Interview: UB40’s Ali Campbell prepares for the Grandslam Tour

Ali Campbell is the founding member of one of the most commercially successful bands of all time, UB40.

Having split from the original band in 2008, Campbell has teamed up with two co-founders – as well as an ensemble of eight musicians – to form UB40 featuring Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue.

Celebrating sold-out shows around the world since, they are now gearing up for a number of predominantly open air shows across the UK.

We sat down with Ali Campbell to discuss the Grandslam Tour, which sees them joined by Level 42, The Original Wailers and Raging Fyah, and his longstanding love of reggae.

Ali Campbell - Missing You (Official Audio)

You’re taking Level 42 and The Original Wailers out on tour. How did the support line-up come about?

The Wailers have played with us all over America, well, a different version of The Wailers. This is The original Wailers with Al Anderson, and they are also brilliant. We’re very happy to have them. And Raging Fyah, who are an up-and-coming roots-rock reggae band with great conscious lyrics. We love them; they are our band of the moment. We’re really happy to have them on the bill.

Level 42 are old friends of ours. Mark King is a good old mate, you know. We’ve known them since the 80s; our paths have crossed many times. Mark’s dad thought he was in UB40 at one time.

Basically that’s a day of hits. The Wailers have got something like 15 hits, Level 42 have got a dozen, and our whole set is hits. It’s a perfect festival – songs that everybody knows.

How does it feel to be gearing up for the tour?

Well, I’ve never been off the road actually. I’m enjoying doing touring more. I left UB40, the band I started, in 2008 and started my own band with Mickey [Virtue] – the keyboard player – and three years ago Astro joined us. That’s when we called ourselves UB40 featuring Ali, Astro and Mickey. Since we’ve done that the fans have voted with their feet and we’ve sold out everywhere we’ve played.

Then we went off to North America and did two sold-out tours in 10 months, and we’ve got more coming up this year. I’m just loving it. For eight years after I left the original UB40 I played a lot of gigs but didn’t do any tours. We went all over the place; I did a stint as a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent. Even while I was doing that I was flying to South America and doing shows at the weekend.

I’m really happy to be doing proper tours again, banging around on a tour bus for five or six weeks at a time. It’s what I’ve spent my adult life doing.

What’s makes being on the road so special to you?

I love looking out the window; I’ve got to tell you. I’ve seen more of America than most Americans have. I’ve toured for twenty-odd years looking out of the window.

America is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s on a par with Africa, it’s so diverse and beautiful. It’s not something you think of when you think of America. For some reason people don’t think of the scenery, but I feel really privileged to be able to go through Canada all the way to New Mexico and the deserts. It’s fabulous. I love being out and about.

Now we’re very lucky to do it in luxury, in beautiful big buses with swishing Star Trek doors that close behind you, and stuff like that. We’ve played places like wineries and things like that, which are all beautiful places. Life is very good at the moment.

And the new tour takes you to big, open spaces…

We’ve just done all the arenas with the last tour, and it was fabulous. To do it again a year later would have been kind of boring. This one is off the beaten track. It’s basically cricket grounds and racecourses, which is fine by me because it means we get away from the normal arenas in major cities.

With all these tours, what is it about you that has secured continued success?

There’s no secret, it’s because we play reggae music. It’s the youngest music in the world. It’s the sexiest music in the world. It’s universally loved by everyone… or by most people at least.

We watched it grow, and its influence grow. All of your contemporary dance music is influenced by reggae and dub. All production techniques and dance music is basically dub. The influence is enormous.

I’m proud to be an ambassador for reggae, because that’s what I started UB40 for all those years ago.

Have you noticed any other changes in the reggae scene?

There are massive differences. It’s come full circle, I think. There have been all different styles of reggae, and now it’s come right the way back to roots-rock reggae with all the new people like Chronixx, Prodigy and Raging Fyah.

We’re really happy about that because it means we’ve got nice conscious lyrics again instead of stupid gangster lyrics that came with the hip-hop stuff, so reggae is really healthy again.

Is that type of music still where your heart lies?

It’s all I listen to. I live and grow around reggae music. I’m still as much a reggae anorak now as I ever was. When we’re on the road, that’s one of the things that I love; we spend every day listening to reggae, and my life doesn’t get any better than that.

Has the way you approach music or the band changed over the years?

No, I’m happy to be involved in probably the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment. My attitude is the same as it’s ever been; that I love it and want to promote it. For the amount of people that love it, there’s not enough of it on the radio, so there’s still a reason for protesting.

Is there a plan to change that with new music?

I’ve just done a new version of Legalize It with the Fun Lovin’ Criminals’ drummer Frank Benbini and the keyboard player Brian “Fast” Lieser. They call themselves Radio Riddler. That’ll be released in America.

Also, Astro and I have mixed 14 tracks of dub music and given them out to West Coast reggae bands in the ilk of No Doubt. There are some bands called Rebelution and Slightly Stupid, who are massive in America – bands like that. We’ll have an album of that kind of thing.

Then we’re doing the same thing with the same tracks for a second album with Latino artists, with reggae-time stars who want to slow it down a little bit. Reggae-time has burned out a little bit. So we’ll have two albums out with the same music; one with Latino acts and one with West Coast acts.

How has the new band changed the way you work?

There’s a lot more energy. I’ve kind of reinvented UB40 inadvertently by leaving. What you have is a slicker, and a better band. The old band was self-taught and weren’t really solo musicians, whereas all of the musicians in this band are session players.

We’ve been together now for eight years, so we’re a proper band, but they all just don’t have to rehearse. We can run it once with these guys and they are ready to go. It’s a joy to be with this band. When Astro joined us he said it was so much easier.

You feel like you have the fun back?

We do have a lot of fun. The band are a bunch of nutcases. I’ve got a delightful bunch of blokes, and they are enjoying it as much as I am.

Here are those Grandslam tour dates:

19 May – Northern Meeting Park, Invernell
20 May – Slessor Gardens, Dundee
26 May – Racecourse Ground, Wrexham
27 May – Butts Park, Coventry
28 May – Northern Echo Arena, Darlington
2 June – Brunton Park, Carlisle
3 June – The Spitfire Ground, Canterbury
10 June – Parc Y Scarlets, Llanelli
11 June – Taunton Racecourse, Somerset
16 June – Bloomfield Road, Blackpool
17 June – Riverside Park, Newark
30 June – Open Air Theatre, Scarborough
12 August – City Racecourse, Chelmsford, GB

Tickets for the Grandslam Tour are on sale now through