After helping to birth grindcore, industrial metal, and nü-metal, Justin Broadrick just wants to go on vacation and write sad, pretty songs
It all starts, in a perfect bit of irony, with Final. Thirteen-year-old Justin Broadrick, stuck in suburban Birmingham, inspired by anarchist punkers Crass and early industrial artists like Throbbing Gristle, set out to Do It Himself. "The first demo I ever made, I was 11 years old," Broadrick recalls. "That was just a pure punk demo, me singing in a broken voice with a shitty drum machine and shitty bashed-up guitar. My stepfather had the cheapest, most simplistic reel-to-reel recording system you could get in the early '80s." Crass' fanzine Toxic Procedure covered early industrial music, and Broadrick was inspired. "I was really attracted to all the imagery and the confrontational attitude they had, and they talked about the music being beyond the usual guitar/bass/drums format but still having the punk attitude," he says. "A lot of things happened for me from chance meetings at that time. I met Nic Bullen from Napalm Death at the same place I met Andy Swan, the guy I initially formed Final with, this place in Birmingham called the Rag Market, which was this huge traditional market with old man's clothes and shit. It was a really lowlife sort of place, and there was this one stall that sold bootleg cassettes.
"I used to buy live cassettes from this stall, and just couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was the first time I'd been exposed to brutal noise and stuff, and for me it had this energy that somehow related to being 13 and being an angst-y kid. I used to go down and hang out at this stall every Saturday afternoon, all afternoon, and I met this guy who was a year older than me. He said he had a synthesizer and had just started listening to Throbbing Gristle. We had a session where I brought some of the very basic equipment that my stepfather had, and he had an old Roland synth. We just made really basic, primitive sort of noise stuff. A year later, I met Nic Bullen at the same store. We got on, and I ended up in Napalm Death. Prior to that I was isolated in shithole suburban Birmingham, and I didn't know anyone who was the same age as me or had the same interests, but these chance meetings really started a whole thing for me."
"There were two people who ran the stall: one sold cassette bootlegs of punk bands, and the other sold industrial music," remembers Bullen. "The reason Justin and I met was that we were both looking at the industrial tapes, and so we got talking; we discovered we both liked similar music—Killing Joke, Crass, Discharge, Hawkwind, and so on—and shared other things, such as being pre-teenage vegetarians, and so we became friends. At the time, we were very much out on a limb because we preferred a harsher, more abrasive form of music than the majority of people we knew or would meet. We were interested in the darker aspects of music and art in general."
More than 20 years later, through Final, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Jesu, and countless side projects, Broadrick has built a discography that makes him look as prescient as Philip K. Dick. Even in just the past two decades, the definition of heavy music has expanded to include sounds from post-rock and shoegazer pop, ambient, breakbeats, even dub—sounds that Broadrick had incorporated into Godflesh and other projects years before anyone was talking about "art metal." It's in this wider world that a band like Isis can ply "metalgaze" to metalheads and indie-rockers and tour with avant-garde hip-hoppers dälëk, while dälëk's MC rapped for Broadrick's hip-hop project Techno Animal and Aaron Turner's label is home to Jesu, Broadrick's new band.
From art metal to artless metal, there's also a whole unfortunate subgenre based around downtuned, repetitive chugging and hip-hop beats that can trace its shallow roots to Godflesh. Even Brian "Brain" Mantia, currently doing time in the Axl Rose Experience, replaced the drum machine for Godflesh's Songs of Love and Hate in 1996. But better to focus on the good stuff. It's a few days before Christmas, and Broadrick is leaving tomorrow for an Amsterdam holiday. He's perfectly friendly and laughs easily, but he talks kind of like a Godflesh song: Everything's "massive" or had a "huge impact," whether it's Discharge or Kelis. ("You know that track 'Milkshake'? It's fucking huge, man, it's genius. The production, the beats… it's as surreal as anything you'd get from the deepest underground.") He brings up extremes of love and hate when talking about playing live; he says "absolutely" a lot, and "brutal" more than anyone outside of Mortician. He loves Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Craft, Deathspell Omega, and French black metal label Black Legions. Yet, I've warned him that we're starting from the very beginning. "I ran my own cassette label called Post-Mortem Recordings, where I released the early Final recordings," he says. "I had that label up until I started getting properly serious about Napalm Death when I was 15."
Broadrick's time in Napalm Death, which included the recording of what became the a-side of Scum, ended during that band's most tumultuous period. "I'm definitely a controlling person when it comes to music. Napalm Death, at the time of the first side of Scum, was full of very big personalities, and it was inevitable they were going to clash." Aside from the feuding, Broadrick was losing interest in hyperspeed while some American bands were redefining "heavy" as much as Napalm had.
