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At The Extremities: Barney Greenway Of Napalm Death Interviewed
Dan Franklin , January 15th, 2015 10:21

This month sees the release of Napalm Death's 16th album, Apex Predator - Easy Meat. Dan Franklin sits down with lead singer Mark 'Barney' Greenway to pick over the remains of late capitalism, chew on the band's "queasy" new sound and explore the outlying regions of extremity

The year has begun with the world more polarised than ever between the rich and the poor. Without missing a (blast)beat, Napalm Death are punching through humanity's injustices with the coruscating Apex Predator − Easy Meat, the latest assault in a stunning run of 'late-period' albums that began with Enemy Of The Music Business in 2000.

I've been really enjoying the new album.

Barney Greenway: It's strange, because as well versed in this as we are, with every album we're always uncertain – are people going to like this? Of course we don't deliberately mull on whether it will be well-received because if you did that you'd be a fucking pop band, an X Factor band. We've always had a free and easy attitude about it: we do what we do and if it sticks then it sticks, if it don't, it don't. When [previous album] Utilitarian was so well-received I did think to myself: "Fuck, how's this one going to go, will people be as enthused?" But it seems as if it's even topped it.

Do you think that being uncomfortable and uncertain is a good place to be when you're creating something?

BG: Definitely. It's the same when you get that feeling anywhere else in life – it's part of the process. You just have to soldier through it. It was a long session. Not just in the studio - from the creative part, the structuring part, to the end of recording the album. We didn't do it in a conventional way - we did it over three or four periods during a year. It got done in the end.

This album has a strong concept behind it, in terms of the title at least.

BG: The funny thing is after every release I say we're done with conceptual albums. If you think that the last three, four or five – they've all been very conceptual. I say before I start an album, "I'm not going to do something conceptual, I want it to be a loose string," and it never fucking works out. It always ends up concept-driven.

There was something about the title that struck me – that phrase 'easy meat'. It reminded me of a news story a few years ago, when Jack Straw was describing the victims of gangs of rapists who were abusing young girls. The phrase he used was 'easy meat'. There's something about the phrase that is sickening and toxic.

BG: It wasn't inspired by that, but you could associate it with that. Where it comes from is: if you've followed Napalm's albums and titles down the years you'll notice that we use a lot of references to evolution. Quite a lot of us in the bands are big Darwinists. And me, certainly. I find the whole process of evolution fucking incredible. It really is. That might sound a bit obvious, but I appreciate the intricacies of it: the need to survive.

The point is we're using that language again – the Apex Predator of course is that which sits at the top of the food chain. And 'easy meat' represents the lowest stratum. What it relates to in this context is that it goes back to a very specific event. Before I explain I should say that usually when I try to come up with an album title it can be quite a process of trial and error. I'll think about something and it's not good enough, not strong enough, in terms of transmitting what I want to get across to people. But this time I was – although I didn't have the title at that point – I knew what I was going to write about, because with the Rana Plaza tragedy, in Bangladesh a couple of years ago, as soon as that happened I knew I had to do something with it. I just felt the need to put it on the table and say, this is happening in the so-called humane, civilised world.

There were a number of things about it: one, that the coverage of it, compared to other disasters, was peanuts, and secondly, it just illustrates the way that some people's lives are almost considered cheaper. That's not to say that all of us look at it that way, but there is still a general imbalance there. Some people's lives are cheaper than others. The whole thing behind that [incident] was exploitation of workers, and that they were basically not people. The fact that they knew the building was under serious risk of collapse and yet they still sent workers back under duress is fucking disgusting. And all these major clothing companies, the textile companies that had a stake in that place, with their mealy-mouthed response afterwards. Again, this is an indication that it's all tokenism, crocodile tears, a token pain to some massively inflated profits from some fund that will last five minutes and not solve the long-term problem. So there were all these things tied in with it, and more. I wanted to develop it from there.

Then came the idea to talk about not only that specific incident but the clothing industry in general, then onto the technology industry, and the way that we have been conditioned to expect that our food must be cheap. In the end, somebody else pays for it. You might not, but somebody does. And they're paying with a lot more than money, they're paying with their livelihoods, their lives. I was trying to expand it out really. There are various off-shoots - there's not only the manufacturing and consumption side, but also the conditions that people live in, so I went into the way that people's lives are controlled even [down to] where they live, through slum landlords. There is a track which directly references that. Then I also went on to something that is not exclusive to India but happens in other places − the caste system − which India continues, although there are people who are trying to break it. It's something that should not exist in a humane world; people are born to be restricted to minimum healthcare or no healthcare, only to do certain jobs, in some case shovelling shit after other people. There's lots to dig into.

