Since forming in 1979 out of Birmingham, UK, UB40 reached legendary status with multiple Grammy nominations, millions of records sold, and topping charts worldwide with smash hits such as “Food For Thought” and their cover of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine.” However, the band has been through its share of controversy in recent years, as lead singer Ali Campbell departed the group in 2008 along with keyboardist Mickey Virtue, and later joined by Astro, who would leave in 2013 resulting in two groups touring under the name UB40 –- one led by Ali and the other by his brother, Duncan Campbell, whom Ali refers to as the Dark Side. Despite the mess, both groups have gone on to release new music, but Ali is quick to point out that there is only one true UB40. In 2014, Ali, Astro & Mickey released a new album, Silhouette, that they continue to promote while touring the U.S. for just the second time in 8 years.
With Ali Campbell, Astro & Mickey Virtue reunited for a more authentic representation of the UB40 sound, The Pier was honored to be invited up to their hotel suite 15-minutes before their live-set at Pala Casino, just north of San Diego County, for a brief interview. Sipping champagne, Ali and Astro greeted us with warm smiles as they addressed as many questions as we could manage inside 15-minutes. By the time our interview had concluded, the group had about 5-minutes to spare before going on stage.
Interview: Ali Campbell & Astro of UB40
The Pier: Ali, when we spoke with you back in February, you had hinted that there were plans to work with groups like SOJA, Rebelution & Slightly Stoopid over some dub music that you & Astro had mixed – What more can you tell us about that?
ALI: It’s all still going on. We’ve got friends out here that are trying to hook us up with everybody. I met Elliott (Harrington), who is SOJA’s manager, in Hawaii. I was telling him about our day and he was like “I don’t know if this is good or not, but I know all of the white reggae bands.” [haha] It’s a movement now. We want to lock into it and see what happens. We’ve got some music ready, already.
ASTRO: We actually mixed all of this, a few years ago.
ALI: Yeah, never seen the light of day because we just never did anything with it. It’s pretty yardcore. It’s 14 tracks that me and Astro mixed a couple years ago, and it’s just been sitting there in the can and we been thinking, “What should we do with this?” We call this Summer of Dub.
The Pier: Is there a timeline planned for Summer of Dub?
ASTRO: No, it’s not that far down the line, yet. We’re still just making contact with everyone.
ALI: We’re giving copy of the tracks out to people so they can hear them. We’re going ahead and doing it, even though our management doesn’t know anything about it. [haha] And of course, with a certain label in mind, we’d like to release it with them because they’re handling the Unplugged album we have coming out in couple of months.
The Pier: An Unplugged album you have coming out?
ALI: Yeah we did that a couple of bloody years ago as well, but because of the court case that we’re having, the ‘dark side’ have pulled our wrist on us, so this other label was scared to release it because of the name thing. But this new label we’re talking to don’t care at all, they were like “Yeah, we’ll release it,” so it’s going to come out in a couple of months. And then hopefully, we’ll get them to release this project album we’re doing, this west coast project album.
The Pier: And this will be all new music with your Unplugged record, or unplugged versions of older songs?
ALI: Yeah it’s this sort of weird collection. What happened was, we started doing a lot of radio sessions in London. In fact, we did I think 6 different sessions where we had to play acoustic stuff cause they’re too lean to pay for the whole band, you know? And a lot of the times, the rooms are too small so you couldn’t even fit in there anyway. And we did so many of them and we thought, ‘we’ve got an unplugged album if we think about it.’ So we put it together and the initial label we were speaking to loved it and all that, but then they sat on it because they’re afraid to release it…
The Pier: Because of the two UB40’s going on?
ALI: Yeah, that’s still going on. I don’t know what the ‘dark side,’ what they want to get out of it because they’ve already got the name and they’re falling flat on their faces. They’ve got the name, what more do they want? So who knows where that’s going, but we’ve just carried on and ignoring them in the hope they’ll go away.
The Pier: Have you noticed a difference in the American Reggae culture since you guys last visited 8 years ago from when you started touring again back in the States? Have you noticed a rise in demand for Reggae music here?
ASTRO: That’s a hard one because when we was coming over here, originally, we were getting fabulous crowds anyway, so I don’t know how much better they could be. People react exactly the same to music and we’ve always had great crowds. I can’t even think of us having any better crowds in the U.S…
ALI: Across the world, reggae is influencing all contemporary dance music, actually. Anywhere you go, you know? So Reggae is having a bit of a renaissance in as much as it’s influencing everything. Its influence is bigger now than it’s ever been, and that’s worldwide, not just in the States… We were in Bakersfield, CA and we were asking the girl who was driving us, what’s Bakersfield famous for and she says: “Country music and Reggae.” I went “Really?” [Haha]. And we looked and saw that Aswad and Steel Pulse were playing there, so maybe Bakersfield is where it’s at for Reggae…
The Pier: Well you mention Steel Pulse and you guys are from Birmingham, UK, same place as Steel Pulse, The English Beat –- To what do you attribute all of the talent to the area during that time period?
ALI: West Indian population, you know, they all grew up, as Astro did, with the second generation of windrush kids. Their parents came over in the late ‘50’s on windrush and then all had kids and those kids are the ones I grew up with. That’s why I love reggae, because all of my friends were West Indian and Jamaican. And the music of the streets where we come from was reggae, you know?
ASTRO: And the only outlets back then, were house-parties every single weekend, all around the neighborhood.
