Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke talks Tool, cell phones, no longer drinking & more
On a bright and late Saturday morning in October that felt like a summer afternoon, I drove to a high-end hotel in downtown Los Angeles to meet face-to-face with Jaz Coleman, the well-known vocalist of post-punk legends Killing Joke. I jumped at the opportunity to interview a musician of such fame (and equal infamy) that I’d been following since my college days in the mid-2000s. Killing Joke had just begun a nation-wide jaunt opening for Tool on their tour for their new album Fear Inoculum and, that night, Killing Joke would be playing in front of a sold-out crowd at the 20,000-capacity Staples Center. Once at the hotel, though, I was soon outside in a hedge-walled restaurant patio sitting face-to-face with Coleman himself as he smoked a fat cigar accompanied by a soda.
What I wish I had seen beforehand was former Invisible Oranges scribe Justin M. Norton’s intro to one of his own interviews with Coleman many years ago (here’s another, and another). Norton, back then, opined about Coleman that, “[an] interview with him isn’t a series of questions by interviewer so much as an interrogation by artist… your illusion that you are in control and asking the questions is quickly dispelled.” A decade later, and I felt exactly how Norton described as an assumed 20-minute interview turned into over an hour-long journey... with Coleman very much at the helm.
To illustrate: before I even asked a question, Coleman took hearing I was a journalist with BrooklynVegan as a jumping board to discuss what sort of diets and farming would be required as a matter of sustainability in the future. This led into a myriad of political issues including homelessness in America, the military industrial complex, Trump and Brexit, the practical survival merits for a tyrant to hold nuclear arms, globalism, and his own thoughts on polycentric vs. unicentric global governance. For a moment Coleman seemed to direct our wild ride back to the band. “So the world is in a terrible state but that’s why we need Killing Joke. Something I need, we need, and the world needs. I’ll tell you something, the next album will be stratospheric. If the gods allow us to make it. Killing Joke is meant to be here now. Killing Joke will rise, rise, and rise till you see it’s our destiny. Our destiny to be at this stage in the world’s development and the time of the sixth extinction period. We’re heading towards tumultuous changes.”
Before I could continue on that path we were back at politics where talk about globalism eventually led to the potential benefits of multiculturalism. “I’m the product, being Anglo-Indian, of multiculturalism and possibly a good mouthpiece for global governance because I belong nowhere and everywhere.” However soon enough a sour note was perhaps hit in the conversation as I felt a real turn in Coleman’s approach toward me. “I don’t know what to say sometimes. Sometimes I’m sitting across from someone who is interviewing me and they’re asking me a question while I’m thinking, ‘you know what, by asking that question you’re endangering my fucking life if I answer honestly.’ There’s only one thing that saves me. I’m completely fucking mad!”
Coleman, at that moment, shot up from the table and walked inside the restaurant leaving me absolutely dumbfounded wondering if that was it for the interview. A few minutes later he returned but immediately doubled down on my bewilderment as he inquired what I believed happened during the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Soon, as I said I wasn’t one for “conspiracy theories,” he launched into a full verbal fury against me. He lectured on about what he believed happened, with particular focus on the collapse of Tower Seven, and began critiquing me personally saying I wasn’t interested in the truth as it would risk my career in journalism. He claimed my body language was portraying me as scared and flaky. The reality for me being that I was simply unprepared for this level of confrontation and likely appeared thoroughly shook. At some point I realized this had become a bit of a sparring match and if I didn’t want the interview to end in likely assured disaster I’d need to respond back with some force.
Eventually, the conversation calmed down and I no longer felt like a bristling cat against a wall. I couldn’t tell how much of a fool I’d made of myself then but at least the seemingly real threat of the interview blowing up dissipated as Coleman continued with his thoughts and theories. I kept in mind the interview might need to end sometime soon (as it turned out, it continued for maybe another 30 minutes), so I made a final effort to bring the discussion in focus on the band.
