Justin Broadrick looks concerned. The Godflesh singer and guitarist in amazed at the size of Pasagen, the Stockholm club where his band will be playing this evening as part of their recent European trek. Pasagen looks more like a NYC delicatessen replete with a counter and heat lamps to keep the food warm. The stage is built into a corner of the room with benches against the wall. He sits on the floor, folding his gaunt six-and-a-half-foot frame against the counter while he eats a cheese sandwich. The look on his face is pure Candid Camera.
"It's kind of...cozy!"
On stage, bassist C. Christian Green (you can call him Benny) and guitarist Robert Hampson are sound-checking, adjusting levels and hooking up the DAT machine (the malfunctioning drum machine was left at home). Everything is OK, until Hampson uses the microphone.
"Check two...Christ!" he reels back in dusgust. "Did you smell that thing? What is that? Salami?"
Green laughs heartily and makes snorting noises into the microphone. "I'm not sure, but it's 'orrible."
"Probably Zodiac Mindwarp's asshole," Hampson muses. "Microphone halitosis. Hey," he asks no one in particular, "was G.G. Allin here recently?" Broadrick laughs and barely saves his sandwich from hitting the floor.
Such banter seems to contradict the persona of Godflesh, the threesome-and-a-machine aggregate whose music threatens to crumble the most solidified musical boundaries. Are they metal? If you're talking about bland middle-of-the-road stuff caressed by MTV-damaged fatheads of thrash/death metal with gargling vocals, then no, Godflesh are not metal. Are they industrial? While Godflesh's guitars sizzle and hum with the power of Filth-era Swans or Throbbing Gristle, their music is not the routine of techno-kittens or the electronic aggro-rock of Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Godflesh excavates their own line of machinations with depth, guitars that scream like Janet Leigh in Psycho, and low-end quaking that disrupts heartbeat patterns.
It's a sound that has left fans, foes and writers deeming them "The
Soundtrack to the Apocalypse." Their lyrics voice nihilism and misanthropy.
"Breed like rats," Broadrick exhorts in one of their popular songs. Their
words also rail against oppression. It's a noise that is reviled and deified.
And if anything else, it should make ear-protection manufacturers very rich.
The first step towards Godflesh's current noise legacy was simple. Broadrick lived down the road from Green in Birmingham, an English city darker and more depressing than any three Joy Division singles. Broadrick enjoyed hardcore power electronics not unlike the extreme noise band Whitehouse and formed a short-lived band called Final. (He even went to a Whitehouse gig when he was thirteen but left early when the crowd started throwing glass at the band) Green played in the noise-dirge incarnation Fall of Because with guitarist Paul Neville, and the two asked Broadrick to join as their drummer. Meanwhile, Nick Bullen, the bass player for Napalm Death at the time, solicited Broadrick to drum for his band. Broadrick took the gig long enough to appear on the a-side of Napalm Death's Scum debut. Later at a Napalm show, Broadrick was also asked to pound for Head of David in 1986. He stuck with the group for a peel session and their milestone Dustbowl LP until he was fired for, according to Head of David singer Stephen Burroughs, "Insisting to play like the Swans' Cop LP." (Broadrick laughs as this account, mentioning that Filth was the Swans record he loved and that he left when Head of David began grooving to Bon Jovi.) All the while, Broadrick, Green and Neville were still playing together in Fall of Because.
"At that time, Fall of Because was the entire opposite of all the speed stuff happening," recalls Green. "We'd do gigs with Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror. When we would play, Paul and I would face Justin with our backs to the crowd and play for ourselves. And everybody could just..." he pauses and smiles, "suffer the outcome!"
Broadrick was fairly agile on both drums and guitar, but wanted to play more of the latter. "We decided we didn't need anyone else," he says. "We knew what kind of rhythms we wanted, I knew what I wanted to hear, but it had to be better than what I could do, so we got a machine."
Fall of Because eventually disintegrated. Taking the American Indian's term for peyote--"God's Flesh"--as their name, Broadrick and Green recorded their first EP in 1988 with financing from an independent record store in Birmingham. The guitars lumbered on with dense sustain and the machine rhythms raised the puch factor in a scene that really embraced the mechanical clicks of Big Black. Tracks like "Veins" and "Ice Nerveshatter" detailed an immediacy that the slowest indie grunge or fastest grindcore couldn't convey. Earache Records founder Dig Pearson heard the record and signed them.
