With extensive reissues of KILLING JOKE’s mid-eighties catalogue all lined up, unforeseen developments suddenly cast a shadow. A reflective Jaz Coleman talks to Vive Le Punk and looks back on the Joke’s Raven years.
“It’s hit us all hard. It hit me harder than my father dying.”
A painful subject hangs in the air, and it would be futile to try to avoid it with Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman at this particular point in time. In town to publicize the reissue of the band’s mid-eighties catalogue, Jaz maintains a philosophical front, and yet is clearly still reeling at recent events; a fortnight before our scheduled meeting, Joke bassist Paul Raven – whose original spell with the band these albums represent – died in his sleep of a heart attack. While the Joke have always managed to soldier on through adversity, it’s been a devastating two weeks in the band’s circle…
“He was the youngest out of us lot”, Jaz contemplates. “And, you know… too many years together. It’s been a hard two weeks, I’ll give you that.”
VLP: Had there been any sign his health was bad?
"I knew he’d had heart flutters for a few years, he used to tell me about them, he couldn’t lay flat on a bed because he’d get heart palpitations, so he used to sleep sitting up. You know, musicians don’t live as long as other people. Not always.”
VLP: The earliest of the reissues, ‘Fire Dances’ (1983), was the first of Raven’s albums with the band you’d kind of split up at a point the previous year, with you going to Iceland.
“Yeah, it was a very upbeat album compared to the spaces that we’d been in before, it lifted people a bit more. It was good to do that after the Iceland thing was a very misunderstood event, I just wanted a lifestyle change from all the rocking and rolling, I wanted to study more than anything else. Study classical music, study sacred geometry, and antiquities – just break out of the corny, clichéd rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. And then of course, we got back together, and so we do another album. At this stage in our career we were surrounded by a very famous East London gang! And they were just wonderful to us! We had our own Rolls Royce, free houses everywhere, we got meet Princess Diana and all these wonderful people, I met Jimmy Page and it’s the year it was all kicking off, we were doing vast quantities of cocaine! And generally enjoying life and having great gigs, it was a good time, a fresh start, we’d all moved to Geneva and it’s kind of ironic he died in Geneva because that was one of the happiest times of our life.”
VLP: That was around the time of this album then?
“Yeah, sure, we were doing ‘Fire Dances’, we all moved to Geneva, and that’s why it’s so funny he passed away in Geneva, and comforting in another way as well. I traced down everything he did in the last two days and last few hours of his life, to every detail, he’d gone back to all our old haunts Paul had, yeah, it was curious, but it was ‘good death’, if there can be such a thing. Whereas, everyone was grieving at his funeral, I want to turn it to celebrating a life, Paul accomplished a lot and kept going. But yeah, it hit us hard, and seeing all these old photographs and everything, you know.”
VLP: Did you already know Raven before he joined?
“Sure, he was good friends with Youth, they were seeing the same girl together! We’ve got this photograph of Youth and Paul with their arms around the same girl. And they were born on the same day which is the uncanny thing! And so it was a very easy transition. Youth always had much more of a recognizable sound than Paul, but Paul live would be great, he would give so much energy! They were different bass players and both with their virtues. So ‘83, yeah, we had a Rolls Royce Carmargue spray painted with Killing Joke, we were doing cocaine in the toilets of airports and generally having a loutish time, surrounded by, like, thugs! (laughs).”
VLP: ‘Fire Dances’ sounds far more celebratory than the previous albums.
“Yeah, we wanted to have something that lifted up our spirits, it was a very tribal album and some of ‘Dances’ is really about ancestor worship and well Paul died, his funeral was on All Souls Day or Halloween, it’s traditionally a day when you say prayers for the dear deceased, or when the souls of the dead come back to the world of the living to advise them on how to survive the cold winter months that lie ahead. And it was a good day, Paul, I could feel his conscious presence with us, it was almost tangible. So these are the things that have obviously been dominating my thoughts the last couple of weeks.”
VLP: ‘Harlequin’ is an interesting song. You’ve always tended to use this jester figure as a graphic device from the start.
