Jaz Coleman has a brand new album out – the wondrous Magna Invocatio recorded with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra – put simply it is his “Killing Joke Symphony”, a follow-up to successful orchestral rearrangements of classic rock acts including Pink Floyd, The Doors and The Rolling Stones. It was time to turn inward, to take his own music as leader of Killing Joke and make a symphony from it; the two sides of his musical personality, the two worlds he’s inhabited, finally coming together.
But of course, as I’ve said previously after talking to Jaz Coleman if he didn’t exist you couldn’t make him up. This is my third time talking to Jaz (the first time, link is above, was to ostensibly talk Killing Joke, the second time…I really don’t know what the fuck we were talking about, but it was fun! and this time it’s the symphony) so it’s the third time I’ve been greeted by Jaz as if I’m a long-lost friend. And he calls out loudly down the line, “So anyway, you still enjoying the BBQ reggae down under?!” I tell him it’s just coming back into season.
That sets up the whirlwind that is interviewing Jaz Coleman. Jaz Coleman – Survivor: occult dabbler, leader of the band Killing Joke, conductor, arranger and classical composer, philosopher and, for the last 20-odd years, New Zealand citizen. You hold the microphone steady, like a parent behind a bike, and then you watch as there’s some speed-wobbles and then off…and then faster, and then further off. It’s away we go…and then ‘where did they go?!’
“I’m looking forward to getting back to New Zealand”, he tells me. “Especially after all this” – and he’s referring here to the twin-slugging of releasing a 90-minute symphonic opus AND touring with Killing Joke as the opening act for TOOL across America.
“I go from here to UK where I’m doing loads of press and shit – and then I’ll book myself into a hotel in Amsterdam and I’ll get so fucked up!”
The other constant in a conversation with Jaz Coleman, or as a cheerleader for the monologues at least, is a steady stream of cackling. Jaz can start laughing mid-sentence, at what he’s just said, at what he’s about to say, or possibly at how he finds himself a musical overlord for, ultimately, whatever the fuck he wants to do. So here we pause for the first of many.
And then: “I’ll go to Prague and see the daughter and then I’m booking myself first-class to Aotearoa!” He’s pleased about the change of Government since we last spoke to each other.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a perfect politician in the world but I am quite happy with our current leadership in New Zealand – compared to what New Zealand’s been through we should take a deep breathe. She’s a wonderful representative and she inspires me to come home. During the Key administration I didn’t want to be in New Zealand to be perfectly frank”.
I spot the gap and congratulate him on the release of the new album.
“It’s been a huge journey and I want to tell you all about it because the whole thing is born out of the biggest nightmare in my life” – and of course we then pause for the punctuation of a mountainous laugh. “In the timeline, two decades ago or more people were suggesting I orchestrate Killing Joke. There is an interesting harmonic structure to the band but I dismissed any such ideas due to the demographics – we were never as big as Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or any of those things I’ve orchestrated. I couldn’t see the project working, we’d never get the finance. It’s an expensive occupation to have an orchestra…” and here he trails off into a lengthy rant about the music industry being, excuse his language, “fucked”, because you can’t earn the same since there’s no real record sales anymore and…well, you know the drill. We all know about it. He’s most pissed off about “these insane fucking meet-and-greets that bands do for like $5000 dollars, fucking ridiculous…”
We come back on track via his “last dodgy manager – one of many in my life” who suggested a crowd-funding idea to make the Killing Joke symphony with a caveat of “peeling ten grand off to put in your pocket Jaz, but that never fucking happened did it, so he was justly fired”.
“There was no preliminary budget done on the record, so it shouldn’t have really happened, because even with Pledge that wasn’t enough to pay for one-third, one-third of the fucking recording…so basically out of this, because I’d had a long-running feud with this manager, I suddenly realised that I’d been set up by a right f-ing…well, I won’t tell you what! It was a complete set-up. We went through farcical methods to raise money, with ideas of me doing concerts to raise the money. This guy was insane. I fired him on the spot. And there I was left with angry people from the Pledge fund. Then that went done. And then – the miraculous happened! I had the idea of translating The Great Invocation which is the official text of the United Nations. I translated this into the Latin and then orchestrating this over Killing Joke and as soon as I had this idea I had this incredible dream of being in the Czar’s palace with an orchestra playing this fabulous music. The long and short of it is that two days after this dream I had all the money to record in Russia so I was off to Russia within a week of this dream and when I got there it was a very strange ambience of having 20 or so Englishmen thrown from the country by authorities and then the most mysterious thing happened: My conductor and I were suddenly upgraded at the last minute to the Philharmonic Orchestra in St. Petersburg, one of the elite orchestras…”
I hope you’re getting all this? Clear as mud eh?
“When it all came together, the only way I can describe it, the recording, is that it was the peak experience of my life so far. And I’ve done everything. I’ve really lived. It was incredible for me to have the two sides of my life coming together with the classical world and the music of Killing Joke – from my personal perspective it was extremely emotive”.
It was “pretty frosty” weather-wise, according to Jaz, “with temperatures 35 below” but no frostiness in the reception. “I was treated so well there, one of the top rock bands is a group called Leningrad and the main guy runs a Killing Joke fan-page and he let me stay in his apartment with a well-stocked bar, of course I don’t drink, but it was really lovely to be there. It was an incredible time. Since that recording there’s not a day that’s gone by that I haven’t listened to it. That cannot be a bad thing right?”
We break off to talk through the broader appeal of this album – how it serves both the Joke fans and will work for people that have maybe never heard a Killing Joke song in their lives.
