(From The Big Takeover, one of the few US music magazines worth reading, Issue 54, Summer 2004.)
What's This For? More Revelations from Jaz Coleman
As you'll see in the opening answers below, Jaz Coleman has lived one of the more broad and interesting lives of any musician we've interviewed (at least this side of Radio Birdman guitarist/pilot/doctor Deniz Tek). We ask him about his double (or triple!) life, not only out of general curiosity about someone we've been following for 25 years since their debut "Almost Red" EP, but to bring Killing Joke's punishing new self-titled LP on Zuma/Epic/Red Ink into sharper focus. 2003's most scathing indictment of the Iraq war, both in music and in Coleman's lyrics, Killing Joke (II) is a fierce, at times frightening LP. Coleman himself seems as if he's completely and utterly lost his sanity, Travis Bickle-style -- especially on the a cappella rage he spews like he's on the verge of breakdown in the two breaks of "Implant." And certainly there's no mincing the words of the LP's three ungodly-incendiary songs of inchoate rage, "Blood On Your Hands," "Seeing Red," and "Dark Forces."
Contrast that image of him, though, with the intellectual scholar now living on a self-built farm on a remote island off New Zealand. Or the classical composer whose last trip to New York City before this one was to conduct an orchestra, as he often does -- this one for the International Body of Physicists. Bugs Bunny fans: do the words "Leopold! Leopold!" come to mind?
Because they debuted in 1980 with one of the truly remarkable post-punk LPs of the heady late '70s/early '80s, at the onset of the genre (note, they more or less defined the harsher branch of it, with a marriage of brutal, driving rock dance grooves, thunderous guitars, tom tom-powered tribal drums, and Coleman's madman soaring vocals, which sprouted into a movement that included now-forgotten but worthy Brit bands such as UK Decay, Theatre Of Hate, and Play Dead), and a lot of people have lost track of them, there might be a perception that Killing Joke is another one of those groups from way back now making the rounds on the reunion circuit to make a few bucks and relive some past, more youthful glories.
But there are three points that smash that lazy perception. One, although they've been dormant for seven years, Killing Joke have otherwise been an ongoing concern all the while before that, and a popular one at that, releasing 10 studio LPs and touring them worldwide from 1980-1996. Two, with all of Coleman's more highbrow activities touched on above, no one would blame him if he considered himself too busy, and too gainfully employed, to return to the heaviest and hottest post-punk group of its time -- let alone return the foursome to their original, most torrid heights. And three, with one exception in the 100% awful, just indefensible Outside The Gate in 1988 (as explained by Coleman in the interview, that wasn't supposed to be released under the Killing Joke name; always wondered about that!), they've never wavered far from the classic monumental-guitar driven characteristics of that awesome debut.
True, with the possible exception of 1981's strong sophomore effort, What's THIS For, they hadn't really repeated that influential debut (until now!), evolving into ever more moody and melodic directions in the mid-'80s and '90s, highlighted by such shockingly beautiful songs as 1986's Brighter Than A Thousand Suns' single "Love Like Blood" [sic] and 1994 Pandemonium singles "Jana" [sic] and "Millennium." But aside from the occasionally more biting look back, like the whole of 1990's Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions and the song they'd last left off with in 1996, Democracy's "Another Bloody Election" (which totally presaged the new LP), there was little hint of the cataclysm that would come on this new Killing Joke mach II.
The only sensible conclusion is that the band was just driven to make this shocking whirlwind of a record, and to once again endure planes and tour buses to bring the message back to the masses of fans they've never lost. If the reinvigorated Joke did nothing else but speak for tens of millions that marched in frigid February 2003 against the coming war (I'm one such person), they've reminded this writer again of the power of music to reflect the times, which made me want to be an underground music fan (and former punk rocker) in the first place, circa 1977-1979. While radio and TV, then as now, still spews the perpetual musical inanity/dichotomy of soft-disco boogie-pop and macho thuggery rock, it feels liberating to hear an LP that instantly makes me think, "This is what I feel right now," with regard to current events. Whether it came from people closer to 50 than 20 is irrelevant. I defy anyone to spot signs of advancing middle age in this record; it feels like parachuting into the abject horror of the war zones themselves.
