INTERVIEW || ex-Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris on Scum, Scorn and the hell of urban living

Before getting round to talking about the imminent reissue of Napalm Death’s now 25-year-old [iconic/seminal/etc.] debut Scum, the Deciblog is engaging Mick Harris in a discussion about his favorite fish—the barbel. You see, Napalm Death’s drummer from the years between ’85 and ’91 has long since put his sticks down, and—in his words—has dropped out of the music scene, retiring post-Napalm electronic project Scorn in November of last year, and he sounds kinda content to stay out.
A lifestyle built ’round river fishing at weekends and working in a college through the week has afforded Harris a peace of mind that he is loath to disturb. To all of us who were introduced to the blast beat by Harris, that he is not making music with anyone seems like such a waste—especially that said untutored blasting isn’t being put to riffs and growls. But poring over his memories of Napalm Death’s inception, and the recording of Scum, we get to the reasons why Mick Harris isn’t playing drums any more… And, y’know, they make sense. His nine to five/rod and line family man existence seems at odds with classic archive footage of him demonstrating the sort of hyper-enthusiasm that made him the driving force of Napalm’s beyond-fast grind evolution into grindcore via punk, but he seems to have changed little other than today’s Mick Harris finds little solace behind the drumkit.

You’re still living in Birmingham, yet you love the outdoors, your fishing: did you not ever want to move to the country like Justin Broadrick did?

I’d love to. I’d love to but I’ve not had a career-break—I hate that word—like Justin, so it’s never been possible, no chance. Financially, there’s absolutely no chance. My partner and I live in a council house, with two children, so absolutely no chance. One year, we’ll make the move to the seaside. There’s no way I’m going to stay suffering in this shithole city that I hate—‘cos I hate Birmingham, for pretty much the same reasons as Justin does. The thing is; I’ve been here for a very long time and I’ve seen it change. It’s just getting worse and worse. I’ve never made money and the music that I’ve created is never going to generate money; there’s never been that backing. Justin had that backing and luckily it worked. His music appealed to—I can’t say masses, but a wider audience, being guitar-based, whereas Scorn was, as some people said, commercial suicide. But it was all I wanted to do.

Was Scorn the ideal outlet after Napalm?
For the ideas that I had, I needed to make that move. Some people think that it was a crazy move, just as grind was maybe starting to go places, do something, but I’ve always been an experimenter, still am; I’m someone who just loves sound. I still love sound and just want to keep pushing, pushing and pushing. I think everybody knows that’s the reason why I left Napalm Death.

And the city, and more to the piont, hating the city, I guess would have informed Scorn’s sound as much as it did Napalm’s?
It’s what’s created the music. It is what created Napalm; it added to the whole Napalm [sound], and with Scorn too. That whole escape I think comes out within the music. It was just a good release—Napalm certainly was a blast, a good way of getting the anger out. And it was the same with Scorn except with the bottom-end, that mantra and punishing bottom-end pulse. It’s just a way of getting the tension out.

Those same feelings of disillusionment with urban life etc. are still there—would you consider playing extreme music again?
That’s a really difficult one. As you can imagine I get asked every day. I have to be honest, it’s a mental health issue and it’s not an easy one. I live with it on a day-to-day basis; so I’d say no. John Zorn might get me on the drums one day, because we still keep in touch and he’s the only person that I ever managed to sit down with, and he fully understands my situation without judging me. I already had a lot of respect for John, and for the amount of years I’ve known and worked with him. He’s still in touch and has never judged; he’s offered me a hell of a lot, and I had to step down from it. It’s an awkward one for me because you can never say never… There’s a possibility, and that’s all there is. I don’t know.

But couldn’t you take a project with there not being any pressure, on your lifestyle or your work?
The thing is—I hate my drumming. I’ve got a real issue with self-hate and it’s a hard one to battle with, y’know, when it’s a day-to-day battle. And you’ve got to get over that one before you can even think about picking up a pair of sticks and wondering what you’re going to do with them. When I pick up a pair of drumsticks up, which is most days at the college when I’m giving them to another drummer or something, I will have a tap on the drums, most days. Well, most days, but that tap is very short and the amount of hate that is in that room when I play and when I leave is just…. I hate my fucking drums. I hate the way I play them. It’s a big issue. It’s not something I need to go on about; it’s a personal problem that I have and one day I might get over it because I still think I can do it. There is a little bit of doubt there but I still think I can do it and when someone like John Zorn still has faith, and understands the blocks and the walls that are preventing me, that’s good enough for me. I tried a year ago. I tried with a guitarist and at first I thought it was good, but it wasn’t, it just wasn’t. I thought, “I can’t do this”, and that was three years after stepping down from having a go with an Italian band that just went to shit. I still enjoy sitting behind the drums. I still enjoy having little go but there’s just so much hate there, so much fucking shit.

