Extreme Language: An Interview With Justin K. Broadrick
, May 9th, 2012 04:28
Under the alias JK Flesh, long-running industrial/metal pioneer Justin Broadrick returns to the electronic crucible, fortifying blazing walls of distortion with iron wrecking-ball beats. He speaks to Joseph Burnett about his remarkable history, "hateful and fucked" music, and future plans
If you’re a metal fan, Justin K. Broadrick stands as a figure as important and valuable as Stephen O’Malley or Aaron Turner: someone who has traversed the decades at the forefront of the genre’s constant and fascinating evolutions. Born in the decaying industrial belt of Britain’s West Midlands, JKB, as he’s affectionately known, first rose to prominence as singer and guitarist in seminal industrial metal outfit Godflesh, who re-drew the metal map by expertly melding Black Sabbath riff-tastic crunch with the brutal textures and bleak atmospheres of Throbbing Gristle and SPK.
After Godflesh dissolved, JKB would continue to reinvent the wheel, dabbling in industrial techno, hip-hop and free metal alongside future Bug Kevin Martin (as part of God, Techno Animal and Ice) before relaxing the harshness to focus on beatific post-shoegaze bliss as Jesu. More recently, he’s teamed up with Turner to form what may be his heaviest project yet, Greymachine, whilst exploring ambient drone and power electronics in his solo outfit White Static Demon.
It seems there’s no end to Broadrick's inspiration and ability to expand on his already prodigious discography. JK Flesh is his latest solo project, one that’s been ongoing for some time but which he’d long delayed in committing to tape. With a focus once again on techno beats, but submerged under waves of guitar, JK Flesh’s debut Posthuman feels like Broadrick returning to his 90s dabblings in techno and hip-hop, whilst also expanding the scope of what a metal artist can do alone with the right equipment. the Quietus caught up with Broadrick over the phone to discuss this latest adventure, and to brush up on the man’s remarkable contribution to modern metal music.
Could you please give me a bit of background on JK Flesh? Am I right in thinking it’s a project that’s been going for a while now?
Justin K Broadrick: Relatively. It was the pseudonym I used when I was working with Kevin Martin. He and I spent many years working together, firstly in a band that he used to do called God - that’s going back to the late-eighties, early-nineties. I started producing them and doing some guitar, and then we started this project called Techno Animal in the very early nineties: we did our first album in about 1991. Shortly after that, we did an album for Virgin called Re-Entry, which got a lot of hype and attention, and he laughingly started to call me JK Flesh, because we were working on a mutation of hip-hop. He was politely taking the piss and I took the piss out of him by calling him K-Mart [laughs]. And those names stuck in the end.
The JK Flesh pseudonym was intended for everything he and I did together, which was basically anything we did in the realm of electronica, loosely-speaking. Anything that had beats and was electronic-based. Since we stopped working on these projects together, I’d always quite privately recorded material, but never did anything with it because I just concentrated on stuff like Jesu. Steve from Cloaks, who actually came to me from Kevin, was quite interested in my Greymachine project, which was me with a lot of other guys, and that paved the way for JK Flesh, because he came over and asked me if I did anything solo that was similar to Greymachine. It’s just sort of gone from there, really...
So now just seemed the right time to get it out?
JKB: Yes, reasonably. I think I’d been sending him what could be considered tracks probably about two years ago, but because shortly after the release of the Greymachine album I’d been doing so many things and I’d just had my first child, I had to slow everything down a bit. But Steve was particularly struck on a certain area that I was hitting with this material, because it’s fairly diverse but rooted in beats, literally-speaking. It’s essentially in the area of electronica, observing everything from drum & bass to grime or dubstep - anything that could be considered dancefloor, but then of course I’ve mutilated it by bringing in electric guitars and fucked-up layers of psychedelia and so on.
With its electronica approach, it certainly harks back to, say, Techno Animal. What was it that initially drew you to techno music and electronics, away from metal?
JKB: I think for me you could draw it back to the eighties and when I got into industrial music. I come from a punk background and metal was just a by-product of punk for me. I only got interested in it because I was into stuff like Crass and Discharge as a kid, and by way of stuff like Discharge I got into stuff like Motorhead, purely by accident, just because they were referred to by school friends. And I was always interested in this minimalist approach to music, with no care for technical ability and a focus on emotional impact.
