Godflesh and Angel Dust to Jesu and Children's Music: The Evolution of Justin Broadrick
Ever-evolving metal iconoclast talks new Jesu, kids and more
Justin K Broadrick has been making music for 30 years now. I don’t know how he’s kept such a youthful complexion after subjecting himself to constant pummelling noise and years of alcohol, drugs and nicotine abuse, but Wikipedia doesn’t lie. Over these four decades, Broadrick has also accomplished a thing or two professionally, like playing on side A of Napalm Death’s grindcore opus Scum, creating industrial metal with the two-man wrecking crew Godflesh, performing on a number of albums by electronic noise merchants Scorn, creating industrial hip-hop under the name Techno Animal, breaking hearts with his shoegaze/doom metal band Jesu, and since 1982, recording countless ambient releases under the name Final, among his other solo projects, production work and remixes. He is a tireless workhorse who has never slowed down for even a second. If you thought Guided By Voices and Lil B were prolific, it’s about time you became familiar with this guy’s work.
Growing up in the industrial wasteland and metal haven of Birmingham, England, Broadrick now calls the tranquil hills of North Wales home. There he lives the kind of domestic life with his partner and their two-year-old son you might not expect from the man who gave us 1989’s punishing Streetcleaner. In 2010 he reformed his seminal band Godflesh, who are wrapping up their first new album in 12 years, but Broadrick is also celebrating the release of his latest Jesu album, the stunning Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came.
While his son took a nap, Noisey hooked up with Broadrick on Skype to talk about the effects of Godflesh on an eight-month-old fetus, why the new Jesu album is his favourite, the most violent Godflesh gigs he played and why he turned down an offer to join Danzig.
Have you played your son any of your music?
Yeah. There are many situations where he is hearing it without a choice. Just because he’s so young and he’s in this environment it’s consistent. When Godflesh reformed and we played the whole Streetcleaner album at the legendary Roadburn Festival in Holland, he was in my partner’s stomach and only a month-and-a-half from being born. She stood at the side of the stage where the bass was just brutal, and it was apparently the biggest response he’s had to my music. My partner was bending over in pain, because he was kicking and thrashing. I don’t know if it was a positive or negative response, but he’s heard my music even in the womb, y’know what I mean?
When my partner comes back from work after she’s picked him up from daycare or her mother’s house they come into the studio and he even knows the environment in here. Obviously it’s just a magical one of lights in here, but he loves guitars. If we put anything on the TV where someone’s playing guitar live or shit like that he immediately says, “Daddy?” and points at it. He associates guitars with me.
In another situation, I often test my mixes in the lounge outside my studio. He sits down next to me as I test the mixes and he’s just rockin’ away to whatever it may be. It can be anything from Jesu to brutal noise, which he somehow finds a primitive beat to. In his first six-to-nine months, I used an awful lot of ambient music to get through that period. These three or four hour shifts were interspersed with anything from power electronics to harsh noise to more mainstream stuff like Brian Eno. So he should be well-versed in ambient music by the time he’s four or five.
I was going to ask if you’ve played him some of your most brutal music, but I guess he’s heard it all.
Because it’s in my environment, we haven’t put the filter on things other than rap music. There are too many f-bombs for him, know what I mean? For the first year-and-a-half, “fuck this!” and “motherfuck that!” are okay, but now we’re like, “Whoa! Whoa!” That’s probably the only filter we employ though. But yeah, I can be sitting around playing power electronics and brutal, harsh noise with him. This environment teaches him a musical language, I like to think of it. Obviously, we’ll also sit with the iPad and sing “Wheels On the Bus.” It can be literally anything.
Okay tell me: Do you know how many musical projects you have going right now?
Active ones… Normally I can sit down and go, “How many things I have going?” but… I mean I’ve guested on a lot of things too… but things that are sort of my own, I’d say Jesu, Godflesh, Final, and then go down the list from there and it’s JK Flesh, White Static Demon, Council Estate Electronics, and they get tinier. Their appeal gets minor as I go down the list. The things at the top are the ones I put a lot of my personal time into, and then things are liberally spread amongst the lower interest. I must have at least ten? That’s my guess.
How do you prioritize and keep track of what you have going and what you’ll do next?
