By Poppy Tohill
With a 24 hour stop-over in New Zealand halfway through their journey back home to Birmingham, UB40's Robin & Duncan Campbellkindly took some time out of their tight schedules to sit down for a chat about the year that has been for UB40 and their excitement to return to New Zealand next year to headline Raggamuffin in February.
The band has had a pretty busy touring schedule over the past year, I hope you're heading back home for a bit of a holiday over Christmas?
Robin: Yeah, We've done about 90 dates in the past two years, so we've definitely toured this current album extensively! We've got a couple of Christmas shows in London & Birmingham before we can have half an hour off (laughs).
You're heading back to New Zealand early next year to headline Ragamuffin music festival (which you have done so before), which we're very much looking forward to.
Robin: Yeah, we did it in 2007! Ali [Campbell] played the festival in 2011 pretending to be us, but playing at Ragamuffin in 2007 was really the last thing we did with him actually. It was massive, around 30,0000 people. I know Ali has done it since and it hasn't been as successful, but we're really looking forward to coming back and showing everyone that we're still UB40 despite the fact that Ali left. We want to show our New Zealand fans that we're still alive and kicking!
While we're on the topic of touring, you've spent a lot of your lives on the road, performing and travelling all over the world, do you ever tire from it?
Robin: We love it. That's what we do. If we're not in the studio recording, we're out on the road playing our latest stuff to people. We stay current by making new records every few years and we love the life, there's nothing better. I'd hate to stop now. I mean what else could we possibly do apart from rot!? (laughs).
Considering the success of the band over its almost 40 year history, what do you think has managed to keep UB40 not only together, but also remaining successful?
Duncan: The fact that people still want to come and see us...
Robin: God knows! (laughs) I guess if people didn't want to come and see us and we weren't able to sell tickets, we'd just stop doing it, but nobody knows what keeps people interested. We just do what we do and hope people come with us and like it and luckily for us that has worked for over 30 years.
There have been a lot of changes throughout the music industry in the last 10 years with the growth of technology, social media and other online networks. Do you think this technology has made it harder or easier for artists and bands to break into the music industry?
Robin: It has changed. It is very much different. I think it's probably easier because of things like Youtube and Facebook, but it's just a different way of doing it now. It's harder to break into the business and make money out of it however, because apart from a very few number of artists, records don't sell. There's no room for new bands to sell records, so what they have to do is sell small amounts of records and use that as an advert to go out on the road.
We're back to being traveling minstrels, if you like (laughs), because money is in live music now and I think that is brilliant. The punters are doing much better! The choice for an audience is fantastic now, you can go out any night of the week and see bands, because everybody is out there on the road trying to earn money. Bands who have retired and thought they'd never reform are getting back out there and although they're saying it is because they really want to be back out on the road, it's not! (laughs) They've got no pensions.
Do you think if you were teenagers now, you'd still get together and form UB40 and if so, how would it be different to when you guys originally formed back in the 70s?
Robin: Who knows? It took us a while to do it back then. We talked about it for years as it was always something we intended to do as kids, but it took some time. We went and saw Bob Marley in concert in the 70s and I think that was really the trigger, we all went, yeah, that is what we want to do. But whether we'd do it now, I don't know. I guess we probably would because we all grew up surrounded by music. Our dad was a professional musician, so it was something that was always upper-most in what we wanted to do with out lives. Even though I've had dozens of other jobs before the band started because I'm a few years older than the other guys, being in a band was really all I ever wanted to do.
I don't want to dwell on the falling outs that happened within the band, but just quickly, what was that transition like for the band and different members when Ali left and Duncan stepped in?
Robin: It was amazingly easy. We were kind of traumatised when Ali walked out because we didn't think that would ever happen as he was on record saying he'd never leave UB40 and he was with us until he died, then all of a sudden he just upped and left. I mean it wasn't really all of a sudden as we were quite aware that for at least 18 months he wasn't happy. So even though it was traumatic we were kind of prepared for it, it was just something you never thought was actually going to happen though.
We were very lucky that we had Duncan in the wings, who you know, is my brother and was able to sound enough like Ali and blend with me so that we could keep that same UB40 sound without doing an ‘impression' which is not what he does.
