Exclusive! Interview With Napalm Death Bassist Shane Embury
Wednesday, November 3, 2004 @ 10:52 AM
Leaders of the Old School: Atk
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The godfathers of grind are back. After spending a couple years sorting out label problems and handling the uncertain status of guitarist Jesse Pintado, Britain’s Napalm Death has returned with vengeance with an album of old cover songs, Leaders Not Followers: Part 2, a shiny new deal with Century Media Records, a North American tour with Cannibal Corpse and the promise of a brand new album in the spring.
Indeed, as bassist Shane Embury spoke on the phone from his home in Birmingham, the band had just returned from Foel Studios in Wales where it recorded The Code Is Red ... Long Live The Code, and was busy packing for its flight to Canada a day later. It was the band’s first tour here for the band in several years — for the aforementioned reasons.
After a 20-year, often tumultuous career — which is chronicled with exacting, often painful detail in the new book “Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal and Grindcore” — it would have been easy for Napalm to pack it in when the chips were down. But the band has faced bigger problems, and lots of ‘em — label turmoil (a common theme), stylistic departures, constant line-up turnover in the early days (no original members remain) and a fickle following — over the years and always bounced back.
Napalm got its musical house back in order after 1999’s Leaders Not Followers: Vol. 1 EP reignited the fire in the belly that seemingly had lost through most of the ‘90s. While the industrial experimentation of Diatribes and later albums expanded Napalm’s sonic palette, it watered down the grindcore ferocity the band had all but invented back in Birmingham’s dingy clubs in the mid-‘80s. But 2000’s Enemy of the Music Business marked a return to the signature grinding guitars and blast beat-powered insanity that made Napalm so vital a decade earlier. 2002’s Order of the Leech kept up the intensity and if the studio report from frontman Mark “Barney” Greenway’s on the band’s web site is any indication, The Code Is Red will do the same.
“I am using the microphone as I would live, which helps to really get the full roar going,” Greenway wrote. “Guitars are sounding heavy as anything, Shane is doing his usual tractor impressions with the bass, which is nice.” Woo hoo!
Leaders Part 2 will ease the wait. The trip down memory lane features 19 covers of old hardcore and death/thrash metal tracks, highlighting a few classics — Sepultura’s “Troops of Doom,” Kreator’s “Riot of Violence” — and a bunch of obscurities from the likes of Anti Cimex, The Offenders, Siege and Discharge that influenced the band way back in the day. If you ever wondered where Napalm’s sound came from, well here’s your answer.
Prior to heading out to the pub for a final few pints before leaving for the tour, Embury offered the following about Napalm’s new album, the old days and the myriad side projects he seems to always be getting involved with.
KNAC.COM: How are you? SHANE EMBURY: Pretty good. Just listening to the new Napalm album.
KNAC.COM: And how does it sound? EMBURY: It sounds killer. I would say that I guess, wouldn’t I? We just came out of the studio three or four days ago. The recording’s all done. We’ve just got to work on the track listing, which we have some ideas for, and master the record, which will be done probably over the next six weeks while we’re on tour in the states. The guy who produced the record [Russ Russell], he’s a good friend or ours, he’s pretty reliable and trustworthy, so we know he’ll do a good job.
He’s produced our last two albums with Simon Efemey and he’s been our live engineer for like four years. He won’t be on this tour, unfortunately, but we’ve got to get the record done.
So he’ll be mastering it and compressing a few levels here and there and brighten a few things up that you couldn’t do in the studio and whatnot. Boosting up the volume, really.
KNAC.COM: Like you need any help doing that. EMBURY: Well from experience doing the recording stuff you get it as close as you can, but then there are certain levels tend be flying around here and there, which I kind of like actually. So we try not to polish it too much, just general sort of round of the edges and make it a bit more powerful, I guess.
KNAC.COM: You leave for the U.S. tour in like a day or two, right? EMBURY: Sunday morning. The first date is the [Oct.] 20th, so yeah it’s been pretty hectic the past few weeks. We’ve been obviously recording the album, dealing with U.S. tour stuff and also we’re touring Europe after that, so there’s lots of stuff going on.
KNAC.COM: Plus you have the covers album [Leaders, Part 2] coming out, so you get to handle press for two albums at once. EMBURY: Well Barney’s been doing quite a lot for the covers album here, and I imagine there’s gonna be some more trickling through in the States when we get over. It’s kind of a crazy situation because the covers album has been done for quite a while, it’s only coming out now. We recorded it sometime in 2003. It’s been sitting around for quite some time.
