Skindred’s Benji Webbe: “What do I put longevity down to? I can’t get that magic anywhere else…”
The moment that kick-started Benji Webbe’s life changing for the better didn’t seem positive at the time. It happened at Reading Festival 2018, following a triumphant main stage set from Skindred, a band with a distinguished pedigree when it comes to live performances. Moments after leading 40,000 fans through closing track Warning, complete with the T‑shirts-over-the-head revelry of trademark move ‘The Newport Helicopter’, the frontman was greeted by his hulking son, Barrington, whose words of praise were tempered by a rather sobering observation.
“He said it was a killer show but that I looked like a fat fuck up there,” Benji recalls today. “I was having a good vibe but then this fucking prick kid of mine telling me I need to stop eating shit. I said ‘Fuck you’ and that I didn’t care, but it stayed with me.”
Later that same year, Benji asked his children what they’d like for Christmas. Barrington, who happens to be a personal trainer, wanted his dad to ‘give’ him three months of his life so he could help him with his diet and exercise, and if he didn’t like what he saw after that time, he’d drop the issue altogether. Benji relented and the three months began on January 1, 2019. More than two years later, Benji has lost five stone and exercises six days a week.
He used to cycle most days around his native Newport, changing his route to keep things interesting on his 15 mile trips. Sometimes he’d go past St. Joseph’s Boxing Club. In the mid-’00s, that’s where the Skindred line-up we know now – completed by guitarist Mikey Demus, bassist Dan Pugsley and drummer Arya Goggin – would tirelessly rehearse in the basement of the gym. It’s where they honed the tunes they’d fly to America to record their 2007 second album, the recently reissued Roots Rock Riot. (The band’s most recent album, their seventh, Big Tings, also celebrated its third anniversary).
Benji isn’t cycling now, though. Days before this chat, his ride was interrupted by a police diversion following a major accident. It was only later he discovered that the son of a friend had been killed while cycling. “It’s a fucking terrible loss,” says Benji, who, understandably, hasn’t been on his bike since. Now he’s walking or running in his efforts to be “show fit” for the return of live music. “I’m treating it like someone’s going to suddenly call me up and say: ‘You’ve got a show on Saturday.’”
As much as Benji is looking forward to doing what he does best once again, he’s not afraid to peer over his shoulder to reflect on what’s come before, whether good or bad. “I’m very comfortable with the past, mistakes and all. In the present you have to deal with things, but if it’s in the past there’s fuck all you can do, so there’s no point moping about it.”
This self-proclaimed “lucky motherfucker” and grandfather of 14, who admits to acting like a frontman even when he goes to Asda, is an unpredictable interviewee. Despite being in the business for almost 30 years, he’s not one to fall back on well rehearsed stories and trite soundbites but shoots from the hip with answers that are funny, indiscreet and often very rude. It’s inspirational stuff, too, illustrating the importance of self-belief and music’s role as a bottomless fuel for empowerment.
“What do I put the longevity down to?” he ponders as we begin. “I can’t get that magic anywhere else.”
Your birth name is Clive. Does anyone still call you that?
“Benji is a name that my rasta mates started calling me when I was about 15 and it caught on. I don’t mind people calling me Clive if they were at school with me. But if a fan of Skindred learns on Wikipedia my name is Clive and calls me Clive, I’ll call them a c**t. That’s overfamiliarity.”
How would you describe your childhood?
“I grew up in a very loving, caring home with four siblings. Until the age of seven, I was in a solid family unit, with a mother working and a father working, but when my mother passed away a lot of things changed. I became quite unruly. When I was 13, my father died and after that I was like a feral cat.”
What qualities did you get from your parents?
“I got loyalty from my father and madness from my mother.”
“My mother was crazy as fuck, or so they tell me. Having lost her when I was seven, I sometimes think I remember things about her and then realise it’s what other people have told me. What I do know is that if she thought someone was being racist to her, she would drop a bomb on them real quick. My mother was light skinned and a lot of people would have mistaken her for white, but she would tell people if they were being rude, which I love about her. My dad would take it a little more, as he was born in the West Indies. But my mum was born in Wales, so she wouldn’t.”
What’s your first musical memory?
“It was cartoons – the music from stuff like Wacky Racers. I’m pretty sure the first record I ever got was the theme from Scooby Doo, which my brother’s girlfriend got for me on vinyl.”