Streetcleaner, the bands debut for the label was (and still remains) an incredibly oppressive album, intense and crushing. The guitars bite and sear, anchored by Green's bass and the drum machine. Broadrick's lyrical invectives on humanity were readily apparent in song titles like "Wound", "Mighty Trust Krusher" and the aforementioned "Like Rats". Imagine being chased by a steamroller with a top speed of eight mpg, but knowing you couldn't escape even if you knew both your legs would be broken. Neville reunited with the duo for half of the record, reinforcing its dirge. Critics en masse labelled Godflesh "Music for the Apocalypse" while others deemed them totally hateful and ugly. Regardless, the band forged its own unique musical personality.
"Musically it was everything I wanted to do but so much more," says Broadrick. "Fall of Because was a lot more psychedelic and not as regimented and disciplined."
Psychedelic or psychotic?
Green and Broadrick shoot glances at each other. "Both!" they concur, laughing.
"It's a contradiction of sorts for me because the music is not an extension of my personality--that's just imagery," Green clarifies. "My body is into the sound, into the music and channeling that into the audience. I think it's a duty to ourselves to play music that we can connect with. It's how we've felt about music since Day One."
Last year the band released Slavestate, a mini-LP that emphasized dance beats within the Godflesh sound. Repetitive bass-synth figures and samples from obscure European house records were welded to the band's crashing power upswings. Some metal fans who worshipped them wondered what was happening to their band. Club-cultured denizens whose definition of industrial was limited to the Wax Trax mail-order catalog discovered a new kick in the teeth. Slavestate still retained the punch of their previous work, but opened up another dimension.
"As the records change, the music must change and we don't feel we have to appease people with our 'greatest hits,'" says Broadrick. "I wanted to use dance elements within the realm of Godflesh. We got some shit from people but we also accessed a whole new audience. We're never pre-meditated, wanting this or that for ourselves. We didn't think, 'We must sell to our metal audience,' we know we can try anything and still have our particular style. We've got a foot in all elements. there's a direction we've initiated. All four of our records are different. Now there's the techno audience that likes Slavestate," he beams, obviously pleased at defying categorization yet again.
"But," Green counters, "when the metalhead hear us, they can't deny the heaviness there because of all the guitars and that's what metal is all about."
Tonight's gig sees headbangers with Morbid Angel shirts as well as Test Department devotees in attendance. One individual moshes to the music, until Broadrick tortures the crowd with fifteen minutes of cyclonic, eardrum-raping feedback at the set's end. The lone mosher, wrapping his arms around his head to cover both ears, fumbles with his wallet to buy a shirt with his free hand. Godflesh prove once again that their music inhabits as grey an area as the part of Sweden through which they're touring.
Robert Hampson is tearing down his hear after the night's show in Goteburg, Sweden. He's being badgered by a gangly college student in a homemade Loop t-shirt who's explaining to Hampson in an ingot thick accent about how his older brother has the Loop logo tattooed on his arm.
Hampson smiles, and directly tells the kid, "Your brother is mad."
Godflesh supported Loop on a brief English tour close to three years ago. Soon after Slavestate's release, Nevilled bowed out to concentrate on his new band, Cable Regime. After that tour Loop director Hampson wanted a rest to re-evaluate things w/ his band. Broadrick and Green invited him to contribute guitar to the Godflesh sound. (They also invited Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris, but the working relationship lasted for only a handful of gigs.)
"They were literally the only other band I would ever play for," says Hampson. "Joining Godflesh was a great opportunity to make a great fucking noise with my guitar and not worry too much and play w/ people whose company I liked. I think it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to be like Paul-play a few numbers then disappear. They asked me to join b/c they liked the way I played. It was a change for them as well."
Hampson was a focal figure in Loop as a singer, writer and guitarist. Does he miss the control that he once wielded?
"No, not really," he replies. "I can really lose myself in Godflesh b/c I don't have the responsibility I had in Loop. I don' thave to worry about walking up to a mike stand and singing. I think I can tap into the source pretty quickly."
Get Hampson talking about the basis and intent of Godflesh's music and he'll admit he knows nothing about metal and doesn't care to. "I wouldn't know Slayer if they pissed on me," he adds. Ask him about the metal/industrial conundrum and "fuck off" would probably be the response.
"I don't know, I hate labels," he says disgustedly. "Loop were always 'psychedelic' or 'prog rock' and we thought 'We're a band.' The weird thing is that you do get the metalheads and the doom merchants at the gigs. But I never thought that Godflesh wasn't that far removed from Loop. We've had very similar parallels-Godflesh is more metal and Loop is a bit more mindfuck."
