Blunt Against the Cutting Edge
CoC chats with Shane Embury of Napalm Death
by: Jackie Smit
If there were such a thing as an Extreme Music Hall of Fame, then surely Shane Embury would have to be amongst its first inductees. His public profile may not be on a par with certain other figureheads in the genre, but his contribution to the broad spectrum of sonic brutality making up modern metal has been paramount. Quite where he finds the time to squeeze it all in is another matter entirely, for less than eighteen months following the release of his main musical interest's last epic, _The Code Is Red, Long Live the Code_, Napalm Death have returned with yet another in an astonishingly consistent line of nonpareils. The album in question is of course _Smear Campaign_: a title that's bound to grace more than a few year best lists toward the end of 2006, and judging by the way Embury talks about it as he rings me from Germany, this isn't the band's last hoorah by a long shot.

[Note to readers: This interview was conducted three days prior to the announcement of former Napalm Death guitarist Jesse Pintado's death, thus the reason why it wasn't brought up during the course of the conversation.]

CoC: The new album has come out relatively soon after _The Code Is Red..._ hit the shelves. Why come back so soon?

Shane Embury: Well, the weird thing was that we were basically all set to tour with Kreator in February, but all of us were wondering what we were going to do after that. So the label said that we should think about doing another album, which we said was a little soon for us. But I guess what's starting to happen more and more are shorter gaps between releases, and eventually we agreed that it was a good idea to work on a new album; and by doing that, it all just kicked off again. For my part, I'm always writing songs with Napalm anyway. When there's down periods of time, like when I'm sitting back in Birmingham with my guitar -- the next thing you know, you have the basis of a track. So I tend to have a lot of ideas lying around on tape, and when the discussions came up to do another album, I knew that I had about four or five really strong ideas already. That gave us a good starting point. Mitch [Harris, guitarist] is a little different: he usually just locks himself away for two weeks and writes as much as he possibly can. I think that the nature of the band right now, with everything we've gone through and in the way that we've matured as people, we're very focused and very comfortable with each other. We're not afraid to try something a little different. We're definitely not trying to change the world, and we still want each album to represent Napalm the way it is, you know? But we just channel all that energy into it, we set ourselves a ridiculous schedule to make it all happen, and I think that we just end up working much better under pressure. We also had Russ [Russell] still with us, producing the album, and he's really like a fifth member of the band now. There was also the last album, which was so well received that it gave us a lot of momentum and made us a little more confident that the next album would turn out well.

CoC: That was actually about to be my next question: _The Code Is Red..._ certainly as far as I can remember, garnered Napalm Death some of the highest praise of your careers. You've mentioned the time issue, but when you're coming off the back of an album like that, does it put pressure on you to raise the bar creatively with the follow-up?

SE: I don't know if it put pressure on us, but I do think that we were conscious of the fact that we wanted to put out an album that would hopefully be better than the last one. I was talking to Barney [Greenway, vocalist] about this as well actually, and we are definitely all of the same mind when we record and when we mix. Me personally, just when you think you have it all tight and it's all the way it should sound, I'll always try and push it that one little bit further -- just to test it out and make it a little bit crazier. But we had a good starting point with this album, as I said, and in many ways it just felt like we were carrying on from where we had left off. That's the way I look at it. Everything that worked on the last record, we tried to take that step further; but at the same time a song like "Fatalist" is almost reminiscent of _Scum_ in a way. We're lucky to be able to look back now on twelve albums or whatever worth of stuff that just inspires you, and you sit there and you realise that you've been doing this for twenty years, which is very encouraging. It definitely gives you a kick in the ass to get up and go for it, you know?

CoC: I definitely think that this new record is much heavier, but by the same token it's also a lot more adventurous. After having made a series of albums as relatively straightforward as everything since _Enemy of the Music Business_, have you now reached a point as a band where you're consciously trying to mix it up? Do you now feel relaxed enough -- having proven yourself again in a way over the past six years -- that you are focusing more on what pleases you artistically, rather than what would please the critics or the fans?

SE: Well, I think you have to please yourself. I do consider the fans of the band as well. With the albums in the mid-'90s -- as much as I’m happy with them, and I like them for what they were -- it might have just been too much of one thing. It's a process of crafting your skills. There's always been a predominantly grindcore influence with us, but to varying degrees we've always sprinkled that experimental edge on things. Not massive amounts, but on the new album for example you have a song like "Sink Fast Sink Low" which is very fast, but suddenly comes at you with a slower and very discordant riff. So little subtleties that are mixed all the way through, it makes the difference, and it's just enough to make it kind of veer off in a strange direction and keep it interesting. Then again, the title track on the new album is very slow and Barney's vocals are different, so I think this time around we were also confident enough that there was enough intensity that we could slow it down a little.

CoC: For my money, I have to say that the way that this album closes -- even though the music is technically slower -- almost makes the whole thing sound even more intense.

