By Kyle Harcott
When Napalm Death made their much-anticipated trek across Canada last fall, I set my sights on sitting down with vocalist Barney Greenway, as he’s someone I’ve long admired as an elder statesman among forward-thinking, politically-minded metalheads. With the now-released new Napalm album Utilitarian still a few months from release, Mr. Greenway and I sat down to chat on the date of their Vancouver stop, last October 27th, over an undrunk cup of tea at Hastings & Main’s Ovaltine Café – where we managed to discuss the band’s world travels, politics, heavy metal’s birthplace, Napalm Death, and Utilitarian.
It’s been, what, twelve years since you played Vancouver last? And you were saying, it’s been twenty years since your last Canadian tour? How have things gone this time out?
It’s been great. Not every international band does this, so we always try to do things outside of regular gig circuits. It gets tedious touring the same places over and over. Part of being in a band is that spirit of freedom and adventure; and to me, part of that adventure is going places that are not your standardized kind of thing. A 23-date, cross-Canada tour is definitely not a standard thing to do. Most bands do Toronto, maybe Montreal. And even when bands did tour Canada in the past, did they ever really do more than five or six shows at most?
Well, yes, that’s just it. For every one amazing show Vancouver gets, it seems like Toronto gets about ten.
Sure – and even less so when you go out into the middle of the country, to the satellite towns where they NEVER get shows. So our shows were firsts in a lot of places. We’re glad to do something like that, outside of the norm.
You guys recently got back from Russia, playing some pretty far-flung locales.
Yes, one of the shows was in Vladivostok, about 100 kilometers from the North Korean border!
How have you seen Russia change since Napalm first went there in 1991?
Well, for one, it was still the Soviet Union the first time we were there. Bands hadn’t really been there, certainly not independently. I mean that whole Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989 was corporate.
It’s worlds apart from when we went the first time. Russia’s changing but like any society it’s got things bubbling under the surface – some pretty nasty things that you don’t want to think about. You know, freedom of expression -despite what people might say in the free world- is not as free as you think it might be. But in Russia there is also a very distinct kind of… wariness… in people, to really say what they feel.
Would you say that wariness comes from a history of an oppressive Communist state, of secret police?
I’d say it goes far beyond that. Communism is only a small part of it, it’s a general authoritarian thing where… I think in many countries, including the ex-Soviet countries, if you look at the political systems technically, in term s of political science, they were never really ‘communist’ systems anyway, they were actually state capitalist. Per the definition where you have five or six people who act as the State, controlling the assets. TRUE communism is an equality-based system where nobody’s left behind, where you barter, and if you’ve got more of something than I have, then we trade. You know, commune, kibbutz.
Russia is [still] very feudal; I hate to generalize about people but in Russia I do find there’s a real willingness to be aggressive, to show your aggressive side if you think someone’s done you over on something – you’ll fight if you need to; it’s really like that. When you mix that with an authoritarian state it’s quite scary sometimes. There were some human rights journalists and activists in Russia who came to quite a sticky end. There was a human rights journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was writing about the atrocities committed in Chechnya by the Russian forces; and one morning she walked out of her apartment, somebody walked up behind her with a pistol and that was it. It goes to show you how easy it can be – if you speak too loud, then you’re a threat. I know that’s not exclusive to Russia; this is an inherent problem in any power-based government, those who have the power will do just about anything to hold on to it. People shouldn’t kid themselves.
Speaking of kibbutz, I wanted to ask about Napalm’s experience in Israel earlier this year. You were quite vocal in saying you didn’t want to go. Was it ultimately a band decision to go?
Yeah, well – there was a lot of pressure brought to bear. I mean, I had to consider the other guys in the band too – so we ended up going. I ended up doing some good stuff while I was out there. The things that people don’t know about our trip there is that I made connections with people in the solidarity movement, and did things that will pan out in the future, that will go beyond Israel. But it was still very difficult for me.
Would you go back?
