Killing Joke are one of the most enduring and influential alternative rock bands to have emerged from the Post-Punk era, but the achievements of their charismatic lead singer Jaz Coleman stretch far beyond the narrow confines of guitar music.
Nobody who attended the Jaz Coleman masterclass at BIMM Brighton will forget the experience in a hurry. The Killing Joke frontman, classical composer and author did not only answer questions on his long and varied musical career, but frequently ventured way off-track, deep into uncharted territory.
In an interview conducted by music journalist and BIMM tutor Simon Price, Coleman delivered the unpredictable and unexpected, combining practical advice on musical composition with his thoughts on such arcane matters as remote viewing, nano-technology, and the occult.
On his dual career as the leader of alternative rock icons Killing Joke and a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres-awarded composer, he explained “Art, for me, is split between reactionary art and revolutionary art. And revolutionary art is what I do with Killing Joke, and I do it to stop me from wanting to kill people. It’s a social function. Then I have my classical music, which is about trying to create a more desirable reality. So I have this schizoid career, which I love, because there are two separate audiences, and when I’m fed up with one career, I go over to the other.”
Describing his early life in an Anglo-Asian family, he spoke of having had “an arranged marriage with music”, under the guidance of his schoolteacher mother, of his precocious mastery of piano and violin, as well as his time as a cathedral choirboy and the inspiration he drew from classical composers such as Carl Orff.
Jaz spoke passionately of the value he still places in the underground music scene. “I believe in counterculture. For me there’s only one song, and that’s called Freedom. And that’s freedom to do what the f*** I want, when I wanna do it. And I like dirty scummy bars with stickers on it. And I like graffiti anywhere. I love these places and I want to see more of them everywhere.”
Asked why there was never a lawsuit when Nirvana famously stole the riff from Killing Joke’s “Eighties” on “Come As You Are”, Coleman quietly answered “Because they’re cursed.” However, he expanded on the aftermath of the dispute, speaking of his close personal friendship with Dave Grohl, who has drummed for Killing Joke and who recently invited Coleman onstage during a Foo Fighers show in Prague. He also spoke of the closure he has achieved by adapting Nirvana’s music for orchestra. “I feel very good about the Nirvana dialogue, as I call it, because it’s basically my dialogue with a deceased spirit – Kurt – and my disagreement with him and my resolution with him. At the end of the recording, the choir sings in Latin ‘In another time and place we’ll meet again, and all shall be well’.”
In a troubled world, he believes music is more vital and useful than ever. “We’re heading for turbulent times,” he said, “and art plays an important role in turbulent times… There’s always been an external threat throughout man’s existence, and it’s how we live with it. Art, and especially violent art, helps us adapt to these changes. We’re in for a bumpy ride.” On a positive note, he added “A nation is as great as its dreamers, and its dreamers are artists. I believe that what you do is holy, and that art can change the world.”
After speaking of the inspiration that Killing Joke derived from moving to Iceland and exploring its mysticism, he strongly recommended the musical power of travel. “My secret, when writing music, is to completely forget about music. I would get a map of the world, and start thinking about the places I’ve always wanted to go to. And I’d take maybe a year off and go around the world and look at other cultures. And if I get the feeling that I want to do music, I’ll go and visit different masters in different cities… I’d set my own syllabus, and it was much more fun.”
Much of the advice Coleman imparted to BIMM students related to the importance of persistence. “Winners never quit, and quitters never win. And the people I’ve seen who’ve succeeded, they’ve succeeded because they’ve just never stopped. And it’s a passion. You have to live it… I bang hard on the door, and you’ve got to, too. You’ve got to be a pain in the arse.”
Before wrapping up, he spoke about the concept behind The Jaz Coleman Foundation, which he plans to set up in the near future. “I believe that you’re capable of genius, you guys. And I’d like to set up a retreat in the Pacific, on my land on the island, and I’d like to take a bunch of people who are interested in recording with orchestras, composing, going on the road, all the different things that I do, and I’d like to find some really gifted people. And the dream is that I can offer a very different educational syllabus. That I bet you’d be into. Because you’d be the ones who set it, in a funny way. Because I believe in that Do What Thou Wilt philosophy.”
And what might that involve? “I want to set up this place in Paradise where I hope you’ll come, and write some great music and have a f***ing great time, get a bit of romance in your life, go back to the piano and write something good, send a postcard home saying ‘F*** off, I’m having a great time’. That’s my idea of a college…”
In summation, expressing his rejection of the Protestant Work Ethic, Jaz told the audience “Hopefully, none of you will ever work again.”
Everybody knew what he meant.
Words by Simon Price.