Interview: Big Paul Ferguson from Killing Joke
‘Big Paul’ Ferguson is the drummer and percussionist and founder member of the mighty musical force of nature known as Killing Joke. Along with singer Jaz Coleman, another founder member, he called for a ‘New Renaissance’ and over the last four decades he has been responsible for some of the most distinctive and iconic rhythms in music; ultimately he is quite simply one of the finest and most formidable drummers in modern music.
He has also co-authored many of the band’s most insightful and intelligent lyrics with Jaz, and it is a testament to the man’s generosity of spirit that he has taken time out of a busy schedule to answer a few hopefully pertinent and interesting questions.
When did the idea of playing drums first occur to you, did you take formal tuition, or are you self-taught?
I’m self-taught. The first and only drum lesson I’ve had was with a drummer that played with Howard Jones! He had a beautiful red Premier kit & insisted that I learn the double stroke roll, but in my eagerness to play the whole kit this seemed fairly pointless.
I took a book of drum rudiments from him, which I still have, but the lessons didn’t get me to the heart of drumming as fast as I wanted. I don’t remember when I first thought of becoming a drummer but according to my mother, I’ve always been bashing things!
I did become obsessed by drums & drum kits during tedious geography lessons in the fifth form. My first kit was made mostly from wooden rubbish bins with drumheads stretched over them. I bought that with my pocket money when I was about 14 years old. I did a brief stretch in the high school military band as a snare drummer & I suppose that’s when any formal learning should have occurred, but we spent most of our time at the end of the school field smoking cigarettes & having a laugh rather than learning how to play anything.
You continue to be an inspiration to not only drummers but to musicians in general. Who were your own early influences, and by that I mean not only drummers but widening that if I may, to include other musicians and bands?
The first records I owned were given to me by my eldest sister. They were Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Are You Experienced?’ & King Crimson’s ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. The first albums I bought myself were Dave & Ansel Collin’s ‘Monkey Spanner’ & T Rex’s ‘Electric Boogie’.
So my tastes ran from progressive rock to glam & you could also throw a bit of Irish folk into the mix. My influences have been many & varied throughout the years. The glitter band & ELP may have had a lot to do with it – ha! ha! Also Roxy Music & the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Big Youth & The Stranglers set me free & put me on the road to drumming.
At what point did you think that you had reached a standard that was good enough to look for other musicians to form bands with, and which styles & genres were you exploring and playing before you formed Killing Joke?
I haven’t yet reached the stage where I’m confident to play with other musicians, then even less so, but necessity being the mother of invention nothing was going to stop me. My school friends & I had a progressive rock band called Beowulf and then my art school friends and I had a glam punk band called Pink Parts. The band I was playing with when I met Jaz was the Matt Stagger band, and that was afro-rock/reggae influenced.
You and Jaz (in)famously performed ‘a ritual’ after many unsuccessful attempts to find like- minded musicians, allegedly after which, the next two musicians who knocked on your door were Geordie & Youth. Was this ‘ritual’ part of an ‘established’ esoteric and/or gnostic belief system such as rosicrucianism or theosophy for example, and if so; do you still subscribe to this belief system?
Jaz & I embarked upon a course together that involved Neophyte rituals taken from the Order of the Golden Dawn. Although we shared an interest in the occult, mine soon became intellectual rather than practical.
I’ve always had a strong interest in history & mythology which persists to this day, but my beliefs have evolved over the years and & I no longer subscribe to any one particular belief system.
With regards to you and your fellow ‘brother-in-rhythm’ Youth, you are in many peoples’ opinion demonstrably one of the finest rhythm sections in music. Was that unique ‘simpatico’ or ‘locked in’ feel there from the earliest rehearsals, or was it something you had to work at assiduously over a period of time?
Well I’m flattered that you find us a fine rhythm section. Youth’s sound is very distinctive and & I feel that when we play together our styles result in a unique and surprising ‘feel’. It took a lot of searching to find a bass player for this band, and whatever Youth’s ulterior motives were at the time for coming to Cheltenham to audition with us were, he decided to stay with us. Without doubt he and & I had, and have, a symbiotic relationship. I feel he adds to what I do, in an organic way; but my view of my own playing is that I plough through and take no prisoners and between the two lies the magic…
One of the USP’s that sets Killing Joke apart from the herd is that your playing is often groove orientated, and makes some tracks, for want of a better word, ‘danceable’. This was evidenced on early tracks such as: ‘Nervous System’, and ‘Change’ and continues right up to recent tracks like ‘Ghosts of Ladbroke Grove’ and although that’s more dub-like; there’s groove in their too.
I think all of us in KJ have an unwritten rule that if it doesn’t swing it’s not worth it. I have no particular sets of rules or preferences for dance music but I have an inherent need for groove when I play. I find it very difficult to play a straight beat without putting a swing in it!
