In the two-and-a-half decades since Streetcleaner’s release, not once has Godflesh been forgotten or deemed anything less than awe-inspiring. They had one of the most solid track records of any heavy band, barely made a misstep and, as of 2010, they’ve been touring their most potent material pretty heavily. Rumours of new material proved founded with this year’s ferocious Decline And Fall EP and, with a new full-length, A World Lit Only By Fire, due for release in October, we caught up with Justin as he returned from a tour of Japan with Jesu.
You just left the Godflesh tour with Loop in the UK to go and do a Jesu tour in Japan. How do you find always having 3 or more projects running concurrently?
To be honest, it’s quite amazing. I used to often complain about the way I am; I get so absorbed in a single project I really don’t see outside of it and I get so utterly immersed that I usually come out the other side, desperately wanting to go into something that’s as total an opposite as it can be in terms of the limitations of me as an artist. Within those confines, I want to go to the other end, and that’s the great thing with Godflesh and Jesu existing simultaneously. It pretty much covers most areas of expression that I’m interested in, and most areas in between as well. So for me, it’s a really, really positive thing to be able to step from one to the other and that’s the way it’s really been this year.
When the EP came out, we did a short UK thing and we’re going to do a short UK thing at the end of the year as well but it’s been quite odd throughout the summer as the festivals have been mostly Jesu. But then, the Jesu album came out last September so it’s now doing the business a bit more and playing for it would be this summer anyway, I guess. Likely, that’ll happen for Godflesh next summer and Jesu won’t play as often but we’ll probably be working on another record then for Jesu. Both exist simultaneously and I’m really positive about that, and everything else. Before going away there was Godflesh stuff and then I went away to Japan, did a Jesu tour, ended up doing a JK Flesh show and on Saturday I was in Birmingham, my old home town, doing a show with Final and an even tinier project called Council Estate Electronics. That’s only had digital releases so far, so I’m really spreading it at the moment, know what I mean?
Well the digital stuff, and most of what you’re putting out now, has been self-released on your Avalanche Inc. label. We’ve spoken before about some of the problems you had in Godflesh when you were on labels in the past so was the self-release avenue mainly a way to avoid experiences like that happening again?
Ultimately, I think I’m old enough and arguably mature enough to be able to know how the industry works so well that it’d be almost pointless for someone like me to still constantly hand my music over to other labels. Ultimately I’d never think to ask for anything more than to look after my own music, as much as humanly possible, myself. It’s completely empowering. Finally, the artist gets to take control and it’s finally subscribing to the ethics that I always wanted to as a kid, which was just the whole DIY thing.
I started off DIY, releasing my own cassettes on my own label when I was like 14 years old, with the early Final stuff and the electronic stuff I was doing back in the early-to-mid 80s. I was always enamoured and pretty much raised on that sort of culture because once I got past the age of maybe ten years old and listening to my mum and my step-father’s punk records, and their Pink Floyd records, and so on, I was really hit by music like Crass, and this was all on their own record labels so it was hard for me to differentiate. I never learned enough, or was articulate enough, to see that much of a difference other than that DIY seemed like a standard to me, a norm. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go with other labels. Obviously, as I’ve become older I’ve seen the support you can get and all the rest of it but I wouldn’t wish for anything more now.
A World Lit Only By Fire’s release is getting pretty close now. Are you feeling more anxious about its release than that of previous albums, giving the length of time between this and Hymns?
Initially. It’s pretty much the reason why Godflesh has existed for three years, and that it’s taken it this long to come up with records. I was thinking that expectations would be really high so I really didn’t want to rush into anything. It could have been very easy for us to reform and immediately capitalise on the success of the moment. Somehow, we’ve been very lucky that we’ve managed to sustain this interest for almost three years. It feels like we’ve literally only just started again.
But the records could not have been rushed. It would have been so, so easy just to knock something out really quick that was just standard Godflesh. I really wanted to take my time with this but it flows really easily and it’s a really fluid process once I’m in the zone, so to speak, or in the emotional state that’s required of me to be able to comfortably put this new material together. It’s more just a standard of quality, and not being satisfied with the least. Really wanting more, you know? I put a lot of songs together where I still felt that it wasn’t enough, so I’d take these things back to pieces and sort of cover them again. Just keep regurgitating and keep the cycle going until it seemed that something was really resonating.
That’s why it’s taken so much time but once I was rolling with this stuff it was hard to actually stop. That was the irony, really. I really had to hold the reins and say, “That’s enough writing, that’s enough recording, let’s mix the records.” It was daunting initially but it was something that we really, really wanted to do. The record’s the most important thing, really. Making new music, not just going out and doing a bunch of shows of classic material. That part was absolutely necessary, and it was sort of the catalyst for this new material, really, but the most exciting thing about this is the new material, to me.
Does the iconoclastic way that fans view bands like yourselves ever become frustrating? It seems that lots of them are eager for new material, but only ever want to hear the old songs live.
