Jesu Interview: Justin Broadrick Confirms New Godflesh Studio Album, Discusses Jesu’s Latest, Imperfection, Self-Indulgence, Roadburn, And Much More
Justin K. Broadrick was 19 years old when his band, Godflesh, released their ultra-seminal full-length, Streetcleaner, in 1989. Born and raised in Birmingham, England, he’d been a founding member of grind pioneers Napalm Death as they got their start, and left to pursue divergent musical interests — which, as anyone who’s ever sat and put Napalm Death and Godflesh side by side knows, he did. Streetcleaner was a new breed of extremity in music, something as emotionally weighted as it was inhumanly heavy, and though in their initial run, Godflesh would be lumped into various genres — industrial, metal, etc. — and would play into those designations at different points of their discography, the fact is that what might be their most pivotal and expressive work existed almost completely outside of classifiable genre in its day, and was all the more powerful for it.
Broadrick began Jesu (the band named for the final track on Godflesh‘s last album) with a limited issue of the Heart Ache EP via UK imprint Dry Run in 2004. Since then, he’s filled much the same role he played in Godflesh as the driving creative force behind the band’s output, overseeing massively well-received full-lengths like 2005′s Jesu and 2007′s Conqueror through Hydra Head while also unleashing a barrage of EPs and splits, among them the highlights Opiate Sun (2009) and 2007′s split with Battle of Mice. The latest Jesu offering follows a 2010 re-release of Heart Ache that coupled it with the previously unreleased Dethroned EP and is called, appropriately enough, Ascension.
Constructed with many of the same kinds of dense harmonic washes as Jesu‘s prior output, Ascension marks its progression in Broadrick‘s increased use of acoustic guitars and offsetting organic and synthesized elements from each other. As someone continually fascinated with pop music, he’s grown over time (and with much practice) into a formidable songwriter, able to keep an experimental feel to songs like “Broken Home” and “Small Wonder” while also playing off classic melodicism and structural foundations. Still, no matter how you choose to categorize his work — and it’s often that an artist will hear nothing in his or her own material beyond their influences — Jesu sounds like nothing else. The more Broadrick‘s creative development plays out over time, the more that remains true.
Having just borne witness to Godflesh‘s landmark Streetcleaner reunion set at Roadburn, it was a pleasure to (after screwing up international dialing for an embarrassing 437th time) ring up Broadrick and discuss some of the differences between Jesu and Godflesh, the self-indulgent nature of art, the possibility of a new Godflesh studio record, playing live with Jesu, how the imperfection is part of the charm, and more. It had been more than half a decade since I’d last interviewed him, but I found him this time to be just as open and honest as I remembered.
Complete 4,500-word Q&A and pics from Roadburn are after the jump. Please enjoy.
Yeah, I was probably almost too busy at one point with Jesu. I think it’s actually calmed down a little now. I found my balance of what I’m trying to do and trying not to do, hence there being probably in comparison to around 2007-2009 there was a complete glut of Jesu releases, but since I’ve sort of been a little calmer. In terms of what of finding my feet, it’s a case of releasing less of Jesu now.
I wanted to ask actually what brought on that change, because like you say, 2007 and 2008, there was an awful lot of stuff coming out.
Oh, it was ridiculous. By my own admission, it was absolutely ridiculous. Like most projects I do, I become quite obsessive in terms of chasing a sort of dream of what I want the sound to be, and I guess it’s feeling like I’m never quite getting there. So I just keep writing songs – or whatever project it is – I keep going at it until I feel I’m getting close to what’s in my head, just trying to transcribe it here in my head, you know, which I rarely ever get even close to realizing. I think with Jesu is sort of an ambiguous project anyway, especially considering my lineage in more extreme music. Jesu just is not intended to be extreme, as in what’s inspiring the sounds. It’s not an extreme music. I think it was just trying to consistently chase a certain sound, a certain concept, and never quite getting there, and I was just consistently writing material. I didn’t dry up with material, I think I just hit a brick wall in terms of not obsessing so much over it and trying to get into the concept of less is more. Trying to ease off. I mean, I could easily write a Jesu album every six months, you know. But also, I’m just never satisfied with this stuff (laughs). As soon as I release one record, I feel totally dissatisfied with it and I want to make the next one to correct what I felt was wrong with the previous one. Not the way to make records, really (laughs). It’s just like blowing up in public.
How close is Ascension to the Jesu you’re hearing in your head? Or now that it’s done, do you completely hate it?
