Exclusive Interview with Justin Broadrick on All Things Jesu and Godflesh
Justin Broadrick is 44 and, thankfully for all of us, his career is far from over. This is due in part to the fact that he sees himself as 29, but also because he possesses some innate catalyst for musical creation – like a machine that takes influence from everything that surrounds him and turns it into artistic catharsis. This has carried him from one end of the spectrum to the other: channeling his upbringing in poor, industrial areas of Birmingham, England and creating the slow, crushing, punishing sounds of Godflesh and his later, softer life experiences like love, fatherhood, and tour-homesickness into the equally huge, chest-thunderingly heavy yet beautiful sounds of Jesu. Any cracks in his career during or before that time were also made productive by releasing material with Techno Animal, GOD, Final, Pale Sketcher, Greymachine, Scorn, Valley of Fear and, of course, one album with Napalm Death.
If you haven’t been to Birmingham, England, let me set the stage for you: it’s bleak. It’s full of ominous, dilapidated yet somehow still-functioning factories that have stood there for hundreds of years. The smells and sounds of industry can be heard throughout the city, morning and night, and even on the most beautiful sunny day, the greyness – in every sense of the word – has seeped through all aspects of humanity. The downtown area has been gussied up in the past couple of decades, but even so, if you walk five minutes outside of it you can easily find yourself in a dark, graffitied-up alley leading to the steel asylums of the outer areas. Do yourself a favor and take yourself on a Google Earth tour of Birmingham with Godflesh’s Streetcleaner blaring in your headphones. It’ll suddenly become perfectly clear. That being said, if it weren’t for Birmingham’s all-encompassing greyness, of course, we wouldn’t have metal at all, as it’s the site of Toni Iommi’s famous accident that lost him the ends of his fingers and changed the trajectory of heavy music forever. So thanks, Birmingham!
Broadrick, who spoke to me from his home in North Wales (he traded in Birmingham for rolling green hills, go figure), contacted me before our scheduled interview time to let me know that he was going to be a bit late because he was watching his two-year-old. (“I can’t leave him alone destroying our lounge!”) The very thought of Justin Broadrick, purveyor of the entire-body head bang, trying to keep a wild toddler at bay was both hilarious and impossibly endearing. The interview that follows is a great insight into his past, his influence, what’s to come and the details of Godflesh’s new album A World Lit Only By Fire, which he says will officially be released in May 2014.
So let’s start off with some Jesu stuff. In an interview back in 2011, you mentioned that you felt like you had lost some of your creative expression through Jesu. Yet you continued to make music with Jesu and not Godflesh. Did you rediscover that creative energy?
Yeah, I guess I did. I think Godflesh had only just reformed at that period, and that reunion spirit had influenced a new lease of energy for Jesu. I felt like I could re-focus and that Godflesh existing meant that Jesu could be more direct. I think I was a bit down on the Jesu releases around that period, as in I wish I would have gone further with them post-release. The new Jesu album really addresses that [and] is way more dynamic than the last couple of Jesu releases, again, thanks to the existence of Godflesh.
When you say “further” do you mean in live shows or just reflecting on how you would have recorded them differently?
The releases were for one of my hero’s labels, Mark Kozelek from Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters. When he came to me and my music, I was enamored with the concept of making very guitar-oriented records for him, almost like Hüsker Dü-style, and dropping most of the electronic side of Jesu. I just wish I hadn’t. [laughs] This decision also really affected the production – I wished it to be sort of lo-fi and roomy, but again once [Ascension] had been released and I had digested it further, I just wish I hadn’t been so self-conscious. It’s hard making records for a label run by one of your heroes! [laughs] With this new Jesu album being on my own label and coupled with the new Godflesh action, I really felt loose of a lot of my own self-limiting musical agendas. The album is still driven by the same melancholy as always, but it’s way more dynamic than the last few releases and harks back to one of my favorite Jesu releases, Silver EP.
It’s really cool that letting out your more aggressive side gave way to more inspiration on your melancholy side, too.
That’s it really. Being involved in something so crushing and aggressive/defensive again is a real inspiration to Jesu. I don’t have to juggle so much emotionally now with the Jesu project since it’s balanced by Godflesh existing. They’ll really help one another to focus.
Yeah, I can imagine that only letting out one side of yourself would feel really lopsided.
Very true. For me creative expression is all-consuming, and the need to express such extreme emotions is also draining and all-consuming. There’s very little middle ground with my music, in my opinion.
In the past you’ve mentioned that you don’t miss Birmingham. In your newest track, what were you discussing being “homesick” for?
No, I never miss Birmingham, but I find, as I get older, like most, I have become nostalgic, and I often fight being overwhelmed by nostalgia and the past. It’s sometimes comforting, sometimes sad, sometimes empty. The whole gamut of emotion, often. “Homesick” deals with these emotions. It also simultaneously deals with missing loved ones when away from home. For me that can be quite simply traveling often – since having my son I know that other love, and what that is, and how loaded that is, and the emotion of not wanting to miss a moment of his development and his joy of life untainted by age and maturity.
