the “wilderness years,” as I call them, and through the hardest of times. I remember one concert on the last tour we did in America. This guy comes up to me and says, “Could you write something for my friend Ben? He’s dying and he’s always loved Killing Joke.” I said, “I’ll do better than that.” We drove about an hour to this hospital, and there’s this guy Ben, who could recite every Killing Joke song probably better than me. In terms of spiritual values, there’s a lot of confusion and doubt today. I just told him, “Look, when you go through life, you seek out light, love and intelligence and you find your way back home.” We talked about psalms and verses that make the soul bright, and I told him, “You’ll only die when you want to, and when you’re ready — so don’t you worry.” We did loads more gigs after that and, after our encores, I explained Ben’s situation to the audience and would say, “If you want to write Ben a letter on a cigarette packet or on a note, just give it to the people in the T-shirts at the back of the hall and we’ll send it on to him.” When he died, some eight weeks later, at his funeral there were all these signed packets and letters from all over the world. All that love — well, that’s Killing Joke, it’s not us. It’s the people that allow us to exist. Throughout the recording of this album, it was the people who love Killing Joke that kept us from just absolute despair and madness and hunger. I think you can hear it in the album. It’s about the people.