Duncan: I've got the exact same accent with a similar tonal quality to Ali, the brother blend they call it, is still there as we used to sing together a lot. When I first started in UB40, people were accusing me of lip-syncing to Ali's original vocal recordings! (laughs).
Robin: I think if we didn't have Duncan and we had to go with a completely different vocalist then it might have been a lot more difficult for the fans to accept, but they really embraced Duncan so it hasn't really changed for us. We're still touring and selling out venues just like we always have. I think the real struggle has been for Ali, because he went off to pursue a solo career and it didn't quite work out for him because our fans turned their backs on him and I think he thought he was going to take our fan base with him, which just didn't happen because the majority chose to stick with us.
Duncan: Yeah it almost became a case of either being on our side or his side. I can remember doing my first ever gig with UB40 eight years ago which we sort of did as an introduction to the fans and literally after the first word everyone began screaming and I remember Robin saying - "We've still got UB40." When Ali left it ripped a hole in the fans hearts, but when they saw I was able to perform on the same level as him, they were into it.
Robin: It took Ali five years to realise that. He struggled for those five years and then it dawned on him that if he pretended to be UB40, he'd get the fan base back, which is what he's been doing really. He still struggles in the UK because everybody knows that we're still UB40, but other countries are getting wise to it too because he's just done a tour of America which wasn't that successful. He toured Australia and that wasn't successful either and we've just come back from Australia where all our shows were sold out.
Duncan: Inevitably it's like there's two UB40's out there but that's not the case at all. UB40 never went away.
You're very much a collective group, is that close bond between one another of great importance to you as a band?
Duncan: That is why it was so easy for me because we've all known each other since we were about 5 years old. I was in Jimmy the drummer's class at school. Earl, Ryan and Ali were in the year above me and of course Robin was always there too, we were always a close childhood group.
Robin: and even though Duncan wasn't in the band he was in our gang, you know and we've been a gang since we were kids. He did backing vocals on songs in the past, which all helped with making that transition so much easier.
That's also why we thought Ali would never leave UB40, because we were a gang and he used to say that we're not just brothers, we're a band of brothers and that's exactly how we feel. It's like a family unit, with all the same advantages and problems that that brings (laughs). We love each other and hate each other and fight with each other, because we know one another very well, so yeah, we're a very tight unit.
Having both been in the music industry for such a long period of time now, can you perhaps share some advice with us for other musicians or bands wanting to break into the scene?
Robin: Play live. That is what it's about. If you can't produce the goods live, you'll never produce it on record and you'll never convince anybody. Audiences have to be convinced that you love doing what you're doing and that you mean it. That's my only advice, keep playing and keep doing it, because the future of music is in the live arena.
Can we expect to hear any new material at Raggamuffin?
Robin: You'll hear stuff from the albums we've done since Ali left, he left 8 years ago now and we've recorded three albums since then so we'll be playing stuff from those records, but also of course the classics from the 80s, 90s and the hits we're always expected to play. It'll be a mixture like it always has been.
The longer we go on the longer the catalog grows that we can draw from, so it gets more difficult to pick a set. People, fans and members suggest tunes though so I generally collate everyone's opinions and come up with a set list that will make everyone happy, including us.
So, obviously you're heading back home now, but following Raggamuffin, what else does the new year have in store for UB40 musically?
Robin: More touring and a record! We are going to be in the studio next year, god knows when, but at some point we'll get some time in there to record some new material.
Saturday February 20th: Trusts Arena, Auckland
* UB40 * THE GAME * MACY GRAY * EDDY GRANT * XZIBIT * BEENIE MAN * SLY & ROBBIE with BITTY MCLEAN * INNER CIRCLE * HOUSE OF PAIN ft EVERLAST * MAXI PRIEST * JNR MARVIN'S WAILERS * SAVAGE * BOO-YAA T.R.I.B.E * SPAWNBREEZIE * AOTEAROA REGGAE COLLECTIVE (MAJIC / L-40 / ISRAEL STARR) * L.A.B * RAGGAMUFFIN REGGAE & URBAN COMPETITION WINNERS
Tickets for Raggamuffin IX are on sale now and include VIP tickets, Grandstand tickets, GA tickets, Family passes and Youth tickets. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster 0800 111 999 www.ticketmaster.co.nzand Red Rat clothing stores.
For more details visit www.raggamuffin.co.nz