It seems like those human experiences would really lend themselves to Jesu’s subject matter and feeling.
Absolutely — ultimately that is the Jesu trip — emotions that we often don’t discuss, but maybe should, Having a child for me is an incredible experience on every imaginable level but to many it’s just business as usual; I don’t get that, I didn’t and never could take this lightly!
On the Godflesh side of things, it’s interesting; I spent two days alone in Birmingham in May and I was absolutely stunned by just how perfectly Godflesh’s sound encompasses the very feeling of the city. I found myself walking through the streets with your songs in my head.
[laughs] Wow, what were you doing there of all places?
I was in England to see Desertfest and I decided that I should do a Black Sabbath pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to really get a feel for where the music I love comes from, and as a music journalist I can use the education and perspective. Boy did I experience that full-force!
Ha! Yes! People often visit Birmingham and can visibly see how bands like ourselves, Sabbath, Napalm Death and so on were born from this city. You should have seen it in the ‘70s!
I’d love to hear some stories!
[laughs] It’s that period that influenced me most and the environment I grew up in, which was council estates on the fringe of the city. It’s often called the Detroit of England, which it basically was. It’s spruced up a bit now, not anywhere near as depressing as it was. People invariably miss the fact that it is also the second biggest city in England next to London. It’s big and sprawling.
Yeah, thick with industrial smells and sounds and a general greynness to it… not just in colors but in the grim feeling of everything as well.
Very, very true, but in the ‘70s it was SO grey! Because that’s the only function the city served was to populate itself with the cheap labor of the working classes to work in its factories churning out cars, etc. I genuinely went to sleep at night as a child, in the summer months, when the windows would be wide open, hearing and smelling local factories grinding away all night, and I really took notice, yet most of those I went to school with barely noticed a thing about their environment. Most don’t, I guess!
Do you think it was a defense mechanism to become immune? I’m thankful that all of that sensory overload affected you the way it did — you can hear it in all of the music you’ve created.
I do. I think it’s instinctive, like animals, to just evolve and adapt. We can mostly deal with what is thrown at us from birth since that’s all we know. It’s when we’re out of our comfort zone when things get trickier. But yeah, it’s all I knew too. My parents were former ‘60s hippies — not the classic middle class drop outs, more the council estate types — living poorly but with a taste for music. Outside of these environments we often did holidays out in Wales where I reside now, which is by and large unpopulated on the fringes, just countryside and mountains, and the sea, of course. I always pined for the pastoral once we’d return to the city, though ironically when I first left the city to live in the countryside I couldn’t adjust! It took me a few years to find my feet.
A huge culture shock, I’m sure!
Yes! Although I’d spent years frequenting these environments it was another thing entirely to live within it. Now I would never live in any city again!
You mentioned that the new Godflesh album, A World Lit Only By Fire, would be out in late 2013 or early 2014. Is that still in the works?
It’s almost entirely demoed now and we aim to record and mix it in the winter months, appropriately! It’s really taken some time to get this album in shape. I never wanted to rush this new album, but it will definitely be released in May 2014!
That’s awesome news. What can you tell us about it, stylistically?
It’s very much like the Godflesh of old, as in the first few albums, up to and including Selfless. It’s brutal, minimal, direct, punishing, unforgiving, surreal, discordant, and so on! But it also has a few songs with hip-hop beats, quite like Pure but much bigger!
How did you decide to cover “F.O.D.” for Decibel’s flexi series?
[laughs] It’s a song both Ben and I have loved for years and years, ever since that album came out. What I loved about Slaughter at the time was their Celtic Frost worship. I loved Celtic Frost, and most who have taken their influence; for example, I also love Obituary! But we always thought “F.O.D” was SO Godflesh in some weird sort of way. It’s brutal and minimal without any showy display.
I agree! It has that slow-punishment aspect going on.
Yeah, really simple, hard riffs; minimalistic.
A side note: I noticed you have Celtic Frost on your Spotify playlist. I think you made a lot of fans really happy with that discovery.
Ha! Yeah? To be honest, I always thought that people were aware of my Celtic Frost/Hellhammer obsession! Chiefly due to my pilfering of their riffs on my half of Napalm Death’s Scum album, where they were one of my biggest influences. That influence of course spilt over to Godflesh.
Ha! You certainly made them your own, though. They take on a different form.
I guess so. Everything mutates into another form somewhat with me, mostly because I’m not that adept at copying anything! [laughs]
Someone with as creative of a mindset as yours which has led to such prolific work over the years would find it hard to copy something exactly, anyway, I’m sure.
I’m very seriously influenced by others’ music. My thing is it’s mood and texture, I guess, more so than any technical showmanship, so I often take the emotional core of something and miss the other shit! [laughs]
That definitely makes sense. As you said earlier, you were deeply affected by your surroundings in the council estates of Birmingham, and I think that sensitivity lends itself to how other artists influence you as well.
