By David E. Gehlke
Bassist Shane Embury joined the already influential U.K. grindcore act NAPALM DEATH in 1987. He missed playing on the band’s “Scum” debut but has been a mainstay ever since, appearing on every NAPALM studio effort and subsequently plotting its creative direction, which, now at 16 long-players, has covered virtually every bit of ground extreme metal has to offer. A career this lengthy entails the usual peaks and valleys, and NAPALM certainly took it on the chin from the mid-1990s up until the early 2000s, thanks to their well-documented rifts with Earache Records and the declining fortunes of grindcore. Embury (and his bandmates) survived — barely — and can now live to tell the tales, something he has done in his biography, “Life…? And Napalm Death”.
Embury‘s self-deprecating writing style and ability to recollect some of the more obscure details in NAPALM‘s career make for a fascinating read, particularly when he discusses his relationship with vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway and the routine frustrations of trying to make a living while playing vastly uncommercial music. All that, and more, was on the docket when BLABBERMOUTH.NET got Embury on the horn.
Blabbermouth: You’ve been open about why you wanted to write a book. But how did you feel when it was finished?
Shane: “I was satisfied, for sure. Of course, then you think of the things you forgot. Primarily, it’s up to this point in my life, I’d say it does what it needs to do, but I’m satisfied. It’s also a strange feeling of, ‘Will people like it? How are they going to feel?’ I called my close friends and they liked it. The response has been pretty good. That’s nice, of course. That was it, I suppose. It’s intriguing to see where it goes from here because it’s different than an album, which is what I’m used to being involved in. It seems to be a thing that, because it depends on what people think, it keeps rolling on. It’s a small reason I wanted to do it. I wanted to be able to chat about it with younger generations. It’s a journey of what I did and the industry’s ups and downs. I came from a quite small village. I was a homebody before I joined NAPALM. The guys became my family. I can’t believe the world and the adventures I’ve had. Then you get older and a family man and it becomes a balancing technique. You have to make the two lives co-exist without disrupting them.”
Blabbermouth: Did you keep a journal, or were these all events you recollected?
Shane: “It’s all in my memory. God knows my memory, considering the party lifestyle when we all lived together. In the early ’90s in Birmingham, a different band played every day and we were all out drinking, but I seem to remember a lot. Of course, I found old videos from our shows. Our fanbase and die-hard fans were able to plug in some holes, like, ‘What happened on this particular day?’ ‘Oh, you played this show.’ Sometimes, I wonder if I was always preparing to do a book.”
Blabbermouth: How much inspiration for the book was derived from the number of times people told you NAPALM was nothing but “noise”?
Shane: “People say we sound like that onstage and sometimes I can roll with that, but there are a lot of deeper undercurrents. And that’s why I loved NAPALM before I joined. I was a fan. There wasn’t much of that style around. I’m not trying to sound pompous, but when you bring in grindcore, indie, alternative, and noise, bring them together, there are multitudes of things going on to make the music. Sometimes, it’s a symphony of chaos. I want to promote that more with the next record and try different things. We’ve returned to [founding NAPALM member] Nick Bullen‘s original vision in some ways. When you’re younger, you don’t possess the words to reinforce that it’s not noise. It’s something else. People get such a reaction from it.”
Blabbermouth: The one time NAPALM did something at least somewhat targeted was when you came to Tampa to record “Harmony Corruption” with Scott Burns. There are a lot of opinions of that record. Where does it sit with you?
Shane: “When we were younger, me, Mitch [Harris, guitar] and Jesse [Pintado, guitar], we’d go out and drink and debate albums. As you get older, you brush that off. People are entitled to their opinions, but it’s interesting that ‘Unfit Earth’ is a song that Barney cringes about. Micky [Harris, drums] wrote that on his famous two-stringer, which I always talk about. He wrote that during the period of ‘Mentally Murdered’. Nobody would have noticed if ‘Harmony’ had been recorded in the sound of ‘Mentally’. There were changes. Barney came in. We were in Florida. It’s what we wanted to do. A lot of it was because we loved Florida death metal. Digby [Pearson, Earache Records owner] wanted us to go; Micky wanted to go. I was like, ‘Well, yeah. I want to go. I want to see OBITUARY. I want to hang out with DEICIDE. I want to record a record.’ I don’t look at ‘Harmony’ for what it sounds like. I look at it for the memory and the great fun I had. The old school didn’t like it so much, but we attracted a bunch of new fans. What’s fortunate is that you can go to album 16 and go, ‘There have been steps that have been made, rightly or wrongly, and we’ve survived. Now we can look back on it.’ To me, it’s fine.”
Blabbermouth: You talk about it being an experience. I always think of the band pictures you took in the Florida sun and how Mick had some real issues tracking drums.
Shane: “It’s hard not to remember. That was a different time because ‘Altars Of Madness’ [MORBID ANGEL] came blasting forth. At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I thought, ‘Altars Of Madness’ rules. That’s it. I had the advance tape that I blasted in the back of the van. Micky always said, ‘You’re listening to that album again?’ I would respond, ‘Of course I am!’ I recognized there were different styles of music. You could see why John Zorn was Micky‘s hero. Micky was a free-style tornado guy. [MORBID ANGEL drummer Pete] Sandoval was very precise. It was the beginning of a different age. There was that. Then, there was general nervousness in the studio, which still happens. On the last album, Danny [Herrera, drums] and I tried to keep things spontaneous because of nerves. You remember things like that. Me, Mitch and Jesse were hanging out and watching MORBID ANGEL rehearse more than we spent in the studio when making ‘Harmony’. But I remember all of that. Overall, it’s probably one of NAPALM‘s most important albums. Simple as that.”
