Not so long ago, I stumbled upon a video on TV, which, with a healthy dose of humor and cynicism, denounced the fact that, on the occasion of almost every presidential election of the French fifth republic, every future president made more or less the same promises, which could be summarized thus: “I will be the President who brings change”. While of course, at the same time, accusing their predecessor of being opposed to said change. Far from sharing the view that “politicians are all rotten anyway”, Mark Greenway, aka “Barney”, Napalm Death’s emblematic frontman, blames the lack of change on the political system and its restraints, rather than on the people who make it up – some of them having, after all, a concrete project.
Changing society and fighting for its ideals are life-long struggles, whose results are barely, if at all, visible. But as Barney would put it, it’s better to “try and do something and make very small steps, rather than do nothing at all and have no doubt”.
This interview is of course not all about society, but also about music. About Napalm Death’s music and its possible evolutions, and about music in general, with Barney insisting on the importance of judging a piece of art with spontaneity and through one’s emotions, rather than through classifications, of which the metal audience remains very fond.
Radio Metal: Before talking about the new record, I'd like to come back to the album Smear Campaign you made in which Anneke van Giersbergen sang on one of the tracks. What were the reactions of the fans about that song?
Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway (vocals): Well, it was the usual stuff to be honest. I had to laugh because there was some things you could read on internet, like “Napalm Death is turning into an operatic metal band”, and I was like “Oh come on, use your brains, please.” I respect people's freedom to say stuff and so on but please, use your brain before you do! [laughs] It turned out very good. We were trying to achieve a certain effect. It was a certain Celtic Frost song many years ago that had that effect that we were looking for. We thought about several different vocalist, and she [Anneke] seemed to be the best person to do that at the time that we know could do it. So that's how it all went. The reaction in the end, after those initial comments, were fine. Once people heard it and understood what we were trying to do, the panic kind of dropped.
Do you think that for the pure death metal fans Napalm Death isn't allowed to do that kind of more melodic thing?
It wasn't really melodic if you listen to it. It has very ambient, very moody parts. It wasn't melodic in the sense of pop or sort of light melody, it was anything but. I think we really achieved the effect that we needed. It was meant to be similar to Celtic Frost and things that we did so it wasn't a problem in the end. People understood it for what it was. This is why sometimes when you've been in a band for some years it feels like you learn that some lines or comments are just not to be listened to [laughs], and just ignored.
Do you miss writing less aggressive music?
No, I'd miss to write more aggressive music, because it's what I know, it's what I like. I don't have any intention to do anything that's less intense than Napalm. That's actually why if I ever wasn't in Napalm any more, I would probably not do another band, because it wouldn't have the same effects on me. Why do something that's a bit secondary to what you've already done? I couldn’t be happy with that.
And do you intend to experiment other things like that on your future records?
Well,the new album's got various parts on it... Nothing that we haven't done before, but just arranged in different ways. We wrote what we wanted at the time when we started with that album, so I wish I could have a crystal ball and tell you exactly what the next albums will be, but of course I can't. An other way to look at it is that there are some things that are presented to the band's musically but that are just unsuitable. People don't also realize that there are moments behind the scenes where we try things for songs and, amongst ourselves, just think “That's too far away from what we think Napalm should be.” So... We're junkies. We're on music. So there is also these things, it's a lot of stuff that people don't see aside from what's actually released.
At the beginning of your career, you were considered a grindcore band, then the band has evolved to something closer to death metal. Based on what we hear on the trailer for the new album, this new album has even some melodic – for Napalm Death – moments. What can you tell us about this new record musically speaking? How can you describe it?
I don't like general classifications, and that just relates to what I was saying. I'm bored of it because people waste so much time arguing about musical genre... It's so pointless. But the one thing I would say though is that Napalm getting called a death metal band is not really accurate as an overview of the band. Napalm Death is much more than that. If I had to pick a genre, it would be grindcore, because I think “grindcore” is a very wide definition. “Death metal” not so much. I think grindcore is the first thing, so to speak. But there has been diversity in Napalm's albums ever since the Scum album. Like I say, the main thing with this new record is that there are certain riffs that are kind of different, but more so, there are vocal things that has been done on other albums that are just used in a different context here. The more ambient, baritone, you could say cleaner vocals, were not much used in the faster parts before, but on this album they had, and that sort of gives it a different flavour. But at the end of the day, Napalm is always gonna be Napalm. We'll do what we need to do. Like I say, we always do listen to people's opinion, apart from when they're ridiculous [laughs] and even if we do get some of those. We do listen to criticism, I think it's important. You can't be blind to what people say about that because that can help you. It can help you to think in certain directions as far as your band goes.
To what point you think Napalm Death will evolve? How far do you wanna go?
That's an unanswerable question. That's an other “crystal ball” question. It's so to say, “how long can passion last?” It can be many different length... I just don't know. From my own perspective, which I guess is the only one I can really give, Napalm is Napalm, and as long as it has that core element of fast, furious, chaotic sort of sound then I'll be happy. We can do many different things, but it has to have that root. If it doesn't have that root anymore, then the first besides everybody else, I'm not gonna be fucking happy.
Earlier you were saying that you were bored of all of those classification and styles. Do you think that classification is what kills the listeners' open-mindedness?
