Apex Predators: An Interview with Barney Greenway of Napalm Death

Napalm Death (Photo: Kevin Estrada)

Since the last time I met with Barney, right before the release of Utilitarian, I had been looking forward to an opportunity to do it again. I was not disappointed. You see, despite Napalm Death‘s external appearance of uncontrolled violence and aggression, they are all about the message, and Barney is here to prove it.
We tried to cover a lot of topics in a fairly short period of time,, so the interview is all over the place but, believe me, it was worth it.

MB: The first thing I’m interested in is, of course, the status of Mitch Harris in the band, who recently had to leave it due to an illness in the family. Will this be a permanent departure?
These are, of course, very private matters to him so I don’t want to go too deep into that side of things; he is our bandmate, he is our friend. Anybody with any kind of humanity in them would just step back, see what he’s going through and give him the time to do whatever he needs to do and come back when he needs to. That’s the current state of play for us; we’ve kept it open ended. We said that if he needs to take up to a year, then he should, but it’s all non-binding, we can always address the situation again later if anything changes.
We’ve got some very capable replacement people to cover for him on the tour; sure, it’s not the ideal situation, but that’s life. Sometimes things come along and they take you out of your usual smooth-running, and you have to deal with it.

MB: Absolutely, and it’s very nice to see that you see him as a mate and as a friend, this is probably what has allowed you to stay strong throughout the years.
Yes, sure.

MB: Speaking of which, I was very happy to see that the years haven’t taken a toll on the band, and that Apex Predator – Easy Meat is as heavy and aggressive as usual. I think I’ve read that regardless of how long you are together, you want to stay aggressive in your music.
The one thing I’ve never liked, and which doesn’t exist only in music, is the kind of thought that says that after you reach a certain age some activities in life are supposed to become almost impossible, only reserved for “younger people”. I can’t abide that kind of way of thinking, because it’s so restricting on your time; I mean, on the great scheme of things we have a relatively short time here on earth, and so you should want to live your life to the full.
Assuming you’re not affected by some kind of disease or ailment, why should you become a shadow of your former self? Either individually, or as a band, I just don’t get that. The whole concept is just really fucking lame for me. I would never go out there under the name Napalm Death and misrepresent it by being 50% of what we are, or a parody of ourselves. Fuck that. That would hold no interest for me whatsoever.

MB: An interesting thing after all these years is the very political message that you try to convey with your music, because some bands, as they become more or less established in a certain genre, see the aggression of their lyrics, regardless of the sound, diminishing considerably. Look at thrash metal bands like Metallica or Megadeth, which started with a very rebellious message which, as success came along, started to dilute. I guess at some point you stop seeing the “elites” or the people in power as outsiders, since you become part of them. So, it has been nice to see that Napalm Death continues with the aggression in the lyrics.
Maybe there’s a different in approach between those bands and us. Well, there’s obviously a difference in the sense that both Megadeth and Metallica went on a very fast upwards trajectory, while Napalm Death has always stayed consistent among, let’s say, a small to medium level as a band. I’m pretty fucking comfortable with that; I’ve always been, and so have the other guys.
There’s a difference in the hierarchy, so to speak, between those bands and us.
As a band we are, arguably, more resistant than Metallica or Megadeth ever would be, because there are things within the music industry, as you well know, that come along when someone can offer you something that could take you into a trajectory with your band. For me, if something like that carries some dubious things then I’m not going to do that, because my whole ethos, as well as that of Napalm Death, has always been to do things in our own terms. I don’t want to buy my way into something, I don’t want to buy success for the band, I’m not interested in that. I’m far more satisfied, creatively, making steps, making headway.
If we get bigger as a band, as we have the last couple of years (we are selling more CDs that we ever did), we do it on our terms. We haven’t compromised on anything to allow us to sell those extra CDs, it has all been on our terms.