“I’ve always noticed over the last 40 years”, Coleman starts back in, “that when I play Killing Joke’s music when I’m eating it always gives me indigestion. So I wanted to do something more harmonic and romantic so that you could ostensibly have your appetizers as you put the music on and by the time you’ve had dessert and you’re rolling up a big fat one the music’s just tailing off nicely. I had the perspective of it as a Feast of the Gods. Who would have thought that Killing Joke’s music would be the official music of the United Nations?”
I suggest that this is his autobiography, at least in a musical sense. And I can almost hear him nodding furiously as he seizes on that. “I suppose it is. I Suppose It Is. Yes!”
Coleman’s hope, with this “monster sound” is that it “puts Wagner to shame!” Cue: Wagnerian-level laughter.
“The other thing about this wonderful opportunity is that it has already created other things. I’m about to sign to Decca Classical for the remainder of my mortal lifespan as a composer and conductor”.
I suggest that the completion of a Killing Joke symphony is the builder finally finishing his own house. He’s been out fixing up every other place on the street first, converting them to sales too, now it’s about re-designing his home.
“Yes, the great thing about arranging rock music for symphony orchestras…I remember when I started thinking about this, I was in Paris and I got a pile of symphonic rock albums, they were all tacky and dreadful. I was laughing my head off at them. I was drinking then. Champagne. And I realised that the classical composers of the last century were shit. I can’t even think of one to mention in this interview! They were geeks! Weirdos! And from my perspective the greatest composers were the rock musicians. I have worked with remaining members of the bands like Floyd and Zeppelin and the Doors and have had a great success doing this. We have created masterpieces. But the next record is about justice and settling scores. I’m a servant with a long memory. You’ll laugh when you see the next one, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise cos you’ll cackle your head off”. And then, of course, Jaz Coleman cackles his head off.
So. That’s an answer. I guess.
Next up he asks me to research how much the NZSO is paid per annum for their services. He is “really, really interested in where this money is going because there’s a lot being wasted”. He believes every rehearsal and concert by any symphony orchestra should be recorded so that a classical label could exist and recoup some of the tax-payer money that funds them.
As we’re back to politics I ask if he’d like to run for office in New Zealand.
“I have been forbidden to go into politics by my youngest daughter”.
He tells me he will concentrate on “a life in the arts and being an outspoken citizen as is the right you have in a democracy”. He also cannot think of an example where “a musician or artist has gone into politics and done anything good” and then challenges me to make a suggestion. My reply is that I’d like to have said Peter Garrett, but then he really screwed up.
“Oh don’t get me going on that turncoat! What a piece of shit! Singing The Beds Are Burning and then selling Aboriginal land to mining companies. What a rotter. What a stinker! Don’t even get me going with that baldy. Worst of all he’s a born-again Christian. Well, there’s one born every fucking minute!”
So…how have the TOOL shows been going then?
“Amazing. We’ve had standing ovations ever night which is pretty good considering we’re just fluffers”.
He says the remarkable thing about TOOL’s audience “is the smell of marijuana that permeates – they’re off their heads!”
Despite the tour “going well”, Coleman says “the thing with these corporate events is most of the time our bus is parked in a subterranean carpark. It feels like being in a supermarket and the atmosphere is just as appealing. To be perfectly frank I don’t like touring at this level. I like large theatres but not stadiums. I don’t really want to do this again and neither do my colleagues. Even if they said ‘here’s $500,000 on the table’ I’d say ‘piss off’ because sometimes time in your life is worth more than money”.
He became a grandfather while on tour and that’s “different” and on his mind. He’s excited about that as he plans a return to New Zealand. And I ask how long he intends to stay this time.
“Well, you know I never know. Because I just have mood swings and I just jump on a plane and head out…so you never know. I might stay. To be honest I like our Prime Minister and the way the world’s going…what can we say about next year? From an astrological perspective next year very dark things are going to happen”.
The vague plan is actually to “exercise my right to not ‘live’ anywhere, to be on the move”. And to write more music. Always. He has a Decca contract to get on with and tells me that his way of writing music is “sitting in coffee bars, and I can shut off all extraneous sound and I pretty much just write in my head. It’s a bit like thinking of your favourite album and being able to shut everything off and ‘play it’ from start to finish in your head. You can train yourself to do this which is what I have done. The things I can do now I couldn’t do in my 20s. So it is a wonderful time to be alive. I keep myself fit and work out every day. I got myself caught, fishing in New Zealand. I had to climb up a cliff face and I found to my horror that I didn’t have very good upper body strength. So I’ve been keeping in good shape since then”.
The new album is a gift to the legacy of Killing Joke, I suggest. But with the band very active across the last few years and having celebrated a 40th Anniversary I ask what the secret is to that particular longevity.
“Well, keeping a band together is more difficult than marriage. The only summary I can come to is that communism works!” Biggest laugh of the interview. “I don’t mean to be the most irritating person on the planet”, he post-scripts, “it does actually come naturally”.
“The first thing I do when I come into New Zealand…do you know what I wanna do? I want to eat. And the first thing I want to eat…is a pie!” Big laughs! “What I’m thinking of doing is a national pie competition where we can all eat pies and drink and have good fun”.
What’s his favourite flavour of pie?
“Well, there’s so many. You can go to a steak and mushroom. Chicken and mushroom. To chicken and leak or one of those butter chicken…oh man, don’t get me going, you’re making me salivate, I’m dribbling all over my mobile phone!”
And from there it’s to Jaz planning a listening party for Magna Invocatio in his New Zealand abode. I’ve been invited. And I get the feeling you have been too.
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