Interview: UB40’s Ali Campbell
The UB40 frontman on the band’s new acoustic album and how they’ve invented a new subgenre they’re calling ‘cuddly reggae’
Brit reggae legends UB40 have a new album coming out! No, hang on, that’s not right. Try this: UB40 have two new albums coming out! No, no that’s not it either. Okay, how about, both UB40’s have a new album coming out! Yeah, that works. Kinda.
Confusing all this, isn’t it? See, thanks to an ongoing legal battle, there are currently two versions of UB40: one led by Robin Campbell, one by his brother Ali. The former (with third brother Duncan having stepped into Ali’s shoes on vocals) are currently crowdfunding a new long-player on Pledge Music, but we’re here today to talk about Ali’s band.
Officially known as UB40 feat Ali, Astro & Mickey, they’ve got a double album landing in stores this Friday (18 November). CD1 features 16 UB40 favourites rendered in an acoustic, unplugged style (and fashion), while CD2 is a new 20-track ‘greatest hits’ selection. It’s the band’s second album since Astro defected from the other version in 2013 (2014’s Silhouette being the first), and to promote it they’ve even put their names to a limited-edition Bordeaux Supérieur (or a red, red wine, just to spell it out for anyone reading this who hasn’t had their morning coffee yet).
Lots to talk about, then, so let’s get down to it!
Let’s start with the new album… why an acoustic album, and why now?
“Well last year, while we were promoting the Silhouette album, we were asked to do some Radio 2 sessions for Terry Wogan and Chris Evans. But they wouldn’t pay for the full band, plus it’s a tiny studio, so getting 11 of us in there was a pretty big ask anyway! So we did a couple of stripped-down sessions where we did acoustic versions of songs. We did about five of those, and then realised we had enough tracks to do an Unplugged album. So that was like 18 months, two years ago, and now it’s coming out on Universal as a worldwide release and we’re really happy with it.
“It’s unprecedented, really, because there’s no bass, and for a reggae band to have no bass… it’s unheard of! Drum and bass are what reggae is. So with these unplugged versions we’ve basically invented a new form of reggae – ‘cuddly reggae’ is the term we came up with! Because it is, it’s a really cuddly album.
“And the more I think about it, I think bass does intimidate people… particularly in America. Even their PA systems are very bass-light: when we play in America, we have to add subs because there’s never enough bass! So I think people are intimidated by it a bit, and when you take the bass off reggae it becomes a lot more accessible.”
Why was that necessary, though? You can get acoustic bass guitars, after all…
“You can do, but we didn’t have one so we didn’t use one! Basically you’ve got 16 tracks, eight of which are self-penned and eight of which are covers from the Labour Of Love series, and they’re all acoustic so you get like a rum shack feel, and it really works, I think.”
We were going to ask you about the covers… why didn’t you go more for your own compositions?
“Well, a lot of them were the songs we were asked to do for the radio sessions – I mean, there’s four No 1’s on there, so we always get asked to do those. And the other songs were just songs that we happened to do in the sessions.
“There’s definitely going to be a volume 2, there could even be a volume 3, where we’d include more self-penned songs. But there’s eight on this album. And then there’s the Greatest Hits album which comes free with it, and that’s the best ‘best of’ collection we’ve done so far, I think.”
Was that just with a view to increasing the value-for-money of the package, or is it a statement: ‘This is our definite selection’?
“A bit of both, really. It’s about having a good selection out there, because we’ve had several greatest hits and best-ofs, but I do think this is the best one. It’s a very comprehensive set.”
Moving on to your actual songwriting… famously all UB40’s early material was credited to UB40. Was that purely a royalty-split thing or was it genuinely a collaborative process?
“No, that was just the way we decided we’d run things, because we didn’t want any internal arguments, and most arguments in bands are about money because you have five people and only two are writing, so you end up with two people who are rich and three that are disgruntled. So to avoid that pitfall, we decided from the off that all eight of us would get the same money. It was a way of keeping everybody equal, and it worked for 28 years.”
So how would songwriting actually work? Would you or one of the others take a song to the band pretty much fully-formed and then everyone just worked out their parts?
“No, what would happen was, I was the tunesmith. So with all the original UB40 material, I wrote all the melodies. We’d all come up with lyrics, either jointly or on our own, and then I’d put those lyrics to whatever music I thought would suit. I’d shuffle through the backing tracks and choose one to go with whatever lyric I was working on.”
So lyrics came to you as text, as poetry?
“Absolutely, and then it was my job to craft it into a tune. Astro did his tunes, of course, and Earl [Falconer] did his, but the majority I did.”
And what about the current incarnation of the band – is it a similar process there?
“Well with Silhouette, I’d kind of written that album before Astro came along and joined us. But I sort of held back the release of Silhouette until I could put Astro on it, and then he contributed four or five more songs. Astro always writes his own stuff, but I wrote everything else.”
Are there any songs in the back catalogue that deviated from that methodology?
“Well, Don’t Break My Heart was a song that I produced on my own, and I kind of gifted it to the band to mix. It was the same with mixing as it was writing, it didn’t matter who did what, we all took the same production credit. But it was usually me or my brother Robin that was left with the mixing console.”
If you regard yourself as “the tunesmith,” is it safe to assume that when you’re writing, the tune always comes first?
“Yeah. Music and melody are easy for me, it’s always lyrics that have been a problem. I can come up with angles on ideas, and I might come up with a few lines, but then I’d usually pass it on to someone else to finish. That’s what happened in UB40 of old, anyway. They’d finish off the lyric, give it back to me and I’d fit it to a backing track. We always had plenty of those knocking about!”
So are you someone who sits down and says, “Right, today I’m writing songs from noon till 5pm,” or are you the kind of songwriter who’s forever humming into their iPhone?