As a final note, I'm not sure why I never attempted to interview Coleman before. Looking over the back issues, I believe I've reviewed a show of every US sporadic tour they've done over the last 23 years, and several of those shows are among the most impressive I've encountered (which is why I never miss them). All the more fitting, I guess, to finally do it now! But with only about 45 minutes to delve into current and past history, and knowing from all the interviews I've read over the years that Coleman is far too smart and engaging to give short answers to decent questions, I knew there wouldn't be time to cover their entire history.
Best, then, to present a small overview of the extraordinary human mind and all the other interests he pursues; a few stories of how the band got started (and what's happened to the only original member no longer involves, thumping drummer Paul Ferguson) that Coleman was "jazzed" to tell; his feelings on some of the past records as well as the new one; and a brief discussion of the irony in Nirvana's Dave Grohl guesting on drums on the new LP - a decade after Killing Joke sued Nirvana for stealing one of its best songs, 1985's Night Time's worldwide cult hit "Eighties" for their own Nevermind global smash "Come As You Are." (And oh yeah, they stole it. It's too distinctive a riff not to notice, and Nirvana were on-the-record Killing Joke fans. In fact, play early Killing Joke and then the last two Nirvana LPs back to back; you might easily spot a general influence. Although note, The Damned had this unique riff first, for 1982's Strawberries Captain Sensible favorite, "Life Goes On.") Along the way, we inadvertently coax out a fond remembrance of The Clash's Joe Strummer; two additional tributes to the playing of both the departed Ferguson and the still vibrant guitarist Geordie, whose hollow-body sound still sounds like 47 guitars at once; and even explication of why Coleman and Geordie once disappeared to Iceland in the height of their UK fame and influence ("The nutters!" everyone thought).
My thanks to Dave Wallace at Red Ink for setting up this conference room chat the day before the band's Webster Hall gig, and Paul Regelbrugge for the transcription.
JR: I've been reading about some of your activities over the last few years. Fascinating! What I find interesting is that, unlike a lot of bands that come back because they have nothing else to do, Killing Joke seems to be one of the few bands that need to do music the least. You clearly don't need the money, " since you're a successful orchestral composer, and you have so many other things going on!
JAZ: I worked for the International Body of Physicists, I conducted an orchestra on the day the war kicked off here in New York City, I've done a lot of classical stuff, and I did my first opera at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, which is about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. My librettist was the world's greatest genealogist, Sir Laurence Gardner (author and Histographer Royal to the House of Stewart). And I acted in my first movie, Year Of The Devil (2002, a Czech film), which won the Karlovy (Vary International Film) Festival (it won the Crystal Globe) and Rotterdam festival (it also won the Alpe Adria Cinema-Trieste Film Festival, Spirit of Fire-International Debut Film Festival, and Palic Film Festival), directed by Petr Zelenka. What else? I changed the national anthem of New Zealand so it has to be sung in the Maori language. I've worked with lots of different orchestras, I've done a lot of classical stuff. I did a track for the Disney sound track for Mulan. What can I say? I've got a farm with ducks and cows on it, in the Pacific, near the Cook Islands. I'm a New Zealander.
JR: Not an Icelander! [a reference to when Coleman and guitarist Geordie suddenly disappeared to Iceland at the height of the band's fame, while the British press speculated that they'd gone mad over some kind of impending Armageddon]
JAZ: No, but it's interesting, there is a correlation -- well picked up! In 1981 it became quite apparent to us that it's not enough to go around the world's industrial cities and centers and complain about how bad the world is. You must have some sort of blueprint for something that's going to replace it. This is what we've really been doing since then. Geordie and I found some very old writings that talked about islands at the end of the earth, and we became completely engrossed. We went off to Iceland first, then to the Falklands. Then we went down to New Zealand and found the island we'd been looking for, some- where off the coast. And I ended up emigrating, and building a farm, and designing my own architecture. So lots of things going on.
