Getting Educated with Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke

After a three hour wait, 10:30am EST became 10:30 PST for my interview with Jaz Coleman, my first since talking at dinner before their El Rey Theater show in 2003 on tour for their second Self Titled album. I was soon reminded that one doesn’t simply ask Jaz questions and expect him to give succint answers. No, one says a few words and sits back and listens happily as all your carefully planned out questions either get answered in stride or are soon forgotten in the whirlwind that is Jaz. Absolute Dissent is their latest album, and the first to include all four original members in well over 20 years. Now in their third decade, Killing Joke’s Jaz and guitarist Geordie Walker will be touring at the end of 2010 once again joined by the original rhythm section of bassist Martin “Youth” Glover and drummer Big Paul Ferguson.

Jaz Coleman: How are you doing there?

Bret Miller: Good. So you’ve been doing interviews all day?
Ah yes, it’s all part of the job. But only for the past 32 years (Laughter). Hold on, let me get my cup of tea.

Last time we spoke was in a restaurant down the street from the El Rey Theater.
Remind me, come on, remind me.

You were eating fish.
That sounds right. We were at a restaurant in L.A.?

Just a few blocks from the El Rey.
And it was for the 2003 album?

That tour was fuckin’ hard for me. It was a nightmare. It was one of the worst tours I’ve ever done, actually. It was really organized badly. Geordie and myself, our pd’s (per diems: daily allowance) ran out halfway through America so we were livin’ off food from the fuckin’ deli tray (laughter). The only way I got through that tour was blind drunk.

After the show you had the deli tray and…
And us getting blind drunk. Which is something that doesn’t happen to me now, I stopped drinking five years ago. If you’ve got pictures of me from five years ago I was one fat motherfucker. I’m skinny and slim and have lots of energy now. So there’s been a change there, a bit of a lifestyle change. We all did. When we were doing Hosannas, in fact, from the 2003 album to Hosannas we were all completely blind drunk, mate.

So you figured you’d want to see your grandkids grow up?
Grandkids?! I don’t want any fucking grandkids! None of my daughters are going to have children. You must be joking. My oldest daughter is 27 and my next daughter is 25 and my daughter after that is 21. Beautiful alpha females. The are forbidden from having children until they’ve made enough money so they can afford them (laughter). I’m not going to be a grandfather for a long time.

You’re still young yet.
I had my kids early. The criteria for me when I was younger, I was a real calculating motherfucker just to give you an idea of how I thought, when it comes to children, the mothers have to be beautiful, intelligent, they have to be from one of two countries: Switzerland or New Zealand, and last of all, but not least, they have to be incredibly fucking rich (laughter). That was my philosophy and there’s the two mothers of my three children (laughter). That’s why I’m such a happy punter now.

You seem to have a zeal for life.
I can’t believe what’s happened over the last 32 years. For me, it’s the impossible, it’s a long journey. As a kid, I was in squats, breaking into chemists, I was in trouble, I was really angry, as a 15 year old. From then up until three weeks ago, all the things that have happened: doing my first opera for the Queen, writing music for Walt Disney, there’s all sorts of things. We went on tour about a month ago and the first day of the tour this amazing thing [happened]: my oldest daughter has never met my mother, all right? And she met my mother on the first day of the tour at this ceremony. I was decorated as a knight by the French government. So the unbelievable happens.
I’m forced to reflect on the influence of our fans over the last 31-32 years and I’m just forced to conclude that everything is possible, most things are obtainable and Killing Joke was my entire further education. It was my university, my everything. All of us, we’re qualified, we have three professors in our band now. None of us have got a single fucking school examination (laughter).

So you’re all self-educated.
And that’s the whole thing about Killing Joke, it’s a system of self-education. People are waking up to that. It’s not just a band, anyone into Killing Joke, anyone with a Killing Joke T-shirt or are into it they will lead you to whatever you’re interested in or to another inspiring line of thought. They’re just the best audience in the world. There’s no other band in the world that has an audience like Killing Joke’s audience. The Gatherers, we call them. When you come to a Killing Joke concert the level of awareness that’s in that room is marks up from any other band. It’s a sense of relief, at being in the company of like-minded individuals, is the best way I can properly describe it. I get a high from meeting people. I like people, I must admit. In spite of all the problems in the world, I like people. I make a point out of meeting people that give meaning to Killing Joke.
For me, the recordings are a great side of this career but the best side is the gigs because its where the music becomes personified. And you meet the people who give the music meaning. It is very easy to meet anybody in Killing Joke when we’re on tour, if you’re brave enough (laughs).

At the El Rey you invited me and a bunch of writers and fans up to your dressing room and we partook of good beer, luncheon meats and conversation.
There you go. It is very easy to meet any of us. Did we carry on partying?

