Skindred’s Benji Webbe: From Newport to Wembley, the Journey of a Reggae Rock Icon

If you were to describe Benji Webbe of the alternative rock/metal/dub/reggae fusion band SKINDRED in one word, it would be EXTRA....

Interview by Victoria Llewelyn

 

If you were to describe Benji Webbe of alternative rock/metal/dub/reggae fusion band SKINDRED in one word it would be EXTRA. Gearing up for the next round of UK shows in March, Benji is as lively and exuberant when chatting from his chaotic home office as you’d ever see him onstage – all beaming smiles, full of stories to tell, and prone to bursting into song at random points during our interview.

 It has been an exceptional time for SKINDRED over the last few months with the success of ‘Smile’ in August 2023 which hit the Number 1 spot on release, going on to support KISS for their final tour arena shows, picking up a MOBO award and in a few weeks’ time performing at the 10,000 capacity OVO Arena in Wembley. SKINDRED’s unique and infectious sound and style strikes a chord with legions of fans old and new, who want to jump on their train and as Benji says – leave your troubles behind, and hopefully they won’t be there when you return’.

 Benji still lives in his beloved hometown of Newport, South Wales, having tried living in Florida and coming back because he missed home.

Skindred by Dean Chalkley

MGM: Benji, your story is quite remarkable, you were born and raised in Newport, South Wales, and from the age of 11 having sadly lost both your parents, were brought up by your older brother Clifford. As you mention onstage, your ambition since childhood was to be a singer in a rock band, and against some heavy odds you achieved your dream. You still live in Newport with your family – what was it like growing up there back then, and what inspired you to pursue this career so determinedly; to create the inimitable brand of music that is exclusive to yourself and SKINDRED?

BW: I left Newport for four or five years once and I wanted to come back, so it must be home. It’s home to me. There’s nothing in this place that draws people or anything like that, but there’s an energy Newport gets. I’ve been here all my life. I’ve never wanted to move away. And when I have, I’ve come straight back.

 By the time I was eleven, my father and mother both passed away. My mother and father, they were really fun. They were the life and soul of the party, then I lost them, and I was suddenly this orphan living with my brother. I think the fact that we had no parents made my brother and my sisters stronger, but I was feral, like a cat! I could do whatever I wanted. Honestly, when I think back to some of the stuff that I got up to as a kid, but I always felt like I wanted to do something with music, that would ‘set the captives free’; to make people think a little more.

 When I listened to The Specials and music like that as a kid, it spoke to me and it gave me a sense of purpose; I loved the way they dressed, the whole thing, and I thought ‘music did that for me’. So, I hope that my music can do that for others. I watched a lot of acts, and I didn’t want to be in a band which was just a band. It’s too easy to be in a rock band or a metal band or a reggae band.  I wanted it all, and fortunately enough, my voice can lend itself to a lot of different flavours. I thought, why should I just stick in one corner with my voice? I want to be this dancehall ragamuffin kind of dude. And I also want to be Tom Jones. I want to be it all. 

 As a musician growing up, I was in a reggae band, and I felt it wasn’t even touching where I wanted to be.  I’m so thankful for the sound system that is SKINDRED because it reaches out to everybody and drags everybody in. I call it the Unity Sound because it brings all nations together under the sun, and that’s what I wanted it to do.

MGM: You have really hit your target with that, as no one else sounds like SKINDRED, and the genre blends that you embrace so fully, that make the band what it is – not many bands could get away with doing that successfully.  Why do you think it works for you?

 BW: Just yesterday, I was watching us online, I found a video of us where we play this reggae song, and then we do some Madness; then we played George Michael’s Last Christmas! The crowd were loving it. There are no rules in music, I always thought that. When people say, Oh, SKINDRED are this or they’re that – well, is there a rule book for music? Because if there is, I’m going to take it and fucking rip it up because I want to do what I want to do!

 If I want to do a little Luther Vandross in the middle of a hardcore song, then I want to do that. There’s no rules. If there was, like I said, I’d rip it up. I would!

 I couldn’t just sit and listen to one particular kind of vocalist or one particular kind of music, just like this room, (gestures towards extremely crowded and messy home office) my mind is pretty eclectic. I love Mario Lanza, and I love Frank Sinatra, but at the same time I love Corey Taylor. To me they’re all the same, and it’s all in there going wild as you can hear in the music.

