The cover of Godflesh's new Songs of Love and Hate album is flat-out stomach churning--a surreal, obscene juxtaposition of a sculpted stone Christ, above-ground graves and a yellow-red torch blast froma heavy duty petrol plant's furnace. It's as succint as visual representation of industrial civilizations's madness as you'll ever see, a nightmarish variation on the infamous crucifix hanging from a helicopter in the opening sequence of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Like Godflesh's stunning music, the picture is too sick to be real. And yet, amazingly, it is.
"The photograph was taken in a place in New Orleans that is appropriately titled Cancer Alley," Justin Broadrick, Godflesh's vocalist-guitarist reveals during a recent conversation. "The heavy industrial shit in the background is a petrol plant and then you've got the graveyeard next to it, and you've got a town next to the petrol plant. And apparently everyone, pretty much the whole population of that town, works at the petrol plants and then they die from fucking cancer and petrol. And then they get buried next to the petrol plant. Which is like a circle, such a fucking nightmare."
"When I look at that picture, it reminds me a lot about things about when I was living in Birmingham [England]. It reminds me of how bad the air can be. It says a lot to me about the existence of industrial-based cities. It says a lot about life in the city, which is hell, really."
Broadrick is now living with his girlfriend far from Birmingham, "in the middle of nowhere" near the border of Wales. "It's countryside and semi-mountanous but with green mountains as opposed to huge 'fuck-off' evil mountains," he says. "It's a quiet life basically. I don't look out my windows and see tower blocks any more. It's easy, much cheaper, and you can live on better property and be away from people."
"Being away from other people, for me, is at the top of my agenda...It's not like I keep away cuz they're gonna fuck me up. I've got to keep away from people.
"That was the thing in the city: We lived in a house and it was just a massive social scene. I got sick of it. I really wanted solitude and just to be isolated."
"Some people were like, 'Moving out to the country, then? Alright, what about Godflesh, then? You're gonna become Neil Youn.' Ummmm no. The more distance I get from people, the more the music becomes stronger. The defense mechanisms are a little bit stronger because I feel a little better about myself, as opposed to in the city, where you feel really weak and crushed, and you feel like nothing."
Dusgust for the simple existence of other human beings has marked Godflesh's work since its 1988 self-titled debut on Combat. (Slateman's note: Apparently that is incorrect, 1989's Streetcleaner was on Combat/Earache, the self-titled was on Swordfish, then Silent Scream, and then Earache, but never on Combat. Picky aren't i? :) 1989's landmark slow grindcore meets drum machine Streetcleaner, for instance opened with the line "You breed/like rats." This harsh theme-and the band's even harsher sound has always seemed to necessarily exclude Godflesh from mainstream audiences. Yet in the last few years, as the ranks of successful Godflesh imitators have swelled (Helmet, White Zombie, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Marilyn Manson, to name just a few) Broadrick and cohorts were actually swept up by the Columbia corporate giant, eager for an easy hit. Predictably, the match wasn't a successful one.
"I think [Columbia] thought, 'We're just gonna sell this band, and it's gonna go crazy,"" says a bemused Broadrick. "And it's quite obvious to us that we're not going to be selling a million records, and it doesn't make us sweat, cuz we just make music, y'know. We're not ambitious; if we were we'd make a different music, really. There's easier ways to make money, if that's all we wanted to do."
In the months that Godflesh was on Columbia's roster, the label managed almost singlehandedly to impoverish the band. It was a band/label relationship marked, Broadrick claims, by disdain and willful miscommunication on the part of Columbia.
"We didn't know what was going on at all for six months," says an angry Broadrick. "We couldn't get a straight answer off of anyone, but we knew for a fact they wouldn't give us any tour support...We had an offer to support Primus...and they took about a month before they said 'No.' We're thinking, 'What the hell is the idea? You're supposed to be supporting the band.' And finally we find out they've actually dropped us."
