Rewind: Max Duley on “Napalm Death – The Peel Sessions”

Posted: April 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Max Duley on “The Peel Sessions” by Napalm Death (1989).

Although I suspect it was a moment with long lasting consequences, can you tell where and when you first heard Napalm Death? Was it these very sessions when John Peel played them on his show?

I didn’t hear them on Peel’s show. I can’t remember the exact details of where I was when I first heard ND, but it was the compiled cassette release of the first two Peel Sessions (originally broadcast in 1987 & 1988) that I heard, and I can relate the background story: I grew up listening to music from my parents’ collection which included stuff like Frank Zappa, Springsteen, 10cc, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pretenders, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel and stuff like that. When I started high school at about 12 years old I made new friends and started to listen to a bit of pop and briefly got into some of the early acid house hits that made it into the UK pop charts around 1987-88. But all the while I was continuing to hear the music my dad was into. Being a guitarist himself, he would listen to virtuoso artists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Alan Holdsworth. I found myself attracted to much of that, but in particular the heavier sounding tracks.

I clearly remember one day in a maths class in 1989, my old friend Alex with whom I’d also been at middle school called my name from behind me, and when I turned around he handed me a cassette tape: Iron Maiden’s “The Number Of The Beast”. I spent a weekend listening to it over and over, loving the attitude and pace. I think I then borrowed a Guns’n’Roses tape which I also enjoyed for a couple of days but which didn’t leave any lasting impression. Then a week or so later he lent me another tape: Metallica’s “Ride The Lightening”. I was sold. This was intense, angry stuff. I was 14, and probably a bit angry myself, I don’t know. About another week later again, Alex had introduced me to a couple of messy looking guys from the year above us who had longish hair and wore denim jackets. One of them lent me a new tape: Napalm Death’s first two Peel Sessions recordings.

Like I said, I don’t remember exactly the first time I listened to it. Doubtless I listened to it many, many times over just that first day. What I do know is that from that point on, everything I had heard previously seemed thin, weak, and vapid. Iron Maiden? No thanks! Metallica? A bit lightweight!

Within two weeks I had gone through a kind of musical rebirth and “other music” seemed to be from a previous existence. That was temporary (although long lasting) and I’ve long since gone back to most of the music I was into before that experience, but for several years I was unable to listen to and appreciate anything which did not attempt a similar intensity.

What made you opt for the Peel Sessions out of their back catalogue? Is it because you think it is the epitome of their work, or is it because you were introduced to the band by these recordings?

Primarily I chose it because of its significance in my musical evolution. It was the life-changing release, the springboard release that turned me from a music enthusiast into a music obsessive, despite having a couple of logical steps up to that springboard which whetted my appetite. But yes, I also consider these to be their finest recordings.

Some time in the late 1990s I remember reading an article by a musician who had been in a band which had recorded a John Peel session. He described arriving at the BBC studios to be greeted by a grumpy producer and engineer who treated them a bit roughly and hurried them into the recording booth telling them they only had an hour or so to do the whole thing. He also described how this treatment got the band a bit angry and how this resulted in the most intense and powerful studio performance his band ever achieved, and how he later came to understand and appreciate the way in which the producer and engineer had deliberately “produced” and “engineered” this intensity in them with their behaviour as well as their technical prowess. Relating this to the Napalm Death recordings, it’s interesting to imagine a band whose music was already so intense going through a similar sort of experience. At that time the label releasing their work, Earache Records, was a fledgling project, not the hugely successful international monster it later became. This meant that they could never have otherwise afforded access to the level of technology and studio expertise/experience available at the BBC. Of course, their other major studio recordings from that time (”Scum”, and “From Enslavement To Obliteration”) are partly defined by the rough quality, but the Peel sessions are on another level in terms of production and the band are incredibly tight, too. In particular the levels of the ridiculously distorted bass guitar and the use of reverb add a quality which is unheard on any of their other releases from around that time.

I should probably point out at this stage that I am only into the first few ND releases, up to “Mentally Murdered”.

What made Napalm Death so fascinating to you when you first heard them? Did you listen to similar music, and Napalm Death took your preferences the crucial steps further?

