Napalm Death display the truth like a chunk of spoiled meat

After a while, you get used to the hoarse vocals of death metal, the grating vocals of black metal, and the crazy speed and aggressive guitar sounds of extreme metal. Aside from the artistic result, our ears and body can actually enjoy the various sound effects that can make a layman cringe. That’s not really the case with Napalm Death, a band that, despite a long career, keeps on releasing albums that prove an ordeal to dedicated fans and beginners alike. This is the result of constant self-challenging, evolution and studio experimentations, meant to push the limits of extreme music. It’s not only about speed, but about a wider sound spectrum as well, from the vocals to the choice of notes and frequencies.

When you add this desire to systematically disturb the listener to lyrics than denounce the behavior of powerful people, it’s easy to see a classic causal link – in-your-face music for a committed message. And yet, the main goal of the band is simply to make music they like and, at their own level, to make a contribution to a less unfair world.

On the occasion of the release of Napalm Death’s latest record, entitled Apex Predator – Easy Meat, the always witty Mark “Barney” Greenway took stock for us on what exactly makes the essence of the band.

« The one thing I really think is very limiting is that people can consider the musical spectrum as something that’s purely a comfortable thing […] But why not use the whole spectrum? Why not use the notes that really fuck with people’s heads? »

Radio Metal: The album is called Apex Predator – Easy Meat and is obviously, with the cover artwork, a critique of our way of consumption in modern society. Can you develop the symbolic of all this?

Mark « Barney » Greenway (vocals): Yeah, not only is it a comment on that consumption and disposal culture, it’s also more of a personalized critique of the way that some of the work forces in the world are treated. The “apex predator” is meant, in that context, to represent the bosses and the companies that use particularly exploitive work practices. In some cases they’re using intimidation and threats of murder, they also control the accommodations, sometimes, in which people live, they also control the rents, they control the utilities… They always have control on that person’s life so that they can keep him under duress. And the “easy meat”, in that context, is the very people who are subject to those conditions. So you have at the top of the pyramid the “apex predator” and you have the “easy meat” right at the bottom, so these are two polar opposites of that particular theme.

Do you on a personal level try to be careful of your own consumption or even on a band level of how you music is produced materially, how your CDs are printed, etc.?

Yeah, yeah, I do. I mean, I certainly try on a personal level. I make certain buying choices in my life and I’m not one of these people who’s brainwashed by adverts that try to convinced me that I need the next tablet or this or that. That just doesn’t work with me because I know that these stuffs are going to be obsolete probably in months anyway. So yeah, I do make choices. It’s a little more difficult with the band because of course you don’t always have direct control over things you produce but Century Media here and also our management are very aware of doing the process via the best possible way that we can. So it’s definitely a concern for us. So bands might not make it a concern for themselves but for me it’s just important. I’m not trying to put ourselves on a pedestal. I’m not saying that we’re more pure than any other band, if you like. It’s not about that. It’s about somebody making a difference.

The artwork of the album is pretty disturbing since it is very realistic. Was it your intention? Is this a way for you to say that all the violence and ugliness that we can hear through the music is, in fact, very real?

Yeah, I mean, as I always say, that’s the paradox: the very violent music and the very peaceful lyrics. But yeah, visually speaking the artwork is very aggressive, I agree. And you know, that’s a real image! That’s not lifted from any image manipulation. It’s literally a tray of offal from, I guess, a meat production plant and he kept it in his cellar for three weeks and then photographed it after. And he said he had to put a mask on to photograph it because the smell was so insanely bad! [Laughs]

In the press release, while talking about the lyrics of the album, you mentioned an event that shocked you: the collapsing of a building in Bangladesh. The building was already unsafe and yet they built some extra storage and workshop on top, not thinking about the safety of the people that were working there. Do you think this actually became a sort of symbol for what the album is all about?

