The Extreme Humanity Of Napalm Death’s Marc Greenway

Legendary Grindcore Singer Promotes Empathy and Co-Operation

Posted May 14, 2015

“Because vengeance is no kind of leveler; Bloodless Coup. 

Ultimately save the strikes for the structure; Bloodless Coup”

                                  — from “Bloodless Coup” by Napalm Death

Marc "Barney" Greenway, used with permission
Source: Marc "Barney" Greenway, used with permission

At first glance, it might appear that Napalm Death’s vocalist Marc “Barney” Greenway is a living, breathing paradox. Greenway’s band, Napalm Death, one of the founders of grindcore, is a fast and aggressive fusion of thrash metal and hardcore punk music that is designed to unnerve and shock. And yet at the same time, Greenway is well known as having a “sensitive” side, including his recent plea to Indonesian President (and Napalm Death fan) Joko Widodo to spare the lives of British citizens sentenced to death for selling drugs in Indonesia.

After speaking with Greenway, however, one comes away realizing that this is no paradox at all, but rather part of a well-honed artistic and philosophical statement:

We may need to be jarred a bit to pay attention to and have empathy for those that suffer in this world.

Studies suggest that having empathy, or an awareness and understanding of the feelings and well-being of others, is a part of healthy development and well-being. Some studies suggest that empathy is what motivates altruistic behavior. Altruism has also been linked to improved health. Theories of psychotherapy suggest that empathy is a crucial part of the therapeutic alliance and vehicle for change. One meta-analytic review of 59 studies found that empathy is a predictor of improved therapeutic outcome.

Greenway explained to me how empathy is at the core concept of Napalm Death. “I mean, people always talk about Napalm as being a political band, and I understand that. But it goes a bit beyond that for me. So the entry point for me, at least for Napalm, is to be a humanitarian band if you like; to put forward this thing that all sentient beings should live with dignity and to understand what humanity is and promote humanity,” he said. “So to try and cut through things — our thing, if you like, is to say, ‘Well, let’s try and understand what humanity is and try and get back to that. Because I think until we do that, we’ll never stop doing things such as being motivated to kill people en masse because we have the power to do so. Or to keep people really, really oppressed. Napalm Death, I hope, is kind of the antithesis of that.”

“I mean Napalm could arguably just as easily be a very twee-sounding folk band. The lyrics are definitely interchangeable with different forms of music.”

But Napalm Death is not a folk band, and Greenway acknowledges that the aggressive style of music is an important aspect of delivering the humanitarian message. “But it happens that from a personal perspective what I like to do and what the other three guys around me like to do — we like to make noise, for lack of a better word. We like to make very jarring noise. Because one of the things we’ve always wanted to do in our own way is challenge convention. You know, challenge those musical conventions that just offer music on a sugar-coated pill and just put it down in your throat,” he explained.

“That’s not what we want to do. There’s nothing wrong with the sonics of the band being quite disturbing, and being quite oppressive. And the object of the exercise with Napalm, I think, as well as being very uncompromising and quite annoying with the music, the kind of sonics — the other side of the coin to that is you also want to bring people together.”

In fact, the contrast between the aggression of the music and the humanitarian message is part of the artistic message, and part of the message of trying to understand those who are different. “The act of contradiction is often seen in life as a really bad thing, and you should never go near it if you could avoid it. Well, why not? To me, it’s a natural consequence. I kind of see Napalm’s music sometimes as music being fired from a gun. Almost like machine-gunning people. Whereas, of course, the literal act of machine-gunning somebody is abhorrent,” Greenway said.

“I would never want to see that. Or engage in that. Or naturally have it done to me or anybody else. Because militarism is just not my thing. I just find it really, really depressing, actually. So there’s a contradiction right there, I think. Contradiction itself — so be it — it’s one of those things that can’t be avoided. And the more people try to avoid it, sometimes, the more artificial life becomes. I think it’s one of those natural foibles that we should all accept. Because when you accept things like contradiction, I think you have a better understanding of the way life actually works.”

