Their music has amassed disciples ranging from Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden to the LCD Soundsystem. Their songs have been covered by everyone from Metallica to Sarah McLachlan — and there was even a mash-up combining one of their singles with Christina Aguilera's "Make Over" making the rounds not too long ago.
Despite this, Killing Joke, one of the more notorious bands to arise from the pyre of late-'70s British punk, is hardly a household name here in the States. Lead singer Jaz Coleman, laughing down the phone from Cologne, Germany, where the band is touring to promote its latest album, Hosannas From the Basement of Hell, doesn't care. "I get a f---ing CD every week with a Killing Joke cover song — and they all go in the bin [garbage].
"We don't have anything to do with fashion!" he bellowed. "We're a sound and a lifestyle. Hahahahaha!" Coleman, a self-described "black jester," has a disconcerting tendency to punctuate his declarations with a robust laugh that suggests a tenuous grasp on sanity. For nearly three decades, he, along with guitarist Geordie Walker, has fused the stealth of punk to the wallop of heavy metal and a relentless tribal beat, resulting in a sound that has managed to elude classification over 12 studio albums. Their quest, in the words of original drummer "Big Paul" Ferguson, is to emulate "the sound of the earth vomiting."
Hosannas, recorded in the Czech capital of Prague, "for me, is really special," Coleman explained. "We all went collectively to Prague and hammered out loads of demons and had a great time with the beautiful excesses that a beautiful city like Prague provides. We recorded in an inferior studio with a wine cellar below it — where we actually put the drums down. I think it was probably one of the most honest Killing Joke albums, if you're looking at the band's collected input. Everyone hammered out their demons. It was a huge pressure on everyone. Hahahahaha!"
The result finds the band in feral form, anchored by Walker's signature guitar maelstrom. "Killing Joke's never been better," Coleman enthused. "Working with Geordie Walker — he's a magic player. It's my deepest pleasure to have spent more years with him and more time with him than my own blood [-related] brother."
Indeed, while Walker has been Coleman's foil through nearly all of the band's colorful career, the rhythm section has had a near-Spinal Tap-level rate of attrition. Since original drummer Ferguson left the band in 1987, the band has played host to Martin Atkins (Public Image Ltd., Ministry, Pigface), Ted Parsons (Swans, Prong) and even a guest stint from Dave Grohl. Grohl loaned his talents to the band's eponymous 2003 album, putting to rest the hostility between Killing Joke and Nirvana following a lawsuit over the similarity between Nirvana's "Come As You Are" and Joke's "Eighties" (the suit was dropped after Kurt Cobain's death).
Boasting a history fraught with bouts of madness, infighting, flirtation with the occult, several informal breakups and flights to the far corners of the earth (Coleman briefly abandoned the band in the early '80s, retreating to Iceland when he became convinced that the world was about to end), Killing Joke may not have achieved global dominance — but they have left a lasting legacy. Last year, they won popular British heavy metal magazine Kerrang's Lifetime Achievement award. "I was only 45 when I got it," Coleman laughed. "That's probably the youngest lifetime-achievement award you're going to get! [But] everyone knows who we are, from Jimmy Page right on through. You don't have to shout out about it."
When not onstage with the band (where he's usually dressed in war paint), Coleman is an accomplished composer who has written operas and worked with some of the world's greatest symphony orchestras, is an expert in Maori music (the indigenous people of New Zealand) and contributed to the score of Disney's "Mulan" film, among others. But it's his work with the Joke — he's currently planning a summer North American tour as well as another LP — that gives him balance.
"For me, Killing Joke will always be how I deal with my anger," he said, "how I deal with waking up to this world where we're basically destroying everything. It's how I deal with my sleep deprivation — because I can't ever seem to sleep without sedatives. It's my exorcism, it's my catharsis and it is a tradition, and not just for me — there's actually quite a lot of people out there who love the ceremony of it also."