The Cover Story

Skindred: “We’re not hailed like a lot of bands, but it’s supposed to be like this. We’re the alternative”

Despite a stellar discography and consistently brilliant live show, Skindred have often been taken for granted by rock fans in their 25 years as a band. But no more. On the eve of the release of their fantastic eighth album Smile, the Newport heroes cast their minds back over their journey so far – and reveal why they’re hungrier than ever for the future…

Skindred: “We’re not hailed like a lot of bands, but it’s supposed to be like this. We’re the alternative”
James Hickie
Paul Harries

“In our lives there are negative forces,” Benji Webbe booms from the stage of The O2, a venue he last played as part of Ozzfest 2010, alongside Ozzy Osbourne and Korn.

Much has happened since. In the past few weeks alone, his band Skindred played to sizeable crowds at Download and Glastonbury, and are currently on this UK run of arenas in support of KISS, as part of the rock legends’ farewell tour. Given they’re as big as they’ve ever been during the course of their 25-year career, and the fact they’re gearing up to the release of their excellent eighth studio album Smile, you might imagine Benji would want to publicly give thanks for these achievements.

You’d be wrong. Instead, he wants to talk about negative forces.

“Negative forces just like my brother, Clifford,” Benji elaborates, before getting some audience participation going. “Now everybody say: ‘Fuck Clifford.’” Thousands of fans loudly oblige.

How did we get here?

Five hours earlier, Benji is leaning against a wall in a skatepark on London’s Southbank. He’s dressed in the same black trench coat and waistcoat he’ll later wear onstage. It’s the kind of get-up this most extroverted of individuals wears on trips to the supermarket in his native Newport. The lyrics to GIMME THAT BOOM, the first single from Smile, confirms he draws attention when he does, chronicling the entitlement of overzealous fans pestering him for selfies during the pandemic (‘Don’t try to pull on my bandanna / Can’t let you ruin my show’).

Benji is getting noticed today, too, by the teenage skaters zipping around on their boards, many of whom are the same age as several of his 16 grandchildren. The scrutiny doesn’t bother him, though. He’s long since weaponised being different to incendiary effect and great success. Winning over the uninitiated is what he does best. Anyway, as it turns out, the toughest nut to crack was the aforementioned Clifford – a man who, in reality, Benji loves dearly, regularly goes to the gym with, and credits with raising him after the death of their parents.

As the children of a Jamaican immigrant father living in South Wales in the 1970s, Benji and his siblings did what they could to retain a connection to their heritage. Music provided a readily accessible resource to an upbringing he describes as “Afro-Caribbean-Cymru”. But while Clifford and his other brother Herbie steadfastly listened to reggae, the “weird” Benji turned to other sounds. Watching The Old Grey Whistle Test – the BBC music show commissioned, remarkably, by David Attenborough – he was intrigued by artful New Yorkers Talking Heads and the many punk rock acts, much to the bemusement of his brothers.

“They’d look at me and say, ‘Where the fuck are you from?’” he recalls. Undeterred, Benji took the money gifted to him by his aunt Maggie and bought his first record, Loonie Tunes!, the second album by Bad Manners, London purveyors of the two-tone sound that blended reggae and rocksteady music, led by frontman Buster Bloodvessel – whose huge tongue could give Gene Simmons a run for his money.

“When I put [Loonie Tunes!] on, Clifford ran across the room and took it off the record player, saying, ‘That’s not reggae,’ and played some Lee Perry and Dennis Brown,” explains Benji. “I said, ‘I get it, but I dig this.’ Anyway, for me there was no difference between punk and reggae. Whether you were walking up the King’s Road with a mohawk, or had dreadlocks and smoking a spliff in Kentish Town, you had the same enemy, which was the system. And both sides were united by a desire for justice.”

