Father of Grindcore to Father of a Baby Girl: Napalm Death's Shane Embury
Talking to Napalm Death's bassist Shane Embury about his four-month-old baby, and early punk and metal politics.
To paraphrase "Apocalypse Now", I love the sound of Napalm Death in the morning. For the 97% of us who wake up surly and unsociable, strong coffee and loud grindcore is a combo worth trying. Since misery loves company, grindcore acts like a bad-tempered partner in arms against the morning sun, making it slightly easier to take off your grumpy-pants and slip into your OK-just-breathe-this-isn’t-so-bad-I-guess-let’s-face-the-day-after-all-pants. Try it. At the very least, blasting bands like Napalm Death in the AM will drown out your roommate humming cheerfully in the fucking hallway—maybe even prevent a potential neck-stabbing.
For those unfamiliar with grindcore, it’s a crossover between hardcore and death metal. The vocals are all, AUUUGGHH; the drums are on blast, BRATATATATATAT; and the guitar and bass go, DIRNT-DARNT-DIRNT-DARNT-DIRNT-DARNT! The songs are stupid-short. And played retardedly fast. Overall: the soundtrack to Satan burping and taking a shit the same time.
Bassist Shane Embury is one of grindcore’s founding fathers and the longest standing member of Napalm Death. While the U.S. Army allegedly plays incessant grindcore to psychologically break suspected terrorists at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, Shane has been touring and recording the abrasive genre since 1987 and his spirits seem fully intact. He lives with his wife and daughter in Birmingham, U.K, the cradle of heavy metal itself, which has also forged the likes of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Godflesh. When we called him up, he and his drummer were trying to get his baby to stop crying.
Noisey: Hey Shane, how’s it going? [baby crying] Is now a good time to talk?
Shane Embury: It’s good, mate. I’m just at the drummer’s house right now. It’s a little crazy at the moment. A few days off from touring or whatever, and I’m with my four-month-old baby. Danny, our drummer, is feeding my little daughter for the first time so it’s kind of an interesting experience. We just got back from the market and she seems pretty content for now, so that’s good.
Is she your first child?
Yeah. She came in December. So it’s been all hands on deck. I’ve been away quite a lot. My wife’s Japanese so she took her back to see her parents for a few weeks a couple months ago. Now’s the interesting part. She’s starting to teethe, as they say, and put things in her mouth. She’ll eventually start crawling so it’s gonna be, well, oh my god… [laughs] We’ll see!
Have you started introducing her to music?
Well, I sing to her quite a bit. I sing all kinds of music besides heavy stuff. I think I’m reasonably in key. I’m intrigued though, she has pretty long fingers so I’m thinking, hm, piano player? Guitar player? I’ll put some heavy metal on and move her feet in time with the kick drum. You know, right foot, left foot. That sort of thing. Whether she’s paying attention to that, I don’t know. But perhaps on some primitive level it’s teaching her some kind of coordination and she’s not aware of it.
What kind of music do you play for her?
Well, the other day I had a demo of an At the Gates track because I’m friends with those guys. We listened to that and she was just bouncing around on my knee and wrist pounding along. So that was kind of her first taste of the heavy guitar, the brand new At the Gates track, which I probably shouldn’t say anything about, but there ya go.
So you’re in Birmingham right now. Why has so much heavy metal come from England’s West Midlands?
People say it’s because it’s an industrial area. But there are a lot of industrial areas. More than anything, I think it was Tony Iommi who said, “It is more than miserable there and everybody just wants to get the fuck out.” Maybe that was the starting point for it in some way. But when you have that history of music around you, it’s inevitable that you’re going to start trying to create something interesting yourself. When I look back at it, I realize that some of these bands formed just down the road from where I grew up. When I was young I didn’t quite realize that.
I’ve heard that you guys play your best when the conditions are the worst, and vice versa.
You’ve got two options, you can either complain about things, which some people do, or you can just see what happens. Sometimes, inevitably, when the conditions are really bad in the beginning, those shows turn out really good.
The whole band was featured on an episode Skins recently? That seems a bit out of place for you guys.
Yeah, that’s a strange program. That was about 18 months ago. I wouldn’t say it’s something I’d watch all the time. In fact, hardly ever. I think one of the guys who created the show is a big extreme metal fan though.
It seems that once bands reach a certain amount of years together, they basically become an institution that’s passed the point of breaking up. And Napalm Death has been around since 1981.
Well, for the first two and half years after I joined, before Barney, Mitch, Jesse, and then Danny, came into the band, it was kind of shaky because we were all living in different areas. It wasn’t that close. We were very young with a few shows here and there because the scene was really just emerging. But I guess around ‘89 or ‘90, when the other guys came, the four of us lived in a house for God knows how many years and we became very close as people. That probably has a lot do with it. I mean, there have been a few times over the years when we may snap, you know, and say something completely way out there just ‘cos we all have our differences with each other. It’s just like a marriage in some ways. When we fall out with each other once in a while you have to take a good look at it and go, Hey, you know, I’m getting the chance to tour the world, meet interesting people, go to interesting countries and play music that I really love. You have to deflate your ego once in a while and realize that some things are not worth fighting about. Not everybody can do that I suppose.
