Napalm Death are one of the most iconic bands in extreme metal. Originally championed by John Peel, they have both defined the grindcore sound within extreme metal, while constantly pushing at the musical edges of the genre and providing a social commentary on the world they see around them. The new Napalm Death album Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is about to thunder into our consciousness and provide a soundtrack for the coming months as music begins to find its way in our changed world. Louder Than War caught up with Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway, from the band to chat about the new album and all things Napalm Death.
LTW: How have things been for you and the guys in Napalm Death during the pandemic?
Barney: To be honest we all live quite separately from each other. Although I am the only member technically from Birmingham itself. I actually live about as far south as you can get without walking into the sea. I live in Lancing which is a couple of towns down from Brighton. I have seen them a couple of times really since the lockdown. That’s alright, we are not as active as we would be ordinarily, so there is no real need. We can speak by various means should we need too. For me on a personal level, to be honest I haven’t had any problems because first of all I live alone so I have only got myself to answer too. So, there is no problem there. I live simply, I don’t need a lot of stuff. So, I have just made a couple of adjustments, but beyond that it doesn’t feel problematic. Also living on the coast, I am able to take my bike out every morning, at 6/6.30 am, and it’s great. The big emphasis is on mental health which is entirely understandable, and that really helps, and gets you up and running for the day. So, for me it’s not been a problem, but I am for now living alone and of course I entirely appreciate that it is not that way for people with dependents or wider families. I do want to say that, I wouldn’t want to sound as if I was just in my own bubble, and not being mindful of others.
LTW: The new Napalm Death album is full of musical ambition and contrasts, I am thinking here about the full on grindcore of That Curse of Being in Thrall to the post punk of Amoral, and the stunning track A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen, where I could detect something of a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys wall of sound type musical arrangement. Is that musical diversity something the band were reaching for in developing in the music?
Barney: Exactly a wall of sound, yeah. Obviously once we had come out of the digital age a little bit, I think people started realising that this very compressed sound is not conducive to living, breathing proper music. I was always very sceptical, not that Napalm particularly ever had that anyway. We are an extreme band but that doesn’t mean to say that the music can’t breathe for itself. The breadth of recording is not restricted because you are an extreme band, and the breadth of recording offers you more possibilities for being even more extreme. I think sometimes and certainly in the sort of genre that we are in; it can be that people can make very considered music, but the production is very uniform. I think both should be equally living, breathing, vibrant things. So, production is definitely a part of it. Luckily Russ (Russell) who we work with completely understands that; and every album that we go to him with, bearing in mind that we have done something like 10 albums with him now, he understands within himself that every album is a step forward sound wise.
LTW: The production just feels to have opened up the sound in the album. It’s just stunning.
Barney: Thank you.
LTW: One of the bonus tracks, is a Sonic Youth cover, how did that choice come about?
Barney: The thing is again that sometimes in the particular part of the extreme music scene that we’re in, loosely speaking, it can be a little bit blinkered sometimes. There can be one of two understandings of it. It can be very punk-sounding guitars with very fast runs, or comparatively metallic-sounding guitars with raging drums. There’s so much more to it than that, you know, our palette for music is huge. It goes: Killing Joke, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine, Bauhaus, The Birthday Party; I could go on and on and on. We take something from so much stuff and then we give it a Napalm twist. To be honest, even stuff like the Cocteau Twins, which people might be really surprised at, but Mitch and Shane were huge fans of the Cocteau Twins, and so you can hear things in the music and you think maybe I can use that, if I kind of twist it, make it more abrasive. There’s always possibilities, so to us actually, the Sonic Youth cover is not that much of a step in a strange direction, because, like Thurston Moore’s guitars, what he did with the guitars was pretty revolutionary along with Geordie from Killing Joke. Again Mitch and Shane were heavily influenced by that going back to the early/mid-nineties when we were doing that stuff, so it was one of the things where, Shane for years was going: “Oh yeah, I wanna do White Kross”, and then every time it came round to recording it was like: “Shit we forgot” you know. So this time we thought, “right, we’ve remembered, let’s do it” so we did and it turned out okay; it’s pretty much a one to one version, except for the fact that we extended the end beat, the kind of outro part so it’s really like, sludgy and nasty-sounding at the end.
LTW: I am struck by what you said about the wide palette that Napalm Death work with and your mention of the Cocteau Twins. I was lucky enough to see them, and just a wonderful band.
Barney: Sure, I think Shane and Mitch did and I think there was another band they used to love as well called Lush. Do you remember them? Shane was absolutely nuts about them.
LTW: Lyrically you have talked about the treatment and perception of the other as being a central theme of the album, how did that theme speak to you personally?
Barney: Well, the thing is, I’ve always been of the opinion that Napalm is an ideas band you know, but obviously walking in equal step with the music, but I think it’s important to make the ideas relatable to the stuff that’s current. If the idea is to at least have people chew the ideas over; then if they can’t make a connection with what’s going on around them, then they’re just not gonna have the same connection with that you know. So basically, looking at things like dehumanisation and discrimination, well it’s always been there, we shouldn’t kid ourselves, and I think people know that; it goes without saying, but I think in recent times, because of the rise in protectionism, popularism and nationalism and all that sort of stuff, it’s risen far more above the surface than we could have ever expected.
