Latest release: MMXII (Spinefarm/Universal)
In his varied and celebrated career as musician, composer, producer and his most prominent role as frontman of legendary British post-punk band Killing Joke, Jaz Coleman has been labelled a great many things. Shy and retiring, however, are two words that have probably never been attached to his name. Since the late 70s he has led rock bands, written and conducted symphonies, dabbled in the occult, been ordained, authored books and appeared in films. When he calls from his home in New Zealand, he greets me with a loud and jovial “Hello!” that could probably be heard from across the street.
Ostensibly, Coleman is calling to do press for the new Killing Joke album MMXII, which been getting raving reviews and has smashed into the charts in Britain on digital sales figures alone. But the performer seems much more interested in talking about the kinds of things the album is about rather than the album itself.
“Australia’s a funny old place isn’t it?” he says. “Like, every country has got good and bad. Even beautiful New Zealand that everybody sees as the keen, green country and I hate to break people’s illusions about this, but after researching this country and some of the things that are happening in it, there’s darkness stalks everywhere really. It’s only when people stand up against that which is essentially wrong that we can change things.”
Of course, Jaz Coleman’s entire career has been about railing loudly against everything from corporate oppression and nuclear power to commerciality in music, to exposing conspiracies and smashing governments. MMXII is an anti-capitalist tirade inspired by what he sees as increasing authoritarianism, particularly in the West.
“I’m shocked and horrified when I think about the dreadful things that are going on in this world,” he says, starkly. “When you think of the last ten years, how is it possible that the order to torture other human beings came from the White House? There’s no conspiracy here: that’s a fact! To waterboard people and torture people, and to openly break the Geneva Convention. And if there are security people listening to this, then all I can say is that you are a traitor to your own sovereign nation.”
Environmentalism and sustainability are subjects that have also long been close to Coleman’s heart. Yet he admits that he just isn’t informed enough to have an opinion on the controversy surrounding climate change, despite being a resident in a country that introduced carbon emission pricing several years ago.
“It’s funny actually because I was here at Christmas and I left for Europe and where I went to it was like 35 degrees below. The world seems to be getting cold, not warmer,” he says. “I have to look at what the scientists are saying about global warming and I guess I have to trust them, I suppose. But that being said, you can’t help feeling that some of this carbon emission tax… I don’t know. Is it another scam?”
Jaz Coleman may not see himself as a conspiracy theorist, but he has espoused some strange ideas in the past. During the early 80s, he and Killing Joke guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker and bassist Martin “Youth” Glover holed themselves up in Iceland after Coleman apparently divined from such things as the writings of Aleister Crowley that the Apocalypse was nigh. Thirty years later, and it could be argued that he believes the end may still be coming, in a totally different way.
“What we do know is that laboratory studies of biotech foods, such as sponsored by Monsanto and their friends, we know that when we feed biotech food to rats, the next generation of rats, the litter is three rats less. And the next litter is less again, until there’s no more rats,” he says. “So I’m beginning to suspect that maybe biotech companies are involved in depopulation. When you think about some of the Food Bills that have passed, where they say they all the dairy farmers must use Monsanto feed by law, what are we to make of this?”
His voice suddenly rises to the kind of bark he uses on stage with his band: “I’m asking: What are we to make of this shit? It’s just incredible! You can do your own research. Is it possible, or am I suffering from absolute paranoia? Which is a distinct possibility, I grant you. But is it possible that what happened in Nazi Germany with concentration camps could actually happen again? That civilians could be incarcerated in concentration camps?”
The second song on MMXII, “Fema Camps”, is about that exact possibility. Its tribal beats and Coleman’s feverish vocals explore the possibility that the US Federal Emergency Management Authority’s austere evacuation centre camps are actually designed for the internment of dissidents.
“Killing Joke’s lyrics are self-explanatory,” Coleman says. “I do urge you to study them and look at them.”
As they have always been, Killing Joke’s albums are keenly in touch with the zeitgeist. MMXII is no exception as it examines the currrent political, economic and environmental climate, especially the erosion of democracy and civil liberties. Unsurprisingly, Jaz Coleman has a lot to say about the topic, and he wants people to be informed, to study and to make their own decisions based on what they learn.
“When you think about Mr Blair and Mr Bush – and Mr Bush, I would like to say was described as the Saviour of Africa by Bono – they led us into a war on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction that were never found,” he says. “You can see that the West has somehow lost its moral authority. Certainly, the West we used to know. I was talking with a gentleman this morning, who is Russian, and he was saying how North America is becoming like the Soviet Union: it’s cornered, it’s dangerous and it’s on the way out! When you think of the BRICK [Brazil, Russia, India, China, Korea] countries emerging: Mother India’s powerful again. But it’s a dangerous scenario this situation. The whole economic structure of this world, and central banks, it’s rotten and corrupt to the core and it’s everybody’s duty to study. Socrates said it is the duty of every citizen to engage in the debate on the issues of the day. And that is what a democracy is. And yet, where are the debates? When you go to America, there’s fear!”
