Stage Times: Jaz Coleman

A personal history of Killing Joke – starring the President of the Czech Republic and girl who might have been a vampire

Jaz Coleman has a wealth of stories to tell. In his 45 years as the frontman of post-punk doomsayers Killing Joke, he’s accumulated enough to fill the sort of thick, chunky book that could double as a doorstop. Even then, there’s a wealth of experiences he’s never shared publicly, until now. Later this month, he’ll be on tour in conversation with Shane Embury, opening Pandora’s box on a life marked by countless gigs, brushes with the occult and staring death – and the apocalypse – right in the face. There’s a note of poignancy too, considering that it arrives just months after the death of Killing Joke guitarist Geordie Walker. 

“I’ve never really talked about the people that really changed our lives, or the many things that have happened behind the scenes,” he says. “Of course, Geordie’s passing makes me want to talk about these things for myself as well, to realise what we’ve done, our mission, what we’ve accomplished with our work over four and a half decades.” 

In front of an intimate audience, night after night, Coleman is set to delve into the past, present and future of Killing Joke, his career in orchestral music and the more personal aspects of his life, such as his history of mental health issues. “Two thirds of the world have mental health issues, so it’s a good time to talk about these things and how I’ve managed to get through these difficult times,” Jaz reasons. “I’ve had multiple issues in my 45 year career. The thing with mental health is the best drugs to take are the endorphins you get from exercise – [that’s how] you get out of that negative mindset.” 

But of course, he’s also collected a huge number of anecdotes from his time on stage. We got him to talk about some of his most memorable gigs…

Killing Joke - Love Like Blood (Official Video)

The gig that made me want to make music

When I was really tiny I saw Orpheus In The (Camden) Underworld and it affected me profoundly. My mother took me to the Royal Festival Hall to see St. Matthew’s Passion. I think seeing early Adam and the Ants at the Electric Ballroom was an inspirational night that I’ll never forget too. The early Ants were very different to what Adam did later and it was very heavy. I wanted to steal his audience. So we did!

The first 

The first Killing Joke gig was with The Selecter and The Ruts, not so far from my hometown of Cheltenham. What I remember about that gig was Geordie [Walker], because I’d seen him in rehearsal and he always played [with] a stone-faced expression. I thought, “Ah, would he change when we get onstage?” No, he didn’t. He just stood there, expressionless, and just played like he normally played!

Killing Joke - Eighties

The best

We played Reading Hexagon in 1981 and everybody in the band remembers it because while we were playing, everything went silent. And everything went into slow motion. It happened for us in the band and I think for people who were there: it went into slow motion. This was the beginning of my study into magnetic fields. Basically, when you increase the magnetic field, everything gets slower, goes through a crawling speed and when you diminish your magnetic field, everything speeds up in our reality. I talked about it with other musicians like Jimmy Page later and he had similar experiences. That night started my study into experimenting with magnetic fields.

The smallest

The smallest gig must have been in about 1990. It was in someone’s front room. I don’t know how we ended up doing this gig but on those tours, during that period, we just had to keep going. I was being sued by the record company because I was the only person in the band… We had one gig, then another, then a day off in between, so we put on any gig we could between every day. There’d be no days off during that period – we’d be doing between 200 and 250 concerts every year.

Killing Joke - America

The biggest

We’ve played to 400,000 people around festivals, you know? There was one in Canada with The Police and The Specials, and Killing Joke played with Iggy Pop. That was about 100,000. Then there was Hellfest, which was massive.

The weirdest

There was a show in New York City where this one kid who came up to us and said “I’ve got a present for you”, and he gave us 3000 tabs of LSD. Anyway, we thought “Well, we don’t want this,” so we gave it to the road crew and told them to just put it on the side. It was given to all the people coming in. That night, Killing Joke was playing but I think Nine Inch Nails had canceled their concert, so it was packed. Everyone at that concert was tripping. I remember this one girl – I think it was a girl – and she had filed down her teeth like a vampire, and she kept smiling at me…

The scariest 

I agreed to conduct the Czech Philharmonic orchestra and it was in front of the President. I had never conducted before. I was terrified. I practiced in the mirror but I only had a 30-minute rehearsal. It was absolute terror. I never get nervous before concerts. But this was the first time I [got nervous] – I think because of my lack of experience. I remember sending my wife out and saying, “Can you leave me alone?” I lay flat on the floor and I actually fell asleep, and next thing I know this Russian woman is shaking my shoulder, yelling, “You must go on now!” It was a nightmare. I remember why I got out of classical music in the beginning, because of the f*cking pressure and the terror.  Luckily, I had a miniature Scotch whiskey and I necked it, and I suddenly thought about the tempo, the speed I was starting off with. I’m glad I had that thought. I went on stage, the President was there and everybody thought I’d been conducting all my life. It was really the best concert I’ve ever had.

Jaz Coleman brings his spoken word tour, Unspeakable, to UK stages from 19 March. Find tickets here.