I would have to seriously think about it; I never say never, but there would have to be certain other conditions come in to play for me to go back there. Because I have NO quarrel with the PEOPLE of Israel, but I DO have issues with the way their armed forces operate. I don’t condone violence. I hate to pick sides about stuff. Nor do I condone violence committed against the Israeli people either, but I think you have to stop somewhere; some time this shit has to be called to a halt – however that’s going to happen. People don’t HAVE to die over this stuff. Israel using its military might to encroach on places where Palestinians are living legitimately; it’s just got to stop. I know it’s a complex situation but that shouldn’t get in the way of moving forward.
Was this the first time Napalm had gone to Israel?
No, it was our second time there. We played there long before any of the stuff had really blown up. And even then I was very much opposed to the idea. But at the time there wasn’t the level of suppression there is now.
And, hey, metal fans are metal fans no matter where they live.
Well yeah, exactly! So I never make the distinction when someone asks about ‘Well, what about this audience in this country?’ Well, they’re people just the same as the people on the other side of the border.
Getting back to the forthcoming record, I want to know: Having the established working relationship you guys have with producer Russ Russell, was the approach to recording any different this time?
No, it was kinda the same as the last one. But there was a LOT for him to do this time though. We kind of worried for a while that he wouldn’t be able to get it all together in time, but it’s worked out pretty well. The reason why were sitting here talking about it now and it’s still not finished, is because there was SO much to do, so many more tracks to complete. We recorded 20 tracks this time. So he had a lot to do. It’s still got to be mastered – but it’s getting there.
As for the sound? It continues in that vein of moving forward in small steps without losing what is essentially the bedrock of the band: fast, chaotic, and off the rails.
I thought I had read there is a loose concept to the record?
Yes. We hadn’t come up with a title for a while, but we have one now, so I think I can safely say that the albums going to be called Utilitarian, and it’s based on the theory that actions DO affect the greater good. It’s complex, because there are many, many points of view on what utilitarianism is, even among the people who espouse its ethos. I would ask that people go and read up on the concept. [In a nutshell, it’s where the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome.-KH]
My whole spin on it is, if you take the basic definition, we -Napalm Death- are utilitarians, in the sense that we base our lives, our decision-making-process on what we do, and how we interact., ethically. For me there’s ALWAYS an ethical decision to be made, because sometimes our actions go unseen. We could do something and not even realize the consequences it has somewhere else. So most of my decisions, I stop myself and think and ask myself: Am I doing enough, socially-consciously? Am I really making a difference? Is anything I do going to make any shred of progress? To help alleviate things like people waking up the next morning wondering where their next meal is gonna come from. I go through great periods of self-doubt in relation to these ethical questions in my head.
Throwing those questions up into the air, I came to the conclusion, ‘Yes, you should continue to do it.’ One voice is one voice, and even if there’s only EVER one voice that does it, then that’s one voice that reminds those that hold the purse-strings right now that there are STILL some of us who won’t take things as they’re spoon-fed to us. That we DO know there are some really heinous things that go on that are dressed up like normality, that you have to resist in whatever way that might be on your own level. Otherwise we’ll have an even bigger dictatorial monopoly than we do now.
The album’s quite a psychological analysis in some ways, and I think that’s good, because I could write ten or twenty albums about straight-up social issues.
It does lend a certain authenticity if you’re writing it from a personal standpoint as well.
Yes, of course! So it’s both, general and personal politic. I mean, really, isn’t politics just ultimately a realization of the humane, the humanitarian? One thing for me is that –and this is not a moral thing, this is pure humanity, nothing to do with morals at all- as human beings we have lost sight of our own humanity, because on one hand we have things like religion, which for me takes the human out of the ‘human being’. We don’t trust in ourselves anymore. We trust in something else completely ethereal, nonsensical- to me!- that has no substance. But if you take a look around you today, generally in the world, you realize that people will do just about anything to get ahead, including doing some really inhumane things to their brothers and sisters.
While you guys were onstage in Victoria the other night, the Oakland Police moved in and began using lethal force on the Occupy Oakland group. Have you been following the Occupy movement?
I have – where I can. From the road, a lot of the time we don’t have internet access – so I haven’t seen a lot of it. I’ve seen the main headlines in the news, but of course the news will only tell as much as it wants to. The only thing I can say at this point without full possession of the facts is, this had to happen. It had to. It was about time; because unfortunately right now, we are stuck with certain governmental systems. Like it or not, we have the State.
