In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Though Napalm Death is renowned for its short, fast songs—considered by many to be one of grindcore’s pioneers—it took nearly a decade for its lineup to fall into place. Napalm Death’s membership had always been in flux, highlighted by the band’s iconic debut, Scum, featuring different lineups between the record’s two sides. Things solidified in the early ’90s, with Mark “Barney” Greenway becoming the longest-lasting and most distinct voice of Napalm Death on 1990’s Harmony Corruption.
Since then, the band has continually pushed the limits of its genre as well as fan expectations. In the past decade, Napalm Death has released some of its most savagely accomplished records including 2015’s Apex Predator—Easy Meat, its 15th album, which offered another batch of blistering, socially conscious compositions. Napalm Death is currently wrapping up a tour with Melvins and Melt Banana, two bands with different approaches to aggressive music but that share a similar ideology. Here, Greenway talks about three tracks that span his time in Napalm Death, each one as riotous and thought-provoking as the last.
Song: “I Abstain” (Utopia Banished, 1992)
Barney Greenway: It was written, really, to underline something. It’s a concept that I’ve kind of failed to get to grips with over the years, because it’s about nationalism. But in the sense of how people are so protective of flags, and I always felt that, to me, it’s become almost more about that than people in a lot of cases. That’s incredibly disappointing to me as a human being. Because when symbols like that are put above the regard of people, I just fail to understand it. I’ve never understood why it’s so important to demonstrate yourself as being so dedicated to a particular flag or nationality or whatever.
It really was a tough one on me because sometimes it causes almost hyper-aggressive, protective sentiments. I’ve just really, really struggled to deal with that. I’m obviously from the U.K., but I’ve never been patriotic and I’ve never felt the need to be patriotic, because I’ve always valued people of any kind of description above my nationality. And the U.K. has just as shameful a history in terms of imperialism as many other countries do, so I’ve never felt the need to live in the past with that stuff.
When it was written, around about ’91 I think, there were some places in the world, including the U.S., where there was a trend going on at the time to be very nationalistic. The whole Aryan Nations thing was quite strong in the U.S. at the time, and that somehow infiltrated itself into the kind of heavy music scene. I remember being in the States and we had a lot of problems with this kind of ultra-right wing sentiment because we always spoke out against it. Always. And that caused us problems. It was fairly depressing at points, knowing there was a good possibility that you might have to fight your way out of a club night after night, you know? As you can imagine, that ceases to become fun after a while.
My feeling about that hasn’t really changed, especially in the light of everything that’s going on in Syria, in terms of people migrating across the continent. I feel no differently now. People are people and everybody deserves to live in dignity, and nobody is above everybody else, you know? Especially when you bring flags and borders into the equation.
AVC: How would you deal with people, both then and now, that would meet your songs with a violent reaction?
BG: I mean, my reaction is a little different these days. I kind of do consider myself to be pretty much a pacifist. I don’t think violence really ever solves anything and I also try to accommodate people’s opinions more. I try to understand that, however abhorrent a viewpoint I might find it to be, I do try and understand that people do genuinely have those sentiments. Of course it gets different when there’s a direct physical threat to either myself, or people that I know, or people that have been victimized because of those sentiments. That then gets a little tricky to deal with by purely being philosophical about it. But I try my best. Back in the day, it wasn’t quite the same. I wouldn’t think twice about picking up an instrument if we were on stage and hitting someone with it, I must be honest. I’m not proud of that. There’s certainly no machismo behind that, but I used to get so angry about it. When you’ve been directly threatened, when you could get injured, you needed to fight back. Otherwise it could be problematic. But I try not to these days, I just roll with it, and I make fun of it, actually. I just blow kisses to people and stuff. [Laughs.]
Song: “Atheist Runt” (Smear Campaign, 2006)
Influence: The evolution/creationism debate
AVC: This song was originally a bonus track on Smear Campaign and it shows a very different side of Napalm Death. The band is often known for incredibly short, fast songs, but this one is a really slow, brooding thing.
