QRO talked with UB40’s Robin Campbell as they geared up for another massive tour. In the conversation, the guitarist discussed their extensive touring (all the way to the likes of New Caledonia!), the revival of live music in general, the wide age range of the crowds that they’re drawing, being great live even before they’d ever played live, their country-tinged most recent record Getting Over the Storm, political music possibly coming back, adjusting to the departure of founding members, and much more…
QRO: You seem to have been on tour a lot over the last couple of years. I’ve seen you at The Academy in Leeds (QRO review) and at Scunthorpe Baths (QRO review), and they were both great shows. Is it still fun or is it tiring?
Robin Campbell: We have been on the road a lot. Still the same tour as well – the Getting Over the Storm tour – we haven’t toured like this for 30 years, you know, and we’re going round and playing towns and cities that we haven’t been to for many moons. It’s easy to do; the promoters are loving it because we’re happy to play the venues and we’re prepared to travel and loving it. The gigs are intimate, it’s completely different to playing these sorts of enormous domes and it’s a lot more fun. We’re having a ball.
QRO: You do always do look as though you’re having a great time on stage. You’re always swapping positions and joking with each other.
RC: Yeah, that’s what we do you know, I mean we do love doing what we do and I hope that comes across. I think that’s why we’ve still got the following we have, because people can tell when a band is having a good time and I guess they can tell when a band’s faking it. I think we went through a phase where we were faking it a bit when we weren’t very happy, but we’re totally over that. The last eight years we’ve been totally rejuvenated, we’re full of life and we’re full of fun you know. We really are having a fun time touring, travelling the world and it’s wonderful to be doing this kind of thing after so long and still loving it.
QRO: Both the shows that I saw were great shows, and Grimsby Auditorium is actually a really good venue. It’s got an excellent acoustic. I saw Simple Minds there a couple of months back (QRO review) and the sound was fantastic. I think you’ll find it’s a lovely venue to play, and I know from what people have said to me that you’ve got a huge and devoted fan base in the town. Your relationship with your fans is a real emotional bond. I’ve seen big blokes crying at your gigs. What is it about UB40 that makes people really love you guys?
RC: I don’t know, I don’t know what it is. I think they can tell we mean it. Music is an emotional communication you know, and I’ve been known to cry at music myself so it’s not an alien thing to me. I think for people to be that moved it just means that we’ve made music that’s formed a part of their life experience and that’s just a wonderful thing to know. What a way to make a living.
We were standing in our local pub and next to us at the bar was somebody talking about how good we were live, and we hadn’t played a show yet.
QRO: According to legend, you and Ali [Campbell] started the band and went and put up posters before you’d all learned to play your instruments, you were that keen.
RC: That’s a bit of a myth and you know, according to Ali’s legend he started the band. It was really a spontaneous thing. We were all, all six of us, all founder members, we all started at the same time. We all agreed to be in a band at the same time, but we were definitely promoting ourselves In fact the main culprit of our self promotion was our sax player Brian Travers. He used to make posters and put them up all around the area that we lived in before we even played a show.
There’s a story that we were standing in our local pub and next to us at the bar was somebody talking about how good we were live, and we hadn’t played a show yet. And that is the truth. I mean I was there I stood next to this guy who was telling his mate that he’d seen UB40 and they were a great band.
QRO: If it was now, if you were seventeen again, in a world of social media and what not would you still be keen to form a bad? Do you think it’s easier for this generation? Or do you think the world is a tough place?
RC: It’s a completely different world now. Social media has changed the industry. Obviously things can go viral, but you have to be savvy, you have to know how to use social media. I think you can promote yourself very successfully on social media, and artists are doing that now, and have done it for quite a while.
Record companies don’t do what they used to do, you know. They don’t sign you for long deals, they sign everybody for one record and if it flops they’d dump them. There’s no longevity in the business at all now. It’s all a bit instant and forgettable and that’s a bit of a shame, but the great thing, even with the decline of records, and the record business, is that live music is back in. Time was you could go to any local pub and see a band playing, and that’s been missing for a long time. When I was a kid that’s how it was. You could go and see a live band almost every night of the week and that’s come back with a vengeance. Young kids want to see live bands and I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re doing so well. We’ve played ninety shows in the U.K. in the last two years and because young people come to live shows now, they’re looking for bands that can do the business. They want to see people that can actually produce the goods because if you can’t you’re not going to get anywhere nowadays.
There’s no longevity in the business at all now. It’s all a bit instant and forgettable and that’s a bit of a shame, but the great thing, even with the decline of records, and the record business, is that live music is back in.
QRO: We don’t get big name bands here every week. A visit from the likes of UB40 is a special event. Are audiences different at the smaller town venues like the Auditorium?
RC: Well you can see the whites of their eyes for starters! There’s a much more friendly and intimate atmosphere in these gigs and when you’re playing to a couple of thousand people then that’s nothing like playing to twelve or fifteen thousand people. It’s just much more pleasant from a band’s point of view and I should imagine from the audience’s point of view From the feedback that we get I think we’ve got all the hard core fans that we’ve had for decades coming back to see us because we’re back in their home town. I think a lot of people are coming to see us that haven’t seen us for years and also we’re being discovered by teenagers on YouTube and stuff and they’re coming for the first time maybe, but they seem to know all the songs. It’s incredible.
QRO: There was a lot of young people at the Leeds gig. It was half young people and they did indeed know all the words.
RC: I’d love to know whether it’s through their parents or whatever or whether they’ve actually discovered us on social media. It would be fascinating to find out.
QRO: You’ve recorded several albums of covers as a band, but your most recent album, Getting Over the Storm, has got a definite country tinge. Did that seem like an odd mix at the time you were making the album or do you think reggae and country go well together?
