Napalm Death: Louder Than Words
UK grindcore veterans Napalm Death, slated to make their India debut at the
Bangalore Open Air this year, on being a humanitarian band
It’s not very often you’d see a grindcore band draw a bigger audience than chart-topping pop punk artists, but that’s exactly what happened to UK metallers Napalm Death when they debuted in Indonesia in 2004. The previous week that year, Canadian pop punk artists Simple Plan and singer Avril Lavigne were in concert, but Napalm Death frontman Barney Greenway says his band drew much more than them. Says Greenway over the phone from Dortmund, “It just goes to show, that the appetite for less commercial music is a lot stronger. I was fucking blown away, to be honest.” Greenway has a few more stories to share including the time their festival set preceded American rock band Styx, which made him laugh, considering Napalm Death have been around for nearly three decades now, flying the grindcore flag high. The band has stuck to a genre, by Greenway’s own admission, has seen fluctuating interest levels and gone on to become peers to the likes of death metal band Cannibal Corpse. Greenway believes that more than audiences, it’s bands that can keep grindcore alive. Says Greenway, “Every bands’ circumstances are different. Apart from the music, people just like to think that bands can push to the extreme. [That] it’s not safe, there are no rules. I think people appreciate that about music in general because music can become very sterile sometimes, I guess grindcore is kind of the antidote.”
Napalm Death have been supplying that antidote with a strong social commentary in all their albums ”“ from taking on organized religion [2006’s Smear Campaign] to anti-capitalism [From Enslavement to Obliteration, 1988] and now, on human disregard, on their 16th album, Apex Predator ”“ Easy Meat [out on January 26th]. Greenway says it was influenced by the Bangladesh factory collapse at Rana Plaza, which took the lives of over a thousand workers in a garment manufacturing building in 2013. Greenway says he’s never afraid to speak his mind and won’t hold back even they’re visiting India, for the fourth edition of metal festival Bangalore Open Air, slated to take place in June this year.
RS: Your new album is influenced by the Rana Plaza Disaster in Bangladesh. What was your initial reaction to the event?
Barney Greenway: The first thing to say, usually, when I make an album, or even an album title, it can be quite a process of elimination. But once that [Rana Plaza Disaster] happened, I had already made up my mind that I have to write about this. First of all, the fact that the coverage of the event in the UK, when you compared it to other disasters, I thought that the coverage was comparatively minimum. That to me suggested that somehow, I got the feeling that life was somehow considered to be a little cheaper in that instance. I thought that was pretty outrageous.
Couple of other things as well ”“ first of all, the fact that the people who owned and ran the factory knew that something was going to happen. The warnings were there. You have to ask yourself, then, why did they force those people back to work? Because that was surely, the start of the inhumanity. The second thing was that the major clothing companies who had a stake in that place had to answer for it, it was like, total gestures. They said, ”˜Oh yeah, we’re going to set up a fund’ and all that, but it’s not enough. It showed how the whole structure, the supply chain for the developed world has to change. Those conditions aren’t acceptable for anybody to work in.
I think there’s a huge difference when say, a Hollywood film recreates a disaster like this and when a musician writes an album about it.
I mean Hollywood can look at it in a different way. Napalm Death are often classified as a political band, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I think we’re a humanitarian band, actually. I don’t mean a humanitarian band in the sense of what governments will tell you is humanitarian or humane. Very often, what governments tell you are far from humane [laughs]. I’m looking at it from the point of view as firstly, a band and secondly, as a private citizen. You know, in the rights of workers. I’ve been through that stuff myself. I’m not a Hollywood actor or something like that. I’ve been through these things myself. Nothing on the scale of Rana Plaza or even close, but I kinda know what these things are like. For me, it’s a human issue, no matter where you live. People might say, ”˜I don’t care, because I don’t live there,’ but I’m a human being and I care about other human beings, so why would I not have an interest in stuff like that?
What would you say was one of the most influential historic moments that inspired you to write?
It’s hard to pin it down to one specific thing. I think not only Napalm, but lots of other people as well, would say September 11th. Not necessarily the actual event itself, because there was much paranoia after 9/11. I think a lot of security forces around the world used it as an excuse to come down harder on people, and that was problematic, for countries that believed in liberty and freedom of speech and not to be harassed by the State. Also, culturally, how different people began treating each other, so that was a turning point, in our lifetime.
How does a concept tie in with the album, beyond the lyrics? What went into making Apex Predator?
The first thing to say is that it was quite a nice, artistic paradox. We have really violent music but then, we have lyrics which are very peaceful, very humane, so there is a paradox there and I like that, actually. It’s a good thing. There is a very distinct writing process in Napalm Death. I come up with the concept or a rough concept when we’re thinking of the album and that can be before I’ve even heard any of the music. I come up with something, I put it to the guys and they tell what their thoughts are. Then the music is written by the individuals and we take it from there, really. The other guys in the band ”“ we are all different human beings ”“ but they all endorse the stuff I write. Everybody goes in unison towards the objective of finishing the album.
Napalm Death is playing in India in June. Does traveling around to new countries inspire you in terms of themes to write an album about?
Sure enough. It’s our first time in India, but I would treat it as I would anywhere else in the world. I’m not afraid about the things that need to be spoken about. To be honest, we’re going to have a song on the new album about the caste system in India, which I feel is scandalous and really needs to be scaled back and disappear completely. It’s not just acceptable that some people are born into this world to be restricted in the way they live their life.
What is your setlist for the India show going to include?
It would be a mix of everything. As you may well know, Napalm Death goes back to 1987, so there’s 15 albums to deal with. So that’s quite a spread of stuff. As much as we do everywhere else in the world, we’ll make a setlist that is representative of every era of Napalm Death.
Napalm Death is closing in on completing 30 years as a band now. That’s such a huge history. What do you think helped the band survive?
In terms of Napalm Death, it’s straight-up perseverance. Napalm Death wasn’t a career choice, you know [laughs]. It’s not the kind of thing you choose as a career, but the love of music and the chemistry between the members and the perseverance of the band just kept us going all these years and also the confidence that we can make new albums that are good.
How do you think Napalm Death will be remembered down the line?
I just hope that we’ll always be remembered as a band that always gave 100 percent, you know? I wouldn’t be insulted if people didn’t say, ”˜Oh Napalm Death, legendary band’. It wouldn’t be a problem for me. But as long as they understood that we always gave a 100 percent and that we were never afraid to speak our minds or do what we needed to musically.
Death metal and grindcore have also survived for three decades now. Do you think it will survive?
Hard to say. There were times in the Nineties when the interest levels really dipped. But then there was a resurgence in about 2000. Music interest stays and goes. That applies to all music in general as well. It depends on what other styles of music come along to compete with it or whatever. It’s really an unanswerable question. In terms of Napalm, we’re going to continue. There’s no plans for us to slow down and speaking for ourselves, there’s a clear future.
Anything else you’d like to add about coming to India?
I guess I’m looking forward to coming to India. We did a gig in Nepal but we never got in to India. It’s going to be interesting. I’ll be going in with a completely open mind, so it’ll be good to actually see what’s going on the ground ourselves, you know? I hope to see more of not just the fucking tourist areas. I want the real India, because it would be quite interesting to see the things that aren’t are always there.
This article appeared in January 2015 issue of ROLLING STONE India.
Napalm Death performs at Bangalore Open Air alongside Inquisition, Belphegor, Undying Inc, Gutslit and more on June 6th, 2015 at Jayamahal Palace Hotel, Bengaluru. Tickets: Rs 2,000. Buy here.