Barney Greenway: “Napalm Death play really f*cking nasty, horrible music… but it’s all about love, peace and humanity”

Napalm Death vocalist Barney Greenway reflects on his career of all-out brutality – and looks ahead to the next wave of terror.

Barney Greenway: “Napalm Death play really f*cking nasty, horrible music… but it’s all about love, peace and humanity”
Olly Thomas

Despite describing himself as an “archetypal Brummie”, Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway has been happily living on the South Coast for five years. Life in a small Sussex town suits him: his neighbours are hippies, the beach is a short stroll away, and he can see the beautiful South Downs from his bedroom window.

For anyone familiar with the music his band, Napalm Death, make – or anyone who’s even heard their name – this tranquil scene might not chime with expectations. However, Barney is keen to encourage a more rounded view.

“The thing is, you’ve got to look at Napalm Death as a complete paradox,” he explains. “It is particularly fucking nasty music, really horrible and played at speed. Yet the ethos and the lyrics are the complete antithesis of that. They’re about love, peace and humanity, and understanding what humanity really means in the purest sense.”

This sense of ethics and thoughtfulness extends to the way Barney chooses to live his life. He won’t put his money in banks with links to arms manufacturers or Big Pharma, strives for energy efficiency in his house and car, and even campaigned to stop his old school being turned into an academy. This is a man who cares a lot.

“Human beings are what matters to me; sentient beings are what matters to me. Everything that lives on this earth, basically,” he asserts, adding cryptically, “and whatever might be beyond.”

When Barney replaced Lee Dorrian as Napalm Death’s vocalist in 1989, the band had existed in some form for eight years, despite a frequency of line-up changes that meant none of their founding members even made it as far as side B of their debut album, 1987’s epochal Scum. By contrast, the period in which Barney has fronted the band has been mostly stable since 1991, with the sad exception of the departure and subsequent death of guitarist Jesse Pintado, and a brief period when the singer quit and effectively traded places with Extreme Noise Terror man Phil Vane, now also tragically deceased.

After an unprecedented wait of five years, a new Napalm album – their 16th of original material, and the 14th to feature Barney’s distinctive growl – is due this September. But before that, we meet the man behind the noise…

What were you like as a kid?
“I grew up reading trade union newspapers from four or five years old, so my grasp of the English language was pretty good. At school, I was fascinated by geology, history and the sciences. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I do regret not pursuing the academic side of things more vigorously. That’s not to say I would reduce my time with Napalm Death. But I’d like to do something academically again some day, and not just to get more qualifications.”

Just for the joy of learning?
“Yeah. I’m kind of an amateur Soviet historian. I’ve always immersed myself in that stuff, reading books by various authors to get a spread of perspective. Either that or evolutionary biology, which is a big thing to take on, but I really would love to study it at some point.”

Do you remember when you first saw Napalm Death as a punter?
“Yeah, it was 1985, I think. The Mermaid in Birmingham used to have all-dayers with bands like Napalm, Heresy, Concrete Sox, Skum Dribblurzzz, Intense Degree, Chaos UK, Atavistic, Deviated Instinct – there’s a million bands I could probably name! Napalm was a three-piece, Micky [Harris] on drums, Justin [Broadrick] from Godflesh on guitar and Nik Bullen on bass and vocals. I could see back then, as an outsider, that there was something special about them that you couldn’t always put your finger on. The raw energy blew me away.”

When they asked you to join the band, did that come out of the blue?
“I was big friends with Micky, so I knew there were tensions in the band, but it wasn’t my place to get involved. There’d been a Japanese tour and things went a bit south. I went down to the phone box to phone Micky – there were no mobile phones back then and I couldn’t use my mum and dad’s phone as they would have gone mad! He told me that I was in the band on the phone and I was so excited that I rode my BMX straight into a post box on the way home! They were my favourite band. I was in love with the ferocity of the music, which at the time was unparalleled, and the ethos of the band and their lyrics were completely along the same lines as my thinking.”

