INTERVIEW WITH MARK “BARNEY” GREENWAY
BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GOBINDER JHITTA
While there’s no single broad stroke catch-all salve to calm the dumpster fire that is 2020, news of a new Napalm Death album is one thing that should help warm the cockles of the hearts of extreme music fans. It’ll also provide new, expansive, and exciting sounds to accompany the unnecessary home improvement projects and countless strolls around the neighborhood that pandemic inspired isolation has begat.
On September 18th, the Birmingham legends’ 16th album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, will drop like a pulse bomb, shaking fans old and new from the doldrums of expectation with a conglomeration of quick shot grinders (“Fuck the Factoid,” title track), creepy post-punk wall climbers (“Backlash Just Because,” “Contagion”), heaving industrial noise (“Invigorating Clutch,” “A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen”), hardcore punk amped up with a metal injection (“That Curse of Being in Thrall”), and not so cloaked salutes to their own heroes (“Joie De Ne Pas Vivre”).
Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is another crowning achievement from the one band that continues to defy the notion that with age inevitably comes mellowing and that the best stuff is the early stuff. We caught up with vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway after his morning bike ride along the seaside to discuss relentless un-relentlessness, treating fellow human beings as human beings, and “doing the Swans.”
It’s become a common question and it’s almost as boring as asking about band history and influences, but how has the plague impacted Napalm Death?
Well, you’re familiar with Napalm Death, so you know that our schedule is fairly relentless, but it’s distinctly become un-relentless in the last six months (laughs). But you know what? It’s fine. For me personally, I live very simply anyway. I don’t need a lot of stuff around me. On the financial side of things, I had to make a few adjustments to an already simple life, and it hasn’t really been a problem for me. I live right by the coast, more or less a two minute bicycle ride from the beach, so I go out every morning at 6-6:30 and cycle as near or as far as I need and it sets me up for the day and feels good. In that respect, it’s not been a problem for me, but obviously for people with dependants and families, I know it’s been really difficult. Just different circumstances, I suppose. Where it is problematic is that Napalm Death is very active, so going from an extensive European tour with Eyehategod back in February and March to nothing without warning has been strange. The entire time I’ve been in the band, it’s been so busy that I haven’t had time to do things necessary for myself that I’ve wanted to. I have now, and in that sense it’s been quite positive.
Didn’t you have a North American tour canceled on you?
Yeah, it was supposed to be in April with Tombs, Aborted, and The Locust, and it was going to be great. And I think Roddy Bottum’s (Faith No More keyboardist) band was playing, and they’re really kooky, so I was looking forward to it. Typical, one of the tours you’re really looking forward to falls apart to no fault of anybody’s. The first thing that actually canceled was the Decibel Metal and Beer Festival with the Utopia Banished split set that we’ll never, ever do again (laughs). It was all there one minute and gone the next, but to be honest I sleep soundly at night. I don’t worry about it, I don’t lose sleep over it because in the end what will be will be. Again, that’s not to underplay other people’s circumstances that are markedly more difficult than mine.
Was the new record’s release pushed forward or back because of all this?
It was actually finished before this disease was even widely known outside of the origin hotspots. The whole thing was done in January/February. I know a lot of bands that would postpone their albums, but for us we were like, “Why would we?” We’ve waited a little while for it to come out, let’s put it out. The way I see it is that it’s coming out in September and whenever touring starts again people will know we’re touring that album. Hopefully, it won’t have escaped their attention that we have an album out (laughs). We’re not that calculating, but there will be a lot of stuff that won’t be out and ours will be out. It might help us in a roundabout way.
The most recent promo pics are just the three of you. Does that mean Shane [Embury, bass] pretty much wrote all the new music?
Shane wrote all the music and I, like usual, wrote 99 percent of the lyrics. It’s actually not that complicated and there’s nothing sinister going on. Most people know Mitch [Harris, guitar] hasn’t played with us live for five years, but the thing is we offered him to write some material for the album. He did have a couple bits and pieces, but we let him decide what he wanted to do. Mitch came to the conclusion that for the pressure involved and all the rest of it, he didn’t want to go through with it and I totally respect that. When he didn’t want to do it, we still asked him if he wanted to come and play and he did. John just did bits and pieces as well. The core of the band is me, Shane, and Danny [Herrera, drums]. John [Cooke] is a live guitarist, though he does a bit more than that and is highly valued, but he’s not a core band member who’s involved in the creative process or any of that stuff. The thing with Mitch is that there’s no problem at all, he’s just not in the position to play with us right now. The door is always open, but realistically, it’s probably not going to happen so we cut our cloth accordingly as a band.
