Interview: Big Paul Ferguson
I've got to look at the world that I’m in and reflect on it in a personal sense and what I see around me, the frustrations that I have and where I think we're headed.
As a founding member of Killing Joke, Big Paul Ferguson has been renowned for his hard hitting, tribal style of drumming since the start of the band. As well as being the influential drummer in the band, his skill as a songwriter for Killing Joke are undeniable and exemplary with songs like ‘Wardance’, ‘Eighties’ and ‘Requiem’, still rightly lauded as the anthems that they are and Paul has been the heartbeat that makes the bands sound so huge. Before Killing Joke make their long awaited return to both the live stage and on record, Paul has found time to record and release his fantastic debut solo album Virtual Control and its a brilliantly scathing and caustic listen that utilises the same dystopian feelings that makes Killing Joke so special, a testament to his skills as a songwriter and performer. Gavin Brown caught up with Big Paul to talk about Virtual Control, the making of the album and just how it fits in with the chaos the world finds itself in currently as discussing the upcoming Killing Joke tour and the band’s new album.
E&D: Your debut solo album Virtual Control is out now. How did the creation and recording of the album goal?
Paul: Well, it started as I wanted to re-release my former recording Remote Viewing which was an EP, just seven tracks. I wanted to re-release that because the label I was on became defunct, so the record just disappeared. I wanted to re-release and I still do want to re-release it and to do that, I wanted to write a couple of tracks to give it a bit more flavour. Again, I was working with Mark Gemini Thwaite and I guess I got on a roll and before we knew it we had nine tracks and it was just like, let’s see what else we’ve got and we had an album and here we are. It wasn’t my intention to write a new album but Mark and I enjoy working together and I had a lot of words that I wanted to preserve.
E&D: When was it you started writing it?
Paul: In April and May of last year, and we had it finished and delivered to Cleopatra at the end of October of last year. I had hoped that we could push it through and get it out before Christmas but the pandemic wiped out so much. I’m also involved in jewellery. I was looking forward to a collaboration with a friend of mine in Paris. We have a whole bunch of things that we were hoping to put out last year, but the entire industry just shut down and pretty much the record industry did as well, so I had to join the line to wait for their isolation records to be to be produced in vinyl and it was a six month wait. I had to just bide my time and try not to get too critical of the work that I finished. You know what it is when you write something and you’re very enthusiastic about it and then you’ve got time to reflect and start picking holes, like oh I could have done this better or whatever. I had six months of trying not to do that.
E&D: You had all this extra time to finish the record, was that better than working to a timeframe in the studio?
Paul: Yeah. I mean, Mark and I have been working virtually. I’m on the East Coast and Mark’s over in Los Angeles, so we’ve both got our respective setups musically. I’ve got recording gear, modest recording gear but it’s given us free reign to record whenever we like. You try and put limits on yourself. I find if I don’t give myself a deadline, it’ll just not get finished!
E&D: The album isn’t an intense listening experience, and you’ve even got a track on there called ‘Dystopian Vibe’, which is definitely what the album has. Did you want the album to represent the chaos and frustrations going on in the world at the moment?
Paul: I can’t do it any other way. I’ve got to look at the world that I’m in and reflect on it in a personal sense and what I see around me, the frustrations that I have and where I think we’re headed. It is fairly harsh. I mean, I’m not really capable of writing songs that don’t touch on serious matters in some sense. I hope that that it’s not a depressing thing to listen to, but it certainly dwells on the things that I think are problematic within myself and the world that I am living in.
E&D: Do you feel that there’s a parallel at all with that dystopian vibe that’s going on now is similar to the early eighties when Killing Joke started gaining prominence?
Paul: It’s interesting, I think it’s got a lot, lot worse, in the sense that people are far more distracted, I think they were a lot more engaged then, there was less distraction. The media, and let’s face it back in the eighties, you had three TV channels and one of them only did a couple of hours each evening but now we are completely saturated by points of view, by media, by opinions and for that, we’re all very easily distracted, if not distracted all the time. The problems that we faced back then actually got exponentially worse, it’s just that people are far less engaged and reality has become a subjective thing. Everything is open to such differing opinions that trying to find the truth is very difficult. I would actually go back a bit further and from what I’ve read, this seems more like 1934 than 1984, but I certainly think George Orwell had his finger on the pulse!
E&D: You worked with Tim Skold and Jurgen Engler on the album. How did these collaborations happen and what did they ring to the songs that they featured on?
Paul: It really only happened through the label, Cleopatra. Strangely, I wasn’t really aware of Tim Skold and his work before I was introduced to him through the label, of course I know of Die Krupps, I’m a fan of theirs. There were a couple of tracks that we wanted to bring a bit more attention on the record and the way to do that really is to get other artists involved, so I was I was looking for people of like mind whose voices could could add to the work that I’d done. That was a bit tricky because the songs are very personal but certainly the track that Tim is on ‘Seeping Through The Cracks’, I think benefited tremendously from his voice. I’ve got a very soft voice, even when I try to project anger and gruffness in my voice, it doesn’t really come across, so I actually needed somebody who could raise the level of the chorus. Jurgen, actually mastered the record and brought his own sort of Germanic dystopian vibe to the track which I thought worked really well.
