Metal dudes mellowing out is nothing new. But few musicians have straddled the extremes that Justin Broadrick has. While still a teenager, he was an early member of British grindcore pioneer Napalm Death, but he quickly jumped ship for a string of bands ranging from the punishing misanthropy of Godflesh to the digitized ambience of Techno Animal. In the new millennium, Broadrick threw bits of everything he'd ever done into his new project Jesu, then upholstered the whole thing with swathes of shoegazing agoraphobia. The group's new full-length, Conqueror, improves on last year's Silver EP, upping the melodic ante while piling on layers of near-suffocating tension and sadness. Readying for his flight to the U.S. to tour with Isis, Broadrick spoke with The A.V. Club about airport security, the definition of genocide, and the perfect pop song.
The A.V. Club: What's been the holdup with getting into the States for your tour?
Justin Broadrick: Basically, our permits didn't come through quick enough. There's a huge backlog here at the U.S. Embassy in London, and that held us up. We'll miss a good chunk of the East Coast and pretty much all of Texas.
AVC: Did they give you a reason for the delay?
JB: Things have just gotten out of control with the security. The last time I was in the U.S., it was three weeks before 9/11. Obviously, things have been drastically upped in terms of security, paranoia, everything. It's pretty harsh. The last few times I had to get permits, I didn't even have to attend an interview at the embassy, but this time, it was sort of heavy.
AVC: What kinds of questions did they ask you?
JB: It's not so much what they ask you in the interview; it's what they ask you on the forms. There's some pretty mental stuff on those forms. One of the questions is, "Have you ever participated in genocide?"
AVC: You should have written, "Well, what's your definition of genocide?"
JB: Exactly. [Laughs.] Are we talking small genocide or big genocide? It's fucking ridiculous stuff, really mental. The first time I ever came to the U.S. was with Godflesh in, like, 1990. We didn't have any clue what we were doing, and neither did the record label. They literally just bought us tickets and put us on a plane. We got into Boston and were interrogated for two hours, then put straight on the next flight back to England. So the first time I came to the States, I wound up being officially deported. In the interview I just had, the woman told me, "You were deported once, so you can never come to America as a visitor or a tourist. But we're more than happy to have you come here and work." [Laughs.] How weird is that?
AVC: Your bandmates didn't make it through the process, though.
JB: The bass player in Jesu was arrested 20 years ago for having one gram of marijuana. He couldn't make it over purely for that fact. It's absolutely ridiculous. And our drummer has so many family commitments, he just couldn't do this tour.
AVC: So you threw together a pickup band at the last minute?
JB: Yeah. The drummer, Danny [Walker, of Exhumed and Intronaut], is from L.A., and I've never played with him before. I know he's more than capable of doing this; he probably knows the songs better than I do. The bass player is Dave Cochrane, and he was in the first band I ever toured with, Head Of David, when I was 17 or 18.
AVC: Are you nervous about these shows?
JB: I'm really nervous, yeah. Dave and I rehearsed together for a week, and Danny has been rehearsing with the recording. We've got an elongated sound check in New York, and that's it. When we play the show that night, it'll be the second time we've ever played together. [Laughs.] After all the chaos of getting there, it's ridiculous. Fortunately, everyone's just about professional enough to deal with this.
AVC: Jesu started out as a solo studio project. Do you think it's matured since then?
JB: It's become a lot more realized in terms of the vision I originally had. While I was doing the first Jesu album, I knew that I wanted to shake off Godflesh. I still wanted elements of it, I guess, but I wanted to focus more on the texture and the melody.
AVC: Was it hard to break from the heavier music you were mostly known for?
JB: Yeah, it was a challenge relinquishing the past. I felt like I'd become a bit of a caricature, to some extent. Godflesh was always perceived as this industrial, metal, grinding, brutal thing. I'd really gotten tired of it; I'd backed myself into a corner. In hindsight, Godflesh lasted a few years too long, anyway. For me, the challenge was saying goodbye and moving on. I knew I'd lose a load of fans, but I was also quite confident that I'd gain people from other areas who weren't so single-minded about what they listened to. Not that Godflesh fans were that way, particularly. Jesu is kind of single-minded in a way, too, but I'm trying to use melodies that I've derived from the pop music I've listened to all my life. I could never sufficiently get it through my music before; it was always dominated by the aggression factor.
AVC: In previous interviews, you've mentioned influences like Big Star and Red House Painters. Do you think Conqueror comes closer to channeling those kinds of sounds and emotions?
JB: It's still the same set of influences, and I'm using sort of a blueprint. Even though I talk about Conqueror being a pop record, clearly it's not Oasis. It's still heavy, down-tuned, quite fucked-up music. It's not like I'll ever be capable of writing a three-and-a-half-minute classic pop song.
AVC: Maybe a 10-and-a-half-minute classic pop song.
JB: Yeah, that's it. [Laughs.] I do everything too perversely and too wrong. I've always been into pop music, though, whether it's cheesy pop or cultish pop. I just never seemed to have the skills to put it together. It took until my mid-30s with Jesu before I could even come close. I never had the guts to even follow it.
AVC: Are there parallels between your music and your personal life over the years?
JB: No matter how much I've denied this in the past, my stuff is sort of autobiographical. I'm a really self-conscious person, and for me, this music is trying to push that away. I'm trying to be really instinctive and direct, without any concerns about how it will be perceived. I went through a lot of personal changes in my life while making the first Jesu album, and it's really reflected in that album. It's ultra-depressing; I was in a very depressed stage of my life. I think it scarred me, but I also think I'm a much happier person now because of what I went through at the time. It was all a bunch of personal crap: Godflesh splitting up, which was really painful, and lots of financial stress and personal breakups and stuff. I always said Godflesh was, to some extent, protest music. It comes from an anarcho-punk background. That was the music I came from originally, bands like Crass, and that's what Napalm Death came from. But after all the idealistic sloganeering and stuff, I sort of went the opposite way. I started to feel like the human race wasn't worth saving after all. [Laughs.]
AVC: That's one of your lyrics on Conqueror, isn't it? "Are we worth saving?"
JB: Yeah, yeah. That's weird, because that song addresses a bigger situation, but it also addresses relationships, as well. Friendships, relationships, they're all just microcosms. It's truly strange sometimes, and truly disheartening, you know? This constant repetition of existence.