Making Napalm: Q&A With Napalm Death Producer Russ Russell

In our February cover story on Napalm Death, we probed the reasons why the band has released a string of consistently excellent albums since the new century started and is drawing the biggest audiences of their career. Even in a 5,000 word feature there will always be elements of the story you can’t probe.

Case in point: one of the reasons Napalm has been so successful is their relationship with producer Russ Russell at Parlour Studios. Russell has worked with the band since 2000 and will probably be with them when they are making albums in their 70s. He joined us from England for a chat on working with the grind legends. 

You started working with Napalm Death on Enemy Of The Music Business, correct?

It was my first album with them. Before that we did the Leaders Not Followers EP. I’d been working with another band both in the studio and live and I’d had enough. I needed a change and I asked my manager to find me something new and exciting. And he said: “I’ve just taken over for a band called Napalm Death are you interested?” And I said: “Of course.”  I met them in London and we got along really well. We’ve been best friends ever since.

What made the relationship work?

It was certainly what I needed to get my blood running again. I was bored with everything I was doing. For them it was because I had a different angle on music. We also have similar backgrounds. We’re a similar age and went to the same shows when we were young. We actually worked out that we had been in the room together at many shows. Shane (Embury) and Mitch (Harris) in particular are some of my best friends.

At the point you started working with Napalm they had spent the better part of the decade working with Colin Richardson. What did you think of the production of their records to that point and what needed to be done differently?

I was a big fan of their work. Colin is a legend and to follow him was an honor. I just approached it from a different angle. I guess I’d describe it as less metal in a way. I don’t want to say more punk even though Leaders was. I’d been working on lots of stuff – indy bands, pop and classical records, and electronic projects –  and I just put all of it into practice for Napalm. It instantly gave the music a different flavor and over the years we’ve progressed. Now they will just say ”anything goes.” 

Barney (Greenway) told us early this winter that around Enemy he wanted to make the music as extreme as possible. When you entered the picture did you talk about the reinvention of Napalm?

They were going through problems with management, problems with Earache, financial things. They’d been through the mill for a few years. It was even suggested by some people they worked with before that maybe it was time to quit.  I think that really stoked the fire. They came in charging headfirst, Barney in particular. I think he’d been a little bit despondent with the changes in direction and experimentation. At that point they were so determined to put it back together that they had this group energy again. 

What did you think when you finally sat down and listened to Enemy?

It was thrilling, actually. It was a turning point for them and it was for me, too. It was certainly the most extreme thing I’ve ever done.  It obviously was a stepping-stone for me and for them.

(Barney) doesn’t like headphones and doesn’t like to be in another room. He stands next to me and just screams in my ear and spits all over me. Sometimes I wear headphones just for protection.

You’ve now worked together for 16 years.  It’s almost a joke at this point that Napalm is incapable of releasing a bad record. Why is that?

The more time goes on, the more they are literally comfortable in their own skin. They will say we’re going to do whatever we want to do with no thought of what is expected. They do whatever comes into their mind and that makes it fresh for all of us. They’ve given me the same freedom. If someone has an idea we just try it. I think that might be why the last album (Apex Predator) took a while to put together. 

Shane mentioned that on Apex Predator he created the opening song by hitting things that were lying around the studio.

(laughs). The studio was once a dairy farm and there are all kinds of milk churns and huge metal bins lying around. There’s a metal foundry in the building next to us. We gave Shane some drumsticks and a baseball bat and he went crazy.

What album was the biggest challenge? Why?

Every one is more of a challenge. The early ones were a challenge because it was a new path for me. As time goes on, the challenges change. Now the challenge is: how the hell are we going to make it better than the last one? Because we’re always left saying this one is better than what came before. 

How does your relationship work in the studio? When do you get involved? Do they share pieces of songs?

I hear the ideas as they come. They don’t necessarily write sequentially. Some parts actually stick around for years. They will put these riffs in storage for later. Shane is an absolute master of that. He remembers all of his riffs. And he’ll grab some riff he didn’t use four years ago and (the result) is in no way recycled.  I might get a phone call or email in the middle of the night and it’s like “check this riff out.” I get to see it right from birth.

When you work with a band like Napalm do you need to be aligned with them ideologically?

To a certain extent. We share common ground on ethics and philosophies. We also have different opinions about a lot of stuff. But the core of my beliefs go along with theirs.

How would you describe how you work together in a nutshell?

That’s a tough one. Things go through many phases. We start very loosely. They often don’t rehearse the songs before they get to the studio. It’s not till we get there and hit record that it comes together.  It culminates when Barney comes in.  He doesn’t like headphones and doesn’t like to be in another room. He stands next to me and just screams in my ear and spits all over me. Sometimes I wear headphones just for protection.

When it comes to producers it seems to go two ways. The relationship lasts forever, or someone in a band is constantly unhappy and changes everything. How can bands find a match?

It’s very different for everyone. Sometimes I wouldn’t even recommend sticking with someone. I’ve told Napalm I’m cool if they want to try someone else. In certain cases it might be unhealthy to stick with the same producer forever. It just works for us. Some people need change – especially if they’ve done a lot of albums. In our case, we’re almost telepathic with each other.  So I’d also tell people not think the grass is greener if it clicks and it works.