“Always, absolutely, we use the triple snake symbol, which is actually like the headdress of the joker, it represents the Hebrew letter shin, and there’s another meaning to this, we use this triple serpent because in Killing Joke it takes three of us to make a decision for the band. We’ve always kept that tradition, it’s always me and Geordie, but we’ve always needed just one another person and that’s a band, otherwise it’s a fucking duo! So that’s the kind of symbolism. And the whole idea of the jester is very dear to my heart. In the beginning it was the futility of everything. The Killing Joke was the idea, the realisation, that you’re in the trenches, they’re going to blow the whistle, and you’re going to get your head shot off, and you’re being manipulated. This kind of feeling, and then it transformed to the kind of laughter that overcomes all fear, and it became a much more positive entity in my head. And the jester is a figure that I find myself fascinated with. You know, the hero dies, but the fool survives. And I’ve always liked this fool, he’s the only person who could legitimately hit the king. And I’ve always identified with this figure, because I find I can walk into places full of bankers or very wealthy people, or I can go to the poorest places in the world and be completely at home. So, I feel free. And I think freedom is it. I like to feel free, if I were in the mood to tonight, I could be on a plane tomorrow anywhere I want in the world. I’ve never gone for the big house thing, but I have gone for freedom. If I want to fly somewhere tomorrow, I’ll just go and do it, and I can do it."
"I’ve always gone for this, rather than a mortgage and a big car and all this shit, I don’t buy it! I’ve done all the tests, I’ve walked through London with 50 grand in my pocket, ‘you can have anything you want Jaz, what do you want mate?’, you know, I end up buying a book, maybe a cigar, take myself to dinner, I don’t know what to do after that. I think people will be shocked at how simple I live. I live real simple, I insist my partner, who’s my ex-wife, I live with my ex-wife now. Do you get your money back, no! But we live, just use a mattress, we own very little, I don’t like owning a lot of stuff, I don’t have a great number of possessions, I’m not this way inclined. (Only) books, I’ve got like 15,000 books in lockups around the world.”
VLP: So where are you now, mostly Prague?
“Mostly Prague at the moment, but there’s no normal years when you can say you’ll be here there or anywhere, I did twelve years in New Zealand but I’ve always come back for European summers, so I’ve got 2 summers a year. I’ve had no winters for 12 years, and that lifts your spirits! I’m gonna go and stay in Costa Rica for a couple of months, the good thing about writing for an orchestra is that you can do it anywhere. And so I just take all my bits and pieces, fuck off to a hotel and get it done. Like I say, I feel freer than most people. I do not like the direction the world’s going in and I can see myself as time passes on isolating myself, which was always my intention.”
VLP: Because you’re on an Island part of the time?
“That’s right, it’s 100km off the coast of New Zealand and it’s stunningly beautiful. 400 people and one policeman. But you know, I’m a driven person, I can’t be stuck out there all the time. I like travelling less and less, but it’s a fact of my life that I’m always travelling, I can’t foresee a day when I stop doing concerts or making music, I intend to go non-stop until death!”
VLP: The following record ‘Night Time brought chart hits, and your profile went way up – was there pressure with that?
“There was, it was probably the worst thing that happened to us at that time. ‘Give us another ‘Love Like Blood,’ you can do what you like for the rest of the album’, there was a massive pressure on us and of course we didn’t. I don’t think them putting pressure on us helped our creativity flourish, it was a pretty horrible time, I don’t remember that as some of our best, we had great times, but… it was a horrible market, ghastly market forces."
VLP: And of course you had your Eighties theme, while it’s a decade that’s culturally remembered as very trivial…
"Yeah, it was amazing we survived through the eighties, but we got through it! I prefer life now in a funny way. I mean, my life’s better now than it was then, especially in ‘85. There were loads of concerts, we’d been touring for so long but yeah, it did change, there was pressure to write something that was going to work on the radio, and this didn’t have a good effect on us.”
VLP: There’s a militaristic sort of feel to this album…
"It was a funny album because Walker and myself were the only people there to write it, the other two weren’t around us, so we basically got everything together ourselves and then showed the other two what we were doing in the studio and it was… my God, that session we were at Hansa Ton studios, Geordie caused over a million pounds worth of damage in one minute! He got this fire extinguisher, blasted me playing the grand piano with it, then went running down the corridors to the control room, blasted all the equipment in the control room with this fire extinguisher. And it had aluminium in the powder, this destroyed absolutely everything, over a million pounds worth of damage in one minute! He was just pissed up. Next morning I heard this noise and stuck my head out the door, Raven and Big Paul were there and Geordie was being carted off by the police! (laughs)”
VLP: Hansa’s in Berlin?