Greenway’s interest in social issues can be understood in the broader context of the interest in social justice in the heavy metal and hardcore punk scene. Contrary to stereotypes of people who listen to or play that style of music, evidence suggests that individuals who appreciate more “heavy” forms of music have higher levels of openness to experience and interest in civic activism. “And I can’t really explain it, but I think down the years metal has become a genuine wider scope view to where people see and really acknowledge that things ain’t right — for whatever reason.”   

In fact, Greenway describes the history of the visual aspects of many heavy metal bands as being rooted in an attempt to influence culture. He explains: “It was just a gradual thing over time. Because when I was growing up towards the end of the ‘70s and the ‘80s metal was a very macho thing. Because people felt that wearing studs and spikes and looking really kind of tough and aggressive, it was a way of pushing the metal culture into the wider culture. Of course people name drop various aspects of metal now, and it’s not even a thing in mainstream culture and the mainstream publications and the mainstream world. But towards the ‘70s and in the ‘80s it was really hard to do that. People just weren’t really interested. And I think to make themselves seen, people who were into metal and hard rock and stuff just naturally had to make themselves more tough and aggressive, or actually on the other side of things, arguably more feminine, with the hair metal kind of thing.”

“And also I think that carries over into punk and hardcore as well. You know, in the side of punk that I felt most connected to, it was black uniforms and the black flag of anarchism and various things. That also spilled over into action on the streets, direct action. So there were a number of things there where people really had to push their subculture onto the mainstream culture,” he said.

Perhaps ironically, one of the first humanitarian issues that Greenway found compelling did not involve humans, but animals. Greenway has a long history of speaking out for animal rights. Animals that are used to produce meat are often treated in an inhumane and horrifying fashion.

“The initial entry for me was quite a sharp shock; purely by look. When I went to school in the U.K. — I’m talking when I was really, really young in that initial kind of formative years as a teenager — for whatever reason, and obviously the details are slightly hazy, my school had a video of an abattoir, a slaughterhouse. They showed us this video, and it was quite explicit for that time. So when I saw the abattoir it followed on for me. I don’t want to be a part of this if I can help it. So I decided that I wanted to stop eating meat,” he explained.

“And of course for me that side of it when I was developing, how I would deal with it — that was quite gradual. It was the meat that went first, but I was still wearing leather for a time, and then I was kind of like, ‘These things are interconnected’ so eventually I got rid of the leather. And also quite early on as well as getting rid of the meat, I already had an idea about companies testing on animals and animal by-products in cosmetics and other things so I kind of stopped that as well. As I went along things got ticked off the list, if that’s the right way to put it.”

Greenway has also been an outspoken proponent of gay rights. Discrimination against gay people is unfortunately commonplace, and evidence suggests that this discrimination damages the well-being of gay people.

Homosexuality in general and also gay marriage; I don’t see why it has to be an issue. If that’s what people want to do, that’s their business. It’s really nobody else’s. We shouldn’t have to have debates about it. So I’ve very much made that down the years something that we talk about. And I think that it’s not an issue anymore,” he said. “Even though we do talk about it at gigs and stuff, it’s not an issue anymore. Why are we so worried about same-sex relationships? It’s like, ‘Why?’ You can’t give a reason to why you should be worried about it if you really think about it. So that’s one thing that I’ve seen as being particularly successful.”

For the most part, Greenway feels that his support of gay rights has been well-received within the metal community. “I have to say that in all honesty there hasn’t been too much obstruction over the years. I mean the only places you can really see it maybe in the last few years is on the Internet. Because of course you get people that say some quite unsavory things. And of course, there’s the stuff that doesn’t offend me; I just find it a bit ludicrous,” he says. “You know, you get the things where there’s been numerous discussions about whether I was gay or not. But as far as I believe, that is a thing that happens with most people in bands; This kind of threat to the pop-up questioning the sexuality of various musicians — from the smallest to the biggest bands in the world. So I guess that’s not exclusive to Napalm or whatever else.”

