“Activism is not a fashion accessory… For me it’s more of a lifetime thing” – An Interview with Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway

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Chances are you didn’t watch the BRIT awards in 2020. I didn’t. Neither did the frontman of the seminal Birmingham quartet Napalm Death, Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway. It doesn’t matter as by and large awards shows are pretty much irrelevant to the world of heavy and confrontational music, however there was one appearance that has been inescapable with good reason. During a performance of Black, rising rap star Dave called out the incumbent UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, as being racist. It was a bold statement to make on national television and a sentiment that a proportion of the United Kingdom agreed with – though of course such a stark declaration has caused divisions of opinion. Having the opportunity to speak to Barney in the dressing room of Electric Brixton, it seemed a prescient and thought-provoking way to start our conversation.

“I mean, here’s the thing, I don’t know Boris Johnson personally so I can’t say whether he actually is [racist] or not, but power leads people to do things that are fucking pretty despicable and he has done some fucking despicable things along those lines, so therefore I wouldn’t be fucking surprised if there was an element of that within him. But I can’t make a blunt statement like that because it’s too obvious, you know. So, I would use that kind of line against people that I know were really fucking racist actually, where I knew 100%” he asserts “but I mean, Boris Johnson, that guy fucking sways whichever way the wind blows. One day he’s against racism, the next, well he kind of is but it’s okay to do this or do that kind of certain thing like racially profile people and I mean… yeah [laughs]”. When asked as to whether he believed that the issue of racism in government – remember, Islamaphobia and Anti-Semitism are rife amongst both sides of the UK’s two-horse race – is systemic, Barney went on to say that “it’s not a systemic thing entirely, it’s wider than that; it’s a human issue and the point is that it’s deeply ingrained in us you know? And some of us understand that and do something about it and understand that we aren’t actually that way, but it is ingrained in us if that makes sense. So, it’s definitely there, but it goes beyond even the parliamentary system, you know, but that being said I’ve heard Boris Johnson and people aligned to him making some fucking shocking statements. During the time of Theresa May there were those ‘Go Home’ vans, I mean that’s just fucking… that’s what they used to – quite frankly I’m always a bit loathe to call people Nazis and point as it’s too easy actually, and it’s not accurate, but when you’re doing that sort of thing, that’s the tactics that Nazis did use, the soft tactics that they used, and are we saying that we’ve allowed ourselves as human beings to get to that level? I mean it’s, to me, that’s inhumane and I mean it’s a wider problem [than just parliament].”

Napalm Death’s socio-political lyrics are an intrinsic part of what makes the band as beloved as they are. Yes, the music is utterly magnificent, intricate and crushing in equal measure, but it’s the thoughtful and intellectual approach to the global political climate that has always made the band stand out from the crowd of extremity. Barney is often seen sporting and Antifa t-shirt on stage but is quick to point out that “it’s not a fashion accessory” a point he is adamant and passionate in making. “A lot of people use the term activism, which I’m a little bit uncomfortable with because it almost sounds like a jacket that you put on a hook, that you just put it on when you wanna get things going a little bit. I don’t wish to be demeaning to anybody, but for me it’s more of a lifetime thing. See I don’t have periods of activism personally, my whole perspective is dedicated to people being equal, people living with dignity and being treated as such. That’s where I am as a person. So yeah, those shirts do say something but then it’s not like “Oh I’ll stick on my Antifa shirt to look good today”, it has a real essence to it of realising what certain things, certain systems can do. All systems tend to be hierarchical, so they’re all bad in one sense or another, but obviously National Socialism was a particularly virulent, horrible, murderous regime more than most, so when I put that shirt on, I’m saying “No””. Antifa has been on the rise concurrent with populism and the far-right. Having recently been condemned as a terror group in the United States, I wanted Barney’s take on the rise of populism and right-wing extremism in the West, though he seems somewhat irked as he tells me “Mate, it’s everywhere, it’s not just across the Western hemisphere. This is the mistake that people make sometimes, that they don’t realise that nationalism is fucking rampant in other countries. It fucking is man. You go to Japan, you look at the anti-Chinese, anti-Korean sentiments in Japan… Japan is a great place to be, great place to go but it has this nasty undercurrent, you know what I mean? A lot of other countries across Asia where certain other minorities are rejected, look at what happened in Myanmar to the Muslim population there; they were completely fucking burned out of their homes, murdered. Look at what happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, this isn’t exclusive to the Western hemisphere it’s fucking everywhere. Governmental nationalism can be powerful in any country across the world, it’s not a western thing, and people should understand that it’s not exclusive to this part of the world”. You can feel this man’s passion and energy emanate through the room – and hopefully from the webpage from which you are reading. It soaks into the walls and the faux-leather sofas on which we sit, a condensation of inspired intellectualism that mists over the conversation. There’s a brief pause as he collects himself and perhaps realises that my blinkered view is not through ignorance, but simply a lack of experience. Barney is a kind man and an educator, and as his fiery soul settles to a more relaxed state he goes on to add; “that being said, yes, you go to certain parts of the world, you go to Hungary for example and you have a very, very strong nationalist sentiment. You have a Prime Minister [Viktor Orbán] that stokes up literal racial hatred and also hatred of people that aren’t heterosexual. It’s the way it’s going. This stuff, it gains momentum, you know. It’s not great [laughs]”. Not great is right. Frightening is perhaps more accurate.