“Berlin, yeah. Bowie was in that very studio. Geordie got out of it, the insurance and bla bla. Amazing really. He’d go disappearing for fucking five days at a time on that session,
Geordie, and turn up again. It was an insane session, yeah.”
VLP: So pressure and chart success was getting to you?
“Oh everything, yeah. I remember, we were living over Hansa Ton studios, there was all sorts of people were there at the time, I’ll tell you who was there at the same time, Depeche Mode, and it was hysterical watching them, it was kind of like a school class the way they were putting down their music, had all these kind of mentors and people looking over them, they had to put down their synthesizers, I’ve never seen anything like it. Who else was there at the time, Neubauten, quite a few people. It was a great studio."
VLP: And it still would have been East/West Germany at that time…
“We would take the metro into Friedrichstrasse and pick up caviar and cheap vodka, and come back into the west and do it all, and I remember on that session, my girlfriend suddenly turned up, and I’m sitting with one of our roadies and my girlfriend in my room, and a couple of cleaning ladies are cleaning my room, suddenly there’s this fucking rattling sound, one of the cleaning ladies comes marching up with this fucking earring, and gives it to me, ‘Oh Patsy, here’s your earring’ ‘It’s not mine, Jaz!’ and there’s this deathly silence. And the roadie goes, ‘listen love, you’d have something to worry about if a load of golf clubs fell out’, and we started laughing and then I managed to get a good excuse in and wheedle my way out of it. ‘She was a friend of mine, she was gay, she split up with her girlfriend she just crashed the night, don’t give me any shit!’ Lie, lie, then deny! (laughs)”
“Yeah, there was a lot of violence. Me and Geordie had a really big fight there, full fists, then Big Paul bashed my girlfriend, split her nose apart. She was fucking drinking too much, and he was, you know, just stupid shit, it all got out of hand. Yeah, that’s when we started to drink! (laughs)”
VLP: I remember this weird story at the time, that Raven had this doppelganger?
“You know what? Absolutely true! This guy was claiming to be Paul Raven! Going all over Europe, getting into clubs in London, all sorts of things. And Raven was going mad by it. He had a nasty bike accident, the guy! Absolutely true, I remember this! We’ve had so fucking many homing loonies, I can’t tell you mate! I’ve had them come to my island from all over the world. Like real psycho homing loonies. That’s why I never communicate with anyone by letter or any other way. I do when I’m doing a gig, we’re really open people in Killing Joke, but generally there’s people, you don’t know what they’re really like.”
“Let me give you one example. I can give you ten! Straight off! Right, a woman that followed me for fourteen years and put her kid into the same school as my daughter and gave my kid loads of presents, real fucking psychos I’ve had! One wasn’t so long ago, this guy, was a Killing Joke fan, comes backstage at one of the Italian gigs, seems nice enough, but Geordie goes: ‘You, I don’t like you. Don’t know what it is about you, I don’t like you!’ Very astute and very intuitive, Geordie. And this guy turns up in New Zealand, ‘I’ve got relatives over here’, all this, seems nice enough, comes to see my concerts with the orchestra and he’s a music student himself. So I’m going out to my island, and I said to him, look you can look after my flat in Auckland and feed my cats for me. And we had a bit of a get together for some friends before I left for the island, and this guy comes, all my friends are there, and suddenly goes, ‘You’re trying to take over my mind!’ ‘Beg your pardon?’ ‘You want to sacrifice me in a black magic ritual!’ (laughs) I went, ‘Would you like to step outside?’ Man, you’ve got no idea! I took him to a priest, this guy, and said ‘You need help’, the priest said ‘Don’t send me one like that again!’”
VLP: You’re known for having occult interests, maybe that attracts them?
