With their 15th album, Utilitarian, set to be unleashed this month, Napalm Death show no signs of slowing down.
Richard Holmes caught up with vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway, to talk ethical living, the occupy movement and the joy of sax…
rushonrock: What is your personal highlight of the new album?
Barney Greenway: The one that stands out for me is Everyday Pox. I think it manages in one song – without being all over the place – to capture every aspect of Napalm, whether it’s the more traditional or ‘avant-garde’ sides of the band. And it’s really obtuse-sounding, the chords are really nasty!
rushonrock: Avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn plays sax on that track too. What brought about his involvement?
BG: John has a long association with the band and when we listened to the track in the studio, Shane (Embury, bass) felt that it would really benefit from having some saxophone on there and it made sense. Shane got in touch with him and it was great. I have a lot of time for John Zorn and the way he manages to spread himself around so much music. He doesn’t turn his nose up at anything, he’s not a musical snob and all credit to him. We are very grateful that he could take some time to lay something down for us.
rushonrock: Mitch Harris (guitars) contributes backing vocals to many Napalm songs, but his vocals have a much larger presence on Utilitarian’s The Wolf I Feed. How did this come about?
BG: It was purely by accident. Mitch had written the track both musically and lyrically and as we had done quite a lot of writing in a short space of time towards the end of the recording, I didn’t have time to sit down beforehand and go through it with him. When we’re in that situation, I ask him to lay down a guide vocal so I can see where it’s going and perhaps tweak it in certain places. But when he was laying down the vocals to The Wolf I Feed I just happened to walk into the control room at that point and it just sounded really good, so he sang those parts and I sang the bits in between. In a wider context, that is what is really good about Napalm and what adds to the longevity of the band. We have that kind of spontaneity where we’ll shift something in a particular direction just on a whim. I’m glad we’ve got that because I don’t like regimented ways of doing things in terms of what goes down as a record. What that does these days is make things sound too polished.
rushonrock: Does it annoy you that some people may perceive Napalm Death as a blasting, grindcore band and not appreciate that there are other sides to your music, such as the Swans and Birthday Party influences?
BG: No it doesn’t – I’m a realist and I understand that some people aren’t going to pick up on that. There is so much debate around music and it’s so subjective sometimes that you can’t make everyone jump onboard with every thread of what you are doing, it’s just impossible. Of course I’m going to mention that there is more (to the band) than just the direct influences of fast hardcore, extreme metal and punk, but I don’t think it’s appropriate that I get annoyed that people don’t pick up on that aspect because music is what it means to the listener.When you are starting out a musician you perhaps get a bit bent out of shape when people don’t see your vision, but it’s pointless worrying about it.
rushonrock: Why did you choose utilitarianism as a theme for the new album, and did any events inspire it?
BG: It was purely coincidental that last year we had the emergence of things like the occupy movement when we were recording the album. I could recognise some of my own solidarity with that movement, but it was coincidental how it happened.I was trying to draw a parallel. I wasn’t trying to give a direct homage to utilitarianism, because while I am a bit of an info junkie and I am interested in things like psychology I don’t expect everyone to be! In terms of wordplay and creativity in writing lyrics it’s a good theme: I wanted to use the utilitarian theme that good actions produce good consequences as a parallel to ethical living and the self doubt that comes from that – you wonder whether you are actually making a difference. The conclusion is that we should always persevere because ethical living and objecting to doing certain things is a low level form of resistance and you need to have a certain percentage of people engaged in that sort of stuff. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone is going to do it, but it needs to go on because it keeps authority mechanisms in check.While we have the systems we do – and they are not going anywhere soon – there has to be a counterpoint.
rushonrock: You try to get a message across during your shows and encourage fans to think for themselves – do people engage with you on that level or are they just there for the music?
BG: I always get good feedback. I’ve had several instances where people have said to me, ‘please don’t stop saying this stuff, it’s really important’. One guy came to me and said that he was working for a big corporation and that there hadn’t been a union in his section and the conditions had been quite bad. So he actually initiated union representation for the shop floor and he said that was because of me. Of course, there will be a certain percentage of people who are just into the music because we are about that – I’m not just a person standing on a soapbox. People get from it what they will, I really don’t mind. I don’t expect everyone to agree with what I say, although it would be very nice, because I’m talking about fundamental human rights issues, you could take the politics out of it. I will say that people should think for themselves and to use the eyes and the brain that they were born with, they owe it to themselves to not just accept everything that they are spoon-fed.
rushonrock: You kick off an extensive European tour next month and the band has always put the miles in on the road – after more than two decades as a frontman, are you still enthusiastic about touring?
BG: In the main you have to be because if you’re not you should be asking yourself why. Of course there are days you don’t feel so good, it’s human nature. There might be days you feel a bit under the weather, everyone has them. But if that is your feeling on every day of touring then you have to ask yourself why you are still continuing to do it. Napalm has been such a special band for me and I know it means a lot to quite a few people. I’ve no intention of doing it half arsed, it wouldn’t be right.
rushonrock: Shane Embury has always been involved in numerous side projects, is that something you’d ever want to pursue?
BG: Napalm is kind of enough for me, it’s really self contained so that gives me a lot of opportunities. I work on Napalm every day and I put my mental energy into one basket. Never say never, but I don’t have the motivation to do another band, I think a few years ago I did, but it petered out. I will say that once Napalm finishes, I’ll not do another band, because I don’t think I could match what Napalm means in terms of the special feel of the band, I don’t think I could ever hope to achieve that. Anything else would probably feel a bit second division for me. With the guys in the band… we have our ups and downs but we have become quite unbreakable now and long may it last, so it would be hard to build up that kind of structure again, I wouldn’t want to face that uphill climb again!
Utilitarian by Napalm Death is out on February 27 through Century Media.