UB40 Talk Touring, New Album & Paul McCartney
As has been well documented for hundreds of soap opera-esque TV documentaries, band dynamics can make marriages or families look downright harmonious. Take the case of the now-splintered UB40.
Four-time GRAMMY nominees for Best Reggae Album, the group saw lead singer Ali Campbell leave in 2008 due to business disputes with the band’s management. Campbell embarked on a solo career before reuniting with band members Mickey Virtue and Astro in 2014 for the album Silhouette.
Three years later the trio are touring under the UB40 moniker and have a new album on the way in February of 2018. Campbell spoke with GRAMMY.com about revisiting the classic songs, rediscovering his love for touring and his friendship with Paul McCartney.
How has the tour been going?
We do like little festivals, we’ve got Raging Fyah with us and the original Wailers. We had Billy Ocean with us the last gig, so yeah, we just go around and do this “Grandslam” and it’s been really lovely. The weather has been fantastic, thank god, cause there’s only one thing that can ruin an outdoor show. And in England that’s the weather.
I spoke with Christine McVie recently and she said she was done with music until she realized she missed her musical family. Was it the same for you?
I was tired of touring. I’d been touring since 1980, literally my adult life. And I thought I was sick of touring as well. But then I stopped touring and I realized that’s what I do and it’s just lovely to be back with my muckers on the road, going around all the beautiful places in America. We also finished the “Red, Red Winery” tour of Australia and New Zealand last year and that was just fantastic. We finished that one actually in Hawaii. So we’ve just been spending all our time in these absolutely beautiful locations drinking wine and doing shows. It doesn’t get any better than that really.
Having been away from it and realizing you do miss it do you have a greater appreciation for being on the road now?
Yeah, absolutely. And the thing is I’m touring now with a new band really. Me, Astro and Mickey [Virtue], we always say it’s UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey, so nobody gets us mixed up with the other lads. And basically we’re having a bit of a renaissance. We’ve been all around in the world and we’ve sort of carried on, carried on. Now we’re also doing a new album for Universal, which will be released February. And that’s gonna be so, wow, the monitor mixes has got me overboard about it. So I’m sure we’ll be touring that one next year as well.
Are there songs you’re surprised the audience has made them favorites?
Definitely songs we’d forgotten about that we sort of dug up. We did a British tour, I think it was the Labour Of Love I and II tour and there were a bunch of songs on there that we’d forgotten about, songs we hadn’t played in decades. And so a couple of those have made their way back into the normal set now because of the reaction they got. We thought, “Bloody hell, forgot about that, let’s put that in the set.” So the set that we’re doing now has been sort of evolving the last three years and it’s the set now that we play everywhere. We don’t change for each country, we just do the same set. And it’s going down really well.
Tell me about the new music. How far along are you on the new album?
They’re all the backing tracks, 16 backing tracks, and it’s the best stuff I’ve done in years and years and years. I feel like it’s the best stuff I’ve done in years. We haven’t finished it yet and I think that’s what’s exciting. Astro’s done his vocals and I’m continuing to do mine over the next couple of weeks before coming back to the States. But we’re not in a rush to mix it because we’ve got until February, that’s when it’s gonna get released, for Valentine’s Day. So Universal have given us plenty of time to get all our ducks in a row before the release. It couldn’t be going better actually. I don’t know how I could make this album fail it’s going so well. It’s like it’s taken on a bit of a life of its own. That’s what happens with good albums. Most people say they can’t wait to get it released. So that’s what we’ll be doing next year, we’ll be touring for that album.
Was there one song early on that shaped the sound of this record?
The last recording we did was just a sort of almost like a joke. We were pushing the Silhouette album in England and we were doing lots of radio sessions where obviously they can’t have the whole band, there are 11 people on stage in UB40, so you can’t bring everybody to a session in a radio station. So we started doing little acoustic sets, acoustic versions of songs, and we did about five of those sessions. Then of course I realized I’ve got an unplugged album here, so it was really strange doing it unplugged because it’s a reggae album that’s got no bass on it, which is unprecedented right there. So it was a strange recording without bass and with the acoustic style. So to get back doing a proper album with electric bass and stuff it’s been really exciting. And it’s reenergized the recording process, it’s almost like going in with fresh ears I think. It’s my thirtieth production of an album, so I should be getting it right by now (laughs).
How crazy is it Paul McCartney called to tell you he liked your solo album?
It’s funny you mention Paul McCartney because I’ve been traveling in the van and I’ve been watching the anthology. It’s eight CDs long and it’s brilliant. It’s an in-depth look at the Beatles story, what happened to them. And it’s very sobering when you see what they went through. And the fact everything they did was for the first time and I’m sure they wouldn’t have stopped after the Candlestick Park concert had they known what to expect, if they’d known what playing to 50,000 people sounded like. So it’s a great thing to watch it. And I watched it just after I watched the Eight Days A Week film, the new one. Like anybody of my age I grew up listening to the Beatles and that was sort of the music that I knew up until I started listening to reggae when I was 10, 11 years old. So I went from the Beatles to the Jackson 5 to reggae.