Godflesh Taking it Old School

Godflesh Taking it Old School
Photo by Kevin Laska
Industrial metal pioneers Godflesh return with their first new album in 13 years, dubbed A World Lit Only by Fire, which ventures back to the duo's iconic, early '90s sound. In typical Godflesh style, the album was done completely DIY and features some of the band's most intense, raw and aggressive rhythms heard since their 1989 debut LP, Streetcleaner. Their most heavy, monolithic and full-sounding release to date, A World Lit Only by Fire also manages to be their most contemporary, utilizing modern production and technical elements. Frontman and one half of Godflesh, Justin K. Broadrick, recently spoke with Exclaim! and discussed the new release, the band's reformation and getting back to their classic sound, as well as his passion and need for creative expression through creating music, and more.

A World Lit Only by Fire is the first Godflesh record in 13 years. How does it feel to be able to share it with fans?
Yeah, it's been a long time coming really, considering we reformed in 2010. That's a long time to get a new album out, virtually four years of us re-existing. It's an amazing feeling to finally have a new album out. I mean, first and foremost, we made this record for ourselves, we just really wanted to make at least another record and hopefully this will be the first of many, you know? But for us, it took a long time to come together, and on top of that, we've been slow with this record, as much as anything because we're really desperate for this record to be a part of our back catalogue. It has to stand up against records that we feel have had quite an impact, and gladly I can say it's my favourite Godflesh album in 20 years, obviously nine years of that we didn't exist [laughs].

But basically, for me, it's better than the last three albums we made, and it's the best album since Selfless, which was 1994. So I'm really happy to be able to say that, because a lot of bands, they reform and then they make a record really quickly, I feel. If that works for bands, then fine, but I wouldn't have felt comfortable. I mean, we could have rushed a record together, but I really wanted to do something that felt entirely instinctive and entirely us. So I spent about a year almost alone writing this record. But I mean, it's an absolute pleasure to have finally finished it and feel like it's a record we're 100 percent happy with.

Did you ever think you'd be here, 13 years later, talking about a new Godflesh record?
Not at all, not even remotely. I mean, when we actually finished, I didn't think I would ever, ever go back to Godflesh and at the time I couldn't have been happier to leave it, to be honest. It was a pretty bad break up and I was really happy to pursue something else, you know? But like I've often said, during a lot of interviews and stuff, one of the best things we did was break up. I mean, besides forming in the first place, the second best thing we did was break up and the first best thing we've done is reform. So it's like, we couldn't have made this new album if we hadn't have had nine years of not existing. So I never ever thought we'd revisit it, I was quite happy stepping away from it for a number of years. I mean, my Jesu project kept me happy for a number of years and kept me creatively expressive, but I really missed Godflesh. You know, obviously my other band Jesu is quite different to Godflesh and I really missed this form of expression, basically.

Was the Decline & Fall EP a way to kind of ease back into things and test the waters?
Yeah, definitely. And the EP is quite misleading, and intentionally so. We really wanted to release an EP first that was somewhat wider and somewhat more dynamic than the album. Because, all the songs are born from the same sessions, but essentially, we really wanted the album to be really direct, really direct, monolithic, brutal, very minimal, very singular. But we felt the EP was much more cinematic and a bit more dynamic. It goes through much of what Godflesh covered in its back catalogue is pretty much encapsulated in a sort of contemporary form on the EP, you know? And it's quite misleading. I think when we first released the EP, a lot of people were thinking, "Oh wow okay, the album is going to be as diverse as this." But it isn't, and I'm glad to say it isn't [laughs] because we really wanted the album to be, like I was saying, very, very direct and extremely brutal. I mean, the EP is brutal, it's Godflesh, you know? It's Godflesh, but back and it's somewhat contemporary. But yeah, I feel we almost wanted to mislead people.

Going into the writing process then, you had some preconceived ideas about the direction you wanted to go in, musically?
Yeah, very much so. I mean, when we reformed the whole intention ultimately was to make new records. Chiefly because for quite a few years there, when I didn't have Godflesh, I definitely started to think around 2007/2008, I started to fantasize about reforming Godflesh and making new music. I never really acted upon these fantasies, I didn't want it to be a reality, I wanted to see how time went and see if we actually reformed, you know? Because there was a big question about whether we would. By the time we made the decision, the new material was still somewhat of a fantasy in a way, I had more imagined what I wanted to hear. I was somewhat scared for a while of actually committing to tape, of actually committing to recording stuff, because I thought the expectation would be so great, mostly set by ourselves, you know? I mean, the writing process is the same as it ever was in a way, it was just tapping into something that we have always done and that I've always felt a part of. Godflesh existed since I was a teenager, so it existed during the younger years of my life essentially, so I really grew up with Godflesh as a concept. So it was like going back to something very dear to me and to both of us. I'm not sure I answered your question there entirely, I got a bit lost there [laughs].