What music resonated with you as your tastes matured?
“The Jackson 5 hit home. So did James Brown. I was torn between two lovers, though, wasn’t I? I was a black kid thinking I had to be black, but at the same time I was haunted by the music of David Bowie, T‑Rex and Slade, which felt as good as any reggae stuff I was listening to. I always thought I’d have to pick a side one day, musically, but then I got rebellious and did what I wanted to do.”
Did you get stick from your black mates for your love of rock?
“Believe me, I still do! They still ask me if I bite off rabbit heads and chicken heads onstage and stupid shit like that.”
When did heavier music enter your life?
“It was very alien at first. As far as I was concerned I didn’t want to play reggae anymore because I’d been ripped off so many times. When I met Jeff [Rose, Dub War guitarist] and Ginge [Martin Ford, drummer], they encouraged me to try some dancehall to go with the punk stuff. When I eventually tried it, it was like that Charlie Chaplin moment where he found the moustache and the hat – it just felt right and lit things up.”
Dub War had their fair share of famous fans. Is it true that Liam Gallagher was into your stuff?
“Noel, too. The first time I met Noel was backstage at a festival. I went up to him and he said, ‘(Adopts Manchester accent) Alright mate – Dub War, innit?’ which was fucking cool. Liam always bigs me up with the Dub War thing as well. Years back when we first started, I remember Mike Bordin from Faith No More saying he was heavily into Dub War. During lockdown we’ve written another Dub War album, our third, and we’ve asked different drummers to play on it, one of which is Mike Bordin!”
Is it true Ian Brown was going to be on Skindred’s fifth album, Kill The Power?
“He was supposed to do something on the album but then signed a deal for a new Stone Roses album that they didn’t end up making in the end. How do I know him? I’ve got his number in my phonebook, let’s leave it at that.”
Ian Brown came in for some stick for his views on coronavirus conspiracies. Do you think there are some topics musicians shouldn’t weigh in on?
“I think they should weigh in on every topic, and if they’ve got balls they’ll take the stick if people don’t like what they’ve got to say.”
Dub War are back making records now but they split in 1999. What went wrong back then?
“We were supposed to go into the studio and do a third album but the label dropped the budget. A couple of the band’s members were angry. I was on tour with Soulfly at the time and was backstage with one of the reps from the label who told me they’d got a letter from Jeff and Ginge resigning from the band. I acted like I knew, but I didn’t. It was a shock.”
Then you tried to convince the label to let you record a hip-hop solo album…
“I wanted to do a Wu-Tang Clan, New York breakbeat kind of thing. I recorded about six songs and sent them to [the label] but they rejected them. I was cool with it. I’ve still got the songs somewhere. Will they see the light of day? Maybe some lyrics and melodies here and there, but the music would be very different now.”
The supergroup Mass Mental has been a big part of your life and features some famous names, including Metallica’s Robert Trujilo. How did it start up?
“I was on tour with Dub War in Australia, playing in a small club in Sydney. Me and Richie [Glover, Dub War bassist] were in some broom cupboard getting changed to go onstage when the door opens. There’s this little Mexican guy with long hair standing in the doorway who says, ‘Hey man, I’m a big fan.’ I replied, ‘Cool mate, we’ll be onstage soon, give us a minute,’ and he walks out. After the show, this same guy comes back again and tells us he plays bass in Infectious Grooves. At that point Richie recognised him as Robert Trujilo.
“Robert said he had a project with a couple of different vocalists and asked if I’d like to sing on it, so I told him to send me the track. This is before MP3s, so Robert had to make a tape in Los Angeles and send it to my house in Wales, which took about two months. There were six songs on the tape, and because I’m greedy I sang on all of them. When Robert heard them he said I had to get to LA as soon as possible to work on a project called Mass Mental. But when I got there Whit[field] Crane [Ugly Kid Joe singer] was there, too.”
Was he not supposed to be?
“Robert told him he wasn’t in the band anymore but Whit wouldn’t have any of it, saying, ‘Fuck you, I’m still in the band!’ He wouldn’t stop coming to rehearsals, which is totally Whit Crane, so that’s why Mass Mental has two singers.”
Are there plans for more in future?
