Justin Broadrick on The Secret History of Godflesh
A first person account of Godflesh from the early days. It involves witchcraft. And Nazis.
Godflesh vocalist/guitarist Justin Broadrick is recovering from a particularly nasty stomach virus. He and Godflesh bassist/co-founder Ben Green picked it up on the Continent when the English industrial masters played Hellfest in Clisson, France, last month. “We came back from Hellfest, and about three days later, both Ben and I were shitting water; we had synchronized hot and cold shivers, all this crap,” Broadrick tells us via Skype. “Literally crap. This was a week and a half ago. It went on for ages, and I still don’t feel entirely right.”
As we speak, Broadrick is getting ready to leave the British Isles again—this time to perform in Japan with his acclaimed post-rock outfit, Jesu. We originally planned to ask him about Godflesh’s comeback EP, Decline & Fall, and their forthcoming full-length, A World Lit Only By Fire—their first since the band went tits up in 2002. But then we decided to get some stories about the duo’s upbringing in the sprawling shitscape of early ’80s Birmingham, England. Broadrick ended up walking us through a stunning family history involving witchcraft, Nazis and bootleg Stranglers cassettes.
When did you and Ben first meet?
Justin Broadrick: We first actually met in the shitty council estate we both come from in East Birmingham. There’s like a five-year age gap between us, but I first came across him because I was a punk rock kid—I was sporting the clothes and he spotted me. When I started hanging out with him, I was 14 and he was about 19. His other two best friends were Paul Neville, who was later in Godflesh, and Diarmuid Dalton, who is the bass player in Jesu. So that’s how long we’ve known each other. We’ve all been best mates for like 31 years—well, all of us except Paul, but that’s another story. That’s a big chunk of time, innit? It’s mental.
Do you remember how you actually started hanging out together?
At the council estate, me and this other kid used to sit around on the steps at the bottom of the flats—the American term would be “apartments,” but that suggests that they were quite luxurious. They weren’t. They were shitty Birmingham council flats sat on top of a load of shitty shops. I used to sit on the steps outside with my mate and act like…well, 14-year old punk rockers. I wore my Stranglers shirt, and Ben would walk by and notice that we were into the same music he was into. I noticed him, too, because he dressed a bit like Robert Smith from the Cure, and he had the hair, too—a bit of a post-punk, gothy image. And in our area it was all just English football hooligans, who obviously frowned on people like us and frequently tried to beat us up. So when you saw someone like Ben, it was quite an exception. He said the same about us—he thought we must be the cool kids, even though we were much younger.
Somehow, we got talking on the street one day. I think I was trying to sell him a bootleg by the Stranglers. I had quite a collection of bootlegs in those days that I had, uh… liberated, loosely speaking. [Laughs] They were cassette bootlegs. I had this twin cassette deck, so I’d make dubs and try to flog them to other kids to make a few extra pennies. That seemed to be the icebreaker with Ben: I tried to sell him a bootleg of the Stranglers, live from ’77 or something—which I think he bought. That was the bridge to our friendship. I think he bought it out of politeness and as a way of getting to know the so-called “cool kids.” Whereas I thought he must be the cool one, because he was older and looked like Robert Smith from the Cure. He introduced me to Paul and Diarmuid and we went from there, basically.
The first band you were in together was Fall Of Because, right?
Yeah, which was essentially the band that Ben and Paul Neville did together with a drum machine. I sort of usurped their band, basically. I think I convinced them that I should drum for their band. Basically, we all started hanging out after that first meeting in the street. I started going ’round to their houses, after people’s parents went to bed. We’d either lock ourselves in one of their bedrooms or get the run of their lounge and listen to records. Someone would usually score a little bit of marijuana, so we’d smoke dope and listen to music. Classic formative stuff, you know? I had a number of primitive bands at the time, including Final, and Ben and Paul told me about their band.
The day I left school, when I was 15, I organized a concert at the Mermaid Pub in Birmingham. There was a couple of people I knew in school who had a couple of bands, and one of them was Napalm Death. I also put on Fall Of Because and Final. It was a free show, but there was only about 25 people there—which was pretty much all the people in the bands, maybe some guy and his dog. It was bullshit, but I was already desperate to put gigs on and do shit. I’d seen Fall Of Because rehearse in Ben’s dad’s bedroom, and they were really quite clearly influenced by the Cure—hence the guises, as well. They sounded quite like a cross between the Faith and Seventeen Seconds albums, but with a drum machine—a very pedestrian one, the cheapest drum machine you could buy. They were into the Dead Kennedys and the Buzzcocks, but they were big Black Sabbath fans as well. Ben was the one singing, but he was sort of murmuring, like, monologues. This was 1984, so they were a bit ahead of their time, really. Within a matter of months, I’d joined Napalm Death and sort of usurped Fall Of Because by presenting them with a bunch of hardcore records, like Discharge, and things like Swans and Sonic Youth. It all snowballed from there.