As I described before, there were a couple of stepping stones up to the experience, but this was a matter of days and weeks before, so nothing really prepared me for it. Hearing these recordings was like sticking my tongue into an electric socket. My body would lock up, my brain would buzz, and I’d feel dizzy with some kind of indefinable emotion. At that age I don’t think I’d ever been intoxicated, so this was probably one of the heaviest experiences I’d had up to that point that didn’t involve some kind of physical injury or fever.

Were you aware then that they could shape your further way of hearing music?

I was probably not consciously aware, but undoubtedly the experience had an effect. Since then I’ve always sought music that provides that intensity of feeling. It has to be something which stimulates and affects me mentally and makes me think or just freaks me out.

It’s why, after a couple of new experiences, I was later able to move into listening to pounding, hypnotic electronic music without much of an effort, despite the genres being worlds apart aesthetically. As someone who doesn’t have any understanding of music theory, I’ve always been more interested in how music made me feel than what it sounded like. In more recent years, the past decade or so, I’ve found it easier to relax into forms of music that were more about letting go. I would never have listened to house or disco in 1995 for example. But at the same time I’ve also moved into listening to more obscure stuff, from folk and neofolk up to and including pure noise and totally abstract forms, when repetitive beats seemed to lose their ability to effortlessly move me.

But importantly, the effects were not just on how I listened to music and, subsequently, what music I sought out. As music quickly became my primary cultural focus it affected how my very life evolved. It was the main factor influencing the people I associated with, and therefore how my own life and those of others with whom I came into contact evolved.

Some weeks after I first heard this release I was sitting in a very boring and uninformative music class at school. A member of staff came into the room with a kid whom none of us had seen before. He was introduced as a new student to the school. He sat next to me and the class continued. As it ended I got out my crappy personal cassette player and pressed play, and the tinny sounds came out of the headphones. This guy sitting next to me instantly said “is that Napalm Death?”. He could identify it just from the hiss from the headphones. We became friends straight away, and still are friends. Through him, I met other people from outside my school and started to socialise with people who had similar interests.

Over the years that group evolved as a whole, and as individuals. We started listening to electronic music. Not all at the same time, but gradually. Myself and a couple of others started going to clubs and raves to hear the music played loud and experience it fully.

Fast forward to now, and one of that group is putting out music on the Macro label you are involved with.

Cause and effect is a powerful thing. We all make small decisions and take influence from small things, leading us down paths we would never otherwise have taken, which eventually become massive parts of our lives. This small social group influenced each other in many ways, collaborated, shared, evolved together and separately over a period of more than two decades. We still meet up these days and play each other new music we’ve discovered which again leads us on to new experiences, and we still refer back to recordings such as the one we’re discussing now.

We can’t predict what might be happening in a parallel universe. Of course that one event was not a deciding factor, there are myriad decisions and events that led us all to where we are now, but I’d be willing to bet that if I had never been handed that Napalm Death tape and become friends with the guy who sat next to me, and met his friends who influenced me and whom I influenced through our combined experiences, not just my life would be different in both subtle and significant ways, but so would theirs. So many things would not have happened as they eventually did happen. Even though there has been no combined interaction between you, he and I, no shared introductions, we know each other independently and we have all touched each other’s lives in ways that almost certainly would not have happened the same way if a few things had happened slightly differently 20 years ago. Somehow, even your life would be a bit different today were it not for a cassette tape copy of Napalm Death’s Peel Sessions being handed around in a west London school in 1989. Strange how these things work out.

I can remember that when I first heard them I had a reaction like I had with disturbing movies: I shrugged it off as an attempt to break or push the boundaries of being extreme. Because I could not understand it, I looked for relief. But there wasn’t any. Is that something that makes them so impressive, that you when you eliminate all such preconceptions, there is something that is just plain intense, some kind of yet not encountered quality?

I’m not sure it’s necessary to get too philosophical about the aesthetic. I doubt those guys were. We shouldn’t be under any illusions; there was a serious side to this music, but a lot of it is rooted in rebellious and angry youth looking to lash out, create their mark on the world and release their anger. Your analogy with splatter movies probably isn’t too far off, and I’m sure those shock tactics were an influence on some of the members. They just wanted to go crazy and make a noise – while somehow still getting a message across.

