‘Guitar and Pen’ interview #1 – Robert Williams interviews Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway, vocalist and primary lyricist from legendary grindhammers Napalm Death
Tired of the blurb/gloss ‘advertisements-for-the- latest-release’ much of music writing seemed to have become, SIEGE drummer/lyricist and music and cvlture correspondent Robert Williams embarked on ‘Guitar and Pen,’ an interview series devoted to in-depth explorations of the creative process behind the lyrics and message of the most extreme and legendary musicks of our time.
His first installment includes us in conversations with Barney Greenway on grinding without compromise in the face of fatcats and naysayers, the deification of capital, and the ‘heart’ behind the message of Napalm Death, still-beating deafeningly some 14 albums in.
“It’s that personal to me – it’s like the heart that beats in my chest…” Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway, on his lyric writing in 2015
SIEGE drummer/lyricist Robert Williams: What would you say to a younger fan from, say, a posh suburban neighborhood who some might accuse of missing the message of your lyrics?
Napalm Death vocalist/lyricist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway’: I’ll be honest – I don’t have that ‘class hatred’ that a lot of people have anymore. Because I think it’s counter-productive. See, when I was a lot younger, ‘class’ really fucking bothered me. But I came to learn over the years that what I’m doing with my lyrics – if I’ve devoted my life to bringing everybody into the fold, to treat everybody equally – well, you have to break down barriers. And that also extends to class. So wherever anybody comes from, the motivation is to get people to see life from a more humane angle. That’s the point, really. Put the stuff on the table, but don’t beat the people on the head with a stick, because when you do that, you’re almost contradicting your own message. You have to give people a vision of what life would be like if people actually started living more humanely. But I can’t really say that I grab people by the hand and show them down the garden path. It requires them, also, to open their own eyes a bit wider. At least, if I can point them in the right direction and say, ‘It’s better that we work together toward a more egalitarian world.’
To be, like, so one-dimensionally belligerent can be a deterrent. I occasionally see that with some younger bands…
And I get that perspective! I was like that! But one thing I don’t favour, though, is when people talk of ‘revolution.’ Surely the ‘revolution’ is to get to a more peaceful world, where everybody could be happy. I find no constructive reason for going out and machine-gunning people that live in big houses. That’s as cruel as any of the other things we talk about, and I don’t think that’s a progressive way forward.
I’ve seen some people in the academic world who have turned privilege toward social consciousness…
But it’s not the people, it’s the system. It’s not individuals we need to target, it’s actually the structures that are in place that keep people down. Or, on the other hand, elevate people, where there’s no reason why they should be 10 or 20 rungs above everybody else on the ladder.
I can see criticism of elitism of the punk and metal ‘scene’ in your earlier lyric ‘Circle of Hypocrisy’….
We used to get criticism from people for…various things. And it’s so fucking lazy to just point the finger at someone and say ‘sellout.’ And then when you actually respond, non-violently, and say ‘why, exactly?’ – they’ve got no answer to it! Sure enough, we spent a year on Columbia Records, and there were some really nice people there, actually, but that wasn’t our choice; we were sold for a licensing contract. And it turned out to be an inappropriate environment for the band to be in; we’ve always had an independent mindset. We’ve always pleased ourselves first, and the fans and the people around us. And that’s all a band needs.
SIEGE were criticized, along with bands from the west coast, as being ‘preachy’ and ‘too political’ by the ‘original Boston straight-edge crew’ at the time. To me it seemed like…it had an underlying posture of right-wing machismo…
And I never got that argument – even now, with some metal bands. They call it ‘politics,’ which misses the point, really. “Don’t put politics in music – the two shouldn’t mix.” Well, hang on a minute! Why would you put restrictions on it? On people who want to use it to open eyes and change lives? And there is a certain machismo – I think you’ve got it right with that one. People think it always needs to be about really ‘tough’-sounding subjects. And to dig down deep within yourself and try to bring out a humane or humanitarian viewpoint just somehow doesn’t sit right with their need to be ‘aggressive’ all the time. I find that a bit fucking ridiculous, actually, but that’s just me (laughs).