MGM: It has been an incredible time for SKINDRED over the last few months and that looks set to continue with the three big tour dates in March, shows in Australia and Las Vegas if you please! And we’ll be seeing you back in South Wales this summer at STEELHOUSE festival. Suddenly, SKINDRED are everywhere – what does that feel like for you?

 BW: The social media side is crazy – my niece called me, she said, Uncle Benji, you’re going viral. I said, what are you talking about? What are you on about? She said, everyone’s doing this dance to your song on TikTok! I said, what song? She sent it to me. I thought it was just two or three people. I didn’t realise the wave of people doing this TikTok thing. I mean, TikTok for me is for your breath. You got bad breath, you take a TikTok, you know what I mean? I’m not up on the social media thing. I do enjoy it, but I’m not really that clever on it. My niece dropped that on me, and I had a little go myself, I was pretty crap at it, but I had a go, and I got a couple of kids from the estate to do with me!

 We did a tour with Volbeat, which was fantastic, it took us around England and Europe, and we made some new friends, but it was the KISS tour that really opened the door for us. I was never a big KISS fan – our drummer was doing cartwheels when he found out we were playing with KISS, and I was like, okay, I’m cool with that, the makeup, the costume, blah, blah, blah. Then I watched Kiss night after night. I watched the guys on stage every night and I thought, my God, look at these 75 year old men flying around with bat wings on and seven inch heels.  it gave me some sort of lift. After that tour, it felt like someone opened the door and said, okay, they’ve played with KISS, now come on in. There’s loads of cool shit you’re going to have!

 Getting a number one album – I hoped it would do well, I was expecting number fifteen maybe and I’d have been so happy with that. Then we were sat in the motorway services one day and my bass player said, ‘we’re number fucking one. We’re number one!’ I started crying! I’m in the services, holding my coffee and just crying into it. I didn’t expect it at all.

 I’ve always wanted to be the front guy in a band, and make a success of it, but the success that SKINDRED has had in the last year has been ridiculous. There’s much more to come as well. I really think the doors can open for us now and we can be that heavy metal sound system that takes music to another level and does exactly what we want to do with it.

MGM: SKINDRED are now the proud owners of a MOBO award – this is a huge achievement for a band that have not always been considered applicable or even relevant for MOBO in the past. What are your thoughts on receiving this? Is this an opportunity for you to push rock and metal towards audiences that wouldn’t usually be exposed to it?

BW: When you think of the word MOBO, Music Of Black Origin, my opinion has always been that SKINDRED does make music of black origin, using the elements of Dancehall, and dance music and whatever will make people dance. That’s what we want to do! I always thought the MOBO awards weren’t fair, because they never had an alternative category.  I’ve watched it for years, and last year they got the category in that I wanted, and I thought, yes, they’ve finally done it, but I never even thought about us being included! So yes, it’s a great opportunity to introduce more alternative music.

 The label called us, and they said, you guys are up for a MOBO, and I thought – what? And I didn’t care. But then all of a sudden, I really did care. I wanted to bring the MOBO home to Newport. I want it. I want to bring it home. And the more I said that the more I wanted it. Normally when we get nominated for things, I’m a bit – whatever -, but the MOBO, for some reason, it just had more of a bite to it. It’s in the post (laughs) I haven’t actually got it yet! It’s going to have a nice place in this little back room on the floor over there!

Skindred by Dean Chalkley

MGM: As a solo artist you’ve collaborated with numerous other musicians over the years, including fellow Welsh rising stars Florence Black. Do you look for people you feel you want to work with in particular and what influences these decisions?

BW: Florence Black! In the early days, those boys, they were recording with a friend of mine, Jeff Rose, who plays in a band of mine called Dubwar.  I went to the studio, seen the boys, played with them, and then they supported SKINDRED a couple of times. I always thought I wanted to lend my ear to them because I thought they were a great band, and they had a great future ahead. It’s amazing that they’re doing so well at the moment as well. Big up, Tristan and the boys!!!

 I’ve done hundreds of collaborations, but I think now there’s a level I want to do them at. I know I’ve helped out a lot of bands. I’ve worked with Japanese bands, bands from New Zealand, bands from Australia, a lot of American bands. I’ve worked with Bullet For My Valentine and sung on one of their tracks which was very cool. All these bands I’ve worked know how much I enjoy doing this, and they always approach me and not the other way around because I’d be too embarrassed if they told me no! If I said, can I sing on your song? and they said no, I’d be so embarrassed!

