I‘m talking over coffee with Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker about the fourth person who’s joined us, drummer Jason Bowld. “We could have gone in a different direction,” Coleman is telling me, using both hands to create a V illustrating two separate paths. “Who knows where things would’ve taken us.” Jase, an old friend and an all-around brilliant drummer, who’s played with the likes of Pitchshifter, This Is Menace, Bullet For My Valentine, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Axewound (to name but a few off a varied and illustrious CV), has been drumming for Killing Joke off and on for a few years now and has taken up his position behind the kit for various dates on the band’s recent tour in lieu of founding drummer “Big” Paul Ferguson.
Listen to the drums,
Between each beat, each beat of the drum.
Jason thought he had the opportunity to join the band some years back but they instead decided to go with Ted Parsons, best known for his work with Prong. It’s a decision that Coleman seems to now regret, hence our discussion about where Killing Joke might have gone had Jason been asked to come onboard much earlier. It’s no wonder. Jason is an accomplished musician and a consummate professional who at times doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being the glue in so many different artistic endeavors. So it’s a high compliment and one that doesn’t go unnoticed to hear Coleman – one of post-punk’s originals, whose band’s influence has inspired a multitude of other artists both big and small – speak so fondly of him.
Then, in typical fashion, Coleman follows up his praise for Jase by saying, “There was some other band similar to Pitchshifter that I sang vocals on a song for a few years back. Can’t for the life of me remember who it was, though.” “That was my band, This Is Menace,” Jason retorts. “You sang vocals on ‘Great Migration’ for my band.” Geordie interjects, “That was a great song! I remember listening to it. Jaz’s vocals sounded really gruff and menacing.” Jaz laughs his signature madman’s howl and, typifying the mad beauty that has been thirty-five years of Killing Joke, says, “Ha, ha, ha! Honestly, I don’t remember! I was really cunted at the time!”
The fact that Killing Joke are still around defiantly kicking against the pricks is testament to their manic, death-defying prowess, but watching them soundcheck before the night’s performance might give one pause before making such an assessment. Only for the last ten minutes were all band members on stage at the same time. First came Geordie, who, after warming up briefly, vanished just as quickly as he arrived. Then bassist Martin “Youth” Glover sauntered in, wearing his recently’sh trademark golfing visor. (“It keeps my head cool!”) After running over some blues riffs he drifted into a few bars from a Transmission song (a former side project of his with Paul Ferguson) before deciding to abort soundcheck because neither Geordie nor Jaz were there onstage with him.
Through it all is Jason, behind his kit tuning drum heads and tightening various pieces down, waiting for soundcheck to properly begin. Alongside him are the band’s two techs for the tour – both consummate professionals, especially so in the face of the chaos that is Killing Joke. “Never work for your heroes,” my friend Darryl told me the last time I saw him several years ago before he was tragically killed. “Never. They’ll just end up disappointing you.” Who was Darryl working for at the time when he said this? Killing Joke. (For the record, his death was unrelated to his involvement with the band. Michael “Lord of the Dance” Flatley holds that unfortunate honor.) Steve the guitar tech has a plush toy bear sticking out of his back pocket. The doll doesn’t have a body, just a head. Hence the name he’s given it, “Nobody.” An endearing soft spot amidst the madness, he says, “It’s my three-year-old son’s. Everywhere I go I take pictures of it and send them to him. I miss him terribly.”
Finally, Jaz emerges with a cup of tea in hand. The past few gigs have wrecked his throat and he’s worried about his ability to sing. Geordie and Youth meander back onstage and finally it’s a proper set up. Then an argument ensues about what note is being played during “Asteroid,” and the fact that Youth keeps flubbing the intro to “Money Is Not Our God.” “Tell him, Jase!” barks Jaz. “We shouldn’t play it if he can’t get the intro right!” Through it all again is Jason, who calmly navigates the various personalities of the three bandmates and friends. They’re cellmates really, when you think about it, knowing each other as intimately as they do after decades together. Jase gets the three to settle down and rehearse, if but briefly. “The Beautiful Dead” is played, but that’s the only track that they can even come close to seeing through to its finish. Soundcheck (if it can be called that) is complete. Only the full set and a house full of anxious fans awaits later on. Only.