The conversation to this point seems prescient to the global situation, and given Napalm Death’s ability to tackle the world’s problems with a specificity lacking in other bands, it was only right to ask if these views would inform the up-coming and as-yet-untitled new album. “Here’s the thing; what you’ve got to be careful of, or should I say what I consider we need to be careful of is that we don’t want to just make blanket, generic statements. Because let’s face it there are, thankfully, thousands of bands out there that have made these kinds of statements against racism and stuff, we have too, everybody does. But you’ve got to use it in such a way that it latches on to something, so in a way, in essence it’s got to be reasonably topical. So, the new album is talking about “the other”. Fear of “the other”. Unnecessary fear. Unwarranted fear of “the other”, so of course we have the refugee “crisis”, and my basic point is; it’s fucking people we’re talking about. This is not like anonymous collections of matter this is people like me and you. Cut them some fucking slack. Our ancestors went into those countries and fucking completely stripped them of resources, erased their cultural identity in some ways, and you don’t expect that those people across the ages are going to want to come and settle in the country that took them over? Because that’s the reason they’re going to, and why not? So, there’s that, there’s fear of people who define us as something not traditionally definable, and again, we’re all just fucking people. So that’s just two things that are on there, really. So, it is topical because this is an album about recent times”. On the topic of labels, I posit that Napalm Death is more of an art-project than it is a grindcore band and that it is a narrow view of their body of work to say so. Barney retorts happily “I don’t object to people calling it a grindcore band. You know, honestly labels and stuff I try not to lose any sleep over. The one that kinds of gets me is when people say “Oh, well you’re a metal band”, and it’s like “Hang on a minute”. That’s just one small sliver of what we do, look at all this other stuff that’s going on. But again, I’m not going to jump fucking up and down about it, you know [laughs]. But thanks, yeah, I consider the band to be an art form – I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant – and other people in other bands likely do too, but the reason I say that is because you see some bands who are brilliant live, invariably good on albums but then other parts of the band, such as the way they portray themselves in the artistic sense, like pictures or videos is never quite the same. So, what I’m striving for – I don’t know whether we succeed in doing it – is for the whole Napalm Death thing; albums, live, pictures, videos to be finished to the point where [we’re fulfilled]. It’s like with some bands, [some things] are here [gestures a high bar with one hand] and other things are there [gestures lower with the other hand]. I want everything to be there [gestures a very high bar with both hands]. So, yeah, I would agree with you that it’s an art project, some people might say that’s a little bit pretentious [laughs]. Everyone’s entitled to their own perspective as I’m entitled to mine”.

