Brian Travers is on a train from somewhere overcast near Birmingham. In Exeter, it’s raining. Travers bought his first saxophone working as an electrician’s apprentice in 1978. 37 years later, he says he’s improved a little, and has founded what’s become the UK’s most renowned reggae band, as he finds some time to talk to us before UB40 embark on their UK tour, playing the Great Hall on 3 October.
He says the long career on the road has brought him to this region before: “Yes, we played in Exeter about 35 years ago in a club, I can’t remember what it was called though… The years in between we have always been booked in Plymouth at the arena, so I’m looking forward to getting back to Exeter. And of course, everyone knows that the best fish & chips in the universe are lovingly fried up in Exeter… I do believe thats what we will be having for lunch that day.”
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Exeter. everyone knows that the best fish & chips in the universe are lovingly fried up there”
I remark upon the career that’s spanned almost four decades, and ask if it’s possible to whittle out any standout moments. His reply is somewhat diplomatic: “Every tour has its memorable moments,” he pauses, “but I suppose the landmarks would be Live 8 and The Nelson Mandela concerts at Wembley, and then playing all of the biggest stadiums in South Africa on Mandela’s release, having previously observed the cultural boycott of South Africa.”
He says that the band’s sound has changed somewhat over this time as well, if only in that they play with more confidence now. He adds: “and I guess we know a little more than we did when we started.” With Ali Campbell and Astro’s departure from the band, at the turn of the Century, vocals were taken by Duncan, Ali’s brother. “He is a different vocalist, great diction, great professional attitude, and coming to UB40 at this stage is exciting for him so he’s a really enthusiastic band member.”
“Like all bands, we are always trying to perfect our sound, our song writing and performance. Our sound has changed but we feel only for the better, and our sense of harmony and arrangement after all these years has natured… After all UB40 was the first band any of us had ever been in. Everyday is a school day for us, and we all know that it’s an incredible privilege to be on stage performing to people who have spent their hard earned cash on tickets.”
Financial connotations are hard to escape for a band named UB40, after the Unemployment Benefit, and Travers emphasises, “playing’s not a right, it’s definitely a privilege.” I ask the reasons behind the name: “We were all on the dole and the card we had to carry to sign on was called a UB40 card… Our friend suggested the name when, like all young bands, we were obsessing on a name before we even had any songs. It’s been a blessing and a curse, a bit of a rock around our necks when we were one of the highest grossing bands in the world, but I like to think it inspired people who were struggling! If we could make it then anyone could make it.”
We talk briefly about the earlier UB40 records, and Travers says that the first was the breakthrough: “We were very lucky – our first record Food for Thought was a hit and it catapulted us into the charts all over the globe, which in turn gave us a hit album Signing Off. It was then as we started travelling the world – we were just young guys from central Birmingham who had never been anywhere – that we started to feel the warm glow of acceptance. We have been incredibly lucky. It’s said you’ll never work a day in your life if you love what you do, and we genuinely love making music.”
“Playing music has to be a sincere expression, you can always tell if a musician doesn’t mean it.”
I nod back to the departure of some of the band’s founding members, and ask if it has changed the aesthetic of the rest of the band making music. “No not at all, all of the original songwriters are still in the band, and the truth is that if someone isn’t happy in a band, it’s best they move on. Playing music has to be a sincere expression, you can always tell if a musician doesn’t mean it. We are genuinely happier now than we were for a number of years.”
Having fathered 28 studio albums, and about to commence a 35-date UK tour, we come on to the obvious question of which songs the band enjoy playing. “That’s a tough one. We always enjoy playing the newest material, but the hits are like old friends that the audiences already know, and we still love the reaction despite having played them live thousands of times. And of course I get a big kick out of the songs with sax solos in as I get a chance to show off a bit.”
We round things off, and I ask quickly about the latest album, Getting Over The Storm, with reggae in orbit around a crux of country songs. He tells me that country music is surprisingly very popular in Jamaica, and it lends itself perfectly to reggae: “Like reggae, country music is a poor people’s music, more concerned with lost love and broken hearts rather than bling, guns and hatred. It just felt like the right time to go that way with UB40; I wrote the five original songs on the album as country songs and we then reggae-fied them.” He adds that it was always reggae that he listened to growing up, rock steady, blue beat, ska, soul, tamla, stax, but will listen to anything now, “providing the musicians really mean it.”
I thank him for talking to us, and ask finally what’s coming after the UK tour. “We head straight down under to Australia, New Zealand then South Pacific gigs in Tahiti, New Caledonia and Fiji. Then back to the UK at end of December for gigs in Birmingham and London with Steele Pulse – one of the bands that inspired us to believe we could be a band. It’s the icing on the Christmas cake you could say, celebrating another great year in music. It’s been great talking to you guys, give us a wave in Exeter.”
UB40 play the Exeter Great Hall on 3 October, tickets can be purchased here.