Killing Joke Releases 'Pylon' -- Singer and Mystic Jaz Coleman Talks About the Adsurdity of Modernity
"They see us four dickheads on stage and they think 'Well if they can do that, anyone can do anything.'"
Killing Joke have simmered, by design or simple apathy, just off the radar of the already too-niche of "heavy post-punk industrial rock" for 37 years. Two years before Killing Joke's debut, the Sex Pistols were sneering through the motions of anarchy vis-a-vis monarchical debasement before breaking up shortly after Killing Joke's first full-length arrived -- with the sound of the future right up front, led by a dead-simple synth drone. The record's cover depicts some Northern Irish escaping a CS gas cloud dropped by the British Army. "This is music to march to," drones singer and adopted New Zealander Jaz Coleman. "To dance... the war dance." Johnny Rotten seems a bit boogerish, by comparison and in retrospect.
In the many years since that eponymous debut, the members of Killing Joke have undergone innumerable transmutations, shattering revelations and estrangements, have flown through dark, dense and misty clouds of magic, addiction, fear and revelation. The scope of the band members' individual biographies -- the four core members and the nine that have joined and left, or exited their mortal coil -- is practically Biblical, littered with exciting words like apocalypse, occult, Czech Grammys, addiction, New Zealand, and chamber-orchestra-interprets-Led-Zeppelin. (That last one is a stretch, if we're being honest.)
Killing Joke's discography isn't perfect, especially when they struck a vein of mainstream appeal in the mid-to-late '80s -- it was a tough time sonically for many non-natives of that decade; even Bob Dylan sucked -- but always contained within poetic skin. The band uses its music to highlight human potential and the role of power to curtail it. It does so via one brutally distorted hollow-body guitar manned by Geordie Walker, Martin "Youth" Glover on tectonic bass, a drummer from the Mesozoic named Paul Ferguson and Coleman's throat, which could shiver boulders.
Today the band releases its fifteenth full-length, Pylon. The record follows the path they first set down with their second self-titled record from 2003, which came with very slick production, a refinement of Coleman's bellow, and Dave Grohl on drums. (The band has, since 2009, reunited its foundational lineup.) The band's cynical optimism, previously trained on industrial agriculture, financial institutions and world-ending asteroids, here finds a new enemy: the rapid rise of technology, and the gulf it has created between dirt and the people who walk it.
To "celebrate" the occasion, Billboard spoke to Jaz Coleman from the band's recording base in Prague.
Billboard: The 1996 record Democracy was hopeful -- it wasn’t as bleak as the record that came afterwards. [2003's Killing Joke.] Your politics have evolved, but haven't lost their fervor. Can you tell me a little bit about where you’re at now politically?
Jaz Coleman: As you know, we use Killing Joke as a form of therapy… it’s cathartic. It’s exorcism. I do honestly believe that if we hadn’t had Killing Joke we would've turned into criminals, or worse. It helps us process the horrors of the modern world.
There’s always something going on isn’t there? As I’ve got older, of course, I’ve realized there’s some things I can change and many things I cannot change. So I guess I’m more philosophical about what’s attainable, what’s realistic.I don’t believe in any political ideas at all really. I consider myself a political atheist.
How do you reconcile wanting to affect change without really having the means to?
I focus on "paradise now," as I like to call it. Which is to say, creating a form of paradise in my immediate environment… like a Killing Joke concert, or where we’re working. Whatever I’m doing, I try to do this with like-minded people. Some people invest in property, I’ve always had the philosophy of investing in the human experience, which is why I like traveling so much. I get a global perspective, a multitude of opinions.
I was in Russia and, of course, it’s a very different mindset -- especially at the moment. This is kind of the back drop to Pylon, really. That and the fact that there were some three deaths, one of which was a suicide, in my close vicinity, in my family. It made me reflect on a lot of things. It’s getting dark, I don’t mind telling you -- it’s been good getting my head down with Killing Joke. There’s always a feeling there’s something more to do with Killing Joke, which is a wonderful thing. As you can see with our career, we don’t sit around wallowing in the past, because the present tense and the future is far more exciting.
How much does your classical work inform it?
It has nothing to do with my classical career, it doesn’t overlap with Killing Joke one bit. Different audiences, different concert houses. The only thing they’ve got in common is that they’re music. The director, the conductor maestro, is a hermit. It's a singular job. Killing Joke is a collective experience, a shared experience. It’s like the hermit and the communist if you like.
