Justin Broadrick interview: Godflesh, growing up and anarcho-punk

By: jonathan.horsley Posted in: featured, interviews On: Friday, October 7th, 2011

532px-Justin

If Godflesh’s supremo of beats ‘n’ riffs, Justin K. Broadrick, is having trouble getting an unbroken night’s sleep, it’s not the attendant stress of having resurrected the industrial metal project for near-monthly live excursions after a near-ten-year hiatus. It’s not their forthcoming appearance at UK metal-fest Damnation that’s worrying him either, because he and Ben “G.C.” Green have got the cold hate of Godflesh’s industrial heart beating again. It’s because he’s recently become a father to a three-month-old son, and fatherhood is a notorious thief of a good night’s sleep.

Fatherhood is a life-changer, even bigger than finding himself musically through the beyond influential Godflesh, which he formed in 1988, and the numerous projects he has engaged in since Godflesh dissolved in 2002—the metal-gaze introspection of Jesu; the monochrome fuzz-and-hiss of Greymachine; ambient experimentalism with Final have all let Broadrick articulate different emotions in recent years.

But even dealing with the headfucking aspect of assuming the role of patriarch, Broadrick finds his relationship with a council estate upbringing in Birmingham, England and the dark, extreme aesthetic of Godflesh’s nihilistic bombast in stasis. Living in the verdure of rural Wales might symptomatically suppress his long-held feelings of urban claustrophobia but it hasn’t expunged them.

Godflesh in 2011 appears unchanged, even if real life has made it move at its own (slower) pace creatively. A new album will happen when the time is right. In the meantime, it’s diapers and Damnation. This week, the Deciblog was lucky enough to speak to Broadrick about Godflesh’s Damnation set, growing up in a harsh industrial landscape, the anarcho-punk gigs that informed his worldview, and how Godflesh means just as much to Broadrick now as it did back in the day.

How has fatherhood changed your mindset?
Justin Broadrick: Yeah, oh my God, and I’m not exactly young now, I’m 42 this year but I am 42 going on 16. I really haven’t had the most mature, responsible mindset. It brought everything home, the sense of responsibility, and I don’t take the concept of having children very lightly, it’s a a real heavy thing, clearly the heaviest thing that’s ever happened in my life. It’s overwhelming, and I don’t take anything lightly, just like most of the music I make, it’s another one of those moments, character-defining in a way, certainly, it’s a period of intense transition. I’m still trying to find my feet getting back to what I’m used to be doing, musically.

Have you been playing music to him?
JB: I am, on and off, not like some people who drill music into them as soon as their born. His first six weeks, most of that was me just playing him ambient, experimental music to him, purely just so he could relax so he might have all these memories of being played obscure soundscapes all night long.

You’re in rural Wales, now, I’m envious considering how intense London is.
JB: Oh London’s a complete fucking head-fuck. I’m from Birmingham, spent my first 24 years in Birmingham, but I’ve never lived in an urban area since. I’ve pretty much, slowly but surely, become more isolated in the locations I’ve lived in.

It’s strange that you’ve resurrected Godlfesh at a time when you’re living a rural life: Godflesh is so urban.
JB:
Absolutely, it’s entirely urban. Jesu is probably more an inspiration of nature and isolation, and that sort of environment but Godflesh is totally borne from those first 24 years of my life that I spent in Birmingham. To me, I don’t think Godflesh would have existed if I’d come from another environment, it’s absolutely a reflection of the environment that I grew up in. It’s not just the environment but the personal situation I grew up in, etc. Council estates, and all that stuff.

Given the break and your locale, does Godflesh now feel a bit alien, is there a bit of distance between that state of mind and yourself now?

