|Playing favourites: Justin Broadrick
Napalm Death, Godflesh, Techno Animal: RA delves into the world of the Birmingham-bred noisemaker.
Prolific is probably an understatement for Justin Broadrick, who by 18 had already achieved more than your average teenage music zealot could ever dream of. He recorded with seminal grindcore band Napalm Death at just 15 years old, and then went on to form the just-as-influential industrial/metal group Godflesh with Ben "G.C." Green. In 1989 the duo dropped their landmark debut album, Streetcleaner. Two years later, Ghosts introduced Broadrick's collaboration with Kevin Martin as Techno Animal. An equally admired partnership that spawned a further four full-lengths—including a split with German outfit Porter Ricks—the project touched on everything from industrial, ambient and breakbeat, to techno, dub and jazz.
By the end of the '90s, Broadrick was at a crossroads. Shortly after the release of Hymns—Godflesh's sixth and final album—Green left and the outfit dissolved. That same year Techno Animal released their swansong as well, Brotherhood of the Bomb. After a two year hiatus Broadrick returned with Jesu, still one of his most poignant records. The album marked a clear departure from the "angry and more hateful music" he had previously made, lending his heavy signature to a more lyrical and melodic exploration of sound.
Pale Sketcher is his most recent project, emerging on Ghostly International as an electronic extension of Jesu. Other aliases have appeared in between—Final, White Static Demon, Council Estate Electronics, Greymachine and JK Flesh, to name a few. With the latter poised for its debut outing proper, Posthuman, we caught up with Broadrick for a special Playing Favourites in which the veteran musician looks back over his own discography.
The Apple Never Falls Far from the Tree
Final was your first project. Can you tell us a bit about its origins?
I think it was all mostly down to my stepfather who had a collection of, well, what would be considered [now] archaic equipment. At the time it was probably quite modern...ish. He was a sort of wannabe rock musician, but it never happened for him. I wanted him to teach me how to play guitar first and foremost because I was into punk records. I think I first picked up the guitar when I was about ten, but it wasn't like a child's guitar, I was trying to play his Fender Stratocaster. My hands were tiny on it. What I found was—as I was tinkering around on my own with his equipment—abstract things seemed to appeal to me. Probably just because I was incapable of doing anything. But I found something very interesting about the texture of sound.
Why have you selected your most recent Final record?
I think the thing with that release is that it's really dynamic, it really covers every aspect of what I've always wanted to try and achieve with Final. Initially Final was pure, industrial / power electronics because I had an immense attraction for huge walls of noise. But the thing with The Apple Never Falls Far from the Tree is it's got tracks that are both these walls but also immense beauty as well. There are tracks that are really musical…it was the beauty past the noise—it's got the whole range.
You revived Final in 1993, what happened to it?
I ceased working on any Final stuff about '86 or '87, pretty much when I started working with Napalm Death and I became really busy with "bands" so to speak. And doing other things that teenagers do. As much as anything, being in a band like Napalm Death and then going from that to Head Of David to Godflesh, by the time I was on my third band—by the time I'd reached Godflesh and already made x amount of records—I was still only 18 years old. So it was all happening, it was all fairly accelerated. For some people that's an entire career. [laughs]
Scum was the only record you made with Napalm Death, right?
Yeah, just the A-side, the first side of Scum. We did a number of demos prior to that, we did demos even before Mick Harris joined. Napalm Death really wasn't in any respect my band as far as I was concerned because it was Nick Bullen's and the original drummer "Rat," Miles Ratledge. There was a bunch of other guys in the band when I first met them, I think they were like a five piece. But I think a couple of guys dropped out because they were going to university or something. And then I seemed to replace about three guys [laughs].
It was like numerous guitarists and all the rest of it, and then I just suddenly turned up and that was it—we were a three piece. But, then again, it was like crazy teenage kids, discovering drugs and drink and everything got in the way of it, know what I mean? I left after the recording of the A-side, and then so did Nick Bullen. Mick Harris continued on, got a new line-up together and then they recorded the B-side.
