Justin Broadrick was 15 years old when he first changed the landscape of heavy metal. A social misfit inspired by anarcho-punks Crass and the sonic terrorism of industrial originators Throbbing Gristle, he was conscripted into Napalm Death as guitarist in 1985. He appeared on the first side of their 1987 debut album, Scum, a record that helped lay down the template for grindcore, and has remained a lodestone for adrenaline-fuelled agitators ever since.
“Ninety-five per cent of the A-side of Scum was my music,” he says. “I was sitting in my bedroom in a council estate in Birmingham, writing riff after riff after riff. I was a weird machine. If I think back to it, it was always this endless river of sound. I have to stop myself from creating. You see how many projects I’ve got, it’s ridiculous. And for me, it’s the tip of an iceberg. I would release way more if I knew I wasn’t suffocating people with my music.”
We’re having coffee in central Oslo, a few hours before he’ll terrorise audiences at the city’s Inferno Festival with Godflesh, the hugely influential band he has been at the centre of, on and off, for the past 35 years. Lanky, with a tufty beard making him look like an urban wizard, the 53-year-old is a dynamo of effusive, gregarious energy, as if an endless amount of information is constantly whirring in his brain.
Justin may be one of the underground’s most prolific musicians – Napalm Death, Head Of David, Fall Of Because, Final, Techno Animal and Jesu are just some of the countless projects he’s been involved with. But the entity that’s been his defining work is Godflesh.
Formed in 1988 with fellow Fall Of Because member Benny Green, and powered by a cheap drum machine they bought with a loan from Benny’s mum, Godflesh viewed the then-burgeoning industrial scene through the grimiest, most godforsaken of lenses fashioned from their claustrophobic Birmingham surroundings. Boiled down to a vision of humanity locked into an endless struggle against overpowering forces, they were George Orwell’s 1984 on steroids. Textured by Justin’s guitar riffs squirming like welts around a point of impact, the result was startling, but transcendent too, the pummelling repetition of their music treating nihilism as a tantric state. It felt as though something utterly new and terrified was being born, and beaten down, on an endless loop. You couldn’t look away.
“It’s protest music,” says Justin. “I always felt it was resignation, how humanity is a cesspool of shit and will never crawl out of it, but still not giving in. So it’s a protest against everything we are, but the embodiment of the human condition is me fighting against that, and as I recently learned, it’s been me fighting against my autism.”
Friends had asked if he’d ever considered that he might be autistic, but he put the way his mind worked down to the “terrible anxiety” he suffered. He was eventually diagnosed with autism in June last year.
“It suddenly put everything in place: my hypersensitivity, my sense of self-failing, of being misunderstood, of feeling isolated and alone, my sense of masking, my sense of trying to be something that I know I’m not, and so on,” he says. “It’s like a battle against everything fundamentally.”
Justin knew he was different at an early age. Unable to focus at school, his report cards regularly stated he was highly equipped, but too much of a dreamer to excel.
“Although I didn’t know it then, that was a blueprint for autism,” he says. “Everything was too fast. For me, it was all carnage, mess, 360 degree perception and I’d just look out the window at the lights and the sun, and I was happier just escaping into that world than this chaos of people. Even now, I’m hearing conversations behind me, trying to filter them out. If a glass breaks behind me, I’ll be thinking what’s happening there, why is that happening, and I can be so distracted so easily.”
Abandoned by his biological father, living with an alcoholic mother, much of his sense of isolation came from a sense of being a burden to those around him. The one relative who would give him attention was his German grandmother, a renegade during WWII, who was forced into a concentration camp before being liberated by the man she later married.
“My nan would explicitly overshare, like I do. All I’d ever hear about when I was a kid were these stories of fucking horror. She was still there, even to the day she died: pure German accent and still recounting these experiences. She said she stood in front of mountains of dead bodies, and I was just a seven-year-old child. So I was being exposed to this brutal imagery with my sensitivities, and now I have lifelong PTSD as well. So imagery is very easy for me to concoct and to feel. I have highly empathetic responses to things, so I just carried all this anger and all this horror.”
The one language that Justin could think in at his own pace was music. His mother and stepdad were hippies turned punks, forming a band, Anti-Social, who put out an obscure seven-inch single of punk-meets-shock horror. He was turned onto Alice Cooper, the Sex Pistols and Lou Reed, most notably the latter’s provocative 1975 album Metal Machine Music, a record consisting entirely of feedback that was designed as either a grand art statement or a deliberate fuck-you to Reed’s label.
Justin formed a powerelectronics band at the age of 11, spurred on by his love of Throbbing Gristle and fellow industrial provocateurs Whitehouse. He went on to join Birmingham band Fall Of Because as drummer and vocalist, before a meeting with Napalm Death’s then-singer and bassist Nic Bullen led to him doubling up as that band’s guitarist, before in-fighting forced him to leave after recording just one side of Scum. A brief stint in experimental metallers Head Of David followed, though it was Godflesh where everything coalesced musically and lyrically for Justin.
Among his stepdad’s records, one that offered particular inspiration was by The Stranglers. “It was the bass playing. I just connected with filth in sounds. That texture and dirt and chaos and carnage within it, and me trying to abbreviate it and contain it almost. We wanted to turn the guitar and bass down so fucking low that we could barely even play anymore – until we were physically merging with the filth of this sound. The lower we tuned, and the more guttural it became, the more connection I had with it."
