An interview with Jaz Coleman isn’t an interview; it’s more of an intellectual conversation. The iconic frontman of the legendary band Killing Joke, Jaz Coleman moves through topics and tangents like a man possessed. He is filled with a passionate creative spirit and a need to share that with anybody who will sit down with him.
In recent years the band has gone through the tragic loss of bassist Paul Raven, and the joyous reunion of the original Killing Joke line up for the first time in twenty-five years. Jaz, bassist Martin “Youth” Glover, drummer Paul Ferguson and guitarist Geordie Walker have come together to release Absolute Dissent, one of the strongest records in Killing Joke’s arsenal. That’s saying something for a band that has, over the last thirty years, influenced everybody from Metallica, to Trent Reznor to Nirvana (compare Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” to Killing Joke’s song “Eighties” to see what I mean).
I got to enjoy a lengthy talk with Jaz. We touched on topics from the new album, to Raven, to politics and the philosophy of death. From his Rosicrucian ideals to his viewing of Killing Joke as a modern renaissance movement, Jaz was never at a loss for words.
CRAVEONLINE: Jaz? Hello?
JAZ COLEMAN: Hey mate how are you?
CRAVEONLINE: I’m great, how’s Geneva?
JAZ COLEMAN: Oh it’s great mate. I’m actually in the house Killing Joke used to live in back in 1984 and this is where Paul Raven made a home until the day he died.
CRAVEONLINE: Oh wow.
JAZ COLEMAN: Yeah it’s an incredible place in terms of Killing Joke history.
CRAVEONLINE: As a long time Killing Joke fan, I have to ask..
JAZ COLEMAN: When did you first hear Killing Joke?
CRAVEONLINE: Well, I’m forty now so I guess when I was twenty or twenty-one.
JAZ COLEMAN: What did you hear?
CRAVEONLINE: Primitive, my friend said it was the greatest bass line ever, though I was more interested in Paul’s drums.
JAZ COLEMAN: Paul will be really happy to hear that.
CRAVEONLINE: So I have to ask, what is your outlook on the history of Killing Joke?
JAZ COLEMAN: If there’s anything I have to reflect on over the last twenty years, it’s the way Killing Joke has been like a renaissance for so many people, not just with music. I call it the mirror effect, where people come to a Killing Joke show and see us assholes and think ‘Wow, anybody can do anything’ (laughs) and that’s basically it. I think just by tenacity and will power, and picking yourself up off the floor when they say nobody is interested and punching at them again and putting out another album, it all pays off. Just by not going away.
When we started Killing Joke, something we all agreed on was that every single human being is born innately gifted, and life is locating your gift. This is where the renaissance started in Killing Joke, the go do it yourself aspect of it. It’s had this effect on people, artists and musicians and people of alternative lifestyles I guess.
CRAVEONLINE: Do you think people understand that renaissance?
JAZ COLEMAN: It’s taken a long time and more than one generation for people to be aware of our work and what’s behind it. We’re a unique band in terms of our sociology, but also I can sit around with these guys and the conversation goes from music to world politics to earth sciences to poetry effortlessly. We all have an interest in Stonehenge and the pyramids; all the earth sciences have been a great passion of ours. Everyone in Killing Joke has strong views on how to overcome the population problem, and this all before you get to the music. When we get together we smash all our ideas together and it’s really a traumatic experience. (Laughs)
CRAVEONLINE: So is that how Killing Joke records are made?
JAZ COLEMN: We create synthesis. Even with lyrics. I’ll say ‘this is what I’m going to call this one and it’s about this’ and anybody who wants to contribute lyrics about this can. Of course, the only one who contributes lyrics is Paul. There’s no point in being in a band unless it’s a collective effort, otherwise just be a solo artist.
CRAVEONLINE: I think most fans would agree that Killing Joke hasn’t really put out a bad record.
JAZ COLEMAN: That’s quite easy to do. For example, you’re a writer, so if I told you to go and write a great piece of literature because we were going to kill you in three weeks time, you’d write the best work. We take that approach to making our albums. The idea that at anytime this could be your last work, Raven was taken from us, you just don’t know. You’ve got to on your guard when you’re creating music because that’s what you’ll be known for. Part of it is very selfish, creating a sound we want to hear coming out of two speakers. The fact that people like it is both wonderful and surprising. (Laughs)
CRAVEONLINE: You’ve always told the story about using a ritual to find Geordie and Youth when the band started. Coming full circle how does that ritual seem now?
JAZ COLEMAN: The advantage we had when we started was we had tradition. We knew how to find the other two because we subscribed to a Rosicrucian school of thought. We knew the mechanism of how to find them.
