(From the Denver Westword, Colorado, 30 October 2003.)
Knock 'em Dead
Killing Joke's Ghoulish Rock has the Last Laugh
by Jason Heller
"Mark out the points! Build the pyre!
Assemble different drummers! Light up the fire! Put on your masks and animal
Dictums for an ancient pagan ritual? Canons handed down by a Druidic high priest during Samhain, the Celtic precursor to Halloween where worshipers draped themselves in costumes and the dead came back to augur the future of the hapless living? Close. They're lines from "The Death & Resurrection Show," the opening cut on Killing Joke's new, self-titled album. The band, originally based in England and now spread across the globe like sleeper cells of a secret society, has risen yet again to make one of the best records of its quarter-century career -- not to mention the spookiest.
"We're on tour in the north of England right now. It's fucking bleak," states Jaz Coleman, the 41-year-old singer/keyboardist of Killing Joke. His voice, raw and eroded, sounds like he's guzzled a bit too much blood and nicotine over the eons. "You don't want to go there. The drinks are cheap, but that's about it.
"But if it's a bleak place," he adds with a devilish laugh, "Killing Joke is normally way popular."
"Bleak" doesn't even start to describe Killing Joke's new disc. The cover is a stark drawing of a demonic clown face fixed in a hideous rictus, rendered in festive orange and black. Pagans originally chose those colors for Samhain because of their symbolism: black for death and magic, orange for harvest. Coincidentally, those three themes are intertwined throughout the album. On "The Death & Resurrection Show," a malevolent riff pounds away with primordial ferocity as Coleman chants, "Choose the crucifixion/Or Osiris slain/Recurring themes, time again." The rest of the record is a litany of cataclysm -- biochemical warfare, corporate imperialism, apocalypse via asteroid -- set against a dark backdrop of splattered rhythms and gutted guitars.
Amid all its morbidity and decay, however, the album reaps fruits of defiance, even triumph. "You'll Never Get to Me" is swelling and anthemic, with an epic melody propelling Coleman's gob of spit into the eye of cruel reality: "You'll never get to me/Survival is my victory/Time for celebration/Overcome with a sense of elation." The party doesn't last long, though: On "Total Invasion," the singer sounds like he's sucking gasoline through his lungs as he hisses, "Just enough water/For a third of the world/Oil barons running the government/So I'll start a war/It's a fucking crusade/A lesson in trade."
"We traditionally always do well during any war periods," says Coleman, cackling again like Mephisto huffing nitrous. "And then there's the astrology factor. I mean, when it's the right time, it's the right time. What can I say? You have people going through loads of shit and dying everywhere, and then you go do a record. You can't predict it. It just happens."
Killing Joke's eerie ability to reflect the sickness of the world around it has been one of the group's trademarks since its inception. Formed in 1978 by Coleman, guitarist Geordie, bassist Youth and drummer Paul Ferguson, the quartet released its corrosive, pummeling debut two years later. With equal parts viciousness and detachment, it jammed the cold, glinting spikiness of post-punk into the savage fever of rock and roll -- in the process sculpting a nightmare diorama of the depressed, corrupt, post-industrial landscape of the time.
"Killing Joke emerged just as punk was dying," Coleman remembers. "We didn't really like punk rhythm sections. We liked the fire from punk and the attitude, but that was about it. Apart from that, the world was our oyster in terms of musical style. We created what was comfortable to us, what we wanted to hear. The whole idea of a dance beat or a groove underneath fire from heaven was our kind of dream."
Growing up in an affluent, academic household, Coleman wasn't always a mystic alchemist of beats and noise -- actually, quite the contrary. While most English teenagers in the 1970s were trying to mimic David Bowie or Johnny Rotten, this future avatar of dystopian rock was studying Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.
"Since I was about five, I've had an intensive classical training," Coleman divulges. "I was with the National Youth Orchestra in Great Britain, playing violin and singing." Indeed, by the age of fourteen, he had won numerous awards as a chorister in some of the great cathedrals of England. "I was a straight kid. I didn't listen to any pop music, though I met Brian Jones once as a kid. He went to school with my uncle. But I wasn't interested in rock music or pop music."
Epiphany came in the form of temptation: a young girl, a bag of weed and -- most important -- the otherworldly music of Germany's legendary avant-rock collective Can.
"I was with this orchestra, I was fifteen actually, when I met this girl who was a cello player -- you know, that big violin where they keep their legs apart," Coleman recollects with a wink in his voice. "She asked me if I enjoyed rock music, and I said, 'No, what's that?' So she said, 'Well, I'll play you some.' So we went to her house, and she said, 'You wouldn't smoke marijuana, would you?' And I said, 'I wouldn't dream of it.' But I did, and she played me this group called Can, and I stayed with her and had a wonderful night -- you know, incense, joss sticks, lovely woman, marijuana, all those things you do as a kid. And I listened to Can; I was a total convert. I thought, 'Wow, I finally hear rhythm.' And when I heard rhythm for the first time, it coincided with my sexuality.
"The next day, I was different," he continues in an almost reverential tone. "I was a man, I guess. When my parents came back off holiday, I had sold my very expensive violin at Sotheby's and bought synthesizers instead and started wearing all black. They were horrified."