We did. I remember the staff of the venue wanting to go home because it was 2am in the morning.
That’s nice we were having a good time even if I can’t remember.

I asked about Geordie’s kids at the time and he said something like his kids were already excellent musicians.
Yeah, the children of our band. Raven said on that tour that it was our Hundredth Anniversary. I said what do you mean? And he said “A hundred gigs between us” (laughter). Of course its not true.

I talked with Geordie in the 90’s and I heard a little kids making noise in the background. And when I last talked that was seven years ago so now he’s all grown up.
On the last tour we were playing Berlin and Geordie comes into the dressing room and he’s got this perplexed look on his face and he’s got this letter. He opens this letter and it says something to the effect of “Twenty-five years ago you slept with this beautiful woman” and he had this photograph, “and I am your son and I’m standing outside” (laughter). So I said bring him in! A 6’4″ Germanic Geordie walks in and we checked him out and he’s definitely Geordie’s. He ended up taking his father out for a drink. And if that wasn’t enough one week later it happened to Geordie again! In the dressing room (much laughter). Now Geordie has a 21 year-old too.

And Geordie has his kid from his wife in the States too.
Yes, that’s three that we know about.

He was quite the ladies man I take it.
Geordie and Youth were the playboys of the band, and of course, Raven. Big Paul and myself were sadly always in steady relationships (laughter). You have less surprises, no kids dropping by decades later. I’ve got three kids and that’s that.

When you first got back together was it just to hang out and see what happens or did you plan on touring together?
When we first got back together it was to get the tour together. Which presented problems in itself. I’ll give you an example of Killing Joke, alright. Imagine this, you’ve got to train your band, the original lineup, to do not one but two seperate sets. Because on that first tour we did one night, I think it was our first two albums and on the other night we did two other whole albums. So I had to get the band together to learn two sets. That’s a lot of material, that’s like four or five hours of Killing Joke music. I have fifteen days to do it. So you get there to the studio and the first thing Youth says is “I don’t want to do that, man, I just want to jam” (laughter).

You tell him to go jam for two weeks on tour in front of the Stateside audiences and see what happens.
For real! “Naw, let’s just jam”. We’ve got to learn two sets and he was serious! He was so insistent about jamming that we actually started recording and Fresh Fever From the Sky, from the new album, was part of that jam.

So it worked out.
That song, it was recorded in Spain, that was from when we first got together, just jammed out in the studio.

So the other fourteen days you actually practiced for the tour.
We got there, eventually. Before this tour, oh god, I’ve had bigger nightmares than that with Killing Joke. This last tour, this was a nightmare. I could only get the guys to rehearse for three days before the tour. Everybody was so fucking focused that they just nailed it and the first gig was amazing. So they always surprise me.
Youth, when it comes to fucking doing it, he’s on it! He’s always been like this. He can pull it out of the bag when he needs to. He’s the most remarkable character, this guy. Every since I met him, since he was a teenager, the guy has got no shame, alright. He’s got no fear of failure. He’ll take any instrument and have a go at it and everyone will be laughing and it will sound aweful but he’ll keep pecking away until he gets something good out of it. He’s got no fear of failure, Youth. Amazing personality, amazing character.

I was surprised out how young he looks on the video online where he’s talking about his collaboration with David Gilmour and the Orb.
Youth is passionate about music, everyone is. The guy gives his whole life seven days a week to music. He lectures at this university and he says to his hundred students “Only one person out of every hundred is successful in the music industry”. But he’s right. As he points out it is very rare for a band to get to their second album these days.

There’s no nurturing by the record companies.
I blame management companies for all of this, and record companies. What you should do is take an artist and develop them over a period of time so they can grow the way they want to grow. I’d be a brilliant manager now, but I don’t want to do management. I know what an artist should have. We were very lucky insofar as we started off with E.G. Records and this was a kind of weird label which had Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, Eno, and it was left-field music. It was run by two eccentric British guys who basically did it as a tax write-off if you want to know the truth. What they really did was provide security for Thatcher’s government (laughter). We’ve always been helped by a brotherhood of one sort or another. Their philosophy was to take an artist and develop them over a period of four or five albums instead of trying to aim for one and get quick success. We were very lucky to be brought up in this model. Sam Alder, the CEO of E.G., was signing very left-field artists like Roxy Music, when they first started they didn’t think they could sell their stuff. So they were used to taking left-field artists and they fell in love with Killing Joke. When they saw us live and they saw the whole atmosphere of Killing Joke live, they were sold on it. And they supported us…well, let me put it like this, they published us. I signed the contract when I was nineteen and I’ve just got off that contract now (laughter).

