Interview: Barney of Napalm Death.
Interviewed by Tim Finch
Napalm Death are probably the most famous grindcore band on the planet, from early exposure through John Peel, to becoming the hardest working band around. In a career spanning thirty years they have gone from strength to strength. With new album 'Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism' due out next week, we caught up with frontman Barney to delve into the inspiration behind their latest opus.
Read the interview below!
The Razor's Edge: Hey Barney, thanks for talking to us.
Barney: No worries, any time.
The Razor's Edge: We live in strange times at the moment, how have you and the rest of the Napalm Death guys coped with lockdown?
Barney: You know I haven't really seen the guys, I must be honest. I've seen them a couple of times as we needed to congregate and we were kind of ten foot across the room from each other, we were sticking to the accepted methodology for doing that. I haven't seen much of them you know. Danny went back to the States as there was a lot of uncertainty over the lockdown, obviously he didn't want to get locked down over here so he went back to lock down with his family. Shane, I haven't seen for a bit. He's alright as far as I know, we've not spoken much, he's got his immediate family to deal with he's got a couple of kids and that. I live on my own, it's been alright for me as I only have myself to answer to. I live pretty simply anyway so just had to make a couple of adjustments and I got through it alright. It's a different story if you've got dependants or family I know it's been pretty tricky.
The Razor's Edge: You’re one of the most travelled/hardest working bands on the scene. How much has the restrictions affected the Napalm touring machine?
Barney: It has completely, like everyone else. We were lucky our tour, the one we did in Europe with Eyehategod and a couple of other bands, that finished in mid-March. Lockdown and the realisation of it was just coming into play. So we just finished that and we haven't gigged since then, we haven't been able to, nobody has.
Obviously the online thing came into the sphere, for us we thought about it and because Napalm is so immediate as a live band, the concept of it didn't seem to have the same umph or impact and at that point we chewed it over and decided against it. I know a lot of bands did it, but we thought "not for us", although we are always up for reconsidering it if things go on and on.
The Razor's Edge: If this lasts well into next year, which it probably will at this point, is that something you will consider changing your mind on?
Barney: Yeah, but still it will still need to have the creative merit to be able to do it. If you know Naplam, Naplam have never been a band to do something just for the sake of it. If it has not creative value you'd say "whats the fucking point". We have some gigs on the schedule, we have one in Brighton which is just down the road from me, in November, that's still on the schedule, it might happen.
We've also got some stuff in the Czech Republic in November and the Czech Republic have actually been having gigs that have gone alright. No discernible infection rises around the people that attended or around the towns as well. So there are things on the cards before next year, but the situation could change. I don't know if you are aware, apparently in Europe certainly infections have been going up and there was a thing the news last night that there has been a considerable rise in the national population here. We don't know yet, we'll see, it's take it as it comes.
The Razor's Edge: The new album ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’ comes out next week. A very strong album title, what was the thinking behind it?
Barney: People have been trying to draw parallels between the COVID situation, I know you were trying to divert away from that, but people have said there's a couple of titles that coincidently people have draw parallels with. But it's not, it's nothing to do with it. Napalm wouldn't write something like that anyway, the only aspects that we write about is the way that it affects people in terms of the continuing marginalisation of people, thats the only time we would think about it.
The main thrust of this album is actually discrimination and dehumanisation that is not an uncommon topic for Napalm. Whatever we write about we try to make it current and specific to the times we are living in, so the types of discrimination and dehumanisation that we are talking about is now being adopted by governments around the world. For example you only have to look across the Atlantic, and I'm always loathed to mention him as it's a very obvious thing to do, but the way he has marginalised people to suit his own ends it's typical of the current climate.
We also have governments in Europe right now that are formulating social policy around the dehumanisation of groups like LGBTQ+ people, who in some countries are so ill-thought about. For example in one country the government has made great pains to trumpet "we have gay free zones in some of our cities where these people aren't even a thing". The kind of insanity of that to me speaks volumes.
