Astro, (seen here in the middle), an English musician, rapper and toaster with UB40, chats with Kevin Cooper about the UB40 name court case, his thoughts about social media, their forthcoming appearance at Sherwood Pines in June and their latest album A Real Labour Of Love.

Astro is an English musician, rapper and toaster was a member of a reggae band from Birmingham called UB40. Formed in 1979, the group embarked upon their Labour Of Love series in 1983 which saw them recording songs such as Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby, Lord Creator’s Kingston Town and they topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with their reggae cover of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine.

By the third Labour Of Love album in 1998, there were fractions amongst the band which saw Ali Campbell and Mickey Virtue leave in 2008. The duo were reunited with Astro when he too left in 2013. Since then they have been touring as UB40 featuring Ali Cambell, Astro and Mickey Virtue.

Releasing their latest album, A Real Labour Of Love, they have explored the songs that defined reggae in the 80s. There are tracks such as Dennis Brown’s How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb included and whilst the first three albums featured the songs that they had grown up listening too, this latest album is actually built around the songs that they were listening to once UB40 were on the road.

With Ali’s instantly recognisable voice being augmented by Astro’s vocal style, Astro has taken the lead on six of the album’s sixteen tracks, particularly on Barrington Levy’s 1984 Here I Come and Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng. The group are now looking forward to taking the new album out on the road, with UK festival appearances lined up for the summer and a UK arena tour planned for 2019.

Whilst preparing for their forthcoming festival appearances, Astro took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Astro good afternoon, how are you?

I’m good thanks in fact I’m as sound as a pound but more to the point how are you doing Kevin?

To be honest I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s no problem, we always have a good natter don’t we (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s right, yes we do. So just how is life treating you?

Well I could grumble but it wouldn’t change anything (laughter). I’m joking with you man, and I have to say that life is good at the moment, in fact life is really good.

That’s good to hear. Now before we go on let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way from the off shall we?

Okay let’s do that.

What is happening with the UB40 court case at the moment?

Nothing to be truthful. Myself, I think that the case is dead in the water. To be honest, Ali (Campbell) Mickey (Virtue) and I aren’t even thinking about them or the case. As I have told you before, there is no way that I would ever go back to the old formation of UB40. I think that we are doing quite well without them; there are no longer any egos for me to contend with and so I am a very happy bunny to be truthful. There is not a cat in hells chance of us ever performing with them again. We are happy as we are and you know if it isn’t broken then don’t fix it.

Well now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the latest album.

Okay, go for it.

Well what can I say, I have been playing A Real Labour Of Love for the past couple of weeks and I have to say that I love it.

Thank you. The funny thing is that I think that it’s great as well (laughter).

How long did it take you to decide which sixteen tracks would make up the album?

To be honest it took Ali and I a couple of weeks while we were sat at the back of the tour bus. Ali came and sat next to me with a pen and some paper in his hands and said “okay, come on, let’s compile A Real Labour Of Love” and that’s how we got started.

Being honest how many tracks did you originally write down?

(Laughter) I think that we originally started with about a hundred and fifteen tracks and then we just had to whittle it down. The problem was that we both kept saying “we can’t make an album without this being on there” but we kept on going and finally whittled it down to just sixteen.

So with the tracks that you left off this album do you have enough material for A Real Labour Of Love Volume Two perhaps?

(Laughter) A Real Labour Of Love Volumes Two, Three, Four and maybe even Volume Five (laughter). There are plenty more tracks where those have just come from. What differentiates this album from the first three of Labour Of Love albums is that the first three albums contained the songs that we grew up listening to. Those were the songs that made us want to play Reggae. However, with A Real Labour Of Love these are the tracks that we were listening to once we had become a recording entity. So we were listening to these tracks at the back of the bus so we have been singing these songs for well over thirty years now.

Enough time has elapsed for us to now be able to record A Real Labour Of Love using material that was contemporary to us at that time. The first three albums were made using material from the Ska and Blue Beat era together with the birth of Reggae. So we feel that A Real Labour Of Love is a natural progression for us; these are the songs that have made us want to continue making records. The 80s was such a golden era for Reggae music, and the artists that were around at that time, such as Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, John Holt; they were all so prolific back in the 80s, so the hardest part was choosing which of their songs we were going to cover.

For example with Dennis Brown, every song that he released was such a massive hit. The same has to be said about John Holt. So once you had singled out an artist whose work you were going to cover, the hardest part was deciding which particular track it was going to be. It was such a mammoth task. That took us more time than compiling the list. However, it soon became easier when we decided to choose some of the songs that we used to sing on the back of the tour bus. So when it came to recording the songs, for us, it was just like falling off a log (laughter). It was most probably one of the easiest recording sessions that we have ever done.

Taking that on board, how long did it take you to record the album?

It only took us four months to get everything recorded which I think is pretty good going for an album with sixteen tracks. We didn’t hang around; once you know what it is that you want to do you just get in there and do it (laughter). Gone are the days when you could spend months in the studio. No one nowadays can afford to spend a thousand pounds a day for any band to doss around for a few months in the studio. If you do all of your homework before you go into the studio then you can just get in there, do it and get out again.

That way it keeps it nice and fresh and you as an artist don’t get bored with it.

Exactly, I totally agree with you. If you have got idle hands then the devil will always find work for them. You could have recorded something that is great but if you have time on your hands no doubt you will start tinkering about with it and you very soon start losing all of its strengths, and the song soon starts to sound weaker. I have always thought that less is more.

Well you must have done something right because the fans absolutely love the album.