But outside of things like that, I was also listening to things like Throbbing Gristle and had a real soft spot for a lot of eighties synth stuff like early Human League, DAF, Kraftwerk - I was already really fascinated by synth sounds and sequenced synthesizer stuff. Arguably, you could call it primitive techno, so when the techno explosion happened, and I got into that acid house stuff (and was taking the right drugs!), I was very obsessive about that culture. That was absorbed by Godflesh in the very early nineties and at the same time, in ‘85 or so, I got exposed to Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Run DMC, and became fascinated with hip-hop culture. So it’s all just one big melting pot to me, and metal is just one of the things I’m interested in.
Industrial is possibly what you’re most associated with, with a lot of people crediting Godflesh for launching industrial metal. Do you see JK Flesh as using electronics to expand on the industrial scene you were part of?
JKB: I think I’m a little lost with the whole industrial scene, to be honest. Godflesh is obviously seen as an innovator to the industrial metal scene, but I just saw Godflesh as making a sort of minimalist, extreme form of rock or metal. But I was completely influenced by TG, SPK, Test Dept. and Whitehouse - all that early, loosely-speaking industrial music. For me, industrial became associated with some fairly odd things in the nineties and I wanted to distance myself from the very smooth-sounding electronic body music, which I wasn’t interested in. I’m fairly purist about what I consider industrial music, I guess, and the impact it had upon me was to sort of abuse it. This JK Flesh thing is genuinely industrial, I think - but not seen in that context, more that of the artists I mentioned, as well as certain drum & bass ones from the nineties. JK Flesh is as informed by Throbbing Gristle as is it by what Dillinjah or the Renegade Hardware label or No-U-Turn were doing.
You’ve mentioned dubstep and drum & bass - do you think it would be easy to align JK Flesh with those genres? Could you see yourself playing this material in a club space?
JKB: It’s too leftfield and too far gone for that stuff. I used to go to drum & bass events all the time in the nineties, but they were very one dimensional, although that was the thrill: it was a very singular experience. JK Flesh is way too expansive and fucked-up for that dancefloor scene. It’s funny because at first some of this material that’s on the album didn’t have guitar and vocals, and it was arguably much more dancefloor-oriented and it could have been mixed in by DJs, particularly at dubstep events, because I’m using that 140bpm tempo. But no, even Steve from Cloaks said that if I put more guitar and vocals on it, it’d become even more far out, which is probably a good thing. And that was the intention. The stuff I was originally doing was probably too... not conservative, it was still confrontational and really fucking heavy, but it needed to go further, like the Greymachine project. I needed it to be that extreme. I did a lot of stuff in the nineties that was straight-up drum & bass, where I had records that were played by the likes of Grooverider on Radio 1 and people wouldn’t know it was me! JK Flesh wouldn’t exist without drum & bass, but it’s a complete mutation of those styles.
Do you play all the instruments yourself on Posthuman? How did you go about putting together each track?
JKB: I played everything, yeah. Everything in its bare bones is pretty much a minimal dancefloor tune. And then I start throwing guitar and real drums on top, layers of vocals put through bank-loads of effects. It’s about layering extremity upon extremity, and then mixing it as extreme as well, but keeping it so it’s not just a wall of noise, and you can still feel the beats and bass. It’s an organic thing as well. The tracks start off as being pretty machine-like dancefloor tunes, to some extent, but then I’m looking in the layers for that sort of extremity, when things really take off. Which is what Kevin Martin and I were doing towards the end of working together in projects like Curse of the Golden Vampire, using conventional but very heavy dancefloor tools, but then making it organic and throwing yourself into it as a human being. It’s painstaking, although it’s somewhat easy-ish, initially, because I’ve spent so many years making things for dancefloors under different pseudonyms. The hard work is making it truly fucked up and truly psychedelic.
You’re incredibly prolific, even by modern standards. How do you find the inspiration to do such diverse projects?