What was the making of this album like, after so many years?
Essentially, for starters, everything is DIY. I've had my own studio now for years and we started that whole process with Godflesh back in the day, back in the early '90s. I always wanted to record ourselves, I didn't want to go to commercial studios, I always had a very clear idea about what we wanted to achieve. But I had to learn the processes to become a good engineer and become a good producer, which now I've finally got there. I'm far from a master of anything I do, I'm still learning all the time, but I'm at least better than I was 20 years ago. So really, the whole process was very streamlined and very selfish, you know? There's no other producer, no other engineer, it's all done in our own studio, I produce it myself.

So really it was getting back to where we were, but doing it even more DIY than ever, you know? Because we have a very clear idea of what we're trying to achieve here. Even the writing process, I knew exactly what I wanted, I could imagine what I wanted to hear, so it was just making it real in a way. Which was a struggle at first because I think I set myself such a high standard of what this material would be like. Visualizing it and hearing it in my head was one thing, but making it real was another. I mean initially, a lot of stuff I wrote I discarded because it just wasn't what I imagined, and rarely anything is in these sort of creative processes. But eventually it was getting there, through a lot of hard work, it was eventually getting close to what was imagined and that was more the idea really.

It's like chasing a dream, in a way, chasing a concept and making it real. Yeah, and this also took a lot of changes of the component parts, even down to me using an eight-string guitar, all the old Godflesh stuff was a six-string guitar. And I really wanted to explore changing the components a bit because in a way, Godflesh is very of its time, it was always futuristic, so for me it still feels like, it's not a retro thing, but we go back to a blueprint which was born in the late '80s essentially. So it feels contemporary, but it also feels like it was something that was old as well, so it was like a balancing act, trying to address using modern production techniques, and even an eight-string guitar is sort of a modern proposition, that never really existed when I was using a six-string guitar in the late '80s/early '90s. That affords us the luxury of being even heavier and down-tuning even more, you know, technical things like that. But that's ironic because we're not a technical band, we're not remotely progressive, our music is very, very simple and that's what it's about, we're not a progressive band. So yeah, it's getting back to what we were, but simultaneously making it contemporary.

How was working with G.C. Green again? Was it difficult to get back into that Godflesh vibe? Or was it more natural?
It was way more natural than we imagined. I mean, when we first discussed rehearsing when we first reformed, we allocated quite a huge window of time where we would rehearse the stuff, like rehearse old songs for when we first started doing reunion shows. So we allocated this huge window of time, thinking, "Oh, this is really going to take some time to gel again." And it was bizarre because we literally gelled in about a third of the amount of time that we allocated. So in a way, we shocked ourselves, you know? We didn't have the confidence initially to think that this would work that smoothly, and we're not the sort of people who are that optimistic about anything we do.

We're actually on the contrary, most things we feel are doomed to failure generally. So we allocated a month and we gelled in about four days, hilariously. We couldn't believe it, we were even playing songs together for the reunion that we haven't played since the late '80s, and we literally were playing them within hours. So some of these songs we hadn't played in over 23 years and we literally stood there and played them within two hours, we were stunned. I figure it's just because this stuff is so embedded in our psyche, because we were doing it so young, that it just felt entirely natural to do it again. It's sort of like instinct, you know, we were running on instinct that's obviously intrinsic to our character somehow.

A World Lit Only by Fire sounds very old school Godflesh, a lot like Streetcleaner and Pure. Like with the first song, "New Dark Ages," the opening of it evokes that same feeling that "Like Rats" does and you know right away that it's Godflesh. Is that what you were going for?
Yeah, I mean essentially we knew that we wouldn't be happy unless it sounded 100 percent Godflesh. But simultaneously it's like we wanted to make the record we never made for a number of years back in the day, you know? I mean, for us it still feels contemporary as well as old school because nobody really does what we do. I think Godflesh is somewhat of a unique voice. We've had an impact on music for many years, but nobody's ever just carbon copied what we do, you know? I think somehow we've forged a sound that is still a symptom of all our own influences, it's still a product of our own influences, what they were back in the late '80s. But essentially, we still have quite a unique sound and I think we're just tapping back into a sound that we feel is sort of infinite in a way. I think this record would probably sound like this if we made it in five years. It doesn't feel entirely retro to us, you're quite right when you say it feels old school, but still it's got a modern production, it's still got a contemporary production, which makes it sound bigger and fuller. But more so than carry on where we left off, we intended to make the record we wish we would have made back then, you know? So yeah, and it can only get better from here, we feel. I hope [laughs].