Well, it was the catalyst, a starting point for sure! I mean, just to add to that little explanation that you gave there, you know what? Above and beyond the building’s extra storeys, they saw the cracks in the building, like the day before in collapsed! So they knew that there was a likelihood that there was gonna be a serious event – and so it passed. It was definitely the catalyst. It was the starting point. I remember thinking to myself at the time: “You know what? I have to do an exposé on this.” I felt a sort of responsibility to have to do that. Whether people kind of think to themselves: “Well, you know, even if you do do it, so what? Because it’s Napalkm Death and a small to medium band, whatever.” Well, ok, you could look at it that way but at least it’s something. At least it’s planting a seed. At least it’s putting the goods on the table and saying: “Look, this is inhumane, this is not the way the people should be treated, wherever you live in the world. End of the story.”

The album starts with a very surprising title song, with a kind of tribal industrial vibe. Since one of the main themes of the album is modern slavery, was this somehow to express the fact that we’re still primitive savages living in an ugly industrial world?

Well, it’s not a comment on the wider world; it’s specifically for the people who live in those conditions. Because, sure we all have our issues with society and society has a lot to fuckin’ answer for, the structure in itself. But these people are on the extreme end, the kind of people I’m talking about live in certain areas, like the Asian subcontinent where the conditions there are truly despicable for people, where there’s intimidation when they go to work and if they try and protest against their condition or whatever. I mean, this is really extreme stuff. So it applies to them and it’s about the utter dispensability of people in that situation where they could get killed at work and nobody would give a shit, it just would be like: “Oh, it’s just a number. Scratch off another number in the productivity cycle.” That was the point of it, really. So yeah, it’s a very ugly song, you know. The vocals are really spit from the mouth to capture that kind of really disgusting atmospheric thing.

« I’ve learned down the years that you don’t translate well things to people if you hit them with a fucking big stick. »

You declared « There’s a natural tendency as bands go on, that people on the outside say ‘Oh, they’re still making albums but they must be a bit humdrum now…’ and you know what? That’s something that I hope no one ever says about us. » Is it important for an artist to never fall into a routine?

Yeah because if you become complaisant or if you believe that you’re on hype, as the saying goes, then you’re in a comfort zone. So you’re not challenged anymore. I wouldn’t ever want to get there because the thing is that if I ever get to that point, I wouldn’t do it anymore. I don’t see the point of doing something that has a much lessened impact, that has a much lessened approach, that has a much lessened musical and lyrical attack… I don’t see why that would have any real worth.

Utilitarian actually introduced many unexpected elements mixed in your music; do think it has motivated you to go further in this kind of creativity?

I think Apex is just another couple of steps forward. I mean, I couldn’t give you really a scientific formula to why that is but it just feels like a natural step forward. It just feels like moving beyond without losing the extremity, mixing the two styles – the really extreme stuff with the ambient stuff -, it’s going a little further in that. And it just seems to click into place.

Should we expect the unexpected with Napalm Death?

I mean, that’s all subjective. The unexpected to one person could be a logical occurrence to somebody else. “Unexpected” could cover a very, very wide spectrum. So I just think that’s all relative, really. That’s a thing that I would find quite hard to answer, to pin down or whatever.

We can hear some somewhat clean vocals on “Smash A Single Digit”, “Dear Slum Landlord…” or even a quite melodic chorus on “Hierarchies”. Have you guys been interested in broadening the vocal diversity of your music?

The thing is that I’ve been doing that vocal diversity, as you put it, since six, seven, eight or nine albums ago. I mean, it’s nothing new really. It’s just that I’ve learned to elaborate it. I’ve become more confident with my voice. And, of course, I’m gonna experiment. I’m not going to do something that complete takes the extremity away from Napalm Death, that’s not the point. The point is to find ways to express yourself, express your vocals in many different ways. There are hundreds of possibilities. And like I say, again to push the point, as long as it’s extreme, then it’s not a problem.

Again in the press release, you’re mentioned saying: « I don’t want something more refined or less extreme, I want something more extreme. » Is it Napalm Death’s role to always push back the boundaries of extreme music?

