Jaz Coleman: "When Killing Joke Really Lock In, There's This Strange Energy Between Us All. And It Was Born In Magic"

Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman on reincarnation, the power of magic and his incredible legacy

Jaz Coleman: "When Killing Joke Really Lock In, There's This Strange Energy Between Us All. And It Was Born In Magic"
Ian Winwood
Header Photo:
Ester Segarra

It would be an understatement to call Jaz Coleman a unique individual. Well-read and equally well-mannered, the enigmatic artist found his true calling with post-punk pioneers Killing Joke over 40 years ago, forming a lifelong bond with drummer and fellow magic practitioner Paul Ferguson.

The band’s last live show was across The Pond in November last year, supporting Tool on their Fear Inoculum arena tour.

“These arenas all look the same, like giant shopping malls,” Jaz says. “I feel sorry for the Tool boys… it’s such an impersonal, sterile environment. I count our lucky stars that our own shows are in nice theatres.”

The invitation to join Tool on their tour of North America came from the headliners themselves; not just this, but singer Maynard James Keenan encouraged his band’s vast audience to listen to Killing Joke’s 15-album discography. He’s not the only one to eulogise the London’s group’s enduring talents. Over the years, acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden have heralded them as a key influence; songs from the band’s self-titled debut alone have been covered by Metallica, Foo Fighters and Helmet.

Last year, Jaz also released Magna Invocatio – A Gnostic Mass For Choir And Orchestra Inspired By The Sublime Music Of Killing Joke, a collection of the group’s songs as re-imagined by the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. A compelling and authentic collaboration, the album is testament to the durability of not only the band’s music, but also of the talents and imagination of its singer.

To talk about this, and so much else, we catch up with Jaz. With a smile full of mystery and banter, he tells us that, “I’m your man and I’m ready to go.”

So without further ado…

Tell us about the young Jaz Coleman, please…
“The time of my birth is disputed by all members of my family. I was born dead – I had my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck – but sadly for my enemies I survived. It’s weird when I go back to my family home, because I remember being washed in the sink there. It’s also round the corner from where both The Lord Of The Rings and Alice Through The Looking Glass were written – what are the odds of that? Also, a regular visitor to our house was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. When I was really little he used to lift me up and perch me on high places. I’ll never forget him picking me up and plonking me on a fruit machine – it seemed such a long way off the ground. He used to have parties in our house, too; in fact he smashed our house up a couple of times. My dad shouted his head off about that…”

At what point did you decide that music was the life for you?
“You have to bear in mind that my mother was the original Asian tiger – my family is Anglo-Asian – whereas my dad is about as English as you can get. My father refused to let my mother cook curry or let her sit cross-legged on the floor. I bring this up because at the age of four it was decided that I would do music and my brother would do science, a decision that was made in conjunction with my grandmother who noticed that I responded to music in the cradle. So for me, music was an arranged marriage. But that being said, it was the Church of England that taught me the most about music, from the age of six to the point where I was in Killing Joke. My teacher was Eric Coleridge, who was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra in his time. The point being that my mum used to give him a few shillings every week, and he would teach me violin, and how to sing, and a love of music generally. I was very privileged to have such a great teacher from an early age.”

Did rural England in the 1960s take kindly to a mixed-race couple?
“It was very strange for all of my family. It wasn’t just me getting my head kicked in every day at school. My uncle Bob had the same problems, and my mother taught in the same school pretty much all of her life. She won the Teacher of the Year award for Great Britain, but didn’t have a pay rise once because of the racism in Cheltenham. I even got a letter later on from someone who stood as the first black Conservative MP in our area. Cheltenham had been a safe Tory seat for a hundred years, but it went Social Democrat overnight because of the racism in the town. There were no black families in Cheltenham in the ’60s, not one, but that being said it was a very beautiful place to grow up. But it was a very different place in the 1960s.”