“Robert calls me at least once a year saying, ‘We need to do some jams,’ but then I don’t hear from him for another year. It could happen one day but I’m not holding my breath.”
Is the Robert who’s now in Metallica the same guy from all those years ago?
“I’ve known people join much smaller bands than Metallica and become arseholes, but Robert is exactly the same dude. If he can help me, he’ll help me. There’s no ego to him. That same guy I wanted to throw out of that dressing room in Sydney all those years ago is now in the biggest band in the world, so be careful how you treat people!”
Did forming Skindred feel like a fresh start, or were you cautious after how things went with Dub War?
“Things went a bit wrong early in Skindred too because Ginge, who was originally in the band, quit again. Before he left, though, he told me about a band called Torna‑K and that they had a drummer who was fucking wicked. That guy was Arya, who’s been in Skindred ever since, so there you go.”
Arya and guitarist Mikey Demus cemented the Skindred line-up we know now, alongside you and bassist Dan Pugsley. We understand there was a bit of a culture shock when the two new guys were originally introduced to Newport…
“We rehearsed in the basement of a boxing club, so every day those poor fuckers had to traipse through a gym full of the most intimidating boxers ever. Newport is a place where it’s not what you know it’s who, so [Mikey and Arya] knowing me meant they got away with a lot of shit that they wouldn’t have if they’d come on their own.”
Skindred’s second album, 2007’s Roots Rock Riot, was a bit of a sleeper record, enjoying greater success later on…
“That’s a sleeper record, is it? Well that description sounds like everything I’ve ever fucking done!”
Do you feel like someone who doesn’t always get the appreciation at the time, then?
“Definitely! I should be on Celebrity Mastermind or Sunday Brunch, where you see all those stupid arseholes that no-one’s ever heard of. They don’t give me no love, the motherfuckers. I think I’m as much of a celebrity as some of those people.”
What are your memories of recording Roots Rock Riot?
“I was excited because Mikey and Arya had joined the band and transformed into these ragga-punk-rockers, embracing the vibe and coming with the goods. So I was excited to get to Florida and make the album. I was going through a lot myself, getting divorced, which would weigh heavy on anyone. But we made a great record. It wasn’t easy because nothing’s ever easy, but it was exciting.”
In 2006, you were one of several vocalists who stepped in to perform with Korn at Download, after Jonathan Davis became ill. How surreal was that day?
“I saw [Korn bassist] Fieldy looking all worried. He told me what had happened and asked if I’d sing two songs with Korn. Fieldy asked what I wanted to sing and I said A.D.I.D.A.S. and Twist. So we went to meet everyone and go through the songs and it was like a dream. There was Corey Taylor, Dez from DevilDriver, M. Shadows from Avenged Sevenfold, plus [Korn guitarist] Munky. Everyone tried out their songs in front of each other, and when it came time for M. Shadows to do a song, I said: ‘You ain’t happening, bro’, which I shouldn’t have said as I was just taking the piss.”
How come you ended up only doing one song with Korn, not two?
“I thought that if I bombed and 80,000 metal fans started calling me a wanker and throwing piss at me, it wouldn’t be fun having to do a second song. So I thought I’d just do A.D.I.D.A.S., but it went down so well I wish I’d done another one.”
You’ve had some non-musical ventures recently, including a children’s book called Colin The Coolest Kitten…
“When my kids were little, I’d pick up their books and because I was a shit reader, I’d make a story up on the spot. About a year ago, my granddaughter, who’s always in trouble, was in bed after being naughty. I called her and asked if she’d like a story, so on WhatsApp I sent her voice notes with the tale of Colin The Coolest Kitten. Listening back to it, I thought it was pretty cool, so I found an illustrator and we made it.”
You’ve turned your hand to a lot of different stuff, but what’s on your list of creative things you’d like to try but haven’t yet?
“I want to be a badman Welsh yardie gangster in a Guy Richie movie. And I’d be so memorable that afterwards people would look at me the way they do Joe Pesci.”
Do you have any acting experience?
“I’ve been acting for years – it’s called being in a band.”
Does it feel like something you step in and out of, then?
“I used to play a role in the band but now that role is me. The role took over. I don’t know when it did but I know it came from having people tell me our music has helped them. Empowering others is definitely more important than being in a band.”
Skindred’s Roots Rock Riot reissue is out now. The band will tour the UK in September and October.
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