Yeah sure but it’s not Napalm Death’s role to teach the rest of the world to do it. It’s Napalm’s role to do it within itself, if you know what I mean. First and foremost, to be extreme, it’s to satisfy ourselves and to be, if you like, faithful to the Napalm Death name. If someone says Napalm Death to you, what’s the first thing you think of? Extremity, surely. Yeah, you could say gruff vocals. Yeah you could say mega distorted guitars. Yeah you could say completely crazy sounding drums. But put all those things together, what is it? It’s extremity, you know, under a general umbrella. So if that’s the byword for Napalm Death, then of course, it’s our responsibility to ourselves to maintain that.

Do you think there is no limit? That you can always go further in extremity?

Well, yeah, of course you can. I mean, we don’t know what that is yet necessarily, but it will become apparent. That’s kind of an open-ended scenario, really, where anything can happen.

« I’m not naïve enough to suggest that Napalm’s gonna flip the world upside down anytime soon but a small step is definitely something. »

For a lot of people, extreme music is mostly about playing fast. But Napalm Death is also about dissonance, twisted sounds, etc. What is your definition of extreme?

[Thinking] Something that is as equality annoying as it is stimulating. And that’s hard to emulate in the studio because part of the harshness of sound is achieved in something, if you really think about it, that can also be very hard to listen to. Because, let’s face it, if you’re gonna have extremity on an album, it’s not gonna be nice. It can never be nice. And nice means kind of very easy on the ears, to some degree. So you need to make it difficult on the ears and part of the difficulty is that there’s gonna be an annoyance factor. I like that because the one thing I really think is very limiting is that people can consider the musical spectrum as something that’s purely a comfortable thing, stimulating in only one or two ways. But why not use the whole spectrum? Why not use the notes that really fuck with people’s heads? If you use on an open P.A., there are certain bass tones that mess with people’s internal organs [chuckles]. I mean, there’s a massive spectrum of sound out there to be utilized.

You actually said once that “some of the sounds that Napalm use are deliberately designed to annoy people.” Can you actually name some stuff on the album that was actually designed to annoy people?

Well, the intro for once! If you listen to the intro, it’s really quite fucking annoying! [Laughs] You know, some of the bass stuff and all the rest of it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s very hard to emulate and achieve that sometimes in the studio because what you hear in the studio, while it might fucking blow your ears in there, it just doesn’t necessarily translate to somebody hearing that in their home stereo. So it’s difficult to achieve but it can be done. “Dear Slum Landlord…”, it’s a very ambient song but if you listen to the chords underneath, it’s a very queasy sounding song, it’s very uncomfortable guitar notes that are being used under that. So there are some very subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways you can achieve that.

Do you have some extreme music influences outside the metal world?

Yeah, of course, I mean, hardcore-punk was always a big influence. Then, I guess, the post-punk, weird pop kind of stuff, like Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain, all that kind of stuff too. These are definitely not metal but bands with a very weird edge to them.

Napalm Death being one of the most brutal bands out there, is this music your way of counterbalancing the ignorance of people by punching the truth straight on their face? Is the brutality of your music on par with the silence surrounding the issues you’re addressing?

I mean, I wouldn’t want to punch somebody in that way or in literal way, to be honest. It is one thing that is important to say: I’ve learned down the years that you don’t translate well things to people if you hit them with a fucking big stick. Because if you use those kinds of strong-arm tactics against people, their perception of what you’re trying to say can completely turn around. It can actually turn them away from what you’re trying to tell them. So it’s not a punch way, it’s about laying the stuff on the table, saying: “Look guys, this is what’s fucking happening! This is my perspective on it. Take it with you, think about it and form an opinion, if you want to.” That’s the point.

Did you actually succeed in opening people’s eyes on these topics you’re addressing in your music?

