Relinquishing This World of Brutal Music: An Interview With Jesu's Justin Broadrick
While still in his teens, Justin Broadrick pioneered grindcore in Napalm Death, and later, with Godflesh, extended the range of antagonistic volume. Now with the gorgeous soundscapes of Jesu, Broadrick says, "I really need to explore melody in an all-out way."
Justin Broadrick is a man with a history. He was ten when he picked up his first guitar, using its six strings to pound out a young boy's aggravation and aggression. He was making noise cassettes at 13 and selling them out of a home-based label. He joined Napalm Death at 14, and played a key role in the band's 1987 debut Scum. This landmark album single-handedly invented grindcore, a genre that blended metal's distortion and hardcore punk's speed and vitriol. That same year, Broadrick joined Head of David as its drummer, helping that band define its experimental industrial/metal aesthetic through the late 1980s. When he left, it was to form Godflesh, with bassist Ben Green and (later) Jesu drummer Ted Parsons. There he continued to develop his innovative fusion of industrial clangor and metal heaviness, anticipating the work of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Broadrick dissolved Godflesh in 2002 and immediately set to work on Jesu, by far his most accessible and melodic band to date. Along the way, and interspersed with these groundbreaking bands, Broadrick juggled a number of side projects, solo explorations and one-off collaborations with other artists.
It's an impressive resume, one that Broadrick has every reason to be proud of. Still, when I admit early on that I've backed into Broadrick's work, first discovering Jesu, then working backward into Godflesh and Napalm Death, he sounds almost elated. "For me, that's a real pleasure to actually hear this from people," he says. "Because I've got such a long and varied past that... with Jesu what I'd hoped to do was to relinquish the past somewhat and just try and move on."
Broadrick admits that he probably could have continued with Godflesh for as long as he wanted, playing to ardent fans and selling reasonable quantities of records. Yet by the early '00s, he was tired of all that. "I'd almost set myself up to become a caricature," he recalls. "What everyone expected of me to do was to continue in the area that I started in, which was music that was confrontational and aggressive and brutal. So to me it's a real joy to hear that people are actually coming round backwards. I've spoken to many people who've just gotten into Jesu and don't know my history. You don't even need to go there, you know. It's two quite different things, my past and where I am right now."
And yet, Broadrick's past is a fascinating thing, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when growing up in a tough Birmingham housing project, he first began to connect with punk rock. "I think what I felt at that age was that I could immediately express myself musically with these primitive forms of music, because they were primitive. It sort of mirrored where I was at as a person or a musician."
Both Broadrick's mother and his stepfather played in bands and were unusually interested in music. His stepfather, a guitarist, introduced Broadrick to classic rock heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, as well as early punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash. "My environment was full of very diverse music, some of it quite underground for its time. But it was also a crazy sort of environment, full of drugs and stuff like that as well."
Punk rock struck a chord with Broadrick because of its DIY aesthetic and its emotional directness. Yet he also appreciated quieter music, particularly Brian Eno. The ambient pioneer became an obsession for Broadrick after his stepfather brought Music for Airports home and played it one day. "It was the first music, to me, that sounded absolutely solitary and personal. And dreamlike and blurred but extremely pristine sounding as well," he recalls. "It contains so much beauty, but it wasn't being construed in a rock context. For me, as a kid, that was refreshing because all I'd been brought up on was rock music. That album became like a sort of holy grail for me."
So even though Broadrick became associated with the hardest, most abrasive sort of music from his early teens, he always carried other ideas in his head. "I was really attracted to this underground music and noise-based stuff and punk rock and hardcore, but I was always simultaneously drawn to really beautiful and sad, melancholy melodies," he says. And as his skills developed, he began to want, more and more, to produce those kinds of melodic sounds. "Towards the end of my previous band, Godflesh, I became obsessed with relinquishing this world of brutal music. I was searching for a way of using ugly music to make something really pretty. And that's how I eventually arrived at Jesu."