He goes on to mention the Truther movement, the followers of alternative theories to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and accuses the FBI of labelling some of the more strident believers as terrorists for not having faith in the official story.
“I don’t know whether I agree with [Truthers], but I do defend the right for anyone to say what the Hell they like in a democracy, whether we like it or you like it or I like it or anyone likes it,” he asserts. “That’s what democracy is, isn’t it? The right to say what you like. The First Amendment of the American Constitution. The last ten years… it’s just shockingly awful when we think about what’s happened and it’s getting more and more difficult to speak out against this. Where’s all this leading? All they need do to get people to accept microchips is to get a nuke to go off in the Middle East, or some shock, and people get so frightened, a climate of fear, and they’ll just accept microchip implants just like that. They’ll exchange their civil liberties for security.”
For his own part, while it’s fairly apparent in his passionate delivery that he believes wholeheartedly in what he’s saying, Coleman also professes that Killing Joke is merely a sounding board for ideas and discussion. He is also adamant that people think for themselves.
“Is this acceptable?” he asks, for the first but certainly not the last time. “This is what I’m saying in this debate. Killing Joke is just a forum for debate on everything. I’m just posing some of these questions. Is this acceptable? And I’m asking the population. Let’s not forget: governments work for the people. People don’t work for governments in a democracy. And somewhere along the road this has been forgotten. What we have now are public servants, but they’re sociopaths.”
“Look at the Rt Hon. Peter Garrett. Look at him,” says Coleman disdainfully. “If there’s a man that embodies hypocrisy it must be this man, who held Green values who now says, well Pine Gap’s OK, and digging up tribal Aboriginal land is just fine by me. After ‘Beds are Burning’ and the ‘US Bases’… I mean, I can’t stand the bloody band anyway, but I’m just giving an example. That’s why I’m never going into politics. Because it’s scum… scum like Garrett. He’s scum! He should be so ashamed of himself. He’s such a filthy, dirty bald-headed hypocrite! I so despise him!”
Coleman is now shouting so loudly that people walking past the cafe I’m sitting in are looking at me as if my phone is possessed by the devil. If he were here with me instead of across the Tasman, I’d probably be getting sprayed with flecks of foam from his mouth.
He continues his devastating attack on Garrett: “I don’t know how to put it into any other words! He’s loathed and despised universally. He’s every reason why a musician should never become a politician! And before he reaches the end of his life, he should know that nobody respects him at all. He thinks he can just get away with his hypocrisy by becoming a Christian. Just like the war criminal Tony Blair, how he converted to Catholicism after letting 100,000 people die from a war on weapons of mass destruction that were never found. Those people could be alive now. It’s not OK. It’s just not OK at all.”
Coleman saves his greatest invective, however, for the United States. Following a recent tour there with Killing Joke, he’s been left “shocked and dismayed” by the level of poverty and the dereliction of society in a nation that prides itself as the Leader of the Free World. To Coleman, it’s actually comparable now to what conditions were like behind the Iron Curtain.
“The amount of homeless people,” he says, “and the amount of hungry people out in the street… Oh my God! It’s WORSE than the old Soviet Union. It’s terrible. It’s unbelievable there. I can’t imagine touring there again. In the Mid-West, if there’s a lucky one, they can choose between a CD, a DVD or go to a concert once a month. If they’ve got a job. This is a country that’s trying to muck around with everybody else’s lives, even here in New Zealand. Look at their unemployment rate! Look at what’s happening in America. It’s a disgrace. It’s run by a military lobby; there’s a terrible climate of fear there. There is no democracy. It’s no model. They’ve broken all the sacred rules of the Constitution that America stood for.”
He takes a breath, but it’s obvious he hasn’t finished. What he’s seen in America is precisely the type of thing that he has been writing about since Killing Joke began in the gloomy shadow of Margaret Thatcher’s arch-capitalist Britain, when the band was ironically accused by the press of having fascist ideals.
“I’m sorry, but I’m just gonna speak out direct on things that I think are evil,” he declares. “I was brought up in the shadow of the Second World War, and my father saw the evil of Nazi Germany. And to think that these things could be happening again by people who believe in authoritarian regime, and this is how I see America… this is how strongly I feel about it: I’m never playing there again with Killing Joke! I’m just a working man and all a working man can do is vote with his feet. No! I’m not going there.” He sputters an ironic laugh: “Until there’s regime change!”
As for a tour of Australia, Jaz Coleman has this to say: “Please lobby your promoter! Please lobby our agent, whoever they are. I’d love to do a full tour of Australia with Killing Joke. As soon as someone gives a fuck enough to bring us out and someone can put the money up and as long as it’s promoted well so that they can recoup their costs, well I’d just love to come over. It’s on the way back to New Zealand for me. Australasia is important to me. I’ve got family in Australia as well. I’m trying my best to make it happen. That’s all I can do.”