After several months in recording and personal limbo, Godflesh regrouped, re-signed to their original label in America, Earache, and set out to record a new album. By this time, Broadrick, perhaps under the influence of a Wynton Marsalis lecture, had decided he wanted a live, human drummer to give the music he and bassist Benny Green were writing an extra "swing or groove orientation" that no machine could offer. Hired for the task was Praxis drummer "Brain" Mantia, a San Fransiscan who would join Primus after finishing the Godflesh record.
"We recorded most of the parts-guitar, bass, drum machine, some vocals-and we copied all the parts on digital recording and sent it to [Brain]", explains Broadrick. "We knew what sorta beats we were after. We wanted him to loosen it out, to make it groovier, to swing and to give it an extra sense of dynamic. he heard the drum machine parts and the loops and samples, and he just literally added to that and sent it back to us. We edited it a bit, did the vocals and mixed the record. It felt really good, really quick and a lot smoother than we'd ever worked in the past. And we're so happy with the finished results."
The outcome is arguable Godflesh's strongest recorded hour since Streetcleaner. that album was marked by an innovative sense of space and a machine like discipline that differentiated it from the grindcore, death metal and industrial scenes that Godflesh was sometimes associated with. Songs of Love and Hate manages to commingle the same near guttural vocals and ominous samples with crushing relentless guitar lines that groove more than riff. it is, as Broadrick says, about "groove, discipline, swing and heaviness, really."
Samples, drum machines. low tuned guitars, animal shriek vocals...suddenly it sounds like we're talking about several strains of early-to mid '90's alt-rockfrom Helmet's staccato stop and start riffing to White Zombie's flirtation with samples and dance beats to Ministry and Marilyn Manson's silly howls. But check the record; the two man and one machine Godflesh first appeared in 1988, fresh from the ruins of Broadrick's previous group Head of David and the original lineup of Napalm Death. 1988: Al Jourgenson was still recovering from his fey Eurodisco period...White Zombie was a pre-Beavis, no-name band from New York looking for a reason to exist...pseudo-outsiders Trent Reznor and Mr. Manson were probably still playing sandlot football with their frat-boy buddies...and Helmet's studious Page Hamilton was busy collecting jazz records and just discovering Prong.
So how does Broadrick feel about this copping of large parts of Godflesh's stilo by bands in search of their own identities?
"Initially when you hear the stuff, you think 'Well, they're taking some shit there for sure'", he replies. "And initially you can take that as a compliment. When it becomes not a compliment, is when these people aren't honest about it. What I don't like is when people take your sound and then turn around and say it's all about themselves, and it's all, 'Oh no, we never took from those people.' I don't find that fair.
"I admit completely clean and straight up who are the major influences," he says. "I know for a fact that of our stuff there's the odd song that can be highly derivative of certain periods of Swans. Obviously we're mixing other elements, but it's a big influence. And I admit that! Same with Killing Joke, same with early Black Sabbath."
But, he concludes, "Most people realize that most of these bands have taken shit from us big time."
Broadrick has a similar lack of interest or respect for former mates Napalm Death. "I haven't even heard the last Napalm Death album," he says. "Without wanting to sound patronizing about them, I do think something like Godflesh just has so much more scope. And when I've seen Napalm Death, there just seem to be too many limits...It doesn't appear consistently fresh, which is the way I try to make music-it doesn't always succeed, but that's an aim, to be unique and fresh. You've got to go further."
Instead, Broadrick saves his praise for bands like Earth ("the greatest death metal band being Glenn Branca"), Rage Against The Machine ("it swings, real good sense of discipline-the music is so mechanical sounding") and Sepultura, concluding that "there just isn't much modern rock music that I like at all, really"
"The music I listen to is in the underground dance area," he admits. "I'm drawn toward dark, underground techno. I really love a lot of hip-hop, as long as it's really strong."
Aphex Twin, Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Gang Starr, Jeru the Damaja-these are the artists Broadrick finds inspiring now. Perhaps his most outre interest is with some members of the burgeoning Japanese ambient/noise underground.
"Aube released a cd recently where the source sound is the human lung," Broadrick enthuses. "He's accessed mad scientific shit and [processed] it witheffects. He uses the most unusual source material, like his first cd was the sound from lights. And Merzbow-he's like the tip of the noise underground in Japan that kicks ass, really. he can emotionally affect someone...
