The World According to Skindred's Benji Webbe

He's a funny, funny man and he made me laugh. A lot.

With some interviews, you know they’re going to be good, and when Skindred’s singer Benji Webbe bounces onto the line, I know this is going to be one of them. From his initial response to my asking how he is (“Fantastic, bro! Everything’s great in my world.”), he enthusiastically answers my questions in his twanging Welsh accent.

So with the new album, Union Black, being the first album recorded in the UK (Skindred’s previous offerings having been recorded in the USA); what were the main differences? “When we first got together we were signed by an American label and they really saw us as an American act, and we recorded in America and everything we ever did was in America. Union Black is the first one we’ve actually done in the UK with a British producer. It was a beautiful process because we were in Britannia Row [Studios], and one of my favourite bands, Joy Division, they did their last album there as well, so I was on that whole spiritual buzz, you know? Being in the same studio as one of your favourite bands and knowing they did their classic album there, it’s really inspiring to me.”

So what was it like working with producer James Loughrey? “James is cool, man but he’s a bit of a prick sometimes...”, Benji cracks up laughing at this point but continues “He’s just a ball-buster, you know? Everyone was like ‘Is he taking the piss or is he being genuine?’ – that’s one thing I had to learn with James; he’s not taking the piss, he’s just pushing your buttons to make you do better. And I like that.”
So when Skindred are recording, is it all business or do you all cut loose, get off your nuts and freak out?

“We go to parties, we hang out, we invite people to the studio and try to get girls coming down to hang out. It’s like we try to keep that live atmosphere. If you know what you’re doing, there’s no need to be scared; if I’m going to stand behind a microphone, I know what I’m doing. Pre-production is more important for any band on the planet than anything in the world; some people just go into the studio and they’ve got all the money and time in the world but when you’re on a budget, you go in and you know what you’re gonna do and that’s what we did. We spent six weeks in pre-production with James and I think that really helped; writing the songs and the structures. When I’m in the studio and the tracks have been laid, I always go and find a little corner with my Pro-tools rig and I set it up and just keep coming up with ideas and melodies and lyrics to try and better myself until the day comes when I’ve got to stand behind the microphone.”

Stylistically Union Black is all over the place; it’s got drum ‘n’ bass, ska, ragga and electro influences. So how would you describe it? Benji bursts forth with “It’s like my head! It’s like my fucking head, mate! It’s all over the place! If I showed you my ipod, you’d fucking laugh because it’s all over the place. I’ve got Frank Sinatra, I’ve got Tiny Tempa, I’ve got the Sex Pistols, Slipknot, I’ve got flipping Michael Buble; if that’s the case and my ipod looks like that what’s my music gonna be like?”

OK Benji, stop right there; Frank Sinatra – OK. But Michael fucking Buble?! You’re pushing your limit there, mate! He breaks into infectious laughter but comes back with “Oi! Everyone likes fat chicks sometimes, mate!”

You did guest vocals on a couple of tracks on Soulfly’s debut album; have you been doing any guest vocals of late, or have you just been focussed on Union Black? “I just did one. I’ve had a few projects come to me but I haven’t been knocked out by any of them but there’s a band from England called Credit to the Nation, I knew them back when I was in Dubwar, and they’ve just got back together and I recorded a song with them guys.”

What’s it called? “I don’t know. I just did my part and sent it to them. But I love the music though; when you get given stuff, and I get sent stuff every now and then, sometimes it’s like ‘Ooh! This sounds like fucking Sepultura’ or ‘This sounds like something I know’ and I want stuff that is challenging, and I felt that when I heard the Credit to the Nation song, that’s what I want. The music needs to push forward and not everyone jumping on the bandwagon of doing what they were doing last week, because that’s bullshit.”

So who would you recommend? “You know Fugazi?” Aye. “You know the Wu Tang Clan?” Aye. “There’s a mash-up going around at the moment of Fugazi and the Wu Tang Clan; I’ve been listening to that. It’s fucking amazing! I think it’s got over 13 chapters and it’s called Wugazi [it’s called 13 Chambers and it’s very good, go seek it out on the interweb] – you can steal from the internet – it’s fucking brilliant, man! I can’t stop playing it! I’ve been playing that and also I’ve been playing the Beastie Boys new album, which I think you have to be French and very posh to listen to the Beastie Boys, and since I’m fucking French and very posh, I listen to the Beastie Boys.” What a mentalist. He’s no more French than I am Japanese...and I raise the question; I thought you were Welsh?! “Ah, fuck Welsh – I’m anything I want to be on any day! In all honesty, mate, I don’t do flags. I don’t pin no flags on myself. I’m proud of my passport because it gets me all around the world but other than that I just enjoy being a human being.” He’s a true citizen of the universe... “Yeah! Exactly. I’m a free spirit, man!”

So next week you’re coming to Australia for a (very) brief tour; what are your thoughts on this “I’m excited ‘cos I love the heat and I know it’s going to be sunny. It’s fucking freezing over here (Wales) and it’s not even half way into September yet so I’m looking forward to that. Have you got good steaks over there? 'Cos in Newport, where I live, it fucking sucks – you’ve been to one restaurant, you’ve been to ‘em all – they’re all bad.” We drift off into a conversation about the glories of Australian meat and the fact that a steak is incredibly cheap over here in comparison to the United Kingdom... “Good! ‘Cos I’m eating! I’m eating camel, I’m eating everything, I don’t give a shit. I’m looking forward to good eating and good rocking. I don’t know what size the places we’re playing are or how many people will be there, but whoever’s there; I’m gonna fucking give it to ‘em.”

