Killing Joke front man Jaz Coleman has cast such a ferocious shadow across metal, postpunk, goth, industrial, dance, and more that the shape of contemporary music would be incalculably different if he and the band had never written a song. As Steve Taylor wrote in the 2006 book The A to X of Alternative Music, Killing Joke have inspired “all dark music since 1981.”
In a way they’re the ultimate cult band, at least in the States, where they’ve never become stars. In their original home in the UK, they shone as brightly as the Clash in the late 70s and early 80s, during which time they even had a few singles chart in the U.S.—but in 1982 they derailed their own career by temporarily relocating to Iceland. Killing Joke got even bigger when they came back, charting repeatedly in the UK in the mid-80s, but in America they remained an underground phenomenon, their power perceptible mostly in their influence.
Today Coleman lives a largely nomadic life, moving from project to project and staying mostly off the grid—he doesn’t like to use computers or smartphones, an extension of his longtime opposition to what he sees as the capitalist surveillance state. So the back lot of the United Center was the last place I would’ve expected to interview him.
The earth is home to almost eight billion people, but I doubt any one of them has led a life quite like Coleman’s—and lived it so completely on their own terms.
In addition to his career with Killing Joke, he’s also recorded some of the world’s most masterful traditional musicians, and as a self-taught classical composer he’s worked with many great orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. A lifelong student of the esoteric, he’s pursued his quest for knowledge all over the globe: on that trip to Iceland in the early 80s, he immersed himself in the Jungian process of individuation (though he allowed a story to spread that he was fleeing an impending apocalypse), and for decades on and off he lived on a remote New Zealand island, where he communed with nature and led a church choir. He’s also spent time at famous sacred and mystical sites, including the Nazca Lines in Peru and the Great Pyramid of Giza—where he and the band recorded vocals for three tracks on Killing Joke’s 1994 album, Pandemonium, in the king’s chamber.
Along the way he’s raised three daughters, become an ordained priest, starred in the 2002 Czech mockumentary Year of the Devil, been knighted in France in 2010 for his contributions to the arts, and published a book in 2014 about his experiences with the occult sciences. He chalks up much of his success to the power of visualization, to what he learned by traveling without money and forcing himself to survive on his wits, and to more than a bit of magic. “You realize you’ve got to trust in your angel, to trust in your own destiny enough to know that everything’s going to be all right,” he says.
Coleman was at the United Center on Sunday night because Killing Joke were on the road with Tool, playing their 4,633rd show (by his count). Whatever you think of Tool’s music, they’ve used their powers for good when it comes to booking openers: rather than safe commercial bets, they’ve brought along rising artists, underground favorites, and even comedians.
Tool’s enormous die-hard fan base isn’t known for its welcoming spirit toward support acts, so I was genuinely curious how things were going for Killing Joke so far. Coleman grinned widely when I asked. “We’ve had standing ovations pretty much most nights, and it helps when Maynard says wonderful things about us from the stage,'” he said. “It’s a challenge, playing to new people. As you’ll see today, we’ll win them over, and everyone we win over is to the power of ten—they’ll tell ten people, and it goes like this, you see? The most important thing is we’re not preaching to the converted, and we’re reaching out into a new audience all the time.”
Connection has been a cornerstone of Killing Joke’s story since the start—though their provocative, challenging, and sometimes violent sounds and stage presence can obscure that aspect of their mission. Coleman founded the group in 1978 with drummer “Big Paul” Ferguson, guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker, and bassist Martin “Youth” Glover (who’s since become an award-winning producer and also has a long-running band called the Fireman with Paul McCartney). They were linked by their intense dissatisfaction with the conservative politics of 1970s England and their mutual interest in the occult—Coleman and Ferguson, having decided to start a band, performed rituals of dedication and intention to find other members and soon met Glover and Walker. The band drew from a variety of styles, including metal and dub (at the time very strange bedfellows), for the tense, blistering, rhythmic sounds on their first few albums, and after some lineup changes they broke into the UK top 20 in 1985 with the gothy new-wave gem “Love Like Blood.”
Killing Joke have inspired countless big-name artists—including Tool, obviously, and also the likes of Metallica, Moby, Faith No More, Jimmy Page, and Nirvana (who notoriously copped the riff from KJ’s antiestablishment rager “Eighties” for “Come as You Are”). Their influence reached Chicago too—after discovering KJ as a teenager, Steve Albini went on to adapt the stripped-down quality of their early releases to his own music and recording aesthetic. Chicagoan Martin Atkins drummed with Killing Joke for three years beginning in the late 80s, and the lineups of Murder Inc. and Pigface have included Atkins, Chris Connelly, and various KJ members. Longtime Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven did a stint in Ministry before his untimely death in 2007.
“I don’t spend too much time reflecting on the past, except when other people bring it up,” Coleman says. “We have this word, wyrd in Anglo-Saxon, which was the three sisters of destiny in the Nordic—Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld—and they represented past, present, and future. And they wove the fates of men on their looms. And the past is it important because the past determines the present, and present actions determine the future. When we were young teenagers, media studies and controlling the propaganda yourself were really important lessons. When I consider how fast everything went—we went from zero to 100 because of John Lydon and John Peel, and this is a very important kind of media lesson.”
