An enlightening chat with Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke on the future of human civilization
At the end of October, Killing Joke released its fifteenth album, MMXII. Given the impending doom that supposedly awaits us at the end of next week, it's hard to imagine a more perfect time to release a record that explores themes of such a looming eschatological event. In 1982, Killing Joke's Jaz Coleman is said to have fled to Iceland with a couple of his bandmates in an effort to fortify himself for the apocalypse. This time he's not involved in such things, despite a scare over the summer when Coleman was thought to have disappeared. Instead, Killing Joke has written an album of songs that give voice to the nightmare scenarios and anxieties of the current era in which many point to natural disasters and man-made technological misadventures as signs of then End of Days.
Killing Joke got its start in the late '70s in London during the later part of the first wave of post punk. The band's fully-realized blend of dark disco, politically-charged yet poetic lyrics and edgily hypnotic guitar work proved to be a massive influence on post-punk the followed in the '80s on though the alt-rock of the 90s and all industrial music since -- not to mention the more interesting metal that has come along in the band's wake. Metallica famously covered "The Wait" on its The $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, and Nirvana is known to have come to an agreement with the band on nicking, accidentally or otherwise, the main guitar riff on "Come As You Are" from Killing Joke's "Eighties."
We recently had a rare chance to speak with the congenial and insightful Coleman about his start in playing with rock bands, as well as his views on human civilization in a bigger picture sense, both currently and across time. That, of course, is the theme of MMXII, which is essentially a hopeful album, as it assumes humanity will continue well beyond the end date predicted by the doomsayers. During our chat with him, Coleman laughed after making dramatic assertions. And while he may have been entirely serious about the essence of his statements, he was liberal in his appreciation of the absurdity and seriousness of so much going on in the world and being able to use humor as a way of discussing very serious situations and subjects.
Westword: How did you get started playing keyboards in a rock band?
Jaz Coleman: I didn't listen to rock music until I was about fourteen. I was just listening to classical music. At that point, it was sort of an overnight epiphany, as it were. I really wanted to be in a band/form a band. And the keyboards, well, I'm a violinist by nature. That's what I wanted to do. Like you do, school band. Of course when you go from classical music to rock music, or punk, or whatever, you tend to overplay, as it were. It's what you leave out with rock music and there's rhythm etc. It was a sort of crash course, really. You have to learn yourself. No one teaches you. You've got to find your own way. And in doing that you sort of create your own style.
When we started with the band what the tunes required weren't complex keyboard parts but more pitched noise and atmospheres, really. That was the big exploration with Killing Joke. It didn't require prissy little keyboard parts. This was a kind of musical awakening in itself. I bought my first keyboard, which was a ghastly organ, and I got a really loud amplifier with it. I'd go over for a jam and I'd plug this fucking horrible organ in and turn it right up to welding point.
They [kicked] me out of the studio within five minutes of me playing, you know. It's funny when I think that with Big Paul [Ferguson], we played with quite a few other people because he was in Zimbabwean bands. I ended up playing keyboards in the same bands. When we played together, there'd just be the two of us left. We used to scare everybody else away. We did this loads of times before we realized we had to form a band on our own.
So, I don't know, you find your own way, as I said. There's no teacher but yourself, and that's the wonderful thing of the dream of being in a band. For me, it really came hard and sharp, the idea of being in a band. I got into the National Youth Orchestra playing violin. I remember one incident when we were playing Shostakovich, and I had just had a break and had a smoke or something and then went back to do the Shostakovich Sixth.
The conductor stopped the orchestra and said, "I just want the first violins to play so and so and so and so," and each player had to play it on their own. He was getting closer and closer, and I was smashed out of my head. That and the combination of meeting a viola player who said to me, "Don't you listen to anything else other than classical and choral music?" Not really. But she introduced me to Can because she had an old tape player. I also lost my virginity to her.
So I had this association of liberty with rock music from the very beginning. When you compare that to classical music, you can make a mistake with rock music and punk. It doesn't matter so much. It was connected with my sexuality, as well, at the same time, and it was a lifestyle thing. I kind of knew what I wanted. I thought, "Fuck, this is the best job in the world." And it is, there's no getting around it. Of course I still love classical music, and I conduct and compose for orchestras on a regular basis, so I live these two worlds now -- these two schizophrenic worlds of music, if you like.
The time I decided I wanted to be in a band, I remember asking my friend, "How do you form a band, or how do you get into a band." He said, "You read the back of [music magazines] and you put an advert in and you do auditions." I asked, "So you don't need any exams." He said, "No!" Naturally, I thought, "What the fuck are we doing here at school?"
From that point I kind of stopped work. I came from an academic family, and it was quite distressing to them. I sold my very expensive violin at Sotheby's without my parents knowing and bought a synthesizer with the money and an electric piano. [The synth] was a Mini Korg then. And I got a Wurlitzer, which I ended up turning it up so it distorted.
My next keyboard after that was an Oberheim OBX and I never went an awful lot further. When they started taking knobs off synthesizers, I wasn't interested. I don't like digital. A liberation theology is behind all this music. It's about liberating yourself, so I took it very seriously. I even took it as something spiritual. It's not just the performance of music. It has deeper meaning for me.