JB: What I considered, initially, upon the dissolution of Godflesh, was that it did feel distanced by that time, but I felt that’s just because I was so immersed in it. I mean, towards the end of Godflesh I was living in a more natural environment and still pursuing Godflesh; I guess it was slightly at odds then because I’d only just escaped the urban living, I felt a bit at odds with that initially. Taking a break from Godflesh, and coming back to it, it feels as appropriate as it did years ago. I think what it did, as I’ve matured, I’ve realised how scarred I am, living that sort of existence for 24 years, the impact that has had across my entire life: it’s pretty much shaped how I am, and that same misanthropic [outlook]. Whenever I go back into urban areas I feel totally uncomfortable, and I think Godflesh is still presenting exactly what I grew up with and exactly what runs through my blood. It’s really important that that sense of expression is back in my life. I think I’d lost it through Jesu. But really, it’s not just some re-visitation for me, it really feels like I’ve gone back to what I am in a way. It’s just that sense of opposition, like I can’t suppress what’s naturally inside me when I go back into urban areas, or I go back amongst crowds of people, being surrounded by concrete.


These sort of feelings come and go, but you can’t really escape them when they’re such a part of you.

JB: Exactly, and of course, as I’m reconciling the bringing up of my own son, how important those formative years are; everything you are to an extent is pretty much shaped by those first five or six years, and I feel that really fascinating, that those formative years really do shape the rest of your life personality-wise. Of course, you’re always growing and the rest of it, but it’s just really important, the impact that has on your personality. I think I was definitely shaped by that, even living in a rural place it’s hard for me to shake off, it’s not nostalgia or any form of sentimentalism, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Living in council estate flats in grey areas, hearing the factories churning out all night and the smell of chemicals in the air, and just the grim faces of people on the street! This shit that I grew up with, my whole childhood was spent around it and I feel indelibly marked by it. It’s like something I don’t think I’ll ever shake off, and I’m really glad it’s something that I don’t have to put my son through.

The city can be so grim and impersonal.

JB: Exactly, you become depersonalized, and I was just totally at odds with that. It was due to something, maybe natural selection or whatever, but I was really sensitive to my environment, as everyone I was around just seemed to mould into it; they were it, the kids that I hung around with, nearly nine out of 10 of them were not even remotely affected by their environment. I could see what it was; my mum and my step-dad would take me out, and fortunately they had a bit more of a vision outside of the shithole council estates we lived in, so they would take me out to the country, even just regular holidays, but it was always the UK, by beaches or even just camping in some field. I always had an affinity with those sorts of humanless landscapes, that space, that solitude: I just loved the vibe of that sort of environments. And then you go back to the concrete hell, the yellow streetlights, and everything like that is still there! To me, it’s all the same, growing up in the ’70s, I don’t see a fat lot of difference from how it started it off. The internet age, retro chic, remove all that fucking bullshit and it seems to be the same apes on the street, still the same language.

What other country in the world would have this sulphurous amber lighting its streets, like a warning light?

JB: Yeah! It’s bizarre, that lighting still affects me so much, like you say, you go across the world and don’t see that. Here, though, it feels so weird; still, when I’m in cities now, I have the same feelings that I had when I was a kid, everything’s still bathed in that light.

Britain’s working class city’s can be at opposite extremes, though, there’s the whole arty/music side and then this disembodied underclass with no hope.
JB: Absolutely, it’s that odd paradox. I found that growing up in Birmingham. I had all this creative edge to my personality and went to a council estate school, where anything remotely arty was used as being completely alien to these people.

People would call you a poof if you were reading a book.

JB: Exactly, yeah, that’s it: anything remotely arty would be met with absolute derision. There were so few people, I was just lucky enough to find enough people in these places who actually were, well firstly, enamoured by music. That was the thing for me, it was at least like we were slightly the same, speaking the same language.

You form alliances with other scenes, outside of metal too, it’s just a question of sticking with the people who like music no matter what it was, because it was better than just drinking and fighting.
JB: Yeah, experimenting and seeing no divisions. I guess, I always say that music changed my life in that respect, just in terms of wanting to make it. And it’s thanks to my parents again, just ‘cos they were sort of failed musicians, classic poor council estate ex-hippies, but they just about got bands together but it was all just council estate shit, no record labels being interested and not knowing the right people and all the rest of it.

