In a conference room in the Spinefarm Records headquarters inside the Universal Music Building in Manhattan, Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman is poking at a plate of sushi. It’s an incongruous sight: legendary black-clad rock star (including dark sunglasses) sitting under the fluorescent lights in this most mundane office setting. He looks as if he should be on stage somewhere instead—which he will be, in a few hours, when his band opens for Tool at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center arena.
Coleman is here to discuss his new album, Magna Invocatio: A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke, which he recorded with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Russia. It is exactly as the title suggests: a collection of songs chosen from among Killing Joke’s 15 studio albums converted into classical form, transforming them into something altogether breathtaking in their beauty and power. It may seem an unlikely undertaking at first glance, considering that Killing Joke, since their groundbreaking 1980 self-titled debut, have been lauded as pioneers of the industrial rock genre and beyond, with artists as diverse as Metallica, Nirvana, and Soundgarden, among many others, citing Killing Joke’s intense post-punk style as a key influence.
But in truth, Coleman’s classical career may be even more impressive. Among his many credits in this realm: after growing up in Cheltenham, England, studying the violin and piano, he has gone on to become the composer in residence for the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg (Russia) State Symphony Orchestra. In 1996, he released his Symphony No. 1: Idavoll, recorded with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. In 2001, he debuted his first opera, The Marriage at Cana, which was commissioned by the Royal Opera House in London. In 2014, he conducted the NSO Symphony Orchestra for the Dubai World Cup opening ceremony in the United Arab Emirates. He has worked with soprano superstar Sarah Brightman. And over the years, he has recorded albums interpreting the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and Nirvana into classical form, so it seems only natural that he should now do the same with his own rock songs.
However, any plans to make Magna Invocatio the main focus of today’s chat are almost immediately abandoned, thanks to my casual comment during our greeting about an interview that I conducted with Killing Joke 25 years ago, and how alarmingly fast time has seemed to pass since then. This sets Coleman off on a much, much deeper conversational course, which he sustains, with intensity, for the next hour.
“You have to live many lives in one life. It’s your duty to, in a way, isn’t it? To make your life colorful and interesting, and always have something to look forward to on the horizon,” he says. “That’s the way to do it, because if you have too much routine, your life goes faster, and you get old quicker. So too much routine’s not good for you. For me, I never do anything I don’t like. What I do, I do really well, because I love it—it gives me energy. I believe that everybody’s born innately gifted. Life’s about locating your gifts, and then doing them. Life becomes exciting then. If you’re doing something you love doing, you never have to work again, do you?” Then he laughs with such uninhibitedness, it makes him shake in his seat.
He says there was never any problem identifying his own special gift. “I’m Anglo-Asian, and I was in an arranged marriage with music. I decided when I was four that I would do music. So I’ve never really been able to think about doing anything else, you see.”
That’s not to say that he hasn’t improved over the years, though. “That’s the wonderful thing about the years passing: the things I can do well now, I couldn’t do in my twenties. I can score for a full orchestra in my head—I can compose in milliseconds now, whole scores. I trained myself to do that. It starts with, you take your favorite song, and you practice listening to it inside your head from beginning to end, and then you develop it like this, you see. So I found my own system of conducting orchestras and education.”
His experience recording Magna Invocatio in Russia is yet more proof that he is doing what he’s always been fated to do. “I’m the only classical recording artist from the West that records in Russia on a regular basis. When you consider that the first record I ever bought was Russian Orchestral Masterpieces, at the age of eight, [it was] the workings of destiny, I mean, it’s just incredible when I think about it. When I bought that, it changed my life, that record. And then to work with Russia’s oldest orchestra [the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra]!”
He is aware that it may seem strange, hearing someone who’s been so influential in the rock world, now talking so passionately about classical music. But he is, in fact, accomplished in many areas besides his Killing Joke career: “Most people aren’t aware of the multiple facets of my life, because I do so many different things, but orchestra plays a big, big role. And also, I’m a consultant in specific areas of Rosicrucian history and the occult, amongst other things. I’m an architect, also. I’ve built two buildings now. I can be anything you want!” He laughs, again with that same soul-shaking abandon. He grins at the suggestion that he’s a polymath. “I’m completely crazy, which is to say, with borderline cases like myself, it’s easy for me to believe whatever I want to believe. I can dream I’m a knight: I become a knight. Nothing is impossible. I dream of an island at the end of the earth: I have one.”
Later on, Coleman is going to prove this self-actualizing point when he goes to the United Nations to meet with representatives, which he initiated. He is doing this because, he says, it is “my goal of working for the United Nations for this final chapter of my life. I’m going in there in the capacity as a composer and artist.” As a result of this meeting, “Magna Invocatio, this Christmas, will be in the hands of most world leaders—to give everybody a piece of music they can play over dinner and it won’t give them indigestion!” He laughs, but quickly grows serious again as he explains how he hopes that his music will inspire those leaders to “think of the idea of our global family on a planetary level. I dream of polycentric global governments. The most important thing I’ve done with Magna Invocatio is trying to bring everybody to planetary consciousness through the arts. Literally this.
“Astrology—which a lot of people think is a pseudo-science; it’s not, it’s a science—astrology for next year [predicts] we’re in for a very, very bumpy ride, and we need planetary consciousness as soon as possible. The arts will play a huge role in this.” As he talks, instead of finishing his meal, he begins using his chopsticks to emphasize his words, making flourishes and stabs in the air. It provides a glimpse of the orchestra conductor he sometimes is.