Unfortunately, it’s that period at the moment. I spent so long doing this record that this is the period where I usually kick the record to shit, basically. It’s when I really do start ripping it to pieces, and I must admit, I have started to do just that. I’ve had to take a break, I haven’t heard it in about six weeks, which is a good thing at the moment (laughs). I’ve been saturated in that record for what feels like a good year. Because I spent a lot of time writing it, and demoing the record, just purely for my own satisfaction, then eventually recording it, and then mixing it over and over again. As per usual, I immersed myself so much in it that I can’t listen to the record anymore. There was definitely a point when I was mixing the record when I was quite truly happy with the record, that I felt it was a pretty clear distillation of everything I’ve been trying to achieve with Jesu. Particularly the songwriting. I felt it was pretty close to what I’ve been trying to achieve. But it’s still some ways off, and that’s just my own failings, really. But, I’ve sort of become pretty accustomed to just dealing with my own failings and convincing myself that’s half of the charm of what I do.
What is it you’re trying to achieve with Jesu at this point, and has it changed since you started out?
I guess so. The first couple Jesu recordings – it’s still essentially the same vision, I think. The first recordings were definitely rawer, a more blunt version of what I was trying to get at, but I think I’m even more streamlined now, the vocals are better. The production’s all over the place, so it’s hard to say if it’s better or worse, but you know, it’s still for me a translation of the pop music I’ve loved my entire life, maybe somehow a more intense, extreme version of that pop music. This concept of a downtuned Hüsker Dü or a downtuned Big Star or something like that. That’s still what I’m trying to achieve, I guess, this really guttural, low, heavy version of what I see as quite melancholy and beautiful pop songs. I’m still trying to pull off the sound too, I guess. I’m just maybe slightly better at the songwriting aspect now. Maybe slightly better vocally.
You’ve certainly had enough practice.
Yeah. Time and time again, but still, I think I spent too many years in music with things like Godflesh, screaming my face off. My voice is pretty damaged anyway, but I think that’s again slightly part of the charm. I just feel that Jesu, it is essentially flawed, but in general, that’s hopefully part of the charm. For some, it’s just awful (laughs). For me, it’s really a very imperfect music, and I’m a very imperfect musician. But I’m quite often attracted to things that are a bit off, so I guess Jesu is part of that “off” thing.
When were the songs for Ascension actually written?
Some of the songs have been… over about the last two years. I wrote these songs – most of them – some time ago, and just sort of developed them over time. And the whole album was demoed as well. I demoed the record just for myself, it wasn’t for any record label purposes or anything like that, it was just to demonstrate to myself where these songs could go and try to embellish certain things and work on certain harmonies and try out many different things. Just an exploration of those songs and textures. And a lot of it was harmonies. It was trying to put the guitars over the acoustic guitars, higher vocal harmonies over low vocals, and classic sort of stuff. In a way, I wanted to approach this record the way a classic pop or rock record would be approached, even though it’s a fairly singular affair – there’s not much of a band involved – I still wanted to try all those individual parts. It’s a pretty schizophrenic process, in a way. It’s like talking to yourself over and over again (laughs), assuring myself that some of it works, where some of myself isn’t convinced.
That’s absolutely it. After a while, I become absolutely sick of myself. Because everything, when you do it in such a singular fashion, it’s supremely indulgent. And it’s funny, because on a personal level, self-indulgence is something I can’t really tolerate (laughs). I don’t like it of myself and I don’t like it as a quality in others so much, yet I make this music in a very singular fashion and I approach it in a supremely self-indulgent fashion. I mean, that’s it. Like you just said, eventually, you can only immerse yourself so much in yourself. I become really sick of my own responses after a while, and just not being able to do certain things drives me almost insane with a record. It’s like, in my head, I’m making the perfect record (laughs), it’s just being able to translate that record. But probably, in hindsight, that’s some part of the journey. Each record’s like that, a journey through one’s self, in a way. All the failings come out. Which, again, I have to try and convince myself is part of the charm.
Do you ever worry about that process becoming too interior? Do you ever feel like you’ve crossed a line of too much self-indulgence?
Yeah, many times. Yeah. Absolutely. That’s usually when I try and stop, take a break, and in a musical context, listen to others’ musics, and just distance myself from it. Usually that’s when I might turn to another project as well, and generally that’ll be the polar opposite of what I’m doing. I did that much through the recording and the process of this Jesu record. I’d be so sick of it, and so sick of myself, that I’d have to make something completely the polar opposite. I’d often find myself making some pure noise stuff during making the album, just to try and distance myself from over-obsessing over harmonies, and harmonies I can’t reach. I just needed to really immerse myself and make something else that was either somewhat violent or just the polar opposite of what I was trying to achieve with Jesu, to just try and distance myself from myself. Some musics I make have very little of myself in them, to some extent, but Jesu very much is an extremely personal thing. It is very much an indulgence. All music is, I guess, obviously, unless you’re in a band maybe with 10 people and everybody gets some sort of democracy going on.