I remember when I first got into this music, I’d look at the photos of the artists on the roughly designed album sleeves, or look up at them on a stage, and they seemed so much older than me. Looking at the same sleeves now, I can see they were spotty, drunken youths for the most part. They had something to say, often very valid things to say, but they were also deliberately aiming for an extreme aesthetic, to push the boundaries of taste, to stand out somehow from the crowd and probably to annoy their parents! It worked, too, somehow. Some bands spat at their audience and cut themselves on stage to create an impact. Napalm Death played very fast and short songs with very extreme vocals.

Even if it is clichéd, you cannot separate Napalm Death from the radical approach they had towards music. It seems like they wanted to challenge the existing traditions in terms of song structure and length, and the speed and harshness with which those songs were performed. What might have led them to this? Is this the only valid way of expressing a certain intention?

It’s surely not the only way. It’s just the way these guys were led, and the way they tried to lead. I haven’t researched the intentions of the band too closely, but from what I understand it was a combination of simply wanting to be more extreme than what had come before them (listen to Matt Warren’s excellent interviews with early ND drummer Mick Harris for his views on the faster, faster approach) with an increasing frustration at the world around them. This was the height of Thatcher’s Britain and these guys were out in some of the areas which were heavily affected by the policies of the government of the day. They were angry, and it showed.

Napalm Death are playing songs, albeit in an unconventional way. Does the sound of the band force the listener to listen to music differently, too? To look for details behind the noise for example, and other structures?

There are certainly details behind the noise, but not necessarily to listen to. Because of the obscure and impenetrable nature of the sound, what it did for me was force me to investigate further into what was going on in and around the music. The details are in the lyrics and often the artwork of releases: the messages, the lifestyles, observations and thought processes which are discussed and encouraged. The visceral experience of seeing bands like this play live, surrounded by other people who may have similar interests. As Extreme Noise Terror put it: “if you’re only in it for the music, just fuck off we aren’t interested”.

I’m not sure if that’s what led me to take more than just a passive interest in the various musical styles I’ve become interested in over the years, but it might be. I’ve always wanted to “get involved” somehow. With this music, I didn’t do it by creating music or DJing, but by corresponding directly with artists by letter, asking questions, trading tapes, reading ‘zines and eventually attempting to start a ‘zine myself. Unfortunately, it was never published. I almost had it complete with loads of interviews with bands and reviews and stuff, but my somewhat sudden and swift conversion to electronic music meant it got left by the wayside as I went on to explore a whole new world of sound.

Even though it is obvious that it takes some virtuosity to perform their music like they do, are they in their own league with regard to technical skills?

I’m not sure that many would attribute the members of ND with much virtuosity! But I suppose the playing styles of both Mick Harris and Bill Steer had a significant influence on the grindcore scene. Mick was the one who pushed for the high tempos, faster faster was his thing (which he reversed later when he started projects such as Scorn and Lull). But one can hear in other projects that he became involved with, such as the jazz/noise improv group Painkiller, that he can clearly play, even if he was largely winging it in the early days. Steer’s style and influence probably stems more from his guitar work in Carcass than in Napalm Death, where he sort of picked up on what Justin Broadrick had started.

Sure, one needs skill to play any instrument and I certainly could never have done what they did, but for these guys I think attitude and determination was as significant, if not more.

Another element of Napalm Death is the growling, guttural vocals. I must admit that, when I got hold of a lyric sheet later on, I was quite surprised that what was uttered over the microphone were actual lyrics. And that they were good lyrics, too. Do you think they interpreted the lyrics this way to be consistent with their musical concept, or could there have been another reason?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure the vocal style was just part of the overall aesthetic. Lee Dorrian achieved some amazing guttural sounds on his last couple of ND appearances.

What do you think of the lyrics? Do they complement the music?

I think the lyrics are fine when viewed in the context of the time they were written and who they were written by. These were young guys, obviously developing their consciousness and world views. One can’t expect them to have been a bunch of Noam Chomskys, so I think they did OK given the circumstances.

In their crude, perhaps slightly naïve way, they covered topics such as ethical trade and consumerism, animal welfare, the arms trade and warmongering, political repression, social engineering, anti-fascism, self-awareness, sexism, environmentalism, and related issues. For younger people like myself, this was often an introduction to actually thinking about these concepts in an independent way. I’d never heard the term “multinational corporations” until hearing the ND song of the same name.

