Interview: Ali Campbell (formerly UB40)
Ali Campbell is best known for being the voice of UB40, since leaving the band in 2008 he has been touring with The Dep Band. He plays Strawberry Fest in Enniscorthy, which takes place on June 24/25/26.
Vanessa Monaghan caught up with him to chat about his departure from UB40, his new band and even manages to get him to sing down the phone.
Hi Ali, you’ve been a working musician for over thirty years now, do you ever get tired of life on the road?
‘No, I’m on the road now as we speak, I’m just finished my British dates with The Dep Band and they’ve been a delight to do. It actually gets more fun I think, as the years go by and the more relaxed you get the more you can enjoy it, you know. I’m famously nervous before shows but I’m actually getting a lot better and that enables me to enjoy it more. So I’m enjoying the shows I’m doing more now than I probably ever have before.’
Going back to your UB40 heyday, if your record is on the radio, aren’t you’re under more pressure to deliver?
‘It’s the pressure that comes with being successful, you get a lot of artists who are terrified of being successful. They’re happy to stay on the peripheral and they’re happy to do that because when they get their big break they bottle it. There is a lot of pressure in being successful. The pressure is to continue being successful. I’ve been under that pressure ever since our first single. Our first single went to number 4 and the first album we made sold eight million.
I’ve never really been in this business without having that pressure. We were very fortunate when we started, we’d only done a dozen gigs when Chrissie Hynes (The Pretenders) found us and put us on her tour and that’s when we released our single and it went to number four. So, it’s always been like that for me really, so I’m used to that pressure and I think it keeps you on your toes and active, you know, you want to do better than you did last time.’
As a white boy playing reggae, how did people react to you? Was it hard for you?
‘No, the only people that ever gave me a problem were journalists. People who liked reggae loved the fact that I was singing reggae. It was unusual for a white kid to be singing reggae, back in the day, I can’t think of anybody else that was, if you look at what’s happening now there’s probably more white exponents of reggae than there are black ones. And, there are certainly more white dreads than there are black ones.’
You’re Dad (Scottish Folk singer Ian Campbell) and your Aunt, Lorna, were big into the folk scene? With such a background how did you and your brothers, Robin and Duncan end up in reggae?
‘Me Dad had the biggest folk club in Europe in the sixties called the Jug o’ Punch in Birmingham and he spearheaded the Scottish folk revival at the same time as Ewan McColl was doing the English folk revival and he had a lot of success. People in me Dad’s band went on to play in Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull and people like that so it’s strange I didn’t pick up on the folk thing.
We lived just south of Birmingham in a place called Balshal Heath and the music of the streets where I grew up was reggae. Most of my friends were either Asian or West Indian and so I grew up listening to reggae evolve.
When I was ten I had Africian Herbsman which I still think is the quinnesential reggae album of all time by Lee Perry and that’s when reggae was invented around ’69/’70. I’ve grown up with reggae, as reggae’s grown, I’ve grown.’
I never liked folk music so much. There wasn’t enough bass in folk for me. (laughing)
‘You left UB40 in 2008 but you released some solo albums before that. What inspired you to release albums while you were still with the band ?
‘Just because I had material, I mean, I didn’t mean to go solo. I wasn’t going to go solo it was just the arguments between me and the management got to a point where I decided that I couldn’t carry on with the band anymore. When I did ‘Running Free’, I wasn’t planning on going solo at all. I was doing it just to inject a bit more interest into UB40. I had just finished our twenty fourth album with UB40 and it was feeling to me ‘Oh No! Not another UB40 album!’.
To sort of inject a spark of interest back into the proceedings I thought I’ll do another solo one then and what I’ll do is do it with guests and try to bring a different sort of audience, new people to the table. I’m sure that would have had a knock on effect for the UB40 album, 24/7. That’s what I was doing with ‘Running Free’, then it all went a bit pear shaped.
When I asked the band of I could promote the album, cos it had gone in Top Ten, they all said no. And I went, ‘Well, that’s silly’. I was already on the verge of leaving because of the information thing, I couldn’t get information I was entitled to from the management and when the band said ‘You can’t promote your album’, I just said ‘Sod it! I’m out of here then, I’ve had enough, I’m downing my tools’. I thought that the band would come round, let me promote my album and then get rid of the crap management but they didn’t, they went with the management.’ (laughing)
Michael Virtue (a member of The Dep Band) left UB40 shortly after you left, did that make you feel better, that you had made the right decision, that it wasn’t just you going off on your own?
‘Well, exactly! That proves to everybody that it wasn’t me going off trying to have a solo career. It was because it was a genuine reason why I left. The band have maintained that all I was doing was going off to have a solo career. That’s nonsense. There were a lot of issues and I was sick of asking for stuff and not getting it and so was Mickey.’
Your brothers Robin and Duncan are still in the band. How does that make you feel about them continuing without you. Is it not like Simply Red continuing without Mick Hucknall?
‘Yeah it is. It’s like the Stones with Derek Jagger (laughing), Dunc’s like… he was the biggest traitor in my opinion. He was sort of on my side against the management and had been for years because he had also had dealings with them over Robin’s snooker hall and everything. I’d go to Duncan and moan ‘The bloody management are rubbish and blah blah..’ and he’d agree with me and he’d also encourage me to down tools. Then when I did, he jumped in me place! I think his behaviour has been shocking.’
‘Yeah, you can choose your mates but you can’t choose your family, can you?’
With bands that had larger amounts of members, sometimes when the songwriter started making a bit more money than the others in the band, it caused a lot of unrest. Did UB40 have any of that?
