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Arts and Entertainment

Interview: UB40's Saxophonist, Brian Travers

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UB40: Travers is 2nd from the left, front row


UB40: Travers is 2nd from the left, front row
By Daood Obaid, Special to LAist

Music of the 80’s ushered in groups like Roxy Music, Sex Pistols and UB40 that gave us “Red, Red Wine” and “If It Happens Again.” Saxophonist Brian Travers has been to UB40 to that of Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’ Band or Roxy’s Music Andy Mackay and whether listening to UB40 debut album “Signing Off” or 2009 compilation album “Love Songs,” its musical odyssey has been surreal to that of Salvador Dali, dada to that of Hugo Ball, and neoclassical to that of Nicolas Poussin. He spoke to us about the history, longevity and musical legacy of the band as he prepared for Thursday night concert at the Sunset Strip House of Blues.

We formed the band in Birmingham UK at the end of the 1970's during a very severe economic depression that closed down a lot of British factories and businesses. There were very few jobs around and we all found ourselves upon leaving school as teenagers unemployed. In those days we received a payment from the government for bare essentials: food, rent, etc, we called it 'the dole', I haven't got a clue where the term came from but that’s what it was known as on the street, it's official title was 'unemployment benefit' and to receive it you had to be registered with the social security department, they would then issue you with a UB40 card which means 'Unemployment Benefit’ (40) being the reg number.'

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We chose it as a name because we all had the card but also thought it was funny and had the added bonus of 1 in every 10 British people knowing exactly what it meant thereby giving us an instant 7 million member fan club...or so we liked to think. All our friends were unemployed, very few people in central down town Birmingham found gainful employment during this time, for every job there were a thousand applicants. In fact to us it seemed more realistic and lot easier to form a band, learn to play our instruments (none of us played before leaving school) get gigs, a record contact, earn platinum discs, do the Johnny Carson show, play Madison Square Gardens and tour the world than get a regular conventional job. Here we are 30 years later still learning our instruments, still touring the world playing gigs.

While the group has had a number of great versions of love songs there has also been interestingly the political & socially conscious material from the beginning and my question is what impact and influence created the importance of the latter?

Brian Travers/UB40: When we started the band it was a very political time, especially in the UK, Punk music ruled the airwaves and if your material wasn't political it wasn't really taken seriously. After the progressive rock and disco of the 70's Britain’s teenagers, that included us, were looking for something rooted in reality. UB40 were not too taken with Punk music although the culture was cool, always being far more interested in soul and reggae music, music you could dance with a girl to rather than jump up and down with your mates. We were very political and very committed anti-whatever you got and regularly marched on anti racism demonstrations taking on the right wing extremism that always thrives on economic depression, which at the time was getting strong support from the very disillusioned and poor uneducated white working class. It manifested itself as a new Skin head culture. Ironically a few years previously the skin head fashion and culture was very multi racial thing and the very place where Reggae after Ska and Bluebeat arrived in inner city Britain from Jamaica via the influx of Jamaican people coming to England looking for work. We were young and naive and really did believe we could change something with our songs but as time passed we soon learnt that songs change nothing that does not stop us from continuing to write with a social conscience and although we might not put right any wrongs we aim to seduce with the music and subvert with the lyrics. I suppose as musicians we all preach to the converted but that’s OK...it’s something we can do with 100% conviction night after night if we believe in what we are saying and I believe it’s kept us as a band and a group of friends together for 30 years.

Do you see the politics and love material as a union made in heaven or a car on its journey that eventually will lead to its demise?

Most definitely a 'union made in heaven.'

We are all big music fans as well as musicians and although we might not concentrate our song writing around romantic or love songs we do have a big love for the genre. It’s one of the reasons we have covered our favorite reggae songs in our Labour Of Love series of albums which we have been recording for 25 years, in fact we are recording Labour of Love VI as I speak. This will be the last of those records sadly but it’s been a wonderful journey to go on with my childhood friends, recording the songs that made us first fall in love with music and especially reggae, the sound of our youth, the sound of our neighborhood. As fans of the music we just wanted to pay our respects to the genres originators, many of whom have become our friends now. Not surprisingly most of the original writer's never saw their songs become hits outside of Jamaica and only really earned a $50 dollar recording buyout so its been a great experience seeing people discover the genius of these incredible musicians and for us to see them get their publishing recognition. People often say UB40 have two musical careers, one firmly rooted in the politics and one that’s only concerned with love and romance, when it’s put like that they sound the same to me. Playing music is all about making people happy. Everything we do is political even telling someone you love them in a song.