And yes, they complement the music – both are very angry!

Do they transcend other lyrics of the genre, just like their music did?

No, I don’t think so. There were many bands from the genre who incorporated important issues into their lyrics. Some took themselves more seriously than others. Extreme Noise Terror, Sore Throat, Chaos UK, Electro Hippies & Doom are some higher profile examples of bands that had something to say. Sore Throat also took the piss a lot (out of themselves, out of ND, out of everyone) but that was good, too. Sore Throat’s album with 101 tracks (90 on side A) is one of my prized possessions.

Do you know of musicians or other bands that might have influenced them, like the ones they covered on their “Leaders Not Followers” albums? Were there notable predecessors to their ideas?

I only followed ND up to the “Mentally Murdered” release. As a result I’m unfamiliar with the releases you mention, and with the line up that created them (and therefore some of the influences that line up may have reflected on the release) but I’m not surprised to see Repulsion and Discharge in the list of names they covered. In particular Repulsion, a Michigan based band, were known to have had a big influence on the early ND sound, and their track “Radiation Sickness” was licensed to an early Earache compilation called “Grind Crusher”. In all but the vocal style (which is less extreme – you can even hear words!) they were a recognisable precursor.

Not a musician exactly, but John Peel himself was an influence on the band members. Over the decades, he introduced so many people to new music, inspiring them to go on and become musicians themselves. I know that Peel was a big influence on Mick Harris, so being asked to record sessions for him must have been a great thrill. Peel played a track of mine on his show in 2002 but unfortunately I never heard about it until weeks later. Would love to have heard that familiar voice introducing my own music and I imagine that for Napalm Death, as for many other musicians, recording a Peel session was like going full circle and feeding back into the source of many of their influences.

How would you place Napalm Death in music history? What impact did they have, also on other bands?

I’m not a music historian but I guess I’d place them somewhere on a line that has punk and Black Sabbath on it in one direction and a lot of imitations in the other. They must have influenced a wide range of artists though, and not just bands but solo projects, too. The rawness, and intensity, those aesthetics can be applied to a whole range of ideas and styles. I for one know a number of electronic artists that would cite ND as an influence. Whether you could hear that in their music, I don’t know.

There were a lot of changes in the personnel during the band’s history. Was there a phase you liked the most?

Yes, I only like their very early material and the line ups that produced them. The first album was kind of chaotic in terms of personnel, it was almost two different bands on side A and side B due to the quickly shifting nature of the line up. It’s sometimes easy to forget that Justin Broadrick was an early and significant member, as well as Nik Bullen. For me the “classic” line up was the one which recorded those first two Peel sessions: Lee Dorrian on vocals, Bill Steer on guitar, Mick Harris on drums and Shane Embury on bass.

I stopped listening to new releases after Lee Dorrian and Bill Steer left, so that’s up to and including “Mentally Murdered” – a great release. When the band released “Harmony Corruption” their sound changed drastically. It took on a more death metal sound without ever quite becoming death metal, the vocals became more processed, and for me it just didn’t work. I saw them live a couple of times, once when I was still 14, just after Dorrian left, but the releases after that significant line up change ceased to interest me.

Did you like other bands former members of Napalm Death migrated to? What did you think of other projects of Napalm Death band members, like Carcass, Godflesh or Scorn?

I liked Carcass a lot, but didn’t follow closely after “Symphonies Of Sickness”. That and “Reek Of Putrefaction” are classic and highly influential albums (not least for their disgusting artwork).

Lee Dorrian went on to form Cathedral which I must admit confused the hell out of me. He’d gone from this ultra-real down to earth, politicised unit to a purple draped fantasy with eye liner. It turns out that had always been an interest of his but it never grabbed me. I’ve revisited their stuff a couple of times but really I’d rather listen to Black Sabbath.