But there would be records lying about the house to plant the seed.
JB: Exactly, the kids that I knew, their parents would have been too busy being in football stadiums beating the shit out of each other, listening to David Essex. My lot would be listening to Jimi Hendrix records, Pink Floyd records, and even early punk like the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, so in the mid to late ’70s I’d listen to those records. I just got lucky in that respect.

It’s luck that you get exposed to that early because when you’re young you just want something to identify with, and mould your identity to as an adult.

JB: Absolutely, you’re just a sponge, and your parents are just the classic… You just absorb everything from them, in a way, without them being into that sort of music, hell knows I’d probably be this hyper-sensitive guy working in a fucking factory in Birmingham, not knowing how to express myself and feeling alienated but working in the only environment that I know. I guess it’s just them, exposing me to that sort of music and me just seeing it for what it was.

There’s a sort of dichotomy, that you can be arty and creative but you know you also belong there, because there’s where you’re from.
JB: It’s always inside you. It’s like when I see old photos of shithole council estates, next door to factories: that’s me, that’s where I was born, those are the first things I saw, the first smells in the air. And like I was saying, factories grinding away through the night… All those cliches, they were very, very real.

Do you kind of feel a bit guilty for wanting to do something different?
JB: Absolutely, you were pretty much made to feel like that at school, a council estate school, you’d be lucky if one per cent were interested in something outside of getting into fights, getting pissed up, and lurking outside of council estates. I mean, I did my fair share of that as well, but with a Stranglers t-shirt on, you know what I mean! Ha ha ha! They were wearing Birmingham City football strips. It’s just as tribal; I guess coming from those sorts of areas you learn what tribalism is all about, especially in the ’70s, everything was so fucking tribal back then and I suppose it is now but it’s a bit more tarted-up. Everybody’s as uniform now, it’s still the same codes.

Have you been writing for Godflesh?
JB: Really, really slowly. I guess because I’ve had my son, it’s slowed things down a bit for us. I mean, Ben Green got married last year and he still holds a very good job, so he’s very busy, we’re both very busy but we have a lot of ideas. Also, there’s no way we’d approach a new record just to milk the new-found popularity of Godflesh. I mean, it could take another year before we release something, and even the intitial impact of the reformation could have subsided by then, but that’s kind of meaningless, really, it’s just making another really good, cold and bleak record. And it’s more than in us, it’s in me, it still translates the same emotions that I’ve been struggling with all my life.

Would you say Godflesh is the best way you’ve found to articulate the more aggressive emotions?
JB: Absolutely, and the defensive side as well. I mean, Jesu was another realm altogether and it was intended to be, it was meant to be distanced from Godflesh, that was the whole point and it was more of an indulgence in terms of other aspects of things that I enjoyed but couldn’t touch upon in something like Godflesh. Even if Godflesh touched upon some of the premises of Jesu, Jesu is the full-blown conceptualization a form of pop, a heavier form of it but a form of pop all the same. It’s just in my context, it’s clearly far from any sort of pop music. Arguably, it still contains a lot of Godflesh because, in a way, you could say that’s still how I am, and Jesu is a deviation, an odd root away from the whole Godflesh thing. Essentially, Godflesh is what I’ve always been.

Understanding yourself through each project is maybe something you’ll never understand.
JB: To be honest, that’s how I am, constantly reflecting on myself and distancing myself from whatever idiot I was previously, or trying to correct it. I think musically it’s the same thing, I always focus on the mistakes rather than the triumphs.

Is that not what keeps you coming back for more?
JB: It’s not feeling like you’ve ever reached any sense of perfection in any respect. Of course I know that doesn’t exist but even just getting close to what is in my head, creatively, that’s a battle in itself.

