Interview: Barney Greenway (Napalm Death)
All he wanted was food from Souley Vegan. Chicken-fried tofu with gravy and mashed potatoes specifically. Mark “Barney” Greenway of Napalm Death, clad in a Swans shirt and rocking a dirty cast on his right arm, sat with me for a few minutes at the Oakland Metro, patiently waiting until he could stop by Souley Vegan, a deliciously sinful vegan restaurant located just a block from the venue. As a fan, I see Barney as the spastic, hyperactive man-bear that has spewed venom on some of my all-time favorite death/grind albums. As a writer, I see him as one of my most challenging interviews: an outspoken, well-informed individual that has the evidence and articulation to back up his views. At the end of our chat though, I could no longer see Barney as either of those people. I could only see a hungry guy that really wanted to engorge on some Souley Vegan. Everyone has their vices I suppose.
So what’s the story behind the cast on your arm?
Oh, I was running to get some food, ironically before some interviews in St. Paul, Minnesota. There was black ice that I didn’t see, so I somersaulted. I put my hand out and it took the brunt, so otherwise it would’ve been my leg, and probably my hip too. I broke a couple of bones and damaged a couple of ligaments.
If your leg or hip had broken, would you still perform?
I’d still give it a go. I got hurt badly once onstage, I had hyper-extended my tendons. That was like . . . my legs turned into elastic bands. I had pneumonia onstage once. I felt like I was on another planet.
One topic that much of Apex Predator - Easy Meat centers around is the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013. My interpretation of your message was that you see the textile workers that were killed as the “easy meat” of society. It seems obvious, but am I on the right track here?
That’s exactly what they are. The image on the front, it’s the image of cheapness. That plastic packaging you see at supermarkets, it’s just nasty. To me, it’s like the ultimate symbol of cheap, plasticized, industrialized food. It comes back to those workers, those that are in the labor system, that don’t have protection. They’re the easy meat.
I wonder how things may have turned out if they had unionized protection like they do in some countries.
Well, unions would be several steps down the line. First and foremost, if you discount unions, they were in unsafe working conditions. Unions or not, that building was clearly . . . something major was about to happen. They were basically forced back to work -- they were effectively murdered. The ideal outcome, or one of the ideal outcomes, was that all workers get union representation. That would be a long process, but I think ultimately if you want to protect people on all levels, that’s what you have to have.
I was actually referring to the aftermath of the incident, when the workers and their families received no compensation or reparations. They had no way to legally defend themselves.
Yeah, exactly. These big textile companies, they make these token gestures, “We’re going to put in this much money, blah blah blah,” but that’s just like putting a stick of plastic on an amputated limb. It’s like, there needs to be a culture change. People cannot be treated as dispensable. If you go to work and you earn a wage, you should be, as much as you can be, protected from danger. Secondly, the working conditions, given your ability to do that job, should be controlled. Thirdly of course, people should be paid a living wage.
Here in California, there’s a big debate about the minimum wage.
It should be a living wage. That’s the important thing, a living wage allows people to live with dignity. Basically so they’re not in poverty.
But what some companies will do is raise the wage, but not grant sufficient hours.
We have a similar thing in the UK called “zero-hours contracts.” When people say, “If you raise the minimum wage, companies will do this,” then there’s a simple answer: Stop the companies from doing it. Put a legal framework in place, don’t allow them to do those things. Why is it that we have to have legal debates over treating human beings like human beings? What the fuck, you know what I mean? It sounds kind of ridiculous because it is.
Maybe I’m drifting here, but I often hear a similar argument for veganism, which I know you practice. Treating living creatures like living creatures.
For me personally, yes absolutely. They’re sentient beings. But it is a slightly different thing. With veganism or vegetarianism, everyone has to do it at their own pace. You can’t expect everybody to blankly fall into a certain way. As long as people are educated about that stuff and where their food comes from, then that’s the starting point and you hope people will move along from there.
So how does the business end of Napalm Death reflect your personal and political beliefs? Someone made those shirts at the merch stand after all.
Obviously, our merchandise is fairly produced. Our prices are still good for the kids, you don’t have to overcharge to have fairly produced goods. When we tour, there are instances where promoters might have arrangements with companies. For example, in Asia, cigarette companies always try to get in on the act. I always try and say to promoters, “We did not consent to this. Tell these people to go away.” I’m fairly insistent about those things. So I mean yeah, we do the best that we can.
Are you familiar with the comedian John Oliver? He did a huge thing on Philip Morris Inc. and Marlboro. He kind of pointed out how they were suing small countries like Uruguay and Togo for trying to place strong anti-smoking warnings on cigarette packs.
That’s right. The power of some of these companies is limitless, because the culture has allowed them to be this way without any redress. That has to stop. I think all across the board, companies and corporations have to be controlled. Some of the stuff they do with immunity is just unacceptable.
I hate to keep bringing up these horrible things, but corporate influence on politics is actually pretty much legal here in America. I’m sure you know of Super PACs, which more or less allow corporations to funnel unlimited money towards the politician of their choice.
That shouldn’t be allowed either, lobbying of that nature. It should be restricted to basically environmental causes and personal politics. Corporations should not be allowed to infiltrate into economic politics and the legal system.
As terrible as these things are, I almost want to say that it creates for more inspired music. I think art flourishes when there are things to fight against, people become more passionate.
Sure, but I’d rather not have them than have them. You have to remember, this isn’t just one chapter of history where there’s unsavory stuff going down, there are many certainly stretching over the lifespan of our band. If it isn’t what we’re talking about right now, it would be something else. The world always gives opportunity for some people to really put one over others, for whatever reason, for whatever situation, for whatever scenario.
Fair enough, but I personally heard Apex Predator as one of Napalm’s most pissed off albums yet, even though some bits are pretty out there. The clean vocals in “Hierarchies” and “Cesspits” come to mind.
But they’re still extreme, and that’s the point ultimately. To be honest, it’s nothing we haven’t done before though. Okay, we’ve moved a couple of steps onwards, but it’s nothing new for us. The sort of stuff you referenced come from bands that in some cases predate Napalm Death. Well, Swans is the one that always comes up and bands like Throbbing Gristle too. All weird and wonderful bands, not metal and not even punk arguably, but a different kind of extreme.
So it was kind of revisiting albums that you liked before you even got into the real heavy stuff.
Whatever records that jumped out from any periods of our life to be honest with you.
I’m sure you’ve noticed this yourself, but it seems like there’s a new appreciation for the late '80s/early 90s Earache bands. Carcass, At the Gates and Godflesh are back, Bolt Thrower did their first North American tour in 20 years not too long ago and Napalm are more popular than ever. Why these bands from that label and that era, and why now?
We’ve never stopped, we don’t get a break. [Laughs] Well, good for them! You got to remember, when you go away for a while, it always builds a certain expectation for when you come back. And now, we’re gaining momentum as well. We never did anything differently, and we never sought any commercial advantage through any particular methods. We only did our way, and that was it.
Personally, I would say that Napalm’s had a very tight musical focus since Enemy of the Music Business especially. That’s when you started working with Russ Russell, and he’s produced all the Napalm albums since then.
Well, I think the albums before then were also good, just different. You can produce an album a thousand different ways. But yeah, everything since has been compounded since Russ came onboard. He knows his stuff and he knows us.