Q&A with Barney Greenway from Napalm Death
Photo: Brooke Bullard
In this week's Rough Mixes entry focusing on Napalm Death, we only printed highlights of Tom Murphy's recent conversation with Barney Greenway. The two of them actually had a fairly extensive conversation in which Greenway discussed the influence of My Bloody Valentine and other unexpected acts on Napalm Death, how the act has managed to maintain the ferocious level of intensity over the years that the outfit has become known for and more. Before heading to the show tonight at the Black Sheep or tomorrow night at the Marquis, read the full transcript after the jump.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Smear Campaign was an album about the ills of organized religion's influence on government. Is there an overarching theme to Time Waits For No Slave?
Barney Greenway: Smear Campaign was an analysis of how religion has worked its way into how the world governs itself. It's become a very powerful part of people's lives, even for non-believers like myself. I just find it quite ridiculous that something that has no basis in fact or any material existence can somehow hinge on whether something will live or die. I find it ridiculous how logic has been taken over by illogic
Time Waits For No Slave was basically trying to point out that we perhaps work ourselves into the ground throughout our lives -- we don't truly see the things around us or the earth we walk on. I think we, myself included, don't take the time to do things like go sit in a park and watch the world go by. I was maybe urging myself and other people to take a look at the world around you and realize that there's more to life than slaving away and laying in your deathbed and thinking, "What did I do? What did I get out of life?" It's about understanding that you don't need a third party to justify your life. You can actually open your mind and experience some truth right next to yourself that doesn't cost anything.
WW: Are there any political and social issues of particular interest to you of late that may or may not have made it into your songs?
BG: My general thing is that I care about humanity, human rights -- and not a governmental interpretation of that. I really believe that we have the absolute freedom of expression, the absolute freedom of movement, or we should have the absolute freedom of movement without harassment. I also believe that we have the freedom of all choices and not to be dictated to by government or church or anyone.
WW: It seems to me that your political orientation is more a humanist rather than leftist or socialist take on things. Would you agree with this?
BG: It's not necessarily one thing. That's the trouble with pigeonholing. I came from a background, without going into it too deeply, that leaned to the left, that I couldn't deny. You could say some of the things I think lean in that direction. But fundamentally, I'm a humanitarian, that's what I truly believe in, above and beyond any political system. Political systems on the left can also deny people's rights. It doesn't matter which slant you take with your system, if it stops people from being people and being able to live without fear of being suppressed, that's wrong no matter how you slice it. So yes, I definitely lean to the left.
WW: I read in the liner notes to Noise For Music's Sake that Shane Embury thought that Napalm Death's songs were very catchy. I agree but considering the intense and brutal nature of so many of the songs, what do you think accounts for this in the songwriting?
BG: I think we can still be catchy in a non-pop sense. If you're writing the most extreme music in the world or the lightest music in the world, the point is that if someone puts on your record and you haven't got something that will stick in the mind, then people aren't going to put your record on again. When you say "catchy," people automatically think formulaic, three-minute verse chorus blah blah blah, when of course it doesn't have to be that way. There's some fantastic music out there that was really not commercial at all. It was just a great idea. Music can have soul without you having to be in a soul band. The stuff is catchy but not in the pop hook sense. It's probably just the riffs that put the hooks in and that sort of thing.
WW: You did backing vocals on the Anomalies album by Cephalic Carnage from Denver. How did that come about and on which songs do those backing vocals appear?
BG: Yeah, it's quite ridiculous, actually. It's very funny. We were playing in Denver that night and they asked me to do it but I told them I didn't know the lyrics so they said, "Here's a book" -- a book of crosswords or something. They told me to just read a couple of pages out of there and that's what I did. You think I'm joking but those guys are pretty wacky. We always do stuff off the cuff now and then -- it's all about the spontaneity. The song I did the vocals on was "Dying Will Be the Death of Me."
WW: In the April 8, 2009 edition of The Aquarian, you cited My Bloody Valentine as an influence. I was wondering how MBV influenced you as a songwriter?
BG: Just because there's that side of Napalm that people don't know as much but it's definitely there. My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Swans, all that kind of stuff was all a big influence, and if you listen to some of the less typical Napalm parts, then you'll see that. It's hard for me to point out specifics over the phone but if you listen to stuff where there isn't typical Napalm stuff going down, you'll definitely recognize it if you're a fan of any of those bands at all.
WW: "Greed Killing" from Diatribes especially struck me as quite a bit different from some of the other music.
BG: Yeah, that was an experimental phase for Napalm, where we veered off into other areas. Sometimes it was good and other times it didn't work as well. But that's the essence of tinkering around.
WW: One thing I love about Napalm Death is how, as was the case with Gang of Four, the songs are incredibly political and socially critical without aiming for being entirely topical. Why that approach?
BG: You know, the thing I've learned as a lyricist is that I don't want to just be a story board or a message board. What's the point of that? You can watch any news channel if you really want this information. For me it's more like the way anyone's brain works. Everyone's got opinions and I've got plenty too. It's just that my set of opinions are scratching under the surface and not believing what I'm spoon fed. A lot of people say that but they don't really because there's a lot under there. But that's just my way.
WW: On the new album, is there something sonically that you experimented with that you hadn't before?
BG: Not necessarily that we haven't done before. We just worked things in different ways. The title track, "Time Waits For No Slave," we took those Swans/Michael Gira type vocals and then we put them into the fast parts whereas those might have always been in the context of a slow part. That was really something quite different for us but it really worked because it fit into the context of the song.
WW: Particularly on the new album's title track and "Life and Limb," there are sections of the song with melodic atmospheres. How did you come to include such elements in your music?
BG: Napalm's always had a sense of melody, just not in the conventional sense. Take Sonic Youth as the perfect example. It was never standard key melody, it was always dissonance, dischords, off-chords and that's the same with Napalm. Nothing is ever melodic in a twee way, we always sort of mess it up. A lot of bands do that and Napalm isn't unique in that way.
WW: What is it about the art of Mick Kenney that resonates with your music?
BG: We had a guy called Ned in the '90s, and unfortunately he's not doing his art anymore and we needed to find someone else that could interpret music without it looking like silly fantasy stuff. Mick just understood it. He's from Birmingham, and he had a similar kind of band to Napalm, so he knew where we were coming from.
WW: How do you sustain such a ferocious level of musical intensity as a band for so long?
BG: Enthusiasm has a lot to do with it. We've just had a lot of enthusiasm that has continued over the years, and we've persevered. We never let exterior forces kill the band off. When there were the lean years and people weren't really coming to our shows, we could have called it a day then, but we didn't. We carried on. That was that, really.
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