(The following is the complete article, an edited version of which will appear in an upcoming issue of Guitar UK. Special thanks to the author, Jenny Knight, for agreeing to share the complete version here.)
If the legendary Killing Joke still sound totally valid, it's not because they've mellowed: it's just that the world has finally caught up. Jenny Knight shares a glass or three with guitarist Geordie Walker...
We never thought we'd get to write 'pretty' and 'apocalyptic' in the same sentence, but then Killing Joke have always been full of surprises. Now in its 25th year, the band has just released its 11th studio album, Killing Joke, and is about to lurch out on a mammoth world tour. We caught up with the band in the middle of recording four tracks at the BBC's studios.
The biggest surprise on listening to Killing Joke is that it just might be the band's best release to date. There isn't a single filler track on the album: it's rousing and ferocious from first note to last, and comes capped with incredible drumming from Mr. Dave Grohl of Nirvana/Foo Fighters fame. Original bass player Youth provides some of the low-string stuff, but he and Grohl have been replaced for touring duties by former Joke bassist Paul Raven and drummer Ted Parsons, who between them have appeared in Pigface, The Hellfire Club, Prong, Swans, Godflesh and Napalm Death.
In contrast to Killing Joke's fierce image, Walker is an immediately charming raconteur. In fact, full of joie de vivre as he is, it sometimes looks like he's coming dangerously close to sabotaging the day's business - yet when it's time to play and everyone else tenses and trips up, Geordie plugs in and effortlessly pulls off his trademark searing riffs.
Between takes, we head to the canteen for some liquid refreshment. The staff look askance at Walker's can of Guinness, the freeness of his language and the cigarette being rakishly waved around, but wisely say nothing. In conversation, the guitarist refuses to take anything too seriously and frequently meanders off on a tangent when bored; trying to pin down his point is sometimes like trying to follow a map without any markings... which makes the trip all the more fun.
'I'd never been in band before. I was living up in Bletchley, which was Milton Keynes in the making,' Walker recounts. 'I moved there in '72, onto a brand new housing estate. I was 14 years old with a Geordie accent, so that's how I got stuck with the name. 'Luckily I played guitar, so I stayed out of trouble. The music teacher liked me, so I made her buy a Marshall - they were made in Bletchley. I used to play at lunchtimes, and there would be these boneheads hanging around in detention, going "Who's that?"
'I applied to college in London to do architecture, but what I really wanted to do was get into a band. I answered an advert in the Melody Maker that struck a chord with me: "Want to be part of the Killing Joke? Total publicity, total exploitation". It looked nice and hardcore. I turned up and Jaz Coleman asked me if I'd ever been in any bands before. I said, "No, I've played in my bedroom." Actually, he's only just told me this - he tried to palm me off to another band for two months!
'I turned up at his mum's flat in Battersea and he's putting on Peter Perrett and The Only Ones and it was fucking shit. "What do you like?" "The Radio Stars." "That's shit!" Eventually we agreed we both liked fishing: country boys! And once we'd got the music out of the way, we got on like a house on fire...'
Killing Joke was always a notoriously confrontational outfit, both to its audience and to each other, and these days - to the untrained eye, at least - Coleman and Walker appear alarmingly catty towards one another, with the guitarist occasionally calling a halt to the BBC recording to have a quick snifter and berate the imposing frontman. 'Look at him, Richard the fucking Third!' he snipes loudly, gesturing towards the soundbooth. 'Being on tour with Jaz is like being in a five-act play...'
Coleman, dressed head to foot in black, glides across the floor with dignity, staring but not deigning to respond. 'Sing in key, you fucking goth!' goads his old sparring partner. 'Come on then! Point your finger at me! Bless him...'
In the seven long years since Killing Joke's last studio album, the singer and the guitarist have been exploring vastly different styles of music. Coleman, bizarrely, has been drawing on his early classical training to work with the likes of Nigel Kennedy and Sarah Brightman, composing symphonies and conducting orchestral arrangements of artists like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He divides his time chiefly between Prague, Switzerland and a Polynesian island, and hasn't suffered the indignity of a chilly winter for over half a decade. Geordie Walker, meanwhile, relocated to Detroit and performed in The Damage Manual with former Killing Joker Martin Atkins, Ministry's Chris Connelly and Jah Wobble. Walker sighs heavily when quizzed on his relationship with the tempestuous Atkins.
'What a fucking twat. Best man at my fucking wedding, Atkins was. If he stuck to the drugs he would be fucking amazing, but he's just a creepy little control freak. I got the call: "Do you want to come into the studio?" It was an absolute nightmare. We did like 12 tracks in two nights and Atkins said he wanted to produce it. I said, "Alright, you can't be that fucking stupid." Six months later - "Oh yes you are!" He's bounced the shit back between the computer and the 8-track and there's no bottom end, the total fucking idiot. It was real playing on the tracks and he'd just taken the bits where he sounded good on the drums. Not impressed.'
Walker returned to London a year ago to start recording Killing Joke.