Also of course very current is the situation of refugees and the people migrating from one place to another due to circumstances. I think the language around that, the treatment of these people, the perception of these people, to me is very concerning. Because, not necessarily the UK government, but there are governments across Europe who have successfully transplanted in peoples minds that these people are a threat to a lot of cultural aspects to indigenous populations. Of course when you can transplant those ideas into people there are several steps beyond that. First you have the idea, then you have the social aggravation on the streets, then it leads to violent confrontations. A couple of steps down the line from that it can lead to mass murder. When I equate that, when I talk about that stuff people have said to me "it's not the same as the 1930's" and stuff like that but IT IS! That's the way it starts, it's the same step of events, it's the same charismatic people in power that manage to transplant these idea's into peoples minds, so it's only a few steps away from that. Never say never. I said never again to the whole idea of the concentration camps of the 1930's but people saying "never again" doesn't mean there isn't a prospect of it happening again, because it could! I thought it was really important to expose that and for Napalm Death as always to be the antithesis of those ideas.
The Razor's Edge: You mention the refugee situation and your latest video for ‘A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen’; the video for that and the lyrics were particularly poignant.
Barney: I don't find it a tricky subject to talk about, why would? I am a human being. Part of my role as a human being is to look out for other human being's so I don't find it tricky to talk about. But it's a tricky situation, I'm not aiming it at people who have particular mindsets that would be against people that migrate and stuff. I understand that people are conditioned to think this way and to have a fear that spin these outlandish ideas that somehow people who come into the country are going to populate the environment and change almost down to the biology of the population. You know it's quite crazy ideas. I symbolically wanted to show the way that people have sometimes been desensitised. Like bodies washing up on a beach, I mean to be fair a lot of people are pretty sickened by that, but then in the next moment they forget about it. The way we try to portray it in the video is like people taking selfies next to bodies washed up on the beach, the equivalent of "yeah look at that sunset, let's take a picture against the sunset". It's that kind of desensitisation.
Another thing to say about the video, if you look at one particular frame, you will see a newspaper with a headline "Refugees do this and that" and the horror stories that are perpetuated. I am one for a free press and that means right across the board. I think ideas as much as I they might find them fucking... well they might sicken me a bit, I do understand the need to have those different perspectives. But on the other side of that I don't think the people who write these headlines how much damage in human terms they do sometimes. They propagate myths, this whole human invasion stories that were propagated a few years ago during the BREXIT back and forth. These vans going round telling people to go home and these mythical fucking billboards of queues of people and that sort of stuff, it all turned out to be bullshit at the end, I could have told you that fucking three years ago!
The Razor's Edge: I think many of us could have, and did, say at the time that it was all bullshit but it depends in what you believe in I guess?
Barney: I suppose so. It's down to the condition and we have to get away from that narrative that other people that may have come from other places because they look slightly different or there are slight differences in the way that people live and we have to understand and have to rewind a little bit and understand we are all human beings and there is space for all of us in this world. Which is why I think borders are such anachronism, they put up fences in one respect. This whole thing that borders protect the population, they were never designed for that in the first place, they were designed to protect the powerful. This whole thing about borders protect the population, to my mind it's a nonsense.
The Razor's Edge: I’m assuming the lyrical content is your domain, so where do you find the inspiration (inspiration may be the wrong word here) for the topics you delve into?
Barney: I'm an information sponge, I've always got one eye on whats going on around me in the rest of the world. I feel inclined to take an interest, I am an human being, I want to know what going on and not in my backyard necessarily. I have a human interest in that. So I do have a knowledge of the spread of what's going on around me. So when it's time to write a Napalm album I will latch on to what needs to be exposed, and obviously when we write those lyrics we need to keep it current. If you want the idea's to get across to people, whatever you do with those ideas, you need to have a hook in terms of it being contemporary. If you just do something generic like for example "ban the bomb, no more war", well yes we know that already and I'm completely on board. If you want people to understand in terms of the horrors of war you need to make it specific to situations that are going on currently, otherwise people will say "yeah it's just another album that tells me what I already know, that I'm against war and nuclear proliferation and stuff". So you need to make it so it's a current scenario and I think thats essential in a lot of ways.
The Razor's Edge: Is there anything you want the listener to take away from this recorded having listened to it?