I’ve heard all these anarcho-syndicalist arguments about ‘smashing the state’ and whatnot, and, after all these years, I’m still not sure where I stand on all that. There are certainly aspects of that anarcho-syndicalism that I wholeheartedly truck with; there are other aspects I don’t. I think they’re just a little naïve, still – unrealistic. But speaking in terms of achieving more equality? I’m all for it.
Unfortunately, we have The State and that’s the way it is at the moment, and so be it but within that framework, the current system of having this small percentage of people owning everything and that small percentage’s wealth growing exponentially as the gap at the bottom grows wider and wider, with more and more people becoming impoverished – it’s unsustainable. It cannot go on. It has to snap at some point.
There has to be a balance.
There has to be, and it’s tipping right now, I think – depending on how these Occupy movements pan out. Here’s the example I always give: Look at the very bedrock of our current governmental systems around the world: Ancient Greece, Rome – those empires were thought to be unbreakable and infallible at one point. But they crumbled very quickly. Who’s to say the same won’t happen again? Sure, maybe not in our generation, but perhaps in generations to come. We might arrive again at a more egalitarian approach to things. But ultimately, this had to happen. These people at the top think they are immune, that they can do whatever they like, that they can ruin people’s lives – it’s got to fucking stop.
2011 has been a big year for people fighting back: the riots in Greece, the UK, Egypt. So I was curious to ask if you’d heard about Vancouver’s riot last June.
No, I hadn’t actually.
It appeared to be the actions of a bunch of drunken loogans upset because their hockey team had lost, so they took to trashing the city.
Well, that’s the tribalism/feudalism thing that happens. One thing I’m always really wary about is pigeonholing certain people; I know it’s very easy to do that. But those people are going to be part of the solution in the end as well, so we kind of have to be inclusive, you know? And while I know that maybe sounds a bit hippy-dippy, but we’re trying to get away from this elitism.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I certainly recognize and respect the need to fight back against oppression, and Vancouver has a great history of activism, but this was an entirely different situation altogether.
And point taken, certainly; but I guess I’m saying that, if things DO move forward, everybody’s going to be involved. What you don’t want is for a situation to develop like the French Revolution, where the masses simply killed anybody that they thought was from the elite. Again, don’t get me wrong, on one hand the French Revolution was a very necessary thing; there was a lot of oppression of the poor and starvation and real cruelty. But things have a way of quickly swinging to the other extreme, where you get mass slaughter and unnecessary violence.
Regarding the actions in Greece and Egypt, do you stand in solidarity with those movements?
Yes, absolutely! Because how else are we ever going to get redress? I mean, the bankers are allowed to commit these acts that can effectively consign so many people to either abject poverty, worse than ever, or even death, starvation. So they’re allowed to do that, but a few people aren’t allowed to go out in the streets and express their rage? And again, I am not for pointless violence, but direct action is our right as human beings.
I’ve read a little bit on your personal stance on peer-to-peer file sharing, in that you are supportive of it, and I wondered f this was the general consensus among all of Napalm Death?
I’m not sure, actually, we don’t tend to talk about it all that much. My viewpoint remains, I don’t have a problem with it generally. The only thing I would say… We’re NOT Metallica, so the first few weeks of an album’s release we rely on those sales. Not for profit, but certainly to pay label back for the costs. So it does hurt us when people that can afford to support the record don’t buy it. I’m not going to say otherwise, it really does. But, later on down the line, whatever, okay, I can live with that. I mean, some kid living in a remote country, without two pennies to rub together, whatever… I’d rather you HEAR my music than not.
Has your stance ever affected your relationship with your label?
No, I speak my mind. I mean, I wouldn’t care anyway, to be honest; the label wouldn’t expect me to. In all fairness, Century Media are very, very understanding and supportive of us. That’s why we recently re-signed with them, because they understand there are certain things, ethically, that they could tell us and we would simply say ‘No. We’re not doing it, end of story.’ No question –this is the best label we’ve worked with, hands down. The support they’ve given us has been great. For what they give us to work with financially is easily balanced by what they do promotionally.