Upon inquiring if I could even ask such questions, Coleman showed a twinkle in his eyes and grinned wide chuckling, “yeah sure, what would you like to know?” I really couldn’t tell if everything that had just transpired was just a wild game. Perhaps he was trying to test me or just have a bit of fun seeing if he could make an interviewer crack. Regardless, I broached a subject that immediately had Coleman reflective on a personal level.
-- Joseph Aprill
Today [October 20th, 2019] is the anniversary of Paul Raven’s passing [former bassist of Killing Joke who died of a heart attack in his sleep in 2007]. Do you still think about him often?
Every day of my life I think about him. It’s more difficult than my father passing. It’s difficult because I’d fallen out with him.
I thought I read you…
We made up before he passed, but he had left us right in the shit. By no means though does that change my enduring love for him.
His last album with you, Hosannas from The Basements of Hell...
That was such a dark album. You know one of the funny things that happened to me in the last six or seven years is I’ll be in a bar where they’ll put music on and I go, “This is great. What is it?” and they go, “It’s you!” And I’ve never fucking heard it before. This has happened so many times, of course that album is one of them and I never listen to it at all. I don’t even know half of the songs on it. It was such a dark period. A very dark period in Killing Joke’s career.
I have to admit it was the album that got me into the band.
[Laughs] I can honestly say there’s not a single member of Killing Joke that listens to that album. It’s not because of the music as some of it is beautiful on that record but it’s from such a dark time that we’ve got terrible associations with it. I mean that was the last album I was drinking on for a start. The thing about Killing Joke is that it allows me to be honest with myself. So I process things, terrible things, and for that album it was terrible. I mean I wanted to kill.
Why do you think you were in such a dark place then?
Well the alcohol sure didn’t help.
Sure, though alcohol is usually a mask for deeper issues.
Absolutely it absolutely is. You know what I can say is when I stopped drinking it felt like I’d been away and come back. That was creepy, the whole drinking experience. For me the drinking started around about 2002 and it finished in 2006. It felt intense after I stopped drinking. It felt like I had been away and I don’t know what had been there in between but it wasn’t altogether me. I think alcoholism is possession, like spiritual possession. I didn’t have to do the AA thing or anything like that. It was an oath. I’ve successfully gotten other people off alcohol as well since then. You have to take an oath that you’ll never do it again and an oath means forever so you have to take it seriously. If you want to give up something just cast seven to eight days after a full moon by making an oath. Then it’s done and liberated. That worked for me. I was drinking at my height two or three bottles of spirits a day. I was close to death.
You’ve done a few shows now already on the tour with Tool, so how has it been so far?
It’s been amazing. You know we’re playing to people who don’t really know Killing Joke and that’s a great thing for by the time we finish every night, my god, the place is rocking. It’s been amazing playing to a completely new audience. A wonderful feeling.
And these being at some of the biggest venues Killing Joke has likely ever played in the US.
Yeah, in the states for sure. When we go on the place is half full. By the time we finish the place is packed and rocking. It’s humbling and wonderful. Plus I like being finished really early [laughs].
Have you been able to watch Tool perform yet on the tour?
Sure. I’ve watched two of their sets so far. It’s funny when you look at their setlist it’s only about nine songs on it but their songs are so long [laughs]. We love the guys and have known them for 25 years just when they started as well. They strike me as a band who’d do well to go to the Middle East because one of the liberating things that I found in my life is discovering Oriental and Arabian music. You know they start on one idea and end on a different idea with the songs almost lasting an hour sometimes with lots of changes. Tool’s music is like this. They don’t use sonata form; you know introduction, verse, chorus, verse, development, and outro. They strike me as a band inspired by Eastern principles before even being there.
You’ve talked before about your occult influences and members of Tool have talked about their own as well. It’s certainly been a part of the creativity of their songwriting, like using the Fibonacci sequence as the basis for Lateralus, and I feel like they make it clear they’re influenced in that way by bands like you guys.