Napalm Death (Photo: Kevin Estrada)

MB: It has been nice to see that you have maintained a level of commitment to the causes in which you believe. I remember that the last time we talked we discussed quite a bit about the issue of factory farming, and so it’s nice to see that everything continues to play a role in the art that you put out.
I guess that there is some sense of psyche and personality that makes me just look at things differently. Some people think you shouldn’t care about what happens somewhere else, but I’ve never classed myself in that manner. The fact that I’m a UK citizen isn’t the point for me; the point is that I’m a human being. Things like flags and borders are irrelevant to me, they’re meaningless symbolism, and so the plight of other human beings, and of other sentient beings, means something to me.
I know that I wouldn’t want to be in the same position as some of the people who were involved in some of the things that I’m trying to expose. I wouldn’t like it if I was in their position, and so I think it’s only right and justified that I try to do these exposes and put the ideas on the table. It’s the right thing to do for me.

MB: Absolutely; I think that it’s always nice to see an artist have some level of commitment to some causes, stressing that the fact that something doesn’t happen to “you” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. We saw it recently, for example, with the release of the CIA torture report.
Exactly. Only as a sidenote, that thing did not surprise me at all. If anybody was drastically surprise by that report, then they must have been living under a fucking rock.
Going back to the topic, there is a certain reluctance to these things as well; you don’t want to put yourself in a pedestal, as if you were so intelligent that you can inform the rest. It’s not what this is about; it’s not about me. Even though I might be the one that, in the Napalm Death context, puts these things on the table, these issues are not about me. I am lucky to be in a position where I am able to talk about these things, but it’s not about me.

MB: Well, the best thing that you can do, especially when you have young listeners, is not so much to preach at them, but rather show the problem and ask them to make their own conclusions. To an extent I think that’s what you’re trying to do; of course there’s a certain ideological or political content to your music, but I also think that you play a role in simply saying “just check it out; don’t take my word for it, look at it for yourselves”.
Definitely. Obviously it’s not that neutral, in the sense that there isn’t really a judgment call to be made; I mean, you know what my judgment is on some of these things.

MB: Well, if we talk about “Dear Slumlord”, we know exactly what you’re talking about!
Sure. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that you cannot hit people with a big stick, because if you do that, if you beat things into people, they turn the other way. They become even more entrenched in the kind of status quo that you want them to be; you’re actually taking things in reverse. What you have to do is to educate, without being patronizing, to put the facts on the table. That’s why one of the things I try to be careful about, and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, is to not be too wordy in the way I present my lyrics, because if you just put a huge word salad into an album, it just looks like you’re trying to be Shakespeare! [laughs] That doesn’t achieve what you’re trying to do, because the main thrust is to try and set the scenario. If the language that you’re using is almost impenetrable then it just becomes pure self indulgence.

MB: Absolutely; just a mental masturbation you use to show to the rest of the world how good you are.
Exactly, and hopefully I avoid that. Some people might come to the judgement that I have indulged in a little bit of word salad, but it’s about striking that balance. I try to be creative in using similes, metaphors, word play, and I try to be creative in that way, but the actual language I use is, hopefully, very easy for people to grasp on to.
I’ve learned my lessons in this respect. After Utopia Banished (1992), there were a couple of albums in which I absolutely used some very bizarre and abstract language. When I look back at them I feel that, well, perhaps that wasn’t the best choice of words. [laughs]

MB: You live and learn. I think that over the years you’ve become more incisive and direct and that it has paid off in the way that people relate to your music.
Hopefully so!

MB: We’ve gone a little bit off-track here, and I apologize for that. Let’s get back to Apex Predator-Easy Meat. How does it relate to what you were trying to do with Utilitarian?
Let’s start by talking about the catalyst for this album, which was the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. I was fucking appalled, as anybody with any shred of you humanity was. The specific reason why I was so appalled was because I felt that it was a big story, almost like a turning point, but the way in which it was portrayed in the media… sure, it was headline news (like for a day) but it very quickly dissipated after that. When you consider the way in which disasters are represented in the media now, compared to some other things that have happened, the coverage was almost negligible. It kind of gave me the impression that, somehow, life is cheaper in certain parts of the world, in certain communities where they’re almost in servitude, because this was a fucking sweat-shop.
The second thing was that it wasn’t like they couldn’t see it coming that this building was going to collapse, because they showed the footage of some of the external and internal walls of the building, and there were huge fucking cracks. It was clear that something fairly big was going to happen to that building in a fairly short space of time, yet under duress they still sent the fucking people back into the building.