So what is it you get out of Godflesh?
"I find a great deal of majesty in Godflesh," says Hampson in earnest. "Stuff like 'Slateman' totally levitates your body. It's like an orb that's centered in your chest that's really radiating. But then again I find a lot of beauty in violence. it's constructive as well as destructive. I don't find it ugly like some people do. it doesn't always destroy-it can create. Of course if we all felt the same way about everything, the world would be fucking boring!"
Godflesh's latest release, Pure has more shades of metal in the Venn Diagram of their musical ouevre. The samples are embellishments and further heighten the guitar density. Tracks like "Baby Blue Eyes" hint at invitations to dance but the guitar chunks provide a greater vibrancy than your average club wallpaper. The layered head-shocks characteristic of Streetcleaner return on "Predominance" and the title track. And the lyrics? "Feel me, hear me, fear me. You just fuck me," Broadrick sings in "Spite."
It's the most literal song I've ever written," he says. "It's as base as I can get.
"We've never gotten the sound we wanted entirely," he admits backstage two days later in a magy Copenhagen club w/ no dressing room amenities or security. "The next record I think we'll be completely there b/c we'll have the finances to do what we want. We've started on such a low financial level that we take our existing gear and push it as far as we possibly can. Pure was recorded on a cassette-based eight track! Pure is only half of what we want, but it's enough. After this," he pauses to add an element of conviction. "it's everything."
But what about the nihilism and the misanthropy? The song "Streetcleaner" is a probe into a mass murderer's personality, not a worship service. "Slavestate" is a cry against conditioning people to a pre-conceived moral or social standard. Where does the emotional content come from?
"The basica emotion is the extreme love and hate," Broadrick reflects. "It seems natural as the only way to express ourselves.
"Sometimes it's just suffering through other people's bullshit," reveals Green. "I suppose it's just as fascist as anything else, the lashing out or the survival instinct-fascist in a sense that your existence or your values amount to anything."
"My favorite world," adds Broadrick, "would be one where I would be completely segregated from almost everyone. It's completely impossible. That's what I like about Godflesh-the escape."
"Music is the honest way to relate to anybody else or anything," says Green. "Music means everything-nothing brings me more joy than music. I forget who said it but it's an important quote: 'Music is the voice of God'--in the sense that it is something that can get inside you and move you spiritually on a communication level. That's the problem w/ society--communication has gotten so complex."
Later that evening the comment rings true; the band plays to a crowd that doesn't communicate. Nothing. No applause. No heckling, hissing or booing. Godflesh are in an aquarium this evening and they don't like it. The band cuts their set short by three songs and receives a reaction only when Broadrick (with the help of their sound engineer Hamish whose motto is "Push everything to eleven and stand clear"), lets fly a series of gruelling black-noise tidal waves capable of exploding Micacle-Ear implants in all of Scandinavia. A guy walks on the stage, shakes his hand and offers to buy the guitarist a drink.
Are Messrs. Broadrick and Green creating noise merely for the sake of oise? Not really. Godflesh covered Loop's "Straigt to your Heart" for a single on the English label Clawfist. At first, the song is typically menacing and pummeling. Then the drum machine and bass drop out and Broadrick fires offf machete sharp chiming harmonics for a couple of minutes. The song kicks in again, and as the last totalitarian chord is struck, it fades into a pleasant, choral voice. It turns out the band recorded over a thirty-minute ambient experimental track and decided to leave it on. In addition, Pure features a twenty-one minute piece of ddroning that was a portion of a one-hour piece Broadrick and Hampson did in the studio consisting merely of their guitars feeding back and a totally unrecognizable sample of the Beach Boys. (Don't search for it--you won't find it.) The irony of Godflesh members embracing ambient music is as large as the incapacitating noise they make.
"It's emotionally powerful," enthuses Broadrick, later at the hotel at 3:22 am. "The things we like in ambient music are the things we've locked into through a state of mind. It's almost getting to be my foremost music right now."
"Eno's Music for Airports is one of our favorite records," testifies Green. "It's the sound of a pure emotion w/ no distractions--just listening to a sound and letting it wash over you."
"As we get bigger, I think we'll start ending the shows w/ complete ambience rahter than the harsh electronics," muses Justin. "I think if you turned down what we do at the end of a set, you'd relax to it."
Green pushes the hair out of his eyes and commits a perfect deadpan. "I don't feel particulary apocalyptic."