Killing Joke's Fearless Leader

His black eyes blaze as he lets out a cavernous roar, before flashing the audience a blood-chilling rictus grin.

This is Jaz Coleman, the harbinger-of-doom frontman of Killing Joke, owning the stage at Metal Hammer’s Golden Gods awards in June.

A cursory glance at Jaz’s onstage demeanour might suggest he’s an unapproachable, terrifying, one-dimensional caricature. Yet he’s a former choirboy who composes symphonies. An iconic rockstar who’s made 14 albums with influential post-punk pioneers Killing Joke, yet owns little more than the clothes he stands up in. A father of three who can only find peace on a remote island at the end of the world. And so, as his band prepare to unleash Pylon, another staggeringly powerful album full of dark prophecies, we set out to uncover the real Jaz…

Jeremy Coleman was born in Cheltenham, Gloucester, on February 26, 1960. His parents were teachers, and his mother, Gloria, has historically significant Indian roots.

“My great, great, great grandfather was Mangal Pandey, who led the insurrection against the British [in 1857] and is revered in Mother India as one of the great nationalists,” says Jaz. “Then there’s B. N. Pandey, who wrote The Break Up Of British India and was very close to Gandhi. My grandfather was in the 1962 war with China; he executed two of his own men for not going forward, and he believed in global revolution.”

Jaz’s future was predetermined from age four. His family decided that while his elder brother, Piers, would follow an academic path into maths and science, Jaz would be a musician. “That’s the Indian side – it’s like an arranged marriage, and I’ve never considered any other vocation,” he explains.

Did you never feel any resentment that your life had been pre-arranged?

“No,” Jaz insists. “It was very clever. My grandmother saw me moving to music in the cradle, and decided I had an oral, visual intelligence, as opposed to an academic one.”

It was an arrangement that clearly worked for Piers, too, now an eminent physics professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Despite winning several music prizes, Jaz left school with no academic qualifications. By his own admission, Killing Joke was his university. He moved to London in 1978, met drummer Paul Ferguson three days later, and the pair performed a ceremonial ritual to conjure the band into being, focusing their minds on finding people who “shared our strong sense of mysticism and our studies”. Within three months, Kevin ’Geordie’ Walker and bassist Martin ’Youth’ Glover had answered the call.

With Pandey blood coursing through his veins, Jaz is uncommonly passionate, and his “studies” dominate every waking moment. He can hold forth about topics ranging from magic, the occult, freemasonry and Rosicrucianism (membership of a secret society claiming occult powers) to contemporary US political conspiracies (see Absolute Dissent, page 62). He also lives off the grid, shunning mobile devices and email, travelling light and having little money in his bank account. Paranoid?

“No, I just resent it,” he explains. “I’ve nothing to hide, but when you have the head of MI5 saying privacy’s dead… get fucked, I’ll make it hard for you.”

You can hear his apocalyptic revelations in the lyrics of Killing Joke; last album MMXII (2012) dealt with subjects like nanotechnology, global warming and corporate greed, while songtitles on new album Pylon, such as *New Cold War and War On Freedom* speak for themselves. Or you can read Jaz’s views in 2013’s autobiography-cum-metaphysics-book, Letters From Cythera.

Occasionally, Jaz will present a spoken word lecture, the latest of which occurred in June at London’s St Pancras Old Church, in front of several hundred Killing Joke fans – or ’Gatherers’. Apart from gigs, Gatherers are rarely afforded an opportunity to share a mystical experience. But, as Jaz revealed to the assembled faithful, he plans to change that by taking 100 of them to south India, where Geordie and himself (“two arch demons”), will become their “friends and mentors” in order to “process them” through supernatural experiences that will “change their lives”.

“There’ll be more workshops, gatherings, lectures and meetings on the Killing Joke circuit over the next few years,” he explains. “I want to ramp this up. Six months after we’ve done south India, we’re going to do the Ayahuasca Ceremony [a psychoactive medicinal ritual] in Peru. I want to offer people extraordinary experiences we can share collectively.”

While Jaz Coleman is the mystical prophet of doom, he’s also at one with nature. In 1982, his studies sent him on a quest to find ’an island at the end of the world’. He decamped to Iceland, before ending up on an island off the coast of New Zealand he refers to as Cythera, where he lives an almost “feral” life of barter, fishing, contemplation, physical training and communing with nature: “I have a piss at my gate every time I go through it, like a dirty old tom cat,” he reveals.