E&D: Have you been pleased with the reaction to the album so far?
Paul: Yeah, I mean, I’d understand if people thought it was a pile of shit really, so any good reaction is very welcome by me! Being in a band like Killing Joke for so long and not having gone any solo work, as much as Mark and I completely enjoyed the record that we’ve made, there’s always that sense of nagging doubt that people are going to hate it but I’m very pleased that it has been received as well as it has.
E&D: Have you thought about a follow up to it at all?
Paul: Little by little, we’ve already done a few other tracks since then. I would like to get the remixes of Remote Viewing re-released and put out, and I would like to follow that up with another one. I’ve certainly got plenty of material to work with, but at the moment, the focus is Killing Joke. We’ve got a lot of material that needs to be finished. It’s not made any easier by the fact that we all live so far apart from each other, so communication, believe it or not is a little difficult with central Mexico, but that’s my primary focus right now. I expect I’ll be busy with Killing Joke for the next couple of years at least.
E&D: Is there any sort of timeframe for the new Killing Joke album?
Paul: Well, it’s as soon as possible. It just remains to be seen what is possible, but it is a priority. We hope to have something, if not released by the time of the next tour in March then at least in the can and ready to be released, but time’s flying by. Jaz is unwell, and still in Mexico. so we have to temper our expectations a bit and just hope we can deliver it within the next six months.
E&D: Are you looking forward to going back out on the road on tour with Killing Joke?
Paul: Yeah, I’ve got mixed feelings. I’m very excited about playing again. I love playing as a drummer but the pandemic and the isolation has left its mark on me mentally. I find it very bewildering but I understand the rush. People have to get back to their so-called normal life, but with these events like the Euros, that people should so quickly just abandon all precautions that they’ve had for the last year and a half, just suddenly screaming in each other’s faces. I think it’s just kind of shocking. I’m not ready that kind of social interaction just yet! I’m in the States and they’ve just opened up again. I was in New York last weekend and the city looks destroyed. It looks like it did back in the early eighties. I accept that there are hordes of people getting drunk and crowding in whatever bar or restaurant is on there aren’t that many there aren’t that many now. Just hordes of people out there revelling and getting drunk out of their heads or stoned. The smell of pot is unbelievable now. It’s a weird time, having gone through such caution to this sort of revelry. It reminds of Berlin before the Second World War, at least what I’ve read. It’s crazy, I’m still not comfortable.
E&D: Do you think, in time, that will get better or go back to how it was with people being more cautious?
Paul: Well, it will have to, we’ll all get readjusted to the world that we’re living in, but with global warming and all of that, I can’t help but think that there are going to be more pandemics and we’ve got these wildfires over in the East Coast with soaring temperatures, there’s going to be trouble and we are on the edges of big trouble. We are all going to have to get used to living differently.
E&D: Going back to the music, how does it feel to be regarded as one of the most influential drummers and songwriters in British music?
Paul: Well, it seems absurd to me! I mean, it’s very, very flattering. I accept that Killing Joke have influenced a lot of people, but myself, I don’t think I’m a very good drummer at all so I spend a lot of time trying to learn the things that I sort of escaped. I always feel like I’m playing catch up with other great drummers. It’s almost though, like I’ve got a reputation that I’ve got to live up to and I’d better learn a few things!
E&D: Have you thought about touring Virtual Control in a live capacity at all when it’s possible?
Paul: Well, it’s an interesting conundrum because I don’t really desire to be the focus of attention, so as much as I think that it would be a fantastic project to focus on live, what would it involve? It would take a couple of drummers and percussionists. It would not be a small band, I don’t think. The mind wanders into how it would be done but at the moment, I don’t want to be a singing drummer so to speak. I love playing, so what, I’m going to stand at the front of a stage that I’m uncomfortable with and someone else is going to be playing the drums. I don’t know how, I can’t quite imagine, but if there was a band performing it, maybe that’s the answer, get another band to do it!
E&D: You’ve obviously had a long and storied career, but what have been some of the most memorable moments of your career with Killing Joke and beyond so far?
Paul: Oh, that’s an impossible question. I’m sorry, it’s like try to find highlights in your life that been full of different, different experiences. I’m going to have to pass on that question. Let’s just say it’s been a very, very interesting ride and it continues to be and that’s the way I like it. I’m an Air Force brat. My father was in the Air Force so I moved around a lot throughout my life. I’ve lived in Saudi Arabia. I’ve lived in Cairo, I’ve lived in Washington, DC. I’ve lived in Puerto Rico and I’ve lived all over England. My dad’s Scottish and my mother’s Irish, it’s a life full of moves, travel and Killing Joke have added spice to that, memorable gigs and memorable recording sessions, especially in Berlin and you know, they keep adding up. We’re playing Hellfest next year, which is going to be very exciting. Playing with Tool a couple of years back was a fantastic experience. Every year has got something going on and it’s really cool.
E&D: As long as they keep on coming!
Paul: Yeah, exactly haha!