For all the years Napalm's been going, now that we've hit late capitalism – or peak capitalism – it seems like your message is as sharp as ever, if not sharper. Do you find that motivating, because you can see it so clearly now?

BG: I have to. I just feel the need to do something. The thing is, people sometimes accuse me of preaching, but I don't really. I put stuff on the table and I have very strong views about certain things. I'm never backwards in coming forwards, I always say what I need to say. That's not me telling people how to live their lives, because that whole Rana Plaza thing has come and gone now. You never hear anything about it. I think after the anniversary I didn't see anything, whereas with other things that have happened, the anniversaries of certain things are [seen as more significant]. I wanted to critique the whole industry of consumption. We are all consumers. I'm no different to anybody else. I do try and make buying choices that are a bit more considered and a bit more ethical, and all the rest of it. Again, I'm not trying to beat people with a stick because I think we can't blame ourselves for it, because it's the companies that set the agenda. They always set trends, so they have to change first. And they can, because these companies are running on vastly inflated profits, their shareholders do very nicely thank you very much, and I think it's about time that was paid back into making sure that the people who do the manufacturing have a decent existence.

I don't want this to appear a flippant question, but populist awareness of this is growing, isn't it? If you take Russell Brand, for example, he's bringing this to a wider audience.

BG: He's been criticised a lot, especially by the right-wing press, as you'd expect I suppose. And I guess that's the way it goes. But that's a particularly clever tactic. You can take the piss out of Russell Brand as much as you want, but the reason they're really trying to put the silencers on people [like him] is because they are genuinely concerned that someone like him can connect with some people and really, really turn their perceptions upside down. They say people who like him are unintelligent, but the point is that [perceptions of] 'intelligence' can equate to elitism. People say to me, your band's really intelligent, but that's not the point. It's no good for me to make word salad that people can't make any sense of, because I actually want to make it understood. Of course there's a creative variety – you can come in from various angles, to make it creative, but you can't isolate people. You can't make it so dense that you can't understand it, because what's the point? We're still a band, we have to be creative and also get the message across. There's quite a balance to achieve there. Hopefully we achieve it. You have to keep on keeping on, because this stuff's not going to go away until there's a radical change. As far as I'm concerned, whoever needs to come in and fucking rattle the chains a little bit, so be it.

I've seen you speak in the past about the ambient versus the more abrasive side of Napalm's sound. Do you think on this new album that they have coalesced more seamlessly than before?

BG: I believe so. We've been going that way for a few albums, but as you say it's blending a little more now. Maybe a few albums ago it would be correct to say we were a little bit wary of it, because we thought it might sound silly to have this really ambient stuff in the fast parts. But then we tried a couple of things and we were thinking there might be something to this. Then I started doing more with my vocals. I was also a bit worried about that because the one thing about Napalm, sonically, is that it has to be extreme. I don't stick to many rules but I think it has to be extreme. If it's not, then it's not going to get the effect. So it's always the case of being able to do that stuff, the − for want of a better word − ethereal vocals, and still make it a real force to the guts. I think we've achieved that. I really do.

I agree. Particularly on the title track and 'Slum Landlord'.

BG: There's another point to that as well. You can do some really quite interesting things with vocals, but sounds blend on records and if the guitars are more queasy-sounding that can also spill over onto the vocals, so you get an extra edge there. A lot of the old bands − Killing Joke, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain − they sounded quite queasy at times and that's because these bands had chemistry, they knew how to mix their sounds to get a certain feeling across.

The title track in particular - there's no guitar, it's just bass and Shane [Embury, bassist] throwing a lot of stuff around and recording it. Vocally what I wanted to do with that was take Public Image Ltd-era John Lydon and multiply it by ten. He always had a really good way of spitting his vocals out, and that's what I wanted to do. And I did it. That's the first take in the studio, no pissing about.

Do you think the band's versatility has always been underplayed?