"As soon as I heard Swans I knew there was something in their music I'd always been searching for," he says. "I was a Joy Division fan as a kid, and the guy I started Final with said, 'If you're a Joy Division fan, you've got to listen to this—it takes that to the nth degree.' So I heard [Swans' 1983 LP] Cop and thought, holy shit, this is the opposite end of the speed thing. It's using the same language to some extent, the same extremity and brutality, the formal abstraction, and that really attracted to me as opposed to the hardcore punk scene. There was something more out-there about it."
Broadrick soon joined Head of David, who were "like the West Midlands' answer to what was going on in America at the time with the whole post-hardcore, No Wave scene, like Swans, Sonic Youth and stuff," he says. "[Sonic Youth's] Confusion Is Sex was another huge turning point for me, like Cop. The beauty in the early '80s in the UK was when the whole commercialized consumerist punk rock scene had finished, and then all the real bands formed. It was like, Sex Pistols, whatever, but Public Image Ltd. was fucking genius. Things started mixing between dub and punk and krautrock—bands like Killing Joke and the Pop Group and the Slits. It was such an exciting time."
Has anyone ever said anything nice about Birmingham? Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and plenty of others have so frequently credited the working-class industrial city with that extra bit of bleak in their music that I'd swear "shithole" is officially part of its name. Broadrick calls the hippie commune his parents lived in for the first three years of his life "a total fucking urban, lowlife, really sort of nasty, hostile environment. Nasty and grimy. It wasn't some middle-class commune." At least his parents were cool hippies who were down with John Peel and not lame fashion hippies. "My mom and my stepdad had numerous bands that never did anything but make one 7-inch, and they were into a lot of 'out' music. My stepdad would be playing Pink Floyd, Can, Jimi Hendrix, and then they got into the early punk stuff, the Clash, Sex Pistols. I'd always heard Brian Eno as a little kid."
Along with an appreciation for hip music, the commune environment gave Justin an early opportunity to discover a major influence: pot. Early Godflesh interviews have him smoking "bales" of it (and talking a lot about paranoia). "My mom swears she never smoked any dope until just after I was born. I think she's trying to say I'm responsible," he laughs. "But it was everyone around in my immediate family: my mom and my stepdad, and my actual dad, who wasn't seen for about 14 years of my life, was a heroin addict. After he went off heroin, he just smoked dope all the time. By 14 or 15 it was getting into a daily habit and pretty much has been ever since. It had the biggest impact by the time I'd moved on to Head of David and Godflesh, which I guess is no great surprise considering those bands were considerably slower than Napalm Death," he chuckles.
Napalm Death, comprised of kids with no jobs, could never afford to buy the stuff, but Broadrick managed to find a few new friends who didn't mind sharing. "They were all five years older than me; I met them when I was 15, and they were three people who've been constant in my life ever since, musically: [Godflesh bassist G.C. "Benny"] Green, Paul Neville, who was in early Godflesh, and Diarmuid Dalton, who is the bass player in Jesu. They all lived in the same shitty, isolated neighborhood as I did, and I met them through Benny. The only reason he started speaking to me was because I was wearing a Stranglers t-shirt, and you never saw anyone punk-looking in that neighborhood. They all played instruments and smoked loads of dope, so I basically inserted myself into their group."
THE GREAT ANNIHILATOR
After Head of David and Fall of Because, an early group with Green and Neville, Broadrick decided to take HOD's noise rock "to the gutter, make it more machine-like." And so Godflesh, the duo of Broadrick and Green, announced itself on a self-titled mini-LP with "Avalanche Master Song": relentless drum machine and a single hypnotic sub-Swans riff. The mini-album got around to a few people, including Napalm Death's Mick Harris, and Godflesh were on their first tour of the UK. "I hadn't seen [Harris] in a year and a half, and Napalm had gotten really big. He'd heard the first album and was going fucking mental about it, like, 'You've got to come out with Napalm,'" Broadrick recalls. Of course, the crowds were the kind of people who yelled for Napalm and Extreme Noise Terror to "play faster!"
"That first tour, late 1988, the people were fucking stunned. It wasn't just the speed, it was the drum machine—that was way over people's heads. For at least the first year that we played, there were people chanting, 'Where's the drummer?' or 'You're too fucking slow!' People were throwing shit at us and jumping on stage and standing in front of us. I remember one show we played in Edinburgh, Mick actually ran onstage between songs, grabbed the mic and was like, 'What the fuck is wrong with you people?' A year later, we were playing to some of the same people who were screaming at us at that show.
"People just couldn't swallow it at the time. It was too much. It was quite telling for us to play shows like that, and it certainly didn't stop us; it just made us play even more hatefully. A lot of Godflesh was my reaction to the whole upper-middle-class, ponce-y anarchist scene. I started to find that even though I'd done my anarcho-posturing when I was a kid, the people we were posturing with were every bit as evil as the people we were trying to attack. That was the naïve impression I got then, but with Godflesh we were literally just like, fuck everyone. And that was obviously cultivated even further to make an album like Streetcleaner."