Do you think this album was affected at all, in writing or recording, by bringing Godflesh back?
I’d say somewhat. I’d say, in a way, that imposed a sort of discipline, in the context that it made me stricter about Jesu being a separate entity from Godflesh. It is anyway, and sometimes the lines have blurred, but I think I really felt like I wanted to define this Jesu album as something other from whatever Godflesh has achieved or potentially could go on to achieve, or what it does in its existence. Because I played live with Godflesh a few times around the recording and the mixing of the Jesu album. In a way, that was really cathartic, and it was all the frustration that had been in trying to make, yet again, a perfect Jesu record. A lot of those imperfections, something like Godflesh will embrace, because Godflesh was ultimately dealing with imperfection, anyway. Managing imperfection. All our own imperfections. Everything. So it was good to have that cathartic release and rage with Godflesh, and then go straight back into something like Jesu, which is ultimately fairly somber, I guess, and relaxing, even though it’s still rock music to me. It’s not like going from Godflesh to something ambient – although sometimes I read reviews and Jesu is perceived as “ambient drone” and things like this, and I just don’t get that at all. To me, a record that has rock guitars, harmonies and drums is not an ambient record (laughs). That’s all down to perception, but my perception of “ambient” is soundscapes. Yeah, but, to me, Godflesh and Jesu, especially with Ascension, they’re fairly separate. Or I hope they can be.
It’s funny, talking about “ambient.” I think Jesu definitely sets a mood.
Absolutely. It’s evocative, yeah.
I would call it atmospheric. I don’t know if I’d call it minimalist drone.
Exactly. Often Jesu gets put into some of those brackets. It gets pigeonholed, and I just find that odd. But absolutely true, it is mood music, entirely, but it’s made up of conventional bass guitar, drums, vocals, choruses. It’s absolutely as much about textural mood as it is about songs. I guess, to me, I still feel like I’m writing a slowed-down Big Star song, but to others it’s not (laughs).
How did the re-release come about last year? You’ve always struck me as an artist who’s focused on the next thing. How is it for you to revisit material?
What most excited me about the Heart Ache release was the bonus EP. Heart Ache, obviously, I’ve lived with for years. For me, personally, the Heart Ache re-release was basically a vehicle for the Dethroned EP. For maybe everyone outside of myself, it was a good way to get Heart Ache around, because it was a pretty small release on a UK-only label with pretty small distribution when it first came out, and then I released it myself on vinyl, which again was limited. It wasn’t going into shops and all the rest of it. So it was good to finally get it out. In a way, it was geared towards being a domestic release in America, because a lot of people in the States weren’t able to get it in a proper fashion, but for me, it was all about the Dethroned EP. That was a really old EP, an unreleased EP, but the songs had never been fully released until just before the release of the Heart Ache set, the Heart Ache/Dethroned set. Those were the songs I was most excited about. Not that I felt entirely satisfied with them, but I was just happy to try and get them out to the public. I didn’t want Heart Ache just to be reissued, just a stand-alone, “Here it is again,” with the same artwork or whatever. It just seemed redundant. Especially in this day and age, people don’t just buy like that anymore. It’s nice to have something that’s there, only because the tracks, they could have been even developed further, I just had to find a cut-off point in a way. They were old tracks, and I don’t like going back so much sometimes – even though I’d be a complete hypocrite to say I haven’t revived Godflesh (laughs) – but going back and working on songs that were never finished, it’s quite a bit odd. I was really excited about doing it, and when I sat with those Dethroned tracks, they really did feel like I did them many years ago. It was a bit strange coming back to them, but I’d sat on those songs for years without anyone hearing them. Nice just to complete them, and I’m quite satisfied with some of that stuff.
Maybe what you need to do to be satisfied with a release is leave it for however many years before finishing it.
It’s really strange, actually. It’s always felt like that. Making records is just one of them things, where it’s hard to let the record go. I think that’s fairly universal. There’s so many fellow artists I’ve spoken to and people who don’t release records but tinker with music or whatever and they feel the same way. You could spend seven years making one record and you inevitably hate it as well (laughs). There’s just no fucking sure way of making records and being happy with them, I think. Fortunately, when I got into music when I was a kid and when I wanted to make records, you fill your record collection with your own records. What you weren’t hearing, you would make, and you would sit there with your own records and go, “Shit.” Usually the record comes out and you hate it. It’s making it that’s great. Every song I’ve ever made, I’m convinced at some point that it’s the best piece of music I’ve ever made, but by the time you’ve spent x-amount of time with it, it just fails to deliver. You do anything perpetually and it becomes worse, I guess (laughs). Such is the dilemma of making records (laughs).