They’re so nice. Actually, they’ve amazed me in how far they’ve embraced the mystery tradition. I’m always surprised when someone shows me something that comes off their websites with the discussions being had and I think, “Wow! At least some bands are really developing spiritually.” The other thing I have to say to Tool fans out there is what a nice bunch of people the members of Tool are. What kind human beings and you should be proud of them. I know Danny and Maynard more as friends than anything and I genuinely feel their love and support for what we’re doing. One of the things though that everyone in Killing Joke feels is we’re really happy with what we got and we don’t aspire to the stadium thing [laughs].
Sort of like it being nice to drive the Ferrari but not own it and have to do all the upkeep on it.
The stadium thing has a place but I wouldn’t like to have built my life in that world and never play the great venues we play.
The last time I saw you was I think at The Regent [in Los Angeles] probably a year ago.
Oh yeah, that’s somewhere around here. I like those places and I’m happy where I am with where Killing Joke are playing but it is nice to play these huge places to people not familiar with Killing Joke. To have such a warm and amazing reception from them. We’re basically winning because every night we’re converting. It’s an amazing thing to move into something different. Then to watch these poor bastards do two and half hour sets [laughs].
What do you think about Tool’s policy of “put your phone away or you’ll get kicked out?”
This has been inspirational. We’re gonna get our people to start stealing people’s mobile phones too.
Or kick them out if they do it?
No, they’ll sell them afterwards [laughs]. When you go on stage and you see loads of people looking at you through the prism of these fucking mobile phones. Instead of being with their brothers and sisters in the now… I mean I go along with it and will do as many selfies as people want. I go along with it but I don’t like it.
What do you think of this really global cultural trend of documenting your life rather than living it?
Enhancing the ego of the individual is a good way to control them. Anything that blows the ego is considered good. I mean what’s the fucking point of it. I don’t see any benefits in pushing brand Coleman everywhere [laughs].
You’ve been touring the 40th anniversary for about two years now. Next year is going to be 40 years since the debut self-titled LP. Are you going to do anything for that?
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I don’t think that far ahead these days because well… astrology shapes my life a lot. Bare in mind billionaires use astrology not millionaires. So I‘m on the same page as billionaires when it comes to what’s likely to happen. What we went through with the Cuban missile crisis, ok I was only two years old when that happened, that’s about to start again early next year for two years. A two year period of complete global upheaval. Whatever that means. Could be Yellowstone or could be fucking anything. God only knows.
Is it the same vibe you got back in the 1980s?
No, it’s worse. Much worse. Although in the early 1980s, 85% of young people thought they wouldn’t last very long. We all thought we were gonna go then. I’m glad we didn’t but the thing is there’s a sense of complacency now. I hate to say it but something is going to happen. It’s written that way.
Will there be time for a Killing Joke album before it all ends?
I don’t know. That’s a very good point and I think about that a lot. All I can say is I’m glad I got Magna Invocatio done just in case there isn’t time [Jaz Coleman’s upcoming November 29th release of orchestral reworkings of Killing Joke’s songs as performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic]. The things I’m interested in are Earth communities which are part of Killing Joke’s legacy. We have two in South America we’re in touch with and I’m starting one in New Zealand. The whole self-sufficiency thing is very important. “We have to dig for victory," as Geordie Walker says. Every park or backyard needs to be turned into food production. I had one interview a few days ago and the guy interviewing me said, “you do realize there’s probably only 60 harvests left.” I never really thought about it before and all I could think was, “well at least I’ll have a 120 summers then if I live that long.” [laughs]
Two summers because you travel between the hemispheres?
I just try to avoid winter. I don’t like winter anywhere whereas big Paul [Ferguson, drummer of Killing Joke] is the opposite to me where he can’t stand summer anywhere. He loves permanent winter.
Are you that way because you don’t want to relive your childhood in terms of the winters in England?