Blabbermouth: Some of the most interesting portions of the book are when you talk about the strife within the band during the mid-’90s. Did you think NAPALM would survive?
Shane: “There were definitely times when we all thought we wouldn’t get through it. This house where I’m at now is where we all four lived at one point. Now it’s me and Danny. That got us through, that camaraderie, I suppose. Barn was always moving around. He was in London for a while. Different things were going on. We did ‘Utopia Banished’ because Jesse, Mitch and I were getting into different stuff, different bands and beats, and the nu-metal thing came in and we were slightly unaware. I remember returning from the first South American tour, where we played to six thousand people in Chile, then went to Hamburg and played the smaller clubs. The scenes were changing. Fast-forward 20 years, it’s different. It’s tilted back the other way. Somehow, we managed to ride the storm. It was very tough. We were younger and immature; it was hard to communicate. ‘Fear, Emptiness, Despair’ was difficult to make. Barney was trying to process how he perceived us changing. I think me and Mitch would go, ‘We have this crushingly heavy riff and it’s for four seconds and that’s it. Why don’t we use more of it?’ We were listening to HELMET, which had more to do with the beats than anything else. We tend to openly go, ‘We like the SMASHING PUMPKINS.’ The natural reaction was, ‘What’s happening with NAPALM?’ I won’t say I love the SMASHING PUMPKINS, but I love the drummer [Jimmy Chamberlin]. He’s fucking awesome. Why don’t we throw some of those beats in there? It was a confusing time. Danny was nervous. Barn was nervous. Then the Columbia [Records] thing happened, but everyone else was supportive. It was a difficult time. The only way I can make sense of it is that it would have been easy to make another ‘Utopia’, but we weren’t in that mind frame. That was the deal.”
Blabbermouth: You mentioned in the book that you sympathized with Digby on how hard it is to run a record label, given your experience. Has your view toward him softened?
Shane: “It has, for sure. I had a small experience running a record label. It was difficult dealing with a band that I perceived to be punk rock and down to earth who turned on me because of a simple mistake. I forgot one small thing on the cover. It was like, ‘You must destroy these CDs.’ It is difficult. It is tough. I think whatever people think of Dig, he was there. He did help and did push NAPALM. I was part of his help in the early days — I remember doing mailers for him and all kinds of stuff. It can be difficult. In any relationship, it’s how you perceive stuff. It’s very easy to go, ‘Blah blah this.’ We had a manager come in with his perspective, but I don’t think he had the band’s best interest in the end. I’m forever terribly in the middle of it, going, ‘What’s going on here? Can’t we get on?’ I’ve seen Dig a few times recently and we get on fine. Our Glastonbury appearance [in 2017] came through Earache. They got us that. A few more interesting festivals have come through Earache because they keep promoting the early stuff. My memory is reasonably intact on most of that stuff. When I think back on the early days, it’s going back to Dig‘s flat and mailing MORBID ANGEL test pressers. I can’t imagine the stress of it on that scale. I was more scared when I did it, like, ‘I can’t do this.’ The bands can be a total pain in the ass. I know I’m a pain in the ass. You have to work out a compromise.”
Blabbermouth: You talk a lot about your relationship with Barney. Are you so different to the point that it’s why you’ve been able to co-exist for so long?
Shane: “People say we’re different, and it works that way. I think Barney is ultra-cautious. I tend to jump into the fire, like, ‘Come on, mate.’ Whether it’s good or bad — it’s mostly good. I don’t think we’re totally different, but some people say we’re closer than we know. We’re evolving. Sometimes, I yearn for the Barn of the past. He’s there. I have to edge it out of him sometimes, but he has the responsibility of being NAPALM‘s frontman. It is a responsibility, but I come from a slightly different angle. Of course, our message is clear. I’m single-mindedly into the music. That’s where the yin and the yang come in. We do things in a strange way. I compose and he goes and does his thing. I barely know what’s going on until the album is final. I’ll go, ‘That’s a little strange.’ But as time goes on, I usually get it. When you get older, you have to bring yourself back down to earth and let these things happen.”
Blabbermouth: While on the subject, do you have any demos of Phil Vane singing on “Inside The Torn Apart” when he replaced Barney in 1997?
Shane: “Strangely enough, I’ve been uncovering all kinds of cassettes. I may have something.”
Blabbermouth: Phil was a great vocalist in his own right coming from EXTREME NOISE TERROR, but as you mentioned in the book, his downfall may have stemmed from you trying to shoehorn him into NAPALM.
Shane: “It was immaturity and lack of communication on my part. Depending on the perspective, he’d say he left, but I think a simple sit-down would have changed things [with Barney]. That’s where we were at that point. Feelings got amplified because of that. Phil and Barney traded places. [Laughs] The record would have turned out the way it did anyway, but we could have auditioned more people. Barney probably would have been on the album anyway. When I broke the news to Phil, it was hard. Then, it was equally hard to ask Barn back into the band! Barney came in and said, ‘The album is heavy.’ I said, ‘Of course. What else are we going to do?’ That was that. There was a fallout from all those things. Trust is battered a little bit. It’s like when I’m in the dugout with my wife sometimes.”
Blabbermouth: What’s next for you, particularly with NAPALM?
Shane: “We have a London show with CULT OF LUNA next month. There are some shows in Spain and France. We go to Japan in December, which will be fun. I’m going to hit the road in England with VENOMOUS CONCEPT. Dave Witte [MUNICIPAL WASTE] will be playing with us. That will be a lot of fun. I’m hoping around April to get some studio time to start working on the next NAPALM. I have multitudes of ideas. It’s going to be fast, but there will be some whacko stuff.”
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