But you’re still laughing, so that’s good.
People would be shocked if they saw how I live, I live off of nothing. I live on fresh air. I live a very modest, stern living, on most people’s terms, austere. But I have the freedom to move, that’s the one thing I do like, is to exercise my right as a citizen of this world and to go anywhere I want. That’s more important to me than sort of owning anything. I only ever wanted access to things. Early on in my career I did the normal things. Before twenty I’d met all my heroes. And then all the things you plan on doing while in the entertainment business. For example, your first time on a private jet or when you experience a lot of wealth, after ten minutes it becomes horribly ordinary. Its this realization that I had really early on. That I’m not a materialist and you can ask my colleagues, its not important to me. Of course, one has to feed themselves and have the primary needs met. But beyond this, it is rare that I have more than 2000 pounds in my bank account at any one time.

You’re in Europe right now?

Are you composing?
Yah, I’m writing all the time. I’m working on my book and I’ve just finished up a big violin concerto for full orchestra with choir. I just got back from meetings about the recordings with this. I’ve got classical concerts next year, but not this year. So I’ve written most of the stuff. The wonderful thing about classical music is you can write it all and the recording takes one or two days and its finished. Not like rock music.

You just have to bring in a couple hundred people, right?
Yah, they come in and then they go. You put the music in front of them and you have to rehearse them but essentially the music comes back finished. Unlike rock music where you track it and it takes forever. This album didn’t, it took two weeks but even two weeks of Killing Joke, compare that to a classical record which takes two days.

And everyone is pretty compliant.
It’s a pyramid structure, the orchestra.

I saw a clip of a Czech movie called Year of the Devil. Were you basically playing yourself?
That was a very strange experience for me. What happened was I’d been working in Prague where I had composing business withPrague’s Symphony Orchestra and one of the good things about it was I had a conductor’s apartment on this job and this Czech folk violinist knocks on my door and he had this hippy guy with him that had a camera and he said “I want you to compose music for my folk band”. I thought he was fucking nuts but I liked him. He had this hippy guy with him and he was filming our first meeting. I agreed, I don’t know why agreed because there was no money in it. I said OK, I’ll score it, let’s go do some old songs, ancient folk songs, 400 years old, and we’ll choose some and I’ll score a concerto for Czech folk group and orchestra. Then I did it, scored it up, which took three weeks or so. Then they sprang on me, they said “We want you to conduct it at this concert now”. They told me this about three days before this concert that I thought I was just going to go and listen to. I’d never conducted an orchestra before, I’ve worked with orchestras and I’ve worked with different conductors but I’ve never conducted myself. So I had an hour’s rehearsal and I don’t know why I agreed to do it. Then I was on in front of the president of the country in this big concert hall and I was fucking terrified (laughter). But it went like a dream.
All the way through this I was being filmed by this hippy guy. After we did this I was asked to go record it so we went straight into the studio and I recorded it with the Czech Philharmonic and [the folk band] Cechomor. At this point the hippy guy had been filming me and he turns up one day and his hair is cut short and he said “My name is Petr Zelenka I’m a movie director and I’ve been filming you and I want you to play the Devil in this movie. But there’s no acting, it’s naturisto, which means there’s no actors, a term used in Eastern European film philosophy. He said “I want to finish this film, we’ve been filming you as it’s all happening”. It was so successful, that project, it went ten times platinum and won three Grammys. Within one year they were playing stadiums, from that time before I met them they were only doing weddings and funerals.
They were very crafty because all that happened is, I did this concert, without knowing it I’d stolen the money that was going to the famous folk singer Jaromír Nohavica, who was going to work with Cechamor but in real life I took the budget from him and nicked it and went and did Cechamor. When I met him in the film, Zelenka would go “We’re just going for coffee, we’re just going for dinner here or just turn up here”. Sometimes we were just going for coffee, but other times we would walk into the set and when you see me meet Nohavica, the famous folk singer, he really doesn’t like me because in real life I got the money off him that was supposed to go to him. The tension in real life isn’t acting, they were genius in catching all this as it was happening. The director, he knew somebody that was close to him that died from spontaneous combustion and the authorities tried to cover it up. That was another thread that went through the same story in the movie. It was amazing because that became a legend, that movie. it was just an amazing experience, I was just so lucky it became one of the biggest selling records ever in the history of the Republic.
John Hicklenton does artwork for 2000 AD comics and he was with Killing Joke on Absolute Dissent and we kept him alive for the last year of his life because he was going to [the Swiss clinic] Dignitas to commit suicide because he had MS. We kept commissioning him and he was on the whole of the Killing Joke recording of Absolute Dissent, very much part of it, sketching away until he went to Switzerland to commit suicide.

How is the movie going?
The Death & Resurrection Show
, I’m going down to New Zealand next week to do a bit more shooting. We’re still shooting the end of it. But its going good. We’ve got a company now to finance the finishing of the movie.

