UB40 start their next chapter with new frontman Matt Doyle and without founder Brian Travers as their UK tour comes to Portsmouth Guildhall | Interview

In any band with a career spanning 44 years there will inevitably be ups and downs, and UB40 are certainly no exception.

Friday, 6th May 2022, 3:28 pm

They have sold more than 100m albums, and scored number one hits with Red Red Wine, I Got You Babe and (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You.

But there has also been illness, deaths and an acrimonious split with original frontman Ali Campbell – the fallout of which lasts to today.

However, their latest tour definitely marks the beginning of a new chapter for the veteran reggae band.

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It is their first with Matt Doyle as lead vocalist – Duncan Campbell, who had held the role since 2008, suffered a stroke in August 2020 and later decided to retire.

And it is also their first without totemic sax player and co-founder Brian Travers who died in August last year after a two year battle with cancer.

In June last year, the band released a new album, Bigga Baggariddim – a follow-up of sorts to their 1985 album Baggariddim, which saw them collaborating with reggae artists from across the globe.

The Guide sat down for a Zoom chat with the band’s engine room – and co-founders – drummer Jimmy Brown and bassist Earl Falconer to find out how things are in the UB40 camp.

UB40 in 2022. The band are at Portsmouth Guildhall on May 13. Photo by Radski

‘We're chomping at the bit to get going,’ says Earl. ‘It's been two years and things kept getting postponed and stuff. Obviously we just hope we can keep going – we've got a lot of work to get through.’

Indeed they do – there’s the 24-date UK tour, which calls in at Portsmouth Guildhall on May 13, followed by a few dates in Scandinavia, a month in America, on to Australia, more dates back here and then seeing in the new year in New Zealand.

Jimmy adds: ‘We've never been through something like this before – we've constantly worked for 40 years-plus, it's just a bit of a shock to have to down tools for that long. I just want to get back in the saddle – I think I've forgotten how to play...’

‘Jimmy is the only drummer I've ever really worked with,’ says Earl. ‘I've done a few sessions here and there, so has Jimmy. But we're brothers in rhythm – we can't wait to do what we're trained to do.’

New UB40 frontman Matt Doyle. Photo by Taylor J Wright

The band’s only show so far this year was a brief appearance at the launch for this summer’s Commonwealth Games, which are to be held in their native Birmingham. They have recorded a track for an album which will be released next month to tie-in with the sporting extravaganza. It marks their first recording with Matt in the band, and last with Brian.

‘We did three numbers at the end of their presentation at the local symphony hall in front of about 5,000 people,’ says Jimmy. ‘That was such a teaser – we wanted to carry on.’

This tour is essentially to promote Bigga Baggariddim. An international celebration of reggae, it features New Zealand's House of Shem, India's Reggae Rajahs, as well as fellow veterans Inner Circle, Tippa Irie, and Winston Francis, plus up-comers Gilly G, Matt's former band Kioko, BLVK H3RO, and Leno Banton. The album also includes tracks with Pablo Rider and Slinger, who both featured on the original 1985 Baggariddim album.

Put together during the pandemic, Earl says: ‘That kind of kept us sane doing that, it was a really brilliant project, as it turned out.

UB40's saxophone player Brian Travers died in August 2021

‘All of the artists are from all over the world – we were Zooming with them and sending files, so it kept us occupied.

‘We haven't had the chance to promote it or play any of the numbers live which is what we intend to do on the tour. We want to bring out some guests to do those songs, but we'll be doing loads of the hits as well.’

The band, completed by founders Robin Campbell and Norman Hassan, plus long-time members Martin Meredith, Laurence Parry and Tony Mullings, remain centred around Birmingham.

As Jimmy says: ‘We're all focused still in Birmingham and the surrounding areas.

‘I don't think we could exist without being in Birmingham, it kind of informs everything we do, it always has done and I think moving away would make us a different set of people and a different band.’

And Earl adds: ‘We knew each other from when we were 11 years old, so we've been together as friends since we started senior school.’

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They’ve also got to know Steven Knight, the creator of the hit BBC1 show Peaky Blinders – and of course the gang originated in the Birmingham area of Small Heath.

