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Exclusive interview with Brian Travers of UB40

Friday, 17 May, 2013 - Modified on Friday, 17 May, 2013 at 12:08 pm



Brian Travers was born in Birmingham in 1959. Whilst working as an electrical apprentice at NG Bailey he saved up enough money to buy a saxophone. Along with school friend Ali Campbell he set about forming a band with a group of friends from schools across Birmingham.


Before some members of the band could actually play their instruments Brian and Ali promoted the band across Birmingham putting up posters introducing UB40 to an unsuspecting city.


Their first gig took place on 9th February 1979 at the Hare & Hounds Pub in Kings Heath to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The rest is history………


Village Times spoke to Brian exclusively recently ahead of his band, The Peaky Blinders, performance at the forthcoming Beer & Blues Festival at the Bridge Inn in Brewood on June 22nd.


Village Times (VT) - Where did it all start musically for you?


Brian Travers (BT) - I went to a school called the Moseley Road art school from when I was 11 years old, and that’s where most of the guys from UB40 went to school. It was a dedicated school and there were lots of art classes but the only art we didn’t learn was music. This was 1975/76, just as the punk thing was happening, certainly there was this whole new ethos from the rest of the 70’s with progressive rock and glam rock which didn’t really resonate with us in Balsall Heath! We mainly listened to Reggae, Soul, Stax and Tamla Motown living in a very multi racial area. We were one of the first places that West Indian people came to because of all the factories in Birmingham, so our culture at youth clubs etc was all reggae. So, come the punk revolution, that opened the door and showed that anybody could be in a band, all you needed was a guitar and an idea. So, everyone was in a band and Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols told the world how much he loved reggae, which in turn turned us on, and we just thought – we’ll start a reggae band. It was exactly the same way as The Specials and Madness started, you didn’t have to be a great musician, start a band and then learn to be a musician.


VT - You say a Reggae band but it would be unfair to describe UB40 as simply a reggae band wouldn’t it?


BT - Well, it’s always difficult to describe yourself and in the past we’ve often been described as a white reggae band but descriptions are just descriptions. We always loved reggae and that was definitely the basis for our inspiration but as time went by we learned to enjoy all forms of music. I guess when you’re young you like whatever is within your culture, the music that goes with your clothes and goes with your mates. Believe it or not right now UB40 are doing a country album!


VT - Going back in time again, why the saxophone?


BT - Well we all picked our own instrument and at the time none of us could play. So, we all started at the same time but I picked the saxophone on the basis that if the band wasn’t working out I could still go out and play.


VT - It’s not the easiest instrument to just pick up from scratch is it?


BT - It would make sense if you learned the clarinet first but I learned to use the reed and went from there. It’s a crazy instrument but really satisfying especially with connection of using both your hands and your mouth on it. There’s only twelve notes, that’s all there is, and if they’re played beautifully it really doesn’t matter what instrument they’re played on, it’s all about the person playing meaning what they’re playing.


VT - Your sax has been pretty much lead instrument on a lot of UB40 songs?


BT - I found it easier at first to write hooks rather than melodies. On the new album I’ve written all the original songs but I’ve been a songwriter since we started. Songwriting is what I love, it’s my muse. I play in six different bands and if anyone asks me to play I make it to a rehearsal and just go and play. I feel really privileged to earn my living that way, but you don’t actually get paid for playing music, you get paid for all the other stuff you have to do to get it out there.


UB40’s first album was entitled ‘Signing Off’ and was recorded in a Birmingham bedsit with former Steve Gibbons Band drummer Bob Lamb producing. Starting from a reggae base the band mixed elements of punk, ska and two tone into their music with heavy use of a rock guitar, synthesisers, saxophone and dub production techniques giving UB40 a unique sound. Lyrically the band were inventive too, with original songs like ‘ Madam Medusa’, ‘Food for Thought’, ‘King’ and ‘One in Ten’ proving to be thoughtful, well-crafted and dealing with subjects such as famine, unemployment and Martin Luther King.


VT - There was quite a political element to a lot of the early UB40 stuff?


BT - Well we were 8 individuals and it was a very political time. At the time you had the new romantics and there’s nothing wrong with pop music but there was a chance for the scene to become more eclectic and for people to be able to use their imagination more so we tapped into that.


VT - What would you ultimately like UB40’s legacy to be?


BT - That’s tough. It’s been 32 years, but it seems more like 5 minutes. We’ve sold 100 million albums, all been made incredibly wealthy, spent it and been skint again. I guess though that I think back to the cultural boycott in South Africa when you could make a million dollars just by going to play Sun City, and a lot of people did. We didn’t, we supported the aims of the ANC because we were political guys and when Nelson Mandela came out of prison we played the biggest football stadiums in South Africa. It was just an incredible time and probably my proudest moment of all. But, playing Wembley Stadium, Live Aid it’s all been an incredible privilege, I feel very lucky, it certainly hasn’t been down to being more musically talented than anyone else.


At the time of writing UB40 have posted more than 50 singles in the UK Singles Chart. They have been nominated for the Grammy award for Best Reggae Album four times and nominated for the Brit award for Best British Group. They have scored three UK number one hits and hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 twice.