Yeah, absolutely. In a way, it’s almost the reason that we spent those three years of the reformation only playing classic material, because we know that we’ve pretty much covered all the corners of the globe in the past three years and when we come back out, we want to focus on the fact that the new record’s come out. One is going to hear very little classic material. Of course, we’re still going have X amount of the set being just that but the whole point now is that we feel everyone’s had a good enough chance to see us live. Obviously, there’s loads of people who haven’t but that’s not our responsibility anymore.
But yeah, it’s absolutely that. If we had just come out and started playing new material, people would have fucking impaled us for it. It’d be met with such derision! But it’d been so long, we really did want to come out and play classic material and I knew even upfront that playing the old material that we love most would be the catalyst for all the new material. Before we reformed I already had this vision of a new Godflesh, new music. I’d written very little, I could just visualise it and hear it more than anything, but I couldn’t really articulate it completely at that stage, yet I was absolutely aware that this new material was on the horizon. We really wanted to dip our toes back into what we loved about the old material, hence why we only played old material that we viewed as our favourite material as well; the purest form, the undiluted Godflesh. Especially the stuff written for machines. That’s in no way meant to be a negative towards any drummers, it’s more about honouring what we see to be the purest form of the concept that we intended initially.
The weight of expectation can often destroy bands. I’ve known many bands where the expectation is just too much, quite literally, but you just write your own critique. I can critique myself much more negatively than the most negative shit out there, generally, and I can hear it all. You can predict every clichéd response, from puritanical fucks saying, “Well, they were much better 20 years ago,” which is the most predictable, boring, holier-than-thou response and typically comes out of the mouths of people who weren’t even there 20 years ago, all the way to, “It’s irrelevant now” and all the rest of it. You write all the stuff first, you hear it initially, and you’re fine as soon as you make the new music.
What’s nice is the Decline And Fall EP was received way more positively than I expected. Way less cynicism than I actually expected, and people are hearing the album only just now and the responses I’m getting from that are truly ridiculous. I’m actually truly stunned. I’m expecting just a wall of fucking cynicism these days, especially with the advent of people just being able to consume entire discogs in the bat of an eyelid in just a couple of clicks. Music is at saturation, and you expect the worst. I always expect the worst anyway. I wouldn’t make music like this if I didn’t expect the worst, I guess.
I imagine people will already have an inkling through the EP, but the new album seems like some of your most aggressive, angriest work in a while. It’s a return to the harsh, mechanical sound of Streetcleaner and Pure, which will probably hit quite hard after years of Jesu. Do you feel that you have regained some cynicism and anger?
What’s funny is I think I had my big period of ultra-cynicism in my late 20s, early 30s. Now, I just feel, ironically, just full of a lot of positivity and I only see the light in everything although I know I’m mostly railing against the negative. I feel quite isolated, and I still feel like quite an outsider, I think. I get this with a lot of the Godflesh interviews recently, that I live in a very rural, pretty, beautiful place, and pretty much isolated away from the throng of humanity, which for me is a very positive thing, but people have said that this Godflesh album is ultra-urban. It sounds really fucking urban, really aggressive and, for me, really implosive. It still sounds like this huge wall of fucking defensiveness which, ultimately, it is. It’s a shroud, it’s a mask, and it’s my defence.
Yeah, I live in a pretty place, I’ve got a three-year-old son who makes me wildly happy but it’s everything else. It’s everything but, most of the time, as it always has been. Barely anything has changed. The impact that Birmingham had on me as a kid is, in simple terms, never going away. The cities will always have the same impact on me. When I go back into masses of human beings, I just want to fucking run. I just feel like I want to get back into my cave, basically. I find it really difficult but I’m a total social animal. I love being sociable, and I have quite a wide array of close friends that I’ve known for a number of years. Even my bandmates are all people I’ve known for thirty years plus, so I’m far from this hermit who’s incapable of fucking conversation – quite the polar opposite. But I still get met with the same ignorance and bigotry.
When Godflesh arrived, you were part of a musical environment that included a lot of quite socially aware bands, bands like Public Enemy and so on. Do you think that level of awareness in music is perhaps something that’s been lost as of late?
Yeah, well… that’s a loaded question. We could probably talk about that for a whole day, couldn’t we? There’re many facets to that but ultimately I think that it’s been lost for a number of things, one of which is that music has become less important for people. Music is less a vehicle for protest now, but we all know that back in the day it was so much more tribal and I think that music was almost instrumental in change. It was hand-in-hand with change, it was the soundtrack to change, it was the soundtrack to revolutions, albeit minor ones. No matter how small, we had a voice for it; we had a music for it. That’s pretty much lost now, almost entirely. Music’s been relegated, and it just isn’t resonant with the current generations, or very few anyway, especially younger generations. There’s way more important things, like iPhones, video games, social networking for the sake of social networking.