Could you for example parallel “Food For Thought” and today’s political climate?

Yes. Quite easily. The 'Food for Thought' lyric written in 1979 concentrated on the self righteous conceit of people who believe that going to church and dropping a dollar on the collection plate will solve the world ills. Of course we used this simile as reflection of our world governments’ attitude to poverty, throw a few million dollars and some peace corp troops at the problem and see if it will disappear. I think as an example Live Aid, Live 8 etc, in fact all the myriad high profile charity fund raisers that appeal constantly for money in order to put right the things that our collective governments refuse to acknowledge proves the point. What was the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign all about if it wasn't to raise awareness within the halls and offices of our elected leaders. It was to let them know that we are witnessing their absolute refusal to take on poverty the major cause of malnutrition, conflict, illiteracy in the third world. As I said earlier songs don't change anything, its action that changes things, action speaks louder than words but sometimes the soundtrack to the action can be a beautiful melody with a wicked saxophone solo and some stinging kick ass eye opening lyrics...

I’m sure there are many but which compositions are your favorites and why

I'm always more interested in the most recent compositions and recordings so I would have to fly the flag for songs from our current release an album called TWENTYFOURSEVEN...

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1)'Lost and Found' is a big symphonic, string, horn arrangement heavy piece of reggae.

2) 'Rainbow Nation' which is similarly big and bold telling the continuing story of Gary Tyler a man we wrote about on our first album 'Signing Off' in 1979 and is still in a Louisiana jail cell for a murder he didn't commit, it seemed appropriate that since it was nearly 30 years since we first wrote about him

and he is in his 35th year of incarceration that we should reprise his story...I told you songs don't change a thing but that’s no reason to stop singing them.

3)End of War - the title says it all really.

4)Once Around: a hauntingly beautiful love song (we do write them occasionally)

5) I'll be there: Another very sweet melody love song, in fact I'm very proud of the whole album, our best yet, I'd say. All recorded as a live band in a giant recording room at our Birmingham UK studios, of course there were overdubs and re-takes of instruments, solos and string arrangements were recorded after but fundamentally we aimed to make the record like records used to be made and get away from computers and multi-tracked programmed takes. In fact It’s how we have been working for years. The album before ‘Twentyfourseven’ called 'Who you fighting for' was recorded the same way. We all agree it’s so much more satisfying, so much more musical to play the takes together like a band, looking at and listening to each other as the songs are recorded.

Would you describe the viewpoints of certain critics that you guys abandoned your political relationship with your audience for the pop-reggae songs exclusively?

What can I say without sounding like a disgruntled old musician? They are wrong first of all and I would be forced to describe those 'certain critics' as lacking a basic fundamental understanding of what UB40 is and what we are about, they obviously haven't been listening to our work or they wouldn't say that. I'm not complaining its just one of those things, I don't think we command enough headline in the media as we have never sold our private life in order to publicise our work, in turn I think its easy to over look a UB40 release, we have been making records for 30 years after all.

BUT if proof is needed for 'certain critics' of that opinion they need only to listen to the records, we have never abandoned our principles nor our political ideals, admittedly they may have matured into those of 40 year old's and not teenagers but they are there for the listening. I think it’s fair to say we have had more commercial success with our 'pop reggae' songs as you so kindly put it, is that UB40's fault? We wish we could have more success with the more substantial political songs, I think that says more about the record labels and radio programmers than us as writers and composers. In fact I'd blame 'certain critics' for ignoring our political output, we can only make the records after that it is down to the world and its critics to love or leave them.