Was there trepidation when going back to Godflesh?

JB: Initially there was, it was really scary. I’d got so used to Jesu, just in the recording and in live performance, and things becoming more sombre, but I knew I absolutely wished to be expressing that sense of frustration and confusion, and cold hate, to a certain extent. Frustration and confusion, really, in a sort of implosive way, that’s how I’d describe Godflesh; it is extremely cathartic, it’s truly cathartic, whereas Jesu wouldn’t be, it is much more introspective.

What makes you feel better, afterwards, a Godflesh or a Jesu gig?

JB: Godflesh, definitely. Jesu is just much more… It just never feels right, even in a live setting: there’s so much that goes wrong. I mean, Godflesh used to be plagued by so much shit like that as well but to be honest it’d be fuel to the fire sometimes, it made it even more enjoyable. Godflesh can rely on bombast, ‘cos that’s what’s central to it, at its core, ultimately, whereas Jesu is much more translating something pretty but in a heavy and ugly way, that’s such a challenge. Live, and on record to some extent, it’s so much easier on record. Godflesh is so much easier live; it’s just having the energy [to do it]. Sometimes it’s even more abstract than Jesu. There’s a sense of abstraction at the core of Godflesh as well, it’s the emotions that you just can’t articulate, generally bleak ones obviously, but they’re the things that just cannot be resolved, even with language. Godflesh is more demanding [of the listener]; Jesu is more pastoral. Often when I go record Jesu, or be writing it, I could just be staring out of a window at trees and be inspired, but Godflesh just isn’t like that, it’s much more physical, multi-faceted. Again, it’s not something that I could articulate. A lot of the music I’ve stretched for, especially coming out of council estate schools, I was never taught how to be able to satisfactorily articulate the emotions I was going for. I didn’t have the education under my belt to do that but I always felt aware of it in my head. I wasn’t able to go to college, university, anything: I left school when I was 15, straight into playing music—as you probably know, with Napalm Death initially. But by the time I reached Godflesh, it had all that sense of abstraction, a language that I couldn’t speak, y’know? But it could be articulated through music. Writing stuff for Godflesh was much more satisfactory.

Metal has got a very uncomfortable relationship with electronica and instrumentation out of the drum, bass, guitar model: what do you put this down to?
JB: I guess one of the things about metal is that it’s really stigmatised, even with myself in Godflesh, when we first became somewhat popular, I was very eager at that time to distance myself from metal, and I think that’s because at the time there was very little like Godflesh. The most popular metal when Godflesh became popular in 1989/90 was the back-end of the hair metal thing and Godflesh played with a lot of bands, a lot of tours in America like that, and I became quite repulsed by the whole circus of heavy metal. But, essentially, I’ve always been excited by what’s central to heavy metal, which is the sound, the texture of heavy metal. That was it, for me. Godflesh was about pure reductionism, minimalism, reducing heavy metal to its absolute primitives. But also, as you said, these elements of electronica, machines, quite literally the very primitive stages of being able to program computers and use machine beats, which for me, initially, was as informed by Public Enemy and Eric B and Rakim records as it was anything beyond that and being able to create beats bigger than a human drummer could do.

Those old-school hip-hop beats were so simple.
JB: Those early hip-hop records like that were so primitive and it was all beat-box driven, which I absolutely adore. Even when you went to the shows in the late ’80s, Public Enemy live, the rapping was so low in the mix you’d just be left with a beat, whereas if you went to a heavy metal concert it was much more conservative. Ultimately, that’s the funny thing about every metal, for all its posturing and bravado it’s actually extremely conservative, testosterone-driven, and all those cliches which I absolutely detested by the time Godflesh got any sort of popularity. I felt really uncomfortable being viewed as a metal band, whereas eventually and probably now I’m quite satisfied with being viewed as a metal artist.

