Robin Campbell, guitarist and founder member of the band UB40 chats with Kevin Cooper about the death of their saxophonist and friend Brian Travers, UB40’s new lead singer Matt Doyle, their latest album Bigga Baggariddim and their forthcoming 2022 UK Tour.

Robin Campbell is a guitarist and founder member of the English reggae and pop band UB40, who were formed in December 1978 in Birmingham.

The band has had more than fifty singles in the UK singles chart. They have also achieved considerable international success, having sold over 70 million records worldwide.

UB40 was proud of itself on the ethnic makeup of the band’s original line up which was very diverse, with musicians of English, Welsh, Irish, Jamaican, Scottish and Yemeni parentage.

The origins of UB40 began in 1978 when Ali Campbell got together with some of his friends. His brother Robin Campbell was initially reluctant to join the band but was persuaded to do so later the same year after he had bought a guitar. At the time of joining the band, Robin was an apprentice tool maker.

In 1988 UB40 performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert held at Wembley Stadium in London.

In January 2008, it was announced that Ali Campbell would be leaving the group after thirty years. Mickey Virtue departed shortly afterwards to join Ali. Astro also left in 2013 to join them.

When Ali left, elder brother Duncan joined to take over lead vocals but he retired in June 2021 following a stroke. He was replaced by Matt Doyle of fellow Birmingham reggae band Kioko.

Whilst busy preparing for their UK tour, Robin Campbell took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Robin, good morning. How are you today?

I’m very well thanks Kevin, how are you?

All is good thank you, and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries, no worries at all. It’s always good to catch up with you.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

I have to be honest with you and say that everything is fine. However, having said that, I’m a little bit on edge at the moment, simply because we are about to start our first tour in almost three years (laughter). It’s all a bit up in the air and it’s all a bit nerve wracking, because we haven’t done one for so long. But to be totally honest with you, we are all dying to get back out there really.

I imagine that you are all chomping at the bit to get back out there especially after lockdown?

Absolutely, yes. When it first happened it was like a holiday for about the first ten minutes. It was a case of ‘this is good; I quite like this’ (laughter). But, as you most probably know yourself, it doesn’t take long for your thumbs to start twiddling, and everything to start itching. And then when it started to feel like you were being imprisoned, it was at that point that you started to resent it. What people don’t realise is that we didn’t earn a penny for well over two years. We actually got lent money by our promoter out of which we paid ourselves over the last two and a half years so we now find ourselves in debt to our promoter (laughter). In all honesty, I have to say that the past couple of years have been total mayhem.

We started touring in 2019. We did our first few shows of the British tour at the end of 2019. During the whole of 2019 we played a hundred and eight gigs; it was our usual busy year, and we had the album that we were promoting and all of that, and it just got stopped, almost overnight. I think that these British dates now are well into the third time that they have been rescheduled. It’s a bloody nightmare. In fact I wouldn’t blame anybody for not buying tickets really. People are so pissed off; don’t get me wrong it’s not just the tickets because you can always get a refund on the tickets, but you have to remember that people travel to gigs, they book hotels, and all that kind of stuff.

They never get their money back on hotels. We have just constantly got people coming onto Facebook and Twitter and whatever else, moaning that they have spent money and they have still not seen a gig in over two years. It really does get embarrassing, and I am just hoping that this is it and that we are back to normal now. On our Facebook page we have people saying that they still haven’t had their tickets sent out to them by Ticketmaster or whoever. They tell us that they are worried because the gig is close but they still haven’t had their tickets sent out to them yet; it’s a bloody nightmare.

The most annoying thing in all of this is that, yet again, we were given absolutely no advice or guidance from the government whatsoever.

That’s right, absolutely nothing. There was no help for any of the creative arts really. I’m not just talking about bands or management, but all of the people who work on the road, the technicians, all the roadies, lighting men, all the drivers; everybody got left high and dry. Members of our crew were affected, because obviously we couldn’t afford to pay them. We are not in a situation where we can afford to pay retainers anymore; half of our crew were getting jobs bloody driving for Amazon and people like that. It really was dreadful. One of our guys was working as a pizza delivery driver simply because he couldn’t find anything else.

We have briefly mentioned lockdown, what did you do to stay sane?

(Laughter) was that safe or sane. To be honest, I really did become a hermit for a while. We saw nobody, we kept to our own little bubble, and at one point we weren’t even mixing with family when the virus was at its peak. We were all terrified of infecting each other. So, for a long while all there seemed to be to do was eat (laughter). Then, when we did start working on the collaboration album we had to do all of that digitally, because you can now send stuff across the airwaves very easily (laughter). People were recording their parts and then sending the files back, which I have to say I found to be a really easy way of working.