And how is the book going?
That’s turned into three books because to explain the book you have to explain what is Killing Joke and that takes a bit of explaining. Its turned into three books which I’ll put out myself next year. It is pretty much ready to go. It is more the philosophical side of Killing Joke really. It is also autobiographical insofar as it traces the evolution of ideas and philosophies as much as anything else.

You’re going to expand some minds.
Who knows? One of the effects of Killing Joke is we always set out to inspire a renaissance and that’s what we’ve done in a funny way. We don’t usually compare sales of Killing Joke to U2 but in terms of influence we’re giants. There’s no question about that. But not just music, I just think the spirit of doing it yourself, striving for and achieving one’s own divine genius. Coming from an innate belief in the band that everybody’s born gifted, every human being is born with a God Gift. Life is the location of this selfless execution of it. That’s really it. This is the foundation of renaissance. We just don’t attract with the music of Killing Joke, but with literature, with prose, with art with whatever medium anyone wishes to use. That’s the idea of renaissance, it’s not just one medium. So the idea that one can conduct and compose for orchestra, sing in a band, act, be an architect at the same time. As far as I know being an architect is somebody who designs a house and I’ve done that. So I must be an architect. It is proving these things to myself that I can do them, that I don’t let anything get in my way. I jump in the deep end and I start swimming, mate. I set myself up for things that I’ve never before and just try to learn the theory before the practice and dive in. You get lucky by taking a chance. I think fate favors the prepared mind but also fate favors the courageous souls who are frightened but they know they’re frightened and they fucking do it anyway.
The thing is, every man fears. Once you realize that, that’s where you can pluck up the courage. I’ve done things that absolutely terrified me. I’ve set up myself up for things constantly where I think God why have you agreed to do this? It is because I want to push myself through the fiery hoop just to know the experience. You come out of it so much stronger. I always say to people if they’re in a cul-de-sac in their lives, if you’re not sure of what you’re doing, go on a pilgrimage. By that I mean find out where your holy place is aywhere in the world and go there and everything is unlocked. Taking time out for just that, a pilgrimage, to go on a journey. You come back so much stronger. Especially young people that don’t know what they want to do with their lives. I’ve always suggested to go around the world and experience the world and then you’ll soon find out what you want to do and what you don’t want to do. The experience of this is so much more profound then going to university and running up a big tab.

It is so expensive to go to college you might as well just start working.
The guy who won the Architect of the Year competition wasn’t a qualified architect. Just bare that in mind. There are many of us out there that have managed to accomplish unbelievable things and we didn’t think it was possible for us because we were unqualified. I left school when I was 15 and everything has been self-education. I’ve managed to do a band, I’ve been so lucky because I have such inspirational colleagues. In conversation they can move from prose and recite it by heart and then go into discussions about measurements of the Great Pyramids or other Earth sciences and then move into world politics and then from there talk about the history of international banking and move to insects and Lepidoptera [moths and butterflies]. Everyone can move effortlessly in so many different mediums, to discuss arts, philosophy, you can move in any of these areas with my colleagues. I’ve always taken it for granted until I looked at other bands and realized I’ve got nothing in common with them.

I look forward to seeing you play here in December.
Where do you live?

I live in Burbank, California.
Oh, Burbank, fuck, I know Burbank well. Is that Italian restaurant still on the corner down by the shopping mall? You know, where they sit outside. I know Burbank really well. Raven used to live around the corner from me, from my in-laws in Burbank. So I know that territory really well.

Market City Cafe.
That’s it, Market City Cafe. You go in there and you have the Mahi Mahi and order yourself a bottle of Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc.
To start with have the prawns. That’s a great restaurant. There’s a book shop the other side of the road, all second hand books. It has got amazing literature in it, like real weird books in it. It is good to know it’s still there. They don’t make bookstores like that one anymore.

Do your in-laws still live here?
They’ve all moved upstate, it’s cold there now.

It’s in the 80’s here.
I’m in the house that Killing Joke used to live in, in Switzerland, where Paul Raven made it back just before he died, to this house.

I hope you have a good trip to New Zealand and to the States and I thank you for the talk.
I thank you very much. See you, mate.

(Interview by Bret Miller)

Killing Joke’s U.S. Tour Dates:
12/03 Irving Plaza New York City, NY
12/04 Paradise Lounge Boston, MA
12/09 Crofoot Ballroom Pontiac, MI
12/10 Empty Bottle Chicago, IL
12/11 Empty Bottle Chicago, IL
12/15 Showbox Seattle, WA
12/16 Wonder Ballroom Portland, OR
12/17 Regency Ballroom San Francisco, CA
12/18 Wiltern Los Angeles, CA


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