Jaz Coleman – Killing Joke’s frontman on life without Geordie, his passion for classical music and the simulated universe

Jaz Coleman and Killing Joke have inspired many, disturbed more than a few and outright terrified the more delicate flowers amongst us in a career that has lasted over 40 years.
Interview by Adrian Hextall / Photos (C) MindHex Media

Few vocalists know how to really set you on edge when watching them live. In Jaz Coleman, we have an artist who of course came to prominence in the early 1980s as the lead vocalist and keyboardist of post-punk group Killing Joke and since then the work of he and the band have inspired many, disturbed more than a few and outright terrified the more delicate flowers amongst us in a career that has lasted over 40 years.

As Jaz is about to start a spoken word tour of the UK, we sat down at the famous (or perhaps that should be infamous) Columbia Hotel in London to talk all things Killing Joke and also to see what treasures Jaz has hidden up his sleeve.

Killing Joke, formed in Cheltenham, England in 1979 by Jaz (vocals, keyboards), Paul Ferguson (drums), Geordie Walker (guitar) and Youth (bass) have perhaps been in the news a little more than expected of late due to the sad passing of the much-loved Geordie. With Jaz and Geordie being the only 2 constants throughout the extensive 15-album career with Killing Joke, it’s no surprise that, when we offer our condolences to Jaz about his band mate, that he’s more than happy to provide some insight into working with the late, great, guitarist.

“I sometimes look at the SMS’s that he sent me and one that stands out is how proud he was knowing that Jeff Beck chose to play ‘The Death and Resurrection Show’ live on stage. He was so happy that it was played at the Albert Hall, a real milestone moment for him.”

Little did he know of course that the song would be the last thing that Jeff Beck would play live again. Shortly after the final show of his tour, where he had again played the song,  the guitarist, at his home in Surrey, contracted bacterial meningitis, and after a short battle with the disease, passed away in January 2023.

That Beck chose to perform the song was one of the rare moments of happiness for Geordie, because as Jaz openly confirms, he was a functioning alcoholic. Alcoholism “takes away all the pleasure you once had, evaporates any goodness or skill you may have had or any joy you might have experienced from doing something. Long-term alcohol abuse gets rid of this and a year or so before Geordie passed, my doctor said to me. He said, ‘you know that when it comes for Geordie it will come fast and hard’. He was talking about a Stage 4, Stage 5 diagnosis for alcoholism and we had to deal with that.”

The last few years have been very stressful not just for everyone in the band but the crew of Killing Joke because for the last 25 or 30 years of his life, Geordie, according to Jaz, would drink anything up to two bottles of tequila in a single day. Let that sink in for a moment…. a single day!

“He would be starting two hours before the show was going to start so it was left to Dave Simpson [Geordie’s live guitar tech] and myself to try and help him without him knowing about it. Once Geordie opened the bottle, we’d watch and as soon as he’d gone to the loo, we’d be emptying it out and fill it half full of water and then doing the second bottle the same way so that he’d be able to play on stage. It was a fucking nightmare. And you know, it’s funny when I stopped drinking, I lost communication with two of my favourite artists. One was Nigel Kennedy and the other was Geordie last summer. We would still see each other on flights, we’d meet up at the airport in Prague, but in that last year of drinking I had three nasty fights with Geordie.

I remember one, I’d fucking jumped on him and grabbed him, bit him in the leg. He’s had to call someone to get me off him.”

Gesturing around the iconic hotel where we sit in one of the lounges, Jaz reminisces about the number of times he and the band have stayed here and the things that went on inside its four walls. The hotel itself has played host to touring bands since 1975 and, according to the Guardian newspaper, has ‘a relaxed attitude to the kind of after-the-aftershow shenanigans that former guests including Iggy Pop, Oasis and the Scissor Sisters may possibly have indulged in.’ It’s no wonder then that it suited Killing Joke so well for so many years.

“We had to contend with a lot”, says Jaz. “But Geordie, he could always hold it together musically, even when he was completely cunted generally speaking,” he adds with a wry smile. “You can just about hold it together; you know for the shows. But it’s after the shows, where you turn into a fucking monster. To avoid getting into trouble, I’d often stir a sleeping tablet into his next drink. I’d been doing it for years.