With regards to your individual contribution to the Killing Joke ‘sound’, where often your rhythms and patterns ‘lead from the front’ and help define the track, on such tracks as: ‘Dominator’, ‘Tension’, ‘Follow The Leader’ and ‘Love Like Blood’, is this something you work out in your head in rehearsal, or perhaps later in the studio when you are actually recording the track(s)?
What I do and what I choose to play more often or not begins with Geordie. His riffs & phrases are what give me inspiration & the drum parts that are eventually recorded only become that way when they are married to the guitar parts. Whatever I’ve come to rehearsal with, indeed whatever any of us comes to rehearsal with, changes according to the atmosphere in the room and the influence that we have on each other.
After the tectonic plate rattling debut, on the follow up (no ‘difficult second album’ travails with KJ!) ‘What’s THIS For..!’, your tom and percussion work seemed to feature more noticeably. Was there a conscious decision to add particular styles, textures & rhythms?
As I mentioned before, I listened to the Glitter Band. There was also a track by the SAHB called ‘Booids’ which had a great influence on me. I was also deeply impressed by a comment from a random stranger about his aversion to drummers using cymbals & for some reason those words ate at me to the point that I deliberately started to leave out the hi hats & cymbals. I also listened to Mongo Santamaria & other Latin percussionists for inspiration, but I think also it was a sign of the times; drummers in particular were looking for new ways to express themselves, different ways of playing outside of the standard rock & roll format.
After Youth departed how long into your search for a replacement to fill the void did you find Paul Raven, and how did his style differ from Youth’s; and did you and Raven ‘click’ together immediately?
Raven was a far more aggressive bass player then Youth & he and I played very well together. It was a bit of a messy period in my life re-joining Killing Joke after the Iceland escapade. I had been playing with Youth in Brilliant & with another bass player who I thought I had a future with. I’m not sure if I have the story straight but I think Youth himself referred us to Raven himself. There was never a dull moment with Raven, I very much enjoyed the band with him in it; his style was very different & I miss him. I must say it’s been a privilege playing with both Youth and Raven in this dysfunctional brotherhood…
After disagreements regarding musical direction you left the band in 1987.Could you elaborate on this further please to ‘set the record straight’, because in researching for this piece, I noticed that there’s all kinds of speculation across various web sites and discussion forums?
I can tell you my version of it.. As with any story there are always at least two sides. In a nutshell, the Outside the Gate album was Jaz’s solo project but because it cost a lot of money, the record company decided it should be a Killing Joke project, but that Raven & I shouldn’t be involved in the writing. We were both very unhappy with this arrangement. When I acquiesced and went to record drum tracks with Geordie, personal grievances were getting in the way & acrimony reigned in the studio. I couldn’t listen to any of Jaz’s keyboards when I recorded the drums & threw away the ‘click track’, so I played drums to just the guitar & it all made perfect sense. Unfortunately, when the keyboards were brought back in the timing was all over the place. My answer was: ‘do all the keyboards again’ & Jaz’s answer was: ‘’get a new drummer’’.
Was it at this point on your ‘timeline’ that you decided to become a professional restorer, and why did you choose this unusual profession? (There are some incredible images of Big Paul working in his workshop in Mont Sherars’ stunning book of Killing Joke photo portraits: ** ‘Twilight of the Mortals’ – released November 2016).
I had been out of Killing Joke for several years, I was living in New York and I needed a change. Knowing that my other artistic talents were being neglected & having always had a powerful interest in art & history, when I came across the chance to deal with ancient sculpture, it was a perfect fit for me. One thing that art restoration teaches other than the obvious techniques & handling of materials, is that there is no room for ego. It’s a very behind-the-scenes enterprise.
What were your next musical projects, and does the resultant work stand up to scrutiny all these years later?
It may seem strange not pursuing something in the vein of KJ, but at the time I wanted to do anything but… I played with Warrior Soul on their first album, but I felt that I didn’t fit in with the American rock ‘n’ roll vibe of the band. Subsequently, a guitarist friend of mine John Carruthers (formerly of Siouxsie & the Banshees) and I formed a band that was to become Crush, which was about as far from Killing Joke as one could get. Does it still stand up? Hard for me to say. I think we were ahead of the times. It was innovative & short lived, and to my ears at least, very good.
Did you continue writing lyrics post-Killing Joke, and have you ever thought of collating & collecting your lyrics/prose for a formal book release?
I did continue writing though perhaps not as much, and the idea of putting a book together of my lyrical musings is not far from my mind.
What were your reasons for re-joining Killing joke in 2007-was there a sense of ‘unfinished business’ musically & lyrically?