MB: Well, I was recently listening to the BBC and they mentioned what’s in the happen in the 2022 Qatar world cup, and how several of the buildings that are being built to house the increased influx of people, including some run by British companies, employ migrant workers that are treated in a manner that is tantamount to slavery. Of course, this reminds me of the events in Bangladesh, because there are already many incidents, to the point that if it were to continue at the same rate there’d be thousands of migrant workers death by the time the world cup starts. And nobody really seems to care about it!
No, you don’t. There have been a few things that come up on the news, but very little. That’s just the same thing. And it’s not only that, I think that there’s a certain rule in that country’s Constitution to do with labor rights, that if you’re dissatisfied with your employer, he has some kind of dominance over your work visa, or something like that, and you can’t actually leave the country if your contract is terminated. You end up stuck in limbo; you are not allowed to leave and you get no assistance from the government. You’re stuck penniless, homeless and starving. The whole thing is a travesty.
As for the world cup, I’m a football fan myself, but I’m getting increasingly sick of football, as I am of many of the things that underpin it. There is so much “dodginess”, football is absolutely awash with it right now. The whole essence of the sports-side of things is, to me, ebbing away, and you end up stuck with FIFA, which seems to me like a completely corrupt organization, full of payolas, backhanders and stuff like that. I’m just sick and tired of it. The thing that did it for me happened in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where under the gaze of Nelson Mandela they just cleared people from land, from townships, who were already living on the bottom line of existence. They just cleared them off the land to make way for these vast stadiums; you would think that governments would take time to understand the impact of these practices on people. They did the same in China, when they built that Bird’s Nest stadium, they just fucking swept people aside.

MB: Whenever they organize these big events, be it in arts or sports, the behavior that you see on the part of the commissions that grant the rights to host the events is, usually, very suspicious. In Europe, for example, it was a scandal when Eurovision took place in Azerbeijan, a dictatorship that continues to arrest dissidents to this day. And in the case of the Olympics and football it’s the same; whenever a country is granted the right to host the Olympics or the World Cup the poorest people in those countries end up paying the price.
Governments tend to behave very despicably. The sustainability aspect of it as well is completely non-existent. Last year we played in Greece, in some festival in Athens, in one of the Olympic venues, which had been commissioned for the 2000 Athens Olympics. When you consider what a mess Greece has been in, and you get to this Olympic complex, and remember all the great promises about how these buildings would benefit the community, become youth and community centers… one of the caretakers of buildings told me that since they Olympics they had been used once for an expo that failed miserably, and now for this festival. It’s ridiculous.

MB: The same happens with the Olympic venues in China, and now you see that in Brazil many of the places that are being built, and for which people are being displaced, are never going to be used after the Olympics.
There was one incident that was so ludicrously corrupt that was almost funny was that of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. They built a high rise that ended up being about 6 times the estimated price. They took all the rubble from the building site and, instead of doing the sustainable things and using the rubble for building, for example, environmental barriers that would be needed for certain things, they just dumped it on the hillside where poo people live in rural villages. They caused all kinds of sewage issues, the land started to slide… I mean, you just ask yourself whether these people in the elites have any regard for for the people that they’re supposed to be serving.

MB: I think that behaviors like that demonstrate a certain disconnection from the people in control with the people they control. The government in regards to the governed. It’s scary to see this level of disconnection, it’s on par with just saying “let them eat cake”!
Exactly. Whereas governments used to hide this kind of thing, now they’ve become more audacious with it. They’re less scared about doing it in front of the public gaze, because they know that the whole system of power means that they will never have to truly answer for what they do.

MB: Glenn Greenwald, the journalist responsible for releasing the Edward Snowden leaks, wrote a book called “With Liberty and Justice for Some”, and where he talks about a two-tiered justice system, one for “everyone” and one for those in powers. When the torture report came out and you see Emperor, and Nobel Peace prize winner, Obama talking about how we should “look forward instead of backwards”, basically saying that nobody should be prosecuted for the war crimes they committed… I mean, it makes it clear that there are two systems, and that in one of them you can get away with whatever you do.
 Exactly, and that has kind of set a precedent now, because the next time it happens they’ll just say the same thing. There is never any accountability.
On the other hand, if you care about these things you cannot give up. You have to live in hope that you can at least be a thorn in the side of these people.