You mentioned expectation. When you started writing the new Godflesh material, did you ever feel any pressure to live up to fans' expectations? Or was it more just your own expectations of what you're capable of doing?
It was more selfish, it was more about us. I think only once we finished the record did we start considering the public. The record was made in a vacuum, you know, we never played it to anyone, not even a friend. So really it was made entirely in a vacuum and made completely in an isolated fashion and made, first and foremost, for ourselves. That was the benchmark really, it was more just us being pleased and feeling like we made an album that is valid in the context of our back catalogue and is what we want to hear.

Essentially, we just make heavy music, regardless of all the other terms like industrial metal and all this sort of stuff. For us, we just make a unique form of heavy music, you know, and we just want to make music again that we don't feel we're hearing. I don't feel I hear something that sounds like us, so really in a way, I wanted to hear us making heavy music again. I mean, clearly I'm a huge fan of heavy music, but I don't hear that much that excites me, I do and I don't, but I don't hear loads of it. I listen to other forms of music more than I do heavy music, but that's because I don't hear what I want to hear, so really I'm still making records that I want to hear again. So I mean, once we've committed to the record, once it's finished, it's the public's then and it's for them to decide then, it's not our record anymore. That's pretty much how we feel about it, they're made selfishly these records really, it's a very selfish act, you know? And I sort of feel it should be. I think if one makes records for just fans then it can be a bit of a mistake really.

It's interesting that you mention the industrial metal term because the first line of your press release calls Godflesh "industrial metal innovators." And few would disagree. How does that feel for you, to be considered an innovator of a genre?
I mean, that's great. And that press release, when it was written, I agreed to it. In basic terms, Godflesh does sound like a marriage of early industrial music and metal. So in literal terms, it's very true. But I mean, there's connotations I just don't like, but you've got to live with something and for those who don't know the music it's a good term in a way because it's quite literal. But our influences are so wide, and for me unfortunately, compartmenting terms like that often make music seem more narrow than it is because a lot goes into our sound, you know, a lot goes into it, but it's still very singular.

You know, as well, we're so minimal and for me our music as well is about groove and that somewhat is missed with the term industrial metal. The term suggests music that is very stiff, but I do feel our music is essentially about rhythm and about groove, it's these huge, monolithic grooves. The machine rhythm dictates that, you know, because we use machines intentionally because they sound inhuman, they sound alien, they sound like machines and that's a point, that's completely intentional. What we do with the guitar and bass, and even with my voice, is we just mimic the rhythm, we just lock into this one huge groove. So it's got a swing, you know, it's sort of like body music and that's my only problem with industrial metal, is it suggests something much stiffer than I would like to align myself with. Because Godflesh oddly wouldn't exist without early '80s old school hip-hop, you know, because that's where we got the drum machine from. But a lot of people don't see that, it's not an obvious part of our sound, but that's where the drum machine comes from.

What caused Godflesh to initially disband and what led to the decision to start up again?
It was a number of things why Godflesh disbanded. It's a long story. To try and summarize, I mean a lot of the breakup has been well documented, but just to abbreviate it or be a bit concise about it, essentially we had almost driven ourselves into a wall anyway. I think it dried up somewhat around the late '90s. We felt there was a bit of an identity crisis, the band had made a number of compromises, we made a few albums that we weren't entirely sure about, including the very last one [2001's Hymns]. But the catalyst for this was the other half of Godflesh, Ben [G.C.] Green, the bass player, he essentially wanted to leave the band after we made the last album, Hymns. He left two weeks before a tour. He wanted to leave because he was just tired of it, he was tired of touring and he wanted to pursue another life, he wanted to leave music for a bit. And he wanted to go back to university and he wanted to essentially just walk away from this lifestyle, he was sick of it basically. And he didn't feel the band was achieving anything anymore, which is arguably was/arguably wasn't.

I felt he was making a brave decision, and probably the right one, and the decision I should have made as well, we should have finished there and then. But unfortunately, we had just released a new album and he had left on the eve of a big European tour, and I chose to continue the band without him and get a replacement bass player and do this two-month tour. I discovered during that tour that I shouldn't have been doing it, it wasn't Godflesh anymore without him. We carried on a little, and then on the eve of a big U.S. tour, which was like 2001 or early 2002, I split up the band on the day of the tour, unfortunately. Not the wisest move I ever made and it cost me a lot of money [laughs]. But yeah, that was the catalyst, the other half of Godflesh was no longer there, I felt I could continue it, big mistake and so I then finished it just after. I felt it was the right decision at the time and I felt he made the right decision, you know? That was essentially the reason.