“I usually just sit there with an acoustic guitar. Once I’ve got a set of lyrics, the rest is quite easy for me… I’ve written 30-odd albums! So it comes quite easily, I strum away and a tune will come. Like you said, it’s poetry before that, and I work off the rhythm and the metre of the lyric.”
You make it sound simple, but are there any times it doesn’t come easily? And do you have any tricks for getting around that?
“Erm… no, I do find it easy to write tunes. I’ve only ever stalled on lyrics; when I had to start writing my own lyrics, I did find it difficult. That’s why my albums are sort of half-and-half originals and covers. I find it easier that way, because it would take me twice as long to write all the songs on an album!”
What’s the best song you’ve written, do you think?
“Song, or tune? My favourite UB40 track is actually one Brian Travers wrote, I Won’t Close My Eyes. It was a tune we did for the fourth album, which we did in Dublin at the height of our cocaine madness. So it was a very strange album: there were some great tunes on there, but they weren’t executed very well. We were in Dublin, the cocaine capital of Europe, so we didn’t get much work done! But we reworked them later and I think I Won’t My Close My Eyes came out really well.
“But I think the best UB40 lyric was Food For Thought, our first single, which is our Christmas song basically. It’s about the hypocrisy of celebrating Christmas when there are kids starving to death all around the world. And of course that ruined our chances of ever doing another Christmas song! The lyric to that is pretty heavy.”
Are there any you look back on less fondly?
“There are a few that were a bit naive, I think, but then we were learning in public as we went along, because we were all self-taught. We’d learned by playing along to records and we weren’t even in tune for the first album – I was tuned to an open E and the bass wasn’t in tune, and we had an ancient saxophone that was in the wrong key! So I can’t even listen to our first album, because it’s all out of tune with itself. But of course, we sold eight million of that album and people love it!”
I still think it’s a good album…
“Well, so did I, but as a musician I can’t listen to it now. I spend all my time wincing and going ‘Ouch!’. But of course, we all learned to tune our instruments eventually, and it’s amazing that we’ve ended up coming full circle and doing an acoustic album, because it feels like the early stuff again. Just in tune!”
If you could get in a time machine and offer your younger self one piece of songwriting advice, what would it be?
“Sadly, I don’t think I’d have taken the socialist approach that I did for 28 years, because I ended up being betrayed by the same people I’d shared everything with. It kind of left a bit of a nasty taste in my mouth, because I feel like I carried some of those guys and then they betrayed me, and sided with the management against me.”
Speaking of which, what’s going on with the UB40 name, now?
“Well basically there’s two UB40’s. There’s the dark side, who are the remaining UB40 clan, and they’re suing us because they want to retain the name. But they’ve already got the name, so I don’t really understand why they’re suing us… they say that we’re passing off, but the last thing we want to do is be confused with them, because they’re awful and I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment!
“I make it very obvious who people are going to see: we’re called ‘UB40 feat Ali, Astro & Mickey’. They don’t do that: they don’t say ‘UB40: not original line-up’, they don’t say ‘UB40 feat Duncan Campbell’. So I don’t really understand why they’re suing us, because we make it very clear who people are coming to see – if anyone’s ‘passing off’ it’s them!”
Is there a legal solution on the horizon any time soon?
“Well it’s one of those things. It’s a grey area: no-one actually ‘owns’ the name because it was a government form, so you’ve got two sets of lawyers making it go on for as long as they can because they’re getting rich from it. The only people who win in this situation are the lawyers.”
So would it be easier, legally, if you were called, I dunno, Cedric & The Blue Cadillacs or something easily trademark-able?
“Well, for a while I went out as ‘Ali Campbell, the legendary voice of UB40’ and they were happy with that. What they weren’t happy with was when they decided to do a country album, and Astro left them and came to join me and Mickey. Because he didn’t want to be part of a country thing. And that’s when I said, ‘Sod this, we’re going to have to call ourselves UB40 feat us, and try to save the legacy of the band.’
“Because, y’know, the biggest reggae band in the world, and they’re doing a country album… it was astonishing. And it was a slap in the face to me, because I started the band to promote reggae. So for them to be doing a country album was just hilarious. It didn’t make any sense at all… and it was a disaster. So Astro joined me, and that was the reunion people were waiting for, and the fans have basically voted with their feet. We’ve just sold out all the stadiums in Britain, we’ve just done a couple of US tours that have gone brilliantly.
“So I think it’s a long, slow death for the dark side, while we’re busy doing lots of new things. We’ve got a new album coming out with some west coast reggae bands… Slightly Stupid, Revolution and So Jah. There’s that whole west coast reggae movement that was inspired by No Doubt, and we’re hooking up with them – me and Astro made some music for them to put their songs on. And we’re doing a Latino version of the same album with some reggaeton singers, so there’ll be two versions of the same album but with different artists and a very different feel. And we’re going to touring with So Jah on the east coast next year, and then with Slightly Stupid and Revolution on the west coast.”
Last question, very quickly… you’ve brought out a red, red wine! Tell us about that…
“Yeah, to go with our new genre of cuddly reggae we’ve brought out a very beautiful Bordeaux Superior. It’s a Merlot & Cabernet Franc, vintage 2014.”
Is it nice?
“It has aromas of jammy fruit interwoven with mocha notes… a subtle palate, smooth and easy to drink with an excellent balance and a long finish.”
You’re reading that off the label, aren’t you?
“I am, yeah! But it’s a nice Christmas gift, isn’t it? A nice bottle of red, a cuddly unplugged reggae album, and a greatest hits as well. What more could you want?”
Interview: Russell Deeks
UB40’s Unplugged + Greatest Hits is out on UMC on 18 November. For more on the band featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue, visit: ub40.org