Wednesday, 11 January 2017

THE MUSICIAN Benji Webbe interview

Winter 2015 edition

Skindred Spirit

Benji Webbe is a singer who has acquired near-legendary status in his native South Wales. Hailing from the harbour town of Newport at the very bottom of the Welsh Valleys, he started his first band, Dub War, in 1993. Their unique, genre-splitting mix of punk rock and sound system reggae won them a horde of fans, and had labels fighting for their signatures at a time when Newport was briefly, and strangely described as the new Seattle.

Their mini-album, Dub Warning, on the local Words Of Warning label first sped them to national attention in 1994, with its lead track Crack earning regular plays on night time radio. After a couple of well-received singles they graduated to the Earache label, where they put out a brace of fast selling albums and a slew of singles.

Dub War's flame burned brightly but quickly, and the band soon came to an end. But through Dub War, Benji had made some friends in very high places, and was soon engaged in projects with high profile metal and rock musicians from the likes of Sepultura, Soulfly, Bad Religion and Metallica, most notably Mass Mental with the latter's Robert Trujillo.

But he still had the urge to get back to his roots and form another band in his home town. So he got together with some old friends to form Skindred - a band that have fused a weird alchemy of disparate sounds like reggae, heavy metal, hardcore punk, dancehall and dubstep into a genre of their own that they like to call ragga metal. 

Babylon, their 2002 debut, picked up where Dub War left off, only with more metallic edges, and they soon became a fixture on just about every festival bill on the planet. Their high octane shows and devotion to their fans has earned them many awards, including Best Live Band at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods in 2011, and Kerrang's Devotion award in 2010.

And if all of that wasn't enough, Benji has a well-earned reputation of being one of the nicest men in rock, so with their new album, Volume, release at the end of October, and with the band about to embark on a massive winter tour, he took time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to tell us about the origins of his unique musical inventions, why he still loves life on the road at 48, and how he'll never move too far from his Newport roots. 

So when you were growing up in a medium-sized town in South Wales, could you have imagined the musical future that lay ahead of you? 
No mate, school did my head in. There were all these kids who were good at geography and good at maths, and I just kept looking at the ceiling waiting to go home. I didn't know what I wanted to do, to be honest, but one thing I was good at was keeping the class joking. I always fancied being in a band, but it was never really an ambition. It kind of stumbled upon me. When I got a bit older I'd been doing a bit of singing, like, and reggae sound systems and all that, but I had no real plans of doing it for a living, but then you get these offers in life that come out of the blue and you've just got to do them.

Someone knocked on my door. Guns N' Roses were pretty big at the time and my mate had just got out of prison, and he said to me: "Come on Benji, you can sing anything, let's do some rock songs". I mean, I'd done the sound systems and some cabaret crap, but nothing like this. So we got this guy in on bass, who came up for a jam, we did some demos and straight away headed to London doing shows. It just came to us, that was the birth of Dub War. Then we had all these labels approaching us inside four gigs.

Despite having a lot of labels courting you, Dub War decided sign with a small local label instead. Why did you go with them?
Yeah, we signed for Words Of Warning from Bristol. We just didn't trust the big labels, I guess. Some of our mates in bands like the Cowboy Killers and Blaggers ITA had signed to them and they had a lot more cred, so we stayed small and signed with WOW.

During your time on Words Of Warning you put a few singles and a hotly received mini-album out and were gaining a reputation as an unmissable live act. So what made you move on to a bigger label?

Well all of sudden we were getting the likes of Sony and Polydor coming down to Newport to take us out to dinner. It all got a bit crazy for a bit, but after a month or so it started to slow down. The guvnor of Words Of Warning was managing us at the time, and he knew his label had taken us about as far as he could. So this guy came down from Nottingham to see us. He had started the Earache label and wanted to sign us, so from there we went onto bigger things for a while.

So what signalled the end of Dub War?
Well, we'd been together for five years, and it kind of ran its course. I think the big problem came after we were promised a publishing deal. We'd got money for the first time in our lives, and some of the boys bought houses on the back of it. We thought we were secure for life and really believed in it, which as it turned out was a stupid mistake. When the deal fell through we had to get jobs in order to keep paying for the houses and keep playing in the band, and so we couldn't all juggle the two things and finished the band.

What came next?
Well after all that finished I just couldn't wait to get my foot on the monitor in the rehearsal studio again. But I had all these people from these massive bands digging what I do, so I did some projects with guys from Sepultura and Robert Trujillo [who was then in Ozzy Osbourne's band but who now plays for Metallica]. Robert came to Wales to work on some songs 17 years ago, and he still rings me up every now and again for a get together.

Then I got together with the bassist Dan Pugsley. He moved up from Southampton to Wales. I knew he could cut it, so I said to him: "Let's do a band from Newport." It took us two years to find the right musicians, and then by chance we got in touch with Jeff and Ginge from Dub War and got Skindred going. But then we got a record deal and the same bullshit happened as before, and that was enough for Jeff and Ginge. But it all ended really well - they even suggested two new members (guitarist Mikey Demus and drummer Arya Goggins) - and we ain't looked back since. Of course, it's like being married. We have the odd disagreement, but we pretty soon make up. But we've had the same line up since 2002, and there ain't many that can say that!

So you're not going to sack them any time soon?
Oh I'd sack them all tomorrow and pay some kids £50 a night to play for me! Nah, I'm not the boss - this ain't the Benji show. If anything the drummer has more say than I do! It's all pretty amicable and everything we do we decide together.