KNAC.COM: What was the hold up? Getting your label situation straightened out — again? EMBURY: Yeah. Hopefully finally we’re on a label that’s gonna push us in the states. The problem was the last two labels were for Europe only and we kind of got bounced around in America with different labels, which confused things, and no one would help us when we were trying to tour. So hopefully this time around it’s a better deal. It was the typical “Who should we go for?” scenario.
KNAC.COM: Why Century Media? EMBURY: With labels it’s always a tough call because you’re never gonna be completely happy, but my friend Liv works for Century Media, he’d been talking to me more for a few years, since before Enemy of the Music Business came out, he’s like “I wished you’d give us a chance to sign you.” So Century Media’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. And I’m in the States quite a lot and I see what bands are doing over there and the kind of promotion they’re getting.
The label seems to be working their bands, and that’s the important thing. And some of the people at the label there have been involved in the scene in various aspects over the years and they seem to be genuinely into the music, which always helps. Obviously when you have people like that hopefully means they care more.
There was a couple of companies in Europe that were interested in us, but they didn’t have as good a base in America, so we decided let’s give it a whirl with Century Media and see what happens. It’s a whole new organization, hopefully it will open a few more doors for us over there.
KNAC.COM: Did you ever think about going back to Earache? Or was there just too much bad blood? EMBURY: It would have been a crazy situation. I’m at an age where I can look at label politics and if the band’s got problems with a label I can see the band’s point of view, but I can actually see the label’s point of view as well. I’m not like a 21 year old and go “Oh, it’s all their fault because…” because it takes two to tango.
When you’ve been exploited by a record label or you’ve had things happen to you in the past, it’s an experience, it’s a learning curve and many bands go through it. The only way you learn is the hard way. And we are, in some respects, not without fault. We’ve not paid attention to certain issues that maybe we should have because when you’re in a band all you want to do is play. Managers are meant to do that for you. We got on an unlucky run, we learned the hard way.
With regard to Earache, it would be a very uncomfortable situation. Two of my friends work at Earache and I still have a pretty good relationship with the label manager over here, but things are done, it’s dusted and you move on. For both of us.
KNAC.COM: I just finished the book “Choosing Death,” have you read it yet? EMBURY: I’ve read a few snippets. I just haven’t had time to read it all. I got a copy the other week and I’ve just been breezing through it, saw some old pictures of me look vastly strange (laughs) so I thought, “OK, I’ll look at that one day.”
KNAC.COM: It’s definitely worth a read on the plane ride over to the States or something. The reason I asked about Earache is the book really shows how everyone involved when it did its deal with Columbia (Carcass, Entombed, Godflesh, Fudge Tunnel and Napalm) ended up suffering for it in the end. The label, too. EMBURY: You can look back in hindsight and go “this where it went wrong and or this is what we did wrong.” But I guess on a positive note, we’re around so we can correct our mistakes. We went through our experimental stage, we veered off and did things differently, which a lot of people didn’t agree with. And as a label, I think Earache did the same.
You’ve got to follow your gut instinct. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, but you look at it now and see how labels may have done things and you may have done things and think perhaps you should have remained completely underground. You don’t know. It’s a hard decision, it’s a Catch-22 situation. Again you have to learn the hard way. It doesn’t always work.
Now, when I hear of bands signing with majors and I think “Hmm, I wonder how long that’s gonna last.” But it depends, it depends on what the band’s gonna do to push itself forward because some bands have a whole strategy perhaps to become more accessible as well.
But Albert [Mudrian], the guy who wrote the book, I had interviews on many nights with him and I put many e-mail addresses his way because I’ve kept in touch with the old guys. So got to hear the whole story straight from the horses’ mouths.
KNAC.COM: It is really well documented, and the best thing about it is that he does let the musicians do most of the talking instead of just using them to dress up his own prose. EMBURY: I know that when I was hanging out with Jeff [Walker] from Carcass, he did some singing on the new Napalm album, he was saying there’s lots of bits left out, but there’s so much to cover you can’t squeeze in everything. It gets too boring after that.
KNAC.COM: How was working with Jeff? EMBURY: It was good. I kept up with Jeff over the years and rang him up this time as said, “Would you like to come down?” And he was like, “Fuck yeah, I’ll come down.” And it was a good thing. Vocally, it’s total Jeff, the same kind of style that he’s always done. And strangely enough Jeff and Barney were having a couple beers and talking about the old days -- it was fun.
KNAC.COM: Is Jeff doing anything in music these days? He pretty much disappeared after Carcass split up… EMBURY: He has an idea for a pretty bizarre project that I’m not a liberty to really talk about, because it’s his kind of thing [rumor has it it’s a solo album consisting exclusively of country and blues covers done with metallic spin]. But I was blasting him some of my four-track projects that I’ve got lined up for whenever and we were talking about doing a couple things. Me and Lee Dorrian [Cathedral, ex-Napalm singer] have been rambling on about doing a cross-core Discharge/Swans/Neurosis kind of band for God knows, probably 10 years, and I finally got off my ass and wrote a track on my four-track the other day and I said, “Hey Jeff, do you feel like playing bass?” And he was like “Yeah, maybe I will.” That’s what we were discussing last weekend, but how or when that happens is anyone’s guess.