Why did you decide to leave school? Was it to pursue music full-time?
I think school was pretty much a dead end. I only connected with people at school who were into music as well; everyone else just seemed like a fucking football hooligan. And they typically were. There I was, in a council estate school, listening to Crass Records. I didn't get that there was an obvious class divide as well. To get away within a council estate school without being chastised on a daily basis, you had to almost wear a mask, I felt, to survive in them sort of environments. And a lot of the time I think I was completely at odds with that as well. I think a lot of my music was a protest against both that environment and the way I felt I had to have a sort of hidden existence.
Love Is a Dog from Hell
How did Godflesh come together?
I was living at the time with Ben [G.C. Green]. We lived in one room together in this flat in Birmingham. Basically when I was kicked out of Head Of David I was saying to him, "I've got these demos, we should do something. I've been writing this stuff on guitar and bass, I know what drum parts I want to hear but we should get a drum machine."
Was there anything more significant about the use of a drum machine for Godflesh?
To be honest, when we first got that drum machine it was a complete turn around for me. You know, it was new technology at the time; drum machines were still somewhat novel in 1988. I'd already really enjoyed what Big Black were doing with drum machines, and I was also enjoying hip-hop a lot at that time. Godflesh's decision to get a drum machine was as much influenced by Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Run DMC, Beastie Boys and that whole scene. What I was really obsessed with was the weight of the drum machines; how minimal and how fucking hard that shit sounded. And I wanted that in Godflesh. I wanted to mix those sort of guitars, dissonant guitars with a drum machine that was, you know, huge.
You said that "Love Is a Dog from Hell" is one of your favourite Godflesh tracks. Why?
For me, [the title] just summed up a lot of what Godflesh was trying to communicate. And the song itself is, for me, one of the strongest pieces of music I've ever written. Both in terms of texture and delivery it's excruciating, which is the point basically. Very controlled noise but there's a certain filth and dirt to the sound—and genuine, honest anguish and frustration. That encapsulates a lot of what I'm still probably trying to get at, at the age of 42.
When did you start singing, and using your own vocals? Was it something that just happened because you were writing lyrics, or is it something you always wanted to do?
I think it was a necessary evil to me. I never felt I could sing. I sang one song on the Napalm Death Scum A-side called "Polluted Minds," the same howl that we were all trying to perfect at the time, which was a Discharge derivative. If I could sing with anywhere near the power of the singer of Discharge at the time, that's all I was really interested in. Because that guy had just a really anguished, raw... do you know what I mean? [He was] one of the first singers in punk to actually express themselves without a Johnny Lydon-influenced sneer. We all loved Lydon's sneer, particularly in Public Image Limited, but Discharge come along and the guys seem to reduce it to this monosyllabic shout, with every sinew of your body going into it. It was really appealing. So I think that's the only thing I ever really wanted to achieve, but somehow I've ended up all these years later actually attempting to sing on loads of records. Boldly going where I never thought I ever would. And probably boldly going where I shouldn't.
But yeah, I think it's all about the accident. I mean at the time, I do look back and the way we all made music in the '80s, it was just whoever is bold enough to approach the microphone. Some would, some wouldn't, but any one of us would try. It was just who had the most confidence, or who had the most bullshit behind them with doing it really. I guess I had a lot of bullshit behind me, so I'd give it a go.
Brotherhood of the Bomb
Tell me how you met Kevin Martin.
Kevin basically put on the first ever Godflesh show. Funnily enough, Ben and I had only played as Godflesh—even before we made the first mini-album—in the room that we shared, and that was it literally. And a couple of rehearsal rooms. We'd never played a show, and we only got shows through the record. Kevin Martin was pursuing his band God, and running this place called the Mule club in a real shitty little pub in Brixton. He heard Godflesh on John Peel and was completely enamoured with the sound. Peel was really into Head of David and Napalm Death, so obviously, by default, he was going to play Godflesh.
