Astro, (seen here in the centre), English musician, rapper and toaster with Ali Campbell’s UB40, chats with Kevin Cooper about the origins of the name Astro, why hell will have to freeze over before there will be a full UB40 reunion, their latest UB40 Unplugged album and performing at next year’s Newark Riverside Festival.
Astro, (real name Terence Wilson) is an English musician, rapper and toaster, who is a member of Ali Campbell’s UB40.
UB40’s line-up had been stable for nearly 29 years, from March 1979 until January 2008, when front man Ali Campbell left the band; followed shortly thereafter by keyboardist Mickey Virtue. Astro, remained with the band until November 2013, but then left to team up with Campbell and Virtue in a new version of UB40. In 2014, legal advice was sought by the original band (now consisting of remaining co-founding members drummer Jimmy Brown, guitarist Robin Campbell, bassist Earl Falconer, percussionist Norman Hassan, and saxophonist Brian Travers, along with new vocalist Duncan Campbell) against the group containing Campbell, Virtue, and Astro over usage of the band name, due to it being used by both parties. That legal battle is currently before the courts for determination.
With UB40 having had 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart culminating in over 70 million records being sold worldwide, they have an enormous catalogue of songs which includes fans favourites, Red Red Wine and Can’t Help Falling In Love. Their two most successful albums, Labour Of Love (1983) and Promises And Lies (1993), reached number one on the UK Albums Chart.
Whilst preparing to perform in New Zealand in the New Year, Astro took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say
Astro how are you?
Hi Kevin, I’m not so bad, how are you today?
I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
No problem, no problem at all, it’s my pleasure.
I have to tell you that I have tried to get hold of you a couple of times now but I have always been lumbered with Ali (laughter).
Oh, well you have had the rest now why not have the best (laughter).
How’s life treating you?
Life at the moment is great to be honest with you. We have been on tour for the last eighteen months, working more or less nonstop. We have been around the world twice and it is pretty much still ongoing. We have managed to get most of December off but then we are off back on the road on the 27th December ready for a New Year’s gig over in New Zealand.
It’s a hard life but somebody has got to do it (laughter).
Well this is it, what can I say, I’ve got broad shoulders (laughter). I will just have to take one for the team.
I have to ask you before we move on, where did the name Astro come from?
It was a name that I was given as a kid. I always wore a pair of Doctor Martin boots everywhere that I went and the actual model name of the boots was Astronaut’s. Fortunately, no one called me astronaut because it is rather a mouth full so they shortened it to Astro and it has stuck ever since.
You are heading up this way to play the Newark Riverside Festival on Saturday 17th June, are you looking forward to that?
Yes I am, I really can’t wait. It is a few days before my birthday but I will be kicking up my heels in Newark, trust me.
It looks to be a great line-up with yourselves, Level 42 and The Original Wailers.
Yes it does, what a great line-up and don’t forget the new band from Jamaica called Raging Fyah. They are a roots-rock outfit; all youngsters from Jamaica who play real reggae and not dance hall. They also sing cool concert lyrics which is brilliant. They don’t sing about guns, murder, violence and gangs which is also great. They are a really good refreshing change. Overall, it’s a great line up and I really do think that the crowd are going to enjoy themselves.
Does touring still give you that buzz?
Oh yes, most definitely. There is no job on this planet that gives you the job satisfaction that I get. I live to be on stage. I have got the attention span of an ant when we are in the studio; I really do hate being in the studio. I know that it is a necessary evil but I crave a reaction straight away. You might be recording something in the studio that you think is the best thing since sliced bread but until the public hear it, it is only then that you know whether it is good or not. It is the public that decide whether the song will be a hit or a flop. So my ideal situation would be to be able to record live in front of an audience where I could get that instant reaction whether it be good or bad (laughter).
If it is bad then you can stop and pursue something else and if it is good then you know that you are on the right track. But in answer to your question I never ever get tired of coming out onto the stage. It’s my chosen profession; it is what I have always wanted to do since I was a kid. However, what I will say is that you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Touring would be great if you didn’t have to travel. However, that is the nature of the beast and after doing it for many years now you just have to go into automatic pilot. We have got a saying which is hurry up and wait. You are always rushing here and rushing there and when you finally get there you have still got to wait (laughter).
You hurry to get to the airport and you have still got to wait two hours before your flight takes off. If I am honest with you I could well and truly do without the airport scenario. When we toured around the States we did it on our tour bus which was great because we never had to go to an airport the entire time that we were touring. We just carried on partying on our bus which was just like being at home with your mates (laughter).
You have mentioned the tours, in particular New Zealand and America and they are all sell-outs which must give you a fantastic feeling?