You’re meant to feel better after playing; it would defeat the purpose to just force yourself back right now.
Yes, thank you. That’s why I like working with the students, because you see the smiles, and you feel valued there. From my experience and skills and so forth, but eventually they know, ‘cos every year we’ve got new kids coming in for another year or whatever, and they eventually find out that it’s Mick fucking Harris from Napalm Death. They usually get a few words out of me before it’s like, “Leave me alone. Don’t go putting YouTube on. I don’t need reminding!” Haha, no, but they’re good; it gives me a smile to listen to them. What I love about them is that they practice, practice and practice—I didn’t. I was a self-taught drummer. That is part of what made Napalm, what Justin used to say then and what he’d probably say now that I’m hyperactive. I was just this hyperactive kid who had a lot of energy. It wasn’t like I’ve gotta be better than this person or that person, it was just I gotta play faster! Attack it harder, Harris! It was just an extension of who I was, my personality. Very little has changed so I know if I did get behind a kit I could have a bit of fun; now is just not the right time.

Did the hatred of your playing come after Napalm?
Yeah, that came much later, about ’98. Prior to then I always had confidence issues—that’s me, since I was a child, but the self-hatred came ’98, I think, when I stepped down from the Painkiller project. Painkiller didn’t do a great deal but that was my last drum project.

It must have been incredibly powerful playing with Napalm. You were playing an extreme style that no one had done before. The post-gig/rehearsal adrenaline must have been amazing.
That energy back then was like a whirlwind. We wrote the songs so quick there was not enough time to think. There’s too much time to think these days. Everything’s got to be perfect. But that’s another argument; I don’t want to go into how it’s done these days. But with us there was a danger element. We were unrehearsed. We just went in and did it as quick as we could. The Peel Sessions proved that, especially the first Peel session. We were in and out an out in hours, 12 songs—I love that production; I just think it’s fantastic, no overdubs except the vocals done after. Perfect: that’s how it should be done, and it’s the only way I know how to do it, live, no clicks and certainly not to use Pro Tools to cut and paste. Not to knock Pro Tools because it’s just a recording medium but it’s just the way it has been abused.
Do you think bands today are trying too desperately for perfection?
I just hate that squashed to shit drum sound. What am I, a dinosaur? No. There are a lot of people out there that think that. Pro Tools is not the issue; the issue is why they need it to be so perfect, metronome perfect? To cut and paste sections… Just bloody play the song—you gotta play it live anyway! I don’t understand that mentality of it just having to be the perfect product. I just wish they’d go into a nice room and blast it out, very little messing about, very little EQ: they should know their instruments, their tone, their tone on the bass, on the guitar… They should just be able to get into a room and dish it out. It was hard work [with Napalm], with me and my little peanut head the headphones kept on slipping off—we had to gaffer tape them on! “Could I have more gaffer tape, please!” If you put a metronome to any of the Napalm records I played on it would be shockingly all over the place—that doesn’t worry me. That’s the human element and that is lost these days because it’s so perfect.

You might have been raw and unschooled as a drummer; but there are few if any who could replicate that energy with that feel.

Back then that’s just how it was; I had this energy. I wasn’t down on life or anything. I just loved it, being behind the kit and doing it as good as I could. The very little I did at home didn’t last long because the neighbor just didn’t like the drums being played. I tried them in the shed and he still complained. That was it. All the rehearsals I managed were with Napalm—we toured so much, like in soundcheck you’d have a bit of time, have a bit of a tap, and that was it. I never had a practice pad or a pair of sticks at home; it was just tapping with my hands, listening to records and getting influences and trying to do your own thing with those influences.

Do you think it is impossible nowadays for a group of kids to get together and change extreme music to the degree that Napalm Death did?
I just don’t think the danger is there. We were three naïve kids. Nic was getting a university degree; Justin wasn’t doing anything other exploring his love for music and it was the same for me. I dropped out of chef school at college. It just wasn’t for me. I was a good chef but I was useless at the academic side. Music was not what my mum and dad wanted. My dad said “no chance” and my mum said, “Give him three weeks, Pete, and it’ll all be over.” And that was that; I joined the band. I was already in a band called Anorexia, but Napalm was playing gigs, and I was enjoying that. The rest is history. It has changed so much—it’s so splintered now. Back then it was all DIY. Everyone was helping each other, sharing things and whatnot and that was what was so good about those days. At the all-dayers, everyone was just sharing and helping each other, bunking up together, hitching to gigs.

