Music is full of characters, the people who are instantly recognisable, the idols. Benji Webbe is one of those people who with his band Skindred has changed the face of rock, and done so with a huge smile and a party attitude. Gary Trueman chatted with Benji about the new album ‘Big Tings’, music collaborations and erm… cwtching.
‘Big Tings’ is an interesting name for the new album. Is it a statement of what to watch out for in the future?
“You know what yeah. It’s like an optimistic view of Skindred. At the end of the day if we didn’t think we could headline Download then what’s the point in doing this thing? That’s the way we view it. We’ve got a few unbelievers out there but Jesus had them so why can’t we. We’ve been doing this long enough and we’re strong enough to say we’ve got big tings coming for us. It’s definitely an optimistic view of life.”
The new single is a real anthem. It has loads of melody and you can imagine it going down a storm live. Is that how the rest of the album will pan out too?
“On the other albums I’ve been the dominant factor on the song writing. What I found on this record is that Mikey and Dan came to the room with melodies and they came to the room with more stuff than they’ve ever brought before. You can hear that these guys have been sat in the wings for a long time. We’ve finished the songs together but they brought a lot of the stuff you hear on Big Tings and on Machine. I mean what’s the point of making the same album over and over again? I think if I was to have done all the writing it would have been dominant dog again. It was nice to sit back because the others aren’t children any more. I’m the old man but they’re not the kids any more.”
So with ‘Big Tings’ was it interesting to see what the other band members brought to the table and where they got their ideas from?
“Oh yeah! The subjects are different from what I would write about. I met these guys when they were 19 years of age, and 21, now they’re in their mid 30s. So they’ve had a lot of experiences that I can draw on. The best thing about it was sitting back and watching, and getting excited about their melodies. They’d play the song and I’d have a go at it and that’s when the song would come alive. Freddie (Mercury) and Brian (May) did that a lot too. Brian would write and then when Freddie did his thing that’s when the magic happened.”
With Skindred you have all these different flavours if you like in your music which makes you unique. Sometimes when a band becomes successful they get imitators but no one has really imitated Skindred. Why do you think that is?
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the music, it’s to do with the attitude and where I’m from. I’m from an area which is so diverse culturally so I think that has a lot to do with the music. Growing up around Irish people and Italian people and Somali people, all that stuff is in me. I think with Skindred and especially what I bring to the table, there’s a lot of life experience that goes in to it.”
You bring a huge amount of energy and passion to live shows which rubs off on the fans. Skindred gigs are like a big party. Do you think that atmosphere then carries you back into your writing and how you work off stage?
“I’d say that when we write songs we do ask how the crowd would engage to this song and how will we engage the crowd. When we’re working on a track we definitely do keep the crowd in mind. Even though I can make the crowd bounce to Mozart, you know what I mean. When I’m on stage I draw from a lot of those southern Baptist preachers, I watch a lot of that and it’s not about the Jesus thing it’s about the unity ion the room. What I love to do is stand on the stage and see a room full of people who don’t know each other and within four songs you’ve got that church spirit. Everybody wants to be part of something and my job as a front man is to engage the crowd and make them feel like they’re at ease. It’s definitely that preacher kind of thing but I’m not preaching at the people. Part of what we do is bring people together and we do that all over the world.”
It’s funny that the UK seems to produce highly original music. Let’s take Skindred for instance, there’s no where else on the planet that Skindred would have happened surely?
“I believe in my heart of hearts is that because we’re British, it’s because of the melting pot of the UK. I don’t think if we were from Los Angeles we would sound like this. It’s where we’re from and the environment we grew up in. Even though I grew up in South Wales in the 70s I know London was feeling the same kind of energy. I’m just a product of my environment both lyrically and mentally. I fly the British flag not because of the Britishness but because of the music. I see the flag and think of the Sex Pistols and The Clash.”
Let’s talk a little bit about collaborations. Devolution had a chat recently with Skye Sweetnam of Sumo Cyco and your name came up. So how did you end up on their new album?