Oh yes very much so, and it is great to see the fans voting with their feet. Everyone is now well aware of the split between us and the Dark Side as we like to call them. People are coming in their droves to see us. We have just done a British tour where we sold out the O2 in London, the NIA in Birmingham, and the 3 Arena in Dublin; everywhere that we have played we have just been smashing them to smithereens. We have had nothing but positive reports so we must be doing something right and as I say, the public have been voting with their feet.
I saw you last year at the Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham and I have to say that it was a great gig.
Well, you don’t have to sound too surprised Kevin (laughter). That is what we are trying to do every time that we play. We can go anywhere in the world, play anywhere in the world and people know all of the songs. There is something there for everybody at our shows. We refuse to go away.
(Laughter) well I have to tell you that I have been following the band since I first saw you supporting The Police at Milton Keynes Bowl way back on the 26th July 1980.
Oh wow, that’s a long time ago now. There was so much rain that day that we called it The Milton Keynes Mud Bowl (laughter). Rockatta D’Mud (hysterical laughter).
You bought up the subject of the split from Dark Side so I have to ask you after thirty years in UB40 was it a difficult decision for you to make to shift sides?
Yes it was, but it was made easier when I heard the vitriol coming from certain other members in the band. Nowadays, I don’t even think about them and I really can’t say what I think about certain members. What I will say is that we know what we want to do, we know that we are helping to popularise reggae music all around the world. That is the mission that we are on. We won’t allow ourselves to be sideswiped by country music (laughter).
Can you ever envisage the day when there will be one UB40 and you will all be back together?
Yes, it will be about ten minutes after hell freezes over (laughter).
You should be careful what you say, you have only to take a look at The Eagles (laughter).
(Laughter) there is not a chance in hell of that ever happening. We are happy as we are and I honestly feel that we have got the happiest band in the world out there on the road at this moment. It would most definitely be a massive step backwards for us if we were to get back with the others. The musicians who we have now got with us have far more experience than the original members because they have only ever been in one band, whereas everybody who is with us now have played with everybody, and I really do mean everybody across the spectrum. They are all masters in their own right. It makes our lives so much easier; we do not have to think about anything else other than going out and having a great time with the audiences. We don’t have to worry about cocking up on stage, it’s just easy peasy lemon squeezy. There are no egos to contend with; it’s simply a pleasure to go to work.
So just how are things between you, Ali and Mickey at the moment?
Things are good, really good. The chemistry is still there together with the old banter. I can still remember when I did my first gig with them at the O2 Indigo in London after I had re-joined the band. When I heard the response from the crowd, re-joining the band for me was just a no-brainer, and I have to say that I haven’t looked back since.
You have just released the UB40 Unplugged album. Was it fun for you to be able to reinvent some of those songs?
It really was actually. However, I have to tell you that we never originally set out to record an unplugged album. We had been asked to play quite a few radio sessions for the BBC but the studios there are very small and could not take an eleven piece band. So what we thought was that it would be far easier for Ali, Mickey and myself to go into the BBC and play an acoustic set for them. We played sets for the late Sir Terry Wogan, Chris Evans, and people like that and each time that we played these sessions we played a couple of different numbers. So by the time that we had finished playing four or five of these sessions we realised that we had an albums worth of material. All that it needed was for us to stick in a couple of our hits and it was ready to go.
Are you happy with just how well it was received, because the fans have gone mad for it?
Oh yes, I am very happy with how it has been received. On the day of its release it went straight into the charts at number seventeen which was just great news within itself. I have been following our fans online and reading their reaction to the album and yes, everybody seems to be loving it.
Are there any thoughts on a new studio album?
Yes there are, we have been talking quite a lot about recording a new studio album but the problem is finding the time to get into the studio and actually do it because we are quite literally around the globe nonstop. We are currently involved in a couple of projects at the minute that we are hoping will come to fruition in the early part of 2017. We are working on a collaboration with the West Coast Reggae Scene and in particular with a band called Revolution. Ali mixed an album a few years ago which never saw the light of day so we have handed them over to the West Coast posse for them to mix after they have put their touch onto them.
We have also sent the same tracks down to the reggae artists in South America for them to put their influence on them, and when it’s all done we will put our little bit on there and then hopefully, by next summer, we will be touring that album around the world before bringing it back to the UK and Europe.
As its coming up to Christmas I wanted to ask you a couple of Christmassy type questions if I may?
Okay go for it.
What was your favourite Christmas gift?
The best gift that I ever received at Christmas was an Aston Martin DB7 (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) couldn’t you have said a nice selection box or something along those lines?
Well you did ask (laughter).
What is your favourite Christmas song?
That’s easy, it has to be Roy Wood and Wizard singing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day.
What would be your perfect Christmas?
My perfect Christmas would be waking up, slipping into my Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, string vest and walking out onto the beach in Jamaica.
On that note Astro let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been fantastic. You take care and I will see you in Newark.
It’s been a pleasure Kevin. You make sure that you come and have a drink with the boys in Newark. Bye for now.