Here’s a related question from a 19-year old fan in Boston – what is your opinion of the bastard grandchild genres of Grind; ‘pornogrind’ and ‘goregrind’ and whatnot?
Not all of it is to my taste, obviously. If anything has a really nasty underbelly to it, like it’s objectifying women or whatever, or is deliberately prejudicial towards people…well, people say some ridiculous things, and they’re free to fucking do so. And I know some of that exists in the ‘Grind’ scene. They’re often not to my taste stylistically, either, musically speaking. But I’m never one for censorship. I respect people’s viewpoints; I think there’s some very great bands going round right now, so bands like Napalm, and SIEGE in their day, we are now the observers. We did our thing, and now it’s up to other people to come in and take it in their own direction. It’s almost like a living, breathing thing.
But you agree – to reach listeners with a lyric can be an important opportunity…
I like the whole art form of a band. I really like the really old art bands, and some of the noise bands as well, that mix art in with the music. CRASS, of course. It’s about the whole package to me, really. But the lyrics are absolutely fundamental. Because it reflects not only what we want to do and say as a band, it reflects me a as a human being. It’s that personal to me – it’s like the heart that beats in my chest.
Were there any experiences and various types of art you encountered early on that contributed significantly to your lyrical message and worldview? For me, it was being the child of a single parent, and being exposed to the theatre and classical music…
My parents were quite uniform in their tastes, but my Dad was always a huge rock music fan, so for me it was sitting to the front room of the house ‘air drumming’ to Deep Purple and Zeppelin. That was my exposure to art. Later, I drove myself further, seeing things like Conflict and CRASS. And also some of the papers we had around the house; my Dad was involved in the labor Unions, and you could see some very interesting drawings and designs in there. I was fascinated by some of the Anarchists that were around in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Some of these people were innovators, genuinely brave rebellious people.
Tell me about your lyric from ‘I Abstain’ – “committed to all, red white and blue…”
That was about flag worship. People sometimes get so fucking agitated about a flag, which is purely a symbol – they almost place it over the importance of other human beings. To me, nothing matters more than the sentient beings on this planet, and the environment that’s around us – that’s way more important than any borders you can draw on a map, any flag you can run up a flagpole.
“Search for purity, leads to insecurity”
It refers to the inability to see beyond our own visions –past that ‘purism,’ if you like. You have to see other perspectives in order to understand your own. Take, for example my own Veganism; I’m what you might call an ‘Ethical Vegan,’ but I’m also a ‘Health Vegan.’ The great aim of that is to see that all sentient beings are treated with dignity and respect. But it needs to be about people understanding why. I really sympathize with the ALF, but it seemed to become an exercise in militarism. And militarism is something, in more recent times, I’m not able to endorse. Back when I was younger, the anger would come out in really severe ways. But when I really thought about it, that was everything that I was against.
But in ‘Greed Killing’, you write “If not now, then when? When?” – it seems to be a call-to-arms of sorts.
A lot of these albums are a product of their time; at that point in my life, I was really fucking angry about things. So were the other guys in the band. We just felt that politicians were always saying ‘tomorrow will be better.’ And of course, it may be for them in their world, but for most of us it’s not. So that speaks of…the impatience to move things forward to a better place.
‘Apex Predator – Easy Meat’ seems to explore people’s surrender, apathy and resignation to their own economic enslavement, like when you write “we are not invincible, nor are we indestructible.”
It goes beyond that, in that it was actually aimed at people who don’t have a choice. We’ve written plenty of songs where we’ve written about our own sleepwalking, but on this album, I wanted to focus on people who don’t actually have a choice. Their lives seem to focus on producing things for us! And in sub-standard conditions, to put it mildly. But then – they also get the crap back once we’ve finished with it; I don’t know if you’ve actually seen these horrendous recycling sites, just areas of land with sewage and plastic and scrap steel and mountains of junk – and people actually live in there, because they get paid a pittance for recycling from this.
