A conversation with Napalm Death frontman Barney Greenway

English extreme metal legends Napalm Death have a complicated history. The band practically invented grindcore with the 1987 debut Scum, but that line-up quickly dissolved. In fact, the band that played on Side A of Scum is almost entirely different from the one that played on Side B. While all of the Scum-era members have gone on to other projects (including such British metal royalty as Carcass, Godflesh and Cathedral), Napalm Death’s current line-up—vocalist Barney Greenway, guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury, and drummer Danny Herrera—have all been in the band since 1991 at the latest. I sat down with Greenway while he rested up before his performance at Metro on Friday night.

Chicago Music: So you guys were just here about a year ago, right?

Barney Greenway: Your maths is probably better than mine, but yeah, probably. I mean the thing is that we’ve done a lot more U.S. tours in the past two or three years than we did in the last 15 years, but probably yeah, I can’t remember off the top of my head.

CM: What keeps bringing you back to the U.S.?

BG: Well, we keep being asked.

CM: Isn’t it a bit of a pain?

BG: No! A pain is like having to get up at 5 in the morning to dig a hole, you know? It’s not a pain to keep being asked to come over to the United States and tour. It’s all good. You know it was really difficult for us in the U.S. for many years for many bands. But it just seems to have somehow become more easier, you know. Interest in the band is quite significant at this point, it would seem.

CM: For this tour, you’ve got you guys—a very long-lasting, influential band in the sort of death metal/grindcore realm—and then you’ve got Melvins, who are on the other side of it, and then throwing Melt-Banana into it. It’s kind of a very odd bill. So how did this tour come about? 

BG: Well, because we wanted it to. It’s that simple, really. We’ve been kind of friends with the Melvins for some time. It had been spoken about for some time, because it’s never quite as simple as saying “yes” and then going, things have to fall into place. So yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s odd; I would say it’s refreshing. Because it’s really hard to get bills that are very diverse—and have them accepted by people for one thing, because there still is a little bit of closed-mindedness out there, but you kind of have to try and punch through that, because, I dunno I’d rather go and see a gig like this, wouldn’t you? You know having the same bands, more or less, all over?

CM: Yeah, rather than one of these gigs with like, eight slam bands on it. 

BG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, OK fine, some people, that floats their boat. But if you’ve followed Napalm down the years we’ve always tried to something a little off the beaten path at different points, whether it’s musically or what we do touring-wise. We’ve done it before.

CM: How has the crowd reaction been? 

BG: It’s great. I mean, generally speaking, as was kind of the hope, was that fans of both bands would come. And they have come. Of course there’s been some times where there’s a distinct split between the crowd. But that’s par for the course. You’re never gonna completely avoid that. Of course the world would be a great place if everybody kind of took everything.

CM: Has it been difficult sort of making the transition from the slower, sludgier Melvins set, going into your guys’ high energy, fast-paced one?

BG: Well I don’t know about that. I mean is that really a thing? I don’t know whether it is or not, because both bands are always gonna do what they do, and damn the consequences. I wouldn’t say, from my perspective, it’s difficult at all. Because I take this into my stride. I don’t let ‘em bother me, you know. So no difficulty for me, really, to any degree.

CM: Moving on from that, you’ve now been doing this in Napalm Death for over 25 years and in the metal scene closer to 30. You’ve still got a distinctive kind of voice, kind of roar on record. How do you keep your voice in shape going into middle age? 

BG: Well, I don’t really do much. You know, everybody always kind of isolates it to the voice, but it’s not. It’s more than that—it’s the body. If you take care of yourself, many times the voice will take care of itself too. If you, like, really drink to excess every night, which is quite easy to do on tour, of course, or you just neglect yourself generally, you’re gonna make life a bit more difficult for yourself. You’re gonna increase your chances of breaking down in terms of your voice. But another thing to say is that everybody…not everybody, but there’s a certain percentage of people that think that it’s all throat, what I do. It’s not. I actually sing like a traditional singer. I breathe from the diaphragm. And that’s kind of essential if you want stamina, if you want projection, because you wouldn’t be able to do it with your throat alone. Imagine how the muscles are in the throat—if that was all throat, what I do, you wouldn’t last five minutes. You’d just break down.

CM: You guys have kept releasing albums at a pretty consistent pace. You’re touring a lot. Are there any signs of slowing down?