You spend a lot of time alone.
When it comes to composition, my secret, our secret, in Killing Joke is that to write great music, forget about music. Just forget all about it. Get your checklist... all those countries you’ve always wanted to visit. You go there, you stay there. Live out all your dreams. When you start doing this, synchronicities happen. Then you get on your instrument and your soul is full. It just kind of downloads, it comes through you. There’s no cerebral analysis or intellectual process, it’s something that just happens, it manifests itself.
So, you have to feed your soul with lots of contrast. You have to fall in love and travel. You have to surprise yourself with yourself. These series of contrasts will affect anything that comes out, all creativity. That’s our approach. We use the moon as well. We do all creative work in a waxing moon and then all tidying up and throwing shit out in the waning. We’ve done that since we were teenagers. We followed the system rigidly, and it serves us well. For example when I gave up alcohol, it was no problem. If you wanna give up anything, do it like 6, 7 days after the full moon, and you’ll find it a lot easier.
That kind of dovetails a little bit with your book, which came out last year. Right?
It documents all the things that have inspired me from the beginning of my career, basically. The multitude of things that have really made an affect on me, whether it’s a school of thought or whatever. It’s kind of a huge study, which involves a multitude of other studies like numerology, and geomagnetic energy, which is something I’ve studied for 37 years now. All sorts of things. It’s the things that inspire me and the secret history of the band, the things that have inspired us.
So, the geomagnetic energy that plays into the waxing/waning of the moon process right?
Also holy sites. We’ve always worked with them, notable points on the geometric grid and experiments with them and music and altered consciousness -- for many many years.
The first people to sign Echo and the Bunnymen, they had a similar practice. They went on to form the KLF and they attempted to do a similar show, where they had one band in Iceland and another band in England along the same leyline...
I’m well aware of that. Actually, that’s brought up in my book as well. Jimmy [Cauty, one-half of The KLF] wrote about the experience about me being in Iceland at the same time we had these ideas. You can read about that as well -- KLF is part of the Killing Joke family. I see Killing Joke as something wider than just a band. For myself it’s a university. Bear in mind that most of us left school when we were 14, with no further eduction. There was an onus on self-education in the band from the very beginning. There was a monthly compulsory reading list where we would read things and debate them. It was quite a unique band -- everybody’s extremely well-read. Folks with high IQs.
We were caught up in the 'punk, have-a-go' attitude. Which is amazing because its allowed me to become an actor, become an architect, study theology, study international banking, and do so many different things without fear of failure. In this way, I marvel at Killing Joke in terms of… I call it the mirror effect which is, essentially, they see us four dickheads on stage and they think 'Well if they can do that, anyone can do anything.' Something like that anyway.
Bringing it back to the new record, it seems like the central theme is technology.
Sure it is. Population explosion is parallel with the information feed. It’s very very interesting. A massive upturn. In my lifetime, the world’s population has doubled. Incredible, really. If you look at the information feed, the technology, as the singularity kicks in, the graph follows the population in a steep bank upwards.
Of course we’ve reached a time where, as soon as you have an idea, it’s sort of beginning to manifest. They say in quantum physics, we’re all participants in creating our own reality. So there you are -- this is no different to magic, which is the science of creating change in accordance to the will. It’s exactly the same, which is why it concerns me that there’s so many of these apocalyptic religions on the planet, the judeo-christian traditions. They’re all apocalyptic traditions, focusing human consciousness on dreadful things, really. I think we should do away with it probably. Along with secular society.
Can you describe your average day?
I don’t have any fridge at my place, so I have to collect and gather my food every day. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing you have to think of is: 'What am I gonna eat today, and where am I gonna get it?' That in itself is quite a journey. Some days I get my fishing rod and get out on the rocks, catch a few fish… It’s little things that matter. When I go back there [to Coleman's secluded home in New Zealand] it’s little things like fishing, maybe a barbecue -- these kind of things. Walking around with bare feet and going a little bit feral. You can’t hear anybody, there’s no cars or anything where I am… It’s just the place I go to for peace really.
It seems like that quiet is as important as anything else to making the noise of Killing Joke.
It is. It’s very, very important to have these times. I was just talking about about it with Geordie [Walker, Killing Joke guitarist], how we’re planning on taking a month of just to go fishing. We might even invite a load of people -- the Killing Joke fishing party.
That would be a sight to see.
It would, actually. Maybe we should have a Killing Joke fishing competition…