J R: Are we at liberty to say the name of this island?
JAZ: No! I've already had loads of nutcases trying to find me! I'll tell you off the record if you like.
JR: How do you know I won't be a nutcase trying to find you?
JAZ: Well, you might be rabid, but you don't look too bad! [both laugh] About 400 people live on the island, they speak English.
JR: That's amazing you are working with the Maoris. I've J1;lSt been reading in [Jared Diamond's] Guns, Germs, & Steel  about the history of that area, and all the slaughters of the island natives as soon as the mainlanders developed the technology to reach their islands.
JAZ: The history is hidden! I've been working with the Maori people for 12 years, it's taken that long to gain their trust. They hide everything in their carvings; I've been learning a lot about the history not in their writings. For instance, they have 31 different tonal instruments that I'm involved in the preservation of. That's another thing I'm involved in.
JR: I think you've proved my point that unlike other bands that come back because they're broke, or they're bored, or what- ever, that Killing Joke needs to do this the least. You must want to do it bad, considering how many other projects you have already!
JAZ: Yeah, we all see each other a lot. I see all the boys in the band every month or so, so I guess our sociology is a bit different to other bands in that way.
JR: You seem like you make records because you're really dying to.
JAZ: Yeah, I'll only have it that way. If there's any mistake I've made in the past with Killing Joke, it's when we recorded when we were not ready.
JR: Like [ 1988's ] Outside the Gate [laughs ]
JAZ: Outside the Gate was never a Killing Joke record! We used our manager's studio, and I wanted to expand more orchestral ideas with Geordie outside of Killing Joke. And in the end they [the label, EG U.K] forced us. They said, "You owe us this much money, and you're going to have to put this music but, and it's going to be under ,the name of Killing Joke." But I have never considered that to be a Killing Joke record.
J R: What would be an example of a "Killing Joke" album you made before you were ready, then?
JR: That's a good record, though!
JAZ: It's a good record, but a bad mix. I feel that way about the
mixing on [1983's] Fire Dances as well, both of which I'd like to have Geordie remix.
JR: Maybe [1982's] Revelations, too. That was a bit muted too, right?
JAZ: I kind of like that, though, because it's all live. There are no overdubs, really. Compared to where production has come to now, since 1981, it's come a long way, I think. But no, I wouldn't touch that record.
J R: On another, more pertinent subject: I've done my magazine for 24 years now, and in a recent issue I wrote an editorial about George W. Bush's tax cuts. In response [as chronicled last issue], I received a few letters from readers complaining that they don't want politics in our magazine; they read it just for the music. Although I thought that was funny to me, I realized as I was writing my response that the vast majority of the current bands that we cover, unlike when we started in 1980, it seems like almost none of them talk about politics or socio-political ideas in their music any more!
JAZ: No, they don't, do they? And not just them, but last year, none of our world leaders, none of them had ~y balls either, did they, to speak out against what is really criminal? You know, in my opinion, I don't consider it political; I consider it spiritual, and religious. In my personal belief system, which I don't wish to evangelize on, all war, except in self-defense, is against my belief. ,8o, I don't see it as something political. I see it as just something to do with humanity. I think if they had explained from the beginning that if we didn't take these oil reserves they would fall into "hostile hands," maybe a lot more people would have been able to swallow it. But instead, all the, deceit and lies ... What I've found shocking in the last year is how people just accept that corruption is now so widespread we can't do anything about it. And there's a certain tiredness about people, that they just say, "Well, we knew the elections were flawed, and we knew this war wasn't about weapons of mass destruction." And yet, you've got Israel, which is the biggest threat to the region with 200 hydrogen bombs; it is just a total hypocrisy. Only fools would buy this nonsense. [pauses, thinks] But I didn't come over here to upset American people, in this way. I know we have a lot of Republican fans of Killing Joke. If you can't see it, it's not even worth talking about. But what I will say, is that if you have a British or American pass- port, it's very dangerous in many parts of the world. And I think that's irresponsible on the part of our leaders.