No joke. Godflesh's first Earache release and full-length is, well, fucking massive. It's almost nothing but rumbling lows and squealing highs, psychedelic explorations over mind-numbing repetition. Streetcleaner is a legitimately disturbing piece of work. The album was recorded in two separate sessions, one in Birmingham ("not coincidentally, in a very industrial neighborhood") and one in Nottingham set up by Earache owner Digby Pearson with Paul Neville on second guitar. "Earache was still being run out of Digby's flat, so we were going to the studio in Darby and then getting a train back to Digby's," says Broadrick. "He'd meet us at the station and we'd go sleep at his flat, then go back to the studio the next day." It was released with much wider distro than the mini-LP, and Godflesh toured the States on an Earache tour with Napalm and Nocturnus in 1991. Streetcleaner's influence was almost immediate, and in the US, industrial music became very hip among open-minded metalheads.
"It was the first time I'd been in America. It was a huge culture shock. When we got back to England after that tour, our records started to make an impact over here and we started to see that there was some influence going on with some bands starting to sound like us," Broadrick says. "I was quite precious about it when I was younger. I remember getting really pissed off hearing bands trying to copy us; just arrogant, basically. Like the first time I heard a Pitchshifter record-they'd been coming to our shows, and our sound guy at the time told them what drum machine we used; they went out and bought the same one. I was really fucking nasty at the time."
"In retrospect, I like those early [Pitchshifter] records," he laughs. "They're really fucking brutal. Once I got past being an arrogant little prick, I've been grateful that it's had any kind of impact. When I got more into my 30s, I got a bit more perspective, and I can't believe all these things that happened when I was that age."
DON'T SWEAT THE TECHNIQUE
Post-Streetcleaner, releases like Slavestate and Pure experimented with dance beats, dub, hip-hop breakbeats, and ambient guitar pieces. Godflesh toured the US supporting bands like Danzig and Skinny Puppy. Between albums, they released several EPs, often featuring remixed or dub versions and new experiments that would then be incorporated into the next album.
"I really like the idea of just showcasing a few songs," Broadrick says. "To me they were as relevant as an album—it was saying something in a more concise way. You can do something conceptually in three or four songs; you can execute one idea and then move on from it. I love the format and I'd be happy just to release EP after EP because you can get so much out of your system; there's room for more experimentation and you don't get held accountable for it. Albums always feel like a bit more of a responsible thing, regardless of how selfishly I do them."
Through that weird "alternative metal" period that preceded nü-metal, Justin became the go-to guy when Pantera or the Lemonheads needed an industrial remix. Danzig and Faith No More both asked him to join as guitarist. Kirk Hammett was a big fan who recorded a few tracks with Broadrick in 1994 "absolutely out of our heads on drugs" at a party, he recalls. Then in 1995, a bomb marked "produced by Ross Robinson" dropped on the metal industry: K-o-backwards-R-n, swiftly followed by lots more dudes with phonetic spellings and low-slung seven-string Ibanez. It was embarrassing for everyone. This stuff didn't come out of nowhere, and Godflesh's increasingly hip-hop-influenced, monolithic speaker-rattling had obviously influenced the first generation of nü-metal crews.
"I remember being truly stunned when I heard that first Korn album, because there's so much Godflesh in that, but used in this commercial way," Broadrick says. "It was weird. Like, wow, I guess it had to happen at some point; somebody had to take these sorts of sounds and make them digestible. I guess [when bands have] a major label, good marketing, extensive touring, playing the industry game to some extent… it's not surprising.
"In the early '90s, up until about the time nü-metal really exploded in '95, we had no shortage of offers to do big tours of the States. We were offered everything from Soundgarden to Living Colour, Sepultura, Primus, and we just didn't do any of those tours because I didn't want to spend my life on the road. Playing live is a really painful thing for me because every time I hit the stage I feel like I'm going to explode from the opposing emotions. There are these musicians who get onstage like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna kick your ass and ROCK, fucking brilliant!' I get on stage and I want to crawl under my amp." Rather than tour, Broadrick threw himself into electronic projects like Techno Animal, Final (now ambient solo guitar), Ice, Techlevel2, Curse of the Golden Vampire, and others. He says these projects were "really liberating for a while, because I didn't have a guitar strapped around my neck. Electronic music was just exciting me more [in the mid-'90s] as well. I had these stages, probably even into my early 30s, where I'd become obsessed with one form of music and just immerse myself in it for a year or two, and try to emulate it or use it. Not because I think I'm some great innovator—I just get bored." Influences from Broadrick's dabblings with hip-hop and drum 'n' bass turned up in later Godflesh LPs Songs of Love and Hate and Us and Them.
