An interview with Youth, producer, painter and perhaps most famously, founder member of punk legends Killing Joke
We find ourselves back stage in the Student’s Union of Cardiff University. We are here for an interview with Killing Joke. Or at least that was what was in our head when we got invited down. But the constituent parts of the band are fascinating in their own right. Jaz Coleman, for instance, is an author and classical composer.
As the masses gather outside ready for the full frontal sonic assault that is a Killing Joke gig, things are much calmer back stage. There are no lines of Charlie, no running around punching walls to get psyched up, no groupies. Everything is rather civilised.
It would appear that each member of the band has their own dressing room and as far as we can tell frontman Jaz Coleman is having a bit of a lie down.
We find ourselves in a room with Youth, original bass player with the band. He has dipped in and out of the band ever since, (1978–1982, 1994–1996, 2002–2003, 2008–present). Aside from the Joke he is a member of The Fireman, (along with Paul McCartney); in the 1980s he fronted his own commercially orientated dub funk band Brilliant; he has worked with the Orb and On-U Soundsystem; he has not one, but three record labels he owns; he has had chart success with house music duo Blue Pearl and has remixed and produced a wide range of artists from Alien Sex Fiend and Tribazik to Pink Floyd and U2.
Youth is in his room, with ambient chilled out psychedelic house music to keep him company and a collection of blank canvases. He welcomes us into the room and as we chat he busies himself painting on the canvases, ready to sell them on the merchandise stall when the doors open. Unique one off paintings – better than a mere autograph surely?
Killing Joke arrived on the scene in 1979, dropping a huge sonic rock in the pond that still ripples today. It could be argued that their biggest legacy is their influence. It could be argued, No Killing Joke, no Ministry, no Nirvana, no Metallica, no Soundgarden and no Nine Inch Nails. To name but a few.
But when they first hit the scene, there was nothing out there that sounded even remotely like the noise they were making.
“We definitely wanted to be different to what was going on”, Youth tells us. “Although everything was moving very fast then. Punk was over within a year. We added our own little elements to it. Disco and a bit of metal and that gave us a sound that was unique”.
“It is important that bands are different. They might be vilified for a while but if they are just doing the same old thing as everyone else, it’s just going to get lost”.
Killing Joke have courted controversy and challenged the establishment from the word go, but have never come across as an overtly political band, like Crass, Conflict or the Dead Kennedys, for instance.
“You could argue”, Youth ponders, as he picks up another canvas, “and I have many times, that even if you think you are not political you are. When you are doing art and creative work, everything is political”.
“Our particular brand of politics doesn’t really fit into many other boxes. The closest you could get would be anarchism. We have four very strong willed people in the band with four different opinions on things. Although we obviously do share certain ideas. It’s a very broad range of things from global issues like nuclear power and so on, to very personal issues like gender and sexual politics”.
“But we have been careful to not set ourselves up as some sort of workers cooperative, even though that is what we are really. And there are certain Marxist elements to that but we were careful not to delve into that because we did not want to put ourselves in a position where we could be accused of selling out or betraying principles which we are not really that bothered about anyway. Well, some of them, but most of these things we were a bit post-politics about really. And I think we still are. Our job is really to make kind of personal commentaries about the world and what our experience of it is”.
“But there is a positive optimism there. We have been accused of being nihilistic and cynical but I disagree with that. Time has proved us right on most things. We weren’t being paranoid or nihilistic by singing about the subjects we did twenty and thirty years ago. We were being visionary as to the way the world became”.
“That’s given us a certain amount of problems in a way. We had to deal with everyone saying ‘oh Jaz and the rest of them are all a bit mad’.”
“A lot of bands that are original have to go through a good ten, maybe twenty years of being vilified before they get respect and people get what they’re doing”.
“I am reading a book on Suicide (the band) at the moment and they’re a great example of that. For twenty years they were just booed off everywhere they went. But now they have the sort of provenance no young band will ever achieve”.
“I think that is part of the strange process of being an artist. Of course this has happened with artists for centuries. That’s just part of the process unfortunately. But I think that is why artists that have been fearless and been original and been vilified but carried on – perhaps that is why, in the long run, they get that kind of kudos and provenance”.
THE OCCULT, MAGIC AND RELIGION
Anyone that knows a bit of the history of the band will have noticed they have strong beliefs on religion, but not the C of E variety.
Famously, in 1982 singer Jaz, guitarist Geordie and eventually drummer Paul Ferguson moved to Iceland to survive the Apocalypse, which Coleman predicted was coming soon.
Does Youth share those sorts of ideas and how important is it all to the band?
“I was not into it quite as much as Jaz and Paul. They were members of the Golden Dawn at the age of fourteen and fifteen. (Presumably the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a nineteenth century magical order based in Britain – rather than the Greek Neo-Nazi party) And Geordie dipped in the western magical tradition”.
“But my path has been more shamanic. Jaz is a confirmed rogercrusianist (?) now, and has been for many years. Geordie has mastered magic in his own way and I think Paul leans more towards Tibetan Buddhism now”.
“I lean towards Tibetan Buddhism but I am more shamanic in my inspiration, specifically welsh druidic influences. That’s all been part of our chemistry as well, it has led to some fierce debates and disagreements, but it is certainly a big part of who we are”.
“The only way to explain certain things that have happened to us is through that magic and what we do with magic. Without it, the rest doesn’t make any sense”.