I do believe UB40 are subjected to a degree of inverted prejudice, we are often called a white reggae band which I think is unfair on the four black musicians in the 8 piece band...I don’t hear other artists who have 'pop reggae' hits being singled out quite as much as us but the way we see it is like this.." while they are picking on us they are leaving everyone else alone.." and we are big enough to take it all with a pinch of salt and simply get on with the music - we can't and wouldn't change what we are.

Which album or albums would you say was the most daring and challenging and characterized essentially UB40?

'Daring and challenging' are not necessarily words I'd use to describe how we in UB40 approach or even think about new records. It is more about what moves us emotionally, what makes us feel good when we hear the music, what makes our kids, our girl friends and our wives dance. I think there are many platitudes that get applied to the making of music or composition that have no meaning for the musician. I suppose its daring for us to continue to please ourselves; if we want to cover a song we will do regardless of the criticism that will undoubtedly tell us we have abandoned our political relationship with our audience. We will cover songs we haven't heard for ages because we want to hear them or play with the melodies and rhythms, for us it’s like playing your favorite CD in the car, being on tour all the time we like to actually play the tunes live...

I suppose every new album or recording is a challenge, can we make ourselves happy with our own musical expression is the first requirement? More importantly will the rest of the guys like what we do, will they love the lick. We are our own biggest critics and come down on each other with a cruel and dark humor, we go back a long way to a time when we didn't shave and girls were a mystery so there are no limits to the cruelty. I should add it’s very funny though. BUT to answer your question ' which album/ albums were the most daring, challenging and characterized UB40' then I would have to say our more unconventional recordings, The DUB Albums, 'Dub Sessions' being the latest (a dub version of ‘Twentyfourseven’ with extra tracks not included on ‘Twentyfourseven’) or our Dancehall album featuring the cream of Jamaican Dancehall artists recorded during the years we lived and recorded in Jamaica, or the 'Fathers of Reggae' an album we made featuring the originators of Reggae music, all the greats whose songs we had featured on our Labour of Love series turned out to sing their selection of our songs.

With countless albums, hit singles and numerous tours expanding over three decades what other goals and objectives do you have as group?

We are still trying to make 'The' record I suppose, still trying to play the 'perfect' gig but most importantly we are still trying to just continue appreciating this incredible privilege that has been afforded us, the chance to play our music to people from every corner of this small planet. We have always toured and literally go everywhere from Africa to America from the Atlantic and Caribbean to the Pacific islands via Europe and Australasia to the Far East and back to the extreme west, you name it and we have probably been there or real close. We are still excited about the prospect of going out on the road and having the opportunity to bring our compositions and recordings to life. From April 10th we start an American tour in Snoqualmie Washington. We have been touring the States for 28 years and we've never been there but we all love that part of the American northwest. The tour continues all through April and ends up in Times Square NYC in May after taking in 20 gigs across the States. We enjoy getting back and seeing old friends made from a lifetime spent on the road playing gigs.

Thanks for participating in this interview and it has been an honor and privilege and my final question is, what have been the keys to the group success?

I believe one of the things that has helped us keep this thing going is the fact that we all knew each other before we experienced any kind of fame or musical success. U2 our friends from way back are the same. We didn't audition to get a place in the band, we were a bunch of friends with the same ambitions, we all knew each other and started on our musical journey at the same time. I think when fame arrives for a lot of young guys there is a tendency for re-invention, young people can get a little carried away with their sense of self importance and if there is no one there to remind them to stick a pin in those inflated egos. Well put it this way, that’s when musical differences happen, whereas we always reminded each other of exactly who and what we were, where we come from and where we are going, and we've had a whole heap of luck, something no musician can do without, being in the right place at the right time is almost always essential and lets not forget that this is the music 'BUSINESS' attention to the business is essential for any longevity, its not our hobby so we have to make the music pay its way. That is not to say it’s OK to sell out for the dollar, but you have to keep your eye on just enough money to get you home from the gig and back into the studio to make that next incredible tune....

House of Blues - UB40 Concert
Thursday, April 23, 2009 8:00 p.m.
Sunset Strip Hollywood CA 90069