SOMETHING MUST BREAK
After the 2001 LP Hymns, which featured former Swan Ted Parsons on drums, Benny Green left Godflesh. "He didn't want to do these tours any more, simple as that," Broadrick says. "It's not like he'd had enough of music or working in the studio; he just couldn't be arsed about being in his late 30s and being stuck on the road." Paul Raven from Killing Joke was drafted to play bass for a European tour with Fear Factory, and a US tour for Hymns was booked with High on Fire and Isis as support. (Those two bands touring together today would be kind of like the hipster metal equivalent of Guns N' Roses/Metallica in 1992.) On the eve of the flight to the States, Broadrick's conflicting emotions about touring and Godflesh's music hit a critical mass, and he announced that Godflesh was no more. The decision put Broadrick into financial ruin, disappointed US fans, and put everyone involved in the tour up shit's creek. "My timing wasn't commendable, obviously," he admits.
"If I hadn't made that decision in this country, I would have made it while I was in America and flown back anyway," Broadrick continues. "It was over, and that was it. I remember playing certain shows on the very last Godflesh tour with Fear Factory and everything just felt wrong. Ben had already left by this time, and I really did feel like, 'What am I doing here? I just don't feel right about any of this anymore.' But everyone was like, 'It'll be fine-just get on the tour, you'll be fine,' which couldn't be further from the truth. It turned into agoraphobia, virtually. It was just a fucking nightmare. I hope I'll never have to relive that again."
Almost immediately, Broadrick formed Jesu with Ted Parsons and Diarmuid Dalton. Instead of Streetcleaner's fuck-everyone approach, Jesu is Justin getting seriously emo. "At first, it was the sound of resignation. Giving up, like, the battle's over, I just want to be cocooned in the womb," he says. "I was completely free to make this music I'd been trying to get out for a long time but hadn't really touched on, with pretty melodies and this huge sense of melancholy, sadness, and loss. That's probably the strongest emotion that I do still go through every day. It's the sound of isolation, to some extent, the beauty in that and the sadness of it as well. The bottom line is if it makes me feel like an emotional wreck. That's what I'm trying to do, things that really hit my heart."
"Justin had been writing Jesu songs at the tail end of Godflesh, I think," Parsons writes when asked about the end of the band. "I don't think he was so pleased with the way Hymns turned out. That was the first time he recorded outside his own Avalanche studio, at the request from the label. I think we all believe now that it was a mistake. I respect the fact that Justin wanted to close the last Godflesh chapter after Benny left and move on."
And that finally brings us up to the present day. Jesu's new album, Conqueror, is imminent, and Broadrick already has another EP's worth of songs ready to go. He's also taking Jesu to the US for the first time for a tour with Isis and Torche. So, uh, he's definitely coming this time, right? "Absolutely," he affirms. "I think that at the time [of the aborted Godflesh tour], things got misinterpreted as me not wanting to get on the plane, but it was me not wanting to continue Godflesh. It just all happened to come to a head the day I was meant to fly to the US. The flight was just symbolic, you know?"
April 20, 1991: Godflesh played at the Country Club in Reseda, CA. Burton C. Bell of Fear Factory was there. So was the crew of Hard 'N' Heavy video magazine for their "Grindcore" issue, which I watched the night before I called Broadrick.
"Oh my God, no."
Oh yes. In the Hard 'N' Heavy interview, 21-year-old Broadrick—who's rolling some sort of cigarette throughout—urges open-minded metalheads to listen to Godflesh and sums up their aesthetic by saying, "The only thing we relate to is extremity."
"I fucking hate that interview," Broadrick bristles, "because I'm so young and full of shit, really full of what was going on with Godflesh, and when I watch it now I just cringe to see myself as a stupid little child."
"The only thing we relate to is extremity" is pretty severe. Does he still feel the same way 16 years later and older, post-Godflesh? "To some extent, yes," he says. "That's probably across the board for me in terms of music, visual art, whatever. I had the whole phase as a kid of watching all this extreme gore, but I'm not as interested in that anymore as I am with things that are just 'out.' It was definitely appropriate then.
"The whole thing with extremes is how often Godflesh and the people around us were just taking shitloads of acid and listening to extreme music, watching extreme films, you know? That's how the cover of Streetcleaner came about: We would watch Altered States on too many tabs, and every time we'd come to that one sequence with everyone burning on the crosses, we were just like, 'Holy fuck!' Those sorts of trips we had, watching Altered States and The Devils, were such an influence on Streetcleaner and Pure and everything.
"Half of Conqueror is about drugs," Broadrick says. "Some of it is recounting some experiences that I've had one on one with drugs and with nature, through acid and things like that. Some of the best trips I ever had were either very isolated or out in the woods, seeing nature on that level, the ultimate power of nature as opposed to us.
"Not that I'm suggesting that anybody do that."