JKB: Obviously I’ve got an extreme passion for music, and it’s pretty much the only language that I’m in any way - debatably! - adept at. I listen to such a wide range of music, and it gives me so much pleasure, that I find nearly everything inspirational. I’m just one of those sponge characters. Oddly, it takes me a long time to digest things. But by the time I’ve digested all these things, they come out in many different ways, you know? I have to be very focused on what I’m working on and what my goals are, which is quite hard when you’re mostly working by yourself, because holding your own reins is a difficult enough job anyway! But even though I’m quite prolific, I do work this material an awful lot, day-in, day-out. But I have to hold the reins nearly every month to not create yet another project! [laughs].
Do you have to sit down and commit to a project, or do you move between each one organically?
JKB: It depends on whatever’s grabbing me at the moment. I could have a couple of weeks of listening to a lot of song-based stuff that spans any number of decades and a lot of what results from that could be stuff that influences Jesu, for example. Then I might have a mad listening session of stuff from the seventies, some form of krautrock I loved when I was a kid and I’ll hear something that I could maybe re-interpret as a beat. I often switch modes - I’ll listen to, say, an old CAN record and I’ll hear a syncopated rhythm and think “that could be a beat that I’ll use!”
Also, I get bored fairly quickly! If I immerse myself in something so deeply, I’ll go straight into something fairly opposing to that. I’ve been working on the JK Flesh album this last year, mixing it that is, and I’ve been almost exclusively immersed in that, so that towards the end of mixing Posthuman, I started listening to a lot of stuff that was influencing me to do some Jesu stuff. So now I’m demoing some Jesu tracks, but I’ve also got this other project, Pale Sketcher, and some of it just blurs between the two. Certain projects will bleed into one another. Some of the JK Flesh stuff came from writing bits for a new Godflesh album. But I wanted Godflesh to be more riff-based, and this stuff was more electronic-based. It all makes sense to me, but rarely makes sense to anyone else.
As a fan of Jesu, I feel there’s a bit of a contrast between the expansiveness of that project and the claustrophobic atmosphere of JK Flesh. Do you see the latter as a bit of a reaction to what you’d been doing in Jesu?
JKB: I think I concentrated on JK Flesh a lot after doing the Godflesh reformation shows, because I hadn’t played as Godflesh in so many years. And Godflesh is a completely different performance to Jesu, live. Jesu is much more meditative and immersive, whereas Godflesh has that element of attack and confrontation. It makes you want to contort or twist up. Jesu is much more... I want to hide when I perform that stuff. It’s all extreme, but Jesu is still born from a lot of pop music, and there’s a lot of debate around that. For me, if Jesu could have barely had my name associated with it, and just be seen for what it is, I’d be a lot happier. Everything I do has name-association, which sometimes can be a bit stifling. I wish that each project of mine could be seen as what it is, purely, and not the person behind it.
I can understand that. I started out as a big fan of Jesu -and still am - then got into Godflesh and White Static Demon and Greymachine, and I can see how people keep comparing each project, often negatively. So I can imagine your frustration.
JKB: People will discuss each project’s merits versus another’s ad infinitum, and it’s just really boring. I like to take music for what it is. Being negative about music is really boring. Right and wrong is purely subjective.
When Godflesh’s Streetcleaner came out, people were very quick to draw parallels between the music on the album and the West Midlands, industrial, landscape where you’re from. Do you think that was a relevant point at the time, and that it’s still a factor in music if so?
JKB: Early Godflesh was absolutely a product of my own environment, but it wasn’t entirely the landscape outside the window, the concrete and the council estate; it was also to do with my childhood background, the way my mother’s was when I was young and what I was exposed to. I was exposed to drug-taking at an early age and a lot of intense partying. As often these things are, it was about the family relationship I had: very angsty. When we formed Godflesh, I was only 18 or something and still learning to deal with a lot of frustration, anger, love, hate... and I still am [laughs].
I don’t live in those environments anymore, I live in a very peaceful place, but whenever I go back to the city, I still feel the same way I did the whole time I was growing up, and JK Flesh is urban. It is not remotely inspired by the environment I exist in now. It’s inspired by when I go back to the city. Jesu is more pastoral, and about being at peace, but in the city I never feel at peace. When I make JK Flesh material, all I think of is the concrete I was brought up around.
