Justin Broadrick already has a lifetime’s worth of incredibly heavy music behind him. In 1985, at age 16, the Birmingham native played guitar with UK grindcore pioneers Napalm Death; in 1986 he joined noise-rock band Head of David; and in 1988 he cofounded Godflesh, an ice-cold, beastly, drum-machine-driven band that helped lay the groundwork for industrial metal before dissolving in 2002. For much of the past decade, Broadrick has focused on relatively pretty music, mainly with electronic project Final and lush postmetal band Jesu, but even his beautiful soundscapes and earnest, heartfelt melodies have the mass and density he first learned to wield as a teen. In 2010 Godflesh began playing occasional reunion sets at metal festivals, mostly in Europe, and now—after the cancellation of a stateside tour last fall due to visa issues—the band is coming to Chicago for the first time in more than 15 years. Much to the delight of fans who love Godflesh’s early, harsher work, the group is hitting the road in its original incarnation: Broadrick, bassist G.C. Green, and a drum machine,
Interviewing Broadrick for this week’s Artist on Artist is Chicago’s own master of heaviness, Sanford Parker. Not only does he handle mixing and engineering for heavy-metal heavy hitters across the continent, but he’s also played with the likes of Buried at Sea, Minsk, Corrections House, Twilight, and Nachtmystium. Broadrick spoke to him from his North Wales home, in a village of perhaps 200 people near the town of Abergele. —Luca Cimarusti
Are you in the city, or outside it?
We’re really rural. I’m in my studio, which is just out of the house. There’s not even that much proper heating up here, so we have to use a log fire.
I would love to have a studio out in the country. I’ve done records in studios like that, and that’s always the best experience. You’re so isolated—there’s no distraction. To me, that’s the best way to work, for sure.
That’s entirely how I feel. The studio I have is completely private. I don’t do outside bands—I mean, I do remixes and all that stuff, but it’s not like I have some fucking local bands coming in to do their demos or any of that shit.
What’s your setup, studio-wise? What are you running, as far as your sequencing and your recording and all that stuff?
At the core is a Mac Quad Pro where I’m running Logic. I know most people use Pro Tools. Out of interest, what’s the core of yours? Is it Pro Tools?
It’s Pro Tools, and honestly, it’s because I’ve always run studios—you kind of have to have Pro Tools if you want a commercial studio. I run into people all the time who are total Logic fans, and it makes sense if you’re not running a commercial facility. But I’ve always run Pro Tools, and that’s what I know.
To be honest, if I had to run a commercial studio, I would’ve learned Pro Tools years ago. Obviously, I’m from a generation of one-inch, two-inch tape—even though Godflesh is renowned as being technological, it still took us some time. Even with the drum machine, it was really a necessary evil.
What drum machine were you using back in the day?
The original Godflesh drum machine was an Alesis HR-16.
I kinda figured that!
That was an amazing machine. It’s fucking mental, mostly because you could layer kicks. You could layer everything. Most of what the Godlfesh early sound was—you could literally blend six kick drums. Other drum machines we played with at the time, they sounded much more plasticky and much more synthetic, and they also didn’t have the ability to tune. What we were doing was, like, putting three kick drums together and tuning two of them to -12, and shit like that. We weren’t doing it with any sense of technical perfection; we were doing it because it sounded rough, because it sounded raw and nasty. There was no “How’s this going to sound when it’s compressed?” or “Is it going to cut through the mix?” We didn’t think of these things whatsoever. We just wanted to get everything as low as we possibly could.
You just wanted the fucking nastiest sound you could get.
Right! There was no agenda besides that. We learned the whole production thing after. And we’re still learning, as far as I’m concerned. Every day, there’s always something new to learn. I listen to the old records, and I’m like, Jesus, I wish I could just re-record them all now.
I go through that every time I make a record. You finish it and you’re so excited about it, and then a week later you’re like, “Man, I could’ve totally done this, I should’ve done this, why did I do that?”
I really think that’s an important thing for people like ourselves to go through, though. I’ve been in some studios with people who really consider themselves the fucking bomb. And they’re so professional, but they’re just like, “No, it works like this and you do it like that.” I learned the hard way, with producers who think they know everything—or engineers who just lay out the rule book as soon as you walk into the studio. “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, you never do this, you never do that.” How do you learn if you don’t just try and experiment and make mistakes? You don’t learn shit. I just finished a record—I’m on the new Godflesh album at the minute—and some songs I must have mixed 15 times. And I’m just like, “Fuck off now.”
Usually before I get stuck into one my bigger records, say a Godflesh or a Jesu or any of this stuff, I find it vastly important to make sure I’ve just done a remix, so I’ve really had to study someone else’s music. The Godflesh thing, I did precisely what you just said. I did a load of mixes and then kicked back on it, and about a week later I’m like, “Oh fuck, I don’t like any of this.” So I just kept mixing and mixing and mixing and mixing, didn’t like any of it, went back to original mixes and was like, “That’s the best shit.”