One of the first things you did when you joined was the Grindcrusher tour, with Morbid Angel, Carcass and Bolt Thrower supporting. Was that like being thrown in at the deep end?
“It was. It was the first and last gig I ever played pissed, that first gig that I did with Napalm Death in Manchester. I was so hammered onstage. I remember Micky, who was a bit of a live wire, got so frustrated that he threw his drumstick, and it accidentally hit Jesse square in the face. After that, my thing was always that if you’re gonna do a gig, the people there deserve the best that you can give them. And if being pissed is detrimental to that, don’t fucking do it. It’s not on, when kids are spending money. I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The first album that you did with Napalm, 1990’s Harmony Corruption, was a bit of a change musically. Did they prepare you for that when you joined?
“I loved Napalm Death and I didn’t really want it to depart from what it was. I was very fucking nervous about that. Sure, death metal was really fucking buoyant at the time, and the Florida scene was happening, but Napalm wasn’t a part of that. I know Micky really wanted to go to Florida to record. And of course, fucking hell, for somebody from Birmingham that had never really gone anywhere before, going to Florida for three weeks was like a holiday experience. But it was a tricky period. We get lumped in with death metal, but it’s too narrow a description if you look at all the reference points for the band. These days, I’m more into the traditional fast, and the strange hardcore stuff that’s out there; a lot of noise-rock, and you could say that’s been the case since [1992 album] Utopia Banished.”

Some people have an idea of the band that’s based around the first couple of albums. Do you still get people who expect you to only play seconds-long songs?
“Yeah, but there’s two things to say about that, really. I think you can draw a direct line between what we’re doing now and the first Napalm Death album. There are people who’d like us to do another album of 20-second songs, but what’s the point? We’ve already done that. There are a million other bands doing it out there, some in my opinion doing it very well, and other bands not so well. We feel like we could do that with our fucking hands tied behind our back. What I want from the band is to be noisy as fuck. I don’t want Napalm Death to be polished. The next album will probably take a lot of people aback to some degree. If nobody likes it because it’s not like [1988 second album] From Enslavement To Obliteration, then so be it.”

Did you get people taking that position in the mid-to-late ‘90s when you were doing some slightly different stuff?
“Yeah, definitely, 100 per cent. It even threw a spanner amongst the band members. It really did, it caused a lot of friction in the band, certainly with me. But I look back at that period, and some of the things that I didn’t get at the time, I do now. I think you can do whatever you want with your band, but if you lose the vibrancy, if you lose the rawness, the abrasion, you lose that power. It’s no good being experimental but shaving all the edges off your band, particularly one like us.”

It felt like you had a creative rebirth around 2000’s Enemy Of The Music Business. Is that fair to say?
“Yeah, it’s quite funny, that. It’s the only time I would say we were a little bit calculated about what we were doing. I phoned Shane [Embury, bassist since 1987] and said, ‘I know we’ve done a lot of different stuff, but I think we’re running out of steam. We need to do a fucking ripper!’ And he agreed. We didn’t really think anything of it beyond that, and then everybody was jumping up and down about it. When we listened to the album, we thought, ‘Yeah, that does the job.’ But we didn’t think of it like a rebirth, like jumping out of the womb again!”

And you won a Kerrang! Award around that time as well, for the Spirit Of Independence…
“Yeah, we do win awards sometimes, but we never did it to get pats on the back. My band could be your band. I was in the right place at the right time, and happened to be able to do something quite well, that’s as far as I would go with it. I stepped into a band that already had a fucking buzz around it, no question. If I was to turn around and tell you that once I joined the band then it became a success, that would be utter bollocks. I loved that Napalm Death could be liked by the indie crowd. But Napalm stands up in many different scenes. We’ve played raves, for fuck’s sake! And I fucking love that. This thing about being called a metal band, I can’t stand it sometimes. I’m not saying I lose sleep over it, but it just bugs you sometimes, when you know there’s so much more going on. Playing with techno DJs or at gabba festivals, to me that’s great. I’d hate to be one-dimensional with the band. I’d hate to have to fit into a cliché. The one thing I really don’t like is conforming to this kind of tough-guy metal thing, like everything’s got to be clenched fists and done with a scowl on your face.”