Sadly, he was always in denial of his drinking. I used to try come up with ways around it, to try and talk him down to wine from top shelf tequila but he wasn’t having any of it. Tequila was his poison.”

Talking about the times when you might have thought awareness would kick in, there was one instance when Geordie’s partner had to go into hospital for treatment, so he bought his four-year-old on the tour bus with us and all the girls in our crew. They thought he will be well-behaved now……wrong.

“You know, I have to say that he was unrepentant and remorseless about the life he led. You know, I think he would have liked more time with his child, yes, but in terms of the choices he made about how difficult life was, he could not imagine a world without a drink. When I stopped drinking, he found it amazing. He was always asking me ‘how do you do it?’ Like it was beyond his conception.”

Whilst Jaz may have given up the drink for the sake of his own health, he still likes to smoke what he loosely refers to as a ‘left-handed cigarette’ [if you know you know], but even there, he always ensures it doesn’t affect his vocal performance at shows.

Now, whilst the above may well be a tough read for fans of the band, it’s not all doom and gloom. For anyone that has had to deal with the aspects of drink and how people cope, there are often moments of lucidity, and the trick is ensuring you make the most of them when the appear. For Geordie, those moments were frequent and usually in the morning.

“I loved the mornings on the tour bus,” says Jaz. “Because Geordie in the morning was just one of the most wonderful human beings you’d ever met. That is to say before he started drinking. I would only take phone calls from him in the mornings, really communicate with him in the mornings and read any messages. If I got an SMS that was sent after midday, I would genuinely discard it. But mornings, you can take a deep breath and smile.”

As we look back at Jaz’s work outside of Killing Joke, if you’ve followed his career, then you’ll know he is respected globally for his orchestral composition work. Whilst his output with Killing Joke may well have inspired bands such as Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Jane’s Addiction, My Bloody Valentine, Faith No More, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Godflesh, Soundgarden, Metallica and more, it was his 1995 album, ‘Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd’, which peaked at number one in the Billboard Magazine Top Classical Crossover Albums chart that really made people sit up and take notice.

Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin’ and ‘Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto’ followed as have symphonies, roles such as composer-in-residence to the Prague Symphony Orchestra, conducting the NSO Symphony Orchestra (UAE) for the opening ceremony of the Dubai World Cup, and producer, having founded the York Street Studio in New Zealand.

Having grown up playing violin and piano, Jaz still admits that his career initially took him towards Killing Joke because “my voice was my main instrument. I had an extraordinary voice when I was young, and I sang in different cathedrals. I found it was a way of how I could miss school. Yeah, I went on loads of chamber music courses with the violin and then I’d sing with choirs, go to church music groups and perform different material across the country and I would actually get to miss loads of school. I mean, I didn’t learn anything at my junior school, I didn’t learn anything at my senior school. Nothing at all. All I learned was there’s some things I could do with rock music and selling hash!”

Even before he was 16 Jaz (very much like the lyrics to the TV series Dukes Of Hazzard) seemed to be in trouble with the law since the day he was born. It was almost difficult to break into the rock and roll scene without stepping over the line a few times.

“You know,” says Jaz, pausing to recall a memory. “I remember being really little and being picked up by Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones). Now, what are the odds of that happening to someone in their life? That’s why, to me, this reality being a grand simulation is an easy idea for me to understand that. It’s a entropy reduction, I believe is the term for interpreting reality as a simulation [Check out theories on the ‘simulated universe’ for more info]. I think so, all the things that have happened to me in my life. It seems none of them were unique, everything seemed just overly familiar, like it’s programs that have been written to be followed.”

If it creates a sense that perhaps the concept of individual doesn’t exist anymore then Jaz also has viewpoints on that. He sees us moving into an age where a hive mind will operate with a approach akin to digital slavery. He strongly believes that it’s driven by the world economic forum, who have these changes planned that will affect everyone equally.

