Interview - Barney Greenway of Napalm Death
The grindcore pioneers talk about new their album, metal and Joy Division
Napalm Death are musical pioneers, they invented grindcore, mixing death metal with hardcore punk and made music harder, faster and nastier than anyone that had gone before. Famed for their ferocious live shows, political edge and refusal to compromise The List caught up with frontman Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway as they release new album Utilitarian.
How would you describe Napalm Death’s music?
It’s just music to the nth degree really, or actually non-music up to a point. We never put any limits on ourselves and we’re more than willing to employ things that are verging on white noise to make the band sound as raw as possible. There is quite a lot of subtlety in our music but it’s subtlety that from a sonic point of view is quite noxious. We get kicks out of playing fast horrible music.
What led you to making music that in many ways is so ‘unpleasant’ for want of a better word?
There’s a real paradox when you look at the lyrics they’re very humanitarian, humane, pacifist, that’s a direct contrast with the music. Napalm could sound like anything we could sound like a really twee folk band with the lyrics we have but we have a certain background in music, a lot of us have are big advocates of underground music which is basically people making demos in their bedrooms, then you add things like Motorhead and Black Sabbath and things eventually seemed like they needed to step up a gear and you had things like Metallica on the metal side and on the punk side things moved beyond The Clash to Discharge and The Exploited so people were always looking for the next extreme and Napalm followed on from that really. As happens in a lot of bands they start out with that fire then they sort of lose it, even though we’ve been through a few experimental periods, what it comes down to is we still get a perverse kick out of playing things that sound really obtuse.
Where’s does that drive to capture the intensity come from?
I don’t know but on a personal level I’ve been doing Napalm since 89, I had no agenda to be involved in music at all, I joined Napalm because I wanted to be in Napalm not because I wanted to be a musician. The band is considered to be quite a pioneering band so when you’ve done something like that even if you wanted to move onto another genre, how could you ever top what you’ve already done? In some respects it’s very difficult to switch to something else because it’s hard to really top that and there’s a satisfaction element, going back to the ethos and the lyrics, it comes with a certain drive and you don’t want to sell yourself down the river musically or lyrically and we’re really staunchly going against that, so you just press on doing the things that you do. Though within that we have moved things forward, listening to the albums hopefully they don’t tread water and have a few quirks to them that people can see and hear.
How would you define grindcore?
Grindcore was one of those things where the old Napalm drummer actually came up with the term himself and the press picked up on it and ran with it. It wasn’t the usual thing where the press come up with a catch all phrase and everybody’s all over it, it actually came from a Napalm member. And what he was referring to when he said it was it could be anything that’s fast and furious or it could be slow and torturous anything from a band like Napalm to a band like Swans, an avant-garde band but completely extreme at the other end of the scale, so it was quite a large parameter. But like anything the phrase got taken on in the wider world and people use it with their own definitions.
How do you feel as pioneers of an entire genre?
I don’t feel it’s my duty to stand over the genre with a big stick and say ‘that’s how it’s got to be’ music genres and scenes only live for as long as people come in and do what they see fit. In other words I think it’s really good that new people come in and live and die by their decisions, they play the music they want to play how they want to play it, so now the genre certainly doesn’t belong to Napalm Death so it’s not up to us to say what it should do, where it should shift to that’s up to the constituent parts.
How do you think you sit within the metal community? As ideologically I’d say you have more in common with hardcore or punk.
It’s too narrow a definition to call Napalm a metal band, I do see that we have metal influences, no question, but like you say equally we have punk and hardcore influences but also other things like Swans, like Joy Division, like My Bloody Valentine, the ambience of those bands I think is particularly impressive that lends itself to musical extremity if we incorporate what they did and mould our own style around it and bring it into the band as an influence it really works. So Napalm have got a massive palette of influences, I wouldn’t just want to have the blinkers on and just follow one path and one path only
Talking of which you've got a new album out, Utilitarian, what can people expect from that? And how do you see it progressing from the last album?
I always find it difficult to micro-analyse, comparing one to the previous one because like I always say there's a real spontaneity to Napalm Death. It's not as if before we go and do an album we stand around with checklists ticking stuff off of what we should do, it just kind of happens and it just all works out in the end. When we're making an album each member goes though uncertainties, we get quite nervous but it always seems to work out in the end. We don’t try to re-invent the wheel because that would be moving too far away from what makes the core of the band but we just have certain nuances like taking the Swans and Joy Division influence, especially with the vocals, and this time putting that in the faster material. I've never really done that before because I kind of felt that was more suited to the slower side of Napalm. I've actually put it into the faster stuff this time, not sure whether it would work, but it did and there lies the difference between this and the previous album.
During the mid and late 90s you had a more experimental edge are you tempted to experiment again?
Well, we've always had that, its never really left the band. I think at that point we went with the core fast and furious, off the rails kind of stuff to quite an extent and that to me wasn't a good move and I've always been quite clear and honest about that. The thing that no-one remembers is there were great debates within the band at the time and it really caused quite a lot of friction truth be told. Everything is a learning process and when I look back at some of those albums now and some of the material I didn’t like at the time, I really like some of it, I don’t think it was quite Napalm, in my opinion, but generally I look back and there's a lot of stuff I like. We wouldn't have got to where we are now without having been through all the stages, everything is a stepping stone.
