By SEAN PLUMMER
Given that their drummer once described Killing Joke’s music as “the sound of the Earth vomiting,” it’s perhaps not surprising that an orchestral version of the English post-punk band’s aggressive mix of rock, Goth, dub and metal is only now surfacing, some 41 years after their formation.
Magna Invocatio: A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke was recorded over 10 days last year with Russia’s St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. The album, released November 29 via Spinefarm Records, sees the orchestra bringing out the beauty of the Joke’s notoriously aggressive music via symphonic interpretations of songs like “In Cythera,” “Adorations,” “Intravenous” and “You’ll Never Get To Me.” The emotional high point is perhaps “The Raven King,” a tribute to late Joke bassist Paul Raven who died in 2007 that originally appeared on Killing Joke’s 2010 album Absolute Dissent.
Conducting the sessions was Joke frontman Jaz Coleman. Coleman, when not bellowing songs that have inspired everyone from Metallica to Nirvana (as he has been doing during the band’s opening sets for Tool on their current North America tour), has carved out quite a successful classical career for himself that has seen him conduct orchestras in London, the Czech Republic and New Zealand. That career has included conducting orchestral versions of music by The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Rue Morgue spoke with a friendly and raucous Coleman during the band’s recent tour stop in Toronto.
“Unlike most magical workings that start with a banishing ritual, Killing Joke begins everything with an invoking ritual.”
At what point did you start to think that the beauty and positivity of Killing Joke’s repertoire had perhaps been overlooked and should be brought out in this way?’
I’ve thought that for a long time to be honest. I mean, the unique thing about Killing Joke is the harmonic composition of the music. Just as an arranger can get inside any band, you know, from Nirvana to The Doors and Zeppelin, and I can see what the music is made up of, the components, as a musicologist. And then in this way I can see why Killing Joke is a musical reference point that has influenced not one but two centuries of music now. I can see why because of its harmonic uniqueness, when I look at the actual strength of the music.
So the whole experience of arranging a work of music in which you were one of the composers is a very weird thing. (laughs) It’s a very strange thing ’cause you can think sometimes in the arranging that you’ve done it before. It’s good that we have this conversation because really Magna Invocatio addresses the occult agenda that highlights our entire career from the beginning to the current date. We’ve included the actual vow that [drummer] “Big” Paul [Ferguson] and I took when we were teenagers, and so to put it into the Latin and to put it into this work is just an incredible experience. In fact, I have to say, recording Magna Invocatio was one of the peak experiences of my life. Emotionally it was transcendental. Arranging it in St. Petersburg and playing it back for the first time, wow.
Like last night, when I looked at the video of ‘The Raven King’ – and Paul is just on the other side of the veil – the same thing. I found, to my surprise, tears welling up for the third time. The first time, when Paul died, I couldn’t stop crying; the second time in St. Petersburg; and last night, 11/11, I watched it again. And Paul, we’ve seen him as an ancestor who helps our career from the other side, as our fathers do – our forefathers who are in the other world – and two managers. And we invoke the ancestral spirit every night; every time that we work, we collectively do it. It’s just part of our culture. Unlike most magical workings that start with a banishing ritual, Killing Joke begins everything with an invoking ritual. (laughs)
Killing Joke is my university. I never had any real education. The money I made in Killing Joke I put back into studying orchestration; this is from 1982 onwards. And then to get to this stage in my life, two and a half months away from my 60th birthday, to be able to get back to Killing Joke, what it’s given is very special.
People have been asking me for 25 years now ‘will you ever orchestrate Killing Joke?’ I never saw this as a possibility because of demographics and budget. I had this dirty manager who’s fortunately gone now. He said ‘Let’s do this Pledge[Music] thing.’ [Magna Invocatio started out as a PledgeMusic project but had to find alternate funding when the funding platform went bankrupt.] Didn’t do any budgetary forecasts or anything. He said we’ll take money off the top and give it to you, but I never got a penny in fact. Nothing, zero. Nothing to do anything with. They didn’t even come up with one third of the budget.
And that’s when the magic happened. A magical recalibration started. Everything went right. It went so right that I had the first dream I’ve had in 25 years. That’s right, I haven’t dreamt in 25 years. And I had this super-dazzling high definition dream of being in the czar’s palace with this incredible orchestra. Everything was floodlit and I was in a three-piece suit looking like a penguin. And the ceiling was the night sky. And then I heard Magna Invocatio. I heard it performed in dream state. And two days later after this dream I had the budget and I was off to Russia.
What’s the energy of St. Petersburg like?
Let me be frank. I love St. Petersburg because I’m treated so well. But when they say ‘would you like to go the Hermitage? Do you want to go to a museum?’ I’m not fucking remotely interested in any fucking museums or anything. I’m here to do a job, and that’s really my outlook, to be brutally frank.
