Latest album: Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Century Media)
More than thirty years since he took over the microphone from Lee Dorrian, Mark “Barney” Greenway still believes passionately in Napalm Death and its mission. That mission has always been to examine, critique, incite, vilify and deconstruct the worst aspects of human nature and while they have worn various musical guises over the decades, those guises have always been extreme. In the grip of what many are suggesting is the most politically contentious time since the end of the Cold War, Napalm Death have unleashed their sixteenth album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeat, a weirdly timely album that tackles many of the humanitarian issues currently facing populations around the world in the thrall of COVID-19. We caught up with Barney to discuss the themes of the album and his own personal view of the world.
First of all, Barney, I didn’t realise that it has been five years since we’ve seen a new album from Napalm Death.
We actually started this album process in September 2017, so it’s been quite a bit less than that, but there’s obviously been touring and flogging ourselves to death on the road, so it’s all worked out in the end.
I had someone say to me that they thought you were trolling the fans a bit because all the songs you released ahead of the album were a bit unorthodox for Napalm Death.
I would say that stuff you’re referring to isn’t that different. If it is different, I would say it’s the songwriting and chemistry, I think, after all these albums, always improves after each release, so what you’re hearing is a more amalgamated, arguable more focused interpretation of the big raft of influences of Napalm on this album. The ones that we have put out so far have been on the more out there, leftfield on the sonic spectrum for us, but those influences have always been there. They’ve never not been there – the Swans, the Killing Jokes… I could reel off a list of names… I wouldn’t suggest it was trolling people, because to me that suggests something negative, and I don’t think there’s anything negative about the kind of diverse overall thing of this album.
I’m sure what he meant by that is that people were probably expecting to hear the fast ones!
Oh that’s definitely there! People might say that we play the fast stuff now because that’s what’s directly connected with the band. That’s not the case. We play fast and furious because that’s what we want to do. I love that stuff. Half the reason I joined Napalm in the first place is because it was the only band that spoke to me like that. Just chaotic, fast and furious, almost like an untethered beast. That’s what connected me with the band. It was already one of my favourite bands when I joined, and that’s why I’ve always continued to be enthusiastic about it.
It’s been thirty years since you joined the band, and obviously Napalm Death has been going longer than that, and you keep sticking to your guns. It’s not like you’ve gone in this radical directional change where you decided you wanted to do an acoustic album or something like that!
We could do something like that, but it has to be abrasive, confrontational and extreme. If we made an acoustic record, we could make it like that, because if you give something a Napalm twist, it can be like that. I could imagine us doing a really fucking noisy acoustic record! Anything’s possible, mate. This is my point. There are no boundaries. You can always cast your net wide, as long as you understand the overriding artistic objectives of these things, you can do whatever you want. I think the more personal point to make, it’s not the kind of music you make, it’s what you do with it. The whole idea of Napalm writing a song to try and crack a certain market is a bullshit concept and I’m not interested in doing that.
You don’t exactly cover light subjects, do you?
No, but I don’t actually gauge how light or heavy they are. But by their very nature, they are contentious. I’m not afraid of that. The trouble is, as human beings I think we’ve got to a point where you’re almost nervous to stand up and project things that are contentious. The human race is already stuck in a rut, and unless you do tackle these things, and when I say tackle these things, I don’t mean to necessitate the firing of weapons at each other – and I think the arms trade should be completely abolished – but if we can’t tackle things and stand up and say things, then where are we, as the human race? It seems to me that’s a very, very worrying situation.
You’ve never been afraid to tackle those issues, and there are some extreme political issues happening throughout the world right now – the pandemic, obviously and all the trappings of that, but you’ve been going through this Brexit thing in Britain now for years! You would obviously have some thoughts about, am I right?
Yeah I do. I was never a fan of the EU institution or the way they operated. I’m not sure how many people know the intricacies, but when Spain and Portugal and Greece had some problems in their countries in terms of people really struggling, people were going hungry en masse – a significant amount of people. It seemed like the EU then punished those countries with punitive measures. I didn’t think that was the way forward. If you’re in a union and you have people in the union, you don’t penalise people like that. The first thing to do is to assist them, to help the population. To not be wondering where their next meal was coming from. So I was always a bit critical of the EU for that. That being said, not for an ethical point of view, but from a European solidarity kind of thing, that should radiate out into other countries and other nations, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not just about protecting Europeans. This whole solidarity thing is a really good concept. This whole Brexit thing has a real nasty undercurrent of this kind of small island protectionist idea. It’s really come to the fore a bit, and it’s really depressing. It quite concerns me, this whole, on pain of death we must have our sovereignty thing. I’m not patriotic at all. That doesn’t matter to me. For me, it’s people first, and flags come a very distant tenth! If you’re my fellow human being, that’s all I need to know.
