Stronger Than All
29 April 2005
Most do not realize that Napalm Death originally started out as a more punk styled group back in 1981. They would undergo many lineup changes before their groundbreaking debut Scum would be unleashed in 1987. In fact, the lineup changed even between side A and side B on that record. The band has evolved from those early grindcore days of sub par production and roster changes. However one thing has remain unchanged - their staunch aggression that pushes the boundaries of musical extremity coupled with a 'fuck off' attitude that has seen them survive where many of their peers and protÃ©gÃ©s did not.
Since the release of their last studio album of original material (2002's Order Of The Leech), guitarist Jesse Pintado has left the band and we've seen four releases covering various aspects of Napalm Death's lengthy career hit the market - their definitive best of and rarities 2-CD set Noise For Music's Sake, the Punishment In Capitals live DVD and accompanying CD and last years Leaders Not Followers Part 2 covers album. Now, in 2005, Napalm Death are once again projecting their brutal ways onto the masses with their latest effort The Code Is Red...Long Live The Code and it's evident that vocalist Mark 'Barney' Greenway, guitarist Mitch Harris, bassist Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera are still pushing those boundaries in true Napalm style. Simon Milburn managed to catch up with long time guitarist Mitch Harris at home in Birmingham (U.K.) to talk about just how close the band came to touring Australia on the back of the recent shows in Indonesia and the Gran Canaria Islands, writing and recording their new album, the exit of Pintado and the various guest vocals on their latest opus.
“We just got back from Spain, well the Gran Canaria Islands near Africa. That was an interesting little trip. We did one gig, one festival with Destruction and Avulsed and a couple of other local bands. It was pretty good. There was about 1500 people. It's always hit and miss with Spain as far as equipment and P.A. and stuff like that. There was a few problems but we got past it as we always do.”
If you think that the idea of a band as punishing as Napalm Death playing a small group of islands off the coast of Spain is a little odd, would you believe that they played to an even bigger crowd a week earlier to our northern neighbours Indonesia? Well, they did and Harris is very pleased that it all came together for them to be able to do so.
“Yeah that was great! That was a really good experience. The promoter did a really good job. He got 7000 people at the show and it made the front page of the Jakarta newspaper. There was lots of promotion, like MTV, radio, news, TV. We did some radio interviews on commercial radio stations that play Madonna and stuff like that and they were full on into totally extreme music at such the same time. It was cool to see such a massive response.”
Aspects of Western culture such as music have been known to be frowned upon in areas of Asia and countries such as Indonesia. Metal music doesn't have the best of names sometimes, and it's not helped when high profile bands such as Metallica tour those places and a riot ensues as it did in 1993 not long after their Australian shows. To Harris though, a repeat performance of the 1993 debacle was never going to happen and playing such in such a culturally diverse place didn't feel strange at all.
“No. It's cool to see that there are so many people that really knew how much we had put into the scene y'know? They studied detail and knew lyrics down to the very last word. It was really amazing to see, because you never know quite how many albums you would sell in a country like that or how your word gets across with the language barrier and things like that. It was good to see. I don't know. There must have been some labels bootlegging stuff for years but all these people had the albums. That was strange to see because you never know if you'll have an audience or what. I heard about the Metallica show that there was lots of problems mainly because the ticket price was too expensive and people couldn't get in. So it was those people that couldn't afford to go that destroyed a whole street with 200 cars. It was a big riot. When we played, the ticket price was pretty cheap, hence 7000 people. Sepultura was there in 91 and there were 30000 people. I'm sure the scene has changed a lot, but people have lots of other problems to worry about than going to a gig with the tsunami disaster, the earthquakes and volcanic activity, all the problems with the economy, and people being poor...really, really, really poor and to see that people still smile. People welcome tourists walking down the street. You look at people and they just smile at you. Where as Gran Canaria, they look at you like 'Bloody tourists! More tourists coming to exploit our island.' It's like, 'Dude, we're here to play to your hungry people.' But they don't know that. In Indonesia, it was general people everywhere that were also in desperate need of help. Sometimes there were kids that were really hungry and I'd give them money...whatever little bit you can do to help. Generally, there was a really positive vibe out there even though all the horrible things they've been through.”
The smiling friendly nature of the Indonesian locals wasn't the only thing that surprised the American ex-pat. The size of the crowd they played to also surprised him.