JR: It's a sad state of affairs, Well, independent of any slant on the subject, what I thought was the worst thing about the last American election was that, for instance, less than 50% of eligible voters actually voted -- which I tie into your song " Another Bloody Election" on the last LP before this one.
JAZ: What percentage of voters do we have to have before we realize that democracy is hypocrisy, and it's finished? 15%? 20%?
JR: You would have thought 50% was bad enough, particularly for a band that recorded an album called Democracy, I would think you'd find the idea that in some countries they are killing each other for the right to vote and we don't even exercise it to be a sad commentary.
JAZ: Well, there's democracy and there's democracy. In my country-and I'm not referring to the United Kingdom, I'm talking about New Zealand-we have MMP, which is a system in which one-third of the house is reserved for a person, not a party. You have two votes: one for a person and one for a party. You know, our Prime Minister, she said quite bluntly to Mr. Bush that there would be no .New Zealand lives lost in this conflict without United Nations' approval.
J R: Yeah, international law is what I favor as well. I feel that we are global citizens, first and foremost, and I guess you would know that more than most people, considering how far afield you've ranged. A lot of Americans have never gone anywhere! Like our current president, before his new job forced him to travel abroad. That's just pathetic for a lifelong wealthy person like him.
JAZ: Two percent of Americans have got passports. That's staggering! [Jack shakes his head] Yeah, I can't stay in the same place for too long, I get itchy feet. I'm like a gypsy; move to the next place... live out of a bag.
JR: Well, you're not bored, anyway.
JAZ: No, I'm free.
J R: [ Only half joking: ] You 're one of the least boring -people I've ever followed. [Jaz laughs] It's been fun reading about your antics over the last 24 years. I remember seeing you at the Ritz [in 1981], and the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in L.A. .
JAZ: Gosh, that's a long time ago. That's when I was playing keyboards and singing...
JR: My friends and I used to do impersonations of you; we'd gesture with one hand and play air keyboards with the other, which I thought was brilliant. [he demonstrates, with wide-eyed crazy-man stare; Jaz laughs loudly]
JAZ: Yeah, moving your hands around shows a lack of expression, they say. It's surprising the way things have gone, to affect two generations of musicians.
JR: Maybe even three.
JAZ: Indeed. My girlfriend was two when we put our first record out. How disgusting ... but legal. [laughs ]
JR: None of my business, then. What strikes me is that, if you actually played your first record and your new record back to back, you wouldn't know that the people who made the new album are a quarter century older than the people who made the first one. The intensity level, the commitment, and the spiritual element of how dedicated you are to this music really comes shining through, as well as the return to that recognizable sound and style.
.lAZ: I love this band.
JR: [kidding:] Aren't you supposed to get old and tired? Maybe lose a little steam?
JAZ.: It is strange that our most powerful album is our eleventh album, 25 years later as it were. Yeah, I'll say this about the creative process: The way I write all music is to forget about music; just live hard. Fulfill a number of your dreams-if you want to go to this country, go there. If you dream about doing this, do it. Get all of these things out of your system, and then, the music's already written. When you go through all the people around you, some are dying, couple of divorces. ..all these things affect you. The music is already written in your heart. Music works through you. There is very little analysis when I come to write music.
JR: It comes from the gut.
JAZ: I just sort of loosen up with a whiskey or something, and away we go.
JR: Even in the studio?
JAZ: Oh sure, in the studio. We like just playing. People who like light shows will be disappointed coming to a Killing Joke show.. Music's gone through some terrible phases. The worst of them, for me, was when everyone was taking E, and everything was sampled - music like The Orb and groups like this. I'm glad that things have come back to live music, in a way. In Killing Joke, we say that when you pull the plug out of the wall, then we can see who's who.
JR: I wrote an editorial once about the continuing flight away from human sound in music. Pre-Thomas Edison, all music was live, And even after recorded music was invented, only 120 years ago or so, by nature with the technology, up until the last 30 years music still had to be recorded live-until in the last couple decades, by virtue of overdubbing and reliance on . machines, etc., the human element and spirit has been stripped right out!
