The Jaz Coleman Interview

If Jaz Coleman didn't exist you couldn't make him up. That doesn't mean people haven't tried, from Spinal Tap to All Together Now (the Australian sitcom which starred Jon English as Bobby Rivers) via efforts from Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan and many other comedians, the role of the rock-star as renaissance man with a huge ego, lofty ideas and an occasional romance with reality is something Jaz Coleman mastered long ago, in a truth is stranger than fiction kind of way.

Jaz Coleman, producer and musician, frontman of Killing Joke, New Zealand resident - but ask him what else belongs on the business card and he'll quickly add author ("my book's coming out shortly, it's basically my philosophy" - it's so hard not to hear it as Nigel Tufnel), poet, composer, arranger, philosopher, ordained priest, free thinker, eco-village activist, patron, raconteur and - quite possibly - warlock. At one time drug-taker and drinker might have been the fulltime job with a dash of music to dabble in on the side.

The British-born Coleman formed Killing Joke in 1978, a post-punk band which provided a crucial link between punk and metal to make hints toward industrial music.

In 1982 he announced he'd quit his own band and disappeared to Iceland, where he decided he would become a classical composer. When I remind him of this during our time on the phone he laughs loudly. Pauses. Then laughs even louder.

Back in the day Coleman talked down to journalists, lectured them on the occult and punched them in the face for stupid questions or reviews he didn't agree with. I'm glad we've got a phone-line between us.

But, he's a happy man these days. And why not - he became a resident of New Zealand ("my paradise") some 20 years ago and divides his time between "the island" and his places in Prague and Switzerland - "and, you know, travelling about; seeing things". He's busy too. Reading his CV requires a coffee-break. When you finish you feel like you need a nap.

Killing Joke will - almost unbelievably - play their first shows in New Zealand tonight (Auckland, The Studio) and tomorrow (Wellington, Bodega). A huge cackle from Coleman when I ask why he's never brought the band to New Zealand to tour when he's lived here on and off, recorded Killing Joke albums here, produced Kiwi bands, even built a recording studio; "my gift to New Zealand!".

After the laugh dies down, "New Zealand is a special place for me - it's my heart. And I've liked coming here as a break from the rock'n'roll life, keep the madness away from here". He brings a little of the madness with another huge - probably unnecessary - laugh.

"I don't know why we've never played here, actually, I don't know. But we're back together now, the original lineup, and we're touring the world playing all the singles so we're playing New Zealand. And I'm very excited about it. I've been very involved with music in New Zealand and so to play here as Killing Joke, to play here with the band after all this time - yeah, it's special. Very special. We're thrilled."

Coleman's career is fascinating. Write off Killing Joke if you like (and, actually, I'm convinced the band is getting better, since 2003's self-titled album, of which Coleman says "that was a big one, a hard record to make, made on the road, no contract, no band pretty much, and dry". Killing Joke have been relentless in their quest to move forward, the sound is signature but they never quite resort to not repeat themselves) but you can't write off Jaz Coleman, because you can't peg him down. Producer of Shihad's brilliant debut album, Churn ("I guess I helped, I guess we gave them a bit of my sound"), supporter of Maori music ("I'm really proud of the Oceania project, it was a blessing to meet and work with Hinewehi Mohi, just extraordinary, I'm very proud of that and I think it did a lot in terms of introducing some Kiwis to their own music"), and symphonic-rock producer/arranger, classical player and collaborator. The mind boggles. Well, you'd have to assume Coleman's mind is always boggling...

"My philosophy comes from the actual spirit of the renaissance - which is very punk in itself too - and that's to just dive in and have 15 projects on the go. So I'm always honouring that, I'm moving from one thing to the next, but actually I always have several things happening all the time. It is exhausting!" And then another proud bellow.

Coleman studied classical music until the age of 15, but carried on playing violin until 17.

"I didn't really tell anyone this, it never really was part of Killing Joke to begin with, until I went to Iceland on my 22nd birthday and there I just announced that I wanted to be a composer and conductor."

What he wanted to be - and has been all along - is a control freak.

"You could say that Killing Joke has financed my study. We didn't have huge hits but we were a successful band and so I used that money to continue my studies with classical, to learn arranging, to further myself."