When Godflesh’s self-titled debut EP was released in 1988 via Swordfish Records, its impact was immediate. It might have drawn from both metal and industrial, but it felt like a hermetically sealed world with its own irresistible force of gravity. Influential Radio 1 DJ John Peel was an early champion, and Earache Records, home to the likes of Morbid Angel, Deicide and Napalm Death, signed them.
Their debut full-length album, Streetcleaner, was released the following year. This wasn’t so much music as the sound of a machine under unbearable stress. The hyperdense Christbait Rising was as relentless as a pneumatic torture device while the looped artillery barrage of Pulp didn’t just touch a nerve, it slammed a metric fuckton of pressure onto it. Its extremity attracted a host of fans. Justin was asked to join Faith No More on guitar by a besotted Mike Patton, while Danzig and Type O Negative also asked, in vain, for Godflesh to support them on tour in the US (the band have subsequently been cited by Metallica, Devin Townsend, Code Orange and more as an inspiration). Still, it was a surprise when major labels started calling.
“It was a surreal experience,” Justin remembers. “We were being told that we were going to be the new Nine Inch Nails, the new Nirvana, even though we don’t sound remotely like them. I remember being chauffeur-driven from Birmingham to London to some exclusive hotel, and I’d only just signed off [from unemployment benefit]. We knew we were exploding, and I was getting a little ego about it, because I’d spent my whole childhood being ignored and marginalised, and all of a sudden, you’re sitting in front of this guy saying to my face that Godflesh are the next big thing. It was like, ‘How does this make any sense?’”
Thanks to a deal between Earache and Columbia, Godflesh’s third album, 1994’s Selfless, was released via a major label in the US. Their flirtation with the mainstream music industry didn’t last long – Columbia unceremoniously dropped the band a year later. But while the chances of Godflesh becoming “the next big thing” were always remote, they were unconsciously sowing the seeds for a new generation of commercially viable bands.
Among the first of these were Nottingham industrial metallers Pitchshifter, who formed the year Streetcleaner was released and were early adopters of the Godflesh sound. Soon, Justin’s influence was beginning to show in a wave of soon-to-be famous American bands, among them Korn and Fear Factory.
“I remember [Justin’s bandmate in the Techno Animal side-project] Kevin Martin phoning me, saying, ‘Jus, do you want to hear an American band sounding just like you?’ And he played me Blind by Korn. I was like, ‘Are you kidding? It sounds like Godflesh meets Faith No More.’
“Fear Factory were structured entirely around us, but I thought it was so much more conservative. But also I saw the beauty and the fact that that’s how you take my formula, be tactical about it, and present it to a larger audience who go, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ And then they hear where it came from, and they go... ‘Oh!’ Ha ha ha!"
Ultimately, the combination of musical and personal pressures got too much, and Godflesh buckled in 2002, on the verge of a huge US tour with Strapping Young Lad and Fear Factory.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to go into unpredictable situations,’” Justin recalls. “I was sick of it. And I was sick of having to drain alcohol every night and do bongs all the time to deal with people and unpredictable situations and information overload. And because I hadn’t been diagnosed, nobody got it, obviously. No one understood why I was reacting like this – not even me at the time.”
He retreated to his new home in rural Wales and formed a new band, Jesu, as his main outlet. Initially, he took the sludgiest elements of Godflesh, expanded on the melancholia that lay at the band’s heart, and wed them to richer, post-rock textures. The project soon broadened into more pastoral and redemptive realms, recalling the 90s shoegaze era long before the revival began in earnest, and even ventured into outright pop.
Although Jesu is still a going concern, and a long-term partner and child have given him much-need balance, some demons refuse to die. At the instigation of Hellfest festival, Justin and Benny reformed Godflesh in 2009 as a live act, but the urge to record together again became too strong.
This year’s Purge is their third album since their reformation. It’s brought back the breakbeat elements of 1992’s Pure record, but it still finds new ways to distil a lifetime’s worth of dislocation and hypersensitivity. But as their colossal set at the Inferno festival in Norway will prove later tonight, Godflesh remain a galvanising and unifying force as deeply affecting for new generations of fans as much as long-term ones.
“Those shows prove this isn’t just old man music,” laughs Justin. “It actually communicates something to people, and although we never became that big band, we’ve somehow attained this legendary status.”
For all Godflesh’s negativity and misanthropy, and the wilful nihilism of mantras like ‘Don’t hold me back, this is my own hell’ (from Streetcleaner’s Christbait Rising), this is music whose overwhelming power becomes an act of deliverance – a stripping away of ego and a surrender to the ecstatic, even if it’s through the most masochistic of routes.
“There has to be some form of communion,” says Justin. “When I go onstage, it’s not a celebration. I’m not hereto entertain you. I’m on the verge of tears the entire time, because I’m so immersed in it. I want it to be this suffocating, claustrophobic experience that I feel. I am fucking crushed by it, and I do want to crush everyone else with it. But it’s not an act of vengeance. It’s a human, shared experience.”
Published in Metal Hammer #376