We tend to think of beauty and harshness, sensitivity and anger as opposites. While it’s understandable that language hews towards a dichotomous model for sorting our day-to-day experiences, music allows us to touch on sensations that aren’t so easily pinned down to a single mode of feeling. Just ask Justin Broadrick, who’s made a career out of exploring emotional gray areas. As the creative force and/or critical participant in more than two dozen projects—Napalm Death, Head of David, JK Flesh, Final, Zonal, Techno Animal, Pale Sketcher—the ever-prolific producer/instrumentalist has refused easy categorization, even when his music can be readily identified as grindcore, industrial, electronic, dub, post-punk, avant-garde or what have you.
Arguably, however, it’s been Broadrick’s two most visible projects, Jesu and Godflesh, that have most epitomized the ambiguities and contradictions that fuel his relentless drive to create. With Godflesh, which Broadrick founded in the late ’80s after short-lived but impactful tenures in Napalm Death, Fall of Because, and Head of David, Broadrick and co-founder Ben “G.C.” Green forged what was then a pioneering hybrid of metallic guitars with inhuman-sounding drum machine beats. Though heavily marketed to metal and industrial audiences, Broadrick and Green were just as influenced by hip hop, dub, and post-punk. The pair were also unabashed fans of pop music, and their shared penchant for melody would prove crucial when Broadrick formed Jesu upon the breakup of Godflesh in 2002.
With Jesu (which Broadrick pronounces as both YAY-zoo and JEH-zoo), Broadrick created a vehicle that gave him room to explore melody and harmony in ways that hadn’t fit within the confines of his prior efforts—as well as guitar textures that fans of groups like My Bloody Valentine, Lush and The Smashing Pumpkins could relate to. That said, when you listen to both the Jesu and Godflesh catalogs from start to finish, it becomes clear that each project reflects the other. (Tellingly, “Jesu” is also the title of the final track on the 2001 Godflesh album Hymns, the band’s last album before reforming in 2009.)
For Broadrick’s first interview in over a year, PopMatters spoke to him on an online call from his home in North Wales. An edited transcript follows.
I’m not sure you would’ve used the term “anxiety” 30 years ago, but playing live has always been something of an uneasy thing for you.
I guess it probably is anxiety—absolute, ultra-anxiety—where I’m terrified, but I have to confront that fear. I could quite readily have gone the route where I never perform. It’s way beyond stage fright. I mean, performing is so layered. And sometimes it appears so contrived to me.
You’ve said in the past that repetitive live performing requires an artist to wear-down their emotional connection to the music.
Absolutely. And for me, it seems pointless at that point, once it’s turned into a theatrical performance. Of course, it’s going to be role-play to some extent, but in my case, it’s still so fucking bare. It feels so honest and it makes me feel so self-conscious. That’s why, for years, I turned to alcohol and drugs, like so many musicians have. Because it’s like, “This is the way I’m going to get through this.” The first time I toured America, it was with Godflesh on the Grindcrusher tour with Napalm Death in 1991. I was already at-odds with heavy metal as it stood, and it was a two-and-a-half-month tour.
Prior to that, I’d spent maybe like two weeks on tour in Europe. Fuckin’ hell! I was 21 years old and, since it was part of the whole metal circus, we were treated like idiotic little kids. It was like a fucking military operation. It couldn’t have been any more terrifying. It was like being back at school. We were told before we got on the bus [in a stern voice]: “You don’t do this, you don’t do this, you don’t do this.” So here’s a list of rules from some 60-year old guy who’s driving the bus, and immediately I was like, “I wanna go home.”
I was already prone to drinking anyway, so I just turned to the bottle. Almost 20 years went by in the bat of an eyelid from using the bottle as my crutch to perform. I guess I’m just at odds with how contrived this art is supposed to be—or what the industry has made it into. I’m fundamentally at-odds with what that’s all about.
In a way, that’s all the more reason to do it, then. But the question—for any performer—becomes: how do you avoid feeling trapped by what you created? It’s not just the industry part. The very entity you give life to can become the tail wagging the dog.
Absolutely, it becomes your own prison. A lot of people will ask me, “Why so many projects?” And the answer is that I constantly need to escape. Ultimately, I’m escaping from myself. This is so personal and revealing for me that, by the time I’ve made an album, it’s been so draining and I’ve been so utterly immersed in it to the point of obsession [that I need to move on to something else]. Clearly, ambiguity is a massive part of my music. I don’t wish to ultra-literalize what I’m trying to get at, because I actually don’t know. I truly don’t know what I’m trying to get at. [Once I’m done with something,] I’ve always got more questions, and I barely have any answers. I think that’s the human condition: we search and search and search and search, and we die. [Laughs.] We question and we question, and nothing’s ever truly revealed anyway—at least I find.
That’s an interesting way to look at your body of work: that it’s inquisitive in this abstract way. It’s like you’re reaching toward certain emotions, but without much sense of direction or clarity about them—
—and so, speaking of that, you had the seeds of the first Jesu material as Godflesh was coming to a close. Something similar happened later when Jesu was going in a more electronic direction and you ended up releasing that work in 2010 under the name Pale Sketcher instead. How clear was it at first that Jesu was going to be its own project?
Well, I didn’t have the first Jesu EP Heart Ache in 2001, but I had about half the debut full-length in a very primitive demo form. I was writing that stuff, I think it was right around the back end of Hymns [Godflesh’s final album before breaking up], after that had been recorded and mixed. Those demos were designed for something else other than Godflesh, but I couldn’t formulate what exactly. During that time I was at such a fuckin’ low ebb as well, that [what would become] Jesu turned into the vehicle for me to express what I was going through at the time—which actually got worse and snowballed. I basically broke Godflesh up on the day of having to catch a flight to do a tour.