However, Greenway’s humanitarian stances were not always received in such a peaceful manner. Greenway describes how the concept of gender equality and women’s rights has pervaded the metal scene. “I think one of the things in recent times was sexual equality, because I think more people are accepting now. Just on our scene level, I think; females coming in and being part of the gig experience. That’s one thing. And then when you take that wider of course — females being involved in bands and being forefront in bands. And not having to answer questions why they are so exceptional just because they’re female in the band. But being treated and perceived the same as everybody else.”

Greenway has been an outspoken defender of women’s reproductive rights. Many believe that reproductive rights are critical to women’s health and denial of reproductive rights is a denial of basic civil liberty. But this activism resulted in confrontations, sometimes violent.

“I’ve had some threats before – threatening emails and far-right kind of movements and stuff. There was quite a funny incident many years ago. It was in New York of all places. We were doing a gig somewhere in New York, I’m not sure if it was CBGB’s. There was a conference in town of pro-choice doctors. There was a conference just across town. And naturally, there were anti-choice protesters outside,” he said. “And they must have found that Napalm was playing down the road, which ordinarily you would think they wouldn’t care about it. But they found out somewhere that I was very vocally pro-choice, and they came down to our gig a couple of them. And I had come back from somewhere; I’d been out and about and had to buy a couple of things, I think.”

“And as I came down, all I remember out of the corner of my eyes were these two people, just regular-looking people standing on the side of the pavement. And all of the sudden one of them pulled something from behind his back and hit me over the head with it. Actually, hit me on the ear. And it was like a small blackout, you know? And didn’t say anything further — he and his friend just kind of walked off. And at first, I didn’t realize who they were, but then I found out later on. Somebody told me there was this conference going on across town. So it’s small incidents like that really, you know. Nothing particularly major.”

Greenway reports similar experiences when championing issues of racial justice. He said, “Certainly, when you come to a Napalm show — and in all fairness, most metal and punk hardcore shows that I’ve been to — racism is really taboo. Now when we look at the outside world at the moment, I think it’s alive and well. As shameful as it is, I think it’s alive and well in many situations. But I think when you come to our concerts, it’s just not a thing. It’s not acceptable, you know?”

That stance would at times elicit violent reactions. “The last real things en masse that really were a challenge were in the U.S. in the early- to mid-‘90s. You couldn’t even call it a serious political movement in hindsight, but there was a very ultra-right-wing kind of infiltration into the metal and hardcore scene in general. People who were connected to the Aryan Nation and people like that,” he said. “They would show up at gigs, even if it wasn’t too many of them. Even if it was crowd of only 10 or 20 of them, they were generally quite buffed-up kind of guys, and they were really intimidating. And I think their presence was really enough to have an effect on a gig and a crowd and stuff. So, back then, when I wasn’t so passive, I ended up, and other members ended up, in massive brawls. I can tell you some incidents.”

“Allentown, Pennsylvania, was a massive riot — like 2, 300 people. What would happen was that we’d be playing on stage, and five or six people would kind of rev up other people in the crowd that they think they could — like ‘Sieg, Heil’-ing and stuff. And it would almost spread like a particularly aggressive cancer. And next thing you know, your band and another band that share the same views as you, you’ve got 10, 12 people with guitar stands and anything you could pick up to defend yourself, because it was a defensive thing. You know, to defend yourself against in some cases, 40, 50, 60 people.”

“It was a nightmare. I’m not going to tell you there was anything glorious about it. It was an absolute nightmare. Because you’re thinking, ‘When is this going to happen again?’ And it would end up sometimes you’d have conservative gigs when you’d be having to fight your way out of the door. It was not a pleasant situation.”

“There were a couple of smaller incidents, like in Russia, which even now has a really nasty neo-fascist element. I think there was a bomb planted in a venue where Napalm was supposed to play, like the week before or something like that, as a warning message. And it actually exploded. But it was planted in a coatroom area, and it was small enough to not really do much damage. But of course, that’s very frightening when you think about it,” he says.

