Like many children of the ’60s, Justin Broadrick was scarred by the artful gore of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a horror film once discussed in tones so hushed you’d think the devil was in the director’s cut. He wasn’t a hormonal teenager when he stumbled upon a copy of the cult classic, however; he was 10 years old.
“My mother and stepfather were drug fiends, so I was exposed to loads of debauchery at a young age,” the Godflesh frontman explains over the phone from his coastal home in the remote North Wales town of Abergele. “One time they went to this freaky guy’s house — most of it was painted black — and sat me down in front of the TV for the night. Meanwhile this guy was chain-smoking a bong and watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It had quite an extreme effect on me. It’s no wonder that led to [me getting into] Throbbing Gristle.”
Not to mention true crime novels, nth generation “video nasty” tapes, the Marquis de Sade’s amorality plays, and masochistic noise music like Whitehouse; anything you’d hide from your teacher and hoard with your friends, Broadrick gravitated towards. If that seems like a sign of a lost childhood, you’re missing the point. The kid who couldn’t look away from Leatherface — now 45 and one of the friendliest heavy-metal icons you’ll ever meet — didn’t turn into a deeply disturbed teenager. He was just enamored of extremes, dropping a few acid tabs on his tongue as the Lady in the Radiator sang “In Heaven” over the industrial wasteland of Eraserhead or a priest faced a witchcraft-related death sentence in The Devils.
In that way, Broadrick is a lot like his mother, a thrill seeker who turned to religion “at the end of a bad trip” during his teen years but ultimately felt “bored shitless” by the bible-thumpers around her. One of those was Broadrick’s stepfather, a “nice guy” who taught him how to play guitar, but got so swept up in spiritualism he ended up an elder in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. None of them would approve of the death-metal albums and X-rated Ken Russell films in which the young Broadrick regularly indulged.
“We were all for immersing ourselves in psychedelic death trips,” Broadrick says of the late-night viewing sessions he’d often have with a few close friends, including future Godflesh bandmate, bassist G.C. Green. “Hell knows why; we just seemed to get off on it.”
One reason must have been Broadrick’s upbringing in the culturally barren council estates of Birmingham. While the city was close behind London in size during the ’70s and ’80s, it was much grimmer, a claustrophobic web of clogged streets, ashen buildings and rampant pollution. With few options for a positive release outside of shouting at soccer matches or starting lager-soaked fights at the local pub, Broadrick turned to the same outlet as fellow heavy-metal heroes Black Sabbath and Judas Priest: music, the heavier the better. That made him the exception, not the rule; Broadrick’s earliest bands (Green’s Fall of Because project, an early, some-would-say-seminal incarnation of Napalm Death) felt like they were fighting tooth-and-nail against the blank-faced worker bees around them.
“You’d be beaten up for being a punk rocker, you know?” says Broadrick, a proud fan of Discharge and Crass when his peers were more concerned with landing a factory job. “You’d get the shit kicked out of you on the street.”
Broadrick was also wracked by the willful ignorance he witnessed on a daily basis, from his classmates’ inability to recognize the “chemical shit” in the air to the pervasive small-town mentality that turned blue-collar families into lifelong prisoners of the lower class.
“We despised the fact that people accepted their lot in life without challenging preconceived expectations,” explains Green, who noticed Broadrick on the street a few times before talking to him about their most prized punk LPs. (It took Broadrick about 10 minutes to sell Green a Stranglers bootleg.) “We couldn’t accept that it was our lot to stay living in the council ghetto we were brought up in, working in a factory till the day we died. This feeling always influenced the music we played, even in the bands we were in before Godflesh.”
It also led Broadrick to quit school at 15 — right in the middle of an exam, no less—never looking back. He wanted to learn; he just couldn’t do it there, in a place where he felt like a misunderstood freak. A move to the nearby, arts-friendly town of Moseley was in order, as was Godflesh’s earliest recordings and, eventually, a little album called Streetcleaner.
THE BOMB SQUAD
Kevin Martin knew he was a Godflesh fan before he even heard their music. All it took was seeing the sticker on a Rough Trade copy of their self-titled debut in 1988 that read “Slayer Meets Swans, By Ex-Members of Head of David/Napalm Death.” Drawn in by the gutter-dwelling grooves of career-defining cuts like “Avalanche Master Song” and “Spinebender,” he decided to give the duo a call — their number was listed in the EP’s inner sleeve — and offer them a show at the Mule Club, a tiny Brixton venue in the backroom of a pub that was right behind a police station. Little did he know it would be end up being Godflesh’s first show, an intimate affair performed in front of just 30 people.
“They destroyed the carpeted venue in heavyweight style,” says Martin, who was fronting the free-form collective GOD at the time. “Godflesh were an absolute revelation for me. They stripped music back to a primal attack — a maliciously minimal killing machine, swinging like a motherfucker, and rocking out like a madman on the most potent of narcotics. They were truly bad trip specialists.”