How was your Roadburn experience?
Roadburn’s a fantastic festival. It’s such a shame, because you’d think something like that would happen in the UK or particularly the US on such a grand scale, but it doesn’t (laughs). I did really enjoy that night. To be honest, I felt like that was the most coherent version of Streetcleaner ever played. And we played those songs to death in 1989, 1990, 1991. Being so much more mature, it felt much more controlled. It was a really enjoyable experience. It felt like we were actually in control of it, as opposed to when we used to play those songs 20 years ago – it was probably most of the charm then as well – it didn’t feel like we were in control of it then. It would run away from us, and it was awful messy as well. I felt like that performance was really streamlined. We were really satisfied, and after, we heard people were really happy with it as well, but since, I’ve heard people moaning about this and that and all the rest of it, and maybe it wasn’t quite as good as I thought, but we felt it was really good.
I thought it was pretty good.
People were mentioning they had so much fun, but then come more comments, and it was quite disappointing, but that’s what it’s all about. You make music, some people love it, some people fucking hate it (laughs). Making the music we do, I expect that way more hate than love, but particularly with a thing like Streetcleaner, I guess, it’s not the sunniest record ever made. It’s a hard record to play in a way, because it drudges up a lot of emotions that were experienced so many years ago. Not to sound overly dramatic, but you relive a fairly negative album. But it was really good. We really, really, really enjoyed that performance, and just Roadburn generally, was a fantastic, open experience. It’s excellent.
It’s interesting you brought up reliving the emotions that went into making the album while playing it so many years later. Watching your set, it kind of looked like it. Less a performance in a performance sense of getting up and putting on a costume than re-immersing yourself in it.
Absolutely. Some people have said that to me, that it appeared as if there was an element of genuine pain to the performance, which is absolutely genuine as well. It really did bring out some… As expected, when we were rehearsing the material – it’s all emotional – but not to the extent as when it’s being presented in a live situation. There were so many things right about the performance – the volume, the setting, the stage size, and the size of the feelings as well – that I felt really utterly connected. That was the thing. And in a really bizarre sense as well, because that connection is pure disconnection, in a way, and that’s what Streetcleaner is all about. It really fucking hurt, that performance. It was quite bizarre. We’ve played as Godflesh around recently, infrequently, there’ve been performances in a similar setup, a larger setup, and it’s been all quite right, but the drama of it is definitely overwhelming in some respects, but that’s what the intention of those records and the intention of Streetcleaner. It is an angsty record written by a couple of teenagers, and it still resonates now. In fact, even more so, to some extent. To me, it didn’t feel like some retro, regressive, treading water thing. It actually felt about as current as things get, oddly enough.
It helps that there are hundreds and hundreds of bands out there trying to sound just like it.
(Laughs) Well, that’s the thing. The Godflesh sound is a real accidental sound, in a way. A lot of people have tried to emulate that sound, but again, it just like Jesu, it’s the same set of imperfections. It’s flawed. Inherently flawed, again, but it’s the emotional content. It’s not about the quality of musicianship or programming or any of this stuff. It is purely the emotional connection. Godflesh, like Jesu, is a very English thing. It exists in some form of a cultural vacuum, but it’s definitely born from a certain set of circumstances and a certain environment, and I think it’s almost hard to emulate something that is so of its origins. That’s how I feel about it.
How do you mean, its circumstances and origins?
I think in terms of the emotions that [Streetcleaner] is born from, the frustration and confusion, my upbringing and the environment I existed within as a child, etc., etc. For me, it’s a complete product, it’s a complete connection and musical interpretation and expression of those environments, those sort of headspaces that were recovered. In a way, it could be quite easily dismissed as being angsty, because when Streetcleaner, when we recorded Streetcleaner, I was 19 years old, and you can almost be forgiven for any bullshit you come out with as a teenager, you know what I mean? But I’m quite aware of that, and I was quite aware at the time that this could be perceived as pure angst, but it isn’t. In hindsight, and now 20 years later, 21 years later or whatever, it feels just as current, because none of these emotions really have changed so much, they’ve just become more articulate. I now see those environments clearer. I think because I moved away from those environments as well, what Birmingham in the UK was as growing up in the ‘70s – the depressed neighborhoods I existed within as a child from a poor family. I’ve gone away from those environments. I now live in a nice place in rural countryside. That’s what I hoped for, that one day I would get out of that shit. But I guess that’s what it brought back for me, a lot of that childhood stuff, which is of course entirely character building as well – or character destroying. A combination of both for me, I think. But our childhoods become clearer as we get older sometimes. It’s only after I got some distance from it that I felt it all made sense to some extent. For those reasons, Godflesh is – to some extent, Jesu is more of a rural, personal – I was going to say “hell,” but that’s way too extreme and Jesu doesn’t cover that kind of emotion that Godflesh explores that’s quite clearly mostly negative.
