Interview: Justin Broadrick

You’ve got a new album out soon as JK Flesh. Where does this project fit in with the rest of your creative output?

Firstly the intention was to continue ground that I was treading with Kevin Martin in Techno Animal. We folded Techno Animal and stopped working together in 2002 or something – we spent a good 10 to 12 years working together you know. I didn’t do anything remotely similar for about a year after that, but I still had some skeletal stuff that was intended for forthcoming Techno Animal that we didn’t end up working on. In between doing a lot of other music – obviously in 2002 I was just starting to get Jesu together, and Godflesh had just folded so it was a big transitional period for me – I eventually went back to the whole breakbeat thing, privately working on stuff without ever having the confidence to finish it. There were a number of contributing factors to that, but chiefly it was because I was working on so much other stuff, and so I was really prepared to start working on an outlet for it. I do that a lot of the time – if it isn’t something I’ve got a concept for or have talked to a label about, I just sit on the material. The only project that’s an exception to that is Final. It’s so open-ended and somewhat low-key, so I can release that as it comes if you see what I mean.

But the stuff with beats and bass…I think I felt that there was quite a void that I felt year in year out. Techno Animal covered a lot of ground, and only started to get very focused toward the last two or three years of the project – it built up over such an amount of time, and then folded at a peak in a way. A lot of this JK Flesh album – in its skeletal form – could have been perceived as dancefloor-orientated. What I eventually ended up doing was layering guitars and vocals, and just making it more fucked up I guess [laughs]. Things that are made for the dancefloor are generally perceived as being quite conservative, purely due to the fact that they’re functional. I think I had a conversation with the label about that. Steve [Harris] runs the 3by3 label and the Cloaks project, which is fantastic as well by the way. When we first got in touch with eachother and I was sending him the stuff, we both agreed that it’s more dancefloor-orientated in its skeletal form, and that I needed to take it further. I was just sitting on shitloads of stuff like that.

It takes me back to a lot of the stuff I was doing outside of Techno Animal…in the 90s I was making a lot of jungle/drum and bass that was “regular” stuff if you know what I mean – it was released on normal drum and bass labels, and I had my stuff played on Radio 1 by Grooverider and things like that. I was just so into that kind of music, and Kevin Martin and I used to go to clubs in London loads, so it was just a huge influence on that stuff. But again, in 2002 I packed in the dancefloor orientated drum and bass as well. A lot of stuff ended at that time. So I’ve been looking for an outlet for those things that I left behind quite a few years ago.

How easy was it to re-enter this sort of music after so long?

Easier than it ever was before to an extent, and that’s probably due to a lot of other production techniques that I’ve learnt since. A lot of my producing has come around from when I was doing those regular drum and bass records – I learnt things that I would use outside of that dancefloor-orientated stuff. I mean, all these years I’ve been making beats and bass stuff, but I just never finish anything. I’d just sit on hard drive after hard drive of material that would never be fully realised. As I said, I think it’s just because I was so busy doing Jesu, Final and working on other things. Even when we did that Greymachine record…before I got everything else involved, a lot of that material was slowed down, 150bpm drum and bass stuff. There’s a definite relationship between Techno Animal, Greymachine and JK Flesh. Greymachine was a lot more lo-fi than JK Flesh – the beats and bass is at max with JK Flesh, whereas with Greymachine it was about having the noise to the max. So I’ve still been exploring that sort of territory; it’s just that I haven’t worked it as hard as I wished. I was making so many records with Jesu at one point that I ended up turning back to other facets of what I do anyway. Often that’s what I do with things – I’ll really immerse myself in something, but by my own admission I go so far into it that the project eventually needs a break.

You mention that JK Flesh has a dancefloor basis. Is this material that you intend to take live in that case?

Yeah. I’m already doing a JK Flesh performance at the forthcoming Roadburn. I’ve got a residency this year, covering four projects over three nights. The first night is the lesser-known projects, including an old school power electronics project called White Static Demon and the debut performance of JK Flesh.

I’ve already spoken to Kevin Martin about a couple shows with King Midas Sound and JK Flesh actually. That’s a really nice pairing; especially considering that we haven’t worked on a project together in years, even if we’ve been collaborating on various different pieces. It’s just nice to be able to share the stage again, even if not simultaneously! So there is going to be shows – I’m still getting it all in order.

Speaking of Roadburn: how easy is it going to be for you to immerse yourself in one project one night, and return in a different guise the next?