“Well I do but I don’t suppose it’s the way people think. Occult just means hidden, and I just don’t take an orthodox view of Christianity or the religions, I look at the science of religion or the common denominators, I’ve never been a devil worshipper or anything like this! Yes, I have done ceremonies, and rituals, but it’s more romantic-based, but people get ideas, the press or whatever! I consider myself a deeply religious man!
VLP: Yeah, because you said you were a lay preacher?
“That’s right. Do you know what, I have another career most people don’t know about. I’m with people when they’re dying, I bury people, I even marry people occasionally. I do all those things when I go back to the island, into my parish. I only did it for a practical joke, I studied theology, but became a priest really for a laugh, because I don’t really believe in priests!”
“There’s much to be said for Islam that says ‘It’s just between you and your god’. I take a magical view on the universe. Baudelaire talks about the forest of symbols, people can be symbols, but I view the universe in a magical context. For example, women and men, male and female, they can’t be described as like a plug socket on the wall! You don’t say about your wife that you fertilized her and now she’s going to reproduce! I’m just demonstrating that there’s a need for the poetic or the magical within our soul and I always try to enhance this. All a ritual is to me is enhancing the experience of this existence, and become more aware of it. When I do a great gig, to have the ability to say to yourself, ‘this is a great moment in my life’. Very few people have that ability, it’s an ecstatic experience, and it’s always in retrospect isn’t it with most people, but there’s always been death around me, people dying and I don’t take life for granted, you know, I try to love every day of my life and I’ll always keep the Joke marching on! We play so much better than we ever used to! It just gets better now! Much better, and I still enjoy it!”
VLP: You’ve said before a good performance is one you can hardly remember?
“Yeah, I remember going on stage and I remember coming off but in between it’s just like an oil painting. I don’t really remember any one moment, you get fleeting impressions, there’s so much exertion. I seek a trance-like state and I get that most of the time. I don’t remember a fucking thing! It comes through you, the whole thing comes through you, you become one with the soul of the crowd and the people. I love it!”
VLP: So that’s like a religious experience for you?
“It is, and I’ll tell you another strange thing about Killing Joke gigs, after I gig I feel the deepest sense of peace! Most people wouldn’t understand, but it really cleans your soul. There was a time when I was questioning what Killing Joke was doing because of my religious convictions, but then you look at the new testament, it says ‘a good fruit can not come from a bad tree, and a bad tree cannot bear a good fruit’, and I felt this about Killing Joke, it’s not like a lot of other bands. I find a lot of other bands morally bankrupt, there’s no concept of beauty, it’s all designed, the American punk scene or alternative scene, to shock. ‘I can say nastier things than you, I can show people jumping out of buildings’ I just didn’t get it, it wasn’t innate, it wasn’t coming from anywhere, it wasn’t a genuine frustration, it was just shock value. I hated that!”
VLP: On to 1986’s ‘Brighter Than A Thousand Suns’, it’s a comparatively polished recording.
“Yes, it was, almost too polished. The vocals are up too high in the mix and the guitars aren’t loud enough, and that’s the way I feel about it, although I deeply love the music on that album, ‘Twilight of the Mortals’ I think is a wonderful track, and ‘Rubicon’, ‘Chessboards’, great tracks. I love that album lyrically as well, it’s just got a mix on it that’s kind of representative of the times that we were surrounded by, ‘We need to put the vocals up more’, that’s what I mean about record company pressure and stuff like that. I still love that record, but I wouldn’t do it that way now. In fact, we might remix it, later on.”
VLP: Was it around this time you first went to New Zealand?
“That’s right, I started going to New Zealand from 1985 onwards.”
VLP: You expressed a lot of interest at the time in self-sustaining communities and so on.
“I’ve done that, we’ve got to develop it. I’d just got married in 1985, to a New Zealander, Mr and Mrs Passport! I had two children with her as well! I remember the year 1986, I couldn’t find any music I liked, and my favourite work of art, I walked around this place called the White Pearl Water Gardens, which was set up by a couple in a peninsular in New Zealand, and they’d changed this 90 acres so it was the most fertile place in the whole of new Zealand, and it was a complete experience walking through this place by these two horticulturalists. This profoundly moved me, and then I read The Magus by John Fowles, and I became incredibly, well, entertained the idea of becoming territorial, and having my own domain became suddenly important on that year, that was the sum total of my inspiration that year. I’m glad we’re not there now!”