Kevin Martin was one of the listeners the night that Godflesh first got played, was really into the sound and ran out to a local store and bought the album. And he phoned us up out of blue and said, "Do you want to play this shithole pub I'm putting shows on at in Brixton?" And we were like, "Yeah, sure," without any hesitation, and that was our first show.
So how did the Techno Animal project come about, and what is behind the name?
It was a much-debated moniker after a while. We were stuck with it, and fucking hated it. It was intended as an abbreviation—the project name was Technological Animal. We found it too much of a mouthful so we found that this sort of abbreviation was much more user-friendly. We made the first album in '91, which had some beat-orientated stuff, but we were still finding our way at the time. It was more, loosely speaking, ambient. And then we took about two or three years before we made the next record, Re-Entry, which came out on Virgin's ambient series. I think that was '95 when that come out. This is years later, when we were really influenced by the whole hip-hop thing and ambient hip-hop and all this stuff. The name was quite unfortunate then, because obviously the whole techno explosion had happened. We made that first album and didn't really think of the consequences, you know.
"I have to keep challenging what
I've just done or else I just
feel like I'm not existing."
Godflesh, Jesu, JK Flesh—all these names carry strong religious connotations, but do they have any religious significance?
Initially it was the whole iconography of religion I found fascinating. I think even as a small child, if I were ever dragged into a church I'd almost literally shit myself. I found that—and somewhat eventually articulated that—Christian religion is really intimidating. And that's what it was all about, keeping you in line and keeping you disciplined and keeping you obeying. Even all the imagery concerned with archaic Christian religion is dominating, male-orientated and hits you with a fucking hammer. The imagery of Christ, bleeding on a cross, you know, all this stuff. I just found it so suffocating, claustrophobic and again I find some weird relation between that and all the emotions somehow. It's somewhat hard for me to articulate and that's why I find it hard to literalise, it's just something that I find I've always had this odd obsession with.
Would you say you are anti-religious?
I was initially, I was extremely anti the whole concept of control when I was a little kid, running round with anarchist armbands and all the rest of it. I was completely anti any form of organised religion. I guess I still am, but I think what I realised over the years—and this was part of the initial Godflesh message—is people need it. I think I came to those sorts of conclusions, that people need control and somewhat deserve it. I do consider myself a really spiritual person. For me, music is the thing I use as a means of transcendence.
The odd thing is I've seen sometimes in odd places—like comments on YouTube videos—Christians talking about Jesu and saying, "Justin Broadrick must be a Christian." And then you'll see some black metal kids going, "No, fucking Justin is totally anti." I want the fact that it can actually span both, because I can see the logic of both. Both appeal to me, to some extent.
You've chosen "Tired of Me" as one of your favourite Jesu tracks, which is one of mine too. There's something so incredibly personal about it. It must be a personal track to you as well?
Completely. It is done with absolute sincerity. It's purely honest; it's absolutely lain bare. That whole first Jesu album was born completely out of a total lull in my life, two years of complete pain and I felt I was the one who was completely responsible for all the pain I was going through, so that song was about as honest as anything I've ever written.
Was writing the album a cathartic process for you?
Oh, absolutely. To be honest, I do question how I would have survived that period in my life if it weren't for that album. It was made over a two-year period, I think it started with me splitting up Godflesh. I then went through a lot of really bad financial strain for about the following year-and-a-half, two years. And when Godflesh split by my own hands, a relationship I'd been in came to an end at that time—we'd been together for 13 years. So it was all those classic moments in one's life where they feel everything crumble around them. And all pretty much by my own doing.
I knew Godflesh was over, I knew this relationship was over, and I think basically I just locked myself in the studio and started working on those songs before they were even called Jesu. Before I had anything, there were about three songs that I worked on non-stop virtually for about three months. At my lowest as well I think. And it was "Tired Of Me," the earliest song on the album "Your Path To Divinity" and a song called "Sun Day." I was living on my own again for the first time in so many years of my life, and I would just literally lock myself away with those songs.