“IT’S ACTUALLY NOT THAT COMPLICATED AND THERE’S NOTHING SINISTER GOING ON.”
Is Mitch living in the UK or US these days?
He’s in Las Vegas where he grew up. He reached a point with his family situation that there were a few things that had him a bit uncomfortable with the family dynamic and where he was location-wise wasn’t working out. He also had some family stuff in his wider family going on, and I’m guessing he took an overview of the situation and decided it would be better and easier for him and his family to relocate to the States.
It’s interesting to listen to the guitar work on the new album with the knowledge that Shane wrote it all as some of the playing, especially the spidery post-punk stuff, seems more upfront and stands out as more melodically intricate.
The basic thing is that after 16 albums we need to move forward. There’s no sense in replicating ourselves. It’d be cheating ourselves and a significant portion of followers of the band. It’s always a couple of steps for us and sometimes it’s hard to micro-analyze this stuff because spontaneity has always been a key word for us. The way we write isn’t calculated to fit a particular demographic—and I fucking hate that phrase—or any of that bullshit. It’s just us moving a couple of steps forward. I think also wrapped up in that is the chemistry between the writers is pretty strong and following on from that is the amalgamation of the styles—the metal and hardcore punk guitars with fast drums, the post-punk stuff, noise rock, goth, whatever thing you want to get into. As we’ve grown as songwriters, we’ve improved our amalgamation of those various things. Rather than a few albums ago when you’d be able to go “that song is that style and this song is that style,” things are a bit more infused. As long as the approach and the attack is extreme, aggressive, abrasive, and confrontational then we can go anywhere. And the stuff you’re referring to, the Killing Joke, Gang of Four, Joy Division, post-punk stuff, I’m all about it. I can stretch my vocals out a bit, we can do all kinds of stuff, and it’s still going to be right in your face.
“SPONTANEITY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A KEY WORD FOR US. THE WAY WE WRITE ISN’T CALCULATED TO FIT A PARTICULAR DEMOGRAPHIC”
I always picture your songwriting process as you’re sitting around listening to old records like The Young Gods, and you decide to do something in that style, but give it a Napalm bent.
It’s funny you should mention The Young Gods because that’s exactly the point. Me and Shane are always twittering on about that. We’ll be sitting around somewhere and something will come on, and I’ll be like, “Fucking hell, Shane, listen to that!” even though we’ve heard it a million times. And he’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve got an idea!” (laughs) So, for the French titled track on the album, “Joie De Ne Pas Vivre,” Shane came to me and said he had a Young Gods sounding track. He didn’t call it anything else, he just said he had a Young Gods track that was all bass and no guitars and I was already throbbing with excitement (laughs). I thought to myself, if we’re going to do an homage, we’re going to do it fucking properly. I’m going to do Young Gods style vocals and it’s going to have a French title because that’s what they do and that’s what we did, unashamedly. If we can take something and give it a Napalm twist, it’s not an absolute cop-out, but you can see where it’s coming from if you’re aware of that stuff.
“THE ALBUM TITLE IS AN OXYMORON AS IT’S BOTH A POSITIVE AND A NEGATIVE IN AN ACTIVE SENTENCE.”
It’s a little more complex than that (laughs). It’s kind of a two tier thing, really. The album title is an oxymoron as it’s both a positive and a negative in an active sentence. I’m a nerd when it comes to that kind of stuff and I’ve always used wordplay and those kinds of language techniques because I’m fucking pretentious like that, y’know? (laughs) Visually speaking, I envisioned a steel trap. If you were ever caught in a steel trap, it would be distressing to say the least and you’d be absolutely clamoring to get out of the thing. But I wanted to turn that around a little bit. The Throes of Joy part is me saying that I’m not going to be held in this thing, I’m getting out and leaving this situation. The title itself has another kind of level of meaning. For me, it’s always important to write with things that are current to have a direct link. You need to give the people who listen to the band and buy the album something they can be familiar with. I always use this example: 20 and 30 years ago when all the Scandinavian Discharge style bands were coming out, a significant percentage of them would put a nuclear bomb explosion on their album covers, and it’s like “great…” I mean, I’m as anti-war as the next person, but it’s already been said in the same way many times and people go cold on it.