Coleman couldn't stray far from his cultured upbringing, though. In 1982, after making three scorching albums with Killing Joke, he took a sabbatical from the group and settled briefly in Iceland before resuming his classical studies. More interested in composing than performing, he began wielding the conductor's wand across Egypt, Russia and Germany, eventually building a prestigious resume in the world of contemporary classical music. Besides engagements leading the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, he's made fifteen classical recordings, including two with famed violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy. Still, his most recognized forays into classical music have been Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones and Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd, two albums that rode the Billboard classical charts in '94 and '95. Coleman currently conducts the Prague Symphony Orchestra, splitting his time between the Czech Republic, Switzerland and New Zealand, where he lives on a farm and admittedly loves his "peace and quiet."
"I wouldn't swap my life for anyone's," he remarks. "I get to conduct great orchestras of the world on wonderful stages, and I get to be in the heaviest underground band in the world. I don't have much to complain about."
During his rise through the classical ranks, Coleman remained sporadically active with Killing Joke, touring and releasing records every few years. But regardless of the different masks he has donned over the decades, his work has sent shock waves throughout the world of music. Killing Joke's hardwiring of steeliness and aggression became a template for the harsh, cybernetic strains of industrial, and this influence radiated out to such prominent groups as Big Black, Godflesh, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Neurosis and Tool -- not to mention Nirvana. In fact, Kurt Cobain and crew were almost sued by Coleman in 1992 after the release of the single of "Come As You Are," a track that Cobain admitted was just a slowed-down version of Killing Joke's 1985 song "Eighties."
"There was definitely tension between us," Coleman says. "It's the whole idea of intellectual copyright, isn't it? We did feel that the riff was taken from us. The last interviewer I spoke to asked me, 'Did you know about this guy who worked for Killing Joke who got up on stage once while Nirvana was playing and bashed Kurt Cobain in the face?' I'd never heard of it before, but apparently it happened."
Karma swung back Killing Joke's way, though, when Dave Grohl enthusiastically agreed to drum on the band's new disc. As Coleman elaborates, "The original idea was to have three of our favorite drummers play on the album, Dave being one of them. We also wanted John [Dolmayan] from System of a Down and Danny [Carey] from Tool. But when Dave heard the songs, he said, 'I want the whole thing.' We love him to bits. You know, he's one of those funny kind of guys who can drink a whole bottle of Crown Royal whiskey and still be the same, nice, affable man -- not like our lot."
Besides the assist from Grohl (who, due to his hectic schedule, is being replaced on tour with Ted Parsons, formerly of the Swans and Prong), Killing Joke's new full-length features contributions from Raven, one of the group's longtime bassists, and Andy Gill of Gang of Four, who also produced it. "Andy is an old mate of ours from years back," explains Coleman. "We brought him in because all of us in the band are producers, and it stopped us from fighting amongst each other. It worked out quite well. It didn't work out so well, however, for his very expensive and rare wine collection."
While quick to kid around at a friend's expense, when it comes to his new disc, Coleman is dead serious. "It's so fucking now. I don't know how else to describe it," he comments. "There's no comparison between us and other bands that are simply re-forming. We never broke up; we made a pact never to break up. We did this album for purposes of contributing to innovation as opposed to our accountants telling us we had to do it.
"Certain things just get better as you get older," he continues. "One of them is playing. I wish we sounded back then like we do now. It's a real spiritual experience every night for me. Don't ask me what I think about when I'm on stage, because I barely remember anything at all. It's like one big oil painting with the paints all thrown together. It's almost addictive after a while. It really hurts your body. It's like fifty thousand volts going through you. A strange phenomenon happens sometimes on stage: The place might be going crazy, but everything goes silent to us. Everything looks like it's going in slow motion. We call this 'the white heat.'"
The way Coleman talks about it, the live Killing Joke experience sounds almost like an arcane, orgiastic ritual held around a raging bonfire in the middle of a sacred wood -- either that, or feeding time at an insane asylum where the pudding has been dosed with angel dust.
"All kinds of outrageous things have happened to us at our shows," he says. "We've been hit with gas canisters. Once, this couple even started shagging on stage. The girl started knobbing; it was full penetration. I had to pour a pint of beer over them to try to get them apart. And someone once put a baby on the stage with a note saying "It's yours" attached to it.
"Oh," he adds, almost as an afterthought, "I've been shot, too."
"Yeah, three times now. Bad shots, eh? You get bloody nutcases. Now we shoot back, you fuckers."
So with the black clouds of All Hallows' Eve drawing ominously nigh, Killing Joke is returning to the New World to wreak havoc, unleash dark forces and lead everyone in the primal, eldritch liturgy that is the tribal root of rock and roll -- and, of course, Halloween.
"Oh, I love it, all that bobbing for apples and shit, the pumpkins, the atmosphere," Coleman enthuses. "And All Souls' Day, the day where we say prayers for the dear deceased. Now, in pagan times, we believed this was when our ancestors came back to give us good advice for the coming year and the hard winter ahead. So it's a night when the gateways are open and the spirits come through into the world of the living. And I believe this very much."
When asked for a clue as to how he'll celebrate Halloween on stage this year, Coleman evades the question by returning one. "What do hillbillies do for Halloween?" he asks before busting into gales of rather hair-raising howls. "Pump kin!"
After the guffaws die down and the goose bumps subside, Coleman goes on: "Seriously though, I always love wearing costumes on Halloween. But I'm not saying what we're up to; you'll have to wait and see on that. But I will tell you this: I normally go as something in between the jester and the lord high executioner."
For the impish yet bloodthirsty leader of a band called Killing Joke, what costume could be more fitting?