Songs Of The ‘Flesh – The Strange World Of… Justin Broadrick

Our man in San Francisco Ned Raggett talks to Birmingham extreme music legend Justin Broadrick about his three decade plus career of innovation

Justin Broadrick has been, and continues to be, many things. Now based in his north Wales farm, the Birmingham native has thirty plus years of performing and recording under his belt, exploring the world of extreme music (a concept he has his own considered definition of, as you’ll read below) from feedback blur overload to the deepest of dub-inspired crushes to serene contemplation. Kaleidoscopic might be one way to describe his work, in how elements rearrange to create new, unexpected patterns. His latest efforts include a new live release under the guise of Final, his collaborative album as Jesu with Sun Kil Moon, and Rise Above, his latest album as JK Flesh. This piece is a combination of his initial notes to us on his choices and some further follow-up discussion via Skype, with Broadrick in a voluble but admittedly tired mood after two late nights performing… which why among many grand digressions we spoke with some feeling about the power of coffee.

FINAL – First live performance

Final has become famed as a Justin Broadrick solo focus, moving from blasts of guitar from echoing depths to drone tones. But when Final first emerged as his formal introduction to the stage, it was under much different, deeply important circumstances.

Justin Broadrick: 1984, The Mermaid Pub, Birmingham, which was also the birthplace of Napalm Death, essentially a crummy little rock venue. But that was the venue in Birmingham, we saw every punk band that came through, and a lot of power electronics shows were held at that venue as well. My first ‘real’ live performance, I was 14. Final in 1984 was my old friend Andy Swan and I. He was, like Nic Bullen (Napalm Death), someone else I met in Birmingham’s Rag Market. Andy was one year older and had a synthesiser and also a liking for power electronics and industrial noise. I had a shortwave radio and my stepdad’s guitar pedals. I can’t remember if anyone else was on the bill, I want to say it was someone who was popular in the power electronics movement at the time who’s now relatively unknown, Condom. But I think it could have been another local act. There was probably about fifteen people at the show. And most of them were in the other bands. The power electronics scene in Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK, was tiny! I wouldn’t be writing this piece without Birmingham’s Rag Market or The Mermaid Pub, or without Andy Swan and Nic Bullen.

POST MORTEM REKORDINGS – Broadrick’s first label

As featured on such collections as the recent Close To The Noise Floor, the underground/experimental DIY UK scene in the late 70s and early 80s was an explosion of raw talent finding an outlet where nothing else was available, and Broadrick was very much part of that at a young age.

JB: Back when tapes were a necessity and not a fetish item, and really the only way an artist could do something DIY on an miniscule level with no budget whatsoever, I had my first ‘record label’, the subtly titled Post Mortem Rekordings. This was in early 1984, so again I was 14-years-old and enamoured with my discovery of both Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse, so much that I ditched the guitar for a shortwave radio and my step dad’s microphone into his distortion pedal / echo chamber. I could only release this material myself because there was no ‘scene’, so my first label was born. I catalogued almost 40 tape releases before the label was discontinued around late 1985. But this youthful experience was prophetic; I have had three record labels since 1985 – Headdirt Records, Lo Fibre and, since 2000, Avalanche Recordings.

Napalm Death – Scum

To say that Napalm Death – still a going concern long after Broadrick’s sole appearance with them on their debut album – are now metal legends is an understatement. The amount of notable bands alone that their early veteran members created is a top of the line collection in its own right.

JB: 1986, we thought we were recording a demo, little did we know. I was 16. Another happy accident that got noticed, a lot. All the songs we recorded in one session, done in literally a day, and when I say a day, I mean six, seven hours. Our stuff was so tightly rehearsed and played that we just went in there, played every song, I don’t even think we needed to do a second take. There was nothing measured about it, count every note. There was no pressure, no record label, no nothing; we were paying for our own demo to maybe try and get a record out of it. There were some people with us at the session – some people who went on to be in Napalm Death, actually, like Shane Embury! We definitely did mix it in a separate session which was probably about a three hour window. It all imploded extremely quickly, as things often do when exuberant male teenagers are involved. John Peel championed the album, and then the band. It was the hugest thing ever for me, having grown up with John Peel as my tastemaker via BBC Radio 1, to now hear music I was involved in broadcast on his show. The same thing happened with Head Of David.

Head Of David – First John Peel session

Broadrick rapidly served notice to Napalm Death saying that he wasn’t simply going to play in just one band, however noteworthy, with his stint in the glowering, grinding Head Of David one of many collaborations he would go on to explore.