BG: Perhaps. But you know what? I don't try and convince people. By that I mean I don't go to them and say, "Look at our fucking band - what you're saying is not correct." I like some things to filter out naturally. If it gets there in the end then so be it, but we'll always continue the way we are. And if people pick up on it, they do, and if they don't, they don't. I will say, in the last few years we are − under our own steam, and on our own terms − selling more albums and CDs than we ever have. And we get this coverage but even the regular metal magazines don't do a great deal on us compared to other bands. But so be it, I don't lose sleep over that stuff. What floats, floats.

It's always seemed that the band has been responsive to other musical things going on at the time. In the mid-90s, around Diatribes, I saw you supporting Machine Head. And at the same time when grindcore became more popular again with Nasum and Pig Destroyer you upped your game. As opposed to being just a pillar, the band has been able to be morph.

BG: We've been able to do other things and that's good. It gets us across to people who might not have entertained listening to us. We can present the music and we can present the ideals. Of course, let's not pretend that the stuff I have to say and the music we do goes down well with everybody - you get detractors, as with anything in life. Hey ho, so be it. We're versatile, and we're also lucky that there are people in bands who are way more mainstream than us who really like Napalm and sometimes give us a helping hand. These are people who've been friends maybe who weren't in bands, and who went on to do something themselves.

Napalm Death has always resonated in pop culture, and in art actually, in a way that many bands don't.

BG: I like that. It's very difficult to achieve an all-encompassing thing. I loved what we did in Bexhill in Sussex with the structure ['Bustleholme' with artist Keith Harrison, in which the band played live aiming to destroy a ceramic sculpture of tiles through built-in speakers]. It was all a bit improv and it didn't quite explode into a fountain of ceramics as it should, but it did some weird things. And there were some kids in there who kicked off and started to try and tear it down. But that's great because it was random improv, spontaneous. I was laughing. The security guys were worried but I didn't give a shit.

I like venturing into those areas. That's what I like about Psychic TV and Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth and stuff like that - it's so angular and unpredictable that it could go anywhere. I mean, what's Genesis P-Orridge doing now? I think a girl pop band, of course in a sex change capacity. You just never know what they're going to do next. I'm not going to say that Napalm is going to venture musically like that, because our touchstone is extremity, but I like that multifaceted feel to something.

Thinking back to when you did TFI Friday, it never felt like anyone was ever laughing at you. Everyone respected the intensity, and you had a sense of humour about it.

BG: Of course. You make music to appeal to yourself and other people. But I also like the annoyance factor. That's why we still do our best to make things really abrasive, because there's a certain percentage of people who it's going to annoy the fuck out of. In the same way that a Chris Rea album does, only on the other end of the spectrum: his unintentionally so, ours intentionally. I like that annoyance factor. Bands like Swans, especially their early stuff. Fuck me. They're monotonous and repetitive in a good way but in the end you're like, I have to fucking turn this off. I love the band but if I'm at home and doing stuff I can only listen to it for so long before I have to turn it off.

I was watching an interview with the band around the time of Harmony Corruption and even back then you said that it couldn't get any more extreme. That was 25 years ago. You've mentioned that relationship with extremity several times today - how has it developed?

BG: It's a byword for me, it's the hinge to everything we do. I'll tell you something, and I really mean this, I fell into Napalm Death really. It was like someone was opening a door and I was leaning on the other side and fell in. I never intended to do this. I had a band before this [Benediction] that was alright, they've gone on and they're still around. In terms of Napalm it was the right place at the right time, it wasn't engineered. Before I did this I was working in the car industry in Birmingham. I never intended to do it, but I was quite happy to pick up the mantle when I did. If Napalm finished tomorrow and it looked like it was heading in a similar direction but didn't have the same impact to it, I'd lose interest. Extremity is everything for me in making music. I get a total kick out of it. I wouldn't be happy doing a band that just mirrored other bands. You listen to compilation CDs and some of the bands… "Fucking hell, I've heard that a million times before." And that's not to be critical of the people who do it - if that's what floats their boat and that keeps them satisfied, more power to their elbows. But psychologically, having been in a band like this, I need a little bit more than that now, creatively. I need something that really digs down beneath the musical psyche. I need it to be extreme to have that sound so you go, "Fuck me!"