Jesu: Pale Sketches Demixed
Pale Sketcher evolved directly from Jesu, how did the project land on Ghostly International?
I wanted to introduce the Pale Sketcher project to a general audience, not just my own audience. Ghostly put a lot of music out that is not remotely involved in a lot of the scenes I move in. Which is a good thing. That was my intention. I wanted Pale Sketcher to go beyond, to hit people who were into electronica that wouldn't normally listen to guitar records. Ghostly contacted me to remix a band of theirs called A School Of Seven Bells, and they really loved my remix and were interested in some of my own remixes of Jesu. So I sent them a couple of remixes that I had already done for Pale Sketches itself, and they said, "If you wanted to make a new project out of this, we'd love to release it, and we could have the first record as a 'de-mix' of an existing Jesu record."
You said you really enjoy remixing, what is it about remixing that attracts you?
I love reinterpretations and I love other people's remixes as well. I'm a big fan of the whole remix culture; I have been since it first came about really. I've always found it really exciting. I've always thought of songs as being open-ended. I remember reading one of Brian Eno's first books and he was saying the same thing, that a piece of music is ultimately infinite, it's only up to the creator. And sometimes it's not even up to the creator: for the listener it's infinite as well. And I do find that, sometimes I find it really hard to stop with music. You've just got to hold the reins I guess and say, "That's it." But I find it exciting that you could just keep turning over a piece of music. There's so many different ways of looking at a piece of music. Which again is why I could just remix my own stuff endlessly.
Posthuman is the first full-length release as JK Flesh. Before you were just using it as a kind of a remix moniker?
The first time the moniker was ever used was with Kevin Martin, when we first started working with Techno Animal, after Re-Entry when things got more vicious sounding, and a lot more layers of harsh noise, layered on top of hip-hop beats and stuff. He comically called me that sitting in the studio one day. And that was it. He was just using it as a term of endearment. And I was calling him K-Mart in return.
These names, basically, they were joke names from the studio sessions and we ended up using them on the records. We came up with these silly pseudonyms that just made us laugh basically, but they sort of stuck, and any remix I would do which had beats that were hard and involved any form of noise or sense of foreboding or threat I would use the JK Flesh moniker.
I think I've always been working up towards doing an album, which came about due to an album that I made as sort of a band project called Greymachine, with Aaron Turner from Isis and a whole bunch of us actually, about five or six of us involved, which again was a particularly nasty little record. JK Flesh was sort of intended to be the electronic interpretation of what was going on with that record. Less organic.
Greymachine was influenced by really heavy drum & bass, Whitehouse, noise, Throbbing Gristle, old bands like Drunks With Guns, The Stooges... It's like this mish-mash of stuff, a really cantankerous album. It was funny, when the album came out on Hydra Head it was advertised initially as being a collaboration between Jesu and Isis. A lot of people got really angry because it's not remotely similar to either band. The whole point was for it to be this real monolith of nasty, bloated sounding shit, and the JK Flesh thing is an electronic continuation of that. I've been doing this JK Flesh stuff for years and it's just, almost the polar opposite of what Pale Sketcher's trying to achieve. Pale Sketcher is this sombre, melancholic electronica thing, and JK Flesh is the angry, hateful, disenchanted side of what I do with electronic beat-driven, bass-driven music. It's got a lot more to boot.
It's essentially two sides of the electronic coin. Do you need all these projects to reflect your different musical interests?
I mean, music for me is obviously vast. In terms of the range of what I even listen to and what influences me, it's all over the fucking place. But there's always some sort of weird common ground. As I have to change up everything I listen to, I have to change up everything I make. Once I immerse myself in something, and I make records, I couldn't be any more focused. I live and breathe it for x amount of time. By the time I've finished that record I need to immerse myself in the polar opposite. And I need it as well, I really need it, I need it to satisfy my soul, or else I just get swallowed up in depression. I have to keep challenging what I've just done or else I just feel like I'm not existing.
Published / Wednesday, 11 April 2012