KNAC.COM: I read something not long ago about another project of yours, Born to Murder The Earth? EMBURY: We’ve got some ideas planned. A friend of mine, he’s done the last couple album covers, a guy called Mick Kenney, he’s in a band called Anaal Nathrakh, actually I’ll probably see him later on tonight when we go to the pub, we’ve been talking about doing some stuff with Attila [Csihar, of Aborym], he did vocals on the Mayhem album [De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas] and also [Mayhem guitarist] Necrobutcher’s gonna be involved and it looks like Nick Barker [ex-Dimmu Borgir/Cradle of Filth] is going to play drums on that one.
I’m also taking to Buzz [Osborne] of the Melvins about doing a tour in the U.S. with us, them and maybe Mastodon. And by doing that my other band, which I have with Buzz [Venomous Concept] could open the show and do a 15-minute set or something. It’s a different kind of band, and different kind of bill, and it would be more interesting to just get off the trail a little bit.
KNAC.COM: Are you still doing your side projects [Lock Up, Brujeria, etc.]? EMBURY: There’s a few things hovering around, it’s just a matter of finding the time. But it keeps life interesting for me. It’s just one of those things that kind of happens, some people point the finger at me and ask, “Aren’t you doing too much?” But invariably, by the time you’ve wrote songs and got everybody in one place, these records come out every couple or three years. They kind of are what they are, they’re expressions of what you’re into at the time. I just enjoy meeting people and recording music with friends. The main thing for me is that it’s fun, being in the studio and seeing how other people write songs. That helps me when you go back to the main thing, which for me is Napalm.
Some of the stuff that I’m thinking about that is a bit of a step away from Napalm, but again, invariably if you’re really into music then you’re into different styles of music. As much as you love doing you main thing, you get a kick out of doing something else. And it is what it is, people shouldn’t overanalyze it.
With Mick from Anaal Nathrakh, the main thing about this guy is he reminds me so much of me and Mick [Harris] and Lee [Dorrian] and Bill [Steer], all the old characters from years ago. With Anaal Nathrakh and bands like that it’s almost like a second wave of Birmingham hardcore/death metal/punk scene emerging now. It’s really good. When I talk to him I feel like I’m 22 again. That’s real enthusiasm, I like buzzing off people like that, that’s a good feeling.
KNAC.COM: “Choosing Death” will have you feeling downright nostalgic then. EMBURY: It was a very special time, it’s good to remember. It’s nice that that book’s coming out because sometimes it’s tough to remember those things for yourselves (laughs). If you look back at it, for me, it’s kind of bizarre because at the time it happens you don’t really think about it. When you look back it over the years, you think, “God, I’m actually part of this whole scene.” And it was happening when I was 14 years old running around school in a Venom shirt. It comes back a slaps you in the face and it gives you a real big buzz because you realize that you were part of something that was really revolutionary.
KNAC.COM: When you joined Napalm, were things starting to happen with the band yet? EMBURY: It was just as it was starting to take off. Scum had just come out and there was a buzz about it. I knew the Napalm guys from before when they were a three-piece and I would go to the gigs and tape trade their stuff around the world, etc. When I joined, gigs were still few and far between and they were in pubs and the backs of transit vans and you’d turn up at a show and usually the promoter was pretty much drunk so you wouldn’t get paid, or he’d let everyone in for free and you wouldn’t get your gas money back, which is practically what we played for in those days, or enough to buy a bag of chips or something like that (laughs).
Then John Peel [legendary U.K. disc jockey who died at the end of October] got his hands on it, and once he started playing Napalm, it wasn’t just hardcore/thrash kids anymore at the shows, it was indie/alternative kids as well, it had crossed over. And then we did the second album [From Enslavement To Obliteration] and the BBC got involved and in us over here, doing documentaries on national TV, so things started getting pretty crazy then.
For many years, we still did the van tours and you’d turn up at gigs and sometimes the show wouldn’t happen because there was no real organization or the structure that there is today. But it was fun and it was a great experience.
KNAC.COM: I talked to Barney when the last album came out and he thought things were turning around for Napalm. Is that the sense you get? EMBURY: I guess. It does seem that the last couple albums seem to be more in line with what our fanbase or what people would associate with Napalm Death should be doing. People seem to be really happy that we’ve returned the faster kind of side of things. At the same time, in England, an awful lot of young kids are getting into the band for the first time. It does seem like the general consensus is people are happy that we’re playing more of what I guess what we’re known for.
