Napalm Death’s Greenway discusses ‘Utilitarian,’ wraps arms around Occupy

Mark "Barney" Greenway, far right, says expressing anger isn't useful unless it's productive.

Napalm Death have been in the forefront of extreme music for more than three decades now. It’s impossible to find someone who listens to grindcore, death metal, thrash metal, what have you, who are not familiar with the band’s brutal catalog and political and social prowess. Their current lineup may be totally foreign from the one that recorded the classic “Scum,” but these four bruisers – vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway, guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera – have made up what we know as Napalm Death for the past two decades solid. Their 14th record “Utilitarian” is out at the end of the month, and it’s pure Napalm through and through, with a few strains of their punk and experimental past. It’s a heady record based on the utilitarian philosophical theory, and if you’re not familiar with the subject, a trip to Wikipedia may do you some good.  Greenway, their outspoken, thoughtful and friendly vocalist, took some time to speak to Meat Mead Metal during a slate of media days. When asked if those marathons ever get the best of him, Greenway chuckled and quipped, “I mean, it’s not like digging roads. Let’s be honest.”

The new album “Utilitarian” sounds massive. How do you feel about it?

You know, it’s pretty good, but I always find it hard to micro-analyze our albums anyway, even after I’ve just done them. I’ve probably done about 200 interviews and have heard all these different perspectives on the album.

It sounds like there’s sort of a newfound sense of savagery on this one, not that Napalm Death records ever have been tame of anything.

Yeah, of course it’s angry, all of our albums are angry, but anger can only take you so far. You have to have an end product from the anger because, you know, taking it literally, anyone can jump up and down and shout at people. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be productive or that it’s going to sell what you mean to sell, so you have to have something beyond the anger. But it has that Napalm attack to it. Napalm Death has a certain attack that probably sounds angrier than most extreme bands. I find when some bands record they kind of stick to their tempo or their zone. We tend to be more of a runaway train. We just do things as we want, and if it comes close to coming off the rails, then so be it. It’s the same for us live as it is for recordings.

It’s a really natural process for us. One thing we don’t do before we go in to make an album, is we don’t check little boxes. We don’t make a checklist and say, “These are the things we’ve got to do.” We generally try to keep things as spontaneous as we possibly can. It has an edge to it as far as elements that we have done before but haven’t quite arranged in the way that we have on this album, so that gives it a different flavor. But in terms of rage in our delivery, that’s been pretty consistent. I wouldn’t say this new one jumps out at you any more than our previous ones.

You have John Zorn playing on this record (“Everyday Pox”). Any other special guests this time around?

John Zorn is the only one, actually. We only have guests if we feel the person can complement the song, and we have an idea of what the person can do. It doesn’t mean anything to just go randomly get people just so you can have a few more names on a press release, you know? They have to have some kind of contribution. I mean, look at the guests we’ve had. Jello Biafra because we knew what he could do with the song. We had Anneke (van Giersbergen) from The Gathering because she had the kind of voice (we needed). Now we have John Zorn because that part on the album, when we sat down and thought about it, it was exactly the type of part he should be recording.

This may seem like a silly question, but the band’s made it to 14 albums now. What keeps you guys going?

I just feel we still have things to offer, you know? That’s always subjective, but we feel we still have good songs in us, good albums, and we know that within that, we’re always two or three steps away from making white noise, basically. (laughs) And we love that! From my own perspective, if we ever got to the point where we were going through the motions or something like that, I just wouldn’t bother anymore, to be honest with you. Fifty percent for me, doing something like Napalm, it wouldn’t be worthy for me or for the people who come through the doors and pay money to see a gig. People who see us shouldn’t get 50 percent, and people who buy our albums shouldn’t get 50 percent. If I ever feel that way, it’s time to quit. I’m certainly not afraid of that, because I think it’s a natural, human trait to lose a love for things, to lose enthusiasm. I think sometimes people protest too much about losing passion, but it happens. It’s a part of the natural human attention span, it’s part of human emotions. If it happens, I just won’t bother doing it anymore, and the same for anyone else in the band. I would expect they’d do the same thing, and I wouldn’t be negative toward them for thinking that as long as they felt they were being honest about it.

Lyrically, I’d imagine the well never runs dry for you. There’s always something going on somewhere, and there’s always some event that deserves a commentary. Could you ever imagine a day when you didn’t have something to say about what’s going on in the world?