Is that DIY ethic something that we’ll be getting back to?

There is a sniff that that’s what’s happening. It should come back. Just from me working at the college I’m hearing things that the students are trying to put together more nights on, and doing different things within those nights. There are definitely more pubs starting to let promoters come in and use the back room—they need to, just to get people through the doors, whether it’s a 50 or 100 capacity. It certainly needs to happen. I mean we are lucky with the Internet—there’s a medium for putting something across—but as far as taking it to the streets I think that DIY ethic is coming back. There are more guitars being sold. For a while there were more turntables getting sold than guitars but there are definitely more guitars these days. DIY is the only way the scene can come back

Scum was so important to everyone, in career and life terms; do you understand the other guys being a somewhat reticent to talk about it?

It’s a shame they don’t want to get involved, and have never gotten involved, but at the end of the it’s politics with the record label. Earache did nothing but good for me, and it’s a simple equation: my cousin pushing me along with punk; when my cousin went to university he introduced me to John Peel, and Peel opened the doors to music for me; and then Earache was the only label that was interested in taking on Napalm because Dig [Digby Pearson] was the only person who saw something in us. My cousin, John Peel, and Dig are the reason we’re talking right now. I can’t speak for Lee, Bill, Jim, and Nic or Justin: if they don’t want to talk, that’s up to them. I’m happy to. I’d rather it came from the horse’s mouth, my memories.

The forthcoming reissue of Scum has a rough mix; what do you remember about that?
I forgot we had even done a rough mix for the A side. I wrote to them, I said, “I’ve just read on the Internet that there’s a rough mix of the A side…” Because there’s a rough mix of the B side and only me and Dig have it—it never got traded, and I don’t think even Shane had it and Shane would have had everything off me back then. I went to my tape box and got my original master out and yep, there it was; there was a rough mix done a week before, when we didn’t have enough time to do a recording and a mix (there was just a very quick mix for us to take home). There have been enough reissues but this for the collectors, and the new people; there will always be someone discovering Napalm. Am I proud of it? I am proud of the recording, of that record. It’s got an excitement that you can hear on it and I think it still stands up to this day. It’s two different line-ups, two different recordings, two different sounds, but everyone who pulled in together on it can be proud of it.

Which side do you prefer?
I like both. Both in equal measures. OK, I wrote the B side; there are some tracks I like, some I don’t. It was put together so quick whereas the A side we had the time to develop the songs, and a lot were original Napalm songs and then me joining and Justin bringing in some of his metallic edge that he had. It’s a cleaner A side and a more punk B side but I like tracks from both. It’s not something I’d sit down and listen to. But Earache sent the master, I flicked through the tracks and they’ve done a good job on it; it’s bright and they haven’t messed with everything…. FULL DYNAMIC RANGE, there we go!

How do you look at Scum in relation to From Enslavement to Obliteration?
On FETO the songs were a lot more brutal, a lot sharper and straight to the point. There was a lot more riffing. I love Bill’s guitar sound on it. There’s only one guitar overdub on it, that classic HH guitar amp with spring reverb—no one would want one of them but we got a lovely sound out of it. We just went in and the drum tracks for 27 tracks were done in hours. I was ultra happy with that. It was done live bar that one guitar overdub and the vocals, which we always overdubbed. It was tighter, definitely, the muddiness of side B of Scum and then the heaviness of Scum side A—Justin caught a bit of [Celtic] Frost on there, we won’t deny that! Quality influence but Justin’s take on it, that bend of the string and those little harmonics that he’d put at the start of it. I dunno, they are two different albums; I would definitely say that it was the first grind album from Napalm—FETO—because Scum was two different sounds, the A and the B with the thrashier fare on the A side. The B side was just filth. We’d only had two rehearsals with just me and Bill, because I had to travel down to Bill’s. He had only just turned 17, he’d just finished his A Levels and his parents did not want him to go to Birmingham by himself. I had to go down on the coach, practice twice and then come back. Two weeks later on my next Giro I went down again and had a practice. His mum drove him to Birmingham just to make sure everything was OK, met my mum, and then we had one rehearsal the night before the recording and then did side B in one session. We just had to go back and tidy it up because the drums just weren’t cutting through.

Napalm Death Scum 25th Anniversary reissue is out on 5th March through Earache. Pre-order it here
You can read all about the making of Scum here.