ALI: We were 11 & 12-years-old, but we were tolerated because we were just little kids, we weren’t a threat to anybody. But yeah, we would just mingle and listen to Dub, how it should be listened to; in great big wardrobe, speakers, rockin’ the house. Sometimes the windows would fall in as I’d put the bass in — BOOM! [Haha] I just stood there, reorganizing molecular structure.
ASTRO: That was our idea of heaven. Just being immensed in bass, you know what I mean?
ALI: When we started producing our own records, we did them all really bass-heavy. We couldn’t even cut the record because there was that much bass. And then of course, we mix our first album and it was a third of the volume of everybody else’s record because it had to be compressed. [haha] So we learned that as the years went by that it’s not about volume, it’s about balance. People can add their own bass. [haha]
The Pier: Are there any up & coming bands from the area that you see carrying that torch of the reggae sound from Birmingham?
ALI: Not from Birmingham, but in Jamaica, there’s a great band called Raging Fyah. We love them and that’s our choice of the year, you know what I mean? Because they’re young kids and doing roots-rock-reggae and conscience lyrics and they’re exactly what we want to happen as far as reggae is concerned. All of the groups, like Vybz Kartel or gangster music; that’s done, it’s had its day. Like with Hip-Hop, we sort of inherited this self-imposed segregation in England, which was exactly the opposite to what UB40 stood for. In the ‘80’s, if you would have picked 8 kids out of our area it would have looked like UB40. That’s exactly what we were, a multi-racial bunch of kids getting home together. When hip-hop came to England, suddenly it was self-imposed. It was black gangs, white gangs, everybody split up area-codes and all of that. And sadly, that’s what we got from hip-hop; America’s segregation and racism and our own rainbow nation of things kind of went by the wayside.
The Pier: Would you say Reggae music was kind of the Bridge for those crowds? You were on neutral ground with reggae…
ALI: It’s crazy because what started happening, musically, is Hip Hop wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for toasting. People like U-Roy, King Stitt, Big Youth, they were the first people that were toasting over music. So that’s were hip-hop came from in the first place. Then you’ve got Jamaican artists doing hip hop, like Bounty Hunter, it’s like “Are you going backwards?” [Haha] Hip hop came from toast, so when Jamaican artists start doing hip-hop, we’re like ‘Whats the point?’ but that’s just part of how things evolve.
The Pier: Around the same time you released Silhouette, Radio Riddler released Purple Reggae – their tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain, and Ali, you fronted the titled track of “Purple Rain.” What is your connection to Radio Riddler and how did it come together with you fronting Purple Rain?
ALI: Fun Lovin’ Criminals, I’ve known Huey (Morgan) for quite awhile. He came to see me in the studio, at Basic Street in London, and said: “We have a great cover, ‘Purple Rain,’” and I went “Really? Do you really think so?” and it was a very unlikely cover, but it worked really well and it became a very popular track in our set. And then Prince passed on, so of course we stopped playing it. But that gave me the idea to do the ‘Great British Songs’ album where I started covering the Kinks, the Beatles, Roxy Music, Free, Rolling Stone, but I was just thinking… If you could do “Purple Rain” by Prince, you could do a reggae version of almost anything, cant you? So that’s what that album was about.
The Pier: Did you ever hear from Prince? Did you ever get any feedback on the song?
ALI: Frank Benbini, drummer of Fun Lovin’ Criminals, he’s also in Radio Riddler, he said that Prince hung up on him and he threw a complete seven! He’s screaming down the phone at him and everything… So, that’s what happens…
The Pier: Did you ever have any interaction with Prince throughout the years?
ALI: No, no we use to stay in Minneapolis a-lot. We got snowed in quite a few times and we’d go to the Avenue and watch all the other people that looked exactly like Prince do exactly the same music and same dancing [Haha]… And Ipso Facto, we use to jam with them a lot in Minneapolis.
The Pier: I do appreciate your time and understand you have to go on-stage right now, and in closing, what is it you’d like fans to take away from this new UB40 of Ali, Mickey & Astro? How might it differ from that of the original UB40 & how can fans search you out to avoid any confusion?
ALI: Well, we are the original vocalists of UB40 and people say, “Well do you see yourself getting back together, again?” Well this is the reunion with me, Mickey & Astro. And the fans have voted with their feet. We’ve just done a sell-out arena tour in England, we just finished at the Dome in London where we filmed in virtual-reality, and that was a sell-out. So basically, the fans have all seen this as the reunion and said they’d all come to see us and that’s why we’re back on the road. That’s why it’s going so nicely. People missed us being together. And all of the bullocks that went around UB40 and me leaving and Astro joining me and all of that, who cares? What matters is the fact that we’ve got Silhouette out and it’s a new album so we’re still relevant. We’re in it to win it and here we are!
The Pier: And you’ve got an Unplugged record coming out — Do you have a title for that, the Unplugged record?
ALI: Well you see, there in lies the problem. That’s why, the initial label we were speaking to wanted to call it ‘Ali, Astro & Mickey Sing The Songs of UB40’ and we went “Fuck Off!” [haha] So, it was a bit like that. So I don’t know what it will be called, but I think it’s just going to be called Unplugged, UB40 Unplugged.
ASTRO: It Should be… It is what it is.
Watch: Ali Campbell, Astro & Mickey – “Silhouette”
Watch: Radio Riddler – “Purple Rain” (Fronted by Ali Campbell)