MGM: Your creativity extends beyond singing and writing music, a lot of which is demonstrated by your flamboyant stage attire, colourful personality and love of DJing. You seem to be someone that embraces every aspect of what you do and takes it to the next level! Does this come naturally to you, or do you feel you have a ‘stage persona’?

BW: I don’t have an alternative persona as such. There are different layers to me. There’s some say I’m an onion.  I remember being in infant school, and they made me be a king in the Nativity play. We rehearsed and rehearsed, and it was great, but then we had the dress rehearsal! I put these clothes on and soon as I did, I thought, my God, I’m a king, I’m a king. It’s the same with SKINDRED. I wanted to be out of the box as a frontman, and dressing up is a huge part of that, I just love it. There’s something special about putting them clothes on – and now I’m getting into the costume changes; I think last tour I had five costume changes!

 When people come to see a SKINDRED show, I like to take them on a journey, with the clothes, the pink hat, the glasses, the furs and all that – it’s something magical. I love doing it in little shitholes as well, where no one would normally do it! You’re playing this club, maybe a 400 cap room in Sunderland and you’re there with your feather boa and your boots! I think entertainment is something that you should just ooze all the time. It shouldn’t be restricted for certain shows. Just give it what you got every time!

 I love playing the SKINDRED songs in my DJ set, I find some obscure remixes, I got a few reggae versions of Slipknot songs, which I love to throw as well, it’s just a trip!  I mean, being asked to play music, I don’t do anything I got no mixing. I just press play on a space bar and stand back and have fun with a microphone! I come from that kind of culture, where you’d hear an instrumental being played and just sing on top of it. When I first started singing in clubs, in reggae clubs, the DJ would put the song on, and I’d just sing on top of it. When I DJ and I do that, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, just play the songs, man. You haven’t got to sing’. I want to fucking sing! I want to pull out ‘Delilah’ and sing over an instrumental version of Tom Jones! I really enjoy that.

 You get the chance to see what your songs really do; I love going to rock clubs and watching SKINDRED songs being played, but when I play them in my DJ set the reaction you get from the crowd is different again, from the live show. It’s a whole other animal.

MGM: SKINDRED have grown from playing tiny clubs to the kind of shows you do now, at major festivals and arenas. Did you ever think you’d achieve this level of success when you started out? What would you say to other new bands starting out – there are a fair few coming from Wales currently – what would your advice be given the experience you’ve had?

BW: It’s all the same to me. Do you know what people say all the time? Do you prefer playing big 10,000 cap rooms or intimate small pubs? I don’t care, as long as there’s an audience there. When we used to play back in the day, I’m talking 15 years ago, we’d get to a club and there’d be maybe 15 people including the doorman and the bar staff! But I never went on stage and thought, ‘oh, there’s no one here.’ I always said to myself, if there’s people there, I’m going to rock them. There might be only a handful, and they never heard of us, but we’d have a great time. I always take myself back, to when I was a kid and I’d go in my sister’s room and grab a hairbrush and start singing in the mirror, I had a great time. You put an audience in front of me, I’m having an even better one!

 I want to say to all the musicians out there, just stick to your guns, man. Remain blinkered, because other bands are going to get record deals, other bands are going to get the traction that you want and it’s going to be off putting. But stay blinkered, stay focused and don’t watch other people. Stay in your lane and do what you do and just keep doing it. Don’t do it for money because we don’t get any, do it for the passion and the love of it.

 I think with new bands that’s coming up, especially the young ones, they feel like they got to be a certain way and they got to have a certain sound or style. I don’t agree with that. I think the more left field you can be the more freedom you will have.

MGM: What was the origin of the Newport Helicopter?

BW: You know what the ‘Wall of Death’ is? At heavy metal gigs where the singer would get the crowd to part down the middle, and then give a signal where they’d all run at each other, like a giant mosh pit. I thought – I’m going to do that. And I was doing it for a while, and the wall of death was my favourite part of the set. You could really build it up, it’s so intense! Then we got to this festival once and the boy came in the dressing room and he said, ‘listen guys, DO NOT engage the crowd in a Wall Of Death’.

 I said ‘but that’s my favourite thing! What else am I going to do?’ I got to do something because that’s my favourite part of the song. When they’re doing it, the music’s going quiet and you’re talking to the crowd. Then I remembered seeing on MTV once, this singer, he said, ‘North Carolina, come on and raise up. Take your shirt off and swing it around your head like a helicopter!’  I went, you know what? I wonder if I could get these people to take off their shirts and hold them up and swing them around and I’ll call it the Newport Helicopter. Just to see, just for shits and giggles. So, at Download 2011, I think it was, I said, ‘right, I’m going to try it.’  I’m doing it, and my best friends were going, ‘what the fuck are you doing, man?’ And then all the band look at me and say, ‘everyone take off your shirts. Hold them in the air. We’re going to do the Newport Helicopter!’