It’s that whole schizophrenic thing – exploring different sides of one’s personality I guess. I’m just starting to piece together material for it. I mean, I’ve played as both Jesu and Final on one night…and recently actually, we did a festival where we played as Godflesh and then I immediately went into a Final set. That sort of made sense – after the absolute bombast of Godflesh it just filtered out to me on the stage with projections, and it just went into that drone-drift-ambient etc. It was as though this Godflesh set had just decayed into this minimal mood thing. But yeah, it’s different when it’s each night. I’m trying not to over-analyse it…I’m quite terrified about it actually [laughs], as it’s really just about getting a different mask on for each night.

The first night is White Static Demon followed by JK Flesh, so one will bleed into the other. That’s actually quite easily done, as if the beats and bass are stripped of JK Flesh, then you get left with something that isn’t too far away from White Static Demon. The vocals for JK Flesh were approached in the same way for White Static Demon, which is quite old school power electronics – you know, with the mic fed through an amp with X amount of effects in the chain, a full-on attack of feedback and foot pedals. So that transition makes sense. But the following night is Final, and then the last night is Jesu.

I remember reading that you don’t view Jesu as a live venture anymore. Has that viewpoint changed since?

No, it’s still pretty much the same. I think Jesu’s only played once in the last year. When the first Jesu album was released, we did nothing but tour for three years. By my own admission, I think that 90% of the performances were failures, but I still kept hammering it out as I felt that Jesu live could be great. So very few shows truly were. It’s a shame, but it just needs a production that’s a bit beyond the reality in which it’s performed. It’s really hard to present live, and chiefly that’s down to myself – I can’t carry the vocals off, and the first couple of years were appalling in that respect [laughs].

What I realised over the past year and a half – especially with the reformation of Godflesh – was that playing live with Jesu is such a fucking struggle. Coming out as Godflesh I realised how immediately gratifying it is to perform, purely because of the bombast. I feel like I’m imploding on stage, whereas it’s much more measured and sombre with Jesu. I mean, I used to play with Godflesh for all those years – it’s full of rage, confusion and frustration, and it wouldn’t even be so much of a performance for me as it’d feel very real. With Jesu it’s like you’re holding the reigns, and it’s about trying to hold back in every respect. I found it really hard to do, as I couldn’t lose myself in the performance as much.

Having seen Jesu live back in about 2009, I remember finding the fragility and imperfection of it being a definite plus point.

Yeah, I get what you mean. In some respects I’d consider that to be very generous of you. Other people have said similar things, in that part of Jesu’s live appeal is the frailty of the performance and my voice. I mean, even on record it’s far from perfect, and again that’s part of the appeal – Jesu wouldn’t be what it was if it was as polished as some fucking band like Coldplay or something. If I could sing that well, it wouldn’t be what it is. I’ve always thought that anyone coming from a hardcore/punk background is always going to struggle when they approach pop music.

When I first really embraced melodic music, one of my favourite bands was Husker Du. What I loved about it was that it was on a similar trajectory to the one that I’d followed myself – coming from music in which you just shout and scream your head off, and then trying to do something poppier. Husker Du was essentially a hardcore band playing really fast, shouty music, and then they just pulled together all of their pop influences. I wouldn’t consider myself to be anywhere near the heights that they achieve – I mean, they were able to make that transition really smoothly – but it’s definitely similar ground. You could almost tell that it was this hardcore punk band that suddenly wanted to explore all of their pop fantasies. There’s something really comforting about that, but you’re never going to sound that polished. That’s part of its appeal.

Does that have any bearing on how Jesu has re-emerged with more of a “rock” sound, having dipped into electronics for a bit?

Well when I first made Heart Ache, I was afraid of Jesu compartmentalising itself too much. I’m just one of these musicians that just ends up immersing themselves in themselves as self-indulgently as possible, and then comes out the other side going “ah, I fucking hate all of this now.” I’ve always maintained that each album I’ve made has been such a labour of love and a journey of absolute immersion. I mean, it’s impossible to have that much of a fucking love affair with yourself sometimes – you know, to think “oh this is so fucking great!” You know what I mean? We all know that if you indulge in music, you’ve got to have that confidence to see it through. But often I come to the end result and play the finished record…nine times out of ten I’ll sit there with the finished album – it’s mastered, I’ve taken a couple of weeks away from it – I’ll stick it on and go “why the fuck am I releasing this?” [laughs] I often say to my partner that I just want to give up, and then she’ll be like, “come on – you’ve spent so much time working on this record.” And I’m just unhappy with it – I’m like, “every fucking aspect of this is wrong.”

I guess that’s the incentive for evolving as an artist, and pushing on into new territory.