That persistence is interesting because a couple of your contemporaries from back then have reformed, Carcass being one, Godflesh another. When you see that happening does it give you a sense of legacy? How do you respond to that, having been here the whole time?

BG: We've seen a whole scene come and go. Almost the whole scene has been flipped on its head since we came. The thing is − and you might think this is a bit of a cop-out, but it's really the truth − I don't pass judgement on other bands. There are certain things that they might do that I wouldn't do, but I don't pass judgement because I'm not in their shoes. Carcass felt the need to come back. Good for them: they made a really good album. Same with Godflesh, who I fucking love. Knowing Justin and Benny [of Godflesh], lovely people, I'm so happy that it seems they're back on the path to where they can be comfortable with themselves. Because I don't think it was too comfortable for them towards the end when they were last around. So good for those guys. If they reform and there are positive results out of it, I guess the determining factor being that they make a good album, that it's got that drive and it's got that bite, then they've done what they needed to do and that's all good by me.

Thinking ahead, when you put an album out do you look to how the music might develop or do you pause and do the cycle and come back to it? Can you see the path of development?

BG: I can't see one right now but it will happen when we apply ourselves, which we always do. There's no danger of us not doing that. Something will happen, I know that. This album was not pre-planned. We didn't have a checklist of what's got to be there, it's not like that. Our chemistry is such that we just bounce off each other and the results come from that. Our influences are responsible for that as well. We listen to Swans, Killing Joke, Throbbing Gristle… there are bands that some of us like and others don't, but when you get us together we know our onions. We know what we want. We know how to emulate stuff, not directly copy, but craft it into our sound. I think we're quite adept at that. I can't sit here and tell you that Napalm Death is 100% original because that would be bullshit, of course it isn't. No band is completely original. No band that walks this earth is completely original. So we amalgamate everything and we put our own icing on the top.

Is there anything that's recently emerged that has turned your head?

BG: I haven't had a chance to listen to much. The one thing I would like to give a mention to is my friend's band in Japan. They're called Turtle Island. They actually opened the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury. It's like an orchestra with some weird shit going on. Definitely check it out.

I'd love to see the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury invite you, Carcass and other extreme bands he championed, to play. I feel like it would be appropriate to invite that section of his taste in bands.

BG: I think of it like this: we were one of John Peel's favourite bands, but he's not here now and they've got to make their own minds up. Is his daughter involved? I think one of the family is involved. Fine − whatever happens, happens. I wouldn't personally jump up and down about that, because I don't take things for granted and I know we don't have a divine right to anything. I'm very relaxed like that.

Back to what we first discussed about the political fuel to Napalm's Fire. Do you think a lot of bands in the heavy music scene particularly have struggled to recapture that political edge? Did it die out with the late 90s and a more introverted perspective?

BG: It depends how you look at it. I would argue whether it is necessarily 'political'. Because when it becomes political it can sometimes become very stiff and a little bit regimented. I'm not just reeling off a manifesto. Our main concern is not about politics, because politics can be as stupid and mindless as anything else. It can be a token set of rules and regulations. Napalm's not that. I couldn't deny that I'm a left-leaning person - I am, I always have been and I probably always will be - but the main essence for me is humanitarianism. I don't mean that in the sense that governments adopt it to claim their humane credentials - to me it's about the core of understanding humanity and understanding that there are many things out there that will dehumanise people. Religion is one, politics is another actually, to a greater or lesser extent, and there are many other things. I'd like to literally sweep those things out of the way and take people back to what it means to be a human being, to understand the person or people that are standing in front of you. And to understand that some people's lives are not cheaper than others, to go back to the album title. To understand that to go the lengths that some people are prepared to go to, to get ahead, some of the things they are prepared to do to other human beings - it's not acceptable.

Does Napalm Death represent a freedom from those constraints?

BG: I think so, in our own small way. Don't get me wrong, I'm not naive. I know we're living in a society. I mean, society itself is a bullshit concept really, because it puts people in a hierarchy. It is, if you really want to strip it back. Napalm Death is not going to punch through that circle, but at least while we're in it we can make a fucking noise about it and put stuff on the table and say, have a think about this, let's look at this. That's what we can do right now. And in our own small way we are succeeding, because there are people who tell us so. I don't know really how to put it beyond that.

Apex Predator – Easy Meat is released 26 January through Century Media