BG: No, no, not at this point. If you’d have asked me in 1989 how long I’d be doing this, I’d probably say I’d give it a good couple of years. You know, something to remember the rest of my life. Little did I know that nearly 30 years later I’d be sitting here. So, you know we’ve been the kind of band who…I’ve seen a lot of bands fall by the wayside when they didn’t really need to, you know what I mean? When they could’ve persevered and pushed on. But we always have this spirit of perseverance. We always valued what we do too much to give it up. And sure enough, if we were making what we thought were half-assed records, or live we were just going through the motions, I wouldn’t bother anymore. I wouldn’t inflict that on people. So if that ever comes then yeah, sure enough.

CM: Were there any particularly big hurdles you guys had to clear? Musically, financially, anything like that to keep going?

BG: Well in the early days, there’s an English saying, we didn’t have a pot in which to piss. It was rough. I was living on peanut butter and toast for a couple of years, more or less. Musically, yeah, we went through kind of an experimental phase in the ’90s, which threw up some interesting stuff, but also arguably didn’t have the required attack at points, for me. So that was tricky. You’ve also got to remember that the scene in general in the ’90s, the heavy music scene was dead in the water. I think it’s fairly accurate to see that from sort of mid-90s to late-90s it was not buoyant, you could say. But again, we decided that we weren’t gonna let it kill us after. We just kind of played through.

CM: What is in the near future for Napalm Death?

BG: It’s just touring, really. We’ve got lots of interesting possibilities, certainly no shortage of those. We have a standing guitarist at the moment because Mitch is not able to play with us for the moment, so any kind of recording is a little more tricky, because it’s not until we know what’s happening with Mitch. And so, yeah, it’s just the touring thing really for the moment, and see how we go.

CM: Is Mitch dealing with like a health issue?

BG: Just general issues. It’s one of the things in life where things have stopped running smooth for a while and you have to deal with it. So we kind of let him go on hiatus and see where he is. People keep pressing us, “Oh, Mitch, it’s a bit of a long time, when’s he coming back in sight?” I’ve already said to people, it will be for as long as it will be. There’s no time limit on it. And then, when us and Mitch decide that it has to be addressed, then that’s something we will do. But for now, it is as it is. I don’t mind talking about it, there’s just not much I can say. I’m certainly not gonna go into the personal side of it with Mitch, because a) I don’t know much anyway, and b) if anybody’s gonna talk about that stuff, it’s gonna be him of his own volition, you know, not going into that.

CM: You guys are obviously well known as a very political band. Over here we’re, as I’m sure you’re aware, in the middle of an extremely contentious political race. Do you have any thoughts on the presidential race?

BG: You know, I would always say that the point of Napalm Death being a political band is always up for debate. Because where we’re coming from is a human point of view. Politics is kind of secondary. Although personally, if I was to deny that I lean to the left, I’d be telling a great big lie. But I think we look at things as a bit more random than that, because politics can be very tokenistic. But sorry, I’m digressing a little bit. Yeah, I’ve been quite plain, I think. I support Bernie Sanders. I think his vision is a different vision—actually what America’s needed for quite some time. to address the issues of inequality. I like the fact that he stands up for the people that don’t get stood up for. Yeah if you’re an entrepreneur, you’re who we stand for. If you’re not, you gotta take the scraps for the table. That’s not how things should be in a civilized world, so I very much like what Bernie Sanders is saying, and the bullet points that I’ve read on his agenda. And a couple of places we’ve actually had his volunteers set up a store in the foyer.

CM: My one last thing that I feel sort of obligated to ask is, do you have any thoughts on Prince passing away yesterday?

BG: There’s a couple of things to say about this. I always found him very interesting. Not all of his stuff is amazing, to be fair, but the way he kind of conducted himself sometimes was so bizarre. He almost conducted himself like an underground band. Like he wanted to be anonymous, like completely anonymous at points when he put something out. I actually thought it was pretty novel, some of the stuff he did, for such a major, major artist. And some of his stuff is super quirky, you know, it’s super weird for a mainstream recording person. So hats off, really. But you know the other thing is, is that people die. I’m gonna make a general point. It has gotten a bit [over the top] lately with, you know, such things being said. My grandma died not too long ago, and she was a great person, and I don’t see too many people acknowledging that [laughter]. So, you know, you’ve gotta remember that these people by and large lived quite a privileged life, and they didn’t have it so bad in life. But then on the other side, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. Life’s…everybody can be troubled, if that is what it happens to them. So there’s a number of things around it. I think it’s a loss to music, because out of mainstream recording artists, he was one of the more interesting, I think.

Travis Marmon

Travis Marmon

Travis Marmon moved to Chicago from Clarkston, Michigan in 2014. He is a freelance music writer who has contributed to Noisey, Alternative Press, The Good Men Project and Chicago Music’s sister site, Ruby Hornet. He plays bass in a doom metal band, Flesh of the Stars.

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