“I was very surprised actually. Also, to see a band like Avril Lavigne play there three weeks before and only had 3000 people. So it shows that there is a serious undercurrent of people that follow things from the western culture, and they've been inspired by Napalm as well as many other bands. It was surprising for, not just for us, but the other promoters that turned their nose up, the sponsors that were asked to be involved...somehow the promoter who brought us there managed to pull it off. All the people that turned their noses up are suddenly calling him every five minutes now trying to bring more bands now that they see there's a demand for that kind of music. Of course, they weren't aware of it because it was an underground thing but it goes to show that strength and determination can bring people together,” says Harris enthusiastically.
It's the first time in almost nine years that the band has been so close to our soil that they could almost smell the shrimps on the bar-b-que. As it turns out, it just wasn't the right time immediately before the release of their new album but with some phone calls and a bit of a push from the right people, Harris is confident they will return.
“We really did try. We were talking with the promoter and the offer was just ridiculous. We wouldn't have been able to afford to go actually in the end. It would have cost us money. It was last minute notice. It was totally unorganized. Even the Indonesian thing came together at the last minute. So we weren't sure if that was going to happen because there's Visa problems and stuff. In the end, we got it when we were in Japan so it was really at the last minute when we went there. Ideally, I'd like to come to Australia when the new album is out anyways and people have got into it and digested it and are prepared to hear lots of new songs. It'll be better with some thought, love, care and attention from the right people. With the help of Century Media, I'm sure we'll be out there on this album,” he says reassuringly.
On the subject of familiarity with the new material, the pioneers of grindcore gave the Indonesian audience a taste of two new songs during their recent visit. The opening track Silence Is Defeaning and the title track The Code Is Red...Long Live The Code were tested on the ears of the 7000 strong crowd.
“You did your homework. In a strange kind of way, it was like they knew the songs anyways. Those songs are similar to things we've done in the past but again, it's got a different angle on it so it's still fresh. The reaction for those songs were as say... well not Suffer The Children, I mean of course people went more nuts when we played that but... it was a consistent reaction from the crowd from start to finish. They were just happy. They were also excited to hear the new stuff before it came out. I saw a lot of energy from the crowd and it seemed like a good reaction which is a good sign that we're on the right track.”
The response from the Indonesian crowd, or any crowd for that matter, is always a good litmus test of the strength of a bands recorded material. In an attempt to capture that live vibe that is so often lost in recording studios nowadays, the band put their multitude of experience together to come up with a more stripped down approach to writing and recording their new album. The end result is exactly what they were after.
“It was really straight forward. We all decided that we're gonna take it a hundred percent. We got a label behind us that's gonna really help promote the band and there's a lot of interest from people from all around the world so let's come together and make an intense record from start to finish. Y'know, lots of time changes, fast, heavy, slow parts, some different vocal styles brought in by Jello Biafra, Jamey from Hatebreed, Jeff from Carcass, just to have a slightly different approach but in your face with a really straight forward message lyrically. We decided let's just keep it simple, keep it basic, don't piss ass about, not too arty farty...just do what we do best. Just go in there and use all the experience throughout the years production wise and stuff to keep it... there's no point spending millions of dollars making an album when we only sell a certain amount of albums. So, we decided we know how to record really cheap, quickly, efficiently and professionally. Y'know, we can get a guitar sound in ten minutes. The album was written in about three or four weeks...rehearsals...about a song a day. There was a lot of thought that went into the arrangements and some of it was spontaneous and we managed to capture that energy in the recording. It was about getting the drum tracks done quickly. For example, when we did his [Herrera's] drum sounds, within six hours we had his drum tones and he was ready to record. We did all the songs that night. The next morning, we woke up and did them all again. Basically, we picked the best tracks, the best takes, and just worked with them. We all sat there together and said 'That's better because that drum fill is better and this take is better but there's a mistake there. Who cares? It's all about the vibe of the track.' So we captured a really good energetic feel and we wanted a more live approach. The studio we went to [Foel Studios, Wales] didn't have any microphones or anything. I brought my own SM57-58 mics, basically the same equipment we would use live. Instead of real expensive microphones for the voice, it was more like a hand held mic. I said [to vocalist Greenway], 'Why don't you use a hand held mic? Sometimes you need to bend over to get the notes out. I mean, why should you limit yourself to just stand in front of this spit shield? It's not Napalm. Just try it.' He did and we got a much more intense vocal approach I think as well. All in all, we achieved what we wanted to. It's a more live feel and the production I think is really powerful. It's everything you need in a Napalm record as well as an experimental ending song. I'm just really pleased with it.”