‘Everybody, every member of UB40 got the same amount of money for every record we sold. It didn’t matter who wrote it, everyone got exactly the same cut. I think that’s why we stayed together for so long because there weren’t any of those internal money gripes.
Famously, like The Beatles, with Paul and John having all the dough, you’d imagine George and Ringo being well pissed off because they were doing the same tours you know? We never had that problem at all, everyone got the same. That’s one of the annoying things, I wrote every tune and I was quite happy to share my money and then to be betrayed by them all is a real kick in the teeth.’
You’ve been touring with your new band and there’s an extraordinary amount of talent there. How did you convince them to all come together ?
‘..Very easy actually. When the word went out that I wanted a new band, Jake Jackers and he’s also the guy I’ve been writing the lyrics with on the last couple of albums, he’s a session player and has been for years and years in London and he also worked for Motown, he;s been in the business for yonks. He knew everone in London and he basically put the word out and everyone that was a likely candidate came together and it was as simple as that.
We’ve been very lucky that we’ve all got on so well, there’s only been one line up change since we started three and a half years ago. They’re a wicked band, I think I’ve got the hottest reggae band on the road at the moment.’
It’s always an extra boost for you, if you know you’ve got the best, you know the audience are going to get the best back.
‘Exactly, I’d only ever been in UB40 and we were all self taught, it was a bit like pulling teeth with UB40. Because we were self taught we only had our one way of going around things and it took a long time to make records with UB40, whereas I’ve been a lot more productive with the Dep Band, working with Sly & Robbie and stuff. The last album I did ‘The Great British Songs’, I went to Jamaica for six days and I came back with twelve tracks and it took, probably, another six days to mix it.’
How did you choose which tracks you’d cover for ‘Great British Songs’ ?
‘Well, it kinda happened as a joke! I did a cover of the Prince song ‘Purple Rain’ with the Fun Lovin’ Criminals early in the year, it really worked, we’re going to release that sometime soon. It was such an unlikely cover, I was like, well how far can I take this joke? (Laughing) I thought I could do ‘All Right Now’ (Free) you know, a big rock track and do that in reggae, or The Stones or The Beatles, Kinks, Who, basically I just put the list together in ten minutes. Just songs that were iconic and by iconic acts including Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street which is in the top ten most listened to songs ever.
That was the challenge for me, seeing if I could make them work and of course doing them with Sly and Robbie, it was a breeze. I brought it back and everybody loved it, it kinda got in the way of me doing my next album actually. I’m doing Rhythm Method (next album) and now I’ve got ‘Great British Songs’. I quite like it, I think it’s a good album and I think it’s quite humourous. I think it’s funny to have done ‘All Right Now’ by Free with Sly and Robbie.’ (laughs)
You’ve duetted and collaborated with some great artists in the past. Is there anyone that still makes you say ‘I want to work with them!’
‘Ah there’s millions, especially in the reggae field. There’s always new people in the reggae field like Gappy Ranks, Gyptian, people like that. Black Rhino, Busy Signal, Laden they’re all brilliant reggae stars to me and I’d love to work with them all.
I’d love to do something with RiRi, Jay-Z or Eminem. The sky’s the limit, I’ve worked with Smokey Robinson, you know what I mean, there’s no flies on me! I can work with anyone after getting Schmokey !’
It’s an amazing career and back catalogue that you have. You’ve an Ivor Novello, you’ve solf over 70 million records, what are you most proud of?
‘You know what? I’m most proud of the Dep Band and what we’re doing now because it was a daunting task. Leaving UB40, that being the only band I’ve ever been in and getting the new band together and going out, I promised myself and everyone else that I was going to take The Dep Band everywhere that UB40 had gone and I’m kinda enjoying doing that. It’s such a relief that it’s worked, I didn’t know if it would work or not. I didn’t know if the band were going to be any good, I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy it, out there on me own, with the focus all on me.
But, I’m quite proud of how we’ve come through. We’ve been playing in Hawaii, Panama, French Guiana, Africa, Australasia, doing all the South Pacific so I’m really proud of the way it’s going now, especially given that the climate is so rough for the music industry in general. Most people are falling apart and packing up and I’m on the up with a brand new band, which is cool.‘
Are you going to be touring for the rest of the year or are you going to take some time off?
‘I’m not doing enormous tours like we used to back in the day. With UB40 it was 90 tonnes of equipment and forty three people on the road. We actually toured for two years at a time, twice. It was ridiculous, especially as we all had young families and it caused a lot of.. well that was my first marriage, I’m on my second one now.
The next tour proper I’m doing is like six dates on the East Coast of America. The biggest ones are twelve dates. Even though I’m all around the world and I’m doing lots of shows, I do spend a lot more time at home with me kids, which I didn’t do first time round but second time round I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can pick and choose really. I basically go where the snorkelling is good!’ (laughs)
One last question: You’re a Birmingham City Fan..
You would have to bring that up to up a downer on proceedings!
Well, you got relegated but you’re going to play in the Europa league next year, how do you think they’ll do?
‘Yes and we did get the Cup earlier in the year so it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s a terrible blow to their finances more than anything but life goes on. I haven’t a clue, I’m a Zulu, a Birmingham City supporter because I come from Birmingham not because I know anything about football. (laughs)
You know our song, Birmingham City song? (singing) ‘Fcuk all, we’ve never won fcuk all’ and it remains so.’
Ali Campbell plays Strawberry Fest in Enniscorthy. Weekend tickets are 30 euro available from ticketmaster.ie
Some of the questions asked were posed by Goldenplec readers. Thank you for your contributions.