While Benji successfully blended some of those elements in his pre-Skindred band Dub War (who reunited in 2014) it was when that band signed to Earache Records and became label mates with the likes of Pitchshifter and Iron Monkey that he was truly exposed to music on the heavier end of the spectrum – a sound he strived to approximate. It wasn’t just a case of fitting in, though. Back when he was listening to AC/DC’s early records, Benji wondered what it would sound like if their singer Bon Scott replaced Bob Marley in Bob Marley And The Wailers. When Skindred formed in 1998, Benji decided to find out.

A quarter of a century and eight albums on, it’s fair to say the results are impressive, even if Benji believes his band has been taken for granted over the years.

“We’re not hailed like a lot of bands out there,” he says. “But you know what? It’s supposed to be like this. We’re the alternative. We never have been and are never going to be the cool kids in the class. I can’t climb around up there like Jason [Aalon Butler] from FEVER 333, but I can sing like a motherfucker, so I’m going to use what I’ve got to make this music count, alongside these three boys who are badass. We’ve got our own thing going and anyone who digs it is welcome to join us. And it’s growing… it’s undeniably growing.”

“I can sing like a motherf*cker, so I’m going to use what I’ve got to make this music count”

Benji Webbe

The sun burns brightly as the boat taking Skindred to The O2 glides down the Thames. Arya Goggin, looking every inch the rock star in leather jacket and sunglasses, is enjoying the experience. It reminds him of the opening sequence from The World Is Not Enough, in which Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond chases a fleeing villain down the same river, before falling from an exploding hot air balloon and tumbling down the side of the structure hosting tonight’s show. As you do.

Arya’s lifelong love of the Bond franchise is the reason Skindred exit the stage after each show to the strains of Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better, the theme tune to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me; and why his bass drum is often adorned with his favourite 007, Roger Moore, complete with trademark raised eyebrow. The drummer is also the biggest out-and-out fan of KISS, having first seen them on their Alive/Worldwide reunion tour back in 1996, making this jaunt particularly special for him. “This is the definition of a full-circle moment,” he says of his journey from fanboy to tour-mate.

The son of a Persian mother and a dad from Devon, Arya grew up listening to Queen, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Guns N’ Roses, so had lofty musical ambitions early on. “When you’re a young kid, you’re not aspiring to be playing to 200 people in a club,” he reasons. “It was the stadium rock acts that fired my imagination. Shoot for the stars and you’ll get near, right?”

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That sense of ambition has informed Arya’s mission when it comes to Skindred. “I see myself as someone that has a bigger vision for it all,” he explains, pausing momentarily as the Tannoy loudly announces the boat’s next stop. “I like to look at the big picture and see how we can move closer to what we’re looking to achieve. My favourite time is right now, before the album has come out, when there’s everything to play for.”

Arya was a fan of his band before he even became a member, having supported them with his former outfit Tourna-K. After the release of their debut album, Babylon, in July 2002, Skindred were unexpectedly dropped by RCA Records. The label’s treatment didn’t sit well with original drummer and guitarist Martyn ‘Ginge’ Ford and Jeff Rose, originally from Dub War, so they promptly left, at which point Arya and guitarist Mikey Demus were drafted in. At the time, that necessitated the duo relocating to Benji’s hometown of Newport – beneath a boxing gym, to be precise – and a subterranean space dubbed ‘the crimson room of doom’, where they prepared for tours and readied the songs that eventually became 2007’s second album, Roots Rock Riot.

Today that line-up is still going strong. Stronger, in fact. But how? To answer that, Arya defers to the wisdom of Lemmy, who famously suggested Motörhead’s longevity was down to “never splitting up”.

“It really is as simple as that,” he shrugs. “We’ve always been aware of the things that create issues, though there are things you can’t account for. When COVID happened, I rang Benji and said, ‘We’re not going to be one of those bands that breaks up because of this.’ The story wasn’t over. There was still more to be done. And now we’re still achieving firsts, like playing Glastonbury; we’re called the ultimate festival band but we somehow hadn’t played the biggest festival in the world. Now we have.”