The Code Is Red...Long Live The Code is the first album of original material that the band have written and recorded as a quartet since the late 1980s. Long time guitarist Jesse Pintado is officially out of the band after what has been a difficult time for the remaining members as much as it has been on Pintado himself. It's with some reservation that I broach the subject of Jesse with Harris but he is straight forward with why it had to happen.
“He's out of the band. He didn't actually leave the band. We sent him home. He had some personal issues. We knew that being in the band wasn't the right environment for his current state of mind. So we sent him home to get some help and support from his family and stuff. We waited for two years for him to get his act together. For example, he didn't even play on Order Of The Leech [from 2002] or the covers album [2004's Leaders Not Followers 2]. He just kinda disappeared on us and he became unreliable. There were a lot of issues which were holding us back and confusing the issue and we really just wanted to play ball and just get up there and do what we do, and it was really, really affecting the band in a negative way and it was affecting him in a negative way as well as us personally. We thought it would be best. We gave him 200 million chances and he came back after two years, and his condition hadn't improved and we decided to let him go because he just became unreliable. We have a really hard year ahead of us with lots and lots of touring. We thought it would be best for the band, for the album and also for the fans to just let him go which is a shame because we've been through so much. We've achieved so much together and he's been our room mate for years and just living together we've managed to remain good friends. He wishes us all the best as well as we wish him all the best. I can't put it in any more detail than that because it's his own personal kind of deal. It's his own business really. It's a shame,” says Harris with an air of both sadness and relief in his voice.
Although the final decision has taken some time to be commissioned, it would seem that the mindset of becoming a quartet was something they were forced to settle into some time ago. If the truth be known (pardon the pun), the band were already subconsciously accepting the fact that album number 11 would be crafted without their compadre.
“I do think the album didn't suffer in any way, shape or form. In the end, it was better for the future of the band I think,” comments Harris.
With that kind of a comment, it seems pretty certain that Pintado will not be returning to the fold any time soon, if at all.
“We've kinda come together as a four piece in a way that there's no turning back now. It's like, we've done what we've done and we're going to live with our decision. There's no point now. I mean, there was talk about getting another guitarist and of course lots of people suggest that. But it's not going to fill Jesse's shoes. It's not going to make up for the fact that he's not there. But at the end of the day, what we're doing now and the way it's written and the way it comes across, it is as solid and as intense as it needs to be. We're just gonna to continue as a four piece. There's just no point in going backwards at this stage. There's too much to be done. We're all much older now and we have lives to lead. The less confusion, the better. We're all totally on the same level so let's just keep it there.”
The new outlook on life for Napalm Death with a reduced line-up is as much of a new chapter in their history as is the music and lyrics encapsulated on their new album.
“Well, it's a sign of the times as far as the current climate of the music scene and the political things that are happening around the world and the state of affairs. Everything the album stands for is very current and up to date and it has everything that the band has ever done involved in one album, as far as there's lots of stuff influenced from Scum [from 1986], Harmony Corruption , Utopia Banished  and even yeah, there's still catchy, slow, groovy parts or whatever...even though we don't like to use that word,” laughs Harris.
“There's lots of dynamics that break it up and keep it interesting. For me, it's the best album that we've ever done because it comes across the way we want it, it sounds the way we want it, and the songs are there. The arrangements are really good, the vocals vary and there's just lots of interesting things that show that there is a need for us to continue because there are still things to achieve. I think it's the best thing that we've done. I think there's room for improvement as well. So I can see us doing more albums. There's still lots of places to visit and tour. Whether it sells a million copies or whatever, that's not the point. The point is that somehow we've managed to get through the hardest, hardest times that a band could ever go through. We've been through the worst management, the worst record company. We've had changes. We managed to stick it out after all this time where lots of bands took breaks for six or sevens years and now they're reforming because extreme music is cool again. They're making lots of money and that's cool and we're still eating shit in some van somewhere in the middle of Grand Canary. We believe in what we do and I believe at this stage it was all worth while. There's still something to achieve. When it reaches the point where it's not fun anymore or we're making the same album for the sake of it, then there's no point carrying on. Until that point, we'll be there pushing it 100%,” Harris explains.