CRAVEONLINE: How did your experiences as a young person work it’s way into the worldview of Killing Joke, which is such a big part of the band?
JAZ COLEMAN: I left school at fifteen, with a lot of anger, because I felt the world had already judged me as an outcast and a failure before I’d even started. To make it worse, I was born into an academic family who had high expectations of my going to Music College. I shattered them (laughs) I was a complete nightmare but I knew I wanted to form a band. I guess it was anger that formed it at first.
When we started, we used the metaphor for Killing Joke about a solider in the trenches, hearing the whistle and about to go get his head blown off. It was a feeling of having no control over your own destiny. As we got older we thought more about that laughter that overcomes your fear. When you laugh you’re not afraid. We went from vanquished to victor. Sometimes, though, I do wonder if Killing Joke is a force for good.
JAZ COLEMAN: It was particularly bad after this one show we played in Hamburg, where like four hundred people couldn’t get in and all the shop windows were smashed outside. Inside it was all total violence, it was two and half thousand people all fighting. I began to wonder if I was part of the problem or part of the solution. After a lot of soul searching I thought that Killing Joke was a force for good. I feel it’s had a very, very positive effect on people’s lives and my life.
I remember I was in St. Louis, and a kid came up to me telling me about his friend Ben in the hospital, who had one six hours to live and asked if I could write some lyrics out for him. I told him I could do better than that and we went to see him. It was a peculiar situation because here was this twenty seven year old kid, dying of cancer, there with his parents who he hardly knew. He hadn’t spent any time with them since being a teenager, they were like strangers to him, and yet I felt like I’d known him all my life.
CRAVEONLINE: Did he die that night?
JAZ COLEMAN: No he survived for a while longer and we stayed in touch through the telephone. During the encore part of the shows, I started talking about Ben and saying how he didn’t have much longer to go. I said if anybody in the audience had any messages they should write them down and leave them at the t-shirt stand. Ben didn’t die until eight or so weeks later and at his funeral there were thousands of messages from Gatherers from all over the world. He didn’t die alone.
The guy who did all the artwork for Absolute Dissent, John Hinkelton, who actually got a lot of our music to Heath Ledger before this last Dark Knight film, had multiple sclerosis for ten years. When we met him he was planning to go to Switzerland to commit suicide in two months time. So he came and sat in the Absolute Dissent recordings and finished so much work.
He said that Killing Joke music was better than all the painkillers in the world. He called me from the room in Switzerland where he was going to drink the drink and that’s it, curtains. It was funny because I was on the phone with him and he said, “There’s a woman in my room says I have to be dead by two o’clock. (Laughs)
CRAVEONLINE: Not to dwell on death too much but when Raven passed was there ever a thought about not doing Killing Joke anymore?
JAZ COLEMAN: No. (Laughs) After 1982 we all knew that the original lineup would come back together at some point in the future, we just didn’t think it would happen so soon.
CRAVEONLINE: How did you guys all decide to get back together?
JAZ COLEMAN: That happened at Raven’s funeral. He was recording in this area that was once a squat but now has two gigs in it and a dirty anarchist bar, which Raven and Joe Strummer liked a lot. After the crematorium we went to this anarchist bar and everybody started taking pictures of Geordie, Big Paul and myself. It just kind of happened. There was no conversation, it just sort of happened. This new generation lacks a sense of duty, and that’s what we have. It’s that sense of duty that brings us back to the band. It sure ain’t the money. (Laughs)
CRAVEONLINE: Based on the music you’ve given to the world, you guys should be rich.
JAZ COLEMAN: I’m quite happy with the way things turned out. I have more freedom in my life than most rich people. It’s rare that I have more than two thousand pounds, at one time. in the bank but I have a greater freedom than the millionaires I know. I live like a pauper you’d be shocked.
CRAVEONLINE: On Absolute Dissent, the song The Raven King, it’s not about Raven?
JAZ COLEMAN: It’s about the thoughts on Raven’s mind. The last line of the song “Carpe Nocturnum” was the last words he said to me. When we played our last gig with Raven, which we didn’t know at the time, we played at a gig in Prague. When we returned for this tour it was amazing, it was like he was there. Everyone felt it. It was uncanny. Raven loved people, ordinary street people, and he was loved. I feel privileged because I spent more time with Raven than anybody. He knew he was going to die.
CRAVEONLINE: I didn’t know that.
