Interview: Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman

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The last time IO caught up with Jaz Coleman more than two years ago he was in a prickly mood: challenging, cackling and taunting in equal measure. Despite the apocalyptic overtones of the calendar year the latest conversation found the mercurial vocalist in good spirits. The much-written about incident earlier this year where Coleman seemingly disparaged would be-tour mates The Cult then went AWOL has blown over (Coleman was later found in the Western Sahara and claimed someone was impersonating him). Many fans were pissed, but was this a surprise given that Coleman once holed up in Iceland in the early ’80s and returned when the world didn’t end as he expected?

Coleman was more than ready to talk this fall. “You can ask me anything you want,” he said. His disappearance never came up, but we talked about Killing Joke’s new album MMXII and why Coleman thinks a global renaissance is crucial.

— Justin M. Norton

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First of all, how have you been?

(Long pause). That’s interesting. How have I been?

I live like a gypsy; another country every two months. There’s no routine in my life. I’ve got one daughter in Switzerland and two daughters in New Zealand. So I’m kind of bipolar; continually going between the northern and southern hemisphere. It’s been a permanent state of transit since 2007. So I fluctuate between extreme highs and lows. I love the contrast. Unlike other people, I delight in the dark. I’m not afraid of it.

You think too much of our culture tries to medicate away the dark or not reconcile with it?

Oh, sure I do. I believe in the idea of polarity, which is to say the further we go to the forces of light the further we’ll plunge into the depths of darkness simultaneously.

Absolute Dissent was a dark album. There seems to be a consensus that this album is a lot more hopeful.

I agree. Consider that I was born in 1960 around the Cuban missile crisis. It could have all ended a while ago. I’ve spent my whole life in a nuclear age with 45 nuclear reactors and 26,000 bombs around the planet. Frankly, I never thought we’d get this far. Nuclear annihilation – we’ve come so close to it on so many occasions. Just read (Henry) Kissinger’s arguments for nuclear war; study that nuclear war mindset, the first strike mentality. We’ve come close to complete annihilation in the past 40 years. It’s scary to think about.

When you’ve been so close to the whole thing for the better part of your life at some point you transcend fear. And I think that’s what’s happened with 2012. Just forget nuclear annihilation; look at the real possibility of a pole shift. Well, it doesn’t matter if the south turns north. What if 10,000 coastal cities are taken? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the richness of your life now, how you are living now.

How did MMXII (2012) come together?

When you do two albums back to back there’s a potential danger that the album that follows doesn’t match. In my career I’m thinking of the time from Pandemonium into Democracy. Actually, Dave Grohl (guest drummer on the band’s self-titled 2003 album) says Democracy is one of his favorite albums but I don’t think it’s as strong as our other work. I think that’s because it was done straight after writing and promoting and performing Pandemonium. You learn from your mistakes.

But I like the idea of doing an album every year. We’re all in our 50s and I like the idea of writing a better album each time, surpassing the album before it. It’s a challenge. Again, doing two consecutive albums is dangerous. So, with 2012 I made sure we did the writing process in sections. Part of it was (guitarist) Geordie and myself. Part of it was (drummer) Big Paul, (bassist) Youth and myself. Finally, we agreed on the best ideas and put it all down live in one day. It was written in Prague and Spain and the drums were put down in the U.K.

Photo by Doralba Picerno

The original lineup has been back together for four years. Now that you are past the buzz of being a reunited band what is it like writing and working together?

It’s ever the same. Nothing changes, really. We have an extraordinarily good relationship. There are huge clashes but there’s no violence anymore. There are still differences of opinion. The clashes and discord make Killing Joke what it is. I wish we all lived in the same area. But we’re all spread around in different counties. So you can’t just say let’s go jam tomorrow or record a song.

When we go out before the next tour what I want to do is have open rehearsals. We did this when we lived in Prague. We’d have open rehearsals and have a barbecue and people would come from all over the world. It was wonderful and the band played better. It was like a show. I’m going to push the guys to do this so we can spend a bit of time together in Geneva or Prague, if the world hasn’t ended.

It sounds like you have to plan your bouts of creativity like a couple planning to have a kid.

Well, not really (laughs). I hang out with Geordie on my own and we stack up a good few ideas. We just bank 20 ideas easily. You can draw on them however you want.

I thought about Killing Joke when the Occupy movement came up in the time after Absolute Dissent. Did you follow any of it?

If we have a democracy I applaud the whole idea of vigorous debate. It’s the foundation of all democracy. Socrates said it. So I applaud non-violent peaceful protests. Long may we have it and long may we have free speech. Hurrah! (laughs). Doesn’t it say that in your Constitution somewhere? It’s your duty to defend free speech.

What does the year 2012 mean to Jaz Coleman?

You’ll see in my book that’s coming out. In 2008, I took up the idea of finishing 13 masterpieces. I want to start a renaissance school, if you’d like. There’s so much art, producing, composing and mysticism in this band. But no one has a single exam between them. That’s the mystery.

We’ve been trying to distill everything we’ve learned to a coherent program that anyone can apply at any stage of life. Embrace Renaissance principles. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. We all have multiple gifts. Look at what you do in the course of a day; there are so many things. We’re all naturally multitalented. I envisage the idea of putting you in the biggest bookstore in the world and having you embrace one subject you are passionate about. Then go buy 13 books. That’s the basis. Whatever you are interested in is what you should do. And you should master multiple talents. Look at the modes and mediums da Vinci used to express his genius. In a funny way that’s what we do in Killing Joke.

Well I think about my father’s generation, there was an emphasis on a renaissance education and being well rounded.

I’ve seen some documents, I think from the Brookings Institute, on how state education has really dumbed down the populace. You see that in the United Kingdom with the emphasis on the STEM subjects which is science, technology, engineering and math; basically, the breeding of a slave caste for manufacturing and growth. And that’s obsolete because we’ve used most of our natural resources. I’m critical of education and the way it’s gone. When I went to school I studied religious education and history and geography and now these are all thrown into one subject called humanities. How can you go into any meaningful detail by watering the syllabus down into one subject? Frankly, it’s shocking. If you look at the attention span of people, because of the Internet and technology, it’s like a fucking goldfish. They are incapable of critical thought.

When you think of some of the greatest thinkers of our times from Newton to Kepler, they couldn’t arrive at these conclusions in this modern system of information. There’s a book called The Shallows that illustrates what’s happening to this generation. They don’t have a healthy diet or physical education and education has grown worse. Science has created weak, shallow and obese members of society. I think it’s been designed and planned.

Well I think that’s one of the inspiring thing about Killing Joke is that you suggest that we can find a sense of purpose and connection to the world around us if we try.

I’m so concerned when I see really young people in their early teens that seem to have lost all their confidence because an academic system might not work for them. We are basically saying to young people you are fucked, mate, you are worthless to society. It’s terrible. Whenever I meet young people I use Killing Joke as an example. All the things we’ve been able to do we’ve done without a single school exam between us. It’s your duty to self-educate. It’s not good enough to shrug your shoulders and say “I didn’t go to a good school”. It’s your duty to have a burning curiosity. Find something that you are interested in and develop the skills yourself. The idea of self-education is integral to Killing Joke. Just look at any gatherer, any Killing Joke aficionado. They are like bees gathering pollen in the way they gather knowledge. Do your own survey. You’ll see.