Napalm Death Frontman Barney Greenway: "You Absolutely Must Persevere."
Band Photo: Napalm Death (?)
Britain's Napalm Death, one of the world's seminal acts in grindcore, death metal, and extreme music writ large, are set to release their fifteenth studio album "Utilitarian" late next month via Century Media. Phoning me from his Birmingham home, gruff (and outspoken) vocalist Mark "Barney" Greenway joined Metal Underground for a refreshingly candid chat to discuss just that. Here's what took place:
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): You’re hitting the road in Germany the day after tomorrow; is that right?
Mark “Barney” Greenway: Yeah. We’re only doing three dates at this point. The nature of touring has kind of changed in Europe now. We can’t do it like the old days, with two or three tours back to back – it’s just not possible anymore. Principally, it’s because there are so many bands out on the road at this point, and obviously people pick and choose, which is right and fair, y’know? So what we tend to do is maximize the weekends, then fly home, then maybe go out the week after that, and then maybe come back and take the next weekend off. And so on and so forth.
Mike: Are you playing any places you’ve never hit before?
Barney: Actually, the three shows we’re doing are in towns we’ve never played. We’re a band that kind of specializes in playing off the beaten track, y’know? [Laughs] Even in countries that bands go to regularly, we still find ourselves off the beaten track. I don’t know anything about these places, I must be honest, and I’d say that’s a first for me. But that’s a good thing, ‘cause it kind of keeps you on your toes. Speaking in a broader sense, doing the regular gigs in Europe, and perhaps the States – nothing wrong with it; it’s great. But there comes a point where a bit of unpredictability keeps you on your toes. It keeps things kind of fresh. So it’s very much a “wait and see” kind of thing.
Mike: I’m very interested in heavy music culture worldwide, and I’m curious if you’ve observed differences between the UK and European crowds, American crowds, and crowds elsewhere. Do people behave differently to you?
Barney: You know, that’s a very good question, and I’ve found myself making quite long statements about this. You can’t separate people by nationality, I think. Wherever we go, people are just people. The kids who come to our gigs – or the PEOPLE who come to our gigs, I should say – their excitement, and the way it’s expressed, is pretty consistent. Okay, you could say that if you go to Japan, the custom there is to be a bit more restrained. It’s quite synchronized, the way they react to the music at points. But generally speaking, the whole world is quite consistent. I can’t say I’ve ever really seen a difference from year to year in certain countries. I’ve not really noticed anything. Extreme music, in general, seems to be quite a unifying thing across the world. It makes a kind of bond between people. So I guess that’s where the consistency of reaction comes in.
Mike: The big topic at hand is your upcoming studio album. You’ve teased some new material by playing “Quarantined” live and releasing “Leper Colony” online. Why those songs in particular?
Barney: Well, I think with “Leper Colony,” it’s got every different little stylistic twist that we’ve got on the album. It’s got a bit of everything. So if you want a track that generally represents the album, I think that’s quite a good one. And we just picked “Quarantined.” We were like, “Which song should we play?” And then: “’Quarantined?’ Okay!” [Laughs] It just kind of went like that, really. But “Leper Colony” was a bit more, shall I say, “considered” for what it was meant to be. For these German dates, we’re gonna play another song live as well. We’re not gonna start playing large parts of the album yet; we’re gonna save that for when the album actually comes out. But we’re gonna play a couple, and hopefully people will appreciate that.
Mike: Can you drop any hints on what your setlist will look like?
Barney: For these German shows, it’s actually one that we’ve been doing for a little while. If you’ve seen Napalm a few times, you’ll know that we always mix. We always seem to achieve quite a good balance of old and new. We don’t particularly omit much of any era of Napalm, and we somehow manage to plant something from everything into that one hour and ten minute set, or whatever. So it’s got a mixture of stuff, and a couple of covers. We do a Cryptic Slaughter cover, and we cover a band called Siege, a fast hardcore band from Boston back in the early ‘80s. They were a big influence on us. We try and mix it up.