I don't know. To be honest, when I was younger, I was so exclusive in terms of the music I was listening to, it was like “I'm not listening to that because it's this”, or “it's not enough of this or that”, and it just gets ridiculous. Music should be about what first hits your hears, first and foremost. And then of course you can develop your listening experience on there. But first and foremost, it should move you in a certain way. I think that's quite important. Spontaneous reaction to music is always quite important, then you just start to take it from there. People can take this as they want, really, it's up to them. The very funny part about this whole thing is that certainly in the last couple of years, I have found myself listening to less and less music, I have to say. And it's not because I'm deliberately taking a stand against music, it's just because I don't find things that are as exciting to me as things that came from my formative years. I think there is less and less consistent quality in music right now. That's more a general observation, all the other people might strongly disagree, but in music as I see right now, on a spontaneous listening level, there is nothing moving me in a great way. Different experience for everybody I suppose, but that's mine.
On the artwork of the new album, we see men in suits beating up a man on the ground, and we also see one of those men with a shark head. Is this the best way for you to sum up what utilitarianism is fighting for?
No, it's not even a homage to the philosophical theory itself... The guy in the center lying on the floor is or would be utilitarian, and then the guys that are dancing around him are representations of the power mechanisms. They are the ones that are kicking him, basically to try and move him from his ethical path, his ethical considerations. The images that gravitate around that central piece are the thoughts that are running through his head, the objections that he makes within society. So there is a definite arrangement on the sleeve, it's not just one thing.
Do you think nowadays society is dangerous for weaker people, so that is why you believe in utilitarianism?
I'm not saying that I do, like I said I don't know whether I am necessarily a utilitarian. I see a parallel with one aspect of it, in that sense that if good things make good consequences, then my general approach is not to do things that I know will have a negative impact on other people in certain ways. Yes, I do see parallels with that part of it. But I'm not saying that I'm fully a utilitarian, I really don't know, and I'm trying not to put myself in relatively small characterizations, because I think it's being too narrow-viewed about things. But of course the very nature of society is hierarchical structures, so of course society is not good for people on the lower end of the scale, because it keeps them there, and it keeps that hierarchical structure in place. It can't be good. And that's why various people and movements around the world right now are having a certain momentum, and are trying to bring out our attention towards the quality and trying to make a difference. It ain't easy, that's for sure, but at least people now have a certain continuous momentum.
You were talking in an interview about loss of hope, about these periods of real self-doubt where you wonder if you're really making a difference... Is it something that you felt personally? Did you lose hope in your ability to change things with your ideas?
Yeah, many times! I'll be the first to admit that. You know, everybody does. I think that's one thing every human shares, whatever it might be about. When you do something, it's almost like you wanna see instant results, and of course you don't always get that. If you try to make a difference in a society that's been in this structure for hundreds upon thousands of years, there is no way you're gonna change things over now. But still, even if now I know that, I also have those self-doubts at the same time. So yeah, it's something I suffered with. But I always come to the conclusion that it's better to be trying to do something and making very small steps that not doing anything at all.
Do you think that since we aren't enough patient, we aren't giving enough time to politicians to prove that they can change something?
No I didn't say that necessarily, that wasn't what I meant. I think politicians have had more than enough time, more to the point I think the political system don't allow the penetration of change into the lowest parts of this world or society, whatever you wanna call it. It's not dealt with. I get the connection that you are trying to make, but it's not about politicians, it was about me and other people who are relatively lacking in power in society. There's a slight difference there.
You often if not always talk about politics in your music, have you ever considered to find another way to express your ideas? For instance, have you considered to be a politician?
Well, I've thought about many different things, but if I become a politician, I am going to be as restricted by the system as those politician that actually do wanna make a difference. Let's be clear: not all politicians are a pointless, useless waste of time. There are quite a few politicians I would imagine who genuinely entered the political system trying to make the very same differences that I am. Let's not paint everybody with the same brush. Political systems as they are today are very restrictive in what you can do. I don't know whether I would be able to do that, because if I entered politics, I guess that I would be just running in circles and I would very quickly leave it, because there would be nothing that could be dones... Then what's the point? I just do my thing somewhere else.
The trailer of the new album is very well realized. Will there be an official video for the new album?
There will be. I don't now when it might happen, tough, I'm not entirely sure, so... We'll see. We just haven't got around to it yet... It's something that's on the list. I don't know what's gonna be the first, but there'll something, yeah.
Part of this trailer are animated videos. Why did you choose to present things this way ? Do you wanted to present things with an original and naive way ?
Well I don't think that's naive, the trailer that I saw was quite good. Of course we could have made another video of people on the streets throwing balls and stuff, fine, of course we could do that, but this animated stuff happened to came into our sphere of contact, and it looks really good. It has a certain aesthetic quality to it, it's not as obvious as just putting riots or other things, so I think there is a certain creative quality to it. I wouldn't call it naïve, it suggests something juvenile, or obvious, cliché, something like that. I don't think it is. That's a very good creative piece.
Interview conducted on february, 1st, 2012, by phone.
Transcription : Chloé
Napalm Death's website : www.napalmdeath.org
This post is also available in: French