From a tour with US rock gods Kiss to the upper echelons of the UK album charts, 2023 has been one to remember for Newport ragga metallers Skindred. With a forthcoming UK tour to round it off, before they graduate to arenas in 2024, Chris Andrews caught up with vocalist Benji Webbe to gauge the current mood in the Skindred camp…
“What’s ‘appening, bra?” The unmistakable Newport tones of Skindred frontman Benji Webbe are reaching me loud and clear and he’s evidently in good spirits, despite an unseasonal late-September heatwave causing him sleepless nights. “I can’t handle it bro,” he laughs. “I’m not like my ancestors!”
After nearly 25 years in the game, Skindred saw themselves unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight recently. After the strange algorithmic powers of TikTok caused a resurgence of plays for Nobody, a mid-00s single by the group, latest album Smile formed part of a three-way battle for the number one position in the UK album chart on its release in August – ultimately coming in at number two, behind Cian Ducrot and ahead of The Sherlocks.
What, then, is Benji’s take on this spike in Skindred’s popularity? “I think signing to Earache Records was a good move: they’ve been around a long time, and they are as hungry as us. And if you remember, Dub War [Webbe’s pre-Skindred band, recently reformed] were on Earache Records, so we have history.”
But having made a career of producing anthemic energetic rock tunes, why has Smile caught the imagination more than previous Skindred records? “It’s all about timing. We’ve been around for 23 years and people have always said to us that we’re ahead of our time, so I just think they finally caught up!” he jokes. “But I think music has changed now. Bands like The Prodigy made people realise that you can be into Black Sabbath or Machine Head and still dig dance music.
“I always say that you have all your life to write your first album – we had a really good time doing that – but with your second, third, etc you’ve got six months. You have the label saying, ‘come on, we need the album!’ This was the first [Skindred] one where we haven’t had a label chasing us for the album: bad as the pandemic was, we had a lot of time to think about what we were doing before we got to the studio.
“In my musical career, I’ve never had so much spare time. You look back at our history, we are always touring. That’s what we do. We’ve never been a band that sells records and makes money that way – it’s the people buying T-shirts and tickets. But having three years at home, that really gave me a lot of time to pen lyrics and think about song structure. Timing is everything. You can rush the curry and spoil it!”
All those years of hard graft on the road, including a stint supporting Kiss this summer, must have also contributed to the bands current wave of success, right? “Being relentless, being tenacious and not being in ‘the gang’ or some sort of scene has helped,” Benji agrees. “We came all the way through nu-metal, through emo, we’ve always stuck to what we do, and we also do a great show! When we got the call about Kiss, our drummer [Arya Goggin] was doing cartwheels… they never really appealed to me, but I enjoy some of their songs and they have party anthems.
“So when we were offered the gig, I thought to myself – people who like Kiss like to party, dance, sing along, so we’d be a great support for them.” And did Benji get to party with Gene Simmons and company? “Nah, nothing like that! But I tell you what, I’ve not seen a band in 20 years that make me want to watch them five nights in a row. After our set, we’d all be fighting for the shower, so we could run and watch Kiss! I didn’t realise how great [frontman] Paul Stanley could sing, oh my god. But yeah, it wasn’t beers backstage like some other bands.
“I also know for a fact that the surge in popularity we’ve had in the last few months is down to the Kiss tour. I spoke to a fan who hasn’t missed a Kiss show since the 80s, and who said he’s not seen an audience take to a support band that much. Which is like a medal of honour in itself.”
You really can’t talk to a member of Skindred without asking about the now world-famous ‘Newport Helicopter’ – so I asked Benji for the lowdown on what has become a mosh pit staple in recent years. “Well, there was this hip-hop track that went “Raise up, take your shirt off and spin it like a helicopter!” [Petey Pablo’s 2001 single Raise Up]… but in metal we used to do the wall of death. [Skindred] used to do that for ages as part of the show, as did other bands – Hatebreed, etcetera. But we played Download in 2011; we’re backstage, and this guy knocked the door and said ‘scuse me boys, we are campaigning against doing the wall of death!’ It’s something we do in a particular part of the song, and I really wanted to engage the audience. I didn’t think too much about it, and we still did the part in the set.
“So I’m stood onstage, and I thought to myself, I’m gonna see if everybody will raise their shirts at the same time. This is all improv! The guitar part starts, and I can see everybody waiting for it. I say, ‘we’re gonna try something for peace and unity…’ and told everybody to rip off their shirts and hold it in the air. I can see pockets of people doing it. Then out of my mouth pops, ‘We’re going to do the Newport Helicopter!’
“I love my town, so I wanted to put that stamp on it… also, a few years before, I was onstage and said, “let’s hear it for the English, the Scottish and the Irish…” I forgot the Welsh! So that was in my mind when I called it the Newport Helicopter. It was something from hip-hop that I brought into the metal world – nobody does it like us.”
With the recent demolition of Newport Centre, I was interested to see what Benji thought about his home city’s current musical landscape. “The only places we’ve got are this little place that’s not long opened up, very punk rock and no bigger than my living room” – referring to The Cab – “and also Le Pub. But now we’ve lost the Centre, which is very sad. There’s this great venue called The Neon, which is banging – like a mini-Brixton Academy. But it needs a promoter to get in there and bring real bands so we can get back on the map.”
Before Skindred headline their biggest venues yet next March – upgrading to arenas in Manchester, London and Birmingham – their autumn tour of the UK is largely sold out, including its sole Welsh date in Cardiff University’s Great Hall – a room Skindred, a little surprisingly, have never played (although a pre-Dub War Webbe did once jump onstage in the 1980s, moonlighting with a band supporting UK reggae hitmakers Aswad). Will there be a bit of Cardiff/Newport banter?
“I’m so touched by the support we’ve had from the Welsh fans on this particular run. We’ve sold it out three months in advance. I can’t go to Cardiff and not give them some shit… but it’s all love and they know that!”
Skindred, Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union, Fri 10 Nov
Tickets: £25 (sold out). Info: here
words CHRIS ANDREWS