VT - I read something Bev Bevan said once that as a musician you’re always looking over your shoulder, you can go to the pub down the road and see a guy playing who’s much better than you…..


BT - That’s exactly right, and every weekend I go out and hear guys that can wipe the floor with any of us. But music is a business and if you’re not business minded about it, or you don’t have any luck in your business, people aren’t going to realise that you’re a genius. It’s an unfortunate aspect to playing music but that’s the way it is. We had a lot of luck and nothing succeeds like success.


VT - It’s often about being tight as a unit, being greater than the sum of your parts?


BT - That’s right. How often do you see a lead singer leave a band and it doesn’t work? It’s all about the chemistry of the band, their sound. That’s the thing about music – you can’t see it, you can’t touch it but it can certainly touch you and it’s never hurt anybody. If you don’t like something on the radio you can turn the volume down, you don’t have to buy a record unless you want it. Even if you buy it and decide you don’t like it when you get home it’s the most innocent and satisfying of all the arts. I feel I’ve been saved by music, even if I never make another penny from it, it would still be what I do. I mean, as a kid I had ginger hair, freckly face……….


VT - So, what is it with Birmingham, how come it has such a musical heritage?


BT - It’s a big city, a big population and I think if you look at all industrial and port cities, where there are a lot of working class people, who traditionally couldn’t afford the opera and classical concerts, they made their own entertainment. For a lot of people, from the factory that was killing them during the day, it was the rehearsal with their mates playing 12 bar blues, a chance to be an individual that gave them their moment. I think it’s these types of cities that really generate a lot of music. Look at Detroit with Tamla Motown, Hip Hop and even Eminem. Chicago with the blues, New York City, Liverpool and Manchester, which I think is the music capital of Europe. They’re all big industrial cities where people are poor and they do have time to think about themselves in the mind numbing jobs they have to do. You have time to think to yourself about how shit this is and what you’re gonna do. I’m never gonna have a new car, be able to give the kids what they want. But then there’s these 12 notes……..everyone’s got a symphony in ‘em!


VT – Thinking about the Beer & Blues Festival at the Bridge Inn and having played at huge venues all across the world, how important do you think these types of festivals are?


BT - Incredibly important. It’s no.1 on the list now to get out and play live. The internet is a double edged sword, it’s killed record sales but it’s also opened up the world of music to everybody. It’s made music available. Me and you could go online now and listen to what some kids are doing in Chicago. It has cured the music industry in many ways. There are going to be no millionaire musicians out of pop music any more and that’s not such a bad thing. Those people that are just in it for the music give us something that will last forever. We used to go on tour around the world to promote an album, now you make an album to promote and advertise the tour, that’s the way it’s gone. So these boutique festivals are becoming more important than anyone could have ever imagined. It gives real musicians somewhere to play, if you want to go out on the road now you have to wait for a couple of years because everything is booked out. To quantify as well, do you really want to go and see a great act standing behind 35,000 people or come somewhere like Brewood and have an intimate experience of that person’s music? I know where I’d go every time and I know where true musicians would rather play. Next year you’ll get bigger acts and eventually you’ll get huge acts coming to play these smaller festivals, not just because they’re small but just for the opportunity to play.   


VT - You want to feel some atmosphere coming back from the audience don’t you?


BT - Absolutely. If you play at Glastonbury there’s a 30-metre gap between you and the audience. It gets to be more about reputation than it is about the quality of the music.


VT - What can we expect from The Peaky Blinders on the 22nd June?


BT - Well we play a lot of bluebeat, soul, bluesy kind of stuff and just give the audience a real good time. We’re not coming to blow anyone off the stage, we’re coming to play and get the everyone in the best mood they can be in for the next act that comes on. That’s the secret of opening for a band, with UB40 we would always pick the best band we could get, because you’re never going to get blown off at your own gig. If the gig is under your name then it’s your fans that are going to come, so if you can get the best opening band that turns the audience on, cheering and jumping up and down, they’re warmed up for when you come on and that’s the idea. The idea is to get the audience feeling good about what they’ve spent their money on and the anticipation of the great acts that are coming up. So that’s what we’re there to do and of course, get incredibly drunk afterwards, have a laugh with people and enjoy the day.


VT - If you could choose to have been one musician or play in one band other than being Brian Travers or being in UB40 who would it be?


BT - Jimi Hendrix! All my friends are musicians or writers or poets, painters, artists. There’s a million musicians I’d have loved to have been, Dexter Gordon, I love Charlie Parker but definitely Jimi. Jimi blew jazz out of the water with his guitar, turned up took all that be-bop and threw it away. He really invented rock and made it artistic. Took it away from that 12 bar thing….what a player! Every single note was just meant to make you feel good.  


Village Times would like to sincerely thank Brian Travers for agreeing to do this interview.


Brian Travers performs with his band The Peaky Blinders at the Bridge Inn Beer and Blues Festival on Saturday 22nd June. Tickets priced £17.50 are available to personal callers at the Bridge Inn, High Green in Brewood. Tickets are also available online by visiting www.villagetimes.co.uk/brewoodblues and following the link. You can also visit www.brewoodmusicfestival.com.


For more information please visit www.villagetimes.co.uk/brewoodblues