When governments are using the kind of language that dehumanises people, that’s…you could argue it hasn’t really visibly been that way for quite a few years. I mean there’s one obvious candidate across the Atlantic, but it’s also in Europe as well. There were many different groups of people I was referring to, but for the sake of interviews I’ve been using two examples: so, one is people escaping from dangerous situations, poverty, starvation – refugees and migrants if you want to call them that. That’s one example, but I mean the language that’s been used against what are effectively fellow human beings, I just find it, there’s not even a word to describe it really, because if you say ‘despicable’, then it kind of puts…I find it difficult really to describe what I feel about it. And then within Europe, as I was talking about, you have some governments who, in terms of LGBTQ+ people, talking about somehow that their… because obviously their makeup is slightly different, that somehow that is… could pollute the makeup of the rest of the population, now I mean, this is really, really, batshit crazy stuff, that I think people underestimate sometimes.
I’m always hesitant to compare things to fascism, because if you do that, you kind of put everything on the same level and that can be problematic in itself, but at the same time, you just have to remember that Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, people like that used this kind of dehumanisation of people, slowly chipping away, you know, but in the end it led to mass murder and people say to me when we talk about this stuff: “Oh, it could never happen again: it’s just a few ignorant people”, but it’s not you know, cos when it disseminates into the rest of the population it leads to violence against peoples and there’s a very real possibility that it could lead down some similar paths to what we had in the 1930s, so I wanted to illustrate that with this album as it was current. For Napalm Death we always try to be… not just to outline the idea but to be the antithesis and say no – not acceptable, this is fellow human beings that we’re talking about here. There’s no reason for it, it’s not fucking acceptable.
LTW: And music has the power to speak up and to unify?
Barney: Yeah, it does. You know it doesn’t have to be that if it doesn’t want to, as one of the…. I would suggest, the last bastions of freedom, but I think, if it chooses to it can and it should, you know what I mean?
LTW: That central theme also seems to be expressed in the striking album cover art. How was that put together?
Barney: Sure; and even that has been problematic in itself because, you know, obviously by the visual of it that you’ve seen there’s been….not too many people, but there’s been a certain group of people who’ve said: “Oh well that’s just…sort of…furthering animal cruelty” you know and it’s like….no, it’s not. It’s not at all. I’d be the last person to encourage animal cruelty. It’s almost a choreographed piece of visual art, that is meant to be expressive; an animal wasn’t harmed to achieve this piece of work. I would never endorse that, so I just want to make that point, but…so the whole…the thrust of it really is, if you think about it in conjunction with what we’ve just been talking about, obviously the dove on the cover is the sort of universally recognised symbol of peace and various other things to do with that, and so we kind of wanted to represent the violation of peace…of peace and tolerance, and obviously the gloved hand, with the sterile hand I think speaks for itself, but obviously, although the dove has been really, completely violated, you also see …which is the kind of optimistic, positive side….if you look on the chest, there’s the red E which is the equality symbol, which is on the chest of the dove, so that’s basically to say that despite this really, really grim situation, there’s always something shining through in the end. You can take optimism sometimes from the worst situations, because you can take that optimism, you can throw that optimism out there you know.
LTW: Napalm Death live is such an exciting experience and so in the moment for the band and the audience. Have you missed that feeling, and are you beginning to think about plans for gigs when that becomes possible again?
Barney: You couldn’t fail but to miss it, if you are enthusiastic about your art. We have got some gigs booked in November in the Czech Republic. When we go to the Czech Republic, we play like sometimes 10 or 15 dates between the Czech Republic and Slovakia alone. So, it’s a good place for us. The promotor we have worked with for a long time, and he’s just a really good guy. He’s come up with 3 or 4 dates. There have been other gigs there already and they have gone okay, with no rising infections. So, by the time November comes, assuming things stay as they are with the borders and the access and things like that, I think it’s quite a good start for us. I will be looking to if the gigs do happen to flick the old switch and go.
LTW: I remember seeing Napalm Death at Hammerfest in North Wales in 2017, when after the second song it became apparent that someone was injured in the audience, and you told everyone you would be leaving the stage so the medics could help. You and the bands’ care and respect for your audience was really apparent. Can you describe the bands connection with your fans?
Barney: Yes absolutely. I just look at it as band life is just a microcosm of the rest of life outside, and if you saw somebody on the street that was in trouble, you would surely do your best to assist them. It’s the same playing gigs. I am sure there are probably some bands out there that would just kind of see something was going on and then just hope that the venue people would deal with it. But of course, if you can speed that process up. The people in the gig are generally focusing on what you are doing, so if you can tell them first and foremost, then it’s going to be quicker. As it turned out it was that the guy had an epileptic seizure. I found out because we followed what was going on afterwards. Obviously, something like that can be very tricky, it is very time sensitive. We didn’t know that right at the moment. I will always stop gigs if there is anything untoward amongst the people there. It’s just the thing you do, for me at least.
LTW: My partner shared with me a Facebook post she saw, that said “The greatest healing will take place when live music comes back.” That feels like a theme of this interview, the power of music. For you personally what is the power of music?
Barney: My formative years as just a person in general and my whole life, I can separate it down into musical chapters. It is incredibly important, absolutely one hundred per cent. The only side note I would make to it, is that people in general are important and I wouldn’t want to partake in it if there was a very credible risk to the people in the process. I think that goes for the wider world. My mum and dad have got quite chronic health conditions and the idea that some people are putting out there, that says I’m alright, and there is a large percentage of people that are alright, so why shouldn’t the people that are not alright or potentially are not alright just stay out of the way. I mean really, is that what we have come too. It’s completely correct that quote, but obviously music still has to go in tandem with everything else. Because music is not solely in and of itself in this context. I think it’s a part of everything.
You can find Napalm Death here
All questions by Gareth Allen, with thanks to Anne Robertson for assistance with the transcription. You can find Gareth’s author profile here.
Photo courtesy of Century Media