Mike: I can always count on unique and amusing track titles from Napalm Death, and this record seems to be no different. I’d like to solicit your thoughts on a few particular titles that intrigue me: “Everyday Pox,” “Think Tank Trials,” and “Opposites Repellant.”
Barney: Well, part of the reason they’re so amusing, I suppose, is that I like to play on words a lot. To make a general point, with Napalm – or with any idea, I suppose – I don’t like to do the obvious. I could sit there and give you a load of generic song titles, by just making them up in five minutes. But you know, when an album gets out there, it’s out there for life. I want to make sure that it’s the best that I think it could possibly be. So some of the titles end up being a bit quirky. Now, “Everyday Pox.” Well, “pox” is obviously associated with disease. It can be a rash, or various things. But the pox I’m talking about in this instance is almost like an inner disease, a societal disease. It’s the fact that some people can’t… We’re so driven apart sometimes. We’re so segregated. We’re so obsessed with being a “model person,” or whatever, which in turn makes us very prejudicial. I’m sort of referencing the common person that’s so obsessed with himself, and ticking certain boxes, that they’re completely prejudiced about anybody else with any kind of differentiation. It’s about a person who just runs on prejudice, and how bitter and how miserable their lives must be. There’s a line in the song – I can’t remember exactly what it is – about how when that person walks into a room, they illuminate the room. And obviously that’s an ironic statement, because truly, they don’t, y’know? And then I wrote something like, “A toast of urine to empathy.” So in other words, toasting people with the shittiest thing to toast somebody with! [Laughs] That’s the kind of thing that I’m saying. Do you get the point that I’m making with that?
Mike: Oh, absolutely!
Barney: If you’ve met that person, if you walked into a room and they were there, you could kind of tell that they just hate everybody in the room, just because they don’t live up to that person’s expectations. That’s what I’m trying to say with that. On to “Think Tank Trials.” Well, think tanks are very often mythical beasts. A think tank is usually government associated, and chewing over this particular issue, and they usually come up with conclusions that you could’ve pulled in five minutes, y’know? [Laughs] And so I’ve taken that concept of a think tank, something that absolutely obsesses over detail and different things, and I’m basically just relating it to my own life. Because I know that I’m particularly guilty of analyzing things to the nth degree sometimes. I will sit there and analyze stuff, and at the end of it, my head hurts so much that I forgot what kind of conclusion I was trying to come to in the first place. I know I’m particularly guilty of that, so that’s a criticism of myself, if anything. And what was the last one?
Mike: “Opposites Repellant.”
Barney: Oh, “Opposites Repellant.” That was basically a comment on so-called “modernization.” People always talk about that, and how great it is to “modernize” things, and this and that. And that’s very often a byword, I think, for industrializing whole parts of places that don’t need to be industrialized. And very often, those places are industrialized at the expense of other people. For example, one thing that particularly saddened me was hearing reports – obviously I wasn’t there myself, so I didn’t see it – but I heard reports that when they had the last World Cup in South Africa, they actually bulldozed the land where people were at the fucking very, very bottom of the income scale. If you’re at the bottom of the income scale in South Africa, you fucking KNOW you’re at the bottom of the income scale. That really is the fucking depths, you know what I mean? And they literally forced people off the land that they were living on, and apparently – reportedly – didn’t even re-house them. To me, that just smacks of the kind of inequalities we have right now across the world. That’s a real example of how shitty things can get sometimes. So what I was saying with the title is that clearly, those people – if you take them as the example – are kind of the “opposite” of what the people trying to modernize that site were trying to achieve. It’s almost like a magnet. If you take a magnet, and put another magnet to it, it repels and stays away. That was the whole thing I was trying to achieve – talking about that repellant force. And what happened in South Africa was just one particular story that struck a chord with me, but it applies to everything. For example, around the Amazon Basin, a lot of indigenous peoples are being driven off their land because their environment’s being destroyed by various entities, y’know? And they have nowhere to go. It’s like, “Okay, well, tough shit. You do what you need to do, but you ain’t living here no more.” That to me is the ultimate fucking slap in the face.