Is it true that you believe in reincarnation?
“Yeah. I remember my incarnation before, which is going to sound insane to you. I remember that I lived in France and that I was guillotined. And as a tiny child I used to build lots of guillotines and my parents could never understand why. But in my previous incarnation I met many people who were high up in the French government. My first wife remembered me from these times, which is when it all began to make sense. Because part of my DNA is from the East, ideas about reincarnation are very normal to me. And of course later on I became knighted by the French [Jaz was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2010] so that felt like me coming back home.”

Any other strange things that we should know about?
“Well the second thing that really profoundly affected me was ritual. My mother showed me a lot of witches performing their ceremonies and explained that it was quite normal, that it was the old religion of the country. Then when I saw Christian ceremonies, I realised that ceremonies were part of my previous incarnations and definitely part of my future. And this is where everything started to make sense to me, musically. From the ages of about seven to 13 I gave myself over to the traditions of English choral music, which has served me well to this day.”

How did rock music enter your life?
“Well I didn’t really listen to any rock music until I was about 14-and-a-half. That’s when my epiphany with rock music occurred, basically, which is when a very beautiful woman played [the band] Can back to me, gave me my first joint and then took my virginity. The very next day I was wearing black and I wanted to be in a band. That transformation happened very fast for me. I basically auctioned my violin for a synthesiser and suddenly I had a very different agenda. But I’ve always been very grateful for that first joint, and to be able to think outside of the box. I realised, ‘Hey, what do I need exams for? I want to start a band!’ And all of that came from my very first joint. I’ve always been grateful to the spirit of marijuana for giving me those insights.”

How did Killing Joke come to be?
“It was when I met Paul Ferguson. Killing Joke was a smart band – we always had a long reading list – and I’m always surprised by how dull and intellectually incurious other bands are. That said, being with Tool on this tour I’m reminded how serious they are and how juvenile we are! Anyway, as soon as I got to London I went to sign on, as you did back then, and there was this Indian guy standing in front of me in the dole queue, and I introduced myself to him and told him that I was going to form a band. He went, ‘I know, and I’m going to introduce you to the drummer.’ Which was just stunning. So we did our UB40s [unemployment cards] and he took me round the corner to Holland Park, and there was Paul. I’ll never forget it because I knew him – it was personified reincarnation. It was an immediate sense of mutual destiny that we recognised as soon as we met.”

“And I didn’t even know that he studied magic. But when we got onto the subject of how we were going to recruit two other people to start this revolutionary band, and who also had a good knowledge of the occult… well, it was a tall order to find people who fit these criteria. And it was Paul who said, ‘Well, let’s use magic to find them.’ And that’s when we realised that we both studied magic, and what are the chances of that? That’s what I mean. If you look at life and its immaculately timed coincidences, the more I’m inclined to believe that everything is preordained. I think this more and more.”

Did things come together quickly for the band?
“Killing Joke didn’t really get going until about 1979. This time 40 years ago we played in Clapham Junction, so we were kind of well on our way. We did as many gigs as we could in little clubs. But by the time we got to our 17th concert, we were headlining the [2,100 capacity] Lyceum. It didn’t take much; it was our first lesson in propaganda and media studies. We had [Sex Pistols singer] John Lydon championing our case in one corner, and we had John Peel on the radio, who gave us a session and who was playing our EP, so in a very short period of time people began to take notice of us. And that was a good lesson for us and a good lesson for any young bands – they should get their media right. Our shows were absolutely packed, even though we were an unknown band. I was just some hippy punk from the fucking sticks, but all these London punks and weirdos turned up, even at the first concert.”

Was the music good from the start?
“Yeah, I think it was. There’s something monstrous that happens when Killing Joke play together, which is that we lock into this groove and we jam. On our earliest one, the jam turned into Are You Receiving [from 1979 debut EP Turn To Red] in one go – the song was done. There were about 20 people watching us when we did it, and when we stopped the whole place burst into laughter because it was so obvious that there was something so fucking magic about the chemistry between us. You knew right then that it was going to happen. You knew that we were on our way. When Killing Joke really lock in, there’s this strange energy between us all that we’re just very, very lucky to have. And it was born in magic.”