I certainly felt that my sense of outrage at current political events needed a vehicle & of course, what more perfect place than Killing Joke! Obviously, the shock & sadness of Raven’s departure from this life was instrumental in Jaz & I healing our wounds, but I had carried Killing Joke with me all the time that I wasn’t in the band (you can ask my wife!), and if I had not taken this opportunity it would still be there & gnawing at me.
The last few years have been very productive with three albums in 5 years, the last of which, ‘Pylon’, was commercially successful, and won awards. Do you feel that the new songs stand shoulder-to-shoulder when played alongside ‘classics’ such as ‘Pssyche’, ‘Eighties’ and ‘Pandemonium’? Do you feel any pressure when writing songs these days?
Well, firstly I’m delighted that the records have been so well received. Calling anything that Killing Joke do a commercial success is a bit of a laugh because we don’t really sell the numbers that people imagine we do; but artistically I’m very happy with what we’ve done recently. There’s always pressure to write & remain relevant, but there aren’t any scorecards & every song is a painting. There’s no measurable ‘better’ while you’re recording. It’s rather more: ‘’is it making your head nod or not’’.
In Montster Filmworks’ powerful & visceral biopic *‘Chapter Big Paul Ferguson’, Martin Atkins (ex-Pil & Pigface) describes the Killing Joke drumming workload thus: ‘you might as well set my arms on fire!’. Clearly you must have been in terrific shape to do all the live work then. Now you are in your 50’s and still touring regularly, what kind of physical and mental toll does this take on you?
Well I have to prepare for it, I have to stay in shape, but I’d be doing that anyway regardless of KJ. I’m blessed with a physique that can tolerate my workload and cursed with a mindset that won’t let me relax! I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t got a little more difficult, as along with age I’ve also suffered numerous incidents & injuries. Thankfully none have been serious enough to interfere with my pleasure of playing with Killing joke…
In 2015 you launched a bespoke jewellery business called ***‘Boneyard Skull Rings’, whereby you personally make to order solid silver rings, necklaces and bracelets; and they look fabulous! How’s this been received?
The pieces have been received very well. I’m very excited at this new project and the way it came around was trying to find jewellery that I would want to wear. I’ve always loved sculpture & texture & these pieces are that & more. It makes me feel great to hear from satisfied customers about how thrilled they are with their new purchases.
So we’re into 2016 and in Mont Sherar’s definitive, game-changing book of Killing Joke photo portraits ‘Twilight of the Mortals’. What do you think Mont has captured here that no one else has done previously?
Mont has been allowed access to Killing Joke in a way that few people have. He is a genuine fan & an exceptionally talented man. The band have trusted him in the recording studio & into our lives. He was almost inside my drum kit at one point! His exceptional eye for composition & detail are evident in every frame. We’re all looking forward to the book being published.
In an arch and very KJ twist to the old ‘CD included!’ pitch, the Special Deluxe Edition of ‘Twilight of the Mortals’ has two ‘old school’ 7’’ vinyl records with each member of Killing Joke submitting a separate, original track each that genuinely will not be available elsewhere. Possibly forever. Your solo track, where you are billed as BPF, is: ‘The Great Motivator’ Could you talk us through it please, and are you planning any further ‘solo’ releases at some point in the future?
The idea to release vinyl with this book was Mont’s, and had it been a CD or DVD I’m pretty sure none us would have contributed as we did. The idea of having something in vinyl was what clinched the deal! The Great Motivator is one of several musical experiments where I thread some of my poems and lyrics over a percussive background. Mark Thwaite was sent the tracks & has done a great job remixing them. A word of warning: they’re not necessarily the rock drums you might be expecting! As far as any solo releases in the future, it would be nice to release an EP or even an album sometime soon, bit I’ve got my hands full!
Surprisingly there hasn’t been a definitive biography chronicling Killing Jokes’ remarkable, chaotic and labyrinthine career, and rumour and speculation has always swirled around the band. What’s the most ridiculous rumour you’ve heard about yourself and also concerning the band?
I’ve heard that I got a ‘phone call from Madonna asking me to play on one of her albums, and rumour has it I told her to ‘fuck off, I don’t play with girls!’ As for rumours about the band, well you know our singer, anything’s possible!
If you wouldn’t mind playing the role of a seer for a moment, what does the rest of 2016 and then into 2017 hold for Big Paul Ferguson?
Death and destruction? Flowers and puppies?
‘Big Paul’ Ferguson, thanks very much for your time!
Musicians of the calibre and integrity of Big Paul are as rare as the Great Man missing a beat, so rare in fact that upon reflection one cannot help but come to the conclusion that he may very well be the last great drummer…
If you would like to own a one-off piece of bespoke jewellery, crafted especially for you by the very same hands that still play all those iconic beats and drum patterns, then head over to: www.boneyardskullrings.com