Absolutely. It’s a fairly tired cliché in a way, and many musicians I respect have said similar things – we’re all tapping into the same thing I guess – but they’ll say that you’re never going to make a perfect record, and if you do, then what is the point? I just so could not imagine it either. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with a record I’ve made a couple of months after its release and gone, “wow”. It’s just impossible, and I don’t think it will ever, ever happen. But again, surely that’s a good thing. That’s why I’ve got so many projects, as I’m just searching all the time…I mean, I never get there but – another tired cliché here – it’s the journey [laughs].

So where do you sit with Ascension now then? It’s been nearly a year since that came out. 

God, yeah it has. I only just realised that this week actually; I don’t think I’ve listened to it myself for about six months, and in that time I’ve moved house and had my first child. He’s really something now as opposed to being a bit of a blob [laughs]. Having a child at my age – you know I’m 42 now – that’s pretty full on. You think of yourself as wise and then realise that you couldn’t be any fucking further from it [laughs]. It makes me look at my music differently.

So I think I’m due a listen to Ascension to try and get some perspective on it. I think that the last time I listened to it, I didn’t want to listen to it again – it was another one of those records. I remember sitting there after it was mastered and just wanting to throw the towel in. Mark Kozelek’s words of inspiration set me straight again; to any doubts I had, he was there saying, “no, don’t worry. This is great”.

I think I’ve re-assessed Jesu since, and I’m glad I’ve had a few months away from it and that my perception has changed on a lot of things. I started recording some Jesu stuff during the mixing of the JK Flesh record. Again, this JK Flesh album has been utterly immersive, and a really fucked up record to work with, especially solo. When Kevin and I were in Techno Animal, we would egg eachother on – we’d both operate a mixing desk, and it was almost like a friendly competition to try and out do eachother in terms of extremity. We’d often play live like that as well, and there was almost a black comedy element to it. Doing it on my own has been different. It’s been quite mind-numbing, so I’ve been glad to get back to some sombre, melancholic guitar-orientated stuff again.

The Jesu things I’ve been working on have been open-ended again…at the moment I’ve got two 15-minute pieces, and I don’t think there’s a single distorted guitar in either piece at the moment. I may even keep it like that. There’s a lot of string usage and sampling of classical stuff too.

Well I’m very intrigued… 

Yeah, well I say all of that but it’ll probably just be another boring old rock record again [laughs]. I’m trying to sustain that sense of melancholy, but maybe it’ll shift. That’s what it’s sounding like at the minute anyway.

Would you say that Jesu is reserved for those melancholic feelings? Is it open to be used for different emotional states, or would you open up another project if that melancholy started to wane?

Precisely the latter. In a way, that probably appears really limiting. I’d be one of the first people to say, “tear up the rule book. Rulebooks are there to be torn up.” It’s a total contradiction though, because I’ll tear up the rulebook and then make my own rules that apply to myself. It’s fucking stupid, but I need to set those limitations. It’s all self-imposed. After that first Jesu record, the project seemed more open-ended. I do want to get back to that open-endedness, but fundamentally it’s got to be an extremely melancholic thing – from the very first stuff I wrote with Jesu, that’s been the absolute intention.

When I started indulging in electronic side with Jesu, I felt that I wanted to go further with it, which would negate the existing back catalogue in a way. So it was like, “right, I need to make a decision now.”, so that’s why I took the Pale Sketcher thing to explore the electronica. What’s good with that is that it’s transcended my regular audience – Ghostly International [label] have got their own audience, and it’s gone outside of my established audience to some extent.

But in contrast to that, you have a very loyal following that will enjoy every project you do, regardless of the drastic overhauls in sound involved in each. There’s definitely a “Broadrick sound” at the centre.

I think that’s definitely true, and it took some time for me to see that myself, as I initially felt I was donning another guise for each new project. I know that there are unifying aspects, and it’s about me coming to terms with the fact that that’s part of the appeal in what I do – whether it be melancholy electronica, or ambient, or extreme rock-based stuff, there is obviously a unifying sound there. Sometimes I think I ask a lot of people, but other times I don’t expect people to traverse every project. I guess the great thing is that a lot of people have been brought up with music being naturally eclectic – I come from a period of music in the 80s where things were somewhat more tribal and narrow, and you either belonged to a crowd or you didn’t. You couldn’t just hear a clip on the internet – you’d travel to get records, and journey for three fucking hours just to hear an album.

Where do you stand on the immediacy of music in the internet age?

