Jaz Coleman is one of music’s great warrior-mystics. Emerging with his band Killing Joke from the febrile chaos of the late 70s British music scene, he’s gone from coal-eyed post-punk malcontent to visionary art-metal figurehead, adding classical composer, actor and shaman to his CV along the way. Time, then, to look back on the life and times of a genuine one-off.
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When and where were you born?
“I was born in Cheltenham on February 26, 1960. My real name is Jeremy Coleman, but by the time I was about nine or 10 all my friends were so embarrassed to call me ‘Jeremy’, that it went from ‘Jair’ to ‘Jez’ to ‘Jaz’.”
What was your earliest childhood memory?
“I met fellow Cheltenham boy [late Rolling Stones guitarist] Brian Jones at a very early age. I remember him lifting me up and putting me on top of a fruit machine. He asked me, ‘Do you believe in Christmas?’ I said, ‘No’. He asked me, ‘Do you believe in magic?’ I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘You will do one day’. I’ll carry that with me for life. Brian Jones also smashed up my parents’ house three times and got a certain member of my family up the duff as well.”
What were you like when you were young?
“I was a pretty strange child. My relationship with music is like an arranged marriage: by the time my brother and I were six and four [respectively] it was decided that he would be the scientist, and I would be the musician, mainly because my grandmother saw me wriggling to music in my cradle. I had a strict regime of two hours music practice in the morning, and two hours when I got home from school. I won lots of competitions at international music festivals for singing and playing the violin. I was offered loads of posh scholarships but my dad said I’d end up a big nancy boy like the rest of them. I didn’t really listen to rock‘n’roll of any kind until I was 15. And that happened overnight.”
Overnight? What happened?
“I was with the National Youth Orchestra and I met this very beautiful violinist. She asked me, ‘Don’t you listen to any other music apart from classical?’ I said, ‘No,’ so she said, ‘You don’t listen to any rock music?’ I said, ‘What? Like Top Of The Pops?’ So she talked to me about all these bands I’d never heard of. Then she asked me whether I’d ever taken drugs before. I said, ‘No,’ and she said, ‘I smoke dope’. So I ended up smoking dope, listening to [German art-rock band] Can and getting my leg over. I was converted!”
How did your parents feel about that?
“When my parents came back from holiday I had already been to [London auction house] Sotheby’s and auctioned off my violin to buy amplifiers and keyboards. And then I fucked off to London. My parents were in a state of absolute shock and horror about that one.”
How did you come to form Killing Joke?
“After I’d worked in some reggae bands around ‘76/’77 I went to sign on in West London and there was this Indian guy in the queue for the dole. I told him that I didn’t want to be in anyone else’s band, I wanted to form my own band. He said, ‘I know the drummer for you then,’ and took me round the corner to meet Paul [Ferguson, drummer]. We didn’t like the look of each other for one second, but we both kinda knew that we’d work together.”
What about original KJ bassist Youth and guitarist Geordie – how did they come to join?
“Me and Paul put an ad in Melody Maker. This guy kept calling saying ‘Hi, I’ve never been in a band before, I’ve only ever played in my mum’s bedroom, but I’m the best guitarist ever’. I was always like, ‘Oh God it’s this cunt again.’ I couldn’t get rid of him, so at last I said, ‘Alright, alright, come round,’ – which I then forgot about. Later that week I was going through the bins outside – I’d lost some hash or something – and I heard this voice saying, ‘Looking for your breakfast are you mate?’ I looked up at this misfit with long ginger-ish hair and brothel creepers. He said, ‘I’m looking for number 11’. Then it clicked: this is the twat I’ve been trying to get rid of for fucking ages. He comes in for a cuppa and spots my fishing rods, so we have a conversation about fishing for six hours. After which he announced that he had nowhere to live so I said he could stay with me. Geordie moved in three weeks before I actually heard him play. When he did it was like a fire from heaven. I thought, ‘Thank God he can play’.”
“Geordie found Youth. He was living above a brothel in Earl’s Court. He said, ‘I like… er… a bit of reggae… and punk… and er… hardcore.’ I said, ‘Do you actually speak English?’ It’s funny, the two people we palmed off all along ended up joining the band.”
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Most people know you for Killing Joke. But tell us a bit about all your classical work.
“I conduct orchestras as well as compose and record for them. I’ve done 18 classical recordings so far. I wrote the music for the Disney animation Mulan. I also wrote music for the New Zealand team at the Rugby World cup. I was invited to do the funeral oration for [Chinese leader] Deng Xiao Ping in China; but I probably like China about as much as I like America, so I declined.”
You’ve dabbled in acting as well…
“I acted in the Czech movie, Year Of The Devil (Rok Dábla) by Petr Zalenka which won six foreign awards, and I’m in another movie called Et Cetera. I always play a complete psycho. In Et Cetera I play a heart surgeon doing surgery with blood spurting everywhere and me laughing my head off. I always play complete psychos.”
Would you ever go into politics?
“If I did it would be in New Zealand – where I now live – for the Green Party. But my missus isn’t so keen for me to go down that route.”
Why did you choose to live in New Zealand?
“That started in 1981 when we found these writings about an island at the end of the earth. Two members of the band thought it was a place in the soul, the others thought it was a geopolitical place on the planet. The writings said that a huge cataclysm was going to come and that we’d need somewhere to go. So two of us went to Iceland and off round the world in search of somewhere to go. Now I’ve found that place in New Zealand. I live on an island with only 700 people on it, about a hundred miles off the New Zealand coast. I designed my own house, drawing from Polynesian and Mauri building styles. It’s a bio-harmonic house which produces no pollution, has a water system that doesn’t affect the environment and there’s compost in the toilets. Everyone thought I was round the fucking bend when I moved there but now they all want to come.”
Were you never tempted to move into a big LA mansion and live the high life?
“Not really, no. I like to live a simple life. I don’t have a telly. Sometimes I listen to the World Service on the radio. I smoke cigars and I like rum occasionally. I don’t smoke [weed] anymore. I’ve seen how silly my mates get on that skunk stuff. Geordie calls it smack for lightweights.”
What role have drugs taken in your life?
“We didn’t start drinking until we were about 26. We were always a cuppa tea and a joint band. We did go through a two year heavy cocaine period, but I stopped after a bad live TV experience. I like rum. Paul likes his wine. We don’t like Geordie when he’s on the vodka – he turns into a super bitch. Gladys, we call him. But Killing Joke is not a heavy drug band.”
Mötley Crüe once took you out on tour with them. What was that like?
“It was a farce. First of all I don’t know what the fuck we were doing on the tour to start with. We were offered six figures to do five gigs, so it was like a paid holiday really. We were invited to meet Tommy Lee, and he was sitting there surrounded by all these dumb blonde bimbos. He says, ‘Ah! Killing Joke, I love you guys. What are you up to at the moment?’ He didn’t even know we were on tour with him.”
What else is there left for Jaz Coleman to do?
“I’d like to spend some time on writing a book about the ideas behind Killing Joke. But I feel that I’ve crammed so much into my life already that if I snuffed it tomorrow I’d think, ‘Well, I’ve had a good innings’.”
Published in Metal Hammer #152