Over time, Greenway says, this violent behavior has lessened. “It died down in the end. These people wised up. And grew up. And realized that the things they were espousing, what the reality of it was. So, thankfully, within a couple of years, it really died down, but it wasn’t fun. It was really fucking dangerous, to be honest with you. You always have this fear of being stabbed or something like that.”

Greenway described how Napalm Death has more recently utilized this approach in their critically acclaimed new album, “Apex Predator – Easy Meat” to address the issue of workers’ rights. “The catalyst for the new album ‘Apex Predator – Easy Meat’ was about modern slavery. And, more specifically, the supply chains that contribute to that. Until we sort of also dissect and understand the damage that these free-trade supply chains do to people’s lives, and the fact that it makes some lives in some parts of the world a lot cheaper than other people’s, who are very often the consumers on the other end.”

“Until that’s properly dealt with, again, I think, we can’t achieve this supposedly civilized world that we are all supposed to move towards. I think that’s the thing that’s really got to be dealt with. And I think if the U.N.’s good for anything, or we need a definition of criminality, then the act of putting these slave-labor conditions onto people in countries working under the umbrella of corporations or large localized companies; whichever, I think that should be put to bed, because to me it’s not acceptable anymore.”

“To me, it’s not acceptable that you can go to a supermarket and pay $5 for a T-shirt where you know that that T-shirt has been manufactured on the broken backs of people somewhere else in the world. It’s not acceptable. And I don’t want to say ‘morally’ acceptable; I don’t like that terminology. It’s not humanely acceptable for that to continue.”

For Greenway, one of the keys to addressing issues such as workers’ rights is transparency. Transparency has been touted as a crucial aspect of a business development in building trust with consumers and the community. It has also been described as important to government services, such as law enforcement — for example, the wearing of body cameras by police officers.

“The onus is always put on us, as the people that need to consume at the end of the day. I think the companies, those that set the mood, that set the culture, that set the trends — there should be a certain responsibility on those people to be transparent. There is a massive lack of transparency. And I think — whether it’s technology, the food industry, the clothing industry — I think there should be a mandate that you should have to be completely transparent with your supply chains. I genuinely think that,” he said.

“I know the first response of the companies — ‘Oh, you don’t understand the economics, and you don’t understand that if we do it and do all these extra audits and stuff, our profits are going to subside. We’re going to pull out of the market. Well, you know what? I’d be prepared to take that risk; Because we have the same argument in the U.K. about financial institutions or individuals that don’t pay their taxes. We always get the argument that ‘well, if you tax me too much or tax this company or tax this person, they’ll leave the country.’ Well, you know what? They’re obviously here for a reason. They like the tax breaks, and they like the treatment that they get. So if they don’t like it — fuck ‘em, let them go elsewhere with their companies.”

“There has to be a point where you say, ‘Enough is enough.’ We need to know exactly what you’re doing, because there is a possibility that what you’re manufacturing has a real dark underbelly to it, and we need to know. You wouldn’t accept this kind of treatment. You wouldn’t go out on the street and treat someone like this in the U.K. or U.S. because you’d get arrested, it would be a civil offense.”

“Think about this: If you took somebody off the streets and said, ‘I’ve got a job for you. Come and do it.’ And you imprison them almost, and you made them work only so many hours a day, and you didn’t allow them out — you allow them out from time to time, and you made them work like 15 hours a day, you would be prosecuted for that, you’d be put in prison. Why when these companies do it en masse, they don’t have to answer for anything? Why is it that prosecutions are never even discussed? That just shows you the difference between those that have the power and those that don’t.”

But for Greenway, transparency is one step. Ultimately, he feels that the key to a more humanitarian society is cooperation. Understanding how social cooperation and competition independently and interactively influence behavior and well-being has long been a subject of study among psychologists and philosophers. Studies suggest that both cooperation and competition can have positive influences on intrinsic motivation.

Greenway feels that we’ve strayed too far towards competition. “There is a tendency when you challenge capitalism and the whole culture that surrounds it that we underestimate ourselves as human beings. I mean, why do we have to compete? Why can’t we cooperate? That’s the point. Why do we always need competition to drive standards up? I know how people roll their eyes and look at their watches when people come up with simple quotes like ‘Capitalism has to end’ and it has to be brought down. And you have to give an idea of what’s to follow.”