“THE FACT THAT GOVERNMENTS ARE ENGAGING IN THIS POPULIST, NATIONALIST RHETORIC IS FUCKING SHAMEFUL.”
I feel it’s important to tie it to things that are current, and stuff cropped up that I felt needed to be expressed, like the dehumanization of and discrimination against people. That sort of thing is nothing new, but now you have governments around the world who are engaging in it. Not only that, but in some cases are constructing policies to further dehumanize people and further discriminate against them. The two examples I use for that are, first, people escaping desperate living situations, whether it be poverty, starvation, or threatening violence during warfare. And I think that the language that’s used and the way people are treated—your fellow human beings—I find it despicable. The fact that governments are engaging in this populist, nationalist rhetoric is fucking shameful. Another example is that you have LGBTQ2+ people and governments around the world formulating policies against them. There’s a country in Europe that has “anti-gay zones” and there are governments around the world that propagate the idea that somehow the biological makeup of LGBTQ2+ people is somehow a pollutant to the rest of the population. This stuff is fucking beyond insane, but the point is that it goes to another level because when governments have engaged in that stuff in the past it has had disastrous consequences. You only have to think back to the 1930s. These are exactly the tactics that Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, etc. all used and it led to mass murder. Those are the ideas I’m exposing and putting on the table, and Napalm Death in itself is quite simply the antithesis of that. We are, in our capacity, are standing up and saying, “No. These are our fellow human beings and it’s not acceptable, whichever way you slice it.”
Do you have nicknames for the different vocalization styles you employ, the death metal growling, the Japanese hardcore screams, and so on?
As we’ve touched upon, we call them by band names. So, if you do the Swans, that’s one thing. If you do the Rob Mahoney from Siege, that’s another thing. If you do the Gauze, that’s another thing. When Shane does those little bass breaks, we always call those the Carlson, after Scott from Repulsion. We’ve got all these little pet names for stuff, and it’s better and more fun that way.
When it comes time to hammer out a set list, do you find yourselves shying away from the two guitar material because you’ve been a single guitar band for so long now?
No, not at all. I don’t think you should shy away from anything. Anything can be adapted to play live, and I’ve always been of the opinion that if you make an album you should be able, within reason, to play everything off it. Whenever we do a set list, I take an overview of every album and usually I’ll come up with the list and send it to Shane and then we toss it back and forth. We try and cover every era of Napalm Death because we understand that for the people who follow the band, there’s so much diversity to who likes which years and which albums. You can’t please everybody all the time, but we at least try and give a fair spread of everything and I think it’s only right to do that.
“THIS GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN ABSOLUTELY FUCKING USELESS IN DEALING WITH A COVID RESPONSE, BUT I COULD HAVE TOLD YOU THAT WHEN THE PEOPLE VOTED FOR THEM”
Has the focus and controversy about the UK and Brexit been shifted because of what’s going on with the coronavirus?
This government has been absolutely fucking useless in dealing with a COVID response, but I could have told you that when the people voted for them, but we won’t get into that (laughs). But it has taken focus away from Brexit, which has sat in the background for quite a long time. It’s starting to come back into the conversation if you watch the news channels, but it’s not what it was. There’s another idea I could go into, and I can give my very truncated view of it. I’ve not always been a fan of the European Union in the sense that when Spain, Portugal, and Greece were having hard times and people were out on the streets and going hungry, there was a penalization tactic by the EU that penalized them when they were on their knees. That’s not the way forward. In my view, the European Union should be a social enterprise. If you’re going to have a League of Nations like that and people are going to join it, then you have to watch out for everybody, and I think that’s a positive thing in as much as nationhood to me doesn’t mean anything. I’m not patriotic, I could care less if the borders came down tomorrow, but I liked the EU as an exercise in solidarity. Therefore, this whole nationalistic, island states, taking back control and all that load of cobblers is not what I’m about. I find it small minded and small everything. This whole reassertion of identity and national identity politics I could fucking do without.