A day in Skindred’s company is like spending time with a family. Knowing looks are exchanged, legs are unceremoniously pulled, and in-jokes are teed up without the need for punchlines because everyone knows what comes next. Like a family, they are fortified by a shared history and bound by collective aims, but, being four distinct individuals, the ways in which they express and pursue those goals differ. This, combined with the fact they’re as cognisant with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, motivators and trigger points, as they are their own means familiarity occasionally breeds contempt.

In Skindred’s case, any semblance of disharmony is focused around their sound. Their music has long been defined as ‘ragga metal’, with each record pivoting around those musical pillars to varying degrees, while trying to stay fresh and attractive to the widest possible audience to justify the prestigious tours and festivals slots they command. And while those ‘ragga’ and ‘metal’ elements aren’t mutually exclusive in achieving that success, it’s evidently proved a contentious balancing act over the years.

Dan Pugsley is central to the process of striking that balance. Arya suggests the bassist acts as the “musical glue” who’s “always on the quest for the ‘new’”. As a result of that role and his status as a founding member alongside Benji, Dan is evidently protective of what he believes the tenets are that make Skindred, Skindred.

Dan is also the most willing of the four to discuss their points of divergence, which he does in hushed tones aboard a tour bus parked behind The O2, his hand running through his goatee as he speaks. “It’s definitely taken a lot of work,” he says of navigating two-and-a-bit decades together. “Every organisation has its problems. Power dynamics shift, sometimes for the best and sometimes in a damaging way, but you have to reconcile those things. That’s relationships.”

How have those ‘shifts’ manifested themselves?

“The music we make that resonates with people the most is our most celebratory stuff and a true fusion,” continues Dan. “Afrobeat is the biggest music form on the planet now, and we’ve been hinting at those rhythms for years. With the previous two records [2015’s Volume and 2018’s Big Tings] a lot of that was lost for whatever reason, so I’m glad [on Smile] it’s represented at a time when diversity is being celebrated.”

Arya is of the mind that Skindred are able to be lots of different things to lots of different people, because that’s the way they’ve always been.

“Nobody [from debut album Babylon] doesn’t sound anything like [recent single] L.O.V.E. (Smile Please), but it’s the same bloody band,” he reasons. “There was always this plethora of different kinds of songs. “When L.O.V.E. (Smile Please) came out, I went on YouTube to see who was slagging us off and there was this guy saying, ‘What is this shit? They’ve sold out! They’ve gone reggae!’ That’s someone who clearly hasn’t listened to any of our albums.”

Benji, meanwhile, found Smile to be a more satisfying creative enterprise (“The writing process tasted sweeter to me”), though he won’t be drawn on the peaks and troughs of what’s come before, or even the question of when the recent Skindred renaissance began, because he simply doesn’t think in those terms.

One Wednesday when he was a boy, Benji’s mother suggested they go out together that coming Saturday. They’d look around the shops, she told him, then have a fish and chip dinner. Benji could think of little else when he went to school that day. But that special outing never came. Arriving home later in the afternoon, he learned his mother had died of a heart attack. Half a century on, that loss and the many others that have reminded him how fleeting life is mean he refuses to be anywhere but in the present.

“Fuck everything we’ve ever done,” the frontman exclaims now, sitting in the band’s dressing room with the laser focus of a prize fighter – albeit one decked out in sequins. He’s accompanied by his wife Julie, who he never leaves the house without expressing his love for. “It’s today that’s important to me. You haven’t got tomorrow. You’ve only got the minute you’re in.”

And besides, Smile is bookended by two songs, Our Religion and Unstoppable, that deal specifically with what it means to be in Skindred – something of a first for a band whose lyrical focus has traditionally been on sociopolitical issues, unity, love and loss. With Our Religion, they’ve reminded themselves, and their fans, how far they’ve come – from a band that had doors slammed in their faces early on, to a juggernaut that rubs shoulders with giants.