“I would like to see a lot more things in the world that we live in done on a cooperative basis. We talk about society, Well, what is society at its core? It’s an organization of hierarchies. And I would like to see a lot of that broken down. Because until we do that, the very things that me and you have been talking about — we’re never going to achieve it, because you’re always going to have that strata, certain separation.”

“I mean, sure enough I haven’t got all the mechanics of it, and I couldn’t give you a complete road map to the rest of life in some kind of utopian paradise. But I can say that I’d like to see a lot more representation. Rather than political parties, I’d like to see cooperative councils, where we talk about the well-being of everybody. And we organize ourselves based upon that. To some extent, I’d like to see the end of money. I would like to see almost like a bartering system in some respects, however that would be achieved.”

“And I think those are some examples of a couple of pillars of the future. That would then negate the need for politics. Because there wouldn’t be a left versus right, for want of a better word, the plebes versus the elites. A lot of the stuff in between that would be broken down. And we would start to understand why we are who we are and how we need to operate to ensure that those people there aren’t left in the gutter just because they were born into certain circumstances. I think it would cut all of that out.”

“For example, with all of these utilities that are breaking the backs of people. But we’re always lead to believe, ‘Oh, you can never have enough private companies in the marketplace driving prices down. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m just not seeing it. For all of these years, we’ve had deregulation of the energy sector, and our bills have gotten worse, not better. So where is the endpoint? Are we supposed to die and then the prices come down?”

“Health care is a perfect example. In the U.K., we have the national health system, which has its issues. But everything does when you have an organization like that. But let me tell you, it is far preferable to where everybody can get treatments. Nobody is left out of that particular thing. As opposed to the States, where private health care companies operate carte blanche and exclude the people at the bottom that cannot afford their premiums. But as soon as they need any surgery or treatment, there’s that convenient pre-existing condition clause that completely lays waste to all the years they’ve paid into that particular company.”

“I mean, what’s the point? You might as well not. So again, my point is that competition, especially through private enterprises, is no solution to me. For me, cooperation is the best way forward. Re-nationalize, for me. Re-nationalize the essential public services, and do not let private companies gamble with the future of those companies, and of course, sometimes, the health and welfare of the people who rely on them.”

Greenway realizes that social cooperation involves a great deal of compromise. And he’s experienced that while being a member of Napalm Death. “I’ve always had this thing about not selling myself down the river. And that can be difficult in life. Because obviously when you are in a cooperative situation — I’ve got three other band members or whatever other situations you could bring up in context — you don’t want to be dictatorial, obviously, so it can be tricky to push forward something that you feel is ethically the right thing to do.”

“Another thing that people who might share your concerns, but also are willing to meet things, maybe not 100 percent. They might see that they can sort of meet things 50 percent and still accept that there’s still a 50 percent margin for not necessarily getting the whole way. So that can be tricky. I mean we’ve managed it so far; As you can imagine, over 25 to 30 years, you kind of need to.”

“What I’ve tried to do along the way is tried to show other band mates why we should do certain things. And they’ve come around to the same page. I will say that there’s rarely, if ever, a situation where we were so diametrically opposite a situation that we couldn’t reach a point to move forward. But sure enough, there’s different degrees of perception and intention to deal with and change things. So you just have to deal with it. So we’ve got there. We’ve reached the points where we need to, so we must be doing something right, I suppose.”

Greenway knows that this battle has not and will not be easy, and he takes that in stride. “We get it in straight magazine interviews sometimes. ‘Well, you know your band’s been around for 30 years now, and look at this band who was influenced by you, but they’re selling 10 times more records arguably. Aren’t you jealous?’ And it’s like, ‘You know what? No.’ We made our beds, and we lie in it. That’s the way it is, and I accept it,” he said.