SE: Yeah, well, when I listen to it, I always get different feelings from it and I think that overall the vibe is just very emotional on that song. It's like you've been trapped in a cage for forty five minutes and suddenly there's this track that's still intense, but it's so different. It's probably not an accurate comparison, but in some way it's a bit like how people must have felt when the Berlin Wall came down. It's intense relief, if that makes any sense.

CoC: So sticking to the adventurous and experimental parts on the new record, what made [The Gathering's] Anneke van Giersbergen a particularly good choice to do guest vocals on the album?

SE: We talked about getting a female singer on board, but we were stumped over who it could be. So actually our manager suggested that we ask her, and I've liked The Gathering for a few years now. Strangely enough, Mitch actually met her a couple of years ago, and I think that he wanted to use her on one of his projects, but that never happened. But we approached her and she agreed, and she was just really nice and easy going and enthusiastic. It just seemed like it was an obvious choice at the end. Originally she was just going to do the spoken part on "In Deference", but then she added the end piece in as well, and it just came out great. She was just more than helpful with everything, and that just seems to be similar to the experience we've had using guest vocalists up until now. With her, I think we were just keen to find someone who wasn't necessarily operatic; someone who could sing, but had a very easy-going attitude about her as well. Not so much of the pompous thing. Obviously if you had mentioned anything like this to me a year ago, I would never have dreamed of using a female singer! <laughs>

CoC: I think it came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of your long-time fans as well.

SE: I guess so, and it has a lot to do with the attitude that we have now where we're pretty confident with the direction and the extremity of each record that we can throw these subtleties in. Ten years ago, we'd have just stared at each other in weird, uncomfortable silence if someone mentioned something like this. If anything, it just adds colouring to the record; it doesn't make it less intense, it just makes it more interesting.

CoC: You mentioned it earlier and I discussed it with Barney when I spoke to him last year, but what is it about Russ Russell's approach and style that's made your working relationship so productive, and by the same token do you feel that there's still a lot of energy left in the combination before it runs out of steam?

SE: Besides being extremely good friends, when we first met Russ it was when he came out on the road with us around the time of _Enemies of the Music Business_, and he spent about three years with us as our sound man, and even then it was like: "Thank God, we've finally found someone who can mix us live". But he prefers working in the studio, so that's why he's been doing that for the last couple of albums. He just seems to understand what we're about. We became really good friends with him, and when we started discussing our musical past with him, there were a lot of similarities. It's uncanny the comparisons between us, and you can just leave him to his own devices and he gets on with it. I've never seen a guy get a good distorted bass sound as quickly as he does. <laughs> It's like he's on auto-pilot sometimes. Some producers are enthusiastic, but Russ is just like us in a lot of ways. He's very passionate and he goes above and beyond the call of duty.

CoC: As a producer, does he tend to drive and push you guys very hard? I'm thinking of the reputation that Erik Rutan has, for example, of being quite a taskmaster in the studio, even with his friends. Does Russ do the same thing?

SE: Sometimes he can do. He's critical, but he's not insanely picky. He and I also probably have a slightly closer relationship because when the drums are done and Barney's not singing it's usually just me and Mitch and Russ, and it's like this little team. We all pick up on mistakes and we're all just there tweaking away until four or five in the morning. Besides being a good engineer and a good producer, he's also just a really creative guy and he's really good at capturing the vibe of the soundscape stuff that we do, like the last track on the new album.

CoC: Another relationship that seems to be working out well for you is the new deal with Century Media. Given how much trouble you've had in the past, how has being in a healthier situation the way you are now impacted on the band and how does this compare to being on Earache?

SE: Before we came to Century Media, we knew a lot of the stuff here anyway, so it was an easy transition. But at least with these guys, if you have a problem it's easy to get in touch with them and talk about it, and even if you don't get the end result you're after, at least you can argue the hell out of it, you know? You could never do that with Earache, and for me that's what really pissed me off about them, because I grew up with this guy [Digby Pearson] and all of a sudden I couldn't talk to him. With Century Media there's none of that, and towards the latter part of the Earache days there was a lot of pressure from management and from the label, and it made working in the studio very difficult and unpractical. Now we can go into the studio for these short, productive bursts and just push the hell out of things and do what we do best. They help us, they give us a lot of a support and they've kept us insanely busy.

CoC: A recurring topic on the new record is the follies of organized religion, and it's definitely something that I think you attack with a lot more fervour this time around. But I'm interested to know your thoughts on the continued use of Satanic imagery and themes in metal. Obviously it's not something that Napalm Death does at all, but in many ways it's starting to seem like a large contingent of the metal fraternity has grown tired of that and that increasingly there's a move toward disregarding any religion entirely.

