Interview with Napalm Death vocalist Barney

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Despite the trauma of the past two years, it’s been a busy time for Birmingham’s Napalm Death. The band has bookended the global pandemic with two key releases 2020’s Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism (reviewed here) and 2022’s Resentment Is Always Seismic (reviewed here) while also fitting in a UK tour. On the final date of that jaunt (reviewed here) the Midlands Rocks managed to speak to the band’s irrepressible vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway.

As an artist how has it been surviving the lockdown?

As an “artist” I took myself out of it. I know it sounds corny, but I existed as a human being. So, I concentrated on how can I get through this and survive this which, compared to the experience of some people with dependents and stuff like that, I had it easy, I only had myself to answer to. I live very simply so it wasn’t really a problem for me whilst for other people it really was an issue. Speaking as an artist now, we had an album coming out towards the start of the lockdowns and then came out during it so there was something to occupy the time. During the lockdown I must have done 200 interviews and I thought ‘why not?’, might as well crack on with that.

Was it difficult not being able to jump on a stage? Were you worried you might lose the “knack” for playing live?

I don’t worry about that. I’m a bit que sera sera when it comes to stuff like that. I’ll always try to do my best when I’m with Napalm Death, the absolute best that I can, so I just try to place my trust in that really. The only thing I was slightly worried about was my anatomy and voice; will I still be able to do it, will I still have the muscle memory but as it turns out I just walked straight back into it. There were no real issues.

As we’re coming out of lockdown your new EP is released at just the right time…

I absolutely promise people there’s no manufacturing of the situation, it has just kind of happened that way.

Why did you release an EP rather than a full-length?

Back in the day at underground gigs, you’d turn up and bands would have new releases available, it’d be a total surprise, and we wanted to keep it low key like that, just put it out. The tracks were left over from the Throes sessions and in our opinion they’re not inferior tracks, they just didn’t fit in with the flow of what we were doing at the time.

Resentment has very striking artwork. I understand you and bassist Shane Embury were involved in its production. What kinds of artists influenced you? When I look at it, I think of Francis Bacon.

I would say so, yes, but on the musical side, things like Big Black. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen their Headache sleeve? It’s basically a guy who’s shot himself in the head, it was one of those early examples of real shock art. Swans have always been a big influence on us, and Crass. But Francis Bacon would be a good one, I’d never actually thought about that one.

Sometimes you look at an album and the music is great but the cover is naff and to me it’s a 360 thing; you’ve got to do your very best with the art as you would do with the music and to playing gigs. You’ve got to make it the very best you can. If the artwork’s not right, we won’t pass it off. We work with the artist Brody, we’re lucky to work with him because he’s great, and we spend days and days and days getting it right so when you look at it, it just pokes you in the eyes.

And as a music fan what does album art mean to you?

It means a lot. I think it means a lot to any person who collects albums, or CD’s, I think CD’s get a bad rap, but I think they can encapsulate things, but great artwork rounds off the experience. Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades is an immense album and the cover with them wearing capes in a quarry in London just makes the whole thing. It looks mean as fuck.

There are two covers on the new EP. Bad Brains didn’t surprise me but Slab! did.

In response I’d say that I’m surprised that you’re surprised because of the breadth of influence in Napalm. We’ve never tried to hide the amount of stuff we’re influenced by. Slab! was a big influence, especially for Shane who loved them back in the day, and if you like “industrial” music and you scratch beneath the surface then Slab! were there. We’ve talked for years about covering one of their songs and we finally did. So, for us the touchstone has got to be the same as if we’re making our own music; it’s got to be abrasive, extreme.

Do you hope these cover versions will act as a gateway for people to explore other types of music?

Yes, and it has. Many, many times people have come up to us and said they’ve never even thought about these bands, they’d never have gotten into these bands if Napalm hadn’t shown them and that feels really great. I’m not here to say I’m the great educator or anything like that but it is nice to find that you’ve nudged someone in that direction.

Here’s the thing with Napalm; we often get called just a metal band, and I get that people have to categorise music in certain ways but that’s such a narrow description of Napalm Death. Me personally, I wouldn’t call us a metal band because the influence base for us is really wide, punk and hardcore, noise, post-rock, all that stuff influences us, and I could go on. We’re a wide palette and I love that because it keeps things interesting for us.

Napalm Death has always been in evolution but at certain points of your career I’d say that goes into overdrive. I’d say at Harmony Corruption, Fear, Emptiness, Despair, and now this new EP have been moments of great creativity. Why?

I think that’s all subjective. If I spoke to another person, they’d list three different albums so it’s the perception of the listener. One thing I would say is that over the years we’ve got better at bringing in fresh ideas and melding them together so it sounds like a cohesive whole rather than a mish mash of parts and we’re just looking to do something that’s quirky and unique I suppose. People say why don’t you make From Enslavement To Obliteration again but what’s the point in just replicating that again? There’s no merit in that. We could do that with our hands tied behind our backs, we’re never going to lose the extremity of what that was but we’re going to move things forward, we have to. If we want to exist as a band beyond the 40 years were at now because if you stagnate you die.

Your fan base is very open minded but by evolving your sound are you worried you might leave them behind?

I don’t worry because you can only control so much. As an artist you have to be very selfish. You have to know what you want to do, and you have to live and die by your decisions and anything that follows that. You’re never going to please everybody as that old cliché goes. What I will say is that the last 5 or 6 albums, as far as I have seen, right across the board have been positively received.

Crowds in bigger cities like London and Birmingham can be a bit spoiled gig wise. How does it feel playing smaller venues in places like Wolverton?

I don’t really separate things, in the end people are people and wherever they live they deserve a night of our time. This is our 8th gig out of 8 and it doesn’t matter where we play, we’re still gonna go on and apply ourselves and make it the best we can. If you’re going to a small town and think ‘I’ll dial it in tonight’, fuck that. You shouldn’t take the piss out of people; you’ve got to come here and give it everything.

So how has the tour been?

It’s been so good; I think we’re going to do a mixture of these smaller and big towns at the end of the year. Obviously, Covid is still about, and the numbers have gone up significantly, and I’m of the mind that you have to protect the vulnerable, but it seems like these gigs are fairly safe, or as safe as they can be for now, so what else can you do? Our tour manager caught Covid so I’m doing tour managing, merch and driving so it’s an extra thing for me to take on.

You are known as a veracious reader. What books have you brought on tour?

I’ve got a biography of Khrushchev I’ve been reading for ages. I’m really slow with it but I want to read it meticulously and carefully because it’s really detailed. I’m a bit of an amateur Soviet historian. That’s what I’d like to do when Napalm ends, teach Soviet history.

Finally, you’ve never shied away from politics. How do you view the world now compared with when you first joined Napalm?

I would argue with the world ‘politics’ because what I deal with is humanity. Humanity transcends politics. The world has always been a shit place, but it’s always been a really great place, it’s a balance to the two and we could do without the shit stuff. I know it sounds obvious but the world’s a complex place. I desire a world where people get on and they don’t make trouble for anyone else and they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or they don’t have to worry about being harassed by the government, or anyone else for that matter.