Interview: Barney Greenway of NAPALM DEATH
Interview/Words by Brady Irwin
An extreme metal institution for three decades plus, Napalm Death have never, lyrically or musically, lost sight of their original intent, nor their connection to the social fabric, at a time when divisiveness and inequity is more apparent than ever. Throes of Joy in The Jaws of Defeatism is no different, blistering single ‘Logic Ravaged by Brute Force’ a reminder that the band are here and savage as ever, but with a deft conscience for the people.
True to this form, the genuine and down-to-earth frontman, Barney Greenway, greets me with a jovial ‘Brady! Hey buddy, how are you going man?’ In an affable and earnest tone. I feel like he’s just offered me up a stool next to him at the pub, and he seems sincere.
Having opened the floor for the interview, and being such a titular, titanic figurehead in my mind, Barney’s every-man nature allows for a natural, conversational flow. It’s my socially-prescribed, knee-jerk response as a typical Australian male, to suppress the knot of excitement and trepidation with casual, blokey acknowledgement and deflection.
Yeah, cheers mate! I’m alright. How about yourself, and the rest of the Napalm Death?
‘Yeah, great!’ he replies, with pep and vigour. ‘Look, fifty percent of the bands’ work is kind of on hold at the moment. The gigging side of it, obviously. But for me, I’ve been really, really quite busy. I’ve used the time to, well – I’ve done seven weeks (!) of interviews now, seven weeks of about three days a week. So, it’s quite a significant amount, but it all contributes to the band, you know?’
‘A lot of interviews lately, people have been asking ‘Could you guys postpone it? The album (Throes of Joy In The Jaws of Defeatism), interviews, everything like that?’. And there’s no way we’re going to do that. As far as we’re concerned, it’s not as if people have dropped off a cliff in terms of listening to music or wanting to create music either. Okay, so touring isn't really happening. Well, that’s not to say people are just going to conveniently forget about the album, right?’
‘You could argue, actually, that unfortunately with a lot of other bands postponing due to circumstances, which is their choice and one that I respect wholly, it’s a time for us to actually be able to have space to have the album as our focal point.’
It sounds like you’re choosing this relative downtime to look at it as a chance to focus on the album?
‘Absolutely. In fact, it’s rare for us to be able to focus one hundred percent on a new release. We’re not some cynical commercial enterprise, by any means. Odds are, though, if you can do it and your album’s out there instead of on hold, it’s only going to do your band favours.’
And how has the band been kept as a unit, through the album release and, well, you know – all this going on at present?
‘Yeah, well we interact a lot through messaging and emails and stuff, and we have been for a while anyway. I’m on the South Coast, the other guys are in Birmingham still, which is a good oh, 190 miles from me? So we don’t actually get to see each other that much, but we make it work.’
‘Also, with not many resources coming in and the distance and cost to be able to traverse those distances, we’ve obviously had to streamline things a bit more. We’ve been doing a lot more via online/email for a while now. If you guys have been following what we’ve done, like our videos for example, even those are filmed in different locales depending on where we are right now.’
It sounds like your modus operandi might have helped transition you guys through the current climate and keep moving forward?
‘That’s exactly it. I mean, what’s the alternative at this point? You know, I mean, this is the way things are right now, so we are lucky in a lot of respects in that we do have this album coming out. So it is a focus point for the band. From the outside, I could sit here and like, really complain about it, but I'm not going to do that.’
‘There are a lot more heinous situations out there with people that are far less fortunate than ourselves, and like, I don't want to sit here and fucking complain when actually my life is, by comparison, not as bad as many others.’
I guess we can't talk about the state of things or even music in 2020, without recognizing the impact of Coronavirus. Apologies if that’s a fatiguing question to be answering, but for a band as political as yourselves there sure seems a lot of context to have stirred up around COVID itself as an entity, and I’m sure many are interested in your perspective.
No, it’s fine - I mean, you know, in terms of the virus itself as an being, that wouldn't be something that we can tangibly, visibly have on our radar most of the time, apart from its effects and the health behaviours that need to go with it.’
‘But there is a kind of a secondary aspect to it in that the way that, after this, people are being dealt with very differently by the government. It’s posed the question to a lot of people as to whether governments are worth anything at all, you know?’
‘I think the people were really, even before the Coronavirus, really struggling, life in general, both financially and the resulting things that can come from that. These people have to be helped; it's no good just kind of pretending that people aren't there, you know. It shows what a government's worth – will they really go out on a limb and look after these people? Because, if governments can't look after people when they are in need, then then what's the point?’