Mike: Last fall, you made this statement regarding the title “Utilitarian,” and I quote: “I won’t explain the full meaning of utilitarianism here, because it’s an ethical theory, and as ethical theories go, the depth and debate around it is quite heavy at times. It has a certain ‘morality’ aspect to it, and that isn’t something that drives me. So I also certainly have issues with that.” You then went on to briefly summarize your spin on the word as an uphill struggle against injustice. So here’s a two-part question. One: Why this title at this time in history? And two: could you address what you meant by aspects of morality not driving you? What “issues” might you have?
Barney: I don’t know whether I AM a utilitarian or not, because as I said, there are certain aspects of it I don’t actually agree with. Some of the people that are supporters of the theory have methods and motivations that are the complete polar opposite from me. But I do see a certain parallel – and bear in mind, this is also adapted by people like humanitarians and animal rights promoters – in that one of the tenets of utilitarianism is that good actions make for good consequences. In that respect, I try to live my life by making considerations. If I think that something I’m going to do will have a negative impact on somebody else, I generally won’t do it. But with that, I think, comes a lot of self-doubt. I go through lots of periods of self-doubt, where I think to myself, “Well, in that way of living, what am I achieving? Is it actually achieving anything at all?” And of course, part of the problem is that we’re so impatient as human beings. That’s a very human trait. We have a desire to see instant results. And of course usually, with an ethical lifestyle, you don’t get instant results. They’re usually quite gradual and quite progressive in many ways. You have to have a certain element of patience. So within that time, you’re kind of thinking to yourself, “Well, why don’t I just be like most people, and sort of plow through life regardless, and get on with it?” That creates a real dilemma sometimes. But there IS a conclusion to this whole thing, and that conclusion is: you absolutely MUST persevere. I think a certain percentage of humankind, as we know it, absolutely must do that. If you take that away, you create a vacuum. And that very vacuum can then be filled by the very things that you’re critical of, that you protest against, and that you engage in low-level forms of resistance against. That then gives them the opportunity to exploit people and situations even more, and that is really not a situation that was meant to be, especially considering how unequal the world is at the BEST of times. So that is my whole pledge with the album, really. It’s not a simple homage to utilitarianism; it’s me taking that play on words, and taking certain aspects of it, and running with the ball and seeing the effects that those parallels have in my life and the lives of people I know. Hopefully, that answers question one.
Mike: It sure does.
Barney: Okay, on to question two. I think morality is a really important thing to talk about. I am not a moral person. Yes, I do things that I consider to be the right things, but morality as a concept itself is a complete misnomer. I think it’s actually one of the most dangerous things ever inflicted upon mankind, because it gives people moral high ground. And the real problem with morality is that it almost has a certain desired level of perfection, where if you don’t meet people’s moral watermarks, or reach their moral high ground, then the debate at that point goes beyond just talking backward and forward. If you look at the conflict aspect, it’s moral decisions or moral judgment that drive most of the wars and ultraviolent events in the world. Religion uses morality as a yardstick, and if you don’t meet their moral definitions, then you are almost immediately inferior because of that. So I try and stay away from morality at all points. And I very often find myself almost tripping over myself – I’ll get into areas where I’ll maybe say, “Yeah, it’s morally right to do this, or morally wrong to do that.” And I kind of have to step back, y’know? Because I really think it’s a different thing to consider the RIGHT thing to do. I think it has different preconditions, different conditions, and different results as well.
Mike: I’ve developed something of a stock question, where I ask bands if they can summarize a possible “message” or attitude that may represent them collectively. That’s off the table here, because Napalm Death more or less speaks for itself. I’m interested in going the other way. Do you ever find yourself longing to express yourself more personally, in a more direct way – to use lyrics as a more intimate vehicle?