SE: Well, I could definitely see the attraction in the early days of black metal, because when you're young that sort of imagery thing is something you're very easily coaxed into. I mean, I was young and into things like Venom and whatnot. But if we're talking about religion, I've never felt the need to subscribe to anything like that. I never had the most religious upbringing anyway, but it just didn't seem to work for me. I kind of thought that I was intelligent enough to make my own mind up about what was right and what was wrong. I also don't like the idea of people being judged on whether they believe in God or not. Its segregation and it doesn't make sense. I watched an interesting documentary the other night about these people that basically spend their whole lives just waiting to get out so that they can enter this world beyond, and I've never been able to understand how people don't see that this is a pretty amazing world already and that whatever is meant to be afterward, I don't know if that's any better than what we have already. It seems bizarre to me that in this day and age... You look back in history and this sort of thing has just caused so many problems that I just don't think it's very relevant in this day and age, personally.

CoC: With metal having cast itself in opposition to a lot of religion, and Christianity being the main target, why do you think that most bands continue to attack it as opposed to, for example, Islamic fanaticism, which is arguably just as bad?

SE: From our point of view -- the theme on this record is that all religions are equally bad. We're human beings and we don't need to be told what to believe and what to fight for. I think that we inherently know right from wrong and a lot of religion just boils down to fear mongering. Islam is a sensitive subject, I think, especially here in England where there's a big thing about equality, and because it's so delicate I think it's case of not knowing what to say. It's easier to avoid. For me it's just as dangerous and corrupt as Christianity, but again -- I'm not going to tell people what to believe. I just think something that causes so much frustration and pain for people can't be good.

CoC: _Smear Campaign_ is your thirteenth album and it definitely doesn't feel to me like you guys are losing momentum whatsoever. But having done this for a while now, how many rounds do you feel Napalm have left in them, so to speak?

SE: I don't know, really. You get asked that question from time to time, but I think we still have a fair way to go. As you get older, you realise you need to start taking better care of yourself. The back takes three days to heal and not one like it used to, but other than that it's fine. We still go for it every show, and I still try and pelt it as much as I can every time I'm on stage. So I think there's still a lot of life left in us, and I think that we can still push it further. The key for me is to be able to look over our catalogue and smile at the achievement and what we've been able to do. With this album we've a lot of things that were new to us and that were a little different. We're definitely going to be around a little longer.

CoC: You've also got your hands stuck in a lot of other pies though. What do you have going on outside of Napalm Death right now?

SE: I got back a couple of weeks ago actually from playing some shows with Brujeria in the States. I'm playing guitar with those guys, so that's interesting for me. Jeff [Walker] from Carcass is playing bass with them as well, so that's kind of fun. I also played bass on the new Anaal Nathrakh record, which is coming out in September or October. There's a new Venomous Concept album almost finished as well. Kevin [Sharpe] recently got married and he's had a kid, so he's up to his neck in it, but that album should eventually come out. I'm also going to be playing bass on Silenoz from Dimmu Borgir's band, Insidious Disease -- that's going to be recorded next year. I think that's about it. <laughs> I always like to keep busy. It's just something I like to do; I get a massive buzz from making music with people, and it's great to see how other people write.

CoC: So, Napalm Death are headed on the road with Exodus and Hatebreed now. What comes next?

SE: Up until Christmas there's touring. End of January, we're off to Greece and there's also talks of going to China and hopefully to a couple of other Asian countries as well. We want to do Australia because we've only been there once and that was about ten years ago. I think there's another European tour planned for April and then it's the festival. God knows what after that.

CoC: Shane -- thanks for your time.

SE: Likewise, and we're looking forward to seeing everyone when we go on tour.

(article submitted 12/9/2006)

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5/13/2005 J Smit Napalm Death: Cause for Alarm
1/10/2001 P Schwarz Napalm Death: Killing Is the Business of Their Enemy
1/17/1996 A Bromley Napalm Death: On A New Plane of Existence
1/23/2009 J Smit 10 Napalm Death - Time Waits for No Slave
8/22/2006 J Smit 9 Napalm Death - Smear Campaign
4/7/2005 J Smit 9.5 Napalm Death - The Code Is Red... Long Live the Code
7/29/2004 J Smit 8 Napalm Death - Leaders Not Followers 2
6/23/2003 J Smit 9 Napalm Death - Order of the Leech
11/20/2000 P Schwarz 9.5 Napalm Death - Enemy of the Music Business
5/19/1999 A Bromley 8 Napalm Death - Words From the Exit Wound
9/1/1998 A Wasylyk 8 Napalm Death - Bootlegged in Japan
5/13/1997 A Bromley 8 Napalm Death - Inside the Torn Apart
2/5/1997 A Bromley 8 Napalm Death - Breed To Breathe
12/13/1995 G Filicetti 8 Napalm Death - Greed Killing
1/16/1999 P Azevedo Cradle of Filth / Napalm Death / Borknagar The Smell of Napalm in the Dark
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