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Interview: Robin Campbell of UB40

Ahead of UB40’s two upcoming shows with STEEL PULSE, caught up with founding member and guitarist Robin Campbell to find out more about the Midlands reggae connection.

Jet-lagged from a run of shows in the Southern Hemisphere, Campbell explained that as far as he knew, the two bands had never played together.

“We may have done a festival where we’ve both been on the bill, especially in the States because PULSE spent a lot of time out there, but as far as I know we have never done a show together, certainly not our own show together,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Did you guys have any connection with each other back in the day?

“They were around a couple of years before us, but obviously we’re both Birmingham bands. They’re from Handsworth which is North of Birmingham and we’re from Balsall Heath which is South Birmingham so we didn’t come across each other too often, although I have to say I did see them. I used to run a bar in a club in the city centre of Birmingham and I saw them perform live in round about 1976 which would have been right at their beginning. So we were obviously well aware of them and aware of the success of Handsworth Revolution. We were pretty much aspiring to have some of what they’d got.”

Is there something about Birmingham and reggae music?

“There’s a fairly high immigrant population, the areas that we both come from are both high immigrant and high Jamaican influx in the 1950s and further on, so for me where I grew up I was surrounded by reggae, well I was surrounded by ska before reggae. We might not have heard it on the radio so much in the early days but I heard it everywhere I went in my local areas – the youth club, the café bars, the pubs, clubs, it was everywhere so we were pretty much surrounded by it, and I would think even more in Handsworth." 

There’s a big Jamaican community in places like Bristol but the city has never really produced a global reggae band like UB40 or STEEL PULSE. Why do you think that is?

"Birmingham’s a much bigger city, has a much bigger following that you can build, and I think people are quicker to take notice if you come out of Birmingham. Birmingham has produced a lot of very successful bands of all types of music, in all genres, so Birmingham is seen as a music city. It may not always get the credit it deserves but it’s very definitely a city that’s produced a lot of different types of music over the years."

You’re at the end of a very long tour where you’ve played pretty much every medium and large-sized venue in every town and city in the UK. What’s it been like for you?

"Well it’s been fantastic; it’s not what we thought we’d be doing in our twilight years. We were asked to do a small tour when we released our last album at the end of 2013 and we were asked to play some of these venues that we hadn’t played for donkey’s years, and we weren’t keen to try and get back in the arenas, so we were invited to play these 2,000 sort of size, and we enjoyed them, apart from anything else, we had a ball because they’re just so much more intimate. They were so much more comfortable than playing big shows, so we had a ball, they sold out super quick and the promoters were delighted, our fans were delighted that they could get up close and personal, so we were invited to do more and it kind of snowballed from there. I think we’ve done 90 dates in the UK in the last two years. That’s not including various festivals that we’ve done as well. Racecourse gigs, we’ve done a few of those which were massive – you know 20,000 plus, in fact I think it broke the live record at Wolverhampton Racecourse. We’ve done some big shows as well, but these academy-style shows are just so much fun. I don’t know if we can keep doing it forever, it’s exhausting, but it’s a lot of fun and we get to go to towns that we haven’t been to when we were touring in the early 1980s we were going to these places. For the last 20 years people who have wanted to see us have had to travel out of town to some enormo-dome. Now they’ve got us on the High Street in their own town and I think it works for everybody. The reaction we’ve had from the hardcore fans and the long-time fans has just been really great. They can see us up close, they’ve just enjoyed it a hell of a lot and just keep begging us to do more of them." 

I hear there’s a new album in the works for next year?

"It’s in the works, we’ve been writing for the last 12 months but we need time to get in the studio because obviously we’ve been touring so hard it’s been difficult. But yes we will be getting in to the studio at some point next year. The plan was to have it out early next year but that’s not going to happen. We just haven’t had the opportunity. But as soon as we get some down time we’ll be having a jam."

Does it follow in the same vein as Getting Over The Storm? Is there a concept?

"There was a concept around Getting Over The Storm, they were covers of country songs, but no this won’t be anything like that album. This will just be pure reggae, a standard UB40 album with original material."

What’s the typical recording process like these days for UB40?

"Well we’ve gone back to jamming together. We spent a time, I guess in the 1990s, where it became a bit like music by numbers, we’d only ever have one of two members of the band at any time in the studio so weren’t producing music as a band. We were producing music individually that got put together and I think we suffered because of that. We kind of lost our feel. When we got back together in a room and started jamming again like we used to, the music got better and it started to feel like UB40 again. That’s what we’re going to do and it’s the only way that we’re going to make music from now on. In a studio, all together and just jamming it. None of us write music, because you’re technically able to, it doesn’t mean necessarily that’s the way you should do it. Just because you can sit on your own in a room and make your contribution without anyone else to fire off, doesn’t mean that’s the way you should do it. It took us a while to discover that, to realise that we work better if we work together. I think that’s the same for every band."

You’ve had a few members come and go over the years, what’s the chemistry like in the band at the moment?

"We’ve still got five of the six original members, so there’s only one original founding member that left, and we still have five or the six original founders. We also have the three main lyricists in the band - the guys that wrote all the songs are still in the band. Our new boy, Duncan, my other younger brother, who has been with us for eight years now and we’ve recorded three albums with him so it’s not difficult anymore. He’s settled into it and the fans have completely accepted him. We’re having a ball, we’re having more fun now than we’ve had in a long time really just because the new blood has injected some enthusiasm and it’s re-awakened our love of what we do. That’s why we’re prepared to tour as much as we are now. We’re having more fun than we we’ve had for a long time."

UB40 will team up with STEEL PULSE for the first time to perform the following gigs:

In 2013 UB40 released its eighteenth studio album, Getting Over The Storm, on Universal.