BG: I think it comes from the side of the band that we would consider, if you want to put a label on it, kind of post-punk, noise-pop kind of stuff. When I say pop, people might go, “Hmmm… What?” But yeah, it’s that kind of Swans, Killing Joke sort of very brooding, slow approach. It has a real creeping, creepy sound to it I think. But the lyrics themselves, that whole album is pretty much 100 percent, exclusively pro-free-thinking. Whichever ways you might pick from that description.
“Atheist Runt” was about friends who were biology teachers in the States, and I remember them telling me they’d been victimized purely because they were trying to teach evolution to students. And I just thought it was really brave, because they were really steadfast even while they were getting dogshit through the letter boxes, and all kinds of stuff just for trying to teach the most reliable scientific explanations for things. And perhaps not teaching creationism, which was starting to really come onto the agenda at that point.
So that song looks through the eyes of somebody who is a free thinker but lives maybe in places where, just even being a free thinker, there can be a social stigma to it. I actually took some of the lines directly from biblical and other religious terms, like pillars of salt and stuff like that. I almost imagined a person that was a nonbeliever or a free thinker sort of being stared at by the general community and turning to a pillar of salt, as in the bible. So I like to use that, because at the time—well, now still—but I’m not as maybe provocative toward those people as I once was. But you know, I liked using those biblical terms because it almost makes a mockery of these things, which are, in essence, incredible stories, but have no grains of truth behind them, if truth is determined by any basis of concrete fact.
So that was my whole thing with that, too—to understand the pressures on people that choose to think freely. It’s what really angered me in the States with Planned Parenthood and stuff like that. I had a friend that was a voluntary director, in Texas of all places, at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and he just got into the habit of moving the house every three months. Because when enough people found out his address, it was really time to move, because life wasn’t fun for him, obviously. And he told me that they were constantly under threat of bombs and like some really… some people lurking around the clinic on a daily basis being really threatening. So you know, all that stuff to go through just to give what is a basic human right, somebody’s sexual health and human choices. It’s ridiculous.
AVC: Is part of what’s being explored here the way that certain people present themselves as virtuous human beings but are often quite dangerous and violent when opposed?
BG: I mean it’s just the continuing hypocrisy of religion. I don’t want to say all people with religion, because of course people with faith are quite entitled to their faith. That’s not my point. My point is not to question people’s faith. The point is when it encroaches on civil society. I have the belief that it should actually be, as is written into the Constitution, I believe, that the Church and State should be separated. And no religion of any description should be allowed to enter into civic matters. It’s not their business by any stretch of the imagination. It’s incredibly sad that these people who consider themselves so righteous do the things that are probably the most unrighteous things you could ever do. If righteousness actually does exist.
Because the whole thing about morality, it’s another great big sham to me. Morality is an invented term. It’s just invented to suit some people. Morals only suit some people when it suits them. I just think it’s completely inhumane and it’s another extension of the kind of inhumanity we see around the world. And the funny thing is that these very same people would be the first thing to condemn the actions of groups like Islamic State—and, of course, so do I—but they’d be the very first people to condemn it for doing more or less the same things. Albeit in a different setting.
Song: “Cesspits” (Apex Predator—Easy Meat, 2015)
Influence: People on the other side of the technological gap
AVC: This seems to focus on people turning a blind eye to those less well off, especially in regard to the disparity between those manufacturing things like phones and computers and the people who use them.
BG: You’ve hit the nail on the head, mate. Straight away, yeah. Here’s the thing: A cesspit, I don’t know if it translates the same in the U.S., a cesspit is basically like a—it’s almost like an overflow tank. You get old houses where cesspits are used because they don’t have a proper drainage system, so all the effluence and stuff goes into a pit basically and you empty it periodically. That’s what a cesspit is. Does that translate to the U.S.? Would it be the same?
AVC: It would have a pretty similar translation, yeah.
BG: Literally, crap goes in there. I mean it’s human waste a lot of the time. But it could be also animal waste as well, and all kinds of things. I was kind of drawing a parallel. The imagery there was that you have people living in cesspits. And that is actually quite true, because in some countries, some people literally live in ditches on the side of the road. Maybe not cesspits themselves, but pits minus the waste, more or less. The point being that, although it’s not intentional, sometimes I think it almost suits those in the more affluent countries in the world to have a percentage of people still at that level. To have people really about as far down as you can get because it keeps a certain balance. If you keep those people like that, then you have a natural balance to things. And then what you do is you throw them consumer goods and stuff, to make them think that their world is somehow enhanced, that they can lift themselves out of that because they might get gadgets, or clothing, or this and that. We dangle things like carrots over them, even though they’re pretty much on the bottom of the heap.
