“I don’t think anyone can just make the music that Skindred makes,” suggests Skindred’s formidable frontman Benji Webbe. “You’ve got to live a life to make this music.”
The Newport quartet - completed by guitarist Mikey Demus, bassist Daniel Pugsley, and drummer Arya Goggin - has been living large and playing loud for a quarter of a century, powered by a key element that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves. “When I look out into the crowd, whether it’s in a small room or a festival crowd, the one thing I notice above all else is the smiles.”
Welcome, then, to Smile - an eighth album that’s sure to turn even the most stubborn frown upside down.
When it came time to make Skindred’s biggest, baddest and most reflective record to date, the band worked with producer Julian Emery, whose work with Nothing But Thieves illustrated his adeptness with dynamics and melodies. “It had to be a British producer because we’re a British band,” explains drummer Arya, mindful of the logistics of travelling to the US, or the possible challenges of having an American producer decamp to the UK in the age of COVID-19. “We also wanted someone with songwriting chops, to slot in with the melodic sound that we have, who didn’t just have an ear for the melodies, but could contribute suggestions too. Julian has all those skills.”
Engineering duties, meanwhile, were handled by Pete Hutchings, who’d helped capture the superior sonics of the most recent releases from Royal Blood and Foals, so familiar with the kind of eclecticism Skindred were after. “Having found this brilliant team to work with, the next part of the puzzle was the songs,” says Arya.
Thankfully, writing for Smile had begun back in 2019, between bouts of touring for their seventh album, Big Tings - in-person before the pandemic hit, and remotely afterwards. ‘Set Fazers’, a compelling ball of hectic energy, was one of the first tracks to emerge from the creative process. “Instead of set phasers to stun we set them to fun,” jokes Benji. Good times, it turns out, gave way to healthy productivity too, with most of the tracks that make up Smile realised by the time they entered the studio - with one notable exception.
The album’s first single ‘Gimme That Boom’ was crafted in the studio during the very last days of the session, with each of the band’s four members adding their creative stamp, making it the living embodiment of the unique chemistry that’s enthralled fans for 25 years. “We draw upon the essence of what we are,” is how Benji puts it. “Some people follow a path, but we prefer to hack through the jungle!”
An incessant earworm, ‘Gimme That Boom’ deals with the selfish entitlement that’s become so prevalent in this age of instant gratification, based on a frustrating encounter Benji had with an overfamiliar fan. “I was out shopping one day, and I could hear someone building up asking me for a picture,” the frontman recalls. “The person didn’t care who I was with or what I was doing - they just wanted their picture. In this day and age, people want you and they expect to get you on tap, constantly giving you that ‘boom’ so they can get their Instagram Likes up. It’s important to remember that people can't give you that ‘boom’ all the time. People think because they follow you on social media, they own you.”
‘L.O.V.E (Smile Please)’ has already been introduced to listener’s via Skindred’s incredible main stage performance at 2022’s Download Festival. There, 60,000 rabid fans attested to the quality of a track that leans more heavily into the reggae roots prevalent on the band’s debut album, 2002’s Babylon. “What a way for us to bring that song to the world for the first time,” beams Benji, “on a big stage, in front of a field of maniacs, doing what we do.”
Skindred write songs that deal with big themes, and they’ve continued to do so on Smile; ‘Addicted’, for instance, deals with the fact we all have compulsions in common, “whether that be the gym or the crack pipe,” says Benji. One subject they hadn’t tackled, until now, is what it’s like to be in Skindred - to have traversed the highs and lows of being one of the UK’s most exciting and unique acts, the story of four men who went from playing pubs to getting the world’s biggest festival crowds swinging t-shirts over their heads.
The track ‘Our Religion’ does just that. A sludgy colossus that’s sure to get bodies bouncing, it’s characterised by dark riffery and tongue-in-cheek lyricism. “We do this 24/7 and we’re not doing it to get a couple of quid in the bank,” Benji says of the band he’s fronted since 1998. “We’re doing this for the future generation of listeners. ‘Our Religion’ is setting out the stall of what we do as Skindred; this is our foundation. It’s our story too, about how long we’ve been doing this, and how it’s been a struggle over the years, having doors slammed in our faces on the road to where we are now. Listening to this track, the first thing I think about is being in Arya’s van in the early 2000s, being paid £50 and having to wait for the promoter to go to the cashpoint to get it. And we’re still here today, doing what we do, because we love it.”
Thematically, ‘Our Religion’ is complemented by another key album track, ‘Unstoppable’. While the former track distils the essence of what it is to be Skindred and the mutual reverence they share with their fans, the latter, a grooving juggernaut, attests to the enduring power of a band that delivers a good time, every time. “We keep going and we keep pushing forward,” says Benji, a man who’s no stranger to being unstoppable, having survived sepsis and having his throat slashed.
For him and for Skindred, it’s about enduring and it’s about legacy. “In life, it’s about hearing that our music has encouraged people and got them through dark times. But even when we’re done and gone, people will still be listening to this music. That thought makes me smile.”