RC: They definitely go well together. Jamaica has a history of loving country music. Even before reggae was invented, Jamaicans were listening to American radio, especially from the southern states, so they were getting a lot of R&B and a lot of country. So country has traditionally been covered by many Jamaican artists over the years, and we’ve done a couple of country tunes over the years: we did a Randy Travis tune and we did Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, which is a pure country song, and we just enjoyed doing it and our manager, who’s a big country fan, suggested that we might like to do some more.
We resurrected the Randy Travis tune because Robert Palmer passed away and they asked us if we could resurrect the track and give it to them for a gift album of Robert’s. So we got it out of the archives and we liked it, and we just thought we could do some more of these; that’s how it started really. I brought the Willy Nelson track “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” to the guys and they loved that, and it just grew from there. And then Brian [Travers, saxophone], who’s a prolific writer, he brought us sort half a dozen songs that he’d written in a country style to go in the album, you know, so it ended up half covers of country songs and half original tunes written in a country style, but still a reggae album.
QRO: Well your version of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” at Leeds was one of the highlights of the show. I can’t hear that song without hearing Springsteen and it was as good as the Springsteen version.
RC: I had no idea that Springsteen had done it when we recorded. I knew it as a Ry Cooder song. I heard that in the ‘70s and I always loved that tune, and I discovered that it was written in the Great Depression by Blind Alfred Reed. It was changed quite a lot in the Ry Cooder version and then some more in the Springsteen’s version. I basically gave it to Duncan [Campbell, vocals] and he wrote it again, he kind of rewrote it again. That was really the only political lyric on the album, but that was why we included it really because it was a good strong song, and obviously has a lot of resonance now you know.
I think it’s almost inevitable because political music doesn’t lead the way, it actually reflects changes in the way people are thinking and talking.
QRO: I know you’ve always been a political band but political music has been out of fashion for a while. Do you think that with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn and the apparent change in people’s attitudes to politics, that political music might get fashionable again?
RC: Wouldn’t that be brilliant. I think it’s almost inevitable because political music doesn’t lead the way, it actually reflects changes in the way people are thinking and talking. If there’s a political mood in the world you will get political songs because it’s people voicing the way they’re feeling.
Obviously there’s a changed mood at the moment, and there’s a lot of young people that are suddenly interested in left wing politics which is fantastic, and the fact that Corbyn has just swept the board in the leadership race is great. I was amazed and also really happy about it, and I think more people will be wanting to say something, you know, to reflect the whole mood of the times. We certainly are. In fact I’m going in today, to the studio. We’re writing new stuff now and there will definitely be some political lyrics in it.
QRO: That would be really good. I didn’t want to ask you loads of questions about the falling outs in the band, but when Ali, Astro and Mickey [Virtue] left, it must have been a steep learning curve to find a new balance for the band?
RC: Well Ali left eight years ago and we got Duncan in which took a lot of adjustment, but he fitted right in. He’s sung all his life. He could have been in the band at the beginning and didn’t choose to be, but he’s always regretted not being in the band, so you know, he was a fan and he knew all the songs and it was amazingly, surprisingly easy because he still has the tonal quality in his voice that allowed us still to sound like UB40 without doing a slavish impersonation.
So it really wasn’t that difficult, and when Mickey left, without being cruel that wasn’t a difficult hole to fill musically because he was playing keyboards, you know. And then Astro only left last year and we were kind of used to people leaving by then, so we just took it in our stride, really. He went and joined Ali. I guess Ali offered him a deal, you know, because when Ali left to go solo, his plan kind of backfired. I think he thought he was going to take all our following with him you know, and because of the way our fans are with us, because of the emotional connection. But I think they turned their backs on Ali.
I think our fans think of us as a gang and almost as a band of brothers. So when one of the brothers left, I think the fans felt betrayed.
QRO: You are very much a collective. That’s an essential thing about you.
RC: Well we were a gang of mates before we were a band you know, and we took our social circle on the road. I think that’s always come through and I think our fans think of us as a gang and almost as a band of brothers. So when one of the brothers left, I think the fans felt betrayed. It wasn’t just us, we all felt like we’d lost a brother as well and I think the fans felt the same way too.
So it didn’t quite work for him and he had to try and talk some of the guys in the band into going with him, so he came back, I don’t know, five or six years later and talked Astro into leaving; which he did without even discussing it with us, which was very hard. It felt like a knife in the back, but you know, you deal with it.
QRO: The rest of you, are you all still like really good friends, do you socialize together and pop in each other’s houses for tea?
RC: Well, we live with each other on the road, so when we get home we tend not to go to each other’s houses for tea, because we see each other so much anyway. We’ve done 90 dates in the U.K. in the last year and a half, and we’ve also toured all across the world you know, so.
QRO: You said you’re planning to go back into studio today so does that mean we might expect a new UB40 album sometime soon?
RC: There’ll be one soon but it definitely won’t be out until next year because we’re off round the world. We have all the U.K. dates in October to finish this tour off, and then we’re in Australia, New Zealand and Polynesian islands, you know, well somebody has to do it. We’re even going to Tahiti and New Caledonia. We get treated like royalty so it’ll be horrible, but you know, when we get back we’ve got a couple of home dates I think in Birmingham, and then we’ve got Christmas.
So you know, we’re not going to get much chance to go into the studio, apart from the next few weeks before the gigs start in the U.K. So I should imagine we’ll be back in the studio after Christmas and plugging away, and we’ll have an album out at some point next year, as early as possible.
QRO: That’s good news. I’m going to say thank you for your time and thanks for being nice and making this interview so easy.
And thank you.