What's your position on the inclusion of politics in music? Do you wish more bands did or do you think its very much a matter of personal taste?
What I would say is that you can take the music out of the equation, with my lyrics I put stuff out there and my ideas out there and I hope that people see where I'm coming from and agree but I'm not going to demand it from people. What I would expect from people is that they just try and think a bit beyond what's put on a plate for them, because I think the big problems that we've got with society and its hierarchical structures is that people are force fed stuff and people just take it as read. If we are going to change things I think people need to, and I know this is going to sound harsh, but they need to use the brains they were born with and realise they have the ability to dissect absolutely everything. Work it out for yourself, that’s my opinion - people should think for themselves and if you have to break societal taboo's and you think that’s the right thing, then do it.
Do you think there is just a general lack of engagement with politics in society now, like you say people are just accepting what they're being told rather than looking into the issues themselves?
Yeah, Yeah. The one thing I didn’t like has been with the riots in Birmingham and London. There was this blanket condemnation about what happened but to be totally honest with you, there's two points really. Firstly for the people at the bottom end of the scale that were involved in the riots; if you treat people like animals, you treat people like dirt and you only throw them scraps now and then and you make these token gestures: ‘yeah we're striving for equality, we want a more equal society’ when nothing actually happens. If you keep people like that, sooner or later things are going to snap and things are going to happen. I'm not one for violence, I don’t agree with violence towards people but I think direct action when people need to stand up because things aren't being done, that will happen.
Secondly and I did find this quite ironic, was that people were complaining when its just people breaking into shops to steal trainers. What did they expect? There's such a drive towards consumerism, if you shove it down peoples throats like that, you can’t then turn round and say, when they start breaking into shop windows, ‘you shouldn't do that because you're taking stuff that isn't yours’. You're always trying to convince people that you can have what you want in this life and there in lies the irony for me.
Your lyrics always make a lot of very intelligent points but a lot of people can’t discern what you're saying because of the shouted guttural delivery. Do you wish that people would pay more attention to the content of the songs?
What I would say is you can’t wave a magic want, you can’t be all things to all people, you can only do so much. I mean it would be really nice to be able to spread it wider in that sense but I can only do what I can. I always make sure there's a lyric sheet in the albums but aside from that I don’t really know what else I can do. I certainly don’t want to play any other style of music so in a sense I'm kind of hamstrung in what I can do.
Nearly everyone's heard of Napalm Death whether they're a fan or not, do you worry there's a caricature out there of what Napalm Death is? Especially with some of the earlier stuff, the five second songs and that kind of thing?
I mean lets be honest, most bands have caricatures and perceptions out there. You look at the biggest bands out there and I'm sure they do too. I've got to say my answer would be the same again: I can't be all things to all people, we do our best by making albums to show what side there is to the band and that’s all we can really do. But also I will say that I also have the greatest passion for that early stuff you were talking about when there were those five, ten, twenty second songs. I still really love that stuff so yeah it’s a difficult one, it's a difficult balance because there's only so much you can actually do.
Another of that caricature is that you are very famous for the amount or members there have been in the band but you must be at your most stable now, the core of the band has been the same for a while.
The thing is there haven't actually been that many members through the band since 1991, there's been one person, who died actually, but he left before that. So there haven't really been that may changes since the early days and the first album.
Are you guys going to be out on tour soon? I haven't seen any dates announced since the album came out.
Well we are definitely touring in a big way, just not in the UK which is why you haven't seen any. We did the UK quite extensively the last couple of years so we're going to leave it for a while because it’s not going to have any benefit to do it again now. It's different now, touring is not the same, you can’t turn up in a place say three times in the space of nine months, they haven't got the money to go and see you that many times which is totally understandable.
I know you've kept the intensity up on the albums but live how do you keep that intensity up night after night? It must be utterly gruelling.
It can feel like that, but like riding a bike you never really forget and you become very accustomed to what to expect in live situations. It takes it out of you but you also get into the groove or after the first couple of nights your muscles clench, doing this kind of music you really clench your muscles and you're aching all over. After a few nights it irons itself out like when you exercise a lot you get used to it and it’s the same playing on stage. The only thing I would say is I do a lot of cardio vascular exercise as I don’t want to be in a situation where a couple of weeks into a five weeker or six weeker I'm dying on my feet, and it helps, it really helps.
So what have you got planned over the next couple of months and the rest of the year?
Well we've got some European stuff coming up. We're doing a lot of fly ins which is how we tour now. We tend to do the weekends because that’s when most people are going to gigs. So we generally fly out do the gig and then we come back in the week giving us those days at home. Interestingly this week we're actually going to Nepal. I don’t know of any other European band that gone there, I've seen a Brazilian band that have gone out there of our sort of ilk but never a European band so I'm really fucking excited, to put it mildly. That's why we're doing it to keep it exciting for us is to be able to trail blaze like that. We were the first band to independently play the Soviet Union, all be it in the last week of it.
I think you’re a pioneering band that don’t always get the recognition you deserve.
We're just really understated as a band and as people. All the history is really important because it gets you to where you are at the time but really you are only as good as your next album or your next gig.
Utilitarian is out now.