But yeah, like I said, Logic is at the core, and then I use a TL Audio tube console. Do you know their stuff, TLA?
Yeah, I’ve heard of that stuff.
It’s only a 16-channel desk, so as you can imagine I use a lot of groups and stuff. So everything comes out through the desk. Fortunately, when I was doing some of the earlier mixes, I’d actually get my iPhone and take photos of the channel settings, and then I’d do the same with some of the outboard gear as well. I’ve got an Avalon preamp, which I do the vocals through, an Avalon Vacuum Tube 737—you probably know Avalons, you must. I do all my vocals through that. I still occasionally use an old Eventide H3500 effects processor.
Oh yeah, that’s a classic.
Absolute classic. We bought that after Godflesh toured with Skinny Puppy in the USA. David Ogilvie, their live-sound engineer, was using one on the desk every fucking night. They would cart two of them around with all the presets on. We were so blown away, we were like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to buy one of them.” When we did [the 1994 album] Selfless for Columbia, they gave us quite an advance and we immediately bought an Eventide, and it’s been a solid part of the studio ever since. Never needs to be maintained or any bullshit.
Those things are great, man. I love those units. So when you mix, do you still use quite a bit of outboard gear, or are you mostly in the box except for a few things? [Editor’s note: Mixing “in the box” means working on a computer.]
Lots of outboard. It’s a balance for me, between running Logic, everything coming out of Logic into the TL Audio desk, and then using a lot of—do you know Purple Audio? I’ve got one of their limiters; I’ll use that. I’ve got an SSL XLogic channel strip, I’ve got a Neve channel strip, an API, an [AnaMod] ATS-1, which is like an analog tape simulator. Some stuff like that, basically. It’s a proper blend. I’ll use internal Waves plug-ins as well. But I had my number of years where I was just mixing in the box. I would send stuff out into EQs and then back into the box. I went back to using a mixing desk again in 2009.
I’m actually glad to get back to a mixing desk; it’s all a matter of taste, ultimately. You hear many records where you’re like, “Fuck, that sounds analog,” and you get told, “No, it’s all Pro Tools, man.” And then you hear the opposite—you’ll hear a record where you’re like, “Man, that’s super digital,” but they’re like, “It’s all analog. We were running two-inch tape, mate.” And it’s like, “Fucking hell, man. It sounds like a fucking DAT machine. Wow.” You know what it’s like.
Bands hit me up all the time and they’re like, “Yeah, we really wanna track to tape.” And I’m like, “You don’t even know what that means. You’re just saying this because you heard somebody else say it. But if I was to play you two records back-to-back, one tracked to Pro Tools and one tracked to tape, there’s no way you could tell me which is which.”
We actually did that once. It was when we did the last Godflesh album, Hymns, and we recorded it in—it’s a studio in Wales, actually [Foel Studio]. They were recording on—you know those RADAR digital systems?
Oh yeah. Totally.
They were recording to that. They also had a two-inch machine there. There were some people from the record label who were just like, “Man, there’s a two-inch machine. You should record on that, man, and get that old sound,” and all this sort of shit. And we did precisely that—we bounced the track onto that, and then bounced back again. We blind-tested them. We just played it to them blind and said, “Which is the best? You wanted it on analog. Here you go.” And they picked the RADAR, of course.
It’s funny you mention those RADAR machines, because I know some people who still swear by those things—and they sounded amazing back in the day. I mean, as far as digital. They may even sound better than Pro Tools does now. They had it dialed in back then.
Weren’t they like 96 kHz or something like that?
Yeah, I think they were. And I think they were 24-bit when Pro Tools was still 16. Or maybe they were 20 at that point.
We couldn’t believe it—it was the first time we’d come across one. Prior to that we’d been recording the midperiod Godflesh albums on our own, with the first Digidesign stuff, like Session 8—the really early stuff. With Cubase running as the fucking sequencer! That was more centered around the fact that I was making a lot of records that used sequencing—that’s really the only reason I use Logic, because I’m a big programming fiend. Programming beats and shit. The first time I ever tried a basic version of Pro Tools, I was like, “How the fuck do I do beats?”
Yeah, you can’t. You have to run another program with it.
That was it. That was the end of it for me. I was like, “Oh shit, this isn’t for me. This is a professional recording deal.” And I was just like, “I am ‘that guy,’ really. I’m just a guy who’s learned to record through pissing around with drum machines and samplers.” [Laughter.]
When you guys first started using a drum machine, was that out of necessity, or was that, like, you specifically sought that out because you wanted that sound?
It was a combination of both, because I was drumming for this other band called Head of David. Hold on a second, my son’s going mental.