He continues, “This was pure metal, removing wack solos and cartoon vocals. It was dread to the core, physical to the max and relentlessly hypnotic.”
Broadrick simply looked at Godflesh as a defense mechanism — a mutated reduction of extreme music that doesn’t respect its elders. It rewrites their rules, abusing the guitar rather than worshipping it, and swapping out a live drummer for a merciless drum machine.
“Heavy metal is always born from the riff,” he explains. “It suggests this ripped dude who holds his guitar like a fucking sword, slaying mere mortals, pillaging villages and raping women. For me, this was never about machismo, never an expression of the male ego. Absolutely the opposite. We feel like weak, crushed individuals who are not violent. We’re very peaceful. We’re very friendly. Very sensitive. Would never hang around with gangs of males, you know what I mean?”
Listening to the two of them talk about Godflesh’s early days, it’s easy to see how Martin “got it” well before anyone else in England. Even though Broadrick only played on the first side of Napalm Death’s Scum album, his brief association with the legendary grindcore band left most fans expecting the same breakneck tempos and chaos-grounded grindcore from Godflesh. It didn’t help that one of Godflesh’s earliest UK tours was supporting Napalm Death.
“Audiences were literally throwing shit at us,” says Broadrick, “and trying to jump on stage. They were there for this hyperspeed thrash band and here we were — one of the slowest bands in the world with a fucking drum machine. The only people who used drum machines then were ’80s [pop] bands or hip-hop artists.”
Ironically, Martin and Broadrick would deal with similar forms of derision and hostility over the next decade as they supported a bass-heavy hip-hop side project called Techno Animal. By the time of that group’s 2001 album The Brotherhood of the Bomb — a proto-Death Grips LP, pressed by Matador and featuring such underground favorites as El-P, Vast Aire and Anti-Pop Consortium — the blank stares and blowback from cooler-than-thou crowds got to be too much.
“Techno Animal stopped at the right time, as no one really gave a fuck,” explains Martin. “We barely had an audience; we were too noisy for hip-hop people, and too hip-hop for noise heads.”
As necessary as Techno Animal’s split was, Martin felt anxious and frustrated as he produced his earliest solo records as the Bug, and he never stopped thinking about how well the pair worked together in the decades since that first Godflesh show. (Broadrick also produced several GOD sessions and joined the band towards the end.)
“Even to this day, I miss working with Justin in the studio,” says Martin. “He lives, breathes and craves music as much as I do, and he’s the only musician/producer I’ve met who works on the same frequencies as me, who needs to make music as much as I do…He is my soul brother in the best sense, as positive a person as you could ever wish to meet. Which is ironic considering how dark people might think he is, considering the sound of Godflesh.”
GESTURE OF BALANCE
Aaron Turner hated Godflesh the first time he heard it. The former ISIS frontman caught a video from the Streetcleaner era and “it honestly scared me,” he says. “I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It didn’t even sound like music to me. Like, the first time I saw the Melvins, I didn’t like it, but it made an impression on me that I can still recall today.”
It took Turner most of high school to make the jump from his favorite band, Metallica, to the more experimental side of extreme music, starting with Neurosis and quickly expanding to sludgier, uglier fare like Swans, Melvins and Godflesh. Godflesh’s lesser-known 1994 album Selfless left a big mark on Turner’s songwriting, and you can hear the fluid melodies and forward-thinking rhythms of Godflesh’s early efforts reflected throughout ISIS’ catalog, beginning with the “Streetcleaner” cover they performed on a split with Pig Destroyer in 2000.
A year later, ISIS needed to pad an EP (SGNL>05) with one more song. Since their label bosses Neurosis were already in touch with Broadrick about a potential LP from his ambient alias Final, they asked him if he’d like to do a remix. Yet another longtime bond was borne with a widescreen, 10-minute treatment called “Celestial (Signal Fills the Void).”
Here’s where things get a little hairy: While several noteworthy sidemen joined Godflesh throughout the ’90s — including members of Loop (guitarist Robert Hampson), Swans (drummer Ted Parsons) and Primus (Bryan “Brain” Mantia) — the group’s core duo remained the same as it ever was, Broadrick and Green. That is, until 2001, when Green felt he’d reached an impasse and needed to walk away from music entirely. Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven was a worthwhile replacement but the chemistry that fueled Godflesh’s most influential music wasn’t as combustible as it once was.
“I think there has always been a crucial yin/yang balance to Godflesh,” says Martin. “I definitely couldn’t imagine J working without Benny, and in fact whenever they tried working with others, I always personally felt the best Godflesh lineup was the simplest — Justin, Benny and a machine.”
As much as he loved toying with Godflesh’s trademark sound and bringing in outside players he truly admired, the pressure began to mount behind Hymns — one of the only Godflesh albums made in a proper studio — and Broadrick essentially had a nervous breakdown (“A real Brian Wilson moment,” he once told MTV) on the brink of a major self-booked tour supported by High on Fire and ISIS. Unable to deal with the stress and the dissolution of a 13-year relationship, Broadrick folded Godflesh in 2002, triggering a wave of death threats, heavy drinking and mounting debt in the process.