MB: There is something to be said about just not becoming too apathetic, which is a risk that I think comes as a you grew older.
I would argue that cynicism isn’t a bad thing, because in a certain way it helps you cut through the bullshit, it allows you to peel back the layers. Apathy is the real problem. For me it’s definitely not an age thing; as I get older I obviously think about these things, and I don’t see my own moments like that dissipating with age. To be honest, this would apply whether I’m in Napalm Death or not. Although the band obviously gives me an enhanced vehicle to put these things across, I would still be the same if I wasn’t in it. I’d have the same things to offer in the same way, just not in a band.

MB: On that note, let’s do a little segue from this issue of apathy in music. Heavy metal, grindcore perhaps especially, started as a way of expression for a rather disenfranchised youth. A music that was marked by rebellion against a system that didn’t satisfy their expectations. Do you think feel that metal has become more apathetic as it became more popular, and so that its rebellious elements are not as important as they used to be?
I’m not sure about that, to be honest. With heavy metal the rebellion was probably unintentional; it’s arguable that punk music, although not all punk bands, had more intentional rebellion within it. I’m not sure whether it’s more or less rebellious now. If you’re talking about the traditional forms of heavy metal, and which go back to the 70’s, then, sure, they might have played on certain kinds of things within life like sex, drugs and rock and roll, but on the societal stuff I’m not so sure that they actually had any impact on that.

MB: Going back to Napalm Death, since I know we’re running out of time here, the cover of the new album is quite grotesque (although it’s something we see all time at the supermarket!). Why did you go for that one?
Well, I think it expressed indignity in a couple of forms. For me, a supermarket tray is the least thing you would like to reach out for if you’re genuinely hungry and you need nourishment. Seeing those little plastic packages on the shelf is, for me, a turn off. It would almost stop me from being hungry, to be perfectly honest with you [laughs]. It’s that kind of cheap plasticized version of food that we’re given in the modern ages. The meat inside is supposed to represent the “easy meat”, which is the workers, or those that are exploited in those things that we have been talking about. It is the double indignity, because it’s about being a product of your own environment, and their environment is super shitty and so they’re trapped inside something that, in terms of consumption, is a super shitty game.
If you look at the tray itself, somewhat tellingly, it has a tablet-style look. There’s another aspect about that within the album, about consumption, because we are, by advertising, we are convinced that these things improve our lives and make us more relevant. Then trouble starts when they become obsolete, so we need to get a new one. That consumption adds to the woes of the people that have to manufacture these things, and creates more stress on the environment because of the materials needed, etc. You’ve probably seen how places that, sure, maybe have never been particularly alive with life in general, but had an ecosystem, and have now being completely transformed into toxic wastelands because of the extraction of minerals in the manufacture of these gadgets.

MB: In regards to consumption, how do you feel that now in music we see that albums are often released in 3, 4 or 5 editions, with minuscule differences between them. There’s a creation of artificial scarcity so as to force people to buy. How do you feel about this, and having Napalm Death participate in this? 
Barney: That’s a very good point. I’ve tried my best, in conjunction with Century Media, who have been very opened to try to minimize that sort of stuff. Sure enough, we have a digipack coming out, and for the first time a box set, but there were even further options and I just said no. We have to streamline things a little bit. I’ll hold my hand up in that respect and accept that I’m a little bit guilty, but there is another part to it which is that making an album or putting a band on the road doesn’t come for nothing, and so we have to generate those kind of sales to a) pay back the record company, and b) to be able to make another fucking album. Still, you are correct, even music has a certain thing to it. If I had it my way I’d rather put out just maybe a digipack to get those necessary sales in the first few weeks, and then just the regular album after that, as well as a vinyl. I’m not in favor of all these releases that 6 months down the line you’ve still got exactly the same fucking album.

MB: Exactly. I’m a fan of some bands that I try to own in vinyl, and it’s a bit frustrating to go to the store and realize that it’s the same album in different colors, all of them released in small quantities so as to create this artificial scarcity. It is becoming a very annoying trend in music, not to mention that it has an environmental impact that isn’t exactly negligible.
Absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more.

MB: Barney, I really appreciate it that you took the time to speak with me today.
Cheers mate, all the best to you!

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