“If the price of worrying about what other bands are doing or that one-upsmanship in terms of what we do creatively as a band and ethically, if you like, if that gets diluted, then that’s no kind of trade-off for me. And I’m quite happy with the way things go in the band. I mean, yeah, sure enough, in an ideal world, it would be great if, from my perspective, if everybody saw what we were saying and took it into the wider world and said, ‘You know what? No more war and fighting amongst ourselves. We’re going to fucking sit down and talk about things properly. We’re going to have councils where people are represented and not just those at the top, but those at the bottom. Those are going to be represented on these cooperative councils. We’re going to talk about all this stuff, and we’re going to find a way to get through it. And we’re going to make sure that those of you who are at the bottom, that you are not there anymore — that you are represented and you have access to the things that you do not presently have access to.’”

For Greenway, acceptance is a key strategy that he uses personally to manage some of the stress that inevitably arises. Acceptance-based approaches have been shown to be efficacious in managing stress and treating some mental disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder. In particular, Greenway discusses the dangers of social comparison which can often result in negative emotions.

“You know, I would wish that that would be the case, but I understand that it’s not.

It doesn’t frustrate me at all, as crazy as that may seem. I have a certain level of acceptance. I accept that for me it’s not about one-upmanship almost, if that’s the right way to put it. I’m not competing against an artist who, although people might see as very shallow as compared to ours, yet they have the more attention. My thing has always been, concentrate on what your own band is doing and make that the best you can. And also in terms of putting across that message; I think once you start getting into envy and competition with things like that, you almost dilute the very thing that you’re trying to do. And I’m very conscious of not doing that.”

But don’t mistake the spirit of compromise as a sign that Greenway is lightening up. ““But — and this is not a bravado thing — I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Because I thought it was important as a human being to say, ‘This is not right. This is not what we’re about. This is never what our scene was meant to be about. Or the music.’ And so we sort of stood up and made our feelings known” he said.

“It was quite linear for me, because I’m the sort of person, once I set my mind to something, it’s 100% for me. I will do it. Of course, there are rooms in life for compromise on certain things. But with things that are quite fundamental on certain ethics — the way I deal with things, and I appreciate it’s not the same for everybody — you either do it, or you don’t. If it’s something you feel strongly about that you feel shouldn’t happen, and you don’t want to contribute to it — for me, I either do it, or I don’t. There’s no ‘halfway house,’ really.”

“But what’s the alternative? You either sort of throw your hands in the air and think everything’s hopeless and not do anymore. Or you just push on. And you made those kind of waves. In the big ocean, you made the small waves. Better to make small waves than nothing at all, I think,” he says.

And while Greenway recognizes that his views often align with left-wing politics, he remains steadfastly independent. “Again, the politics can be really divisive. If you understand anything about the scene that Napalm has a foot in, there is quite a debate over how far bands should be entertaining and how far they should be political. It’s almost as if you have to have a certain amount of politics and a certain amount of the music in terms of how you should project yourself. And it can be quite rigid. I think even I can recoil sometimes,” he explained.

“But having said that, I think still the development of my viewpoints was my own development. I always listen to other people’s perspectives, whether I like them or not. But I’ve always tried not to copy somebody else’s viewpoint or to try to latch onto it. I’ve always tried to develop it myself. I’ll take somebody’s idea, sure enough, and I would sort of dissect it and think about it. And if it was good, take it away by myself. So I wouldn’t automatically copy someone else’s ideas. It just so happens that all of the ideas that I’ve gone along with, you could run a parallel with certain people on the left. It’s just the way things have worked out.”

Ultimately, as Greenway navigates the waters of creating his art and sharing his beliefs, he comes back to the core humanitarian message, and his commitment to bring attention to when people are not treated with respect and dignity.

“But I’ve always tried to follow my heart and my head, and I guess just overall a sense of humanity, because that’s the word that’s really important for me. Because I know that it’s cropping up, Humanity above everything else.”

“Because if we ever do arrive at that form of humanity, that true form of humanity, I don’t think there’ll be any need for politics anymore.”

“Because I think it will have been solved, maybe.”

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.