 I don’t know why. Where did it come from? It just fell in me there and then, and that’s where it was born. Download 2011. Now everybody knows to bring an extra shirt to a SKINDRED show. To see it from the stage is incredible – we should do tickets for people to see it from the stage! I thought I’d only do it once, but I got off stage and that’s all people were talking about, how much it engaged the crowd. Sometimes it looks like the Newport Washing Line when it’s only four people with their t shirts, when you’re playing them small clubs and people are like, fuck that. I’m not taking my shirt off.

 I love that engagement though because I don’t want it to be you watching me do this. I want me and you to have fun together. That’s the thing for me. To stand there and just sing the songs and say, thank you very much is not me. I want to say to people ‘listen, we’ve got 45 minutes together. Let’s have some fun.’ That’s one thing I think every time I play.

MGM: All of SKINDRED’s albums have enjoyed a great deal of success but it has to be ‘Smile’ that as you say, has really opened the door for you as a band going forward. As an album it seems to have gone to the hearts of so many people and has won you a huge number of new fans too. What do you think makes ‘Smile’ different from SKINDRED’s other releases, and why has it proved so popular?

Skindred by Dean Chalkley

BW: Yeah, it did so well, I tell you what I think. The first album we wrote was Babylon and we had all our life to write that first record. Once you’re signed to a record company you have maybe eight months to write an album, and you got them breathing down your neck going, ‘we need this, we need that, you got to have a radio single and blah, blah, blah, blah.’ I found that pressure hard to manage, it was not good. It got to the stage where we were getting dropped! Every album we’ve released, we’ve then been dropped! I don’t even care. I look at that like it’s an achievement! We got the album out, we’re doing it, people love it, so who cares?

 Anyway, when we had the pandemic, all of a sudden, I’m stuck at home and I’m writing this album with the guys, and we’re doing it via the Internet. We’re sending bits and pieces back and forth. Now, every album we’ve always written, I’ve had just months to write the album because of the deadlines. ‘We need this song now. We need that song. We need the lead song.’ There was none of that. For the first time, since the first album, there was no pressure; it was OFF. I got in this very room, and I wrote, I think, the best songs of my life.

 There was a lot of fear around during that time, and to be honest, when I was writing these songs, I didn’t know whether they would be the last songs I’m ever going to write. It was crazy because I’d be upstairs writing ‘Smile’ and I’d break down crying because I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. The way the government treated us and the way they dealt with us – none of us knew what was going on. We were all kept in the dark and the only thing I had was these bits of music, that became ‘Smile’ to keep me going and keep me positive. So, there was a lot of passion in there, and I took a lot of time over it. There was one song I wrote (sings) ‘I’m depressed…. and I’m lonely’ and I thought, oh, you can’t say that. You got to change it around. I was depressed and pissed off, but I thought, ‘no, don’t sing that. Sing something that’s going to lift the people up, give some sort of sense of hope and encouragement and love to people’. So that became (sings) ‘I’ve got sunshine…when it’s raining’.

 I think having that time in this room without people bugging you or giving you shit and not knowing that if this is going to be the last music you’re ever going to write; I think that was a special time. There’s eleven or twelve songs on the album and we wrote about 42. My manager won’t agree with me, but I personally think that the best songs aren’t even on the album. The best songs are still on my hard drive. Fingers crossed I can convince the rest of the guys that we can work on this stuff that we have because it’s special. That bite is still in there. I didn’t know if we were ever going to go in the studio to record these songs because people in the street, God forbid, they were dying! I got a couple of friends in my street, passed away from COVID so it was quite a heavy time.

MGM: It’s safe to say SKINDRED have cheered the world up – so you’ve achieved what you set out to do.

BW: If that’s what I’ve set out to do and I’ve achieved it, great! But you know what? I got a few more smiles to turn on. So I got some work to do still.

 

SKINDRED are performing three dates in the UK in March –

 

Thursday March 14th – Manchester Academy

Friday March 15th – OVO Arena, Wembley

Saturday 16th March – O2 Academy, Birmingham

 

Tickets available here

SKINDRED

 

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