(From Kerrang, January 19, 2002)

Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark

For the past 20 years, Jaz Coleman has caused mayhem with industrial-punk legends Killing Joke.  Now he's about to turn the world of classical music upside down ....

With his slight lope, black leather Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame baseball jacket and black DM boots, Jaz Coleman cuts an odd figure backstage at London's Royal Opera House.  As troops of ballerinas giggle down corridors outside and a 20-piece orchestra (assorted string instruments, a huge pair of kettle drums) tunes up, the former Killing Joke frontman looks incongruous amid the cut-glass vowels and frosty manners; not exactly the unruly rock barbarian banging at the gates of the ivory tower, but a distinctly forbidding presence nonetheless.

We're here today at the fourth rehearsal for the world premiere of two new pieces of classical music written by Jaz, to be performed in the Opera House itself.  It's a rum position for an industrial-punk avatar like Coleman to find himself, yet as the man famous for songs like "Wardance" and "Follow The Leaders" casually skins up at the back of the mirrored rehearsal room, he evidently doesn't feel ill at ease here. On the contrary:  he's having the last laugh.

Jaz Coleman laughs a lot.  His jollity might be attributed in part to the bottle of white wine he polishes off during the interview -- which he insists on doing sitting outside on the freezing midwinter pavement -- but he obviously takes a perverse pleasure from his current undertaking.  he also claims to have an IQ of 190; certainly his brain moves at light speed, flitting from topic to topic with an insistent logic that only makes itself really clear in retrospect.  Conversation with him is tiring, veering wildly from the occult to Tony Blair (hates him), Trades Unions (hates them too), extreme Green political theory,  his homes in Prague, Switzerland, Marrakech, New Zealand and Iceland, the miserable state of modern music, the poetry of William Blake, to history, philosophy and morality -- all in an accent tinged with West Country and Kiwi.

Coleman's dabblings in the world of classical music aren't just an indulgent rock star fancy:  he knows exactly what he's doing.  The former choirboy who founded Killing Joke  aged 17 in 1979 has also dedicated much of his life to studying classical music in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Germany.  He completed his first large-scale orchestral works in the early '90s on sabbatical from KJ and has since topped the classical music charts with symphonic interpretations of songs by The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, as well as composing a new national anthem for New Zealand, with words in the Maori tongue. 

His current project consists of two pieces of music.  First, "The Unwanted" deals with the persecution of Romany people throughout history and is suitably heavy on "Fiddler On The Roof" style eastern European gypsy violin scraping.  The second, "The Marriage At Cana," is longer and more complex, and has words written by author Sir Laurence Gardner, based on his book "Bloodline Of The Holy Grail," which suggests that Jesus was married and had children, and that his descendants are alive today.  As well as being a renowned historian and proud bearer of arcane titles like Prior of the Celtic Church's Sacred Kindred of St. Columba, Gardner is rumoured to be a kind of royal fixit man, arranging the meeting of Charles and Diana and wielding a shadowy influence over the various courts of Europe.

"It's all quite entertaining, especially if you realise the guy I'm working with, Laurence, is like King Lizard," laughs Coleman.  "No one realises how we even met or that someone like Jaz Coleman ends up working with somebody like that.  And how he can work with me and not know who I am.  That's all done through other groups -- other groupings of people that have very little to do with music."

An earlier cross-examination of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, who will be providing vocal accompaniment to the two pieces, reveals that Coleman's new cohorts have only the faintest idea of his pedigree and back story.  So does he feel like an outsider working deep in the belly of the Establishment?

"I am the Establishment," he counters.  "I mean, just getting into the Royal Opera House is like getting away with bloody murder.  But the point is that the two sides don't really know about each other.  It's only in the last couple of years that these people have realised that the Jaz Coleman that does all the classical music is the same as the other one."

He cackles maniacally.  "I'm schizo, I'm absolutely schizo.  I lead two different lives."

But how do you manage to balance the two halves of your brain?  How do you reconcile Jaz the rock star with Jaz the classical composer?

"Both have perfect and equal functions.  With the orchestra I'm creating a more desirable.  With Killing Joke it's different.  It has a social function.  It's ridding myself, exorcising myself of things deep in my soul when I get knots in my stomach, in my solar plexus."

"But I need something to stimulate my brain, too.  The reason why I like the boys in Killing Joke and the reason that they're superior to all these other bands is that I can sit down at a table with them and we can talk about anything.  You can talk about great operas, you can talk about airline travel, you can talk about food.  We can go into wine in detail, we can talk about Scotch in detail ... we can talk about any subject in detail.

"Between four minds we can accomplish unbelievable things outside of music.  The music was almost just a front.  One thing that we all joined together in.  It was a front and a flagship for many different things that you can see we've all done individually since then.  I can't wait for the next time we play.  I just can't wait."

Aha.  So presumably all the globe-trotting and classical composing doesn't interfere with your day job.  Will Killing Joke be back soon?

There's a long pause.

"Well, it can be when I want it to be, to be perfectly honest.  And it will be in 2002.  And we are gagging for it ... it's going to be mayhem."


[I have no idea if this version of the NZ national anthem is Jaz's arrangement or not, but if you click here some music will come up, and you can tell me what you think.]