Few bands could take a simple pejorative like scum and make it the name of an album that would serve as the blueprint for an entire sound. There is no denying that Napalm Death helped to validate grindcore with the release of Scum. They could have easily rested on those laurels, but over 20 years and several classic albums later, Napalm Death continue to push the limits of what is considered extreme music.
Any discussion of the British heavy music masters invariably lands on the ferocious vocals of frontman Mark “Barney” Greenway, who I recently spoke with. The man behind the roar is every bit as raw and honest as one might expect of the voice of a band so respected and crucial in the metal scene. The transcription is below:
I recently read some of the random things that Digby Pearson from Earache Records was saying about Napalm Death. What is all of this about?
You would think to yourself that after all this time, why would you want to wash your dirty linen in public after all these years? Doesn’t it smack of desperation? Unless [Earache Records] do something really dubious or wrong in terms of the exploitation of the Napalm Death back catalog, we don’t really raise any issues. What is history is history and I don’t really feel the need to reopen those old wounds. We’re not on the record label anymore and we don’t need to take potshots at them now.
Despite the shifting patterns of the metal scene, how have you managed to remain so prolific?
The thing is we don’t limit ourselves to being a metal band. I think that is the basic way to explain it. Sure, metal influences most things in the hard music scene, on one level or another, even if one band may not sound particularly metal on the surface. Early death metal still has a big influence on Napalm Death, but that is only a small part of us. We’re also equally influenced by punk and hardcore music. Post-punk stuff is also an influence on us. When you dig down into the layers of any Napalm Death album, you can see those elements.
Talking about Swans in particular, that real unnerving, depressing, disquieting, just real maudlin kind of sound, you can blatantly hear that. I would never deny that. There is blatantly Swans, Nick Cave, Joy Division; there is all that stuff in there. The reason I say that is because A) we like that stuff and B) because it gives us a lot more scope to actually progress with the fast and furious stuff.
At the end of the day, we’re never going to change; we’re a fast and furious band, ultimately, if we are one thing and that is a very simple definition, but that is what we are called. That doesn’t mean we can’t glue a few more things onto that to give it a bit more flavor. Very often, there are a few people that say to us, “C’mon, you have got to do another From Enslavement To Obliteration.” It is a classic basically, but to us that would be too easy. It’s kind of like taking the easy way out for us and it is also taking the easy way out for a lot of the people that listen to us. Why do we just want to effortlessly repeat ourselves? Even if we could make it good—I’m pretty sure we could—what’s the point? If we progress the band and still use that mentality we’ve had since the first album in ‘86 or ‘87, then that to me is the perfect way to move. If we stand still, then we kind of slip away.
I did some snooping on Wikipedia and I read that you’re a huge fan of progressive metal, is that true?
Well, Wikipedia is sometimes the king of misinformation. Yeah, sure, I like it, but I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive about it.
Given that you like progressive metal, I wanted to ask your opinion on this new progressive metal scene that has come up recently.
Like a lot of things, like with any scene, there is some really good stuff. I must admit I haven’t kept up with that scene for years now. Dream Theater is the particular sphere of progressive metal I’m partial to. They’re the top level of that genre. More than just being progressive metal, they write good songs for any genre you like.
That’s kind of the pinnacle for me and then there are a few other bands under that roof, but in the grand scheme of things I wouldn’t say I like huge amounts of that stuff. Some of it sacrifices songs for just wanking off really. Technicality is a part of it, but you have to have the memorability of songs there. So, yeah, that’s it for me really. I couldn’t really say much about the scene for the past few years. I can’t keep my eyes on everything.
I see where you’re coming from. It seems like everyone is really good at guitar these days.
Absolutely, there are a lot of great guitarists out there, but I think you have to be careful with that stuff. Some albums have immense musicality, sometimes you can put them next to an album that has a, arguably, lesser scope, but the album with a lesser scope can be a better album. Sometimes less is more. You can just look at Swans and see that. Less was definitely more, in that respect.
I always wanted to ask about the actual meaning of the band name. Where does the name come from and who decided upon it?
It was a combination of things. You have to remember the time it comes from. Napalm—for the people that are unfamiliar with it—is the flammable medium used to disgusting effects, most notably in the Vietnam War. So, many people refer to the band name as a shock statement, but it isn’t really. It is a reference to one of the most disgusting forms of warfare. To me all forms of warfare are nothing less than disgusting, so it was just that really. It’s an anti-war statement put into a very specific piece of terminology. It is a pro-peace/anti-war kind of symbolism.
I went back and listened to a few older albums and your voice sounds ridiculous back then, but what surprises me is that you sound just as good today on tracks like “Wolf I Feed Off” on Utilitarian. Many extreme vocalists say that growling destroys their voices with time, but your voice doesn’t sound the least bit strained or forced. How are you maintaining your voice?
I’m just lucky—I’m really, really lucky. I’ve got lungs like a rhino (laughs). I really do. I couldn’t give you a scientific explanation. I just happen to be able to do it. If there was any kind of possibility of me being able to do anything to help it, perhaps it is the fact that I don’t smoke. There is always something about smoking improving the voice. Maybe it works for Lemmy, but for me, personally, I’ve always found that being around smoke just does not help one iota.
Also, in terms of touring, I don’t touch alcohol while on tour. I did actually dabble on the last U.S. tour, because we had the guys from Municipal Waste on tour with us. The drummer [Dave Witte] is an aficionado of microbreweries and I actually love craft beers and stuff. I really do. He kind of twisted my arm and got me to sample some here and there, but ordinarily I don’t touch alcohol, because anything that can potentially mess with my voice is a problem and going on from that… This has always been my thing: Instead [of] coming through the door for our gigs, the person can go do anything else. They don’t have to pay to see my gigs, so if they’re going to do that, then I’m going to make sure that I do as much as I absolutely can to be at 100 percent condition vocally and otherwise to do the gig. That is really important to me, so that really helps.
Generally speaking, I’ve got sort of a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle. We are an active live band with a very physical show to some extent, so my lifestyle and diet help to keep me in shape. It’s an all-around thing and the voice is just one part of it.
Napalm Death will annihilate their way to the East Coast with shows on June 5 at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg and June 6 at Philly’s Union Transfer. For more information, check out napalmdeath.org.