When asked if latest single Logic Ravaged by Brute Force will appear on the new album, Barney tells me he doesn’t “think it [will] actually. We were discussing it because we try as much as we can to make things exclusive for people. I hate this thing where people say “Yeah, you’re going to get some exclusive tracks” and then like three months later they appear on something else. It’s like “I thought these were exclusive?”. Of course, we never made a statement that Logic… was going to be exclusive to that single, but it looks now that it is, and we’ll just put another track in place of it. Obviously, that’s a good thing. More tracks when people buy the album”. The accompanying cover of Sonic Youth’s White Kross piqued the interest of listeners – Napalm’s penchant for covers and wide breadth of influences is well known – and many – including myself – wonder if the noise-rock angle will inform the new record. Barney laughs and assures me that “mate, that single, the Logic… single is just a snapshot of what’s already done. It runs the gamut, the Napalm Death album that’s coming”.

Asked about the reaction to the new material Barney says “I don’t look at stuff online, I’m not online , I’m not on social media and stuff like that, but people have told me that [some] people are already like “Oh, what are Napalm Death doing? This is not Napalm Death”, and I’m like, hang on a minute, if you know anything about Napalm Death, you’ll know the albums are very varied within the framework of very confrontational music. Why are you rushing to judge? If you don’t like the song, the single; I appreciate your opinion and your opinion is completely valid, but then to say “Oh, Napalm Death have sold out”, it’s like Sodom sells them down the river before they’ve heard the album. Lad or lass, do yourself a favour and fucking think about it [laughs]”.

The Campaign For Musical Destruction tours have become a staple highlight of every year that they occur on. Always intriguing with their choice of outfits, Barney reveals that when picking the bands “it’s not an easy one, because you have a wish list of bands and you go to all of them, and you’ve got to remember this; the band world is a microcosm of the outside world. That’s all it is. So you get some bands that don’t want to play ball, you know, don’t want to tour with that line up and they might be a band you think “God, I really want them to play on the bill”, and they kind of don’t see what’s in front of them. And that’s fine, again I’m not being dismissive of people, but it can be disappointing sometimes because there are some bands you really fucking want to play with. I’m not going to name names [laughs], but it’s like, that being said this line up [Eyehategod, Misery Index, Rotten Sound and Bat] I think is stellar. It’s reasonably mixed, I mean you’ve got Napalm, Rotten Sound, Misery Index which people will argue is three really fast bands, but you’ve got to remember is if you look a bit closer at the stylistics of the bands, Napalm death is very different to Rotten Sound. I would argue that Misery Index is a lot more metal than Napalm, so there are differences and I think people like that. Who wants to see the same bands in the same genre? We used to do it back in the day, but it only goes so far”.

With such a healthy crop of bands to choose from for their various touring cycles, I ask Barney about his thoughts on the state of heavy, confrontational music in 2020. “Here’s the thing, it’s absolutely thriving and flourishing. Are my opinions on it any more specific than that? Quite frankly, no, because here’s the thing; of course, I have as valid an opinion as anyone else, but I’m not like a grandfather of extreme music looking over the top passing down judgement. I believe in the organic growth of scenes, let it fucking do what it needs to do. Napalm will do what it needs to do within the scene and step outside when it needs to into whatever the scene might be. That’s it. I’m really actually kind of ambivalent about it. Taking it one step further, as a music appreciator, there are things that I love, things I’m not so keen on like anybody”. Of course, with such varied line-ups and a band that has been inspired by everything from Swans to Crass, it was time to ask what Barney had been listening to and round out the chat. “I’ve been- maybe a bit of an obvious one- I’ve been revisiting and going back to You Fail Me by Converge, which is great. You Fail Me is a great album. Lack of Interest, don’t know if you know them at all, really kind of fast breathless stuff. And Explosions in the Sky, that more ambient stuff. Arguably not that extreme but very ice cold and desolate sounding music. The Birthday Party; Nick Cave’s old thing. Again, maybe didn’t start out that extreme but turned out being that way. I can’t think of anything else [laughs]. It’s not an age thing, but as your experience becomes greater, you’ll give anything a go”.

Napalm Death’s sixteenth studio album will be released in 2020 via Century Media Records.

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