In preparation for their upcoming show in NYC we sat down with UB40 and talked about their current world tour and the future of reggae music. They told us about the new music they have in the works and why they have kept it their mission for so long.
RN: Reggae In NYC
"We’ve just been everywhere, just promoting reggae music, which is the mission that we started out on 38 years ago, and we’re still on that same mission."
RN: You guys just kicked off a world tour, how’s it going so far?
UB: It’s been going fantastic so far. Everywhere we’ve been we’ve just had rave reviews, in Great Britain we recorded in virtual reality the show with the dome in London, which is like 20,000 seats. In Birmingham we played at our hometown and to [a massive stadium] gig. Yeah, it’s all been absolutely fantastic -- from Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore. Yeah, we’ve just been everywhere, just promoting reggae music, which is the mission that we started out on 38 years ago, and we’re still on that same [exact] mission.
RN: I like it. This is like a real treat for fans, to see you guys together and performing, and one of the things I love is when you come to New York, you’re playing an intimate venue. So, having played now literally all over the world, is there anything special about playing in New York that you enjoy?
UB: Yeah, well I can remember one of my favorite gigs that we ever played in New York was when we played sold out in Madison Square Garden. And the week that we played there was the same week the record came to number one on the Billboard charts, and the only other band in history to play Madison Square Garden the same week they was top of the Billboard was the Beatles. That became very memorable. But yeah, there’s been so many gigs over the years. And to be truthful, a few of them become a bit of a blur after maybe four decades. We always loved coming to the U.S., got a lot of friends out there, and it’d be good to catch up, meet and make new friends.
RN: Absolutely, well we’re excited to have you out here. Having played for so long -- onstage, what is your favorite song out the catalog to play?
UB: Well, that’s a really hard one, that is just like saying which is your favorite child. [Laughs]. Uhm, favorite -- "I Won’t Close My Eyes", which is a track from our second album, but we haven’t played that in quite a few years. Playing live, I do like "Maybe Tomorrow", "Don’t Let It Pass You By", obviously all the classics like, you know, "(Can’t Help) Falling In Love", "Red Red Wine", "Rat In Mi Kitchen", so it’s really hard to pick a favorite tune. We don’t rehearse a lot of the songs just because we’ve played them that many times and we don’t need to. And it’s not that we’re bored with them but the second you’re on stage and you see the reaction from the crowd, that’s [where] you remember why you love that song. Just seeing people enjoying themselves and getting off on the vibes, you know, there’s nothing better than that.
RN: The energy that a crowd can supply.
UB: Oh yeah. I think it works both ways, I mean, I think from a band’s perspective if you’re looking out at the audience and you can see them having a good time, you know, it rubs off on the band and vice-versa. The audience can see that the band are enjoying themselves. I think we just feed off each other and it creates a great atmosphere.
RN: I feel as a fan somewhat of a responsibility. I’ve seen incredible shows and I’ve also seen places where people didn’t come through. Dancehall acts where it’s only halfway there, and I would have loved to have seen more. I would have given them more energy, building on each other.
UB: Yeah, I agree. I’ve seen quite a few shows myself you know, and I think the dancehall scene leaves a bit to be desired, and I mean as far as getting things right in a live situation. Just got to keep honing their skills and getting it right, so the audience doesn’t feel cheated. You know the band might come on stage and do a medley of about twenty minutes and that’s it, they’re walking off the stage again you know, and you’ve been sitting there for about three hours.
"The only other band in history to play Madison Square Garden the same week they was top of the Billboard was the Beatles."
RN: Bringing a full band I think really helps. When you can have guitars, horns, all those pieces, it makes so much more than just a DJ and a microphone.
UB: Most definitely, most definitely, makes it a proper show.
RN: When you think back to the early points in your career, when did you realize that this is what you were going to be doing with your future, that you were going to be playing reggae music and potentially at this level?
UB: Well, we was very arrogant when we first started. It was the end of the punk era and you know, it got to the stage where it was just obvious that anybody that applied themselves, they could do it. As long as you have a try, you’re gonna get some kind of success. Then they were our contemporaries, you know, a few of them, -- and what they're bringing out is rubbish, but if they can make a career from that, you know. What we felt we was going to be producing would eclipse this nonsense. We always knew that we was going to be successful but we didn’t -- no way we thought we’d be doing it forty years later. We thought we’d have conquered the world in about five years and retired. And besides, I couldn’t think of a better thing to do with my time. If I was retired I think I’d become just stark raving mad. I need to be out traveling, it's just in my blood.