That’s right, the fans can’t get enough of it. We are all so very proud of our fans; they have stood behind us with this album. In fact they really have stood behind everything that we have released. I have to say that the response to this album has been fantastic, and I have to say that because of the elephant in the room (laughter).

Correct me if I am wrong but to me it sounds as though you have beefed-up the brass section?

(Laughter) what can I say, you are half right. We still have a three-piece brass section but we have got a good engineer who can beef them up and make it sound as though there is more of them. I do agree with you that they do sound louder on this album. We have found that we really don’t need any more than the three horns that we have. So yes you are right, but no you are wrong if you see what I mean (laughter).

I will take that (laughter). At the moment I have got two go to tracks, Ebony Eyes which was released by The Stylistics back in 1971 and International Herb by Culture which was originally an album track released in 1979.

(Laughter) bloody hell, remind me never to get into an argument with you about music (laughter). I have to say that I personally love both of those tracks too. You are the very first interviewer that has mentioned International Herb so I take my hat off to you sir.

Well if we are taking a moment to mutually pat each other on the back, then let me just say that you have done a fine job on that track young man.

What can I say, thank you (laughter). International Herb was, as you correctly pointed out, originally an album track by Culture which was written by the late Joseph Hill. To be honest with you I have half rewritten that song because there were a few lines that I thought were a little too weak. It just needed to be brought up to date as they were using some old phrases that nobody uses anymore. They would have got lost in translation if I had left them in. So I have brought it up to date and I am as proud as punch with it.

If I had to press you, do you have a favourite track on the album?

That’s like asking a father which is his favourite child.

Yes it is, but it has to be done sometimes (laughter).

Okay, well if push comes to shove, I love everything that I have sung on (laughter). Being serious, I love the opening track Making Love and I think that is a brilliant vocal performance by Ali. That is most probably my favourite track on the album, at the moment. My favourites change from week to week. The more times that I play the album, then the more times I think ‘well I knew that there was something about that song’ (laughter). So my favourites really do change from week to week.

Well that must surely show just how strong an album it is?

That’s the beautiful thing about this album, every single track on there are already hits by the original artists. All that we are trying to do is to bring them to a wider audience. We haven’t made the album for the Reggae fans who have already got the originals. We have made this album for the Reggae fans who didn’t realise that they were Reggae fans and were waiting for these songs to come out. I really am as proud as punch with the album; in fact I’m on cloud nine.

On the subject of Reggae fans I am currently listening to Shaggy and Sting’s offering and I keep thinking ‘why bother’.

(Laughter) really, well all that I can say is that I am glad that I am not the only one. I really do like Shaggy and Sting is a very good mate of mine, but whichever track I listen to I find myself asking ‘are you sure’ (laughter).

You will be playing a huge tour in the summer both abroad and here in the UK. How many of the new songs from the album will make it onto the set list?

At this moment in time I know that at least three of the new songs will be in the set. And no, I am not going to tell you what they are (laughter). I am hoping that by the time we are actually touring we will be playing seven of the new songs. But at the moment there are definitely three in the set.

I wouldn’t ask you to name them for me because I enjoy the surprise too.

Well I have got to keep my powder dry otherwise everyone will know what to expect and then decide not to come to the gigs but instead stay at home and watch us on YouTube (laughter).

Don’t get me started on YouTube because I personally feel that Social Media is ruining live music. Within seconds of you being on stage everyone around the world knows the set list, what you are wearing, what you are up to and it just spoils the whole event for the next audience.

Most definitely. The kids can be there saving up their pocket money waiting to go to the gig, all excited and then the night before someone posts on YouTube exactly what the intro is, what the first number is, the whole set list, it spoils it for the next audience. It’s like going home trying to avoid the football score and someone tells it to you and you think ‘thanks very much mate’. I hate it with a vengeance.

I will be photographing you at Sherwood Pines here in Nottingham on 24th June which I believe is a rather special day for you?

(Laughter) well as it happens that’s my birthday. So that will make the gig that little bit more special for me.

Do you enjoy playing the outdoor gigs?

I love them and the bigger the better. The only thing that pisses me off is the English weather. If the weather is great then there is no better place on the planet to do a gig, especially outdoors. These Forestry Commission gigs are always brilliant but they are dependent upon the weather. We played The Route Of Kings a few years ago now and it was just absolutely brilliant. We were playing in the grounds of castles and stately homes. It is a great day out for families; they can bring a picnic hamper, sprawl out, take in a beautiful day and listen to some live music. I reckon that is a perfect family day out but it is always dependent upon the weather. There is nothing worse than bringing picnic blankets together with a cagoule (laughter).

We were fortunate last year as I photographed you at the Newark Festival and the weather was glorious.

Yes it was, I remember it well.

Do you prefer the larger arena tours or the smaller, more intimate gigs?

No, you can keep the small intimate gigs for The Dark Side (laughter). They have already said that they like playing in smaller venues where you can see the whites of people’s eyes. They can do all of the small clubs and they can leave the O2, the larger festivals and the really big venues to us.

What was the first record that you bought?

That would have been 007 (Shanty Town) by Desmond Dekker and the Aces.

Who did you first see performing live?

That was a big one. I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers at The Bingley Hall in Staffordshire back in 1977.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Grown men don’t cry, do they (laughter). That’s a tough one for me because I am a heartless bastard and I never cry. I haven’t got one because I don’t cry, sorry.

On that note Astro let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been a pleasure. You take care and I will see you here in Nottingham on the 24th June.

Thanks Kevin, it’s been great. Listen come and say hello at the Sherwood Pines gig. I will have a glass of champagne waiting for you. You take care and speak soon.