Oh, well they’re just damp and miserable. Expensive damp misery. That’s the UK and you’re welcome to it.
After nine years here [in Los Angeles], I kind of miss winter.
[Laughs] That happens to a lot of people from the West Coast. I remember in the 1980s you met a lot of punks from the West Coast and all they could think about was listening to The Clash on cold dark foggy nights [laughs]. The reality is not as attractive as you might think.
I mean I’ve been to Norway in February and I enjoyed it.
Yeah. I enjoy all the black metal and everything from up there.
I haven’t done that yet.
[laughs] You like the black metal? Spiritually?
No, I do actually. It spiritually does connect. It’s something that... I’m not necessarily a religious person but it’s something that I can’t describe as just physical. It’s something beyond that.
High energy music to me and the spiritual virtues of it has gotten me to where I am which is alive and still going. I think it’s good for us with all this stuff and rock-‘n’-roll. Someone said to me, “You do realize you’re one of the last professional bands.” I went, “What are you talking about”, and he goes, “Well, most bands they have other jobs.” [laughs] None of us have ever had a job, I tell ya. Never. Nothing. Unemployable.
Well it’s not like you’ve only done the band. Clearly you’ve done orchestral work and…
I’ve done motivational lectures for IBM [laughs].
Hopefully they paid you well.
They did actually. You know I’ll pretty much have a go at anything. I considered politics but I don’t see how anything good could come out of politics. Especially with any artist or musician who has gone into politics. Can you name any one who has done anything good ever? No, I can’t and you probably can’t either. That’s because they haven’t done anything good and the chances of me doing anything good in politics is just about as remote as for them [laughs].
The discussion continued onward with Coleman expressing his views that Bill Gates is an evil advocate of genocide via vaccinating the third world, then how an increase in volcanic activity on Earth is likely to soon cause tribulation to humanity. He elaborated that perhaps the cause might be the gravitational pull of multiple rogue planets on unnoticed elliptical courses or even an undetected brown dwarf star in our solar system. Just then we were interrupted by a woman who I had noticed sitting a few tables away from us for most of the interview but now clearly showed she had been listening attentively as she offered her vocal support to Coleman and encouraged him to continue proselytizing about such hidden truths. Astutely, she found it ironic that Coleman and I were sitting under a sign for the restaurant saying “Justice” [Urban Tavern]. She then asked if she could get a photo with Coleman; he happily agreed, and I took the picture.
With the next interviewer having arrived for Coleman, it was time to finally end the journey. I thanked Coleman and he embraced me with a big hug and said not to take him too seriously. All of which I must say added further to the rollercoaster ride of surrealism I had experienced; driving from near accusatory interrogation of myself to cheerful welcoming conversation. Before everything was said and done though I got in one more question.
Since Youth and Ferguson rejoined the band, reforming the original line-up, you guys have been together longer now than you ever were the first time. So what do you credit to you all sticking it out together as long as you have now?
Magick. I wouldn’t swap it for 60 more years on the planet and a billion in cash. They are my arms and legs while I am theirs. We are one entity. Nothing has any meaning unless it’s a shared experience. I had a number one in this country for a 108 weeks. I remember when they told me after a 108 weeks, it gets taken off the charts, that is a classical record on the classical charts. I remember thinking, “ah, I’ve done it now!” I put the phone down and poured myself a whiskey... but there was no one there to party with [laughs]!
Jaz Coleman’s upcoming release A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke will be out on November 29th via Spinefarm Records.
Check out photos and a review from the Tool/KJ show at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Remaining tour dates below.
Tool / Killing Joke — 2019 Tour Dates
November 21st -- Uncasville, CT -- Mohegan Sun Casino Arena
November 22nd -- Atlantic City, NJ -- Boardwalk Hall
November 24th -- Raleigh, NC -- PNC Arena
November 25th -- Washington, DC -- Capitol One Arena