It’s another box, another council scheme if people just think you are a metal guy?
JB: That’s totally true, and again that was a symptom of the time, and I think I felt exactly what you said, that being seen as a metal guy in 1990 would seem really one dimensional, that you have no taste outside of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. I was all for, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, trying to turn people on to new music with each Godflesh interview, especially if it was in metal rags, people who only bought it because Skid Row were on the front cover. I relished being in there talking about Throbbing Gristle, Public Enemy, or stuff like that, and I was met with so much derision over these comments and influences, which eventually became unquestionable: years later you had Korn becoming huge and they’d be spouting all sorts of shit about hip-hop people and rapping in their tunes and it was filling out stadiums.

And then all these people got into the most awful hip-hop.

JB: Once again, the lowest common denominator rises! Ha ha!

Well the thing hip-hop shares with metal is its awkward/dysfunctional relationship with its feminine side.
JB: Absolutely, again it’s hidden under, well, not hidden under the surface it’s just absolutely brutal. I felt at odds with all of those movements because they were just driven by a hate that I couldn’t connect with. Godflesh as a band saw a lot of that, especially on tour with bands who spouted really hateful stuff every night, and I don’t mean on a fucking stage, it’d be backstage, just sexist, racist… Everything that we actively opposed.

How has your appreciation of heavy metal changed through the years?
JB: Strange, really, I still listen to the old records that I used to love back in the day, so to speak. I still listen to a lot of the old classic stuff, but in terms of heavy metal and what it’s had to offer me, contemporary heavy metal, I’d be more interested in black metal.

Is that because it can take on so many different textures and still retain its ethos?

JB: Yeah, and I truly find that some of the stuff that Godflesh were doing but other people weren’t was experimenting with extreme dissonance, and it’s central to a lot of black metal and I find that really exciting. It’s genuinely fucking abstract sounding; it conjures up images that are beyond the silly satanic stuff or vikings with big swords. A lot of that stuff is obviously extremely silly. But musically, there is stuff there texturally which I find really fucking interesting. Just again, discordance: there’s a real examination of discordance, which is another thing I love about guitar.

It lets the audience put some work in to get something out of it.
JB: It’s somewhat ambiguous and I like that, with Godflesh that was half the story, presenting something where you would have to do the work—the audience would—and there’s an ambiguity, and leaves it open to the audience. I enjoy that, because for me that’s what I first enjoyed about music when I was presented with it as a child. I didn’t care if it was some sort of intensely dogmatic music, like Crass, I still made my own pictures, y’know what I mean.

With Crass, though, the production values make the music in a sense, abstract, the riffs are hidden in scratchy fuzz, so maybe you could tune out, musically.
JB: Bang on, that’s absolutely bang on: it’s those sort of fucked-up productions that really draw me to music, even so much so that the music itself is actually uninteresting, just the fact that the texture of it, it’s so unusual, this clash of textures, and that sometimes is something I can get off on listening to really badly produced record!

A lot of punk was boring riffs, self-aggrandizing, but Crass sounded properly angry and dangerous. What do you remember of those gigs?

JB: The early Crass concerts I saw as a kid in Birmingham were just life-changing. I was really young, but kids of any age could walk into one of those shows at that time, if their parents were liberal enough to let them go. But it really was life-changing and it was really, still some of the most abstract things I’ve ever seen in terms of life performances from bands. It was truly weird, made all the more weird by having a good portion of the audience just made out of football hooligans who’d just caught on to punk rock as an excuse to beat the shit out of something, you know what I mean, all just chanting along to all these fucking liberal lyrics, chanting along while punching their mate in the head.