The band drift away into their separate corners for the next few hours. The doors finally open and people start slowly making their way in. Chicago-based Czar open the night. Two guitarists and a drummer, they were born out of the ashes of Acumen Nation – their music a more defiant metal edge in contrast to the former’s industrial leanings. “Metal for the thinking man” wrote the Chicago Journal of the band, and not far off the mark. The riffs are heavy and hypnotic; a perfect opening choice for tonight’s headliners.
As Killing Joke file out onstage to play I wonder how well they’ll be able to pull it off given the pandemonium of the afternoon. Thirty-five years on, now touring behind a recently released singles box set (Singles Collection 1979-2012), do they still have it? Can they still bring it? Then, as Geordie’s guitar cuts through the opening bars of “Requiem” (the first track off the band’s eponymous 1980 release), the crowd cheers wildly in recognition and all fears fall aside. It has begun. The tribe has gathered, the spell has been cast, and with each punctuation of the song’s refrain Jaz Coleman and company remind those who’ve come what an enormously powerful, present, and prescient force of nature Killing Joke still is. Heavy? Yes. Post-apocalyptic? Unerringly. But first, last, and always the music is a celebration. The band’s irreverent revelry its cine qua non and the spirit that binds them to the music and us to them.
“Requiem” shifts to “Turn to Red,” then to “Wardance” followed by “European Super State.” Throughout, I watch Jase play and I realize that I’d forgotten how much fun it is to see him perched behind his kit. While one of the heaviest hitters I’ve ever heard play (my ears are still ringing from a soundcheck at New York’s Irving Plaza thirteen years ago when I made the mistake of standing too close to his snare), Jason’s ear-to-ear grin is one of absolute, pure joy. He lives for this moment and he loves his craft, and it’s uplifting to see it all written so affectionately on his face. To his right Geordie peels off riff after riff, his guitar the fulcrum from which the band swings. Geordie exchanges glances across stage with Youth in a primitive, unspoken language, while upfront Jaz conducts the ceremony. Coleman has forgone his customary face paint, but it doesn’t dampen the possessed look and frenetic gesturing he uses to punctuate each song’s lyrics with.
“Madness,” “The Beautiful Dead,” “Chop Chop,” “Sun Goes Down,” and the always jubilant “Eighties.” Then comes “Money Is Not Our God.” I didn’t think it was going to make the setlist tonight given the problems and arguments in soundcheck over it, but Youth steps up front and starts laying down the opening bass lines, mercilessly pounding them out until Jase and Geordie fall in alongside with the rest of the song’s uncompromising intro. Never missing a beat, the look on Youth’s face to his bandmates is one of, “C’mon, I was just fucking with you all earlier.”
The only odd moment comes before “Asteroid,” when Jaz makes a comment about the long con of Christianity and religion, erroneously-though-understandably thinking the crowd are on his side in the matter. But, strangely enough, a vocal minority shouts out that they do believe in a virgin birth and Jaz is noticeably taken aback. “Really?!” he says in disbelief Yes! His expression then turns to one of, “WTF are you doing here then?!”
“Corporate Elect,” “The Wait,” and “Pandemonium” (a track I’ve always wanted to see performed live but hadn’t until now) close out the set. Thunderous cheers pull the band back onstage and they encore with “The Death and Resurrection Show” and “Pssyche,” deciding to drop “Change” at the last minute as Coleman’s vocals had reached their breaking point.
Afterwards in a nearby bar Jase unwinds over a few drinks and we laugh about the build-up to the performance. No matter the complaints, in all it was a fantastic gig, with the band’s energy, music, and showmanship still strong after all these years. The following night will be Jason’s last on this leg of the tour, with Big Paul slated to come back in for the final three shows. Like Steve and Nobody, he has a family he’s anxious to get back home to. And, like Steve and Nobody, he’ll soon enough find himself back on the road with the band. It’s an irresistible call. One that’s difficult to describe, and even harder to ignore.
Mark out the points,
Build the pyre.
Assemble different drummers,
Light up the fire.
Put on your masks
And animal skins,
Listen to the drums,
Between each beat, each beat of the drum.