Extreme metal legends Napalm Death have become the most unlikely of national treasures. Their music, for all its brutality has a depth and meaning that speaks to people. They’ve endured to become a revered part of the alternative scene with new work always anticipated with excitement. Vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway chatted to Gary Trueman about why he thinks they’ve got such a strong following and why the internet was a catalyst for helping to promote a DIY ethic.
Napalm Death have become a fairly regular feature over the years at Download. Do you find that surprising in any way?
“I find it in equal parts quite amazing but also kind of puzzling because we’re so much to the Nth degree with the noise factor compared to most of the bands. It makes me laugh that whenever we play there’s so many people that seem to be interested. It blows my mind a little bit. But it’s good to see people are interested in us to that extent.”
Your music isn’t just extreme for the sake of it though, you have points you want to put across in a creative way.
“Yes, it’s about the music and the ideas. The music is extreme, confrontational and abrupt but it’s also progressive. So it does really noisy things but in different ways. That’s what we try to do. We don’t see the point in making the same album two or three times. That’s just too easy. There’s a whole spectrum of sound out there, a whole spectrum of ways to write music, so long as it’s extreme and abrasive, we’ll spin off in different directions.”
That abrasiveness makes people listen and wonder what it is and wonder what you’re singing about. So they check out the songs in more depth and listening to the lyrics.
“That’s what we have lyric sheets for, because it’s not that easy with what we do.”
Do you think fans are switched on to a wider range of music than previous generations? Are you picking up fans that maybe you might not expect to?
“Possibly, I think it’s always been the case. I don’t think people are as pigeon holed as they’re made out to be in terms of music. I don’t think it’s an age thing either. It’s that some people’s inquisitives minds open up a lot sooner and they find pleasure in not listening to the same thing over and over. I think it’s a very natural thing as well. You cannot deny when a piece of music speaks to you. You can try to push it away but if it says something to you then you’re there.”
Do you think it’s easier to listen to and find music these days compared with a couple of decades or so ago?
“Inevitably it’s going to be a bit easier. I think people, certainly the ones I mixed with back in the day pre-internet, were so into it they would have gone to the ends of the earth to get stuff anyway. But it’s obvious if you’ve got accessibility right there in your front room at the push of a button, of course you’re going to have more scope.”
Has the Napalm Death writing process changed at all over the years?
“It hasn’t really. Shane will write the music. Then he’ll go in with Danny and they’ll just play it. They’ll often record it as well. So there’s not a lot of messing around. I need to write at home with no one to disturb me. I have to have that focus.”
When you tour you’ll play a longer set than you would at a festival like Download. How do you decide what stays and what gets pulled?
“We just throw the ideas around. It’s not rocket science in that respect. I think set lists are subjective. Some people might say that doesn’t work. But it works for me so it might well work for however many people will come to a particular show. The good thing about being in Napalm in terms of doing set lists, the stuff is so manic generally that you can’t go wrong. You’re never going to lose thrust.”
You’ve been handed plenty to write about with recent global events haven’t you?
“Well we’re never short of things to write about. It’s always the human element for us. What can we do to try to give that perspective that humanity matters above all else.”
So why are we destroying ourselves?
“That’s the whole point. Napalm tries to put a different spin on things. Unfortunately we have a very unbalanced world where some people seem to matter more than others, and those that have the privilege can be very destructive.”
It’s like a global Animal Farm.
“Well it is. It’s a great big social experiment in itself.”
Are we going to see something break and see a societal uprising?
“Well it already is in certain ways. If you’re talking about en masse it could well happen. Let’s just hope it’s going in the direction of liberation rather than suppression. There are some whiffs of uprisings out there that can be, in my opinion, in the negative.”
Do you think the music industry is learning anything about itself from the wider world?
“Well it does seem the at a lot more bands are turned on to doing it themselves. And what is within that is that you don’t have to listen to an industry mechanic trying to drive you band in a certain direction. All this conforming to a check list, is it so many minutes, does it have this many choruses – no it doesn’t. If you write that way naturally then that’s fine. But to squeeze yourself into a particular space like that, just for the sake of it, doesn’t work.”
A band can go a long way these days without needing outside help can’t it?
“This is my point. When you say ‘industry’ you mean the major labels and institutions.”
Are those institutions worried?
“I think they started to get worried when the internet became a thing. With people doing music DIY. They’ve kind of reaped what they sowed a little bit because I would suggest there was a lot of exploitation of artists. There was very damaging exploitation. There was bound to be a tipping point.”
You’re at Download, so are there any bands playing you’d like to check out if you had the time?
“To be honest I like coming to this festival. Would the bands here be ones I’d go out and see naturally? Probably not, and I mean that with no disrespect. It’s just not the kind of thing I listen to.”
Do you like the vibe?
“Yes. Anything that’s inclusive and friendly where people look out for each other. That’s a good thing. That’s the thing I like at these festivals, they are models of tolerance.”
These events are generally open to almost all ages and yet gigs in venues tend to be either 18+ or 14+ at best. Shouldn’t we be opening more live music up to younger people than at present?
“I don’t think there’s any need for that. I think they should always be all ages. I don’t see why a younger person should be deprived of art. I’ve never got my head round the States where you’ve got to be over 21 because there’s alcohol in the venue. Just don’t serve people who are not 21.”
Have you got a festival survival tip for our readers?
“I would say if you’re there to experience friendship and the bands and everything, take it easy on the grog. I remember going to festivals back in the day and being absolutely obliterated by lunch time. It just wasn’t fun. You don’t want to end up standing in a piss smelling puddle oblivious of everything that’s going on.”
Interview and photos by Gary Trueman