At that time there were two or three of us in the studio, and we just kept it that way. We kept a safe distance from each other. I didn’t see a member of the band, other than on Zoom. I didn’t see anyone in person for months and months which was really the only way to stay safe, I guess. Touch wood, I haven’t had the virus but I think that at least four members of the band have all had Covid at some point, over the last couple of years. Some of them had cold like symptoms whilst others were really quite poorly. An engineer friend of mine, who kept telling me that Covid was fake, and that it was all a hoax ended up in a coma.

It astonishes me when you still hear people saying that Covid is all bullshit manufactured by the government. Just take a look at the figures.

I know, it’s incredible. Funnily enough, I was reading one last night as it happens. It was from someone who has sent me a friend’s request. He told me that he was a massive fan and was really nice about the band, but then I went and looked at his Facebook page to see what he was like and there he was spouting absolute drivel about how we are all fools in believing that there was ever a virus (laughter). It really is unbelievable.

Moving forward, in August 2021 we sadly lost Brian Travers, one of the original founder members of UB40. How hard was it or is it for you to carry on without him?

It’s massively hard for us to live with the fact that Brian is never going to be there again. All the time that he was ill, we were almost prepared for it. He had a long battle; he was fighting the tumours for at least two and a half years, and we just kept hoping, even though we all knew, we were all hoping that he would come back. We all hoped that at some point he would come back and say, “I’m here guys, I’m alright”. Brian was given the all clear several times and then, of course, as with brain tumours so often do, they just kept returning. It’s horrible. The thing is that you think that you are prepared, but in reality you never are.

I was quite surprised at how emotionally it knocked me sideways because I really thought that I had prepared myself for the inevitable, but when it happened, I really was quite shocked at just how much it affected me. I still miss him; we are always going to miss him. I think that I have been quoted a million times saying that there is a giant Brian shaped hole in the band and there always will be. It is impossible to replace him. Obviously, we have got another sax player, but we are not replacing Brian, we are just replacing the sax.

And just how are things with Duncan (Campbell)?

What can I say; physically Duncan is in fine shape. You would never know by looking at him that he had ever had a stroke. He’s not limping, he doesn’t have any numb parts, he hasn’t got any facial drooping or anything like that. He looks absolutely normal as if he has never had a stroke. He walks normally, he speaks normally, and as I say, physically he is in fine shape. But he is still dealing with his cognitive problems; his memory is bloody awful. Duncan and I sat in a studio together for four weeks; we went through the songs over and over, we went through the set list, whilst we played backing tracks and we sang together and he was singing really great. You would never know that he had had a stroke; he was in fine voice and singing beautifully but, he would simply forget where he was. He would forget what part of the song he was on, or what verse. He couldn’t remember lyrics so we had an autocue for him.

But even then, he would get involved in the song and not look at the autocue and he would lose where he was. I just kept saying to him, “just keep going, keep practicing and it will come back” and I have to say that he was improving. Everything seemed to be going alright, and I have to say that I was actually quite relieved, but then one day he just said to me, “I can’t do it, I’m going to have to stop”. More than anything he was terrified of letting us down. He was terrified of blowing it whilst on stage and in front of an audience, letting us and the fans down. He was simply terrified of that happening. At that point Duncan said to me, “I’m sorry, I simply can’t continue” and I have to say that he was very upset about it. He came to that conclusion himself, telling me that he felt that he needed to take the time out, to step back, and work on himself and his recovery. That was obviously a decision that we all totally supported and fully understood and that left us with our Plan B (laughter).

On the subject of Plan B, once Duncan had taken the decision to step away from the band, how difficult was it for you to find a new lead singer or did you already have Matt (Doyle) in mind?

Being totally honest with you, I already had Matt in mind. When we did the collaboration album back in 2020, we recorded a track with Matt as Kioko’s lead singer. He came into the studio and did a vocal over one of our backing tracks, and I have to say that I was very impressed with him. We had already done about forty odd shows with them in the UK and around Europe, and we had all become good friends anyway. When I worked with Matt in the studio, I just thought, ‘this boy can sing, he has a lot of talent and he shows a lot of promise’ (laughter). I actually thought then that if Duncan ever decided that he didn’t want to continue, then this is the kid that I would go to. And that was before Duncan had the stroke.