This was also in 1986 but we recorded this before John Peel had actually broadcast any Napalm Death. I had only just left Napalm to join Head Of David as a drummer (filling this role was short-lived thankfully). Head Of David had recorded two John Peel sessions, so they were already legends to me. They were a local band, and I saw them a lot before they were even called Head Of David back when they were a more Suicide-influenced industrial sort of thing – a hybrid of Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo. Then they changed to Head of David, and I thought they were fucking magical – this was still before they had signed any deal. We started talking to them, invited them to come see Napalm Death. At least half of them were at the Scum mixing session. They were pleasant, but I don’t remember them saying all that much, they were older guys than us. Recording at Maida Vale was completely surreal; I’d been listening to John Peel since I was ten years on a mini wireless. I was still at the back end of playing with my Star Wars figures and then I was listening to John Peel! The very same night that this session was first broadcast was the very same night that he also played a track from Scum for the first time, it was quite unreal. Talk about the most bizarre experience, sitting there with a bunch of friends, smoking dope – truly dreamlike. It’s pretty much where my career began, as it is.

Godflesh – Streetcleaner

From its iconic cover of multiple crucifixes set against a burning sky (taken from Altered States), to its make-a-statement opening track ‘Like Rats’ and all that followed, Streetcleaner, the first full-length release by Godflesh, a duo with G.C. Green, became not only his full breakout effort in his own creative right but a rapidly acclaimed and still vital masterpiece of aggressive, brutal, industrial-sounding extreme metal.

JB: This was in 1989 and it changed everything for us, as we became internationally known. The album snowballed in popularity over a three year period. It’s probably everybody’s entry into Godflesh, and probably our most recognised album. Since Godflesh reformed, the people we encounter who are fans of the album are largely or mostly thirty-five and up, but we encounter twenty-year-olds who are so informed, it’s positively ridiculous. It’s interesting because the music is being consumed by them in a completely different context. With the internet at their fingertips, they can consume the history of music in 24 hours! They’re learned, and they understand there’s a legacy, a lineage – they’ll come up to me now, at a JK Flesh show, a Jesu/Sun Kil Moon show, and just rave about it. But it’s rare to have someone who’s twenty come up to me now and have encountered Streetcleaner in a vacuum, whereas back in the day, that was entirely possible – people who came out of some weird vacuum of music. It was a metal audience that had never been exposed to similar – people would come up to me, hair metal people, going “What the fuck is this music?” It proves the power of that record.

Techno Animal – Re-entry

Musician and producer Kevin Martin is Broadrick’s equal when it came to multiple musical pursuits and projects, not to mention a parallel but not wholly duplicate fascination with sonic extremity in many guises, from free jazz to dub basslines that sound like they’re clawing out of the earth. That the two would work together in Techno-Animal wasn’t simply an inspired idea but a full combination of their talents.

JB: This was in 1995. Kevin Martin is now known as The Bug, King Midas Sound, and many other stellar projects. But before his work as those concepts, we worked together for many years as Techno Animal (intended as an abbreviation of technological animal). We also had side projects of this project – The Sidewinder being one such project. Re-entry was huge, sprawling, a 2xCD of as much information as we could cram into its limits. After an unfocused first album we arrived at this – an information overload, a mutation of ambient, hip hop, breakbeat, jazz, dub. It was where we fully realised the mixing desk as an instrument. We both learnt a lot from this ambitious album. It was a turning point, a realisation that we have a voice through electronic music, we can abuse the machines finally, not be at the mercy of them.

Pantera – ‘Fucking Hostile’/’By Demons Be Driven’ Remixes

One of Broadrick’s many creative outlets is his remixing work, including remarkable efforts for such parallel acts as Isis, Earth, Mogwai and Yakuza, not to mention more out-of-nowhere (and why not?) clients like the Lemonheads. But it all started in the early 1990s via a bootstrapping glammed-up act from 1980s Texas that had undergone a radical and then massively popular transformation.

My first remix or remixes were in 1992, of two Pantera songs from their then hugely successful album Vulgar Display Of Power. These remixes were pivotal for me. On the strength of these remixes I became a ‘remixer’, which has been a chosen path for me to this day. I adore remixing. I adore having sources to make mine – someone else’s sources. But upon being offered to remix Pantera I went into a week long panic, with serious confidence issues, I did not think I could really do this at all, but I got there, and am here now, all thanks to this first opportunity.