For sure! I mean, down the years, with all the Napalm albums, people came to us and said: “I really like all the stuff that you said. I went and looked at it myself and discovered that I can do certain such and such things, that I can get involved in this and that, that I’ve made personal choices in my life like this, this and that…” It definitely has an effect. I mean, of course, I’m not naïve enough to suggest that Napalm’s gonna flip the world upside down anytime soon but a small step is definitely something. And what would you rather have? Something or nothing? Well, something, surely.

Isn’t it a bit vain to try to open people’s eyes with a music that’s so extreme that it’s marginalized and only few people can understand it? Wouldn’t it be more efficient…

I know what you’re gonna say and I’ll say this straight away: you can’t control everything. You know what I mean? You cannot perfect every art form to satisfy every possible criterion. There has to be somewhere down the line where you say: “You know what? This is what we are and this is what we’re gonna do.” And there’s a very simple solution to that dilemma, it’s the lyric sheet that is within the albums [chuckles] or within the CDs! That’s the only thing I can say to that. I mean, sure enough, yeah we could do these lyrics with a pop band, with any kind of form of music but that’s not what we wanna be. We wanna be Napalm Death. We wanna be playing a million miles an hour and sometimes we wanna be playing that very slow pace with very depressing sounding songs, you know [chuckles]. That’s it. We have to live with that and it’s fine, it’s a very good thing to live with actually, according to my experience [laughs].

« Oh, if you can imagine someone flicking a switch like an electric button, that’s just the way it is [in my head when i come on stage]. »

We did an interview of Tomash “Orion” Wroblewski, Behemoth’s bass player and he told us that you can’t play extreme metal forever and, eventually, when you reach the age of fifty, you can develop some spine problems and other health issues that would prevent you from playing extreme music, especially on stage. Is this something that worries you or the band?

No, not really. I mean, I’ve always done my best largely to keep myself healthy. So that’s not really a concern for me. I can only speak as I currently am, and I feel very healthy. At this point of the year I feel quite tired, I have to be honest, that’s because the way the year’s been. I think, generally speaking, you take that away, I’m pretty healthy. That stuff doesn’t worry me. I’ve always taken care of my body, so it’s not a problem for me. I mean, it’s probably different for somebody that plays an instrument because obviously they constantly got that weight of their instrument on their shoulder and on their back. For me, not so much. I take care of myself, so it doesn’t concern me too much.

You have a very uncontrolled and violent way of moving and behaving on stage. What goes on in your mind during the shows?

Oh, if you can imagine someone flicking a switch like an electric button, that’s just the way it is. I don’t want to sound pretentious but I guess it’s the music and the atmosphere flowing through me and just also the though at the back of my mind: “Why would I want to stand around on stage? Just standing in one place, it would be really fucking dull to do that!” So I don’t! I just roll with it.

You probably have one the most brutal voices in metal. Where does your way of singing come from?

It was a number of influences from extreme hardcore to extreme metal. That was my thing, vocals from many different contexts and then, of course, putting my own spin on things. So yeah, it’s a number of things and, as we spoke about already, I’ve developed my voice over the years to do different things. I’m quite confident with my voice. I’m always prepared to try things that sure might not always work first time around but they might work with a bit of practice.

You worked with producer Russ Russell for the eighth time in a row. Can you tell us about the band’s relationship with him? Do you think he has the perfect understanding of how Napalm Death should sound like?

Yeah, he does, he does. He’s been with us for so long and when you work with somebody for that amount of time, they get to know your habits, the way you like to record, how it’s best to produce you in the studio, how to get the best results… So it’s a very close, close knowing relationship and long may it continue. Russell always understands that we don’t need to keep making the same album again and again. He’s very pro, saying: “Ok, let’s move on from here, let’s make the production a little different. Don’t lose the extremity but make it different. Make it spontaneous. Make it this, make it that…”

Interview conducted by phone 8th, december 2014 by Philippe Sliwa.
Retranscription and traduction: Nicolas Gricourt.
Promo pics: Kevin Estrada.

Napalm Death official website: www.facebook.com/officialnapalmdeath.

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