It’s all very clever, really. We’ve been bombarded by this fucking bullshit and people have lost their edge – there’s nothing to rail about. It’s all going on outside our window but we’re still being manipulated, and we just seem to absorb it and soak it up now. It’s like the way we’re bombarded with cynical advertising. It’s not even subliminal anymore, it’s right in your face, and people just sit there and fucking take it. Music is just this commodity and the music that was the soundtrack to counter-culture can be in an ad for fucking Lurpak or something. Everything seems ultra-sanitised, ultra-conservative and I’m often thinking, “Where’s the music by the twenty-somethings?” Where’s the music that’s destructive, or has an absolute air of protest, or is violent or aggressive? There’s so little of it, or maybe I’m just not hearing it. Maybe I’m not being exposed to it, but I wish I was, because I’m out there every day, wanting to hear new music. Not that there’s not teenagers or twenty-somethings out there making great music; of course there is. I’m just wondering where the anger is sometimes, the frustration.
Well, you talk about the importance of music, but to me Godflesh were always of the greatest importance to other musicians, and it was such a cross-sectional thing. Industrial, doom, black metal, punk – everyone looked up to you. What was it that you felt gave it this everyman aspect?
I think that in a way it’s that Godflesh absorbed so much dark and negative music in a period where music was eclectic, where there was a lot of unique blends and concoctions and juxtapositions of odd sounds, which unfortunately has been lost with so much micro and macro-compartmentalisation of music. Even within black metal, there’s like several thousand genres but back in the mid-80s, you could take a term like noise rock, which is about the loosest term you could get, and there was a lot of stuff under that umbrella. It could include everyone from Big Black to certain metal things, even Swans and Killing Joke. Even the whole post-punk thing – at the time, no-one knew if it was post-punk; it was new-wave, really. There was so much under these umbrellas. It was so open, so genuinely diverse, it’s like everyone recognised their roots. Everyone was essentially a punk band and that’s what it was with Godflesh.
For me, it was always essentially a punk band but we took in all this stuff from music – all the negative stuff, and all the good stuff, as far as I’m concerned. We were absorbing everything from early rock stuff, like Sabbath and Zeppelin, all the way through to The Stooges, and then all the way through to The Stranglers and Krautrock, and then all the post-punk and new-wave stuff like Siouxsie and The Banshees and Killing Joke, Public Image Ltd., and then all the stuff like Crass and all that, and then all the noise and power electronics scene, like Whitehouse, Ramleh, Throbbing Gristle, NPK and all the early industrial culture stuff. Then I absorbed all the death metal stuff in the mid-80s as well, and old-school hip-hop, and for me it was trying this concoction of different music that was, I guess, protest music as well. Body music, punk music… it all seemed to be punk, to me. It all seemed to have what punk was at heart, this revolutionary edge to music.
I think it’s because it comes from a period where it was that diverse, it could be that eclectic, and we were taking from very eclectic sources. I know this sort of suggests that people now have very singular tastes, but it’s quite the opposite because if I speak to people in their 20s now who are into this music, they’re so fucking learned it’s incredible. This is due to the internet, I guess. Their range of diverse tastes is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous! So much more so than it was even back then but I think so much was under such a big umbrella then one led to the other quite rapidly, even though you had to put a lot of fucking effort into finding this music, because obviously you couldn’t find it in just a couple of clicks. You’d have to go hang out in the right record shops and try and hassle people to play it to you. Myself, as a kid, I could never afford to buy this shit. You’d have to meet other people, throw them a cassette and you could maybe meet them the following week and they’d give you a cassette of the album. A lot of time invested in music then. This kind of time isn’t required now, it isn’t a requirement to listen to music. You can even pop on YouTube and listen to someone’s album now in fucking minutes.
So yeah, I think we came from an age with a lot of musicians who people would deem valid, and then came an age where bands would deem us valid, so I think it seems to have had a knock-on effect. I mean, if we came out of nowhere now, we’d probably be average to meaningless, unfortunately. Not to say people can’t have an impact now but I think it’d be quite strange. It’s like Godflesh existed in some odd vacuum, stepped out of it and then somehow became exposed to the world. No matter how much negative shit I throw at Earache, if it wasn’t for Earache exposing us to a by-and-large metal audience, we still would have been nobody and nowhere. We just had this knock-on effect, and we were just as stunned as anyone by our popularity.
The latest Godfesh EP Decline And Fall is out now via Avalanche Recordings, with their first new album in 13 years A World Lit Only By Fire due to hit the streets on October 6th, you can also catch them live in the UK later in the year at the following dates:
Tue 09.12.14 The Haunt Brighton
Wed 10.12.14 Garage London
Thu 11.12.14 Rescue Rooms Nottingham
Fri 12.12.14 Sound Control Manchester
Sat 13.12.14 Art School Glasgow
Interviewed by: Dave Bowes