And starting back up again, I mean, that was basically promoters of big metal festivals, of which you saw us at some of them, Maryland Deathfest for example, and Hellfest in Europe, they had been requesting for years for rather attractive sums of money that we reform. I didn't feel doing it would be true, it would've been just for financial purposes, and I've never been motivated purely by money, it's not honest for me, anything we do has to be sincere. So I often just refused, obviously we're not just going to reform during these periods. I was already pursuing a successful enough project with my other band Jesu, but towards the end of the 2000s, I definitely felt like I missed Godflesh and felt like I really wanted to write material like that again. I felt like I had a gap in my life and it was clearly Godflesh, you know? I felt a need to explore that form of creative expression again and I was missing it.

Jesu is another thing entirely, you know, it's a sombre, reflective, introspective, melancholic music, it doesn't allow me to release the same range of emotions that Godflesh explores. So essentially, I was really feeling that I was starting to miss the project and I had these fantasies of writing new Godflesh material, but no avenue to explore it and I didn't want to form another project that was like Godflesh under another name, that felt redundant.

But the more and more we were asked to do these festivals, I felt like, "Well, if we did this, and we started playing again, it would be the catalyst for us to make new music." I never once discussed this with Ben Green, the other half of Godflesh, we were still friends, there was no adversity there, but I always felt like he'd never want to do this again. So, as I was starting to imagine new material and as the offers for playing festivals started to mount up, I really felt like if we did do this now, it would be sincere because I want to make music again as Godflesh. So I eventually put it to Ben Green and I expected him to say "no" and if he would have said "no" we wouldn't be here now. Fortunately, he said "yes," he was completely enamoured and excited by the idea of doing it again. So when I put that to him, I think that was mid- or late-2009, I was like, "Wow, okay, this is going to be real then." So I immediately contacted the people who had been requesting us to play and said, "Yeah, we're going to do this." Chiefly because we want to make new music. And that was it. We stepped out, we reformed, we played a lot of festivals doing the old material and I set about writing new material. And that's led us to the present day with a new record ready to come out, so it couldn't have been any greater, the timing was perfect.

I'm really thankful that the other half of Godflesh wanted to do it again because it immediately meant that I could write the material, what I'd been imagining and fantasizing about, I could finally execute. And for us we're really thankful that we've got an audience because we weren't sure initially. When we reformed we thought we'd just be reliving our glory days, and it would be a very retro thing, and only people who were our age would come out and we'd have no young people interested in it. It's been the opposite of that. Yeah, sure, there's been really old school people, and old people like me [laughs], but we've had a whole younger audience come into the music as well and that's what makes it complete, you know? We're not just being viewed as an old-person band [laughs].

I definitely got into Godflesh in the early 2000s, so after you had already broken up. And it does seem like your fan base has only grown in those years. Were you surprised at all by the reception you got when you started doing the reunion shows?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, for us, that was the impetus. It was inspiring to see that we had grown and sort of achieved this sort of legendary status. Because oddly, when we broke up, there was some of the least amount of interest there had ever been in this band, we really didn't feel like people wanted us anymore. It felt like we were marginalized and our audience had reduced over the years. And as much as anything, I think that was down to the way music had changed and the fact that we made records where we were going through such experimental phases and they were so, they were sincere, but they weren't direct and I think breaking up, like I said, was one of the greatest things we did, you know? Because we wouldn't have accumulated this sort of status.

You know, what was amazing is we were doing reformation shows in front of a huge amount of people who had never seen us, and that's amazing, that's fantastic. We didn't want to come out and just play in front of a bunch of people who had last saw us at the end of the '90s, you know, that would have been unexciting to us. It's not satisfying unless we're reaching new people. And we speak to so many people, like yourself, who never saw the band and only got into the music after we split up and that's brilliant. And we're finding new people come into the music now, the records now are going to reach new people and people are getting into us for the first time, and that's what music is about for me. As an artist, you should be constantly reaching new people, so that for me is a fantastic thing. To hear that from people like yourself is inspiring.

