The Daily Grind: An Interview with Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway

Photo by Kevin Estrada
Photo by Kevin Estrada

Did you catch Napalm Death in the past couple of months when they rolled through your town? If not, you missed one of the most eclectic tour packages of 2016. Not only did Birmingham’s grind gods lay waste to stages across North America, they were also joined nightly by two A+ acts: legendary sludge lords the Melvins and Japanese noise lunatics Melt-Banana. An odd cocktail at first glance, but one that was quick to reveal its layered potency. 

In early May, we caught up with Napalm Death vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway ahead of the band’s first of two sold-out shows at Slim’s in San Francisco to talk about how the “Savage Imperial Death March Tour” came about, the logistics of grindin’ for six straight weeks and, of course, the three-ring circus that is American politics.

This is a pretty diverse tour. I imagine a lot of people were surprised when they first heard about it.
I don’t know about that, because I think Napalm has always embraced different things. And even though some things don’t work out, we’ve always tried to move beyond the basic definitions of the genre.

When did both camps start thinking about making the tour a reality?
Well, personally, we’ve been friends [with the Melvins] for quite some time. And as with a lot of things, sometimes there are situations that really suggest themselves, but even so, you could know somebody for years and then you start to talk about it. So, it was just a matter of time. We mentioned it to them, and they kind of mentioned it to us, and eventually we said, “Let’s stop procrastinating and fucking get on with it,” you know?

What about Melt-Banana? When did they come into the picture?
They toured with the Melvins before and we wanted something equally unconventional, so they were an obvious choice. We also knew they were experienced touring, so it wouldn’t be something that might mess with them. Because you could think of a thousand bands, but not every band is attuned to this length of tour. Melt-Banana have done it before, so they know the ropes.

Do you remember the first time you came across the Melvins?
It was Gluey Porch Treatments at a small record shop in Birmingham. The guy behind the counter said, “You have to listen to this,” because at the time, I wasn’t bothered about anything that was slow and morose. I just wanted fast metal or punk or whatever…as bat-shit, off-the-rails fast as it could be. And the guy was really pushing it on me and I was like, “OK, you win, I’ll take it.” It really threw me a curveball. I was like, “This is fucking great!”

Was it your gateway into slower heavy music?
Not really, because we already had Swans and Gore from Holland, so there were bands doing similar things around the time, but Gluey Porch Treatments…it’s catchy as fuck but also weird and wonderful as fuck.

You’re nearing the end of this tour and a lot the shows have been sold out, including both here in San Francisco. Why do you think this kind of diverse tour package works so well? What do you think people are responding to?
The really obvious thing is there’s crossover with the Melvins, Napalm and Melt-Banana, but then each band has its own crowd beyond that. But the thing about this tour is all the crowds have an open-minded approach to music. It could be argued that a lot of Napalm fans are a bit more receptive to certain things than you might get with some forms of extreme music, so that really helps. I think the package itself gives off this thing of “free thinking” and “breaking down the barriers.” I don’t know if that sounds a bit wishy-washy, but to me, it exudes free thought—not giving a shit about what you should listen to and what you should like.

It seems like the Internet has a lot to do with that. If this tour happened 30 years ago, someone might get booed off the fucking stage. Death metal guys didn’t really cross over to punk and vice versa, but now, everyone is connected on this platform and it makes crossing over that much easier.
Sure, and everybody gets into that in their own way. It’s very easy to be critical about that stuff, but Buzz [Osborne] and I have done a lot of interviews together [on this tour], and we’re really in agreement: it’s great that vinyl has come back, for one thing, but let’s not get elitist about it. If people want to get into music in other ways, that doesn’t make them or the process inferior. Let’s not start putting up these barriers when so many have been broken down. It does get like that sometimes.

Especially with heavy music. People get so close to certain genres and bands that they get pissed off when change happens.
Exactly. Over the years, it’s been difficult for Napalm at times because we faced quite heavy criticism for certain things, and there are also things that happened stylistically with the band that didn’t always satisfy every member. But you shouldn’t be afraid of moving forward and breaking things open. Just go for it and see what happens.

Do you guys approach your setlist in a different way for an eclectic tour like this?
I’ve never believed in that. I’ve always believed that you play to your strengths. You don’t temper it for anybody, because then there’s a danger that comes into play where, say we get asked to play a certain festival and it’s a mixture of all kinds of bands, but there’s a mainstream element…I would be horrified at the thought of watering down Napalm’s setlist for that, so it kind of works both ways. I just wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t matter to me. They can take it as it comes.

What has been your favorite song to play on this tour?
That’s tough. I couldn’t really nail it down to one song. We have two sets that we flip-flop every other night. I’ve always been about that, but sometimes it’s just trying to convince other members to do it. But now we’ve got into the habit of doing two sets every tour. It’s good. Even if we just did one set, it would be drastically different than when we came to the stage last time. That’s one thing I’m really insistent on: that we don’t do the same thing month after month. That’s lazy, man. We have a whole catalog of stuff, let’s take the time to practice it and play it.