Justin Broadrick and Mick Harris are probably the two artists whose work I have followed for longer than any others – by which I mean any artists at all, not just artists related to ND. Godflesh….really I could easily have chosen a Godflesh release for this piece, as that band probably had more influence on me than any other. Godflesh’s electronic beats prepared me for techno and machine music, and their stuff introduced concepts such as drone and repetitive beats into my listening repertoire. Such an amazing band to see live too. Broadrick also worked with Kevin Martin (aka distorted dancehall producer The Bug on Rephlex Records and other labels) of jazz/noise band God. Martin played sax on the best ever Godflesh recording, a version of “Pulp” they recorded for a John Peel session. Martin and Broadrick formed Techno Animal whose first release “Ghosts” is a classic of horrific and scary genre-defying sounds, and they went on to produce acidic and industrial beats and even hip-hop under that moniker. Broadrick’s other projects such as Final and of course Jesu are all worth a listen, as is his new GreyMachine project which is a welcome return to a heavier sound…he’s a very talented guy.

Mick Harris’ Scorn project has produced some amazing beat-based music. His mid-late 90s Scorn stuff is my favourite, albums like “Zander” and “Logghi Barogghi”. Hypnotic, head nodding beats that you want to go on forever, with dark, menacing atmospherics. It’s not amongst my favourites but his more minimal 2000 album “Greetings From Birmingham” long predates the rougher, distorted versions of dubstep that later developed. And like Broadrick he showed a broad range of talents with abstract, ambient and rhythm based projects alike. Lull is awesome, and his works with artists such as Ambre and James Plotkin are fantastic.

Do you think projects like John Zorn’s Naked City are successful in transferring Napalm Death’s experiments to other contexts? Is this worth pursuing, or does this approach neglect important elements of Napalm Death as an influence?

I think Naked City was great! I’m only really familiar with their “Torture Garden” but it’s a good release which very successfully took influence from a specific place and joined it with other styles to create something unique. It’s also very entertaining and amusing. Regardless of the outcome, which I happen to like a lot, I think that’s a healthy approach to taking influence directly, and certainly better than simply emulating. From what I understand Zorn was quite reverential and totally respected the artists from whom he took influence. He could, as a professional and talented improv jazz artist in NYC, albeit with a maverick bent, have looked down on these guys who just picked up guitars and sticks and bashed out a ghastly racket…but he really respected them for pushing a sound as far as they could. Just listen to Mick Harris talk in his audio interviews with Matt Warren about his experiences with Zorn and Bill Laswell in Painkiller to realise quite how highly Zorn regarded those guys.

It is often noted that Napalm Death also had considerable impact on electronic music. Godflesh combined electronic music with Napalm Death sounds, Scorn went even further. And besides that, there are electronic genres that seem to interpret what Napalm Death once did. How important were Napalm Death for electronic music?

I’m hesitant to try to identify where and how they might have influenced electronic music. Aside from the fact that various former members have gone on to produce purely electronic music amongst their myriad projects, it’s certain that the intensity and brutality of ND’s material left their mark on many listeners who went on to become part of the electronic music scene as producers or consumers.

That whole extreme guitar based background is not entirely uncommon amongst those who got into techno in the early 90s, especially in the UK. People carry these things with them for a long time, so of course that influence follows through into the creations of those who listened to them. But I can’t point to anything in particular and say “Napalm Death were behind this”.

One could speculate that the faster and more extreme versions of techno (gabber, speedcore etc) might have been influenced by them, but I think that kids will always want to take something and make it more extreme, just as ND did themselves, so it would be little more than speculation. I’d like to imagine that they had more positive influences than that, anyway.

Did Napalm Death affect your own development as a musician and producer? Are their traces of the band and its offshoots in your own work?

Intense, disorientating feeling is something I looked for in all music since I had my little epiphany in 1989. That includes the music I made, back when I was still making it. You won’t find any 3 second bursts of distorted guitar and screams on my records, but somewhere in there is an echo of what ND did to me, in amongst those of all the other influences I picked up.

Napalm Death are still pretty active. Do you still follow what they and former members do, or did they shift out of your focus for some reason?

No, I haven’t followed the band itself for a long time, although I still often listen to those early releases and, as with all music I’ve ever been passionate about, I’ll probably continue to listen to it as long as I have my hearing. In terms of new projects, Harris & Broadrick always seem to have something on the go which is at least worth least checking out.

Sounds Like Me 04/10

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