True. Strangely, as well, I think what I do is somehow very English, almost quintessentially so; it’s idiosyncratic, odd, somehow — I’m a dreamer, always have been, a bit of an oddball and maybe that’s what gives my music some character. I’m lucky in that respect because that oddness, maybe, is what has given me a career in all this.
I think you’re right on the money there. By the way, are you aware that you might be single-handedly responsible for a huge spike in Decibel subscriptions?
[laughs] I’d be surprised actually! I thought potentially the opposite – people would be like, “Nah think I’ll pass the subscription this time.” [laughs]
No way. There are tons of sites advising people to get a subscription prior to September 3rd in order to get the issue with your flexi-disc!
I saw some of that. I thought they were advertising because the demand had been lower than expected. [laughs] Although talking to Albert at Decibel, he seems confident it’ll do okay. Funny.
I think it definitely bodes well for A World Lit Only By Fire!
Yeah, I hope so. The industry is vastly different since Godflesh last released a record, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go. I mean, we’re a ‘90s band, ultimately that’s the period we sold all our records in. And, you know, that’s when people actually sold records! So this will be all new in many respects.
I think it’s the perfect time for a band like Godflesh to resurface, actually — vinyl record sales are higher than they have been in years and people really crave the physical format of music. I think it’s a human quality that has been lacking for quite some time.
Yeah, I think we’ve had [so] many years now of the digital overload that even younger generations do wish to have physical products now. It’s true and heart warming. I like digital, too, for convenience, don’t get me wrong, and for some it’s the only way now, but we have to have physical products. There’s nothing like it!
The fact that Decibel’s flexi-disc series has been so popular is really inspiring in that regard! Besides, you’ve got some of the most loyal fans out there.
I laughed a little at the flex disc thing at first since they were so horrendous when I was growing up. They were novel little things but recently they’ve become somewhat fetishized, much like the rebirth of cassettes, quite odd, but nice to see people growing physically attached again! But then again I know that the Decibel flexis sound way better than back in the day!
Yeah, definitely. Hell, I’m 25 – the same age as Godflesh! – and the last time I saw Jesu, in 2008 or so, I bought three records. The younger generation is definitely standing behind you.
Wow, very cool. You’re not another 45-year-old person into this music! [laughs] We do actually have a lot of people way younger than ourselves coming to shows now. With Godflesh it’s very pleasant because when we first reformed we really did think we’d be playing solely to our age group. Jesu, though, has consistently had a young audience, which has always been refreshing. I’ve had Jesu fans come up to me saying they were surprised I’m so old! [laughs] I mean, I was 44 two weeks ago, but of course I still think I’m around 29! Oh, and thank you for buying those Jesu records that time – it probably helped us exist on that tour!
Those records helped ME exist in my late teens and early twenties, so thank you! [laughs] And you know what? Your young mentality is going to keep you way ahead of the game no matter what you’re doing.
Thank you very much! It’s an honor and a pleasure for me to be aware of my music affecting anyone in such a dramatic fashion. I hear many nice things from people regarding my music assisting them through many hard times, or even just the pleasure it gives them. For some, knowing they’re not alone with their emotions, that’s there’s always music somewhere, that helps.
Yeah, people need that at any age! What types of music do you play for your son?
I play everything for him, literally, and I listen to everything from brutal harsh noise all the way to singer/songwriter stuff or classical. Nothing escapes him, and it shouldn’t. I want him to be well-versed at an earlier age with all the languages of music so he is informed enough to be intelligent about music choices.
What UK bands do you like that we should we be looking out for?
I like very little new music I hear, especially in the realms of “heavy” music, although there’s a UK band called Conan people should check out, for fans of the excessively heavy. They’re brutal and minimal.
I saw Conan at Desertfest! Man, they were one of the heaviest bands I’ve ever seen. In every sense of the word.
Of course they played that. My PR over here told me they played and it was the first time she saw them too. She said it was wickedly brutal! Excellent! They’re really quite special, I think, especially in a genre that’s so over-saturated.
When I first arrived in London, my friend and I were trying to sort out our flat rental when he saw another guy walking down the street in a Conan shirt, which elicited a “CONAAAAAAAAAAAN!” bellow, as if he was screaming to his newfound brethren. The man just stared at my friend like he was insane. But it’s true that that band really brings out a different side of people…
[laughs] I love it! I like a lot of UK stuff that’s not “heavy” so I’d have to really think now. But I’ve just been told it’s my turn with my son for an hour now.
Absolutely. Thanks so much for your time! I really appreciate it and I’m sorry we went so over time. Really excellent chat!
No problem. It was a great chat! And see you in Portland I trust? Thank you!
I will absolutely come say hi!
For sure. Just look for the over-40’s club! And that’s not just the fans!