Yeah, I’d started drumming for Head of David, and I was also writing bass lines, guitar lines, doing backing vocals, all this shit. When I was drumming, I was really constantly aware that I wasn’t a great drummer, but I knew what beats I wanted to hear. As soon as Head of David basically kicked me out of their band—for basically being too noisy, which was brilliant—and I formed Godflesh with Ben [G.C.] Green, it was just like, “Look, I know what beats I want to hear. Let’s just get a fucking drum machine.” It was a necessity. I know exactly how I want to program beats. I ain’t got enough limbs for it—I ain’t a good enough drummer. Let’s get a box. It was mostly inspired by mid-80s hip-hop.
Yeah. Of course we were into Big Black and stuff as well. Without a doubt, Big Black had an impact on Godflesh, but what we were more searching for was—I mean, the sound of Big Black’s drum machine was fucking awesome, obviously, but we wanted something much closer to the Public Enemy records, Eric B. & Rakim, Run-D.M.C.
I remember the first time I heard [the Run-D.M.C. album] King of Rock, in about ’85. I remember thinking, “Shit!” You know, I want to make this really abstract, sort of fucked-up metal shit and have drum machines that sound like that! Really monolithic. At that time, in the mid-80s, going to hip-hop shows, all you could hear was the fucking drum machine. I used to love it. Just massive beats, nothing but—there’d be [makes indistinct rapping sounds] in the background. Really, I was just interested in massive, body-destroying beats. That was more of the concept. And like we were laughing about at first, it was like: How to then get a drum machine and start pitching everything down. Tune the guitars down, tune the drum machine down, add pitch shifters to the voice to tune it down. How to make everything as low as possible without really having any idea of what we were doing.
Were you ever influenced by the early UK industrial stuff, like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire and Whitehouse?
Yeah, massively. That was a lot of the first music I got into, besides punk stuff in the late 70s and early 80s. Once I got past Crass and Discharge and Killing Joke and the whole gamut of punk rock, which was my first love, it was—well, my first love, the first band I ever loved, when I was seven years old, eight years old in 1977, was the Stranglers. For me, to this day, the Stranglers are still probably the most important band of my life, which is really weird. I tell that to people, and they’re like, “What the fuck?” But listen to the bass sound of the early records, and that’s Godflesh, basically.
So a lot of that punk stuff led me to industrial music. Being into Crass led me to Throbbing Gristle, which then led me to Cabaret Voltaire and the whole industrial-music scene. Which then led me to the even more obscure and confrontational stuff like Whitehouse and Ramleh and this whole power-electronics scene. That was a huge part of my childhood and growing up and making music—and then after that, I got back into punk again, particularly when I joined Napalm Death. We started listening to all the early metal stuff. And then Celtic Frost made an impact on me. Godflesh is putting all that lot together, including things like Swans, obviously. That industrial scene is as important to Godflesh as something like Swans or Black Sabbath or Celtic Frost.
Godflesh performs the title track from Streetcleaner at Maryland Deathfest in 2012; footage from Maryland Deathfest: The Movie III.
I remember, like, almost to the day that Streetcleaner came out, and that record was just such a game changer for me and so many of my friends, you know? I mean, I was a little metalhead kid at that point, but I was really starting to get into industrial, and then that record came out and I was like, “Man, this is like the best of both worlds.” And I’ve always wondered if that played a big part in your decision to go down that path.
For me, industrial music—I was really young when I was into that shit, and a lot of kids I hung out with were a similar age, and they were listening to punk records. I’d play them Throbbing Gristle and they’d be like, “Well, what the fuck is this? There’s no music.” But to me, it’s the same as a Discharge record. It’s like the same philosophy, the same intensity, and essentially the same textures. But of course one’s playing riffs, and the other one’s playing noise. [Laughter.]
I mean, you know what it’s like. Some people, they just don’t get it. There’s a rule book, and even kids I knew who were into fucking ferocious punk rock couldn’t get into something with similar textures. For me, it was all the same—just as much as an early Celtic Frost record, to me, is quite similar to early Swans, which is, again, quite similar to Discharge. It all comes from the same pool of just filth and textures—noise textures, stuff that the majority of the population of the world do not understand. But then, obviously, we have people like me and you. We get this shit. And I think, somehow, Godflesh and particularly that Streetcleaner record was just a happy accident at the right time. Similar to the way Napalm Death’s [1987 album] Scum, that was an accident as well. Those sort of records, they somehow snowball these influences, and it makes sense for so many fucking people worldwide.
We, at first, were stunned with Godflesh. We never once thought it was going to be remotely popular. There’s certainly no sense of ambition there. It was the opposite. [Laughter.] It wasn’t willfully obscure—we wanted people to love this music—but we thought barely anyone could connect with it. That accidental sound, I think, for other people—like you said yourself, there were so many people like that, who were out there searching for this combination of sounds but weren’t hearing it.
What’s exciting for us is we’ve never played the Metro. We always loved the Metro, and we always said, even right up until we split up originally, like, “Fuck, we’re never gonna play the Metro.” So we’re so happy that we’ve re-formed and we’re playing the fucking Metro.
That’s great, man. That’s one of my favorite venues in Chicago.
Absolutely. I fucking love that place.