Jaz was primed for the outdoor lifestyle, as the Coleman family holidays of his childhood involved camping around Europe, but there’s evidence of a wistful nostalgia for home that belies an outward demeanour of shark-like forward momentum. Not only for the idyllic sanctuary of Cythera, but for Grasshopper Green, his familial home in Cheltenham, where his Uncle Bob would bring the young – and latterly tragic – Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones (a “randy bantam” according to Jaz’s grandma): “The floor’s still pockmarked with burns from Brian’s parties; my family home had a rich rock’n’roll history from day one.”

The musician has three daughters (Odessa, Tabitha and Jade), though his nomadic life has caused him to be reluctantly parted from them for prolonged periods. His eldest was initially brought up – out of necessity – by her grandfather in Switzerland, while his youngest have always been resigned to their father’s lifestyle.

“When my two Kiwi daughters were tiny, I told them, ’I can live in New Zealand and teach music here if you want me to be around all the time?’ But they said, ’Oh no, don’t do that, we love you being in a band. Go and do it, dad. We love you, it’s cool.’ So it’s always been with their consent, but it’s been difficult at times. When Tabitha was tiny, I’d have to leave for seven months at a time, and saying goodbye when your little one’s saying, ’Don’t go, daddy!’ Well, I had to have a stiff drink at the airport sometimes.”

Pylon is Killing Joke’s 15th album. Paul reckons it’s their most representative record, while Youth says, “It’s very uncompromising. Probably our least commercial record, predominately dark and heavy. It’s us at our most metal, but with a punky energy.”

“They’ve done a formidable job,” reckons Youth. “Jaz has gone into areas where lions fear to tread; told it like it is.”

But the fire of the band hasn’t entirely immolated the Jaz Coleman who studied violin and piano; instead, they coexist. His next classical release, The Nirvana Suite (recorded with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra), is a requiem for Kurt Cobain.

As we consider who Jaz really is, here’s a story that reveals how he sees himself. It involves the tragic death of Heath Ledger who, when getting into the role of The Joker, apparently tapped too closely into the character regularly inhabited by Jaz in Killing Joke.

“While he was shooting The Dark Knight, he was listening to Hosannas […From The Basements Of Hell, Killing Joke’s 2006 album] and had my picture plastered everywhere in his caravan. He watched the Hosannas video, took my mannerisms, gait, and modelled his Joker on the rum-sodden Coleman of that period. Now this is a dangerous energy to work with unless you know what you’re doing. I’ve been invoking the 11th path of the harlequin, madman or fool for three decades, and I use a mask system to protect myself. This archetype of the fool or Joker, with his Tourette’s-like approach of saying things that other people would naturally hide, is a zero – a void waiting to be filled with knowledge. It’s a dangerous energy if you’re not prepared, and playing around with such forces will leave you with psychological damage unless you have some sort of magical training.”

A few years ago, we ventured to Jaz that his onstage demeanour can be terrifying, and he replied: “That place you call scary, that’s my home.” Which we took to mean that he was fearless. But there is, of course, another way to interpret his words.

“He’s gentle and reflective inside,” his mother revealed in 2013 documentary, The Death And Resurrection Show. “You wouldn’t know that because of Killing Joke. But inside… he has a deep fear of something and he manifests it in different ways.”

So what is it that Jaz Coleman fears? Boil every aspect of his psyche down, and the residual essence would seem to suggest imminent global apocalypse. It’s a message he’s been proliferating for decades now, and still mankind endures. Isn’t he ever worried that people will start treating him like an obsessional madman – a fantasist lost in his own personal wilderness?

“I never consider how I’m perceived. It doesn’t come into my thoughts. What’s important is that I like what I’m doing, and respect myself and my colleagues,” he says. He stares fixedly at the ground for a few moments, before concluding, “I used to get very angry about this stuff. In fact, I used to go fucking mad. Now, I count to 10… And then I go fucking mad.”

And then he starts to laugh. Loudly… Maniacally… For an uncomfortably long time…

*Pylon* is out on October 25 via Spinefarm Records. The Nirvana Suite is expected later this year

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.