“There’s no room for strong individuals in this corporate environment any more. They want people who merge in together. Small personalities and that is incompatible with the very best of what music brings to the table which just screams individualism.

And while the rest of us will fall under digital slavery, we’ll move over to decentralized digital currency. You can imagine that these digital tokens will only have a time limit of maybe two months at a time, so you’ll have to use them otherwise they’re gone.

And if you’re a bad boy or you’re saying things that they don’t like, all of a sudden you’re blocked from getting on a plane or a train, they’ll switch your ability to buy food off and you can just imagine what’s coming. I think a global famine is coming. Where I was living in Mexico, there are 12 million homeless people around me, and they use burner phones. They’re not digitally linked in, and I’d say they probably don’t have bank accounts or anything. And so there won’t be any digital currency for them at all. Once we go to a cashless society the level of control over people’s lives and what they buy and what they are able to buy if they are not digitally connected, well, everything will be just beyond draconian.”

Of course, whilst the world hasn’t quite gone the way Jaz mentions quite yet, there’s no missing the earnest opinions he has, and the belief is definitely there in his eyes. The world needs more people like Jaz Coleman to maybe raise awareness or at least trigger the discussions that need to be had so that these changes don’t just sneak up on people.

We do however want to talk about what I loosely referred to Jaz as ‘happier topics’ and more importantly his classical work.

The path Jaz started down was to look at, understand and rearrange classic rock songs as classical pieces. It’s no different he claims than the approach many classical composers have taken over the years who see it as their job to examine and rearrange other composers masterpieces. “[Gustav] Mahler used to rearrange Beethoven’s music for example. It is part and parcel of a composer’s task to rearrange other composers’ work. As such it became a passion of mine to see what I could do with rock music. I remember hearing Mick Jagger sing with an orchestra and thinking then that rock vocals and orchestral music don’t really go so for me to be able to create a sonata based on rock music, I needed to look at it in a different way.”

As such, ‘Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd’ came out and sold by the bucket-load, thanks in no small part to an endorsement from none other than Roger Waters. With the follow ups also selling well, the numbers don’t lie, and Jaz’s classical work has actually sold more than his entire back catalogue with Killing Joke, something he’s obviously very proud of. All then that remained was to ultimately bring together the two channels into one beautiful release.

That release, ‘Magna Invocatio – A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke’ came out in November 2019 with Jaz conducting Russia’s oldest orchestra, the St Petersburg Philharmonic. This stirring body of work taps into the more melodic, uplifting aspects of the Killing Joke musical canon, using Coleman’s journey with this hugely influential UK outfit as the vehicle for a Gnostic mass (a ritualised celebration of the mysteries of existence).

The album gave us a true passion project for Jaz. 13 tracks, 5 with full chorus, ordered in such a way that the listener would stay through from start to finish in a single sitting. The album was also conceived to appeal to those not generally engaged with orchestral music.

In 2024, it will be celebrating its 5th anniversary and I’d suggest keeping your eyes peeled for official announcements as to what that could mean for the fans.

 Until then, we have the ‘Unspeakable A Spoken Word Tour’ which starts on March 19th and runs to March 30th. Opening in Glasgow at The Garage and concluding at the Junction in Cambridge, if you can go to all dates you’ll get something different every single night.

Jaz had this to say, “I have never shared the truth about my forty-five years with Killing Joke.  In the Unspeakable talks I will reveal all, my personal life, my occult studies, my muses, and my struggles with mental health and more recently, diabetes. As we have entered a period of apocalypse  – which means The Great Revealing, I will hold nothing back concerning my extraordinary life”.

Jaz Coleman Unspeakable 2024 dates in full

For more details check out  https://jazcoleman.com/live/

Tue 19th Glasgow Garage

Wed 20th Manchester Stoller Hall

Thur 21st Sheffield Memorial Hall

Sat 23rd Wolverhampton KK’s Steel Mill

Sun 24th  Cheltenham Parabola Arts Centre

Tue 26th   Leicester O2 Academy

Fri 29th  London Bush Hall

Sat 30th  Cambridge Junction

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