‘What's the point of government, if it's meant for that? If it's worth anything, it should be a social safety net for everybody. I just…I see signs already that it’s not been dealt with, sufficiently and appropriately. And I would hope that that would remedy itself, but I don't have high hopes at this point. I'll be honest, given the conservative government that we have here? Hmmm.’
A strained pause.
It’s interesting, Barney. For me, as a listener of your music, to absorb such politically and socially conscious lyrics, hearing you speak and your obvious community-minded focus. It’s interesting to hear and read this, in the context of your band making such aggressive and intense music for so long. There’s definitely an interesting duality there.
‘Well that’s it mate – the band is a paradox. That’s just it; we exist as a paradox.’
‘Yeah. To be honest, we have on one hand, as you pointed out, extremely ferocious and confrontational sounds, but the lyrics in terms of the endgame and the intention, are the opposite.’
‘It’s peaceful humanity. That's the kind of world that I believe, that Napalm Death believes, that we all want to live in. And that's where nobody's left behind. You're not. I’m not. I mean, everybody, everybody's given peace and dignity, and able to live. That’s the whole point of living, and of a society.’
‘So, whenever we make an album, we're always responsive and reactive to the times. We're worried, you know, so we try not to just make politically generic albums - general points that could be applicable to anytime. We are very responsive to the world around us, because we want the ideas to translate; we want them hopefully to be to be considered by people in their current context. And the social issues predating and worsening during coronavirus is no different.’
Considering change itself - within the last album (Apex Predator… Easy Meat) and the current single, ‘Logic Ravaged by Brute Force’, people have noted a sense of slight aesthetic change as well. The extremity is definitely there, but other influences appear strongly. Do you feel that perhaps these changes in the times reflect on these shifts musically, or is there another factor?
‘Well, the thing is, the Napalm palette of influence is huge. Huge. It really is. For us, extremity in music and in context in general sort of bind together. This scene is not just one or two things, you know. It's not just really fast drums. Yeah, we might have really crazy metal guitars, or really fast drums with really crazy hardcore punk guitars, but there's so much more to it than that, and those influences didn't appear overnight in Napalm Death, they've been there since way right back, first album, even.’
‘So, if anything, it's more of a honing of that songwriting, in using those influences, hopefully in better ways, in different ways. So, therefore, things do sometimes come to the fore to the I that might not have done before, you know, but actually, we’ve also always been a step forward. But we are also not reinventing the wheel from a Napalm Death perspective, because with the raft of influences we've got, we feel we can work with those in different ways.’
‘We don't feel the need to completely turn things upside down, either. Because at the end of the day, we are in our roots, a fast and furious band. Yeah, that is what we are. But then we also have all this other stuff that surrounds it. And we're confident in what we do, you know, we're not afraid to do stuff, as long as it's confrontational, abrasive and extreme. Whatever we do, we give it a Napalm twist.’
To have been able to maintain that ferocity and longevity – longer than a fair portion of your listener base may have been alive – is commendable. What are some of the ways in which Napalm Death have been able to maintain that energy and enthusiasm? Given that the band, and even the feel of the conversation we’re having right now, just feels as energetic as ever.
‘I'm sure you know the expression, it's like riding a bike. Doing something in life enough times, and it just becomes part of the muscle memory or whatever. It's the same thing with Napalm, you know?’
‘I put it like this - I joined Napalm Death, to be Napalm Death. I was not concerned with establishing my name as a musician or something else. I joined Napalm Death, because I wanted to join Napalm. I loved both the absolute, untethered beast that the music was, you know, and I also loved it again, for what was being done socially. For me, it was the humanity of the lyrics, you know, the critique that the band is doing about things that are out there in the world at any particular time. And I just took the baton and ran with it, so for me, a diluted version of Napalm Death or other stuff? It's just not viable.’
It sounds like you and the band still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm left for what you do.
Yeah man, for as long as we can. We can be enthusiastic about gigs for as long as we can be enthusiastic and think that we have creative things to offer. When we do albums, then then we'll continue to. If it ever comes to the point where we do run out of steam in either of those aspects then there's an argument to cite just leaving, you know? Finish on a high, and just leave it alone. But we haven't got to that point yet. And also something else, as well, is that sometimes bands that have been around for a long time, and kind of talk themselves into an early grave. It's like, ‘Oh, we've been around for all this time’ and because of that they kind of, they… they age themselves. Convincing themselves that, and it shouldn't be that way.’
‘Whatever age you are: If you feel you can do something, then just do it. If you still have the ideas, if you still have the enthusiasm and the fire in your guts, you know, just do it. There’s nothing stopping you.’
Highly motivational words from one of the most unstoppable forces in music.
'Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism' is out now on Century Media Records / Sony Music Australia.