When I go to Russia, the thing I adore about Russia is its classical musical tradition. It affected me from the age of eight when I bought my first record, Russian Orchestral Masterpieces. And since then, you know, I’ve been going all over Eastern Europe, studying the different harmonies of folk music and stuff like this, playing with these various Eastern European orchestras which culminated in finally going to Russia to play with two of the greatest Russian orchestras.
They have an excellent attitudes in their approach. They perform as if their whole lives depend on it. It’s not just a job, like a Western orchestra. (laughs) There’s a big passion there. And to my surprise, Killing Joke is massive in Russia. I have no interest in taking Killing Joke to Russia. At all. I’ve always turned it down. I’m not interested in this.
Why is that?
Because I want to reserve Russia just for classical music. (laughs) I keep things very separate in my world. I keep the classical side completely separate from experimental rock music . I don’t believe in mixing electronic sounds with natural acoustic recordings. I don’t like this. I mean, last time I recorded a rock voice with a symphony orchestra was Mick Jagger – and it was fucking brilliant – but I thought they just don’t blend with each other. And it was an amazing recording. And I’ve never done it again to this day.
One thing that I find that does maybe cross over is the image of the mad conductor, like the sort of thing you might see with like Toscanini or Sakowski or even Bugs Bunny in the old Warner Bros. cartoons. To what extent does that mad conductor image suit you given that you have long cultivated a public persona with Killing Joke that flirts with madness?
Well, that’s a very good point. The first time I ever conducted a symphony orchestra was the Czech Philharmonic, and I didn’t have enough rehearsal time. I was actually terrified to go out and conduct the orchestra for President Vaclav Havel. I get nervous before rock shows, but this is different. I’d never really conducted before but only in the mirror. (laughs) It went like a fucking dream. So it was a surreal experience, like my life, you know.
The thing is, I’m completely crazy. And by that I am exactly like Napoleon said: ‘Beware the man who dreams with his eyes open’. Because everything is possible in my world. And they say I’m crazy, but I manifest it, one way or another. We get there. Sometimes I start a project that won’t be continued for 10 years. You know, you have to take desire out of the equation. Because when you desire something, it goes further away. And when you give up desire, everything comes to you. You see?
Killing Joke band is 40 years old now and you’re touring with the original lineup. How does that feel?
It’s hard to think of us as a Seventies band, but we are. It’s amazing being in a band where you go through the whole journey together. And the world is so different from when we started. So different, I can’t tell you. But it’s amazing to have done the journey together with the guys. I’m grateful to the forces of life. I’m always grateful for this. It’s proved that our legacy is going to be self-education. But mostly it proves that communism works, and by that I don’t mean Marxism. I have a virulent hatred of Marx and all his works. I mean collectivism, where everybody benefits.
I believe passionately that we’re in an age where corporations want not just perpetual growth but exponential growth. And this ever-increasing greed must stop in exchange for human well-being and sustainability. We have to change because the Earth is gonna change, and I think it’s going to probably start next year. Probably around the 11th or 12th of January the whole process will begin. And it’s going to be a difficult year, and it won’t stop until the 21st of December. So this time I really believe that we need Killing Joke, we need to feel that we’re not alone. It’s interconnected darkness, if you like. The world is better for having Killing Joke in it. For sure.
We need to open our hearts more. The way we perceive the heart is as the second brain. In fact it’s the only real brain because the heart is where one derives one’s moral compass from, and that’s something that needs to be debated more in the occult community because the occult community is largely devoid of a moral compass. (laughs) The amount of people who believe Rabelais’s maxim that ‘Do what though wilt’ means ‘I can do anything’ is an awful outlook. You have to put up with these people who don’t realize what it actually means, which is to do your God gift.
Let me put it simply. When you do something you love doing, you get energy from it. You wake up 6 o’clock Monday morning, you get energy from what you love doing; you can’t wait for 9 o’clock to start. You get energy from doing something you love doing. If you’re doing something you don’t love doing, it takes energy, and there we have it in a nutshell. That is what I’m convinced of. I’ve never had a job in my life. (laughs). Let’s be honest about it. Your time, your precious hours of your life, how much do you sell them for? How much money do you need not to compromise your life?
You have a quote in The Death & Resurrection Show documentary about the band where you say that the higher you go to the forces of light, the lower you must plunge to the forces of darkness simultaneously. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Absolutely. Well, you know, there were times in my career I wondered whether Killing Joke was a force for good. We did one concert in Hamburg where 2,000 people were fighting. All the shop windows were smashed in the street and everything. It was just insane. These sort of things came up. But basically, when I considered the level of anger I felt when I left my hometown with basically no exams to my name and four criminal offenses just before the age of 16… So I very lucky to meet Big Paul and create this violent art form that has been in essence an effective surrogate for the worst impulses in me. It could have easily gone the other way. I could have ended up a common criminal, right. And so I see Killing Joke’s music has primarily a social function. It’s allowed me to process the darkness I see in this world and the terrible things that are happening to mankind, his greed and quest for power to have dominion over other human beings.
MAGNA INVOCATIO was released November 29 through Spinefarm Records.