I ask Coleman if he believes Killing Joke to be a panacea for the rising trend in Internet-inspired slacktivism, where people can feel good about themselves by clicking links to “causes” and “issues” on social media sites without the need to understand or learn anything about what they are claiming to support.
“People are tired and in debt. There’s too much fluoride in the water and they’re probably spraying funny shit in the air, so that you feel rebellious one minute and three minutes later you don’t feel rebellious at all! For some strange reason. Or maybe I’m just getting paranoid. I dunno how to answer all these questions really,” he replies, with a deep sigh. “There’s so much that’s wrong with our world.”
The lingering threat of nuclear terror has held a long fascination for Killing Joke. In light of the Japanese fallout disasters and North Korean and Iranian atomic brinkmanship, the issue is still very much a hot topic at the core of the band’s philosophy.
“Thirty-three years ago,” Coleman says, “we played to 150,000 people in Trafalgar Square protesting against nuclear power and for nuclear disarmament and now, as I speak, there’s six new nuclear energy plants being commissioned for the United Kingdom, and no one’s doing anything about that at all. There’s 16 nuclear plants commissioned for America. And people call this clean energy! After Fukushima! Am I mad or is the fucking world mad? I’m mad, obviously.”
Coleman’s grand plan for humanity, which MMXII touches upon and Killing Joke has talked about in the past, is a kind of global unification along humanist lines. For him, it’s the only way to combat the spread of nuclear power and preserve the future for coming generations.
“I want to decommission all 435 nuclear reactors on the planet. It’s a big task. And the only way we can actually manage that is to have global consensus. And the only way to get global consensus is to have a Council of Nations.” He pauses for a moment before going on. “And let’s be careful here. We need to differentiate between a Council of Nations and a dreary, authoritarian New World Order. They are both two very different things. You think about Beethoven, and Schiller and of course Mahatma Ghandi, who talked about a global family. That’s very different from an authoritarian New World Order that’s run by an international banking cartel. But we’ve got to have some dream of decommissioning this curse on our sons and daughters and our descendents.”
“The one thing that brought me to New Zealand was the Rt Hon. David Lange, who said ‘This is a nuclear free zone’.” His tone turns genuinely reverential for a moment: the late former NZ prime minister Lange holds a special place in Jaz Coleman’s heart. “And I’d like to spend this time remembering this great man who inspired me so much. In the middle of the Cold War, in the Oxford Debate, he spoke up so bravely against these bullies from the US. Because that’s what they are.”
With that, he launches into another screed against the US administration. He peppers his diatribe with examples from history, disappointment in his homeland and hints of the type of global conspiracies to which he has already alluded.
“They’re just bullies, ” he says of the US Government. “And one of the reasons why I’ve abandoned England so many years ago is because it’s never stood up to the US. And I take exception to it! If you look in the history books – and my father reminded me of this, he said he remembered when Joseph Kennedy, Ambassador from the US Embassy, in the last World War, said, ‘We will be welcoming Mr Hitler into the streets of London in the next three weeks’. So, the US are no great pals of mine. They only came into the war on the condition that they took away the Saudi Arabian oilfields and we dismantled the British Empire. I can’t see how they’re the great buddies of the Brits, or Australians for that matter.”
He ends with a plea to the people of Australia, calling on us not to let ourselves go the way of Great Britain. One gets the impression that former ALP Leader Mark Latham’s glorious quote, when he described John Howard’s government as “a conga line of suckholes” for what he saw as pandering to Washington, would find a place in gilt letters on Jaz Coleman’s study wall.
“Please, Australians,” he says, “speak up about this. Otherwise you’ll be getting Monsanto feed and you’ll be depopulated. Are you a sovereign nation? Because if you have a foreign airbase in your country, you can’t be a sovereign nation. You’re an OCCUPIED nation, lest we forget.”
When he’s reminded that Australia still holds Queen Elizabeth II as its official Head of State, he becomes thoughtful.
“That dodgy bird?,” he says, steadily. “Gosh crikey. She’s really dodgy isn’t she?”
He pauses for a moment, then drops his voice and asks conspiratorially, “Can you tell me… have you ever thought about her in a sexual context? I want you to think about it. There must be some people out there who have thought about it at some level. Don’t you find her an attractive, desirable person? Who’s that person who tried to run for President from Alaska? I had that strange sexual sentiment towards her as well.”
“But look, we better stop there mate, before we get ourselves into trouble,” he says with a chuckle. He does, of course, have a coup de grace to deliver: “Though, let’s be discreet: I really fancy your Prime Minister.”
Jaz Coleman erupts into gales of insane cackling. As he bids me adieu, I can almost imagine him sitting behind a massive desk, stroking a white cat as “Le Internationale” plays softly in the background.