I’ve absolutely embraced it. I think I had my first Apple Macintosh in about 1996, and had access to the internet that year too. I remember trying to convince Kevin Martin in ’98 that we should swap files by email – I mean it was still a primitive thing back then, but I remember thinking, “this is going to be amazing”. Like anything though, I think it’s reached a saturation point where you’re overwhelmed to the point where you try and strip it back again. I know a lot of people like that – people making electronics-based stuff – who sold all their hardware to overload on software, and started working “in the box” so to speak. Most people I know that did this are of my generation, and have inevitably ended up sacking off the laptops and going back to hardware again. They’re just overwhelmed by the limitless aspect of it.

It becomes a restraint to feel the need to swap in your current setup to keep up with technology.

That’s it, yeah. I remember the first time I could access all of this software and stuff; I was utterly blown away, but I’ve ended up doing the same thing and stripping it all back again. I think Brian Eno thought similar, and he ended up making three albums with just one synthesizer – it had about three presets on there, and once he started getting into the timbre and mechanics of each one, it was just infinite. You can sit there 18 software synths and be able to derive eight million sounds from each one, but you’ll always end up going back to the same three fucking sounds off of two synths [laughs].

I’m always admiring those musicians who push away temptation in favour of focusing on the intricacies of a small setup. It makes me think of Eliane Radigue, who spent decades just working almost exclusively with an ARP synthesizer…

Oh yeah, I’ve got one! Probably not the same one…I think it’s an ARP 2600?

I think hers is a 2500.

Oh okay, yeah. Wonderful things – I’ve made two albums from one myself I think.

She works with tiny adjustments to drones over the course of these long compositions. I’m fascinated by people with that level of focus. 

That sounds awesome. I listen to an awful lot of music in that area…there’s a classical composer I’ve listened to for years called Scelsi. He started off fairly conservatively, but then eventually got into these fucking mantras where he utilise a 28-man string orchestra to examine the micro-tonalities of one note. It is just fucking huge – real goosebump stuff, and I became utterly obsessed with him. I did get to the source of that kind of music…La Monte Young and stuff like that. I mean, a good amount of the music I do is minimalism anyway. If you look at something like Jesu: even though it’s made up of layers and layers of sound, it’s still very sparing with its melodies. I think that takes it back to Scelsi and the like. Oh, and Glenn Branca was another big influence for me. That whole area of music that we’re discussing now has always filtered back to the rock music I do, and always has done.

I hear there’s a new Godflesh album in the works. Will that tap into the minimalism of those first few records?

Absolutely. When we’ve been playing live, we’ve mainly been playing material from those first few records because they’re so stripped down, and I guess that was partially to oppose the amount of layers in Jesu. I’m very excited about creating a new record. Both Ben [Green, bass] and I have very fine-tuned sounds – harsh, hard, very filthy but very tight too – and there are things that we’re very specific about. The exciting thing about making a new record is the prospect of making it even more minimal than some of those first records, with more of a modern, bombastic production. But that one’s a long time coming – we’re going to try and do it later this year I think.

So will this new record look to revive the techniques used in those earlier records, or will you start again from the ground up? 

Well I’ve already written some stuff, and I think that it’s going to back exploring the dissonance. The tones are so much more developed I think. I mean, I don’t want to come off like some technical wank-off now! But that’s the thing really – Godflesh isn’t this prog metal thing – it’s more about exploring texture in and out. As I say, they’re very specific textures that Ben and I use, and while they’re limited by their own nature, they’re infinite. After such a long gap, I feel like I really want to explore the dissonant side more, as that was one of the things that Godflesh was about: keeping it really heavy and primal, but exploring dissonances that are really alien and abstract sounding, even though it’s essentially a rock band.

I’ve always maintained that we’re a rock band. We never came up with the term industrial metal; it was just that we were influenced as much by Throbbing Gristle as we were Black Sabbath. I mean the first Godflesh wasn’t particularly anything…it was more termed as the UK equivalent to Swans and Big Black in the late 80s, before the explosion of the whole Earache thing and the metal scene we got lumped into.

That’s the thing – it’s only by the power of retrospect that people are able to attribute these terms to your early music, when at the time it was difficult to define.

Absolutely. I think that it appeared more unique than it was, because as far as we were concerned, it was obvious that Swans, Killing Joke, and even Slab were a big influence on those earlier records. But we ended up getting into a metal crowd and probably selling even more records than the artists we were influenced by. Godflesh was being exposed to fans of the bludgeoning extreme metal sound of the time, and people then misunderstood the fact that we weren’t actually a metal band. They thought that we’d just heard fucking Whitesnake and Death the year before and then gone on from there, you know? [laughs] That was a common misconception in the late 80s and early 90s, and I think a lot of people misunderstood the music that we came from. I think that gave it its appeal though – it shifted things round I guess. 