Well, simultaneously I’m doing a lot of remixing and production as well. Sometimes a lot of my own stuff will take a back seat to the remixing work. Remix work can be a stable financial thing, as well as something I find inspirational. I do a lot of stuff on my own, so I’m immersed in my own world a lot of the time, and sometimes it’s great to work my way through someone else’s music and find that influence on whatever I’m working on of my music. Not from the artist’s music but often in terms of the process I follow to make it my own. I can look at things in a different way or a different context.
So you’ve been playing Godflesh live and will be releasing a new flexi single via Decibel Magazine. What is going on with this new Godflesh album, A World Lit Only By Fire?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been working on A World Lit Only By Fire for the last year and a half. The flexi disc is a cover of an old band called Slaughter, not to be confused with the hair metal band named Slaughter. I think doing a cover is a great way to reintroduce the Godflesh sound because the song is very primitive death metal, which was one of the inspirations for Godflesh anyway. Well, death metal mixed with so many other things. We felt a cover worked over a brand new song because we need to do that in terms of an entire album. We’ve been writing and writing, and have ten songs that make up the bulk of the album, which is almost, almost completed. We’ll be recording and mixing around November and hope that the new Godflesh album comes out in May.
How would you describe this new album? Are we talking more like Streetcleaner or more like Hymns?
It’s certainly more like Streetcleaner than Hymns. It’s really back to basics, which is how we’ve been playing anyway. Initially Godflesh was conceived as a two-piece with one of those very early drum machines, that was the original concept. And that’s what this material is: me and Ben Green, back to basics. It’s a lot closer to the first three or four albums, a good mix of those, very minimals, really stripped back, dissonant, brutal, very direct. It’s risk-oriented, but there are still songs with pop beats that are completely driven by rhythms and riffs. It’s body music.
I imagine there is “Wheels On the Bus” in there somewhere too, right?
Couldn’t be more further away!
Does being a dad and having this young innocence in your life change how you write something so brutal and harsh as Godflesh music?
On many levels. What’s so beautiful about having a child is recapturing that innocence. For me, every day with him I’m reminded of the innocence I lost and the innocence he will lose, which is pretty much a massive inspiration for the new Jesu album. I think if anything he’s impacted the Jesu album, whereas with Godflesh his existence just reinforces all the pain. I’m a sensitive soul, so not a day goes by where I’m not worrying about him. What’s great about my partner is that she’s not riddled with a lot of the same fears as I am. She balances it all out. So yeah, this new Jesu album be what it is without him. But he also hasn’t in any way dampened my fire or anger or frustration, it’s all there and maybe even more magnified with Godflesh. My fear is for the future, a fear of other people. Y’know, the classic “hell is other people.” I am overprotective, overpossessive, all that stuff.
I have to say, I think this new Jesu album is my favourite since probably the self-titled first album.
Wow. That’s really saying something. Wow. That’s great to hear because I’m really proud of that first Jesu album because I was just starting to explore. I explored a lot after Conqueror, but a lot of it was failed experiments, like around the mid-2000s, where it reached a saturation point, and that’s by my own admission. I tried a lot of things, but they were all very single vision. What I like about this album is that it’s back to where I dropped off somewhat. It made me go back particularly to the Silver record because I felt that it was probably my favourite Jesu EP. It explored a lot musically. It reminded me that the EPs were some of my stronger work. And that the albums often belaboured the point. Hence this new album is just shy of the 45-minute mark. I once wanted to make an album that was concise and abbreviates the concepts, and I feel this is it. For me, I think it’s one of the best Jesu albums I’ve made. I feel like there’s a clean slate. I’m really proud of this record. Now I want to make a lot more Jesu records.
Obviously going from screaming in Godflesh to singing softly in Jesu was a big transition for your voice. How has going from Jesu back to Godflesh been for you? Is it more cathartic? More challenging for your vocal cords?
It is really cathartic. It was harder for me to go from Godflesh to Jesu than Jesu to Godflesh. Yelling for so many years and then wanting to do something more somber and measured in Jesu, was way harder than Godflesh. To me yelling was natural. It’s all I’d done up until that point in my career. Jesu was a real challenge. And after so many years of doing Jesu it was really exciting to go back to Godflesh, and for how it invigorated how I saw Jesu. It’s exciting to get back to Jesu. My voice has actually improved through Jesu, and so it’s easier to yell in Godflesh because my voice has become stronger. It’s almost like I needed that. I actually find it easier to yell now than I did in my 20s. That probably had to do with my alcohol addiction and smoking all the time. Thanks to my son, both of those have been virtually eradicated from my life now. So I’m much healthier and I’m now regretting those years where I was addicted to alcohol and drugs. I can almost hold a few notes, which helps Jesu, and then yell much louder in Godflesh. Even people in my age group who have been around all these years come up to me and say, “How’s your voice so much stronger now? I saw you in Godflesh 20 years ago and you were really struggling with your voice.” And I’d just say, “It was the alcohol.” And smoking too many spliffs before I went up on stage. Pure and simple.
