As Napalm Death prepare to go on tour, Conor O’Nolan spoke to the metal legends’ vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway about recording a new album and the importance of laughing at themselves.
Few bands embody an entire genre the way Napalm Death do with grindcore. It’s a difficult genre to try to describe succinctly, but to say it’s not the friendliest of metal subgenres is a dramatic understatement. Its trademark frantic drums, harsh, noisy guitars and shouted or screamed vocals by seemingly raging singers perhaps don’t make it the most accessible of genres. You only have to look at the names of some of the mainstays of the genre, such as Cattle Decapitation, Pig Destroyer, and Anal Cunt, to get a taste for just how in-your-face they can be.
Emerging from the punk scene in Birmingham, Napalm Death was the first act to cement the genre’s fundamentals. Their 1987 debut album, Scum, is widely regarded as one of the most important extreme metal albums, a touchstone for grindcore and all extreme metal, even receiving popular acclaim from John Peel and a cover spot on NME. Since then, the band have consistently released works that have kept them at the forefront of the style that they were instrumental in defining.
This May, the band started work on their fifteenth studio album with their long-time collaborator Russ Russell. Russell’s experience with the band comes not only from his extensive studio work with them, having produced many of their previous albums, but also mixing their live sound for several years before that. “He’s always done good work with us and he’s one of few producers that can read the band like a book,” Mark Greenway, the band’s lead vocalist, explains.
During the nineties the band were signed to a major record label, and after their less than pleasant experiences, they have been careful when choosing who they work with so that they don’t sound over-produced. “It’s very difficult with a band like Napalm because we present [producers] with the sort of raw chaotic sound which isn’t your typical sort of sound, especially from the metal end of things. We want to work with a minimum of fuss.”
The new record is curiously entitled Utilitarian but Greenway happily explained the overarching theme of the record: “It’s like a psychological moral theory, which is strange coming from me because I don’t believe in morality. When you spend all your time considering what your actions might lead to, if you’re that sort of person, you have great periods of self-doubt, and I wanted to bring that through. I wanted to say that everybody has self-doubt at points and you wonder whether it’s all worth it and think, am I not just treading water? And the conclusion is that it is all worth it, and as long as there are always dissenting voices and dissenting actions, those that do pull the strings can’t take a hold of things.”
The band’s wealth of experience in the studio has made them unafraid to experiment. “We do a lot of stuff that most studio owners or engineers wouldn’t allow, like putting mikes right into studio speakers just to get the worst kind of feedback to put on songs, and Russ lets us do it”. This album has been no different as they continue experimenting with their sound. “This time we sped it up, all the ambient stuff we used to do. We used to do it quite slow, so we made it fast, and it worked.”
Earlier this year the band appeared in an episode of Channel 4’s Skins. “It was interesting, I’ve never done anything like it before, and I just had a brilliant day. I did feel as though the way they pitched it, it was the ‘Metal’ episode, and I think some of the stereotypes it made were a little off point, but on the whole, I enjoyed it”.
While the band were cautious in case they were being used as a novelty act, in the past they have never shied away from TV appearances that highlighted how different they are. “Napalm are the go-to band when someone wants to feature something that sounds like nails going down a blackboard. I’m all right with that, we can laugh at ourselves. I mean, the band has a hugely serious side, but a by-product of that seriousness, ultimately, is for people to be free. Part of freedom is to enjoy life, you’re only here for a finite time no matter what religion might tell you, you should enjoy it and you should laugh.”
Despite occasional self-deprecation, the band keeps their integrity in check, as Greenway is quick to point out. “There was one instance, where we got asked to do this thing, and if I remember rightly, it was the G-A-Y club in London, and they wanted us to come on stage miming to a Westlife song, and then they wanted Westlife to actually come on behind us, and we were like ‘This is a step too far’.”
Along with the band’s social conscience, they are known for their strong work ethic when it comes to touring, and even after more than twenty years in the band, Greenway claims that he never tires of gigging: “I know it sounds like a horribly tedious cliché, but we play every gig like it’s our last, we genuinely do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because then I would get bored if I wasn’t.”
Their most recent show in Dublin, however, was marred by the extreme weather conditions last December. “We did Dublin when it was snowing like fuck, and the ferries had all stopped, and we luckily managed to sneak in there between ferry stoppages. The weather did affect the gig, we did have a lot of people, but a lot of people stayed away purely because they couldn’t get into Dublin town centre”.
The band can only hope to be returning in more hospitable conditions this time around.
Napalm Death will play Whelan’s on December 5th. Tickets are priced €20. Their new album, Utilitarian, will be out on February 29th 2012.