'Some of the songs on the album started life as hardcore Detroit house tracks, all written in my basement,' he explains. 'Blood On Your Hands was a fucking 138 bpm slammer, and Never Get To Me was a trance tune - it's now a bit of a ballad, much to "The Singer's" disgust. I got into the New York sound systems too, and I was building a studio with a friend of mine in Brooklyn, but I usually ended up getting E-ed up all weekend to riveting tribal beats.'
Doesn't the USA represent All Things Evil in the Killing Joke camp, though?
'Fuck off!' he spits, reeling with indignation. 'Detroit? What the fuck are you talking about? Fucking Motown! Okay... know thine enemy...
'I've had my retirement,' he continues. 'I retired six years ago to live in Detroit in the sun. It was nice to stand away from it all at the time - it all becomes machine-like. I don't want to retire any more, though. I'm going to play 'til I fucking drop. This is actually my first spell back in England in 11 years, and I haven't had any free time all year.'
To record Killing Joke, Walker and Coleman hooked up with producer Andy Gill, ex-guitarist from legendary agit-punks Gang Of Four, and spent nine months in his studio, determined to nail the most perfect takes possible. Not everybody was happy though...
'It was Jazz Summers' idea - Coleman's manager,' Geordie scowls. 'I'm not a huge fan of his. Back in 1983 we did this gig in Oxford and he was managing a band called Danse Society and I'm like two vodkas in and he's just come up to me: "Oh, I wanna fucking soundcheck", and I had a [verbal] go at him, and he's never forgotten it. There's a weird dynamic between him and Coleman, I think Coleman's like the son. They're strangely similar, shifty sorts!
'But the outset of it was Summers has gone: "I manage Andy Gill and he's got his own studio," and I thought: "Fuck's sake!"' Walker leans into the Dictaphone and delivers the immortal line: 'Andy, you can't mix to fucking save your life, sweetheart, just fucking don't go there!'
Meanwhile, Raven had met Dave Grohl in LA, who expressed an interest in contributing drums - quite ironically, given the fact that Killing Joke once nearly sued Nirvana for allegedly appropriating one of their riffs. 'Grohl loved playing on the album - you can hear it,' Geordie enthuses. 'He's done his own thing, he's a total fucking star... and he didn't charge us!
'Coleman had him, though. He was, like, "Have you got anything to confess, Mr Grohl?"' Walker adopts a piteous tone: '"Yes, we stole the fucking Eighties riff for Come As You Are!"'
Former Joker and über-producer Youth was also drafted back in for bass duties... according to some reports, at least. 'Youth?' chortles Walker, miming a large smokeable. 'I played half the bass on the record and we've got Youth standing there saying, "Did I do that? I don't remember doing that..."
'I like him, though - he's rich. I like my friends to be rich. Mind you,' he emphasises, slitting his eyes, 'I'm a real pussycat in the studio. I'm like "Don't kill the love! Don't get pedantic and have your little tantrum and point your finger and stress everyone out." We're all big boys now,' he says, naming no names.
Hearing their borrowed riffs on the radio has become commonplace for the members of Killing Joke. It's also pretty fair to say the band had a strong influence on cheeky 'young' upstarts like Ministry, Marilyn Manson, Metallica and, erm, Eminem, to name but a few. However, any attempts at flattery are rejected by Geordie Walker with a dismissive wave and yet another round of haphazardly-poured vodkas.
'Can you imagine what the world would be like if all these bands that started 15 years ago sounded like U2 instead of us?' splutters the Killing Joke man after a quick chug. 'Oh, it wouldn't be the sort of fucking world I'd want to live in. It would not have been good.'
Talking of which, Walker and Coleman once famously scarpered to Iceland for a year, believing the end of the world to be nigh (they were allegedly ejected for 'questionable religious practises'), and are well known for their liking of exotic climes. Is it only a matter of time before they get itchy feet again, we wonder?
'Well, we've got this idea which I call "around the bend in 80 days",' smiles Geordie. 'Take a nice 12-string and hit the track. Do a tour of all the colonial bars in Egypt - let it pay for itself. Oh, it'd be lovely. Jaz has got this idea of sitting around in bars with the fans and the cigars and the champagne, the white suit, the gin and tonic...'
He quite fancies himself like that, does he? 'I fucking quite fancy myself like that!' exclaims Walker. 'Fucking better!'
Enthusiasts will be pleased to note that Geordie Walker's guitar work is as fresh and as instantly recognisable as ever. He still plays the same gold hollowbody ES-295 he bought in 1980, a model immortalised by Scotty Moore on early Elvis recordings (see page 68 for more details). As well as being an amazing-looking rockabilly-style instrument, the ancient Gibson gives great sustain. Walker usually increases the grind factor and the richness by tuning down a tone, from E to D. In addition to a Line 6 echo pedal, he adds yet more echo and a stereo expander in the studio - although his ominously metallic and almost vocal, riffing style can never be cloned. 'It's taken Jaz 25 years to fuck his voice to match my guitar,' he smirks, gleefully...