“All of us are very much open to other ideas, traditions and philosophies and vigorously research then vigorously discuss and debate things we have found and like. And that is a great part of Killing Joke, it’s like an academy for us and we all learn from each other in that sense”.
“We are intertwined Jaz and I. He makes melodies with his voice, but unless you have a bass line, there is no melody. We are at opposite ends of the polarity, we both need each other and both love each other. But – we equally annoy each other to fuck”.
“Accepting all that has been part of how we managed to work it all out. Resisting that and being angry about that really ends up with us getting no-where. And ends up with us not working together. But the chemistry is so fierce, you can see how that would happen”.
“It is magical, I have learned to respect in and appreciate and value it for that”.
ROCK AND ROLL
Jaz is having a lie down, Youth is painting. Despite wild tales of Iceland and witches and the occult, the band have never been dogged by stories of throwing TVs out of the window, driving into swimming pools or the law getting called to deal with mass orgies in hotels.
“We are very rock and roll in many ways, but I don’t think we are into TVs out of the window. We have done a bit of damage with fire extinguishers on very expensive equipment. We have been into the rock and roll thing but these days me and Jaz are more likely to be having a cup of tea after a gig”.
“Geordie has calmed down a lot as well. We are not entirely abstinent but Jaz does not smoke and has not drunk in ten years and I think those things are very good for the band”.
WHO ARE YOU?
Bass player, producer, remixer, painter, record label owner. Who or what is Youth when he is at home anyway?
“If people ask what I do, I say I am an artist, first and foremost”. Youth tells us without hesitation. “If they ask what sort of art then I can say I make records, I produce records, I paint, I draw and I write and all the things in between. That is how I define myself. Bass player comes a bit further down the list, although ultimately I sometimes remind artists I am working with I am just a bass player from Slough”.
“It’s hard to be objective about what you do yourself. I did not even know I was a producer till I met my manager Jaz Summers, who died recently, and he told me that was what I do. It was only when I produced that Pink Floyd album (Endless River) that I felt legitimised as a producer, because I am filled with insecurity about myself. I am self-taught and even though I have made many records I have always felt a bit of a fraud who is blagging it. It is only recently that has stopped”.
“I do understand how ridiculous that sounds to anyone that knows the amount of work I have done, but it is true”.
OWNING A RECORD LABEL
What does owning a record label involve? How does it fit in with everything else? Is it just a figure head thing or is it very hands on?
“I am very hands on with the label at the moment. I sort of backed off for a few years, but I have resurrected it recently and I am quite active with it now. I have a label manager, but I do the A+R, all the production, and a lot of the writing for the press”.
“I am doing a lot with Liquid Sound Design at the moment but Dragonfly is still dormant, but it may not stay that way. And then I have Butterfly, which is more mainstream. I signed Spiral Tribe and System Seven and Killing Joke to Butterfly, but that is dormant now”.
“That was actually a big pressure, being responsible for big artists. We could make the records we wanted, which was great, but it’s quite a tough gig being a label boss for big artists like that. They need a lot of attention and can be very demanding. I found that a bit distracting from everything else I wanted to do. I thought ‘why am I spending all this time and energy promoting other people’s work instead of focusing on my own work’.
“Although I do see that as my own work, Dragonfly in particular way was a perfect piece of work in itself. The records are worth a fortune and the provenance with it is great. We never made a dodgy record and I think that is incredible. I think as an artist or a band you can treat a label as its own entity”.
“I am an artist so I treat the whole thing as my art. We have other artists on the label, but I am focusing more on collaborations I am doing with the artists than just simply promoting other artists work. And I think today that is kind of the way the world operates”.
“The public want to see artists doing things themselves. There is no point a big label getting involved until the band are at a point where they’re connecting and they have defined who they are and what they’re doing. The amazing thing now is that you can do that without having a label”.
So many roles, so little time. Is it hard work balancing it all? Do bands wanting to be remixed or produced have to be beaten off with a shitty stick?
“I always have people knocking on the door for work, especially since the Pink Floyd album. But I have always been busy, that is part of who I am. I have always got way more things going on in my imagination than I am actually doing. Even though o do a lot, it is not enough. There is always so much more I want to be doing”.
“Technology is so advanced now I can do pretty much everything I want to do. Before I had to turn a lot of work down but now I don’t so much”.
Can technology make musicians lazy? Is it all too easy now? Would the early Killing Joke have sounded so raw if all this technology had been around?
“You certainly have to harness technology to do what you want it to do, not the other way around. Otherwise you just sound like everyone else. And that is not as easy as it might seem. Certainly lots of paradoxes around”.
RETURN TO THE JOKE
After all the other projects Youth has been involved in, with the career he has made for himself, why come back to Killing joke?
“I suppose bumping into Geordie and Jaz and feeling that there was unfinished business. We felt we had not really made our best work, things like that. And, it has to be said, I kind of missed the guys a bit.
“As far as how long we stick together – one day at a time. But the response to this album (Pylon) has been so good it has encouraged us to think about what else we can do”.
“That was the reason I re-joined in the nineties. Every Killing Joke album feels like my last, but it never is”.
Which sounds like the perfect way to end. We blag ourselves one of the half dozen or so paintings Youth has painted whilst we have been chatting and head off to join the gathering.
One thing that cannot be said of this band, or of its members, is that they stand on their laurels. In fact, it is hard work keeping up with what they do next – Youth in particular. Long may that continue.