It’s actually quite convenient to shield your eyes from what’s going on somewhere else, because it keeps the status quo almost. And we do it unintentionally sometimes. I’m not necessarily saying people endorse that separation intentionally, it’s just kind of the way things are. And I guess the conclusion to it is that the whole concept around the album is about labor exploitation, but also about, how do we stop this? How do we get to a place of equilibrium where everybody can live with dignity, and doesn’t wake up in the morning wondering where their next meal is going to come from and all the rest of it. So there was quite a few angles to it, really.
AVC: As you said, it’s not always intentional. It’s sometimes an unintended consequence.
BG: Let’s not beat around the bush: Some people don’t give a shit. They don’t. But I think the majority of people do. But, unintentionally sometimes, we do forget what’s going on. We almost shield our eyes from it because it’s almost too much to take. But these are the brutal realities of life. I’ve traveled a lot around the world, in some really bad places, and it was frightening the level, and the amount of people, that were in that situation. It really was. And I just think it’s obvious to everybody that we can’t go on like this. It’s unsustainable. You can’t. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do realize somewhere, at some point, it has to change. We can’t go on with one part of the world being the provider of our goods on a very cheapened basis, and the rest of us kind of take those goods and then when we’re finished with them we ship our crap right back to them. I can’t see how that can continue for another couple of lifetimes.
AVC: It speaks to the need—or at least the desire—to keep up. A phone may be in good working condition, but it’s technically obsolete.
BG: Exactly. You know there’s always a human cost somewhere down the line. Me personally, I try and do it differently. I’ve had a phone now for several years and I get it repaired if it breaks rather than going out and buying a new one. Same with anything I’ve got. I always run it into the ground. My eyes aren’t dazzled by the latest piece of hardware that’s advertised on television or whatever. I’m sort of very mindful of that.
But there’s other areas too, things like foodstuffs. The whole thing with palm oil that, in particular, people should really keep their eye on because it goes back to something that’s been a concern for probably 40, 50 years now with the rainforests. When you start talking about rainforests, some people kind of roll their eyes and go, “Not this again,” but what people don’t understand is that that is our oxygen. In particular, that part of the world, that is a great contributor to the air that we breathe. And not just in South America and Central America, it’s a natural cover for all of us. And this threat, with the deforestation for the palm plantations, because palm oil has become such a major ingredient in a lot of foodstuffs, that they’re losing so much of the rainforest right now. And we’re losing primates as well. Orangutans are really severely threatened by that. So these are things to think about because it benefits all of us in the long run. I think people still, after all these times, have failed to recognize that.
AVC: How does it feel to talk about these songs, some of which were written decades ago, and they are still just as topical as they were then?
BG: In some ways, it’s kind of disappointing to think that the human race hasn’t moved on and learned from its mistakes. So it’s disappointing in that sense, but of course I do feel a small—I allow myself a small glimmer of pride that we, Napalm, have contributed to putting this out there into our little microcosm. Which is the heavy music scene or whatever. I’m quite proud in that sense, but the bigger picture is that those things are still going on and it’s disappointing, really. Maybe some people might call me naive to think that these things could be resolved. But you’ve got to. If humanity means anything at all, let’s stop this fucking nonsense. The way people treat each other to get ahead, the power grabs, people killing other people en masse… it’s just sad.
AVC: In that way do you feel like Napalm is the constant in the heavy music world? Always there to kind of keep people in check with these things?
BG: No, I wouldn’t put it just down to us. There’s many other bands as well. We couldn’t take all the credit for that. And let’s pull a positive out of this: In the scene, and in the world at large as well, besides the negative connotations of a lot of the things we spoke about, there are a lot of people that do care and do make the effort. There are a lot of people in the scene that are endorsing these things. Even if their bands might not be as explicit as Napalm is, they do have that general undercurrent. And that’s great. People are trying. There is quite a large number of people that are trying, and so yeah, I feel quite positive about things as well.