“That was a complete shock that came out of the blue,” says Parsons, who pounded out the drum parts on Hymns and was ready to tour behind it alongside his old Prong bandmate. “Raven and I were both very disappointed, of course. At the end of the day, I forgave Justin and we are still friends. The guy’s heart just was not in it anymore. How could I be mad at him?”
“It was a truly dark time for Justin,” adds Green. “Not just with the ending of Godflesh; he had other emotional stuff going on too that was painful for him, and of course I was worried and concerned for him.”
He continues, “It sounds harsh, but I was going through some pretty significant changes in my life that needed my undivided attention. And I also had to make a living now that I had no income. So our contact dwindled to nothing pretty quickly. As close as we had grown over the years, I knew I couldn’t get him through this pain; he had to find his own way and a new way of living, which he did.”
That path was forged a year later, as Broadrick clawed his way back to the spotlight with a new band called Jesu. Parsons was one of the first people he called about it, as was Turner, who eventually signed Broadrick to his Hydra Head imprint for what was being touted as a beautiful yet broken transition from the scorched earth songs of Godflesh.
“The first Jesu album was born from the end of everything I knew at that point,” explains Broadrick. “It was pretty brutal really — about as genuine as it gets in terms of what I was going through, which was literal heartache.”
Musically speaking, Parsons says Broadrick insisted Jesu would “never be one thing. It would have elements of Godflesh, some albums would have programmed percussion, some would be more ambient. He didn’t want to limit himself. As far as the drumming, I had the same approached as to Godflesh, meaning I played very hard and very heavy.”
“The biggest surprise for me was when I heard Jesu,” adds Green, “as for years I was always trying to get him to do something similar musically — very melodic but melancholic. There were times we tried, but he’d always back off saying it wasn’t him. Then, when I’m not around that’s what he did! One day we’ll have our pop band!”
THE HORROR, THE HORROR
If you have the days — and it will take days — necessary to take in Broadrick’s entire discography, you’ll quickly realize one thing: the man does not sit still. He’s in a constant state of flux, whether he’s sculpting new shapes with his guitar in Final, embracing the soft-focused side of electronic music with Pale Sketcher or reverting back to the grimy exorcisms of Godflesh with JK Flesh and Greymachine. Those projects in particular were the first signs Broadrick hadn’t stopped thinking about his most beloved band on both a creative and personal level. Sure enough, Godflesh announced their first show in more than eight years — an appearance at Hellfest in Clisson, France — soon after the release of Greymachine’s debut album, the nightmarish psych record Disconnected.
Technical difficulties got in the way of Broadrick and Green nailing their reunion date, but they regained their stage legs by the time Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival asked them to co-headline with Swans a few months later. Broadrick admitted he was writing songs with Godflesh in mind again in a subsequent Decibel interview, but he kept fans guessing about their fate until last spring. That’s when plans for an EP (Decline & Fall) and album (A World Lit Only By Fire) materialized in the wake of a successful U.S. run that revealed a duo that was not only reinvigorated, but arguably back at the peak of their powers.
“Ironically, it was one of the most enjoyable U.S. tours we ever did,” says Broadrick. “Usually when people reform after X years, 9 times out of 10 people are just reliving former glories. For us, it was quite the opposite. We were like, ‘This is amazing. The audiences are as good as they always were, if not better. It felt like I’d come home to myself.”
Considering the lack of hope in the headlines these days, the deliberately gruesome direction of Godflesh’s new material — a mirror held up to the horrors around us — is as relevant as it’s ever been. Broadrick knows; as happy as he is living down by the sea, where he’s now raising a son in a stable, loving relationship, he often finds himself bowled over by news broadcasts and broad sheets.
“I’ve always been drawn to pain and horror, you know what I mean?” explains Broadrick. “I’m not even remotely desensitized; I can’t take my eyes off of it. Not in a car crash kind of way. I just fucking feel it. My partner often says, ‘Just don’t look at it’, but how can I turn myself off from this? I have a duty to feel what people are going through. To at least know what motherfuckers are doing on a daily basis.”
“The music is an outlet for the way humanity makes us feel,” adds Green. “There are many wonderful and beautiful things in this world, but the human race is still as selfish, ignorant, greedy and corrupt as it’s always been. The fires of war, hate and ignorance still burn and will until we are all ash.”
That explains why A World Lit Only By Fire is such a vital record — both a rebirth and a welcome reminder of what made so many listeners fall in love with Godflesh in the first place. And that is their brutal honesty, how they say what other metal bands merely suggest by showing us the mess we’ve made and rubbing our faces in it.
“Are the youth disenchanted?” asks Broadrick. “Do they know everybody’s a fucking liar? They’re so resigned to it there’s just not a fucking point anymore. Do we just give up? Of course there’s not going to be a revolution. Who’s got the energy for it? We’re too busy fucking around. You could watch the bombs coming down and people would still be sitting on their phones, Tweeting.”