Skindred's music doesn't easily fit into any given genre, so did you find it hard for people to take to your sound at first?
Nah. We just stuck to our guns and did what we did and people got into it. We'd play shows with folky bands like Gogol Bordello and harder rock bands like The Disturbed and both sets of fans loved it just as much. It all depends on how you present yourself, and we like to turn our shows into a big party, and I think everyone gets that. Live is where we're at. Doing an album is not the same as doing a concert. People dig it, and with Skindred it's my heart and soul.

You were part of the Newport scene when the town was briefly described at the New Seattle. Did it feel like you were at the centre of some kind of movement at the time?
So they fucking said! It was funny when people said that. There were just a few of us at the time. It most came out of The Blood Brothers, who had Richard Parfitt who went on to start 60ft Dolls, and Jeff from Dub War. Then we got going, and there were a whole bunch of other bands who were nearly good. There were people travelling down from America just to see us bands. But it was never really the next Seattle - we'd have had a band as big as Pearl Jam if it was!

You're known as one of the most exciting live bands on the circuit, so do you still look forward to touring?
You know what's funny, I can't wait. I love playing live. The good thing is that the bigger you get, the easier you get. It's not like we're all stuck in the back of some cold old van in the middle of winter. These days it's nice and easy on a proper tour bus. And it's good, because I've got the freedom to bring friends on tour with me. If it's all getting a bit too much I can just go off with my mate and then get back to the venue for showtime.

You play all over the planet. Where are your favourite crowds? And where do you still want to play?
To be honest with you we get the same energy in most places. We just like to make the audiences feel happy, and when you do that you get a lot back from them. We do like Japan though. They love us there, and at all the gigs they just go apeshit.

I'd still love to play South America though. We played Colombia once, and that was incredible, but we'd love to go back and do a full tour. There and Thailand. That would be amazing.

So what's the longest you've ever toured for?
Oh we did about two year's straight in America, and it sent me mental. I left my wife of thirteen years, met some crazy Italian woman and moved with her to Florida. I mean America's been good to us, don't get me wrong. One of our albums sold 500,000 over there, and it's a big place to tour. But it does send you a bit crazy. Sometimes when I'm half way through a tour I just can't wait to get home. But then when I do get home I want to get right back out again. But when you're touring America you're away from your family for a long time, and it does get hard.

But you're back living in Newport now?
Oh yeah, and I wouldn't move from here now. That's where all my real friends are. I was in Florida for two years, but I just had to get back. I haven't got the need to run away any more.

I had this annoying little seven-year-old kid run up to me the other day and ask me: "Are you famous?" So I said to him: "In some places, yes." And he comes back to me: "So why do you still live round here?" And I said to him: "I like it round here. I know all my neighbours, and I'd miss anyone. I'd even miss you, running around, being annoying!" I think if I ever made any really big money I'd get a bigger place, but I wouldn't move far from here"

What are your plans for the future? And do you have any big ambitions left?
I'd love to get the stage where we're headlining festivals. I mean, it's the same names every year: Sabbath, Rammstein, Maiden. But there's room for us. We're a band that people want to see. We play these festivals and the band before us only gets a thousand people watching them. But when we get on there's suddenly eight or ten thousand, and that's got to mean something. There's some strength in Skindred, and I still think we could do that. 

How long do you think you can keep it up though? Are you in this for life?
Oh I can keep doing this for fucking years. We're all healthy. We've all walked a difficult path, but we've made it through the jungle. I want to be like Muddy Waters and go on forever. You know, I've got a bad knee, and my back will hurt, but I can't see myself doing anything else, I'm so into the music. I might be feeling rough before the start of a show, but as soon as I hear that intro music it all goes away, and I can't wait to get out there.

The MU and me

I think I first became aware of the Musicians' Union when I used to see all those yellow stickers everywhere, and see those yellow patches on the back of people's jackets and think that it was pretty cool. My brother was a musician, and he used to get the monthly newsletters and notes drop through the door. I used to love going through them and I thought that I had to be part of that. I wasn't even really a proper musician yet, but I knew that there was an importance in the logo, and so I took it seriously.

I've been lucky and never had to use their services yet, but it's like going to Jamaica with insurance, so I don't care about paying my dues. It's an important safety net for others, and I know that if one day I get in trouble, they'll be there to help me.

The Newport Helicopter

No Skindred show would be complete without a typically bonkers piece of audience participation known as The Newport Helicopter. Beloved of festival goers the world over, the helicopter sees the whole crowd swing their t-shirts in happy unison above their heads the moment that the music comes crashing back in after a quiet passage. So we asked Benji about its evolution...

"Well I saw this thing where people used to swing t-shirts around their heads years ago, and it kind of stuck in my mind. Then one year we were playing Download, and they specifically asked us not to encourage the crowd to do the wall of death [a kind of high impact mosh pit where two walls of fans run directly at each other], but we still wanted to do something that the crowd could join in with. We'd recently played at Sonisphere, and I'd thanked the English fans, the Scottish fans and the Irish fans, but I'd forgotten to thank the Welsh fans, and I'd got a little bit of stick for it. We were in the middle of our set when I suddenly remembered this t-shirt thing. Well, I wanted to repent for missing out Wales before, so just pulled this out of my arse on stage and did it. When the music dropped I started talking to the crowd and explaining what it was that they had to do. I turned around to the band and they all looked at me like I'd gone mental or something. But they somehow got what I was trying to do - like telekinesis or something. I counted to four, the crowd went crazy, and it was born. 

We've got t-shirts printed with it on now, and the crowds all around the world buy into it and get crazier every time. And I think the Welsh have let me off for forgetting them now...

Taken from The Musician - the official member magazine of The Musicians' Union. For more, click here.

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