I was just thinking that because his voice is so good, I just thought that he would fit in great, plus he is a raving UB40 fan. He knows all of the songs; he has been singing them since he was a child, he tells us stories about how he would sit in the backseat of his parents car, singing along to UB40 songs for as long as he can remember. Obviously, some of the records were made before he was born (laughter). His parents were big fans of the band, and I have to tell you that he is actually Norman Hassan, our percussionist’s nephew (laughter). So, we have kept it in the family again (laughter). It really was fate when Duncan did have the stroke and then, some months later, told us all that he was retiring. I already had Matt in mind.

When you offered Matt the position, how long did it take him to say yes?

It was immediate (laughter). He said, “of course, I would love to” and I said what about Kioko and he said, “they are my best friends, all that they will do is wish me the very best” and I said, “are you sure, you are dumping them and there is no way that you can work with both bands, you are either with us or you are not” and Matt said, “no, no I understand that, and so will they”. I thought, ‘you have got a lot of faith in your mates’, and to be honest, they all hugged him, and they all wished him the very best. They even put a message up on Facebook where they said, “we wish our mate Matt all the very best with UB40”. I really was blown away with just how magnanimous they all were. It really was lovely.

A cheeky question for you, what does Matt bring to UB40 other than youth?

(Laughter) well if you hadn’t have said “other than youth” I would have said youth, because that is absolutely what he brings. Just like Duncan reinvigorated the band when he came, his wide-eyed enthusiasm absolutely reinvigorated us, because he was thoroughly enjoying himself and it’s the same with Matt. We did actually play a few shows last summer with Matt; we played a couple of festivals, maybe four, so he has already had the baptism of fire (laughter). We dropped him into the water, and he has done it, so he has got over that. You mentioned earlier that we should be chomping at the bit, which is exactly what Matt is like now; he really is desperate to get out there.

He has had so many well wishes from our fans that saw him at the festivals, and they have all said, “you sound great”. I know that this will sound really weird, but our voices really do blend together. We have recently done some recording and we actually wrote a song for The Commonwealth Games together, so we have recorded together now, and it’s amazing just how well our voices blend. We could be brothers (laughter) but let’s not go there because we are not (laughter).

Has Matt settled in as well as you would have expected?

Yes, he has, he is totally settled. There was absolutely no descent when I suggested bringing Matt into the group from any of the other members. Every one of them said, “great idea”. We had at that point all heard him sing on the collaboration album, we had all heard him singing over our backing track. So, that was the new sound of UB40 if you like.

Are you treating this as a new chapter in the UB40 story?

Yes, absolutely. In fact we are thinking of re-recording some of our old material with Matt, just out of interest, just for the fun of it. Matt’s voice sounds so good, and we don’t own the back catalogue anymore, any of the old stuff, so it would be very interesting to re-record some of the old original stuff.

And Matt also writes too?

Yes, he does and that really is a bonus. We wrote the song for The Commonwealth Games together, which is called Champion. I originally bought the idea to the band. It was a lyric that I had written, which is about competition and being the best that you can be, and all that kind of stuff, and Matt wrote an extra part for it. He came back the following day and said, “I have written something else” (laughter). He does write songs anyway, he was one of the writers in Kioko, and he really is desperate to do some original stuff.

You released your latest album Bigga Baggariddim last year and I have to say that I love it.

Thank you, that is so nice to hear. As you know, I love working with other people anyway, especially over our stuff, over our music; I love listening to other people’s interpretations of just what can be put over our music. I really do enjoy doing that and I find it fascinating. Some of the stuff that we got back, it is such an eclectic album, because the artists are so different, and they really do vary in age, from Winston Francis who was making records in the sixties, to Inner Circle who have been going even longer than we have, to the new kids, people like Leno Banton and Blvk H3ro, people like that who are in their twenties.

To have all of that different approach over our music, I have just had a whale of a time (laughter). I think that the stuff that House Of Shem sent us back from New Zealand is just world class. Like we did with everybody, we sent them three backing tracks out and asked them to pick one and write a song for us, if they were interested, and everybody sent one back, except House Oof Shem who sent three back (laughter). We loved all three so much that we actually used them.

Well at the moment I’ve got four go to tracks which are On The Road, Rebel Love, Did You See That and You Don’t Call Me Anymore. I think that they are fantastic.