They got the band name from a Killing Joke song, right?
It was a combination of things, because Fall Of Because is also the title of a chapter in an Aleister Crowley book. I got into Crowley through Killing Joke because I’d read their interviews in the very early ’80s when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was fascinated with their obsession with the occult. And my mum and grandmother dabbled in the occult. My nan was actually a white witch, so I was fascinated by that sort of thing anyway. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if they had the name Fall Of Because before I joined the band. I’m quite lost on that, now that you mention it, because I was the one who exposed them to Killing Joke. So I’m not sure how they come ’round to the name. I know when I first met them they called themselves OPD, which stood for Officially Pronounced Dead. And then maybe I was the one who talked them into changing it to Fall Of Because? I honestly can’t remember.
Wait a minute: Your grandmother was a witch?
Oh, yeah, yeah—I thought you and I had talked about this stuff before. But we obviously haven’t. [Laughs] My mum practiced witchcraft for a while as well, before she started doing drugs and before she got into religion. My mum was born in Germany, where my nan is from. Unfortunately, my nan was forced to work for the brownshirts in Nazi Germany. She was there at the end, when Berlin crumbled. My granddad was a British soldier during the war, which is how they met. They lived in Germany for a number of years in a city called Bielefeld, where my mum was born before my granddad brought them back to England. But my nan was practicing witchcraft through most of the 1930s in Germany, and my great-nan as well. So this has run through my entire family on the German side—they’re all white witches, basically. But my nan was part of a coven, and was frequently found dancing naked in the woods.
You’re shitting me.
I know, it’s quite screwed up. [Laughs] My nan worked for a newspaper when the Nazis took over. She wasn’t a journalist—she was a typist, basically. The brownshirts obviously stormed all the newspaper buildings when they took over the press. But they needed the people who worked at these places, so they made [the newspaper employees] swear themselves to Hitler. One of their tactics was what they did to my nan—they got hold of her feet and dangled her out of the top-floor window until she said she’d work for fucking Hitler. She ended up having to type up all this Hitler Youth propaganda. It was really fucked up.
A hell of a story, though...
Yeah, I grew up with all these stories. I heard them when my mum and stepdad would go ’round to my nan and granddad’s house. They’d have these late night drinking sessions where they’d talk explicitly about witchcraft experiences. My great-nan died in the war, but my nan would talk about how she would still “visit” her at night. So I heard some pretty detailed stories, my nan talking about ritual swords and all these things, the whole time I was growing up. I found it all quite terrifying, irrespective of the fact that these were white witches.
Did your nan ever talk to you directly about her practice?
Barely. She was a very strange, cold German woman. She experienced so much horror during the war, especially at the end when they threw her in a concentration camp for about two months. She saw people literally being lined up and shot. So by the time I was a kid she was quite detached. When she would babysit me, I’d just sort of sit there quietly and draw because I was in fear of her and my granddad. It was quite an intimidating atmosphere. My nan came over here from Germany in 1953, when my mum was six, and she never lost her German accent. She never said much to me, but I overheard all these stories from the other room, you know what I mean? To this day, I still don’t know exactly which concentration camp they shoved her into. But I know they forced all the German prisoners to stand in front of a death-pile, basically—a 30-foot tall pile of bodies. Unfathomable horror. She was also in Berlin when the Russians arrived, which is of course another well-documented horror. The Russians literally tore German civilians to pieces, and they were raping women and children. My nan experienced that as well. So she was a totally, utterly detached woman by the time I came along.
Hearing that stuff must’ve scared the shit out of you as kid.
I think it had a huge impact on my childhood and quite a dramatic impact on my life, to be honest. Because it was child’s eyes and ears that experienced all that without the benefit of being able to talk to my nan and granddad in later years, when I was more mature—they were gone by then—I’m left with all these strange memories. It’s no surprise, really, the music I went on to make.
J. Bennett knows far too many witches for his own good.