JAZ COLEMAN: Nobody knows that, I haven’t spoken about it. He also knew when he was going to die. I kept all the emails from Raven up until the day he passed and they were uncharacteristically emotional and he sent them to everybody. The whole thing was very stressful for him. The last eight years of his life was filled with stress because he would have panic attacks. Raven couldn’t lie down in a bed because he’d have heart palpitations. He used to fall asleep sitting up. We’d wake up on the tour bus and he’d be sitting there, asleep. It was destiny that the youngest of us should go first.
CRAVEONLINE: How do your views on death come into a song like The Great Cull? What’s it about to you?
JAZ COLEMAN: It’s about the impossible situation that none of us are addressing, over population, the reality of it. How can you tell a billion of Chinese people or the Indian continent not to procreate? It opens up a whole messy can of worms. The bottom line is that there’s little to be done about it. If I made you an elite global planner, even after you heard everything, I doubt you’d be doing anything any different to what the powers that be are already doing. (Laughs)
We can’t let the planet get to ten billion people because we become ten to the power of ten and we start functioning like a cell. That’s singularity and the implications of that means that artificial intelligence and human intelligence will be inseparable. I believe that won’t actually come about because I think we’re headed for a collapse that will resolve the population problems.
CRAVEONLINE: Where’s the worst population problem you’ve seen?
JAZ COLEMAN: Killing Joke played in China about two months ago and when the Air China plane lifted off, by the way never fly Air China, I thought we must start World War Three immediately. (laughs) It was a Government produced show and they drove us out to the Mongolian boarder for this social experiment of a Killing Joke concert.
We took a walk around and found a place that made Kabobs and they were killing dogs’ man, to make kabobs. (laughs). You’re told when you play not to talk about Tibet or all shit will break out. So I’m on stage with nothing to really say and instead of a mosh pit it’s the People’s Liberation Army and the audience is behind them in the back. When we thanked the People’s Republic Of China the crowd booed. We were laughing our fucking heads off.
CRAVEONLINE: What about the song European Super State? What is that?
JAZ COLEMAN: The concept of Europe was something I identified with from an early age, much more so than Great Britain where I grew up. I think we’re all very, very, pro-Europe. It’s the imperative of a European Union so we never, ever go to war again on European soil as far as we can. We’ve been at war with each other for centuries and this can never happen again. I was inspired by the Rosicrucian verse that believed that everybody should get a fantastic education and be enlightened by the arts and liberal sciences.
I don’t think the European union would be good for the British people by virtue of the fact they weren’t asked (laughs) and 95% of them don’t want it. Britain should be part of the Atlantic alliances as opposed to the European Union. I think culturally it’s important because if you look at America or China or the other blocks you can see how much it matters for Europe to feel a bit of unity. We’re never going to come to any consensus on the huge issues until we become a global family. The quickest was to do that is to have an American Union, a European Union, an African Union and an Asian-Pacific Union.
CRAVEONLINE: Does working with orchestras help you to step away from the political and social slant of Killing Joke? Are you still conducting?
JAZ COLEMAN: Sure. I just completed a work about the end of time, which is for choir, orchestra, and violins. It’s a huge violin concerto called the Great Awakening and I’m consumed with trying to get it recorded. I also have concerts coming up throughout Europe with the symphony orchestra. That’s the other side of my career, the other side of my life.
CRAVEONLINE: What do you get out of it that’s different from Killing Joke?
JAZ COLEMAN: They’re such different mediums. When you come out of rock music, you play everything on the beat or on the click. With conducting you’re always three seconds behind the downbeat, so you’re always predicting everything the orchestra is going to do. Your mind is on fire is what I’m trying to convey to you, intellectually and your cerebral processes are fully operational when you’re conducting. It’s an incredible experience because it’s the opposite of Killing Joke.
When I got out with Killing Joke I’m almost in a trance like state, I’m not really there. It’s a very different thing. I use the orchestra to display my more romantic sentiment where as with Killing Joke we haven’t recorded one love song in all this time.
CRAVEONLINE: How do you feel about the Killing Joke legacy?
JAZ COLEMAN: We’ve all had to reflect on how much Killing Joke means to so many people. It’s been an incredible journey, the last thirty-one years. On the first day of this tour, in Paris, my eldest daughter, who’s twenty-seven and had never met my mother, came down because I was being decorated by the French government. I’m the only Brit and New Zealander to be decorated a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. My daughter and mother met at that ceremony and then I had to go in front of three thousand people with Killing Joke. I never thought things like this could happen to me.
It’s a long journey from the world of squats. I’ve done my first opera for the queen, I did Mulan for Walt Disney, and I’ve had an incredible ride. I’ve been incredibly lucky but Killing Joke as always been lucky by the people who love the band and give it meaning. As I said, we believe everybody is born with an innate gift, a God gift, life is the location of this gift and self is the execution of the gift.
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