JAZ: Now, then, you can see my passion for working with orchestra. Because when I do a record for full symphony orchestra, it takes two or three days and everything comes back finished, because you don't have to plug anything in!
JR: Even though there's are like 60 musicians sawing or trilling or tooting away.
JAZ: It's marvelous. It's the purest musical beast in the world for me-the symphony orchestra, for me, is civilization. With symphony orchestra, my style is-apart from Eastern-it's very romantic. And I use the orchestra to create a more desirable reality. With Killing Joke, it's exorcism and catharsis. They are things I am holding inside me that I want to let go, which is why after a Killing Joke concert I have this strange feeling of being cleansed, and at peace; almost like being baptized, actually.
JR: Even in the early days the only other performer I thought was as intense as you on a stage, with those same gripping eyes, was Joe Strummer
JAZ: Oh, God rest his soul. I've got to tell you about that guy: Killing Joke used to rehearse in this studio below The Clash on Olaf Street in Holland Park [West London] for a long time, and we always used to scowl at each other. There was no love lost between the two bands. I think [bassist] Youth went into " their studio once, and they had a big Clash poster, and he put two lines through the 's', so it looked like a dollar sign [Jack laughs], and they weren't too happy about that! We didn't talk for the first 12 years, and then one day I'm in the pub, and Joe Strummer's opposite me, and he asks if I want a drink. I started talking to him, and what a nice guy he was. We became really good friends after that. I'd bump into him at different times, and we'd get pissed [drunk] together. He told me how much he'd been ripped off in. the music industry, and I was kind of shocked. Horrified! A number one record in the States and he didn't have a penny. It was really wonderful speaking with him, though; what a kind, loving man. He's really missed, and I was privileged to know him.
JR: It just makes it even more imperative to enjoy people of your era that are still making music with that same kind of total commitment you all started with.
JAZ: Most groups that stay together for a long time, I feel they do it for the wrong reasons. I'd like to think that we contribute to innovation, otherwise we wouldn't do this. I mean, quite frankly, I make more money from working with orchestra. What I do with Killing Joke, I don't do it for the money. And I'm like a second manager in Killing Joke, keeping everything together. It's more difficult than marriage, almost. But I feel particularly blessed, because my colleagues are my friends. I wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, I'd advise anyone forming a band to do it with your mates. When you're together for long periods of time, I couldn't imagine it doing it with strangers, aliens in terms of what you identify with. ...
JR: Yes, I've been in three bands in 24 years, and all of them I started with my best friend at the time; they're still great mates of mine. Anyway, as far as your colleagues, do you ever just stand on stage and feel as amazed as I am in the front row, at how gigantic, at how absolutely monstrous Geordie's guitar sound is?
JAZ: Oh! It sounds like fire from heaven! Oh... I'd never bother with anyone else. Geordie, he's the wild card.
JR: You must have known him long before the band.
JAZ: The truth is, when me and [original drummer] Paul Ferguson started the band, we actually did a ritual ...
JR: What, you mean like pricking each other's fingers?
JAZ: No, hah, you know your stuff! No, but, how are you going to find two other people who are brilliant, with high IQs, have a good grounding in general knowledge plus all things spiritual, magical; and play an innovative style? How are you going to find the right people? They're impossible to find. So, we thought about it, and what we thought was to focus our wills together. And on the 26th of February 1979, at about 3:00, that's what we did. At about the same time, we put an advert in the newspaper saying: "Want to become part of the Killing Joke? Total publicity. Total anonymity. Total exploitation. Bass and lead wanted." And we got hundreds of people ringing up. And there were two people we kept trying to get rid of, and of course they're the people who ended up in the band. And I said to Ferguson, "There's that guy on the phone, Geordie, again." And I said to him, "Alright, I'll meet you." He said tome he'd never played in a band before, but he was resilient. So I remember, this one morning I was outside going through all the dustbins because I lost something, and there was this voice that said, "Looking for your breakfast, are you?" I look up, and there w~ this guy with long hair, straw- berry hair, weird-Iooking guy. And I realized it was the guy I'd been trying to palm off for the last few weeks-I recognized his voice. And I said, "Oh, it's you." He said, "What music do you like? [I told him and he said] That's shit." And I said, "What music do you like? [he told me and I said] Well, that's shit." And he comes up to the flat anyway, and he sees my fishing gear, and we talked about fishing for five hours. Then he said he had nowhere to live, so l said he should move in here. So he moved in with us, before I'd heard him play. Then I heard him play and went, "Wow!!!!" Then we burned Ferguson's flat down, but he was in Egypt at the time so he didn't know, and one week later Geordie found Youth, so it happened very quick.