Some of the stories behind the projects are in part fascinating, but to hear Jaz tell them they're mostly just hilarious.

"The symphonic records have been great - but they're funny." He's talking about his hugely successful Symphonic Pink Floyd album, The Doors Concerto and Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin.

"Because, listen, I'll tell ya, we were just drinking champagne one day, loads and loads of champagne, and I just had this idea that I could make a symphonic record and so I said 'bring me some of these records'" - it's not clear who he makes this order to - "and I went through about 60 of these records, just listening, and they were awful. I thought 'I could do better than that'."

And he did.

The Symphonic Pink Floyd - Us And Them - has been a huge-seller. It created a new platform for Jaz.

"It was my first experience with a double string quartet - or octet - we omitted the brass and through that I created a sound of my own. That enabled me to take on other symphonic projects; the success of that record was frankly overwhelming. And I know that Jimmy Page likes the Led Zeppelin one and The Doors were very supportive of the symphony I did with Nigel Kennedy. Hey, Nigel Kennedy is a serious drinker, man, let me tell you!"

Speaking of serious drinking, Coleman says "the blackouts on the 2003 tour were a wakeup call; since then it's been a bit clearer for me. When my alcoholic doctor, bless him, told me that I needed to cut back to two drinks a day I thought 'how much am I paying you?' because, let me tell you, this guy could drink. But, anyway, he says 'Jaz, you can have one drink or two' and I just thought 'what's the point in that?' so I just stopped. I mean we're talking some pretty serious stuff here because there was the time me and Geordie had a full punch-up after drinking all night and I split up with my Czech girlfriend of the time - who I don't even remember, so there you go, what does that tell you?"

We get a pause for a laugh. Which is handy. Because this time we both need it.

"She was a nurse though, which was bloody good because the next morning she's stitching us up - literally - after this big dust-up and we've not really remembered a thing but we're getting fixed up over breakfast. Yeah, so there's been a bit of wild stuff. Lots of it, obviously. I don't remember a lot of it from being so drunk. Probably a good thing."

Coleman considers himself a lifelong student of "the music of the world" and says he can't be tied to just rock or metal or classical music - he's interested in studying what comes behind the music, what informs it, the culture. His interest in Maori music - for example - started long before he first visited New Zealand.

"When I was 15 I used to go and see Be-Bop Deluxe, and Charlie Tumahai, bless him, was of course a member of that band before he returned to New Zealand and played with Herbs. He was a great musician and a great friend. He told me a lot about his culture and the music and from there I became fascinated with it - the Maori culture, the music. A beautiful music, the Maori voice is so haunting. And I studied, I devoted a lot of time to it. And then of course I re-met Charlie in Auckland years later, which was lovely. And it was because of him that when we built York Street, the studio, I insisted we have the tapu lifted. I wanted to do it properly."

You could listen to Jaz Coleman speak for an hour or more - as I did. And you'd never quite know who the real person is. Because it's not clear that Jaz knows. But he's genuine - every time he opens his mouth. Happy to sound off on any topic and passionate, so clearly passionate.

It's almost hard to believe he has been able to fit it all in - a band, so many other projects, the drinking, the drugs, the fascination with the dark side of so many things: magic, religion, psychology; regular disappearing acts to meditate, to simply retreat. To unplug.

But then when it's time to wrap up, Coleman quickly rolls out another plug for the shows. "We're absolutely killing it with this new album and with all the songs from the past, we're a great band to see." And then he offers me the tip of a lifetime, the reason - he reckons - he can fit it all in.

"Throw your mobile phone away, ditch your computer, get off the internet. It's all stupid. It's all unnecessary. If people want to find you they'll find you. Get yourself offline and live life. That's how you get things done."

Tonight, Killing Joke will be getting things done at The Studio in Auckland. Tomorrow at Bodega in Wellington.

Also, brand new in the Killing Joke world is the fascinating documentary, The Death and Resurrection Show. To read my review of the movie - which had its world premiere last night - click here.

Are you a Jaz Coleman fan? Are you a Killing Joke fan? Are they one and the same? What non-Joke Coleman projects have you kept up with? And are you looking forward to the New Zealand shows? Or have you never been a fan?

Blog on the Tracks is on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.