Earl says: ‘He's got this brilliant project he wants us to get involved with in the centre of Birmingham, in Digbeth, he's going to build studios there. It's fascinating talking to him because he's actually from the same place where me and Jimmy were actually born – Small Heath. We were having a long old reminisce about it all. We're still very much involved in Birmingham.’

Have they enjoyed seeing Peaky Blinders put Small Heath on the map?

‘Absolutely!’ says Jimmy. ‘It's our old stomping ground. I remember the Garrison Pub and my dad used to work at the BSA when they were making motorbikes. To me, that was all using references that I knew – but it took it into a fantasy world.’

Early says: ‘I was a big fan of the show, even before meeting its writer. The atmosphere and everything was brilliant. But it's bringing in a lot of tourism to Birmingham and putting us on the map worldwide, so it's all good.’

‘It makes Birmingham seem sexy at last!’ jokes Jimmy. ‘Well, Birmingham is sexy, it's just that nobody else knows it...

‘It's a great place, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.’

Jimmy also likes to celebrate the diversity of his hometown – a theme of the Commonwealth Games track.

‘You had that Manchester sound and that Liverpool sound, you've even got a London sound, but you never had a Birmingham sound, even though so many bands came from here, and I think that's because of the diversity.

‘You've got us, you've got Duran Duran, the heavy metal bands – all kinds of different influences, and the diversity is the most important thing about Birmingham.’

While the band are keen to get back on the road, they admit it’s going to be strange without Brian.

Earl explains: ‘He went to the same school as us – he was my first best mate on the playground, from the first day. I miss Brian big time.’

Jimmy picks up the baton: ‘When it comes to someone who contributes on so many levels musically, lyrically and performance-wise, we won't replace that. There will always be a hole in the band that's Brian-shaped.

‘He was the most charismatic performer on stage – people loved to watch him, they couldn't take their eyes off him. We'll miss that, and that can't be replaced. Singers are ten-a-penny', he laughs, ‘we can replace them – don't tell Matt!’

‘Obviously we've got someone in to play his riffs on sax, and we've had to do that before because he was ill for about three years, and we were touring without him, but his influence was still there, and he was still writing.’

However, the band is looking to the next chapter with their new singer.

And when it came to picking that new singer, they didn’t need to cast their net too far. Matt was frontman for Kioko, another Birmingham-based reggae band.

‘We're still keeping it in the family,’ says Jimmy, ‘When Ali left we replaced him with [his and Robin’s brother] Duncan, who was in my class at school – he was part of the gang, and now Matt is [UB40’s percussionist/trombone player] Norman's nephew, so there's that family connection still. It really is that incestuous!

‘All around the band we've got so many cousins and kids and grandkids, we only had to dig into the pool of talent that we've got related to us.’

Earl adds: ‘But the new blood coming in – Matt coming in as a singer, he's young, he's good looking, it's giving us new life to move forward and make new music.

‘We're in the studio now, doing some new stuff, rerecording some old stuff – it's coming along really well, and Matt sounds brilliant on the vocals. We're really happy.’

The band are still keen to emphasise though that they are the one true UB40, even though there is a version bearing the name fronted by Ali Campbell.

‘It's a bit annoying really that Ali can bill himself as UB40 Featuring... when there's not a single member of UB40 actually in his band – they're all session players and we find that really annoying that he does that.’

And it is still subject to an ongoing legal battle.

‘We're still paying the lawyers. He left way back, 2008, and he went solo. That's fair enough – that was his decision, but when he went out using his own name he couldn't sell any tickets so he started using the name of the band again four or five years after he left and we think that's not fair.

‘It's not a clear picture of the reality – there's no member of UB40 in his band.

‘Of the six original members, five of us – until Brian passed – are in this band. We are the original members, wrote all the tunes, did all of the arranging and played on the records, so we are UB40.

‘It's really annoying and it's become really expensive for us.’

Earl adds: ‘It's the misleading thing where people don't know which outfit they're going to see – that needs to be resolved and we're in the process of doing that.’

UB40’s Bigga Baggriddim tour is at Portsmouth Guildhall on May 13, 7.30pm. Tickets £43.88 - £48.96. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.