VLP: The final album of these reissues, 1988’s ‘Outside The Gate’, is possibly your most controversial record.
“It’s not a Killing Joke album, it was a side project. It was never Killing Joke, it was never intended to be, it was an experiment on something else and it can’t really be categorised as Killing Joke as such.”
VLP: The Pauls weren’t involved?
“No, but I kind of used it as a way to get rid of one of the Pauls! I used the situation, I wasn’t getting on with Ferguson. Though we’re on great terms now, times change.”
VLP: I heard he worked as an antique restorer now?
“He works on, not just antiques, great works of art, restoration. But, yeah, I saw him last week, first time in 22 years. It was good actually, good to see him! We’ve all changed, to a degree. Now in a fight I could beat any one of them up! (laughs)
VLP: Hope it doesn’t come to that!
“No, I don’t think so!”
VLP: Outside The Gate’ is quite an eastern-influenced album.
“Yeah, you can trace my musical identity crisis way back to ‘The Pandies Are Coming’ on the third album. I knew there was a part of me that just didn’t belong in the United Kingdom or Europe for that matter, and it was the eastern part of my genes. I had a choice to either go to New Delhi to study oriental music, or Cairo. And I chose Cairo to embrace and study Arabic music, and that was really the best decision I made. It was just before I did the thing with Anne Dudley (‘Songs From The Victorious City’, 1990), went to Cairo and had good contacts there etc, it became a big part of my life. Arabic music, I love it. Thing about it, there’s 12 notes in an octive, 13 if you consider the full octave, but then with Arabic quarter tones, that gives you 26 notes. But then a great master says, ‘do you want me to flatten that quarter tone or sharpen that quarter tone?’, that gives you 52 notes to a scale, with the Arabic system, compared to our 13… It’s fascinating! It’s like they’ve let in a little bit of the darker forces, for a split second, there’s that kind of effect. I couldn’t work out, how the fuck are they getting that? So, my book, that’s coming out in 2009, will have every Arabic scale and mode, Persian, I’ve collected everything, because nobody’s ever done a complete work, this is just one of the things. I’m on my third piece of architecture! And architecture that I’ve designed so it’s all completely self-sufficient, everything’s recycled from it, and it’s relatively cheap to put up! So yeah, it’s a colourful life, there’s so much to do isn’t there?”
VLP: Yeah, I wonder when you sleep!
“You know, you’ve hit the nail on the head, I have massive sleeping problems. I can’t sleep, I can go ten days probably without sleep, I’m two hours, three hours a night!"
VLP: That’s worse than Margaret Thatcher was!
"Yeah, same sort of mental energy. In those two hours you can’t wake me, I’m a real deep sleeper, but then I’m up, and I can’t go back to sleep at all, so I have to occasionally sedate myself. That’s why, a lot of the alcohol in the last few years is, just trying to relax, I was getting panic attacks – the stress of this business is immense, there’s no way around it, you’ve got to somehow not let things get to you. And realise, it’s only a bit of fun!”
VLP: So what will Killing Joke’s next move be?
“Well, definitely two new recordings for us to do, and concerts. There’s a big demand for the original line-up, but that wouldn’t really play the later records so I’m gonna end up with two Killing Jokes! Benny, Geordie and me for one, and Youth and Big Paul and Geordie for another.
VLP: So Youth and Big Paul are definitely up for it then?
"Yeah, they want to do it. I’m aiming for the film, the book, and intense touring for our 30th anniversary, to raise money for Paul’s children."
The Killing Joke original line-up has reunited for the first time in almost twenty years for a world tour and will hit the UK in October 2nd and 3rd for two shows at London’s Kentish Town Forum. On the first night they will play their first two albums (1980’s self-titled album and 1981’s ‘What’s This… For!’) and on the second night they will play 1994’s ‘Pandemonium’ album and the Island Records singles from 1979-80.
Expanded editions of ‘Fire Dances’, ‘Night Time’, ‘Brighter Than A Thousand Suns’ and ‘Outside The Gate’ are available now from EMI.
RIP Paul Raven, 1961-2007.
(photo by Steffan Chirazi)