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.
The title for Brighter Than a Thousand Suns -- is that a reference in any way to the Bhagavad Gita or the Mahabharata?
Yes, the Mahabharata, to be precise. It all started when my grandfather flew from India to England to die. That was at the beginning of Killing Joke. He was the First Prime Minister of India's bad brother, my grand dad. He said something really strange to my brother, who's a famous scientist in your country: "We split the atom long before you did."
Then he started reciting: "It was no known weapon, shining in all its splendor, brighter than ten thousand suns; the soldiers threw themselves into the streams, but in vain, their hair fell out, their nails fell out." What I was trying to project on that album is that our notion of history is totally wrong. We seem to think we define civilization as we are now. And that every civilization before has been a crescendo to this point as personified and embodied by us. Which is, of course, a load of bollocks.
When you read great epics like Mahabharata, as we come up to the end of this year, 2012, people become aware that there have been four great ages of man. And each age was no less than a 144,000 years divided into 26,000 year periods -- or eons, if you like. Man's been around a lot longer and also has had far more advanced technology than we currently do but we have to support the conventional, classical ideas.
We have to keep the public unaware, because if the public knew, then their poor little, Judeo-Christian morals and Greco-Roman rationale would break down. It would be the same as if there was such a thing as a UFO and this kind of stuff. Hypothetically you shouldn't expose the public to this kind of stuff because of the way they've been wired. Less people would go to work! To that point , I, too, deny the existence of little green men. I think that we're so far past the tipping point that the general public is not ready for it.
Do you understand the effect this would have? Can you imagine if, collectively, a whole people suddenly realizing that everything they thought was true is false, and the effect this would have on the unconscious mind of the public? We know the effect it would have. It would be collective depression in a way that would benefit no one or anything. Just in the way there is a hidden message to holy books such as The Bible. There's one message for the simple and credulous and one for the initiated.
We have to pursue the same idea with history. We must remove all ooparts. Do you know what an oopart is? It's an "out-of-place-artifact" that kind of fucks up our timeline of classical archaeology so it has to be dismissed rapidly. Then it puts into question the whole democracy thing, doesn't it? When less than one percentage barely understands the complex issues of the day, then how can we have democracy?
Yeah, because to have a meaningful democracy implies being informed. It's why Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of free public education.
Yeah, man. Socrates said it is the duty of every citizen to engage in debate on the issues of the day. This is the foundation of democracy, and you can see that education and awareness is a part of that. Otherwise, we can't have a real democracy, and this concerns me. All the things that we've accepted in the West, generally speaking, however much we criticize the West, there are worse models in the world, the last twelve years have been shocking.
Great Britain and the United States of America have gotten themselves involved in wars under false pretenses. They've broken the Geneva Convention by torturing, water-boarding people. In short, we've lost the moral authority that we once had to be a liberator of people -- we've become a voice of hypocrisy. It's been highly distressing to see these things happen. The whole idea of the constitution is the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, and yet fear has been used very much to stifle free speech. And other dangerous trends.
I think Mr. Obama has put a nice face on the United States of America, but I think the President is largely powerless. I don't think they can do an awful lot. I think there's a lot they'd like to do but they don't really have so much power. We have to look at the power structure and how it really is. The way it is these days is a two horse race, and both horses are owned by the same stable owner, as it were. We have to evolve with our democracy.
I've always tried to push the idea of Europe as a block. Some people question that, and I say, "You just go to China, and have a look at freedom of speech there." Alternatively, you can go to the United States of America and see that model. There's many things that you cannot speak about publicly in the United States of America. So that's why my argument is that we must have a unified Europe.
The problem with the European experiment is that it's been based on an economic idea, not a cultural idea. And it doesn't really run as a federal military state. The French are still looking after French interests, and so forth, like this. Except for Greece, they just fucking nick everything. Yeah, the birthplace of democracy, my god! I don't know what to say about it all, really. Anyway, what would you like to know?
You've covered a bit already, like an alternative view of history related to the Precession of the Equinoxes, which ties directly to the Mayan prophecy or whatever it is that's supposed to come to fruition on December 21st or the 23rd, depending on whose counting method is more reliable. Possibly how some feel that a pole shift, as you've titled one of your new songs, may happen around that time as well.
That's right. That's very exciting, isn't it? Everybody wants change. The facts are, if we carry on raping the planet of resources, we're going to need a new planet and a half in fifteen years time to rape. So there has to be change. We can't keep going on like that. There are those such as Bill Gates and Ted Turner who say we wouldn't be raping the earth if there weren't so many people -- "Somebody's gotta die!" These are versions of the old Eugenics movements, some of these arguments, and of course they're not referring to themselves.
That's my point. Culling "surplus" population -- I love that phrase, or "useless eaters," that's another one -- in the end I believe we have to leave these things to nature and god, as it were. To contemplate reducing the population by nefarious means is a crime against humanity. End of story. There are so many things people can misconstrue one's views and ideas.
There's roundabout 435 nuclear reactors in the world, and they want to build another eighty just between the U.S. and the U.K. The Germans, the French, the Chinese and the Russians are all part of the nuclear industry. That's not to mention the insanity of the 26,000 nuclear warheads pointing at each other. To add to this is the way nuclear waste has been hoarded and its implications for our descendents.
How the hell do we decommission all those warheads and move ahead from nuclear fuel and take into consideration future [generations], unless we have a council of nations? Unless we move to a unipolar formation, it cannot be carried out. The thing is, here, there are two options: There's an authoritarian model, a one world order that I'm sure Mr. Rockefeller and his kind would approve of. Or there's Schiller, Beethoven and Gandhi's Council of Nations, which is a different idea, the latter of which I favor.
Justice in the world is the same. It goes without saying that the three great powers of the world, being US, China and Russia, won't sign up for the International Criminal Court. But they're very happy to send people there. You know why that is? Because we'd have Mr. Kissinger and George W. Bush in a jiffy, mate. They'd be on the next plane. Not to mention half the Duma in Russia and the People's Republic of China, probably all of them.
The song "Colony Collapse" from MMXII seems like a critique of Ray Kurzweil's notion of "the singularity."
It is a critique of that. Kurzweil's idea is disgusting, really. It's a gruesome, ugly conception of man. The idea of infecting other planets with our DNA until we can evolve into a class A civilization, I don't think it's a good idea. I do believe that we must keep the population down, but I believe that will be self regulating. Cataclysm will do that. It shouldn't come from the hand of man to try and help these things happen. It's a crime against humanity and god.
Thanks for the laughs and a unique and interesting perspective on human civilization and its future.
Well, if the world is still here, we'll be over and see you then.
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