A concept got me through – I titled these remixes ‘Biomechanical Remixes,’ lifted from HR Giger. I wanted to fuse the organic/real instrumentation with machines, reprogram the ‘real parts’, make it machinelike. So I resampled their parts and basically made new ‘riffs’ through juxtaposing micro ‘cut ups’ of their existing riffs. This has pretty much been the template for my remixes ever since, and luckily technology has advanced considerably since 1992!

Jesu – Conqueror

If Broadrick had never done anything more beyond his remarkable work with Godflesh he would still be cited, admired and ripped-off. But after the turn of the century he reinvented himself yet again as Jesu, not to mention helping kick start yet another new wave of bands in his wake. If ‘shoegaze metal’ is mostly a not exactly descriptive tag for a lot of bands around that time and after, Broadrick found himself uniquely placed to demonstrate how something could be speaker-bursting, emotionally naked and awesomely beautiful all at once.

JB: By 2007 Godflesh had been gone five years and with Conqueror I felt like I had finally shaken the ghost and was successfully pursuing something that had found its own path, and wasn’t just in the shadow of Godflesh.

Jesu was tough for me initially, and still is to some extent, because my identity was shaped by extreme music, my reputation built on it. But Jesu was not ‘extreme’ music, nor was it intended to be. Emotionally extreme yes, but the musical foundation is melody. For me, Conqueror exemplified this, it was even softer than the previous Jesu releases, hazier. I’d been caricatured often up until the release of the previous Jesu EP Silver which was really divisive with those that had been following my career. See also Pale Sketcher, a softer dreamlike beat laden electronic project that explores melody and not extremes. I have never wished to be defined solely by my love of extreme music.

Often, my most recognised records are the most divisive or polarising ones in my recording career, the ones that challenge even my most ardent follower, or an audience generally. This can only be positive. In direct reference to this are the two very current records I have worked on which we can talk about next.

Jesu/ Sun Kil Moon – The Self-Titled Debut

Broadrick’s continuing love of working with other musicians of note can be seen in his recent collaboration with Sun Kil Moon. Led by a similarly active musician, Mark Kozelek, who also enjoys collaborations with other acts in his own right, Sun Kil Moon’s own emphasis on emotional directness is perfectly in sync with Broadrick’s Jesu work.

JB: So this is what I’m doing now. It’s significant for me because it documents the beginning of the now ongoing working relationship between Mark and I, whom I was already a dedicated follower of since his first band Red House Painters in the early nineties. Thanks to Zak Sally, the original bass player from Low, Mark and I not only struck up a friendship but also a wish to build a project together. Our first album is really only the very beginning of our working relationship, and this album has been the very meaning of divisive. Neither of us would have it any other way – we expected love and hate in somewhat equal measure, if not more hate. It comes with the territory, it comes with our territory, we make music for ourselves, and then let others argue about its merits after the event.

JK Flesh – Rise Above

All the while – with Godflesh reactivated in recent years, with Jesu continuing, with Final still a key creative facet of his work – Broadrick continues to release and explore yet more approaches in any number of guises, collaborations and one-offs, the newest from JK Flesh being just among the most recent. (Read The Quietus’ lead review of the album here

JB: It took some time with my JK Flesh project to find its place, before I even considered the Posthuman album release. I’d been collecting solo works under this pseudonym since the nineties – it was the solo side of what I was doing with Kevin Martin as Techno-Animal – but I just never had the time to pursue it, I just consistently recorded works that got shelved. All electronic, all with beats, be it a mutational form of techno, or some screwed up and spat out hip hop instrumental, it was all JK Flesh.

By the time I’d reached 2011 and Posthuman, after years of this hidden project being purely electronic, heavy guitars entered the fray. But in the long term this wasn’t my vision for this project. More naturally it is the self-released Nothing Is Free digital only EP on my own label, and the companion 12” release of the title track on Downwards (complete with a remix by another Birmingham ally Surgeon), then fully realised on Rise Above through Electric Deluxe, the label from legend Speedy J. It’s a boutique techno label giving me free reign to explore bloated, brutal, slow BPM techno and all its permutations. Again, wildly divisive, its lack of guitars and its adherence to 4/4 techno, has led to a misunderstanding of this project’s intentions, but I find this is positive. I’m doing something ‘real’, and I’m doing it because I need and love doing it. This shouldn’t be easy for anyone.

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