Do you see yourself ever bringing Godflesh back to do new material? Would you want to explore that kind of stuff again?
We’ve discussed it, and to be really honest, there’s probably a good chance we’re going to do another album. I think it’s just going to be a long time coming. That’s the thing. And that isn’t only just because we’re so busy with multiple things. We just want to make a really relevant record as well. It would be horrible to do something that taints the back catalog. But I personally feel we made enough records that tainted the back catalog anyway (laughs). Toward the end of Godflesh, I’d been quite vocal about being thoroughly dissatisfied with some of the releases, for such a variety of reasons. I already have some material, but I just keep messing with it. Nothing’s been recorded, as much as I just keep toying with riffs and beats and so on. But it is, once again, it’s probably almost full circle, as vehement as the first couple of records. It has none of the ambiguity that was in play towards the end of Godflesh, that was trying to stretch genres and become a bit more hybridized. It’s much more pure and focused and utterly brutal, I think. But again, who knows how long it’s going to take to realize this. We’ve certainly talked about probably trying to record the new Godflesh album next year. That’s the sort of goal at the minute, and seeing how it goes from there. But yeah, it’s a tough one. It’s a really tough one.
And in the meantime, what are your plans with Jesu? Are you going to tour for Ascension, or are you writing more material?
With Jesu, the touring aspect is gone for me for now, for a multitude of reasons. I was really getting tired of touring and finding it quite fruitless and quite destructive. It was just becoming self-destructive, really. So I’m doing shows that are one-offs, or shows that are a small clutch of dates, which is definitely hard in the US, because that’s almost impossible to do. But we’re still trying to work out how to bridge Godflesh coming to the States and Jesu coming to the States, but neither touring, per se, so we’re just trying to look at that for the minute, with our agent, who is also involved. It’s more just trying to balance all these things. As I get older, I’ve just become more of a studio musician. I love playing live, but it’s so rarely right and so frequently wrong, and also the aspects of being stuck in a vehicle for a month, rolling around, is just something now that feels like a throwback to me. I’m 41 now and I’ve been playing live since I was about 15, and it’s not gotten any easier, it’s not gotten any better. But it’s a necessary evil. Godflesh live I think is truly important. I think that really works. Godflesh is probably even more so a live band than it is a recorded band, to some extent. Jesu, I’m not sure. Jesu is more of a studio think, ultimately. It’s never correct live. I can’t even sing the damn shit right live, you know what I mean? It’s like I just cannot. I’m just not enough of a trained vocalist. My voice is too damaged. I can get it right in the studio. The Jesu records are as good as it gets. Live, Jesu is never as good as the records, and it’s just an unfortunate truism. It’s just the way it is. Godflesh, it’s never mattered. Godflesh can rely on bluster, which is great.
Godflesh is a little more bombastic, a little more frantic energy.
It’s that rage, and that rage is much easier. When I first formed Jesu and first started playing live as Jesu, it was really, really tough. It was harder initially, because I’d just spent how many years blowing my brains out on stage and feeling like I’m gonna implode, but then suddenly I had to be really controlled. I was just used to getting on the stage and being a ball of destruction, to some extent, or just be in some sort of personal hell and trying to express that through music. But Jesu is completely different altogether. Much tougher. I think it would work the other way around too. If you spent years trying to do somber, melodic music, and tried to do rage, it would be equally as tough. Yeah. Strange stuff. (Laughs) Playing live, again, when it’s wrong, you can feel like you fundamentally question why you even bother doing this. It can be so fucking wrong. And in the studio, you’re there, in control, correcting it at every stage – or attempting to correct it, generally getting it wrong – but not as wrong as it can go live. It’s all back to that control-addict thing. I love having the utmost control of my music, and live, you’ve lost all control, to some extent.
And where that can be satisfying with Godflesh, with Jesu, not so much.
Yeah. Godflesh has to those elements of losing control, and that’s what you need to convey in a live situation.Caldo Verde Records, Godflesh, Jesu, UK