One constant across all your projects is the dark atmosphere. Even on Jesu’s first album, you have tracks like 'Tired of Me' and 'Friends are Evil', which are very bleak. Do you naturally gravitate towards the darker side of the human condition?
JKB: Yes. I’ve often been told by people I know that I’m really fucking hypersensitive! It’s a desperate need for expression, although obviously it’s an ego thing I guess. Whatever I absorb, I don’t take things lightly, they seem to have an impact on me. A lot of the music is autobiographical: that first Jesu album was made after I’d just come out of a 13-year relationship, badly, and I just seemed to learn a lot of bad things about people. So Jesu was born from a lot of loss and bad feeling and it was the only way of sort of transcending the state I was in. Fortunately for me, music was the light, it was all I could use. It’s a sort of contradiction - music is the light but it ends up being this sort of bleak, depressing thing. But it was the only way I could express it, you know? But I think the first Jesu album kind of stands alone in that respect. Each record since has been a different examination of the same emotion, but not as completely at a loss as that record. 'Tired of Me' was literal, you know, I was absolutely at the end of my tether.
It’s an absolutely beautiful song, and one of my all-time favourites.
JKB: I’m glad you say that! That song is still really resonant to me and it’s one of my favourite songs I’ve written. It destroyed me when I was writing it, and that was the whole intention.
For all the emphasis on electronics on Posthuman, there’s a definite physicality and corporeality. Was that a deliberate theme?
JKB: A lot of the themes were associated with this whole body horror concept, but the context is pretty ambiguous, as it generally is with a lot of my stuff. It was about seeing the cities in Britain as these darkly-lit places full of alleys and shadows and cut-throats. It’s an extreme, hypersensitive way of viewing life, with the body being so weak - similar things that fit with Godflesh, to some extent. A lot of the same bio-mechanoid stuff, like the first time I saw Geiger’s paintings when on acid! I don’t do drugs anymore, but they had a massive impact on my music and my vision of things.
As you said, it’s quite unusual to have such an extreme guitar sound in electronic music, as you do on Posthuman. Did you have to adapt your playing style to accommodate the beats?
JKB: It is a specific side of my style that I implemented on this stuff. Again, it’s rooted in the Godflesh aesthetic, to some extent. It’s mostly about texture, like most of my music. I don’t consider myself a technical musician in any respect at all. It’s another means to an end - I just abuse guitars, really. With JK Flesh, I’m to some extent using the guitar to try and articulate the electronics. I was trying to do something that was just minimal and dissonant, and I just added texture. As I said, a lot of these tracks are, at the heart of them, dancefloor tracks, but it’s the layers that I put on top that made the album speak another language. It could be considered more conventional without those layers.
What I’m interested in with guitar is either having a lot of emotion or a melancholic aspect - which is Jesu - or with things like Godflesh, JK Flesh and Greymachine it’s abstraction. It’s informed by the first time I heard Killing Joke in 1980, and the way they used guitar, and the first Public Image. I was really influenced the way guitars were so much more abused and non-conventional with those guys. Non-rock! Dissonance! It does something to me physically that I find fascinating. I become so immersed that I can’t see outside of it. And then it gets close to meditation or astral projection.
What are your future projects? Any plans to take JK Flesh on tour?
JKB: There will definitely be one-off shows. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to present it yet, but I have some ideas, but I think it’s going to be fairly minimal, with projections. Not confrontational, but I think it will be a fairly angry experience, somewhat similar to Godflesh in some respects, but also a little bit outside of that. It’ll be kinda geared towards making people move as well as contort! [laughs] I doubt I’ll tour, because I don’t really tour anymore with any project.
Once again, there’s a number of extremely important projects I’m working on, all fighting for attention. I want to work on a new Godflesh album more, I’ve got lots of new Jesu stuff, the JK Flesh material is just as important. I’ve also accumulated a lot of White Static Demon material, and then there’s the Pale Sketcher project which has become noticed. I’ve being doing a lot of angry music lately, so now I’ve got to immerse myself in the opposite. And then I’ll want to go back to something more hateful and more fucked again!