Musically, if you analyze the last couple albums, they’re very fast but they’ve been very different from, say, Scum or Enslavement. chord structure-wise, without getting technical, there’s a lot more going on riff-wise than in the early days, but the overall approach is just the rawness factor. That’s still there.
KNAC.COM: And the songs are a little bit longer. EMBURY: (Laughs) Yeah, but saying that there’s a track on the new album that’s 40 seconds long. We figured we’d kind of throw one out. It’s kind of fun to do that. There’s no easy way to describe the band’s evolution. We just did what we did, some people point that finger and say, “You did that [adopting a more industrial approach] to sell out.” But not really. At that time, black metal was becoming really popular and bands were just getting crazier and crazier. And we could have just played exactly what people were expecting us to do, but it just wasn’t in our hearts. Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, we just did what we felt. We’re lucky enough to be around now that we can analyze the whole 10-12 years and go “right, this is what we’re gonna do now.”
For me, I look back on the experimental time and a big part of me loves the crazy, discordant almost depressing kind of riff structures. But obviously too much of that kind of throws people. And it just became a matter of adding those to the faster side of things, we could take the speed of Napalm and thread the experimental things in here and there, but just not so much. And that’s really where we’re at now.
KNAC.COM: And that carries through on the new album? EMBURY: It’s crazier. It’s the next step up. There’s some more interesting riffs, strange kind of discordant riffs in the faster parts. Overall, it’s a very fast album, apart from the last track, which is a very slow track and in ends kind of surprisingly with acoustic guitar, which is probably going to cause a bit of a ruckus. But the rest of the album is pretty crazy, lots of blast parts and Barney’s vocals on this one are some of his best I’ve heard from him in a long time. He changed his whole vocal approach. Usually when he sings in the studio, they just put the mic up on a stand and he’s got to shout at it that way. This time we had him hold the microphone just like he would onstage and it’s a lot better. It just seems like there’s a lot more power.
KNAC.COM: When will that album be out? EMBURY: I think the end of February, early March. We’ll be touring until the end of the year, then take January off and head back out in February. I’d like to see the band do at least two tours or America, it’s a place we’ve kind of neglected it for a while, not through choice, just from circumstances and the fact that we’re over here.
KNAC.COM: Do the American guys in the band live here or in England? EMBURY: They’re kind of based over here. Mitch [Harris, guitarist] lives over here, he has a 10-year-old daughter, so he’s here all the time. Danny [Herrara, drums] is here quite a lot, but goes back to L.A. to be with his brother and family and friends. The base is pretty much here.
KNAC.COM: What is Jesse Pintado’s status now? Is he back in the band, or still out? EMBURY: Right now he’s not in the band. I don’t quite know the situation, it’s one of those things that’s gonna have to resolve itself over the coming months. To be honest, if everything works out there’s no reason why he couldn’t come back. But at this point I guess it’s a needed break, that’s the best way to put it. But obviously the door is open in the future.
We’re definitely not going to get a replacement; we’ll stay as a four-piece. We did some shows recently and it works well -- it’s a different kind of vibe, like an earlier Napalm, when we actually were a four-piece. We’re not going to get anybody else. We’ve been together for so many years, with ups and downs and personal disputes, whatever, everything you could imagine. And that made it all the more personal to us, so we’ll just keep things as it is. It’s unfortunate that Jesse is not with us, but there are strong reasons for it, and we just concentrate on what we want to do and let Jesse concentrate on what he wants to do and let’s just see what happens.
KNAC.COM: The title of the album, The Code is Red, Long Live the Code -- what is the deal with that? EMBURY: It refers to the national emergency code, and it’s obviously a play on words, the king is dead, long live the king. It’s heavily themed through this record, there’s political issues that have happened recently, and some not so recently, that are at the heart of it.
KNAC.COM: Such as? EMBURY: Its points the finger, it’s questioning authority, it questions whether the people in power really are telling everyone the truth about what’s going on the world right now and what ulterior motives the people in power have, really, for the future. What’s going to go on three, four, five years down the line? Are they really laying the blueprints for some new world order? After what’s been happening over the last few years especially, it really makes you wonder.
KNAC.COM: You’ll be here for the presidential election, hopefully we won’t have another clusterfuck like we had last time. EMBURY: We’ve already been reading over here about election fraud allegations and lawsuits and that sort of thing, and the voting isn’t even for another couple weeks. So it should be a real interesting time, hopefully not too interesting.
KNAC.COM: Nothing like democracy in action. EMBURY: Amen to that (laughs).