Right now, there's definitely now common thread of making the same album across Napalm Death's extensive catalogue. While in recent years, the idea of guest appearances (either musically or vocally) on albums has been beaten to death across different genres to the point of it being the trendy thing to do. For the first time since 1990's Harmony Corruption (which featured guest vocals from Obituary's John Tardy and Deicide's Glen Benton), a Napalm Death album will feature guest appearances. As you'd expect, the decision to do so wasn't about following any trend.
“We thought it would be good to break up the album with different vocal styles. Jeff from Carcass had recently resurfaced and he's been around. He's doing a project and still a good friend of ours. So, he came down to do some vocals. We thought it would be interesting because we hadn't done that in a while. We had done it. It's nothing that we hadn't done in the past. Jamey from Hatebreed would have added a good angle because there's quite a lot of hardcore riffing styles and stuff on the album. He was on tour with Slayer and Slipknot at the time. Barney drove down to pick him up. He came down and heard the album and he was just there with his jaw open. Like, 'Wow man! After all this time, you guys are still making killer shit. Oh, that's a killer Napalm riff!' It was good to have people that we know and trust their opinion to hear it for the first time to give it two thumbs up. That was also inspiring for us that we were on the right track. The Jello Biafra thing of course, that was cool because we did the Nazi Punks Fuck Off thing for the Virus 100. We've pushed that message around the world. It's amazing how many people come together throughout the tours that believe in that message. It's been a positive thing and he supports everything that Napalm's done, lyrically as well. He agreed to do it which was an honour for us to have him to take part. Rather than just spend a fortune and send him over, flights and all that stuff, to sing for one minute, it was better that we were on tour with Cannibal Corpse in America. Billy [Gould] from Faith No More [bass player and founder of Koolarrow Records] picked us up and booked a small studio for it. It was done really quickly and really cheaply. We got to meet Jello Biafra and he was a really cool, down to earth guy. His vocal takes were really funny actually. It's a shame it wouldn't all fit into the song. We chose a really straightforward take. He tried lots of different things which we were in hysterics actually. It's cool to see because he's almost singing melodically so it has a Dead Kennedy's vibe but with a really heavy guitar tone underneath. It breaks it up and keeps it fun.”
The guest vocalists bring a lot more variety this time around as the all come from different genres of metal unlike those who appeared on Harmony Corruption.
“Sure. But at that time we were in Tampa and those guys were good friends of ours too. They just came down to the studio and did a quick thing. We were friends and we were into their bands so it was cool to have them involved as well. After not even thinking about it for 10 or 12 years, to think 'Hey maybe it'd be cool to do some guest vocals.' But things like that can be overdone sometimes. Some bands get so many guest vocals that, at the end of the day it's a marketing selling point for the album. It was just more about 'Come on, just come and do some bits' and it'll just break it up with some vocal styles.”
The release has been quite a while coming from those sessions across the globe to finally hitting the stores a few days ago. Now that it's out, Napalm Death have got their hands full for the remainder of 2005. Eighteen years since the release of their ground breaking debut, the band are still reaching milestones and celebrating some firsts, some of which are just astonishingly overdue (such as finally playing an English festival later this year) given the length of their career.
“We've got touring all summer in Europe. We've got a lot of festivals to do. We're playing the Download Festival in England which is the ex Donnington Monsters Of Rock. That'll be cool with Slayer, Slipknot and System Of A Down. We've never actually played a festival in England ever even though we've been on national television to 22 million people performing and stuff. For some reason we've been blacklisted like the black sheep or something. This time is the first opportunity we'll get to see what kind of crowd response we'll get in England. That's killer. We're talking about touring America with possibly Obituary or Suffocation or something like that. There's lots of things in the pipeline. Whether they're realistic or not, I don't know at this stage. It'll be a busy year. We'll be back in Europe before Christmas. We plan to go to Australia, New Zealand as well as Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia, Japan...everything on this album. Up until next summer, we should be pretty busy. So hopefully a promoter contacts us from Australia and makes it happen. If it's all straight forward, then we'll be there man!”
For more information on Napalm Death, check out www.enemyofthemusicbusiness.com.
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