You could see what they [Crass] were doing, if they adopted that language, because people soon discovered that virtually all of them were from quite affluent backgrounds, but they were using that sort of football terrace delivery to deliver these existentialist problems. Ha ha! It’s almost comedic; there’s something Monty Python about it. It was fucking abstract as fuck, just beholding that as a 13-year-old. Crass were pretty big when I saw them; it was at those huge shows were you had about 18 bands for a quid. Crass were the headliner, but also you got to see like, I remember the first time I saw them Conflict played, it was their first ever show, Flux of Pink Indians, Dirt, I think Zounds were playing; it was just a lot of the classic bands. But there was always this division between the band and the audience, except for Crass who had that football terrace delivery. You could just tell that a lot of people on the stage were from pretty good backgrounds, with a lot of council estate punks spitting at them down the front.

It was really tense, really fucking tense, and it was only when I got a little older that I took it for what it was. Because as soon as you walked in you’d be bombarded with their banners, before anyone had played. There was a dimly lit stage; everything looked Xeroxed, y’know, which I was immediately drawn to, aesthetically, and still am to this day. And then the films playing, you’d have three projections of the the classic anti-consumerist stuff of the day, and the vegetarian thing. I mean, I became a vegetarian virtually overnight after seeing Crass, because it was exposing people to slaughterhouses so if you had sensitivity, which a huge majority of the audience didn’t, but me and a couple of kids standing around me, I could tell we were maybe from the same neck of the woods and had a slightly sensitive disposition—we were nearly throwing up, we’d never seen the inside of a slaughterhouse and now we were being bombarded with it.

It’s probably too late for us to have another truly life-changing experience at a gig.
JB: I hate to say it myself but yeah. It sounds jaded, and I don’t want to sound jaded but I think we’re all a bit too desensitised to it now. Back then, this was rare, I mean, we had three channels on TV at the time. It’s information overload to the point where it all becomes absolutely fucking meaningless. To think now that kids can just send someone the most extreme image with a phone and things and extremity is just a word banded about. Back then, even video nasties [had power].

The information has less value nowadays.

JB: Everything’s been devalued. Everybody’s all about been there/done it and it’s really hard to construe to younger generations how much of an impact culture would have on you back in the day, and how little we had. Trying to explain that to someone who is even 19 or 20 now is virtually impossible; they have everything. But the thing is, they have everything at their fingertips and they’re fucking bored shitless!

Godflesh will play Damnation Festival on Saturday 5th November.
If you’re in the UK and/or can make it to Leeds you can buy a ticket here.
The Devin Townsend Project, Decapitated, Ulver, Dragged into Sunlight, Evile and Doom are playing, too amongst others.

  • Alex13

    I’ll read anything featuring Mr.Broadrick, being that he is one of my favorite musicians, but i must say, this was a particularly great interview.

    • Anonymous

      Seconded. Justin is one of my all-time favorite musicians (see screenname), and one of very few celebrities I would describe as a ‘role model’. It was great to hear him speak candidly on everything from Crass shows to how the realities of fatherhood have affected his art. Wonderful stuff, guys.

  • Anonymous

    awesome interview, I don’t normally identify or relate to other musicians, especially not those that are more known – but Broadrick always struck a chord with me, something I can’t quite define or put into words – it’s strange how much impact he and his music has had on me and my life, yet even now years later I still can’t put that into words.

  • http://soundcloud.com/alerttm Alert KBN

    My favorite quotes from this awesome interview:

    “humanless landscapes”

    “it seems to be the same apes on the street, still the same language”

    “constantly reflecting on myself and distancing myself from whatever idiot I was previously”

    “reducing heavy metal to its absolute primitives”

    “Once again, the lowest common denominator rises! Ha ha!”

    GODFLESH was the soundtrack to my life back in 1992

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the best Godflesh interview I’ve ever read.
    I still try to listen to something by Broadrick everyday. Nothing can compare to it, except maybe the sound the city emminates.
    I first got into ‘em listening to a tape of Slavestate riding on an Cleveland city bus…now I live in Akron between Locust & Furnace Streets!

  • Grendelmon

    Stumbled upon this page while searching about their latest EP. Fantastic interview. Decline and Fall is must for Godflesh fans!