Barney: I think the simple answer to that is that I already am. A lot of the lyrics on the album are often observations of myself that I can relate to the world. Like I was saying, “Think Tank Trials” is a direct criticism of myself in many ways, in that sometimes I overanalyze things. Some overviews of things don’t require such a complex way of looking, because if you lose the thread, you’ve kind of defeated the object. And that’s just one example. So I utilize lyrics ONLY in a personal sense; I don’t ever shy away from that. I’m quite happy to criticize myself at times. No one’s immune from criticism, and criticism is a healthy thing. It’s part of the human condition. I don’t have a problem with that at all.
Mike: Though I somehow doubt that [album opener] “Errors In The Signals” has anything to do with dating.
Barney: No, no, not at all. It’s more about, well, the “model, normal person.” To put it quite simply, what is normal? Who defines normal? And why do people get so fucking aerated over being “the normal person?” You know? I’ve spent a lot of time over in the States; my ex-girlfriend was from there. And I used to watch Fox News purely for entertainment value; I actually found it quite comedic, how far-fetched it is, how out of reality that station is. And I remember commentators on Fox News sometimes saying, “Well, he’s just a normal guy,” putting SO much emphasis on “the normal guy” or “the normal person.” Or talking about politicians, saying, “He’s just a regular, normal guy.” What the FUCK are you talking about? What do you mean? Tell me what you mean. It makes no sense.
Mike: The more you repeat a sentiment like that, the more embedded it becomes.
Barney: Exactly! And when you step back and really think about it, it just sounds ludicrous. It seems ludicrous. If you consider the diversity of what we’ve evolved into as human beings, the multifaceted aspects of our evolution as human beings… I mean, I’m not trying to be bleak; I’m just talking about people on a simple level. But if you think about it, it really doesn’t add up.
Mike: On another personal note, I’m interested in your nickname. I understand it has drunken origins.
Barney: Yes, it was from my previous days of yore, when my alcohol consumption was a little less controlled. [Laughs]
Mike: Did you quit drinking entirely?
Barney: No, I still drink. I’m a Pilsner person, but the stuff that’s mass-produced, to me, is generally piss. I like something with a nice taste. To me, the whole rock and roll [lifestyle] is a great big myth, and I’ve never paid any heed to that anyway. I had a big problem with drinking in my early days. Actually, it was my mid teens to late teens. I had to give it up. But I started again, because I was very comfortable with it, and found I could control it, rather than it controlling me.
Mike: Back to the music itself – it seems a great deal of metal has grown much heavier and more aggressive over the past decade or so, and Napalm Death is no exception. You’ve kicked things up with the old hardcore punk-driven sound. But I must admit, I also really enjoy the mid-‘90s groove sound on songs like “Greed Killing” and “Breed To Breathe.” Can we ever expect you guys to reincorporate aspects of that sound in the future?
Barney: Well, we do bits and pieces of that. On a personal level, I feel that period is quite well documented, and I liked some of those albums, but I felt that some of them kind of took the edge away from Napalm. I’ve got no problem with experimentation, as long as it doesn’t diminish the core style of the band. I thought that stuff, at points, kind of lost a bit of the momentum of the band, or sacrificed a bit of the general musical momentum of the band. So it was a little tricky for me, that era. But yeah, we’ve still got elements of that, y’know? You can hear it on the new album. It’s always gonna be there in some form or another.
Mike: Do you keep up much with the recent or current international metal scene?
Barney: I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to influence. Most of my stuff’s in the ‘80s, y’know? I’m a bit of a stubborn fucker when it comes to that. I still love old hardcore and early death metal, along with The Swans, My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division – that stuff was in my formative years, and the stuff in your formative years always sticks with you most of all. In recent times, I’ve been off the radar a little bit, I must admit. I’ve heard a few good things, bands like Trap Them and Russian Circles, that I really like. But I’m certainly not eating music up like I did in the ‘80s. It doesn’t have the same spontaneity that it did to me back then. I’m always open to new things, though.
Mike: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Barney: I’ve got some Michael Bolton stuff on my record shelf, stuff that came to me when our band got sold to Columbia Records – let’s not go into THAT again – and I do drag that stuff out sometimes at parties. That’s about it, although that IS pretty embarrassing! [Laughs]
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