RN: Having been in the industry so long, I’m sure you’ve seen the ebbs and flows within reggae music; the emergence of dancehall, the reemergence of roots and the huge sound system explosion. What do you see as the future of reggae music in the next decade?
UB: Well I see it continuing and getting stronger. There’s a whole new generation of singers coming out of Jamaica now, and they’ve gone back to conscious lyrics instead of all this gangster stuff, the gangsters just hijacked reggae music as far as I’m concerned. So it’s great to see all these youngsters now like Chronixx and Raging Fire, all these young artists have gone back to roots and culture and conscious lyrics. I think it’s such a welcome change. But I also think that reggae is having a bit of a renaissance, it’s more influential now than it has been -- we’re not going through a Shaggy or Sean Paul moment, I’m hearing reggae music in TV commercials, jingles, whatever. And so it’s having a profound influence on all contemporary dance music, it’s just like all the drum beats everybody’s listening to now, they’re variations on vocal beats, and one drops. So yes, reggae’s permeating itself into society. But I still think there’s still room for more improvement and that’s the reason why we’re still on our mission to make sure that reggae music is known and understood around the world.
RN: When you talk about that mission, the mission to promote reggae music, to have it known around the world, what is it about that reggae music? You have an incredible band of musicians and lyricists, writers and singers, you could’ve had a great folk band or a great punk band. What is it about reggae that really spoke to you?
UB: Well, to me reggae, because it’s a part of my family heritage and my parents are Jamaican, after all. I’ve always [said] that reggae music is like an international language which is understood by everybody around the world. Everywhere we’ve been, reggae has been adopted, especially all the islands around the world, you usually find a local reggae band. And I think, not everybody always has English as their first language, so it’s not really about the lyrics but everybody understands this drum and bass, and I think a bassline can say more than a thousand words can. You know what I mean?
UB: And I believe that is what draws people together, I mean it’s just -- the single passion of the drums and bass, that is what hooks everybody, every single time. You’re always going to see people toe-tapping even if they don’t understand the lyrics, the music grabs you once you’ve got hold of it. It’s really hard to let go of reggae music once you’ve heard it, experienced it, and enjoyed it. You just want more.
RN: I have heard people say that reggae beat is the same as the human heartbeat, once you hear it…
UB: Yeah, I agree with that wholeheartedly. It’s the human heartbeat.
RN: I know you guys released The Silhouette in 2014, is there new music that we can expect from you in the next year or two?
UB: Yes, we've got about 3 or 4 projects that we're trying to get off the ground. One of the projects we're trying to initiate while we're over here now with a few bands on the West Coast, going to try and do a little collaboration album. We do have an acoustic album ready to come out as well, that's due to release I think August/September. Plus, we're also writing material for another studio album, and a couple of other projects which I'm sworn to secrecy. We've got no shortage of music to bring out, it's just shortage of time. Just constantly out on the road so I can't see us getting into the studio before March, April of next year.
RN: Any hints on who you might be collaborating with on the West Coast? There's so many great reggae bands out here.
UB: No, I'm sworn to secrecy.
RN: Fair enough.
UB: Let's just say it's the best of the best.
RN: I'll be excited and look forward to it. When we look back at the full catalog, there's a lot of songs that people have defined as protest songs, "One In Ten", "Sing Our Own Song", things that sort of became an anthem of a movement. What are your thoughts on some of the current movements that are going on today, the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., some of the things happening in the U.K.?
UB: Well, the world's in a very bad state at the moment, the world's in turmoil. I think now as it happens people need to, you know, think about their fellow man, in these crucial times. I know from what we've been seeing over in the U.K., with regards to the run-up to the election of the next president, in England everybody's scared that Donald Trump is actually going to be in the White House. And it's the same in England; everybody's now worrying since the Brexit, and we've now got another prime minister who's a far right-wing lady called Teresa May. And so life is starting to get a little bit tense. But as far as reggae music goes, there's so much happening now, there's been a resurgence and there's loads of venues starting to pop up now around Britain where you can hear reggae music on a regular basis, where that used to only happen once or twice a year, now quite a few of these places do that on a monthly basis. And that's nothing but good for the music and good for people's soul.
"Yeah, and that's a beautiful thing about reggae music. It is a peaceful, peace-loving thing. I mean, it's all about unity. I mean, so yeah, I'm proud."
RN: Do you think our generation is missing the musician's input? I don't see as many mainstream artists stepping forward necessarily and taking on a song to support the protest movement.