“Look, it’s simple: in this divided world, where there’s multiple warheads pointing at everybody, and no one’s talking to each other, the United Nations is the only framework we have where warring tribes can talk to each other, before we go from a cold war into a hot war, which will put back evolutionary progress 15 million years, at best.” He carefully arranges his chopsticks in a “X” pattern on the tabletop. “We’re on the verge of huge changes, where we discover that our current knowledge is false, our notions of history are false. Our notion of how we came into being is false, also. This is a little bit too much for us to take in all at once, which is why, largely speaking, I’m against sudden disclosure.” He gives a knowing nod of his head. “You know what I mean by sudden disclosure.
“There’s no question that we need planetary consciousness and global governance, but it’s which of the two models we’re looking at, whether it’s a polycentric or a unicentric one. We need more than ever a philosophical elect that can act as a moral and ethical compass with the decisions we make about the development of homosapien into homo-universalist, you see. We’re at the end of our species; we’re in the extinction period, and we’re morphing into a different creature. And we must do, to survive what lies ahead.” To emphasize his point, he raps on the tabletop with his chopsticks a final time and then sets them down with a loud thwack, finally abandoning his lunch for good.
It is impressive, this certainty that he will sway world leaders with his art. Coleman smiles at the question of how he became so bold. “In my twenties, one of the things I used to do to rid myself of insecurities was to move to a new country—often, it was places in the Middle East, or South America. And I would go with ten pounds in my pocket. I moved to Iceland with one pound in my pocket. My whole thing then was knowing that I can build things up to the power of ten, and I don’t need money. The whole idea was to overcome insecurity. So I put myself on a crash course to do this, to the point where I’m fearless.”
He shrugs at the suggestion that such situations seem terribly dangerous. “No, you see, that’s where I’m in a different world. Killing Joke is guarded by the ancestral spirit. Very difficult for everybody to understand. Let me put it in real basic terms. In Killing Joke, all our dads are dead—all our fathers are in the other world. And we’ve got two managers and Paul Raven [Killing Joke’s original bassist, who passed away in 2007] in the other world. All the people that love us in the other world, we’re governed by their spirits, they make the decisions, and they always have done. Before every show, for 41 years, we form a circle, and we do something like an invoking ritual. It has served us well. On Magna Invocatio, in the third movement, are the lines of the oath I took with Big Paul [Ferguson, drummer] when we were 18, to see this through with Killing Joke. When I consider it now, listening back to those lines, and all that has transpired, I am just speechless.” And indeed, for the first time since this interview began, he falls silent, seeming almost overwhelmed with emotion.
After a moment, he shakes it off and continues. “So I believe it was all pre-ordained. When I met every member of Killing Joke, I was overcome with the sense of déjà vu personified, which we used to call ‘anamnesis,’ which means ‘loss of forgetfulness,’ which is ‘to remember.’ And when you consider that it was Plato who said that all knowledge is remembering, this is very interesting. I take it another stage further: I believe that within each of us, we have the genetic memory of mankind. And I believe we’re so interconnected, [but] we’re not using any of it to have a look. Well, I’ve taken a peek. That’s why no one can look into my eyes.” As if on cue, it’s almost possible to feel the piercing stare coming from behind those dark sunglasses, but then he smiles. “They say when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you—is it kind of true? Yes.”
But Coleman brightens when he discusses his other methods for helping to turn the world around: “I’m trying to help many people reach their goals. This means that with classical music, I do master classes, and I raise money for youth orchestras and things like that. Most people don’t know that. Actually, I’ve been working with the Cleveland Contemporary Youth Orchestra, and the Peruvian National Youth Orchestra. When you see these kids, the backgrounds they’re from… I mean, Lima, where I’m living at the moment, four million people in the city don’t have running water. (He also lives part-time in New Zealand.)
“So when you see these children get ahold of an instrument, they play with such passion.” Again, he seems momentarily overcome with emotion. “Amazing. Incredible. So this is the work that lies ahead.”
Coleman says he knows firsthand how important it is to have someone in a position of influence offer a helping hand. “Killing Joke went from zero to 100 in ten weeks, and that’s because we had a very famous [BBC] DJ called John Peel who endorsed us and gave us a session and played our first EP nonstop for like eight weeks. And John Lydon from the Sex Pistols, he was talking about Killing Joke nonstop. So our first show was sold out. Ten concerts later, we’re selling out the Lyceum [Theatre, in London]. And Sam Alder of E.G. Records signed Killing Joke when we were 19 [years old]. He was really into the occult agenda and he’s a high-level Freemason, and I’m eternally grateful to him. So all these different forces came together at the beginning of Killing Joke’s career.”
He says his teenaged self would’ve fully expected to find Killing Joke in such a successful position 40 years later. “Absolutely, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s exactly what I thought would happen. It’s different with us, because we started with a magical oath. It’s a band to other people, but for us, it’s a holy and sacred mission.”
At this point, Coleman’s publicist intervenes, insisting that they really must be going if they’re going to make the U.N. appointment. Coleman, amiable, complies and wanders out into the main office area, where the record company staff greet him warmly—he is clearly well-liked and admired here. He is friendly with them, and it is several more minutes before he can be coaxed onto the elevator. Standing with his publicist in front of the building, waiting for an Uber ride to show up to zoom them down Broadway, Coleman seems calm and content—and why not? After all, whether he’s appearing at the U.N., or leading an orchestra or arena rock show, he’s simply fulfilling his destiny.
Magna Invocatio: A Gnostic Mass for Choir and Orchestra Inspired by the Sublime Music of Killing Joke is available now wherever music is streamed or sold, with a red & black vinyl edition to be released on January 24. For more information, please visit Jaz’s Facebook page: @JazColemanOfficial