"Godflesh is my main thing, and I love to keep it that way, but there's so many other things I do in a completely ambient context."
Broadrick has released a plethora of ambient/noise/dance projects at "very underground" levels. But this interest in ambient music finds its way into Broadrick's work with Godflesh as well.
"The sound of [ambient pioneer] Brian Eno is an influence on Godflesh, inasmuch as the ambient textures of Eno are so vast, so huge-sounding, and the aim of Godflesh is to sound huge anyway," admits Broadrick, laughing.
Godflesh does sound huge-but so does the monotonously self-loathing Soundgarden, sometimes. What sets Godflesh apart are Broadrick's unique emphasis on texture and the underlying purity of his vision-a vision of almost moralistic outrage, a despairing scream against the soul-crushing weight of modern civilization. Because pop music has seldom dealt with these themes in a satisfying way, Broadrick has always looked outside his Black Sabbath record collection for inspiration. He's an avid reader (J.G. Ballard's classic novel Crash is a favorite) and a film junkie.
"I've been watching movies really late in the morning recently, to relax," he says. "My favorite genre is generally science fiction and horror, stuff that goes a touch beyond. That's what I like with a movie really-just to feel emotionally affected in a very strong way, whether it's a little bit sick or whatever. You wanna come out having experienced something that stays with you for days, weeks, if not months and years.
"Lately, I've hardly watched anything. Modern movies are for me almost like modern rock music-(Slateman's note: Methinks they meant "Aren't for me") I don't find that much that I like. I'm really disappointed. The last few w4eeks I've watched an awful lot of [Swedish director Ingmar] Bergman movies, like Wild Strawberries, Hour of the Wolf and Persona.
"But the one movie that's such a big influence on Godflesh is The Devils, the Ken Russell film," Broadrick reveals.
The Devils, of course, is a lunatic film, an over the top tale of religious politicking in 17th centurey France with a cast of bizarre characters including Oliver Reed's mad priest ("I God"), a humpbacked, lustful nun played by Vanessa Redgrave, and a depraved priest/hippie exorcist ("Sin can be caught as easliy as the plague," he says) who frees nuns of their inhibitions to, ahem, drive demonic spirits from them. It's a big Felliniesque film that features abrupt editing, garish colors, alabastered dead bodies, obscene medial procedures, lovestruck penitents, vengeful fathers, a tranvestite monarch, a burning at the stake and truly inspired dialogue ("I'll see you in Hell!" yells one characther. "Walking on a living pavement of aborted bastards, no doubt!" Oliver Reed replies).
To see the film is to better understand from what diseased quarter
Broadrick's obsessions with power, Christianity, hypocrisy and madness
come. These subjects are difficult to tackle, and if Godflesh's music
occasionally fails, lapsing into heavy metal horror movie caricature
and simplistic moralizing, it's for the same reason that The
Devils fails-both Broadrick and Ken Russell are pushing their
respective mediums to their critical limits. But what both Russell
and Broadrick understand is that those so called "limits" (whether in
music, film or more generally, in human behavior) are often where
artistic expression's true power lies. Long may they explore,
even-especially,-if we are unsettled by what they find and
bring back to us.
Justin Broadrick on the cover of Metallica's Load:
I know Kirk Hammett. I've spent time with him in America before. We've supped with him in San Francisco cuzy he's a huge Godflesh fan.
Andres Serrano did our last video, the video for "Crush My Soul" off Selfless. MTV banned it; they deemed it too controversial. We took [the video] to his house and showed him the Serrano video, right, and he was like, "Goddamn, this if fucking brilliant," y'know?
When I saw that sleeve [for Metallica's Load, featuring an Andres Serrano piece]. I was just like, "Look what they've done. Look at that..."
I mean, obviously if you're an artist you can do what you want. There's no copyright on Serrano. We'll be the first to admit that. But we planted the seed, and unfortunately we're not getting the credit, obviously.