Well, no, because the very structure of the world, the hierarchical society we live in means there are always observations. You think of it like this: Every person in the world has feelings, and those feelings create thoughts. It’s the same principle. And because Napalm has such a wide palate of things to draw from, it’s very much the same thing. We’re dealing with the feelings going on in our lives, so it’s an inexhaustible amount of things to observe and gives you inspiration to write.

You chose the title “Utilitarian” for the album, and it’s a word and concept that’s certainly open to interpretation. Why did you pick this as the name of the album?

Well, it would have been pointless for me to talk about it and make a judgment call on it without using (“Utilitarian”) as the name. It’s a philosophical theory that says many things, really, but to me, its core is, first, good actions promote good consequences, and when you put that into the wider context of the world, the world becomes a better place. Second, it’s the achievement of total happiness. It’s a really wide spectrum of ideologies , and sometimes it seems quite easy. There are some animal rights people who use this as their ethos, and on the other hand, there are many, many ultra-consumerist, ultra-capitalist kind of thinkers who like it because it promotes total happiness. And that means happiness could be achieved by any means whatsoever, though that happiness could mean causing other peoples’ unhappiness.

Now, I don’t know personally if I am a utilitarian. I wouldn’t necessarily want to classify myself as one. But what I wanted to do was draw a parallel in a sense that I live my life pretty ethically. If my actions will have a negative consequence somewhere down the line on another person or people, then I won’t do it. I won’t undertake that action. But I think living that way, acting that way, is very human. But you have self-doubt. Everyone has self-doubt. But you have to think to yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I living this way?” But I think a lot of people just get on with things and don’t think about these things and the consequences of their actions. I think the reason for this is we expect immediate results from everything. But ethical thinking has an end result of making a difference, but when people don’t see that difference straight away, they get impatient. You want to see the product of your efforts, and that’s where the self-doubt comes in. I kind of wanted to express that. But if you take it one step further, and this is the conclusion to everything, it’s that you do need to persevere, of course. You need to live with a certain level of resistance, and if you don’t, then that leads you toward those things that you are protesting in the first place. That leads to people and all sentient beings having been exploited further. So it’s not quite as simple as just taking that title and making an immediate decision about it.

I was thinking about the happiness aspect and kind of applying that to what’s going on in the United States with the presidential race. It seems that with the Republicans, as they’ve been accused, their idea is to promote happiness for the top level of people earnings-wise. So that’s given way to the Occupy movement. Yet, they seem to be taking on criticism because they’re not seeing the results of their actions right away.

Right, and the Occupy movement understands that it’s going to be a progressive thing. I do very much, for the record, support the Occupy movement, and they seem to understand these situations on a very basic level. You have the Tea Party movement, and I think they stand for selfishness, protectionism and self-interest. I think it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. And now some low-income people have come out as Tea Party supporters, and what that’s effectively saying is what’s important is the power of rich corporations and individuals who completely absolve themselves of social responsibility. But it’s like if you’re not born in life with those privileges, then you’re screwed. I think there’s a real irony in all of that.

The Occupy movement is very sympathetic toward (lower-income people) and are genuinely striving for social justice. Surely that’s the point. They want people to listen, and they are determined to have people listen.  We’ve had a lot of times like that in the U.K. when people have been out on the streets and protesting. We have a long history of that, and in other countries Europe too. I think people are really sick and tired of not being listened to, so I think the Occupy movement is a very good thing. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away.

Funny enough, it seems like critics of the Occupy movement paint these people as jobless with nothing better to do. So there’s this sort of dismissal of the movement.

What, so, they’re not relevant? You don’t have a job, so you’re not relevant? Think about that statement in itself. How inhumane is that? That’s actually a quite inaccurate picture of the Occupy movement, as there are a lot of people of people who do have jobs, and they come from all across the class system, for lack of a better term, so I think they’re very relevant.

Well, what do you hope people take from “Utilitarian” once they get the record, read through the lyrics, and digest the music?

I hope they have a sense of enjoyment from the music. On the level of ethos, I am not trying to have everyone believe the things that I believe and subscribe to every perspective I put across. Yeah, I’m putting my cards on the table and saying, “This is what I think and these are the reasons why I think this.” There is a logic to this. But I don’t expect listeners to follow that path. What I do expect from people, and I think this is only right, is that they open their eyes and think for themselves. For example, if you’re religious, step out of your religion for a moment and see what’s going on. See things with your eyes open for your own self, and form your own conclusions.

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