What kind of a city was London when you first arrived in it?
“Well, the first thing you have to remember is that most people under the age of 22 at that time believed that we only had two or three years left on the planet before we were all utterly annihilated. It was kind of like the last days of the Weimar Republic [in Germany], where you tried to pack in as many experiences as you could and live as hard as you could because you didn’t think you were going to be around for much longer. There was this horrible Cold War chill in the air where you thought that World War III could break out at any moment. It really was this sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach all of the time. You really thought that you were going to be incinerated in white heat. Everybody was off their heads and in a state of terrible anxiety. I cannot overstate this sense of anxiety that existed around this time, which you can hear in our music.”

In that sense, Killing Joke were the perfect band for those times.
“Very much so. Punk had tailed off, but Public Image Ltd had started and mysticism was added to the equation, which Joy Division should be credited for, as well as PiL. There weren’t many bands with keyboards at that time, which added a different dimension to Killing Joke. When you listen to stuff on the first album, it’s so far ahead of its time. And we were lucky enough to be on E.G. Records, who loved our mysterious atmosphere and our passion for all things mystical and occult. And basically we were lucky to get with E.G. because they were a very different record company. They signed non-commercial artists, for the most part, so we were lucky that we were on a label that believed in developing their artists over five or six years.”

Why have Killing Joke endured for this long?
“Because we were born in magic. Killing Joke has a sacred and holy mission on this planet; I believed it from the beginning and I’m convinced of it now. Before we do concerts, we’ve always formed a circle and we call upon our ancestral spirit. What is an ancestral spirit? Well, for one, Paul Raven [Killing Joke bassist, who died in 2007] is an ancestral spirit; all the people who have loved Killing Joke and who are in the other world are also ancestral spirits; all our fathers who have passed into the other world are ancestral spirits, too. And when we call on our ancestral spirits, those things are very much alive to us. They’re very present. And the decisions about Killing Joke’s management are decided from the other world, from our perspective. And it’s always been like this. We are well aware of the forces around Killing Joke. We call them ‘the mercurious’. The force around Killing Joke does not like money. Whenever anyone around the band becomes too motivated by money, that is extremely, extremely dangerous. We have a great fear of this, with the spirit that’s around us. And nobody is allowed to come into our world, unless we allow them to.”

The band are still relevant, then?
“Yes. I mean, look at the world we’re living in. I do believe that in 24 months the world economy is going to go into complete meltdown. I believe that it will be so bad in places that there’ll be no money left in the cash machines, which means that every city only has three days’ worth of food. I believe an upheaval is coming and that the world needs Killing Joke, and we’re going to be there for the world, so help us God.”

Tell us about collaborating with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra on Magna Invocatio, please…
“There’s no secret that I score for orchestras, but I’ve kept this pretty much separate from Killing Joke. But more and more people have asked me when I plan to orchestrate Killing Joke’s music. And my answer was always that I didn’t know if there was a market for it, or that I’d be able to raise the money to do it. But then I had a really strange dream, which is weird anyway because I haven’t really had any dreams in 25 years. But I had the most incredible dream that I was in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, which was floodlit, and an orchestra was playing music that sounded fucking divine. In fact, it was exactly the music that I’ve just recorded on the album. After this dream, within two days I had all the money I needed to do the recording. I got all the funding and suddenly I was on my way to Russia to do it. Not just that, but rather than working with the state orchestra, myself and my conductor were upgraded to St Petersburg top orchestra, which is the Philharmonic, which was also Tchaikovsky’s orchestra. And I have to say that the 10 days that it took to do it are the peak experiences of my life.”

Read this next:

Check out more:

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?