Lots of genres can be like that, though, not just metal…
“Yeah, of course, I shouldn’t pin it all on just one genre. That stuff always feels really fake to me though. The tough guy thing is not for me."

As one of the most visible bands in the heavy music scene to be left-leaning and anti-fascist, have you encountered much hostility because of things you’ve said?
“Oh, God… Certainly it is accurate, in some respects, to call us politically left-leaning. Having said that, I also subscribe to the Crass idea, where it’s also completely apolitical. Left and right is divide and rule, the classic thing; it just keeps people fighting amongst each other as a distraction from what’s really being done on a governmental level. But certainly fascism existed in the sense of the racist, sexist, homophobic bullyboy tactics that were in danger at times of swamping the general scene. Not necessarily so much here in the UK, with that you’d have to go back another 10 or 20 years, probably, to when the National Front were extremely active, but more so in the States.

“The first two tours of the U.S. we did were fucking miserable, if I’m honest, because we were coming into conflict every other gig, even in places where you might think they’d be a bit more tolerant. It was everywhere. It was almost trendy to be in an Aryan gang. They would either wanna fuck with the band, or they would wanna fuck with the fans, because they would wanna take over the audience. And it wasn’t acceptable, I just wasn’t fucking having it. We needed to stand up and do something about it, and that led to a lot of conflict and some really fucking dangerous situations. But I just couldn’t let it lie. It’s not about me, it’s about the people that are there, that shouldn’t be getting their fucking heads punched in.”

Napalm have had opportunities to do unusual things, like when you played the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill in collaboration with a ceramics artist…
“Yeah, Keith Harrison, who’s also from the Black Country. It was a representation of urban decay, and I thought it was fucking great. I wanna do more stuff like that. Hopefully he’ll come up with something else – or if anybody’s reading this and wants to work with us, get in touch! Here’s the thing: I’m very much into that ‘art-wanker’ side of things! I can take the piss, but I love it.”

What sort of people turned up to that?
“It was a real mixture of people. Of course, some of the regular Napalm Death fans came, but there were some academics there, and a lot of chin-stroking – it was brilliant! And it kicked off in there. It kind of malfunctioned a little bit. They had to have security, because it was quite a dangerous installation, and they freaked out because the kids ripped up the safety barriers and it turned quite chaotic. This kid was wandering around and started kicking this huge 20-foot thing with molten clay inside it. I think we played more or less a two-hour set, with oscillators on the PA, so it was like that kind of propeller effect. I love that noise/industrial kind of thing – I’d love to do more unconventional stuff like that in all honesty.”

It’s striking how many ex-members of Napalm have gone on to do wildly different things musically: doom, blues rock, industrial, and even some dubstep-style stuff. Have you ever been tempted to have a side project to do something totally distinct from Napalm?
“Absolutely. But it’s just a case of getting the time to do something like that. Shane has got a million fucking bands on the go, but he’s very fertile in that respect. I’m very industrious as a person, but I can’t turn my mind to another band like that. I’m not motivated to do that. So it would be more about people coming to me, rather than me taking the initiative. But I would, I’d do something completely different to Napalm, and I’d be really fucking happy about it, even if it sold minus 10 copies.”

What can you tell us about the new album?
“I’ve definitely done some stuff on this album vocally that I’ve never done to this degree before. We’re heading into the noise-rock territory, loosely. Swans, My Bloody Valentine, The Young Gods – we’re heading more down that path. But there’s some more traditional, fast, chaotic stuff as well. Again, as long as it’s aggressive, confrontational, abrasive, even when it’s less full-pelt, it’s always Napalm Death.”

Napalm Death's new album Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is out September 18 via Century Media Records.

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