Coleman also believes the band’s influence goes beyond their music. “If there is any legacy of Killing Joke, it’s self-education—the duty of each and every one of us is to expand our knowledge until we’re in the next world,” he says. That principle has led him to seek out mentors, sometimes literally banging on their doors. “In so many different mediums I’ve taken different masters, one by one. I’ve been very lucky like this. Basically, Killing Joke has been my further education. It’s been an invisible college, and it’s been more effective than any university could have offered.” A 2003 documentary about Killing Joke, The Death and Resurrection Show, delves into the occult side of the band and the extraordinary phenomena that have seemed to surround them—several witnesses offer accounts of levitations, UFO sightings, lightning strikes, and other unusual occurrences in the presence of band members.
The full original lineup of Killing Joke reconvened in 2008, and since then they’ve proved as unfuckwithable as ever. When they released their 15th and most recent studio album, 2015’s Pylon, the worst thing anyone had to say was that it’s another great Killing Joke album, just like the last four. And Coleman hints that another one may be coming. “We know the next one is like the magnum opus of magnum opuses, as it were,” he says. “And we have to capture the zeitgeist of the great transformation that’s occurred on the planet, and we’re just taking a deep breath in now. The great thing is that we’ve played so much together, and we’re touring hard every year—we just know the next one’s going to be like the Second Coming.”
- The Magna Invocatio version of “The Raven King”
Coleman’s collaboration with brain-obliterating Brazilian hard-psych trio Deafkids is due in 2020, and later this month listeners can experience the music of Killing Joke in an entirely new format. On November 29, Coleman will release Magna Invocatio: A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke (Spinefarm), recorded in Russia with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic (he’d originally planned to collaborate with a somewhat less rarefied group, the Saint Petersburg Symphony). He describes it as “the most important work of my career.”
Though Coleman has reimagined Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana for orchestral settings, this is the first time he’s given Killing Joke the symphonic treatment—due to the admittedly limited market for such an album, it was hard to justify the cost. Even after Coleman committed to the project, part of his funding fell through, and the Pledgemusic platform he’d used to raise the rest of the money folded.
“I thought all was lost on the whole thing. And then I had this dream, which is strange ’cause I never have any dreams,” he says. “And I dreamt of the Winter Palace [in Saint Petersburg], and they were playing the music. I remember it was floodlit. I remember the ceiling was the night sky. And exactly two days later I had the money to go to Russia. And then when I got to Russia, suddenly I’m upgraded to the nation’s greatest orchestra.”
The money came in a commission from the Lucis Trust, a nonprofit founded in 1922 by philosopher and occult author Alice Bailey that maintains consultative status to the UN. Coleman had chosen to use a translation of Bailey’s prayer “The Great Invocation” as lyrics. “I had the epiphany of realizing that if I orchestrated Killing Joke’s music and I used the words of the United Nations, translated into the Latin full chorus, I could hear it in my head,” Coleman says. “So that’s what I did. And so what you have now is, the official music of the spiritual arm of the United Nations is Killing Joke.”
The album brings together facets of Coleman’s musical career that he’s long kept separate, and many of the songs recognize and honor his life-transforming experiences and his spiritual beliefs. The record also enacts his desire to catalyze positive change for mankind: he believes we’re arriving at a crucial time, when the world is heading into a period of turbulence that will begin shortly after the New Year. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” he says. “I believe the world will need Killing Joke more than ever.” Magna Invocatio is in part his call for peace and unity. “This record is going to go to every world leader, because I want to lift them to a different level of planetary consciousness.”
We probably would be better off if the powers that be were willing to learn a thing or two from Jaz Coleman. But even if this music doesn’t reach any statehouses, it’s moving and beautiful, and highlights the immersive, soul-reaching potential of Killing Joke. The 13 tracks on Magna Invocatio alternate between choral pieces that exude restorative, life-affirming messages and renderings of Killing Joke songs from the band’s past couple decades, including an emotional take on the Paul Raven tribute “The Raven King” and an ecstatic version of the Pylon track “Euphoria.”
- The music video for the 2015 Pylon version of “Euphoria”
- Killing Joke perform “The Wait” in Munich in 1985.
For the time being, though, Coleman has a tour to finish. At the United Center, Killing Joke play against a stark black backdrop emblazoned with their name. In contrast to Tool’s elaborate, slow-building multimedia presentation (front man Maynard James Keenan likes to linger toward the back of the stage at the beginning of a set), Coleman and company are locked-in and explosive from the first note, as though they’re giving an intimate performance at a punk dive instead of in a rapidly filling arena. I can see a range of crowd reactions—some folks are all-out thrashing and dancing, while others seem befuddled (“I like the music, but what is he saying?” is a hot topic of discussion near me). The sound is slightly muddy on the atmospheric songs, but it hardly matters—when Killing Joke bust out a pulverizing version of “Eighties,” you can feel the energy of the audience intensifying in time with Ferguson’s hypnotic beats, stoked by Walker and Youth’s mind-expanding grooves and of course Coleman’s inimitable presence. By the time the band closes with “Pandemonium,” Coleman has proved his own forecast right: I have no clue how many people came to the show knowing their music, but way more leave inspired. And Killing Joke walk off to another standing ovation. v