So what is it about Birmingham in your opinion that makes it the perfect birthplace for heavy metal, as opposed to say, other industrial towns?
It’s funny; I’ve got quite a viewpoint on this that people might not expect. I do struggle with it sometimes because I think it’s overly romanticized. I don’t know if you’ve seen the whole ‘Home of Metal’ they’ve got going on at the Birmingham Museum?
I’ve been reading about it.
It’s a great exhibit: Artistically creative, brilliant. But there was a certain element creeping in, I felt, that was really overdoing it. The point is that, yes, fine, it happened in Birmingham, it’s an industrial city, it’s a working city. And personally, hey, I come from that, that’s my background. But, come on – it could have happened anywhere! That’s the point. When people start saying things like ‘Oh, it must be something in the water’, come on, let’s get real. There’s no magic explanation to it, it just worked out that way.
It DID also happen in towns like Sheffield and Hull, but Birmingham’s a second city, so automatically it would get more focus than those other towns anyway. I love Birmingham. I’m from there. I live there, right in Sabbath’s old neighborhood – Aston, Handsworth, Perry Barr, Great Barr- I’ve lived there all my life and but I tend to be realistic about stuff like that.
So, as the year end fast approaches, I’m curious to know what you’ve been listening to most this year.
I’ve got to be honest; I would struggle with giving you a list. I haven’t been listening to a massive amount of music this year – certainly far less than I did last year. Here and there, I’ve heard some good stuff, but I know that that sounds really jaded! The only thing I would say immediately, is that the most recent Trap Them record [Darker Handcraft] is really, really good. It took me some time to finally get to it, because I had a lot on my plate when it came out. I know those guys pretty well, and I honestly thought they were going to do an album that might have been slightly… not less intense than their previous one, but maybe a bit more restrained? And the way it kicks off, the record’s fuckin nuts. So that would probably be my only pick for the year. I’m sure I heard a lot more good stuff, but that’s the one that stands out most.
Finally, and this is as an aside more than a question, I’m sure I once saw –circa mid-1990s- a photo of you in Rolling Stone magazine, hanging out with Steve Perry from journey. But I’ll be damned if I can find that photo anywhere on the internet? Have you suppressed it, Barney?
Ha ha, no, certainly not! I have the original photo at home! Yeah, that was pretty nuts, man. It just all worked out completely coincidentally. I mean, I’m a rock fan, right? I like a lot of different stuff, including Journey. And this was well before the entire Journey thing blew up again – I mean, no one fucking cared about them in the mid-‘90s. The bad part of it is, we were bought out by Columbia through Earache. Not out of choice, but it happened. But one of the small fringe benefits of that deal was that we got to meet some interesting people that we otherwise would not have usually met. So I got to go to a Steve Perry rehearsal! It was a birthday present – some fucking birthday present ! [laughs] I didn’t expect it, I certainly didn’t ask for it, but that’s just how it worked out.
What’s your best/ worst memory of the whole Columbia/Earache debacle?
The best would most certainly be the people we worked with, because I have to say, major-label or not, the people that were actually on our side were fantastic. They were the kind of people you would want at any indie label, because they did things for the right reasons. Alternately, there were a lot of people there who just did not give a fuck – from day one.
The worst thing about it, was just realizing that a major label had signed us! I was just like, fuck me, this is going to set us back like two or three years, and negate all the good work we’ve done over that time. And lo and behold, after the deal happened, the bottom dropped out and we were fucked. And for the next couple of years we had to do everything over; it was a nightmare. And I made a pledge after that: In no way, for my part, would I ever put my name to major label contract again. It does not serve Napalm Death in the slightest.
Yet -interestingly- an entire generation of fans (myself included) came to know Napalm Death as a result of their signing to Columbia, with the release of Fear, Emptiness, Despair.
Yes, sure, and therein lies the paradox. I get that, but if people could actually see behind-the-scenes, that deal wasn’t fun for the most part. But we did work with some great people at Columbia, who became friends and always will be, those are the really good memories I’ll take with me.
Utilitarian is out now on Century Media