Another misconception people had is that Godflesh is outwardly aggressive, whereas I’ve heard you describe it as a defence mechanism. Does Godflesh still play this role during your live shows, and during the writing process for this new album?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always maintained that it’s an implosive thing more than an explosive thing. When Godflesh were first playing with metal bands, it felt defensive. It was a recognition of our weak state as human beings, whereas metal at the time is this set of big men on stage coming to crush you. Ultimately we found that retarded. Because we come from a punk background – you know, going to Crass concerts as a kid, coming out of that whole anarcho-culture – I come to heavy metal in a different way, and I used to find the imagery with it just ridiculous. Godflesh isn’t that all-conquering male thing, on stage with a fucking sword and saying they’re going to “rape and pillage” everyone [laughs]. Pure comedy.

I think I’d watched Spinal Tap before I’d even embraced that many metal bands, so I knew what the fucking deal was. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of Comic Strip Presents? It’s when comedy really turned around in the 80s – you know, the Thatcher era of Ben Elton and the like. It had become really politically correct but some of the humour was spot on. They did their own Spinal Tap called Bad News, and it’s absolutely fucking hilarious – it truly is this bad, sad shitty heavy metal band playing in pubs for one man and his dog, on a raised stage in front of no one. We often saw a lot of metal bands like that. So it’s funny to think how we’ve since ended up sharing the stage with these all-conquering dudes [laughs]. Even when I performed as Godflesh, it felt really natural to me – it felt like the music was killing us and weighing us down. We were exploring the frailty of humankind, and we weren’t celebrating the all-conquering male ego. I still maintain that this is what we’ll continue doing: exploring the fragility and imperfection, and what pieces of shit that we all are [laughs].

It’s great to hear that you’re picking up from where you left off!

Absolutely. But because it can be so all consuming live, people do feel like they’ve had their beaten in, probably more so than during the set of the five dudes up there wielding swords coming to rape and pillage. We certainly didn’t come to do that, or indulge in that celebration of male ego. I’d rather fucking hide.

That’s the Jesu problem really. It’s easy to perform as Godflesh as you’re behind this wall of absolute sound, but with Jesu I feel totally exposed and I hate that. I’m not the sort of person who can get up in front of people and sing, dance, tell jokes…I don’t have the confidence for that, so I use music as the vehicle for it. It’s still a fucking defence mechanism.

So what else have you got coming up this year?

Well there’s always a few Final things that should be released – I think I should have released about three last year, but it’s just become ridiculous since I’ve had my son. All this music is ready to go, and I thought rather stupidly that I’d be able to balance it all even after he was born. Fucking fool! [laughs]. I’ve got friends who are having kids at like 26/27, and they’re all saying, “man – you’re late to the game. You’re set in your ways and you’re really going to find this a shock; everything will be brought down and you’ll have to rebuild it”. I was just like, “ah, I’ll just fucking do it,” you know. No [laughs]. It’s destroyed me mate, literally. I’ve had to be so much more concise with everything now. Just how we were laughing about people using 15 different synths just to come up with one sound…I haven’t got the time anymore, so thank god I’ve returned to the school of limiting yourself and being concise.

So a bunch of Final stuff should have come out last year, and I’m hoping to get it out this year. And the Pale Sketcher project too – I worked on that loads last year, and got really excited about a lot of the material. Some of this stuff’s coming out later this year. There should be an album and EP for Ghostly, and then a couple of EPs for other labels too. They’re not cemented yet, but I’ve been exploring a whole load of sounds with that that have become very exciting. But this JK Flesh thing is another project that’s very important to me.

It sounds like you’re really starting to get your teeth into Pale Sketcher.

Yeah, that’s it. Again, it’s trying to translate that sense of melancholy while taking away the limitations of the rock instruments that I’ve imposed upon Jesu. I spend about 50% of my time listening to electronic music and always have done, so I guess I’m always going to traverse the two quite often.

It’s good to have that polarity of outlets.

Absolutely. It’s really important for me. I’m in a very lucky position – I’ve managed to live off of music for about 20 years now, so if I can sustain that without having to compromise…I mean, it’s impossible for me to compromise as I can’t do anything that would reach a big crowd anyway. Again, it comes back to that unifying aspect of my music; it’s the frailty, and the fact that it’s imperfect. So I’m not going to start selling out stadiums any time soon, but I can just about cobble together a living and enjoy it. Obviously I recognise that I’m very, very privileged to be living from music, and often I still have to kick myself you know and be like, “fuck” [laughs].

 

Justin Broadrick’s website –  http://www.avalancheinc.co.uk/

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