Not that it's been easy or without controversy. Broadrick's turn toward the melodic has cost him, he estimates, a good 50% of his old fan base, many of whom are harsh in their judgment of his new body of work. Broadrick shrugs the defection off, noting that he's gained a larger, more diverse fan base as a consequence, and anyway, he did it for himself. "I never expected Jesu to be popular. I really did think that by going out on a limb and taking a risk, that I would potentially halve my audience at least and maybe gain hardly any new fans at all," he says. "It's been a really huge surprise to me, and a massively pleasant surprise, that finally my music has risen out of what I was sort of trapped in."
The brutal and the beautiful
Jesu's second full-length, Conqueror, out since February on the Hydrahead label, continues this trajectory, moving away from unadulterated aggression towards slow-paced, noise-flecked beauty. Fuzz-blurred melodies drift atop monstrously heavy bass and drum lines, sounds that must, in nature, be quite loud balanced with more delicate ones. It is the sort of distortion-drenched, otherworldly sound that naturally recalls My Bloody Valentine, whose work, Broadrick states, has been influential on him from the beginning.
"From the first time in the early 1990s when I heard 'You Made Me Realize' -- the record had been out for like a month or something -- I immediately gravitated to it. It reminded me of the best elements of guitar of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, two groups I was crazy on in the late 1980s and the 1990s," he says.
The harmony and sheer loveliness of MBV struck him, merged as it was with staticky noise and abrasion. In his own way, Broadrick feels like he's been working towards the same ends ever since. "With My Bloody Valentine, it was probably the idea of beauty combined with something like the Jesus and Mary Chain. And with Jesu it's obviously this same beauty but coupled with very heavy sort of rock or metal. It's a different blend but it's definitely in the same area."
Yet achieving that balance is difficult. In the real world, massive drum beats and metal-heavy bass lines overwhelm the vocals; the metal growl grew out of vocalists simply trying to make themselves heard. Yet in a cut like "Weightless and Horizontal", one of Conqueror's highlights, a luminously soft synthesizer tone co-exists in balance with a grindingly heavy march of drum, guitar, and bass. Broadrick admits that it took many hours in the studio to give the cut its signature sound. "It is a very difficult thing," he says. "It's really easy for it to sound just like a mush, without being defined or having any clarity to it. And it's a real, real struggle to mix.
"Very often, with the heaviness, we're so tuned down so far, so low, that you've got a huge bottom floor, you know, this bass at the bottom of it, then you've got this delicate stuff on top that's very thin. You try to put the two together without sounding contrived. You want to be as honest as possible. It's very instinctive as well, to do that. To me, if I just let myself go and not worry about any constraints of music, it's much easier to write the songs."
The melody to "Weightless and Horizontal", he adds almost impishly, came from an unlikely source. He was inspired, he says, by the Britpop band the Bluetones, who followed in Oasis' arena-large, pop-friendly wake during the 1990s. Although he's cagy about which song (I'm guessing "My Neighbor's House"), Broadrick says a hit single did play a role. "I tried to emulate the melody but obviously I slowed it down to that poke of a pace, and reduced it and made it way more minimal," he explains. "But it's pretty strange that a song like that was derived basically from a very sweet indie pop band." He adds, "There's a very strange set of reference points and influences on this album."
Conqueror is a very cohesive album, with every track leading inexorably into the next, and all united in mood, instrumentation, and tempo. Broadrick says that the songs for this album were written over a four- or five-year period, with about half of it coming to him in the year before the album was released.
Broadrick writes continually, generating hundreds of songs and song ideas in his home studio, alone, since Jesu is, essentially, a solo project. For Conqueror, however, drummer Ted Parsons (Swans, Prong) and bassist Diarmuid Dalton came in towards the end to help Broadrick realize the "live band" sound he was aiming at. Still they didn't write the songs, or even their own parts. " It's a very selfish thing," he says. "I pretty much write everything, even the drum parts and the bass parts, and then I get people who are my best friends, who have worked with me for years, who basically are willing to record what I ask them to. They do bring their own things to the record. It's their interpretation of what I set up, but it is essentially myself."
Broadrick chose songs for Conqueror out of a vast pool of ideas, looking for pieces that fit his goals for the album. "Conceptually, musically, I wanted things to sound very organic on this record and quite like a rock band," he says. "That was one of the things I was really going for, but with all these layers of psychedelia."