So the Skindred tour bus, is it full of hookers and hash pipes? “Definitely. Yeah, it’s got to be. But what I do is one week off and one week on ‘cos you can’t do that all the fucking time...you got that Jagermeister stuff over there? You ever drink that?! You know on a Saturday night with Jagermeister and you’re partying with your friends, you know the next day you’re good for nothing, right? It’s the same with me, if I’m doing that constantly I’m fucking good for nothing! I’ve got to pace myself, you know? In all honesty, what I do is I choose a Saturday night to get destroyed and that’s me. I used to be able to do it all the time when I was younger but fuck, no! Not any more...I had a session on Friday night and I’m only just getting over it today and it’s Tuesday now so work it out for yourself...the other thing I believe is that when people come to see your show, I’m all about excellence when I perform; hitting the notes right and performing, doing exactly what I do, and I feel it’s important that you deliver an amazing show. I’m not gonna turn up at work half cut; who do you think I am? Kurt fucking Cobain?”

So who would you like to work with? “The Black Eyed Peas. I’d like to go in the studio with the black dude from the Black Eyed Peas (Will I Am) and have a little session with him. I think he could deliver some great stuff.” We get into a debate about the ploppy-poppy rubbish that the Black Eyed Peas often put out and Benji’s retort is “You’re a racist, a musical racist, and now I know you’re good for nothing! [Steady on, Benji] It’s not poppy rubbish – it’s a song that you can sing; if you don’t like it, turn it off...”

My response (“I generally do”) provokes a massive burst of laughter; “And so you should, mate! I think the Black Eyed Peas write the most amazing catchy hooks and I’d like to just go into the studio and do four songs with him producing it. I think that would be fun.” And I do end up conceding that they write a catchy pop tune...”And you know the word ‘pop’ just means popular and there’s fuck all wrong with being popular.” is his final word on the subject.

I point out that a lot of reggae and metal purists are not sure what to make of Skindred and this unleashes a tide of strong sentiment : “Let me tell you something; I’ve got something to say to the purists of metal: AC/DC. Go listen to them, motherfucker. I’ve got something for the purists of reggae: Bob Marley. Go listen to him.  Be small minded. Stay in your little swimming pool and I’ll stay in my fucking big river, alright? Go on Youtube and enjoy some mash-ups. Enjoy yourself. Music’s about going forwards not (adopts high pitched whiney voice) ‘Aww! I don’t like the new AC/DC album because it’s got this on it’...Fuck off, man! Music’s about you, enjoying and expressing yourself.”

And in the whiney voice, he adds “I only like blonde girls, I only kiss blonde girls.” Before summarising “If that’s who you are, or anybody on the planet, who says ‘I only do this or that’ then more fool you because you’re missing out and I feel sorry for you. I love Mozart. I love it all. For me, music is about enjoying it not alienating yourself. I don’t mind people who don’t dig it because for every one who doesn’t dig it, there’s someone who does.”

Phew! I’m glad you got that off your chest...

Skindred are headlining Hammerfest 2012 (UK); your views on this? “All I’ve got to say is this: I wanna make the place rock. I wanna make people go in there and have the most amazing fucking fun that they’ve had at any show in their life. I think that’s the most important thing. My intention is to do that and if I get 80% of the people feeling like that then mission accomplished.”

Bizarrely, Hammerfest is held at a holiday camp; Pontins Prestatyn!? As far as I know, there is no equivalent to this in Australia. Think a sealed off, self contained caravan park but with cabins...a surreal and bizarre venue...“You know what? It’s like a holiday camp for heavy metallers! It’s great! It’s like you’ve got the red-coats walking around as well.”

I’m not sure if Australia got the classic (read shit) television series Hi-de-hi [Google it] but Benji’s says “Exactly. It’s just like that – you imagine that but with heavy metal – you could make a fucking TV show of it; it’s brilliant! It’s just people going crazy in there. There’s no police in there or anyone walking around saying ‘Don’t do this or don’t do that’. There’s one thing about heavy metal people that I always say: you can leave them on their own and they ain’t gonna cause no trouble. I’ve been to this festival three or four times and I’ve never seen a copper, I’ve never seen any aggravation or any hassle. There they are; Slayer and Metallica fans, walking around, left free, in a holiday camp. So what does that say to you? Is heavy metal that bad and from the Devil? No.”

You grew up in Newport, what was it like growing up there? “Yeah, born and bred. Newport, South Wales. I grew up in the seventies and punk rock and reggae were a major influence on my life. Most of my mates in school were into punk and ska and The Specials and the two-tone thing and I just sat in the middle going ‘I love it all’ and all my mates were saying ‘I’m gonna get a skinhead and wear braces’ or ‘I’m gonna get my hair dyed and get a mohican’ and I was like “I just want dreadlocks with a mohawk in the middle’. I just loved it all and for me, being a black kid growing up in the seventies, it was quite weird because there was a lot of racism. Not real bad racism like the Klu Klux Klan but the fucking tongue-in-cheek kind; British television sit-com kind. One thing I learnt was to stop smiling when people started saying racist jokes. I’d call at my mate’s house – I’m talking about when I was 11 – and the father would answer the door and he’d say ‘Kevin, Snowflake’s here’ and I’d be like ‘who the fuck is Snowflake?!’ so I had to really stop that from an early age. If I go somewhere and some says ‘You been on holiday? You’ve caught the sun’ – I don’t fucking smile, that’s not a joke.”

You can tell he’s not bitter, just frustrated, and after that outpouring he returns to a more jovial state. We agree to hook up for a few pints and some steaks when Skindred hit our shores next week. But please Benji, hold the Black-Eyed Peas...