Right, that’s a well-documented story, where you hid in your house. It seems like it was a real mess, as far as the legalities and the financial hit you took. You once described it as “my Brian Wilson moment”.
[Laughing:] Yeah! That’s about the only way I could reflect upon it. I remember not physically being able to move. The stress and the anxiety of not wanting to do this anymore had built up to such a head that, when my then-partner came into the bedroom to wake me up to tell me that one of my close friends was about to drive me to the airport—I remember her waking me up and saying, “He’s in the living room. You need to go now.”—I was like, “I fucking can’t move.” I literally felt like I couldn’t move. That was 2002, so it wasn’t acknowledged that I was clearly going through a lot of mental health things. It was more like, “Oh, that’s just him.”
The whole “difficult-artist” thing.
Exactly: He’s frail. He’s always been a bit of a weak dude, and now he’s fucking collapsed. And on the periphery of people I was surrounded by, obviously, the opinion was: “Man up. Do the fucking tour.” Which, yeah, I should’ve done. But fuck knows what could’ve happened to me—or what I could’ve potentially done to myself—if I had. That was the thing, I was scared of myself. I knew that I was in a lot of shit for it, and obviously, it snowballed into ultra-shit—mega-shit! And my then-partner left during that shit. I almost lost my house, but I was lucky enough, through loans and all this sort of shit, to hold onto it all. I mean, it gets into the realm of comedy.
The tour bus operator, for example, called me and was literally saying, “I’m a Vietnam vet. I know people in your area.” [Laughs.] It was like, “Holy shit, this guy’s actually threatening my fuckin’ life.” So I was like, “Right, I’m paying this guy back!” I paid everyone back, but it was a fantastic period for me to give birth to this Jesu project because I was steeped in nothing but negativity. I was depressed beyond belief.
Prior to becoming a parent, it’s easy to subscribe to the stereotype of musicians getting soft and losing their edge when they have kids. But then when you go through it yourself it’s like, “Whoa—this should actually intensify someone’s edge a hundredfold.”
[Laughs.] It’s like being fuckin’ blind drunk for three years. You’re running on lack of sleep, anxiety—
And euphoria too.
A core of intense fear smothered by a blanket of potent, opioid-like euphoria.
I know a couple of other parents who would be saying exactly the same. For me, it was like “How the fuck do people have more than one child?” Of course, it’s also the most beautiful gift, and you see the magic of existence before your eyes. But for the first three months, I don’t know what was happening. If my partner wasn’t so amazing, fuck knows where I would’ve been. It had to kick-in eventually, but I don’t think I even changed a nappy for something like two months. It just couldn’t compute. The birth of my son broke all my rituals, you see. I welcomed it, and I wanted it, but it destroyed everything. I mean, this is a natural process. This is what we’ve been doing since we evolved out of the sea. This is the most human experience I’ll probably ever have besides dying and being born myself.
And you don’t remember being born, so…
Exactly. It’s that one in-between: birth, having the fucking child, and then fucking dying yourself. [Laughs.] But I found it ridiculously inspiring because I was immersed hour by hour in all the emotions that I use to make this music [in the first place]. They’re amplified beyond belief. The Jesu album Everyday I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came was totally about that experience. I wrote and recorded that album over the first three years of my son’s life. Just watching the birth and being part of the life cycle, the nightmare inside of me was like “This is death—this is life and this is fucking death.” On an existential level, it blew everything to shit. It was like “Oh my god, I’m actually part of the process now. I’m not just born. I don’t just exist.”
The obvious way to delineate Godflesh and Jesu is that Godflesh is the aggressive metal-industrial hybrid, while Jesu is the more vulnerable, shoegaze-y project. Yeah, that’s true, but I don’t feel like it’s entirely fair. Because they’re almost like two siblings that grew up in the same house—the outer characteristics might look different, but you see how they each contain aspects of the other.
Yeah, that’s a really good analogy. Because there’s a shared common ground but then you find that love/hate relationship bubbling under the surface with siblings.
And siblings will typically push themselves to be unlike one another, but an outside person can say “You’re more alike than you think” and they’ll often deny it. There are times where you can listen to Jesu, like on the new record, where you can say “Oh, that feels like Godflesh.” And then Hymns was kind of going toward what Jesu became.
That’s right. There’s such a gray area between them, but the way I define it is that Godflesh has always had anger, a self-hatred thing—which is there in Jesu as well, but Jesu is more pastoral. Central to Jesu is melody and melancholy, whereas central to Godflesh is being crushed, self-annihilation, and universal obliteration.
The press release for Terminus says it “was inspired by concepts of rejection, dependency, nostalgia, and ultimate loneliness.” We tend to use the term “nostalgia” in the context of music as something warm and fuzzy, or quaint. How does nostalgia inform Jesu’s sound?
I’m overwhelmed by nostalgia. I think we all find it with age. I talk to a lot of people who are 40 and older and we discuss nostalgia a lot. And selective memory and the way we re-play things in our minds. For me, it’s often imbued with sadness. Jesu is intended to be upsetting. It’s the hardest of my projects to make. If I go back in the house after working on Jesu stuff, it takes me a while to come down from it. In my case, nostalgia has a really close relationship with depression. For me, they go hand-in-hand.