He eliminated songs that relied too heavily on programming or synthesizers; an earlier EP, Silver, had focused on these types of ideas anyway. At the same time, he drew together pieces that flowed easily into one another. "There are people who have criticized Conqueror saying that it all sounds the same," he says. "It's extremely repetitive. But that's intentional, you know? A single record, by definition, it should speak the same language on every song. I'm not interested in this sort of variation for variation's sake. For me it's an all encompassing concept, but there's a lot I can do within it."
Conqueror has been, by far, Jesu's highest-profile recording to date, bringing a whole new set of fans but troubling some of the old ones. Broadrick shrugs it off, noting that he's glad to see terms like "accessible" popping up in reviews, even if the context is negative. "Maybe some of the people that use that term see me as an underground musician who's pioneered this brutal form of music, and they want to think of me as this underground hero instead of someone who's capable of making music that could be accessible to a wider range of people," he says. "But I'm happy to see that. For me, it actually puts a smile on my face to see a review that says my work is accessible. It's not like I've sat there thinking, 'I want to make accessible music.' But I know that the melodies that I'm influenced by, the huge array of influences around Jesu, some of that is music that's considered accessible."
Moreover, he says that growing artistically is more important than pleasing his fan base. "People at first who were so smitten by what I've done in the past were quite revolted when I was openly talking about having a love for pop music," he recalls. "And for me, it's just very sad. I've never claimed to be a musician who's all about making this very angry music and that's it. It's got old for me. It makes me much happier to think that people are getting off on my music because it's got a pretty sense of melody."
He adds that changes in his music reflect changes in his life. Broadrick's not an angry teenager in a tough neighborhood anymore. He lives in the Welsh countryside now, waking up to a view of the mountains and the sea, and that stillness has crept into his work. "There's a feeling of peace and solitude I get in that kind of human-less environment. Sometimes I'm trying to make music that recreates these moments, even just the way the sun shines through the window. It's trying to encapsulate the beauty and the ultimate sadness of everything."
Touring, writing, mixing, remixing
Jesu toured the US last spring with Isis, missing the first couple of weeks of dates due to visa problems, but ending with a triumphant stand at SXSW's Hydrahead showcase, alongside Pelican, Big Business, Daughters, and Oxbow. They’ll be back in the states, bureaucracy permitting, this October and also hitting Japan and Europe in support of an upcoming EP. Meanwhile, Broadrick is writing songs, both for Jesu and for his ambient project Final, and pursuing an intriguing side project called Grey Machines.
He's working with Dave Cochrane (the "David" in Head of David), on this largely improvisatory recording project, which, he warns, will not be as melodic or delicate as recent Jesu records. "It's not like Godflesh but it's still very confrontational and psychedelic and full of noise, but it's not metal," he says. A floating line-up of collaborators -- Aaron Turner of Isis, Diarmuid Dalton, and others -- will contribute. Initially, it will be a studio-only endeavor, with cuts released on the web, and fairly prolifically. The appeal of a sprawling psychedelic improv outline, says Broadrick, is largely one of release. "It gives me a chance to relinquish the very strict composition angle that I've been bludgeoning with Jesu over the last few years," he says. "I'm so stuck within these songs that it's nice for me to just do something else."
Broadrick also remains in demand as a remixer. Over the last year or so, he's done remixing projects for Isis, Explosions in the Sky, Fog, and a French band named Manicara. But so far, no one but Broadrick has been allowed to remix Jesu. "I've always been quite precious about my own stuff," he says. "I think it's because I see my own music as being somewhat endless. By the time I've written and recorded songs, I can see the myriad ways that this song could work, and it's almost like there are too many options. You have to pick one. So when it comes to remixing my own stuff, it's so easy. And probably most of the people I'd want to remix my stuff are off limits, too. You know, Brian Eno or someone like that, ridiculous stuff."
Ridiculous? Maybe not. In a career that's had as many twists and turns as Broadrick's, it seems that almost anything can happen.