Jaz Coleman, best known as the frontman with post-punk pioneers Killing Joke, is not the average interviewee. No question is rhetorical, no talk is small — Coleman is intelligent, opinionated, angry and, yes, still a little bit mad.
We’re talking to Coleman via Skype because of his new Black & Red project, which has seen him team up with Czech didgeridoo player (yes you read that right) Ondrej Smeykal. The new “On the Day the Earth Went Mad” single, part of a forthcoming full album project, is as on-the-nose as the title suggests. It’s a running theme at present (see X, Fiona Apple, Sparks), but music that was recorded long before the pandemic had us on lockdown sounds like it could have been written this week. It all leads Coleman to exclaim, “I’ve got nothing to add, because my work is precognitive. It’s all there.”
That’s correct, because right from the 1980 self-titled Killing Joke debut album, Coleman was writing about the follies of humanity, the destruction that human nature — including but not restricted to greed — is leading us towards. Four decades lanter, and that album’s lyrics read like the work of Nostradamus.
“I’m an analyst, but sometimes you have to wait ten years for one piece of work to find this right time,” he says, eyes wide, grin broad, laugh deafening. “I’ve seen this many times in my career and this is one of them. The year began with the huge fires in Australia and it was a perfect time to tell the world about, firstly, the 21st century modernization of the world’s oldest instrument from Australia. That’s a big deal for me, because it’s a great day for Australia. I did this project to prove to the Australian people that by making the didgeridoo a transposing instrument, it becomes a defacto classical instrument of a country. It’s the oldest classical instrument and they don’t teach it at universities, it’s tantamount to cultural racism.”
On the surface, Coleman’s current obsession with the didgeridoo seems cute and amusing. A distraction during difficult times. We should have known better, because nothing could be further from the truth. The instrument, and the way that it’s viewed today, is a symbol of the oppression of indiginous people — in Australia but elsewhere too. Coleman and Smeykal might not be the first artists to use it to create experimental music, but they’re likely the most recent and Coleman’s profile within the rock community adds weight.
“I wanted to do that because I felt so responsible as being a part of the counterculture movement with music, that I wanted to do something to counteract the terrible things done by the singer of Midnight Oil,” he says. “A really good example of somebody going the wrong way. Promising everybody everything. When Peter Garrett came to power — on one hand he sings ‘Beds are Burning,’ then he sells all this Aboriginal land to corporations and mining companies. Then he apologises to Obama for the song ‘US Forces.’ I feel very strongly about these people.”
He does. As he talks, about Bono hanging out with Henry Kissinger and other examples of what he views as betrayal, the hypocrisy brings out the passionate beast. His eyes get wider, voice booms louder — you have to take him seriously. At various times in his career, he’s been portrayed as a dark clown, a paranormal-loving kook. There’s a dot of truth there, but the reality is that Coleman is well read and sharp. You don’t have to agree with everything he preaches — he has some anti-vax views that certainly rub us the wrong way — but he’s absolutely worth listening to.
“I am hardwired against fascism and I will speak out when I see it happening,” he says. “It’s happening. I gave it 40 years of people saying that I’m fucking cuckoo. And here we are. I’m not surprised at all. We’re in what we call the fourth industrial revolution. That means that a certain percentage of the workforce is going to be laid off. So we’re going to see a lot of unemployed people with no income, we don’t know how to feed them, and you can see it’s already happening around the world. Once you have the mindset of an elite that can call people ‘useless human material,’ that’s one step away from committing genocide. I’ve always been blunt about it. This is the last opportunity to say who you are and take sides.”
Back to that new single, “On the Day the Earth Went Mad,” and Coleman says that he wrote the lyrics ten minutes before he first sang them — the way he’s done things all his career. That way, he says that he gets to capture the moment like a photograph. Of course, given his gift for seeing into the future, his mind has a little more going on than simply “capturing.”
It’s fascinating too that he’s working with a white didgeridoo player from the Czech Republic. Coleman says that he went to a didgeridoo festival in Australia and was told by everyone there that Smeykal is the best in the world.
“Andrej did his Masters degree in Australia, and then he went to live with the Aborigines in the northern territories for ten years,” Coleman says. “He dedicated his whole life to the instrument. He’s a remarkable guy. He’s spiritually one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.”
Unfortunately, Smeykal contracted COVID-19 and has been laid up, depressed. A virus that attacks the respiratory system is particularly painful when the didgeridoo requires such a tremendous amount of lung power. It also didn’t help that Coleman’s former manager wanted nothing to do with the project.
“My last manager said, and I quote, ‘What am I supposed to do with a didgeridoo?’,” Coleman says. “He’s gone now, but that’s why you haven’t heard this before. My manager wouldn’t go near it. That’s the same manager who wanted the last ten years of Killing Joke to be a farewell tour. You can just guess what I think about these people. In my life I’ve wanted to kill three times, and what’s interesting is they’re all managers.”
The rest of 2020, even going into 2021, is all up in the air, but Coleman is hopeful that this Black & Red album will come out and they’ll be able to tour it. For now, he remains philosophical.
“The art is not actually the music,” he says. “The art is the way you play your life. That’s how you’ll be remembered.”
Black & Red’s “On the Day the Earth Went Mad” single is out now. The album will follow soon.