Have you been surprised by any reactions from Melvins fans who never really listened to Napalm Death and were impressed by your set?
Yeah! I’ve had some people come up with their eyes wide and go, “Holy fuck!” And of course that’s a reaction to be somewhat proud of. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a couple of gigs where the audience thinned out quite a lot. And I’m sure it would be the same if the Melvins were at the top of the bill. You’re never gonna get away from that. And there’s nothing wrong with that. People shouldn’t see it as some kind of negative thing. Let’s be honest, people choose as they see fit. If I was going to a lot of gigs, I might be going for one band and not really be bothered about the next band. I hope I’m not cynical about music, but there are times when you’re like, “I don’t need to see that.” And we’re all the same, so we can’t expect other people to be different. Just give it 100 percent, man. If it sticks, it sticks, and if it don’t, it don’t.

Six weeks is a long time to be on the road. What’s the secret to staying grounded when you’re on tour for this long?
Be free and easy. Live your life as you would if you were going to the fucking local market. These old tour protocols, these hierarchal things that have been established over the years…bands sometimes just completely believe the hype. “We’re in a venue and there’s one shower and we’re the headlining band, so we use it and nobody else.” I mean, really? Are you that petty? Out with the Melvins, when we have a dressing room area, we maximize it so everybody can go wherever they want. Fall into space, make yourself comfortable. You’ll find the tour goes a lot easier that way. It doesn’t matter what band it is—you’re going to live with those people for weeks, so is there any reason to have a separation policy? It’s pointless.

Have you seen that kind of shit over the years?
Oh, yeah. But you know, often it doesn’t come from the bands; it comes from these tour managers who are stuck in the 1970s. They might not necessarily be of that generation, but they have that mentality. We’ve met some tour managers where we just sat there going, “This guy is a fucking tool. There’s no other way to put it.” And the thing with Napalm is we’re quite belligerent. We don’t care who you are, you don’t talk to us like shit or treat us differently than we’d treat you.

As a European touring in America, I’m curious to get your perspective about our current political climate. What the fuck is going on?
How did I know you were going to ask me that! Here’s the thing: we actually have some of Bernie Sanders’ volunteers with us on the road, canvassing at gigs and stuff. I’ve never done that before, I must admit. I keep my ear to the ground, so I knew a lot about Bernie Sanders, but when I saw his manifesto, I said, “You know what…I can’t really disagree with him.”

I stand in two camps about politics. The first is that I fucking hate it and think it’s totally stupid and doesn’t really ever achieve the things that I’d like to see the world be, i.e. 100 percent egalitarian. I make no bones about that. The other thing is, we have the system we have right now. People always roll their eyes when you talk about why capitalism is so bad, but they don’t actually listen to the reasons. And it is. It establishes a thing where it’s OK for people to suffer. It sets that precedent.

There are many things that worry me, and I’m not even a U.S. citizen. I’m a human being, and I say these things for human beings. A national health care system is absolutely essential, right now, at this point, with everybody. It’s a basic social element in a so-called civilized world. Private health care companies need to have the brakes put on them. The things they’re doing are no good, man. It’s not sustainable. The second thing is protection of sexual health care for women. That is so under threat right now…not necessarily in America because the law would need to be changed, but in other countries, it’s really fucking under threat. And things tend to follow. Also, labor rights. You have to be protected at work. You should always have the right to organize.

What do you make of the whole Donald Trump thing?
He’s an oaf! What he’s said has offended a lot of people, but I can’t even be offended because he’s so ridiculous. Even if he got elected, he couldn’t do half the stuff he wants because it’s against international law. OK, he has his “Latinos for Trump” and “African-Americans for Trump” crowds, but do you honestly think that’s a good barometer for those people in the population? I fucking think not.

It’s bizarre enough for me as a person who was born and raised in America, so I can’t imagine how weird it must be for a European.
We laugh at people like Trump, but we have similar characters. Every system does. We’ve got the UK Independence Party, who are worryingly popular, but only because of the brainwashing that goes on in the media. We get it in the UK as much as you do here. But Trump is above and beyond. He’s got form in the UK, too, because he tried to build that golf course, but in the end he got told to fuck right off. But it still destroyed a piece of coastline in the process. It’s that whole thing: if you’re a citizen and you commit a crime, you’ll get punished. If you’re a corporation or a billionaire, you can almost get away with murder.

Have you been thinking about any of these things in terms of lyrics?
No. I don’t think I’m going to. My main concern now is things like the plight of the refugee. That is actually more worrisome. There’s this extra tier being created in terms of the way people get viewed, and I think it’s quite a worrying thing. That paranoia bothers me more than the U.S. election.

Photo by Kevin Estrada
Photo by Kevin Estrada