Wow, and none of those are House Of Shem tracks (laughter). On The Road is TippaIrie, Rebel Love is Inner Circle, Did You See That is Pablo Rider and You Don’t Call Anymore is Kioko. Pablo is one of the artists off the original Baggariddim album which we did back in 1985/86. That was the kind of inspiration for it. The original Baggariddim album which we did in the 80’s was almost all made up of Birmingham artists; Birmingham rap artists apart from I Got You Babe which we did with Chrissie (Hynde) but the rest of it was all Birmingham acts. We even managed to introduce Panto Banton to the world.

So, that was the idea because we were so happy with the For The Many album, which is what we were touring in 2019 and while we were touring we were saying, “wouldn’t it be good to do a collaborations album using this album as the backing”. Everyone was up for it, and then of course Covid happened. So, whilst we were in lockdown we thought, ‘instead of talking about it why don’t we get on and do it’ (laughter). The idea was for us to send out tracks around the world to different people who we have met and worked with over the years, and hopefully get something back. Absolutely everybody who we sent stuff out to all sent us something back.

Will the forthcoming tour be to promote the Bigga Baggariddim album, albeit slightly belated due to Covid?

Well, it will be different in every territory won’t it. When we are in New Zealand we will definitely have House Of Shem coming along, guesting for us and doing a few numbers. In the UK, believe it or not, we will have Pablo Rider with us, so he will be doing Did You See That, but he will also be doing I’m Alright Jack which was Duncan’s song on For The Many. Pablo did a guest rap on that. And of course, Matt will be there so we will be doing a version of his Kioko tune (laughter). We could do the original, which is You Haven’t Called Me Yet, but instead of that we are going to do the Kioko version and then go into the Gilly G version which is the rap which he did on our original version.

So, as you can see, we are going to mix it up; we are going to do some stuff off Bigga Baggariddim obviously, as that is the album that we are supposed to be promoting, even though it is a year old now (laughter). And, of course, we will resurrect a few of the old favourites, some of which we haven’t played for a while which is something that we always try to do. And we will also be playing the songs that we absolutely have to play. The more casual fans must hear Red, Red, Wine and (I Can’t Help) Falling In Love With You, Kingston Town, those are the kind of songs that you have to play for the more casual fans; they are the records that they want to hear.

Do you mean the fans that are stuck in the past by any chance?

(Laughter) that is so right and then you have the hard core fans who want to hear your latest stuff together with the more obscure records from the past. So, you try and mix it up, you try to keep everybody happy, and you try to make it a party that everyone will know and everyone will sing and dance to. If they don’t know it, hopefully they will still dance and enjoy themselves. What you have to remember is that you can’t keep everyone happy. There is always somebody who will come up to me at the end of the gig and say, “you didn’t play my favourite” (laughter).

Were you happy with the fan’s reaction to the album?

Yes, I was, and I have to say that the fan’s reaction has been absolutely fantastic. It’s a real shame though that we can’t get any bloody airplay. The BBC seem to have decided that we are too old, or something, I don’t know. The only thing that I will say is that the charts do not mean a thing now. If you have got a label working you, if you have got a name then you will get a hit record. People today can get a number one hit by selling only ten thousand copies. Having a number one record doesn’t mean anything anymore. All that it means is that you have sold more records than anybody else that week. The problem is that nobody is selling anything anymore so for most part it means nothing. It’s not like twenty years ago having a number one; back then it was massive, and it gave it some longevity whereas now it goes in at number one and it is number thirty-three the next week (laughter).

Are there any thoughts on a new studio album?

As I mentioned earlier we are thinking about re-recording some of the old stuff with Matt and I am current working on that now. Again, Matt is really up for it, so watch this space.

How did you get to play the part of the house band in the movie Speed 2: Cruise Control?

(Hysterical laughter) I have absolutely no idea how we got it. I think that we got invited along, it was that simple. We met Sandra Bullock and she claimed that she had got us the job but then her co-star Jason Patric he claimed it as well (laughter). I think that they were just having fun with us. So, in answer to your question, I have no idea. I think that the offer came through the record company, who were Virgin at the time, and they just said, “do you fancy it” and who wouldn’t want to be in a Hollywood movie (laughter). I have to say they treated us wonderfully, for us it was like a little holiday, and they bought us all suits. They sent us with a blank cheque down to Armani and we really did have a ball (laughter). And then there we were on stage playing on a sinking ship; it was like playing on the Titanic.

On that note Robin, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been delightful as usual.

It’s always an absolute pleasure Kevin. You take care and I will see you up there in Nottingham at Rock City. Bye for now.