How did you first come in contact with the band?
I first saw them in March of ‘86, just literally down the road from where I am right now. I became really good friends with the guys. At that point I had a part-time job and was going on 18 or 19 years old. I was in a couple bands myself and I got really attracted to the aggression. I loved the mixture of hardcore and Celtic Frost-style death metal. That was brilliant. So we became good friends and I followed them around. They’d do a show here, a show there. I’d jump in the van with them. They recorded the A-side of Scum, which was originally just supposed to be a 12-inch, and I was there with them for that at the studio, just hanging out and loving it all. And then I got asked to join the band and I didn’t do it right away. That’s my biggest regret, really. Not doing that.
Would that’ve included recording the B-side to Scum?
Yeah. It was kind of crazy. Nicholas Bullen, who was one of the main guys who formed the band originally, just left to play drums in a band called 'Head of David'. There was a punk show there in Coventry, and Nick asked me, Do you want to play guitar? And I was like, Well, I can play guitar OK, but I’m more of a drummer and bass player. But I still said, Yeah sure. So I went back with Nicky the drummer and the bass player Jimmy and we played a couple of songs that later appeared on the second album. And it was all good to go. But, I don’t know, it kind of overwhelmed me. I got scared and said, I can’t really play guitar good enough. It just kind of panned out in the end that Nick asked Frank Healy unfortunately. They ended up recording the B-side and the rest is history.
How did you eventually get on with them?
When Jimmy left they said they needed a bass player during a limbo period in 1987. I spoke to the singer and said I’d feel comfortable to play bass because [laughs] it’s got four stings and not six. Everyone has regrets. The one regret I have is that I kind of wished I’d jumped at it sooner. But I like bass a little bit better. It kind of gives you a little bit more freedom to thrash around on stage. Guitar, sometimes, you’ve got to really watch what you’re doing. It’s a little bit more precise. When I came in the first thing we did was the Peel Session.
How was meeting John Peel?
I remember there was all this strange vintage recording equipment around at BBC Studios. He was a really nice guy. Really down-to-Earth. He just took a liking to Napalm Death and other bands in that scene. He played everything from Napalm Death to the Smiths, the Cure to some extreme underground African tribal music or whatever. He used to mix it up so much. The earlier shows at the John Peel Sessions were such a mixture of metalheads, punks, indie noise kids. You would see a Slayer show next to a Dinosaur Jr. show, and I liked that. We were all crossing over.
Were the politics in the early punk and metal days as stringent as they say?
Some people used to point the finger at me and my friends for silly things like drinking a can of Coke. Around the time of Scum, everyone’s politics were very to the point. I came from a metal background originally, which was a bit less political than punk. I’d be drinking a can of Coca-Cola and some guy wearing shoes that cost 200 pounds would say something to me and you’d have to go, You’re being kind of hypocritical a little bit, no? Back then, when the CD medium happened, and Napalm’s second album came out on CD, we were labelled as complete sell-outs. Pretty strange times in retrospect. I didn’t quite understand that coming from a metal background. I loved the attitude and aggression of punk but I just found certain political hypocrisies in the scene. You’re preaching unity and togetherness and free thought and individualism. But if you can’t play some festival for whatever political reason and spread your message, well, then what’s the point? You can sit in your bedroom or go to the same club all the time and play the same thing over and over. But you don’t make your point across to anybody new.
Political correctness seems to be focussed a lot more online nowadays. If you say the wrong thing, you run the risk of getting mobbed on social media.
It’s an age where you’re monitored 24/7 or can be. If the wrong thing gets misquoted and taken out of context, somebody might get the impression you’re this or that. So it’s very difficult really. Everybody has an opinion now. Anybody can tweet, anybody can reply, anybody can post. I just try to be straight up. And there are a lot of fucked up things in the world, but overall when it comes to politics and me, I tend to just keep it mostly to myself.
See Napalm Death on tour this spring:
05/02 – Leeds @ ‘Kin Hell Fest
05/09 – Le Havre @ Tetris
05/10 – Matignicourt @ Lezard’Os Metal Fest
05/11 – Dunkerque @ 4 Excluse
05/16 – Queens (NY) @ Knockdown Center
05/17 – San Juan @ Levels
06/06 – Weinheim @ Café Centrale
06/07 – Reichenbach @ Chronical Moshers Open Air
06/08 – Bratislava @ Randal
06/09 – Graz @ P.P.C.
06/10 – Klagenfurt @ Kamot
06/13 – Gutersloh @ Alte Weberei
06/14 – Protzen @ Protzen Open Air
06/21 – Dokkum @ Dokk’em Open Air Festival
06/27 – Dessel @ Graspop
Greg Pike is a writer living in Canada. He's on Twitter.