I read a crazy story about a 1991 gig in L.A. where this photographer was being sliced by a kid with an exacto blade who was high on Angel Dust. The kid was then beaten to a pulp by someone else. Do you remember that happening?
Yeah, I’ve read about some of those shows. Some are myths, but a lot of those gigs we played were particularly brutal. I think that L.A. show in question was the first time we played the city and one person actually died. We played a couple of shows where someone else got killed. It was pretty outrageous to us. I mean obviously you couldn’t get any more fucking outrageous at a show. When we started playing English and European shows back then, they could get violent, but not that violent. I remember that L.A. show and there was a lot of bloodshed. It was fairly legendary. Three days later The L.A. Times ran a full page, with a photo of me stripped to the waist covered in sweat, screaming my head off. And it had this headline with an old Throbbing Gristle description like “Wreckers of Civiliazation” or something. As if our music was bringing gang warfare, which is really weird because Godflesh was way more surreal than those hardcore bands that were about that kind of violence. With us there was no glorification of violence whatsoever, it was very ironic. We come from the Crass school of the peace punk, hippie movement.
Were you ever confronted or threatened by those violent types?
Yeah, particularly on stage. I remember on that tour very clearly there was a show we played in Miami where there seemed to be a dream audience up front and then what turned up at the back was a pseudo-skinhead audience, all tatted up and stripped to the waist who proceeded to just beat up on everyone. These types ended up chanting at us and we finished the show with a 15-minute wall of noise, which was just feedback. So they were screaming at us, we were screaming at them, and the audience genuinely interested in us were trying not to get fists in the back of the head. As we were moving to the back of the stage, some promoter was shouting at us, “Get out through the back of the venue!” It was very serious. That poor guy squeezed us out the door and onto the tour bus. There was genuine concern for our safety. I mean, we were winding up these people. They were more into punk and metal and rock, certainly nothing like Godflesh, so we thought we’d give them something they’d never heard before. We definitely angered a lot of people back in the day.
I’m guessing the times have changed for Godflesh gigs.
Yeah. I mean people still say how unique it is, how unique we are. But it wasn’t long after our first tours around the world, from late 1988 to 1991, for the world to actually catch up with the Godflesh sound. We used to laugh about how people at the shows in the early days, where we were supporting metal bands, they’d shout abuse at us. Years later they’d be up front at Godflesh shows. We used to joke that it took that long for people to catch on with a sound that was too fresh for these audiences.
Finally, can you confirm something for me: Is it true you were asked to join Danzig?
Yeah, it’s absolutely true. I had a couple of phone conversations with him and his management at the time. This was when Godflesh supported Danzig and Type-O-Negative in America, an arena tour in ’94 for Danzig 4. Glenn Danzig was a big Godflesh fan. Shortly after that tour I got a phone call from his manager, who was this huge corporate manager who managed Guns N’ Roses. And he was like, “Hey man, I wanna put you on the phone to Glenn, man.” Glenn didn’t even ask me if I wanted to join the band, he just talked a lot of other stuff. Quite odd. It was only his manager who said they wanted to fly me to L.A. to do this and do that. And when I declined, his manager had this absolute shit-trip. He obviously saw me as some small guy from a small, odd band and didn’t understand why someone like Glenn Danzig would want me. So his manager had an absolute fit about it, which was quite comical. “You can’t turn him down! Who the fuck do you think you are?!”
I’m a huge Danzig fan, but I think he’d be a real pain-in-the-ass to play for. I don’t think you missed out on anything.
Absolutely not. Again I was trying to tell this manager guy that the most important thing to me is my own vision. Sorry, but that’s what I do. I indulge myself. I’d would have had to move to L.A., but I have a life and an existence and I actually like living in the UK, know what I mean? I think there was one Danzig interview where he was asked why I didn’t join and I know he has a bit of an ego, but his answer was simply, “The guy wouldn’t get on a plane.” Or some shit like that. I mean, I do have a fear of flying that is well documented by some people, but it most certainly wasn’t that. I do not want to join someone else’s band, it’s as simple as that.