UB: No, I can't really agree with you on that. We thought we'd been a protest band, and we still are. A lot of people think we're a covers band just because of the phenomenal success of the Labour Of Love franchise, but you know, we do have another twenty, twenty-one albums, self-penned albums, and they're as political as those albums are. So we haven't changed as people, we're still as dedicated to fighting causes and we do still put pen to paper about it, which is something that I was a bit shocked -- you know with everything that's been happening the last two years, from the Iraq war and all the rest of it. I would've expected people to do, you know, a lot of the angry young men out there, to vent musically. But, you know, strangely, there haven't been any serious protests. And I think a lot of it is to do with bands being tied to corporations and being worried about losing their franchise. Groups like U2, you know, I mean they had a brilliant title for an album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and there wasn't one political song on there at all.
I just find it ludicrous that people are more worried about their financial lives -- you know, putting money before feelings and morals, if you like. You can understand people are trying to earn a living, but you know, you still got to be able to look yourself in the mirror. If you know there's injustices out there, and if you've got a platform, if you've got a voice then you should use it, you know, instead of singing mundane love songs that only you and your girl could relate to.
RN: It's almost a responsibility.
UB: Yeah, yeah. And that's something that we've never shied away from. On the album Silhouette, there's a track called "Who Will Remember Them?" that's directly anger at the Iraq war, so -- we are politically driven, naturally. But a lot of people think that we're only a covers band because of the success of the Labour Of Love albums.
RN: We were having a similar conversation about Steel Pulse, they've put out a lot of very good tracks that people don't always know, they know the highlights.
UB: Yeah, they're our friends from Birmingham. David Hines, who's really good friends with us, they live in our hometown. I'm not going to remember before UB40, so I doubt I can remember going to see Steel Pulse, you know, in 1976-7. Again, another politically driven band, yeah and that was one thing that I was proud of Birmingham, there was so many politically driven reggae bands back in the late seventies, well mid-to-late seventies. But yeah, it's just like in our hometown there's at least 15 bands, reggae bands, and Steel Pulse is one of them, in fact they were the cream of the crop at the time, you know. And they were the first ones to garner any serious international success from Birmingham.
RN: Incredible. So many people come to reggae music through you because of the depth of your catalog and your ability to have create mainstream content. It is an incredible responsibility to bare. What are your thoughts on that? For so many people their first experience with reggae music is UB40, and that's what then allows them to go into to find a Steel Pulse. You've been that gatekeeper.
UB: Well I'm proud of that fact, I'm proud of that fact, and it is exactly as we envisioned, because we never ever wanted to sound like a Jamaican reggae band, because we're not from Jamaica; we're all from England. But we knew through projects like the Labour Of Love franchise, that would enable people or give people the idea to go in and -- once we told them a little about the songs that we'd chosen, and which artists originally done the tracks, then people can go off onto the Internet and find out more about those artists and find out about what they produced, and open up a whole new world of reggae music and new artists that they otherwise never would have heard of. And so that pleases me, and that is part and parcel of promoting reggae music worldwide.
RN: It's a beautiful thing. What music are listening to right now?
UB: At the moment, I'm listening to this young band from Jamaica called Raging Fyah. They've got a new album called Everlasting. So I'm listening to that at the moment. And plus I've got a few mix tapes, so they're just compilations of all the pop tracks from the last 6 months, so I can just smash them all together. So, I'm digesting that at the moment. But Raging Fyah at the moment is the most interesting thing I'm listening to, along with Chronixx and Tarrus Riley. There's the main things and people who I'm listening to at the moment. I'm sure while we're on tour I'll be picking up more music. So yeah, it's constantly evolving.
RN: Tarrus Riley and Raging Fyah were both in New York last week. They're one of the few Jamaican reggae bands that has been able to cross over and do a lot of work with some of the West Coast California bands.
UB: Yeah. I agree totally with you. The more collaborations the better, the more collaborations the better. I really do hope that our project with the West Coast happens. Yeah, everybody we've talked to so far, they're up for it. It's just a case of logistics and finding the time to make it happen.
RN: I'd think it'd be pretty hard to say no to you.
UB: [Laughs]. We respect them as much as they probably respect us. They're doing well on their own. They're getting stadiums by themselves, so you know. I just see it as being best of worlds, I mean trying to create something extra. I've just got my fingers crossed that it'll all be able to evolve and come to fruition.
RN: It's a beautiful community to be a part of and see how everyone supports everyone else and does what they can to help them out, it's really nice.
UB: Yeah, and that's a beautiful thing about reggae music. It is a peaceful, peace-loving thing. I mean, it's all about unity. I mean, so yeah, I'm proud.