With so many other musical projects. Where does that drive to create music come from?
It's pretty much been there since I was really, really young. I had sort of musical parents, so I was always exposed to music pretty much ever since I can recall, my earliest memories are hearing music. So I think I had that luxury of having music around me. And my parents were into pretty sort of fringe music, they weren't into conventional music, and they're from the hippie era, I was born in like a hippie commune. So I was exposed to a lot of fringe music and alternative lifestyle at an early age. So I think I gravitated to underground music culture at a very, very young age. For me, before I was even a teenager, I learned the guitar when I was about ten years old, so I was already trying to express myself musically at such a young age, when most kids were still playing with Action Man and toys, you know? I was playing with toys and playing with music, so it's quite odd. It just seemed natural for me, it seemed instinctive to me to be creative and I had the luxury of being given that avenue.

I come from a very poor, English background, but still had guitars around me, my step-father played guitar, so I often watched him and felt, "I want to do that." Like most kids in their formative years, they look to their parents as an inspiration, as did I. So I really felt that being creative was natural for me and having several thousand projects, it felt natural to me to express myself in a myriad of ways and to express my personality. And in quite an oblique fashion, you know, most of my music is extremely negative, so for me I use music like a sort of therapy, I guess. So again, it's like a cleansing, I use music to cleanse myself of very negative emotion in a way I guess. I feel like music chose me, in a way.

There's also a lot of diversity in your music, in the different projects. Is it important to maintain boundaries for what each project should sound like?
Yeah, yeah. Each thing I do is sort of intentionally limited, you know? It exists within certain boundaries of me trying to express a certain set of emotions, I guess. I mean, clearly that would suggest that I'm quite schizophrenic, which I guess I am, and often viewed as quite bipolar in many respects. A lot of people I know say essentially I'm quite bipolar. And I think it's just, for me I need to express a myriad of things and it feels natural to do so, but all these things need boundaries. I have to hold the reins, basically, there has to be a set of parameters. Then it's fulfilling in a way, it's self-fulfilling. Things have to be limited, if they're too open, for me I feel it's chaos and I don't like chaos. I like things to be very ordered and structured because it makes me feel like there's an order then. If I'm faced with chaos, I feel like I'm faced with a void and that's too endless for me, it's too infinite, and it's teetering on the edge of a cliff sort of thing. You know what I mean? It's too much then, it's too wild. So yeah, I have to have this set of parameters for things really.

In comparison to your other projects, Godflesh is the most heavy and aggressive. Is Godflesh more of a catharsis for you than the other bands?
In some respects, yeah. I mean, it's a release probably more so than catharsis because often catharsis suggests resolution, which sort of suggests an end, but for me, these emotions never end. So in a way it's more like a release, or like when I was using the expression of being cleansed or it being therapeutic. I think it really cleanses a set of emotions that I can't release in everyday life, nor would I wish to because they're very destructive. It's both destructive and self-destructive and it's about frustration of the human condition that exists in us all, for myself and in all of us, and a sense of fear and a lot of very bleak, nihilistic emotions. Like I was saying about facing the void, you know? To some extent, Godflesh is about that fear and horror. The unpleasantness that exists within me, I can only express and have cleansed through music. It never ends, which is why I need this music.

Did you miss this kind of release during those years that Godflesh was inactive?
Yeah, absolutely. Definitely. Ultimately, it was accumulative, it sort of snowballs, you know? I felt year in, year out I was getting quite frustrated not being able to express myself through this process. I mean, my other project Jesu is cleansing again, but in a very personal way. Jesu is more private and more melancholic and it expresses more the depressive side of my nature, but Godflesh examines the other side of that, the more frustrated, angry, implosive side. So, yeah, I often found myself becoming very frustrated on a personal level and really wishing for and needing this expression.

Lyrically, is there a specific theme behind A World Lit Only by Fire?
It's pretty much a lot of the things I'm sort of divulging really, in a way. It's pretty much, thematically, the way Godflesh has always dealt with things. It's universal, somewhat, like the title is acknowledging how humanity has operated since we crawled out of a cave and started killing one another. It pretty much is acknowledging that, acknowledging that the past, the present and the future is pretty much a world lit only by fire. And another way of looking at that, or another way of saying that title, is "A World Lit Always by Fire," because it always has been essentially. It's the sound of resignation somewhat, it's resigning to what we are, which at heart is something quite uncomfortable, you know? It's seeing man as a savage ultimately, which we are and we still are, as can be seen by the horror inflicted upon each other across the world, you know? And this horror has always existed and will always exist, and it's resigning ourselves to that horror. Godflesh is pretty much the sound of that, and thematically that's what we're addressing. It's a fairly bleak, nihilistic, godless message [laughs].