“We’ve had our struggles,” acknowledges Benji. “But obviously we’re not doing this to be millionaires, because we’re not. This band is our religion and we’ve dedicated our lives to it because we absolutely fucking love it.”

“Obviously we’re not doing this to be millionaires, because we’re not. This band is our religion”

Benji Webbe

Paul Stanley, aged 71, is zip lining some 50 feet above the ground. Mikey Demus, fresh from a support slot that’s undoubtedly brought some KISS fans into the Skindred fold, is taking notes. “People may say, ‘KISS are getting on a bit,’ but for me that’s the sell,” explains Mikey. “These guys are my dad’s age. I couldn’t convince him to come to a show like this as a fan, and these guys are up there in platform shoes, performing all sorts of aerial antics and hitting all the notes. It’s a masterclass in performance.”

It’s a lesson, too, in the fact that when it comes to a career in rock, it really is a marathon rather than a sprint. But, according to Mikey, you have to want to run that marathon.

“We’re all still headed somewhere. We love where we are and are stoked to be doing what we’re doing but we’re still hungry for more. I want what those guys have got,” he says, gesturing towards the men in black and white make-up making dreams come true.

Benji, meanwhile, has long since made his dreams come true. No-one knew that better than his sister, Letty, who, unlike his brothers, was behind Benji’s musical ambitions from the word go. After a childhood characterised by loss, he had begun to feel impervious to heartache, but then five years ago Letty passed away.

“That beat the shit out of me,” Benji says, before revealing that the week before she died, Letty went to a Skindred show in Bristol. Afterwards, she threw her arms around her brother and congratulated him for living his dreams uncompromisingly. “She said, [Benji’s birth name] ‘Clive Webbe, you got what you wanted – you sing, you scream, you call people c**ts and you get paid for it.’”

Those aren’t the only hallmarks of a Skindred performance, of course. After tonight’s set, as is the case after every set, the band congregate at the lip of the stage and have their picture taken with the audience cheering behind them. Somewhere, then, there must be thousands of images like this, moments of triumph and togetherness lost in time but captured for posterity.

What happens, Kerrang! wonders, when that photo collection one day ceases to grow?

“Funny you should ask that…” says Benji.

The other day, the singer hired a driver who specialises in taxiing people in the music industry. In the course of their journey together, trading pleasantries, the driver turned to his famous passenger and enquired about his post-Skindred plans.

“He asked me, ‘What do you see yourself doing when this is all over?’” Benji recalls with audible incredulity. “I replied, ‘What the fuck are you talking about, bro?! I’m going to be this guy forever. It’s ’til death us do part!’”

Arya is similarly steadfast in his belief there’s a long way still to go, because Skindred have been misunderstood, and in some quarters maligned, for years. The drummer has been known to respond to snarky comments about his band on social media, more to surprise the troll in question than to settle scores, but it’s an older bit of feedback that really pissed him off.

“I remember this snotty little fucking review,” Arya begins, mentioning no publications. “They discussed Benji’s age as a negative and a reason to write us off. The thing is, that was 15 years ago and he was the age I am now when that was written. Plus [Benji] is still just as good now as he was then.”

A new generation is finding that out for themselves via TikTok, a channel that’s embraced Skindred, and seen their music be embraced in turn. And while Benji is the first to admit he doesn’t fully understand the channel, there’s one cultural benefit he’s particularly appreciative of.

“What I love most is that people with mixed heritage will jump on and say, ‘This is a song for my mum and my dad, this music appeals to the blackness in me and the whiteness in me,’” says Benji. “People saying this is something that really stands for me.”

It’s for this reason and more that Arya considers Skindred to be “The People’s Headliner” partway through a career in which albums and shows are glorious destinations along the way, and disagreements are mere distractions. “It’s the journey that’s important,” Arya suggests.

It’s a journey, it turns out, that will next year include three massive shows under their own banner, including a date at Wembley Arena.

Long live The People’s Headliner.

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