“She contacted me on the internet saying I’m a big fan of your band. I get that every week so I don’t really listen to every one of them. So I ws polite and said OK. The next thing I know the guy that produces our albums called and said I’ve got this band I’m producing from Canada and they want to work with you. It was strange that she didn’t just say she wanted to do it she actually did it. They sent me the track and I recorded it and they loved it. When they toured in the UK we did a video together and we just became friends from that. It just goes to show if you have perseverance. I get a lot of tracks that people send me but I only want to sing on the ones that are good enough ans Sumo Cyco are definitely good enough. The way they are doing it too, they keep coming over here sleeping on people’s floors. They’re doing it rock ’n’ roll style and that’s awesome. A lot of these bands cry for the cover of Kerrang and that’s all they do and one album later they’ve disbanded. The way Sumo Cyco are doing it, that’s the way to build a strong foundation with British fans.”
You also worked with Gary Stringer from Reef.
“We were recording a song and originally it was going to be me and Mikey singing it but our manager is friends with Gary’s manager and we asked him. We ended up going into a studio in London and he turned up like a homeless tramp and delivered the goods amazingly. When I think of Gary I think of TFI Friday looking smooth in his tartan shirt and he turned up at the studio looking like a homeless guy. But when he got behind the mic it was just wow, he brought the track to life. I’m trying to show off because I know Gary can sing and he knows I can sing so we ended up giving it the best Mick Jagger we’ve got.”
Music is changing at a huge pace and so is the media that goes with it. We’ve seen NME fall recently. Do you think print as a medium has a future?
“If you write good things people will buy it. When you write the same old trollop, like when I read a review that could have been written 20 years ago, it’s up to the journalists. If they write stuff that is interesting people will buy it. But online is where 95% of people are reading stuff now. I think it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re writing well people will come to you. It’s like I get asked how do you get a record deal? And I say first of all you’ve got to be good. Some bands want to get on Youtube before they’ve even got a song together. Just like if you were a bricklayer, you’ve got to sculpture you’re art. As a writer you’ve got to sculpture what you do. The NME was great to Dubwar in the early days and I feel sorry for them but if you’re not writing then people aren’t reading.”
Let’s talk a bit about Wales.
“Beautiful Wales. Cymru. I love Wales. I lived in Florida for five years and still came back to Wales.”
That’s something that you don’t hear about often it seems to be all these bands you hear about that head off to LA or London or Florida. What brought you back?
“Well when we were touring the states a lot I ended up going over there and staying there. But when we stopped touring it seemed pointless me being there so that’s when I came back and bought a house in the UK. Robert Trujillo said to me if I had a place in LA I’d be a millionaire because of the song writing but the money isn’t everything, missing your family and missing your, what are you doing there? I just think you should be where you want to be and I love Wales. I consider myself to be Afro Caribbean Cymri, that’s the title I give myself when I sign papers and they ask for my nationality. I feel that, and when I did live in Florida with all the sunshine, no disrespect but there’s no sense of community. I live in a community where I can go five generations and know the people and that’s something you don’t want to let go of. My father hung around with the guy next door’s father and they got drunk and fucked chicks together when they were young and I love that. Community spirit is built on roots. I lived in Florida and it was beautiful and I had Disney tickets every day but I still didn’t stay.”
You live in Wales with your girlfriend. How does that work with the band and touring? Do you think you need to be a special kind of person to date a musician?
“Definitely. You need someone who is understanding. When you haven’t got that it’s a nightmare. When you’re talking to fans and the person you are with is getting upset about it because you’re not spending enough time with them. At the end of the day these people have bought tickets to see you so I basically put the fans above any friends hanging around. If you really want to see me then come to my house. You’ve chosen to come on the road with me and when I’m on the road I’m working. I’m very fortunate because my girlfriend is very understanding and when I’m on the phone and she’s in the car waiting she isn’t going to give me shit. This is my art form and this is what I do. Obviously when you’re in a restaurant and there’s four kids stood by you when you’re trying to eat your fish and chips it’s a bit weird. There’s a time for everything and when I step on that bus, that’s rock n roll time. When I’m in Asda that’s Benji time with his girlfriend. As much as I want her to be happy when she does come out on tour, the priority for me on the road is who has bought the tickets.”
Back to Wales. What is the one thing Wales has that the rest of the world hasn’t got but needs?
Wales has got cwtching. A cwtch is when you meet your mates and you hug. We call it cwtching and it’s the only place in the world that has it, and we do a lot of cwtching. In other words we embrace our friends and give them a hug and that’s something the world needs to do more often. A handshake is very clinical and clean but a cwtch is something that is heart warming and it’s only given in Wales.”
Interview By Gary Trueman