Coming from the punk scene originally, how much does it concern you that there seems to definitely be a rise in fascism throughout the world right now?
Punk scene or not, everyone should be concerned about this. But you’ve got to be a little bit careful about this. Fascism is a certain strain of thing that is particularly nasty and murderous. Not everyone’s a fascist, and the reason I say you have to be careful about this is because, the people who literally espouse those fascist ideologies and actions, those are the people you really have to focus on. Sometimes people will point a finger at someone and shout Fascist! It’s like an instant response, like a reflexive response. And you’ve got to be careful with that. Because you can alienate people who would be opposed to that whole ultra-conservative, nasty stuff. But where there is that fascist ideology, it should be cancelled.
My main concern with this album was governments that are leaning towards that side of things. We have a couple of governments here in Europe that are quite cheerfully using language to further dehumanise already marginalised people. We have a government that is talking equally about refugees as pieces of rubbish while proudly proclaiming that there are cities in their country that are gay-free zones as if it’s something to celebrate a cleansing of the population. And while some people may disregard it, you’ve got remember that there were some very charismatic people in the 1930s in Europe who used that kind of language as a starting point to lead to a situation that was effectively mass murder. It’s a very clever process, to get to that point: social isolation, social exclusion, social violence on the streets, and then mass murder. People say to me that it’s not like that anymore, and that it’s not going to happen – Don’t kid yourself! If that sort of language and that sort of mentality goes on and on and on and on, it’s a very real prospect.
So when I first started thinking about what we were going to do with the album, I arrived at that point. I have to did this, I have to talk about it, I have to expose it, and as usual I wanted Napalm to be the antithesis, to stand up and say No. These are fellow human beings! This is not acceptable.
Do you think that the current global pandemic has exacerbated those situations and made it worse in some places?
Yeah… it’s interesting you say that. People have said to me during this interview cycle, You’ve got a few songs on this album that could be associated language-wise with the pandemic. But no, we would never write about a pandemic There’s no hook for us, in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. That being said, the way people are treated because of the population, the distribution of health resources, etc., comes back to the same problem. The worldwide distribution of resources and how you are perceived as a person: your social background, your racial standing, your ethnic standing, your cultural standing – these are all factors in the way health resources are distributed. I can’t speak for Australia, but in Britain, those who desperately needed food and shelter before the pandemic are in the same situation, but worse off, even.. This addition of the pandemic to most of the population throughout the world has only highlighted the idea that, at a global level, there needs to be a redistribution of wealth. It can’t be this same old story that’s thrown out there: Well, if we let these big corporations and rich people generate the wealth, it will trickle down. It never does. It never does.
The message of Napalm Death has never really changed after all this time. Does it ever concern you that people don’t seem to take any notice?
Well sure, but people do take notice on a certain level, from the feedback I get from people. But we’re just a pebble in the ocean amongst many other thousands of people who are trying to do things in the same direction. We are artistic, some people are doing things in a more solid way, and I use that term loosely. But the point is, don’t give up If you give up , the status quo just gets preserved. Nothing ever changes. At least we’re giving it a go. At least there are people, from the feedback I’ve got down through the years, that have taken things from what Napalm Death says, so I don’t see it that way. I think we’re doing good things. So why would I give up? If all the people who were making steps in the direction like others gave up, that would be disastrous.
You were talking about refugees earlier. We lock ours up here.
Yeah I know about that! It’s disgraceful, those conditions. I know about that situation. I try to follow everything… I try to have a worldwide perspective on the worldwide characteristics – I just don’t see how you could call that, in any way, humane. And mate, you have to take the Aboriginal situation into account. I do study Aboriginal affairs in the context of the wider population, and I don’t think there’s enough progress there. It needs to go further, and faster.
All of those issues you have tackled through the years, environmental concerns, animal welfare, religious hypocrisy… they are really about trying to make the world a better place. If someone was to summon up your mission, would that be it?
I basically want a world where there is a quality and dignity for everybody, not just a few people. This is the point People feel threatened, sometimes, when you say that, but what they don’t understand is that if my voice is worth anything, I’m arguing for you. As much as I’m arguing for these people who don’t have what I’ve got or what you’ve got, I’m arguing for everybody. To pick one point out of it – the situation we’ve got, that there is a significant part of the world’s population that wakes up on the verge of starvation. It’s been widely broadcast that we’ve got enough food to feed the whole world, that’s it. End of story. Do I need to say anymore?