JR: Urn, that's quite a story. I imagine at some point Ferguson returned from Egypt and discovered he was flat-less but had a band in compensation [both laugh]. What is Ferguson doing these days?
JAZ: He's in New York, I believe. He's involved in excavation and art restoration. But he doesn't pick up the sticks, I'm told.
JR: That's too bad, he had a huge toms sound!
JAZ: He had a huge influence on so many drummers! Because he defined the Killing Joke style by drawing from the Celtic tradition, but with heavy tom-tom patterns, you're right on that. Full marks to Paul Ferguson.
JR: What about Dave Grohl, how did you end up hooking up with him to play on your new LP? Other than the incredibly strange Nirvana connection. [laughs mischievously]
JAZ: Well. ..there is that, as well. There are actually two things about that, though. With regard to the court case [over Nirvana stealing the riff of mega-hit "Come as You Are" from Killing Joke's classic 1984 Nighttime single "Eighties"], after KURT [COBAIN] took his own life, we just thought of the little kid [Frances Bean] and... You know, the good thing about Geordie is that he's not a materialist. He said: "Ah, I can't be bothered with this anymore. There is a little kid without her dad." So we withdrew from the case. I guess that created a pretty good karma. But our original idea for this record was to have JOHN from SYSTEM OF A DOWN and Dan from Tool and Dave all play on it. But when Dave heard it he said, "I wanna do the whole album." So we said, "OK," and that was just last January. And I sang with Foo Fighters and we got just blind drunk together. He became a very special person to us. And you also have to take into consideration that he didn't nick [steal] our music, the guitar player did. You know, the funny thing, I did this inter- view the other day and this guy goes to me, "Did you know a Killing Joke roadie punched Kurt in the face during a show for nicking 'Eighties' off you?" And I said, "No, I didn't know anything about that." Then [later and still sometimes Killing Joke bassist] RAVEN walked in and said, "Oh yeah, I've got footage of that." [Jack laughs] I didn't know anything about it! I did this one interview in Holland and the interviewer said to me, " "Dave Grohl working with you... Is that a bit like doing community service?" [both laugh loudly] ...
JR: Yeah, that should have been the terms of the court case! "You have to perform on one Killing Joke album." That would be a particularly innovative suit settlement!
JAZ: But you know, Dave wouldn't have done it if the music wasn't brilliant.
JR: And more to the point, we know Nirvana were huge Killing Joke fans. That was established in that court case. Your lawyer produced fan letters they'd written. Although, you know, I always thought you guys stole "Eighties" from a DAMNED song two-years prior, on the Strawberries LP, a great song by Captain Sensible that he sings called "Life Goes On," with the exact same, extremely unique riff. I thought it was Sensible that should have sued Nirvana! [Everyone I've ever played "Life Goes On" for has been startled by this.]
JAZ: I've never heard that song! Well, how come they didn't sue us, then? [both laugh] No, I didn't know that! I'll point that out to the boys in The Damned! Same song? Really? [Jack hums riff] Woah! Ah, what the hell! Regardless, I'm glad we called our song "Eighties" so that we don't have to play it again!
JR: You don't play it anymore?
JAZ: How can you do a song called "Eighties" in 2003? [laughs]
JR: Can't even do "Nineties" anymore, either. [laughs] How bout "Oughts! I'm living in the Oughts!"
JAZ: No [shakes his head and smiles, amused], some music is designed to date, even though we still play songs from our first five albums on this tour. We do a cross-section of our old and brand new songs. I can feel they are linked. It's been great playing these again after eight years!!!!