Barney: Well, I think the very thing's we've spoken about. My preference is that if people have their doubts about what I am saying, they chew it over a little bit. Don't just take my word for it, go and search out other sources of information that are there to speak up about people who migrate and just go and look across the board and see what the real situation is. That is what I would personally prefer.
I will also have to say this, if people want to come in and toss around the ideas and find out it's not for them, well great. If people just want to come in and just deal with the music, you know what, I have no problem with that. If music is anything it's one of the last bastions of freedom, it's accessible to anybody and it also means you can go into it at any perspective you wish to.s
The Razor's Edge: Not wanting to talk about lockdown again, but did it have any effect on the recording of the album? Or was it all wrapped up before COVID struck?
Barney: No it was all wrapped up, luckily we were done with it. I don't know if I mentioned it at the start of this, but there were parallels made to some of thew lyrics and lockdown but it was pure coincidence, there's nothing to say about that.
The Razor's Edge: How is Mitch?
Barney: Yeah alright as far as I know. He recorded the album with us, but he didn't write any stuff on the album. We gave him the option to write some stuff like i said, but he chose to pass on it. I think is family situation is quite busy and there wasn't a big timeframe for him to get the stuff ready so he just passed on it. But we said "Do you at least want to come over and play on the album?" and so he agreed to that and it was great. I haven't seen him since, I've communicated with him a few times over emails, so right now whats going on I couldn't say, but he seems to be doing alright. He's not played with the band for many years and realistically whether he does or not, I'm not too sure. I still love him as I ever did, and that is never going to change.
The Razor's Edge: How much input does John, as touring guitarist, have into new material?
Barney: No he didn't. He played on a few things on the record because he wanted to and we said "yeah that's fine, no problem". The core of the band really now is me, Shane and Danny, so I think realistically like creatively and writing music it will be me, Shane and Danny, so that's how it will be. Again there is no ulterior motive for that, that's just how we want to keep it.
The Razor's Edge: So with the album coming out what happens next? With the touring machine is pretty much grounded what are Napalm’s plans?
Barney: Mate we don't have any, thats the straight answer. [laughs]. I'm doing interviews like fuckin' crazy, our policy with Napalm is that if you want to talk to Napalm you get to talk to Napalm. That's it, it's that simple. We are not one of these that only do the bigger ones. No fuck it! Here's the thing, if it wasn't for the small, very limited fanzines way back in the mists of time, Napalm wouldn't exist. I feel it's always the right and logical thing to speak to anybody who wants to speak. The day you've got to worry is when people don't want to talk about your band anymore, so that's what I am doing. I must have done in the past few weeks over one hundred interviews easily.
The Razor's Edge: Well hopefully I haven't repeated too many of the question's you've already had.
Barney: No, it's all good. The thing is theres a pool of questions that need to be asked and I'm not going to turn my nose up at anything. Every sort of fanzine, and magazine and podcast and whatever need to have those questions answered. They are par for the course, they are relevant to the album, so if they need to get asked, they need to get asked. If I need to say the answers again then I'll say them again, it's not a fuckin' hard ship, you know wha I mean [laughs]
The Razor's Edge: As we come to the end of the interview, one last question… you’ve been in the band for more than thirty years now. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Barney: You should always learn lessons along the way. We allowed ourselves to be talked into a few things down the years that I think ethically or artistically or creatively were not our first choice and were not great. So hopefully we've learnt from those lessons and we don't repeat those mistakes. The one thing I would say, as we spoke about earlier, always listen to other perspectives, always listen to other ideas, chew them over and see where you are. If you do that and still come to the conclusion that this is not appropriate for us then you do what you feel is the right thing. Then you live and die by your own decisions, if you do anything that doesn't stick then you've only got yourself to blame, if there is any blame to be apportioned. It's the best way to be and it's always served us well. I mean fuck we are here 40 years from the formation of the band almost, thirty years since I joined the band and we are still independent. We're on our 16th album and for a fuckin' noise band that's not bad going. There must be something int he mechanics that we are doing ok I would suggest.
The Razor's Edge: I think it's a combination of either your sound, or your lyrical content or both that resonates with many of the listeners over the years.
Barney: They both go hand in hand at the end of the day, they are both as important as each other!