It’s an interesting allegory and symbol for all of us who are born into a greed-based system…
It goes back to the point that I am not a different breed, or better than anybody else, just because I write lyrics in a band that might be considered insightful. I think it’s important that I recognize that in myself. When we did Time Waits For No Slave – that was also directed at me. Because the thing for that album was, y’know what? Step off the world a sec! Go and sit in a park, or something. Lie under a tree and understand what life and living really means at the core. It doesn’t mean working round the clock. It doesn’t mean amassing all the things you’ll never fucking need…the simplest pleasures in life can be great and limitless. So that was aimed at myself as well. Because one of the downfalls of being in a ‘self-contained’ band is you wind up doing a lot of the shit yourself – and you wind up working and working and working, sometimes for days on end, and you wind up saying ‘I haven’t got time for anything else…I haven’t got time for this or that’…y’know what? MAKE time!! ‘Life’ can wait sometimes. Go out! Sit in the sun! Enjoy yourselves! This is supposed to be is the whole point of bringing people together, and living in life in peace, because with that should come some measure of enjoyment. If you can’t do that, then life, I think, has not been spent as it could have been.
Yeah, there’s a lot of folks who seem to ‘deify’ the acquisition of capital here in the USA…
And y’know, it may a be a cliché, but I would rather have lived my life with comparatively nothing, and met some great people, and really lived life, than lived with tons of stuff around me and yet completely unhappy. I’ve seen it in people who I grew up with, who acquired quite a lot, and honestly…they have that painted smile, but underneath it all, they look pretty fucking miserable, man.
This is the fading worldview in America – the whole ‘get a whole piece of the pie for myself’ kind’ve thing.
That’s one thing I’ve failed to ascertain when I’ve been America down through the years. I’ve yet to be convinced that the actual people of America really believe that recycled ‘American Dream’ thing means ‘get the leg up on the next person.’ The ‘American Dream’ is really a myth, to perpetuate that America is ‘the great power of the world.’ It’s given more weight than it’s actually earned.
Well, by its original definition, it was supposed to be about equality of opportunity to provide for your family, not a celebration of opportunism and opulent materialism.
I would go beyond that – for me, it’s about providing for everybody.
Where human need isn’t equated with the amount of money you have…
Or human worth…
As someone so openly vegan, I presume that extends beyond just human beings as well. My buddy (Dropdead singer) Bob has taken a lot of shit for that down through the years…
And y’know what, Rob? I don’t get insulted by that shit any longer, to be honest. Because if people want to not love veganism, it’s not mocking me as a person, it’s mocking something that I believe in. I’m sure Bob feels the same way.
Here’s a quick question on lyric writing from ‘Mark’, who describes Napalm as his ‘favourite band’ – ‘Do the words precede the lyrics, or vice-versa? Do you have a specific percussive pattern in your head and fit the words to that rhythm, or do you use a variety of methods?’
Nothing is really set in stone, to be honest. I always have a few song titles written down somewhere, but I also try to make things fairly current, so I might actually scrap a set of lyrics if I think it isn’t observational in the here-and-the-now.
Also, there are a thousand ways to arrange the vocal patterns in a song – and a thousand variations as regards to whether it’s a full roar or something a bit more, well, bleak. You can also make the patterns a bit more messy, or a bit more rigid, depending on the effect you’re aiming for. It really is an open book, and I know that isn’t always the case with how bands approach things, which I think is disappointing. You can also spontaneously throw something over the music sometimes, and you might get something a thousand times more vibrant than if you’d sat and arranged it more studiously.
And here’s one last question from my buddy Tom in France, who fashions himself the world’s greatest collector of Napalm Death merch. He asks: ‘what is behind the title of ‘Enemy of the Music Business’ specifically?
Enemy of the Music Business was just a statement of independence. Down the years, there were points where the band was doing OK and the sharks would start circling – in other words, the various industry entities who can promise you great things, then disappear once they’ve taken a piece. It’s very easy in the early days when you get ‘sweet nothings’ in your ear to capitulate and really get burned, but I like to think we’ve learned our lessons. Overall, I know we’ve never functioned better as a unit than when we’ve been independent and confident and lived by our own purpose. So we wanted to stand behind that concept. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than being dictated to by outside entities when you know what you’re being told to do goes completely against your instincts, ethics, and creative freedom.