"I get the opportunity to give people a little hope in the darkness, and that’s more important to me than any cheque": From council estates to festival stages, Skindred are still on the rise

Skindred group shot
(Image credit: Dean Chalkley)

While the world around him is sleeping, Benji Webbe is up with the lark. The Skindred frontman usually goes to bed around nine, wakes by 2.30am and spends the early hours being creative. This morning he was up at 4am writing lyrics. Now 56, he’s still is one of the most entertaining rock frontmen of our time, a man who was born to play ringleader to thousands in festival fields. But it’s here in this pre-dawn solitude where Webbe runs through the creative windmills of his mind. 

“I watch movies, and lines come from the movies and stay with me,” he says, chatting to Classic Rock in a hotel bar a short walk from Wembley Arena. It’s a sunny afternoon, and this evening Skindred will be at the venue to receive the Best UK Live Act award at the Heavy Music Awards 2023. 

“There was one line the other day,” he says: "‘Don’t let your past hold you hostage.’ I thought it was a great line, because so many of us are troubled by our past. When I’m writing for Skindred, I know it’s such an engaging audience-participation in the music, it’s beautiful knowing people are going to be affected in the right way.” 

These were the thoughts going through Webbe’s head as he was writing the words to Skindred’s exhilarating latest album, Smile, their eighth. Never before has their blend of metal and reggae been so well honed, with the dancehall element of their music – always such a key part of Skindred’s DNA – particularly prevalent on the skanking summery vibes of recent single L.O.V.E. (Smile Please), a candidate for the pop song of the summer. 

“When I wrote the lyrics to that it was a rainy day and I felt like shit,” Webb recalls, sipping on a pint of Peroni. “I went: ‘You know what? I’m not gonna write the way I feel, I’m gonna write the way I want to feel; I’m not gonna say that this is a bad day, I’m gonna turn that shit around.’” 

Webbe is infectious company. An imposing, charismatic chatterbox, the man from Newport formed Skindred 25 years ago with bassist Daniel Pugsley after Webbe’s former band Dub War had fallen by the wayside. A lot of big British bands break through with a huge debut album then spend the rest of their career trying to live up to it. But for Skindred – completed by guitarist Mikey Demus and drummer Arya Goggin, who both joined in 2002 – the reverse has been the case. 

It’s been two decades and more of hard graft and belief, each of their records injecting a frenetic rock sound with new sonic shades – whether it’s explosive riffs and snarling anthems sitting next to raggapop protest songs (2007’s Roots Rock Riot), electronic dub diversions (2011’s Union Black) or hip-hop-flavoured loops (2014’s Kill The Power) – and Smile feels very much like a culmination of everything they’ve ever done previously. It’s a Skindred album that says: “Our time is now.” 

“I don’t look at it like twenty-five years,” Webbe says of the group’s slow-rise trajectory. “I look at it like a journey. I’ve learned that I have to enjoy where I am on the way to where I’m going, cos if I never get to where I’m going, at least I had a good time trying. There’s a fire in me that just keeps raging. You can’t put it out.”

Drummer Goggin thinks Skindred’s moment in the spotlight could only have happened like this. It was meant to be that they took the long way round. 

“I feel like everything happens at the right time,” he says. “Skindred is a thing that’s been around for a very long time for us as a band, it’s a very long time for the people who’ve been with us all that way through twenty-plus years. I think they’ve been spurring us on, the industry has been spurring us on, the timing feels right. We wouldn’t change anything.”


On the day we spoke, Skindred had just been announced as last-minute replacements for Five Finger Death Punch at Download, and the drummer marvels at seeing their name so high up on the line-up poster, with only Alter Bridge and Metallica above them. Goggin thinks the festival is a great barometer for Skindred’s career. 

“The first time we played was 2006, on the MySpace tent, right at the bottom,” he says. “Next time we were on the main stage, first on. After that the main stage again, one up. And so on. In the UK we’ve really paid our dues.” 

They’ve had to work at winning over an army of fans on home turf. Much of the period around their debut album Babylon and follow-up Roots Rock Riot was spent on the road in America, where it was felt the band had a chance of success. 

“We were doing well over there,” Goggin says. “We were getting top-ten singles and doing [US talk-show host] Conan O’Brien. It felt like it was happening over there, and we ignored England and Europe.” 

He recalls a conversation backstage with Muse once, and realising Skindred’s error. “I was chatting with them and I was like: ‘What are you doing after this festival?’ Because we were on the main stage and they were on the second stage. They said: ‘We’re going back to headline three nights at Earls Court. What are you doing?’. I said: ‘Fucking hell, that’s great! We’re doing The Barfly and The Cavern…’. It was the same things we had been doing, but not building on them.” 

It was around 2011’s Union Black that Goggin felt Skindred had finally generated some momentum. “We got the UK and European fans back onside, but it took a good five or six years.” 

Another hurdle in the early days was that the industry’s gatekeepers couldn’t fully grasp Skindred’s blend of influences. Here was a band who saw nothing wrong with fashioning a sound built out of their love of Bob Marley, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, The Clash, Helmet, Black Sabbath and more. 

Bassist Daniel Pugsley, who Webbe describes as the group’s “musical director”, remembers their first label confirming the deal on the day that Limp Bizkit went to No.1. “I was like: ‘Do they think we’re Limp Bizkit? Cos we’re not gonna give them that. A year later, they were like: ‘We’re not really seeing the vision for Skindred.’”

Soon after, Pugsley watched as a wave of Welsh emo bands came under the spotlight during the mid-00s, while Skindred were ignored. 

“Instantly, we were really uncool,” he says. “People thought the reggae element was a gimmick. I never thought it was a weird thing, it felt natural to me what we were doing.” 

With the spot-on succinctness of someone who has spent years answering the question: “What does your band sound like?”, Webbe describes Skindred as “a reggae sound system with heavy-metal instrumentation”. “We’re the only band you can go see at Download and hear: ‘Pull up selecta!’” he says with a laugh. 

The relationship between the four band members hasn’t always been smooth, as studio bickering in the 2015 documentary Rude Boys For Life demonstrated, but it’s a dynamic that makes them what they are. 

“Arya is like the manager, he’s fucking groovemaster,” Webbe explains. “Dan is the music man, he keeps it relevant. Mike brings a coolness. Everyone in this band is a machine.” 

How about Webbe’s guide to keeping a line-up together for 21 years? Here are his three main pillars: 1. Shut the fuck up; 2. Get on with it; 3. Sit on your hands. Maybe the last one needs a little explanation: “I’m from shithole, Wales,” Webbe says. “So when someone says something out of order it’s fisticuffs. I punch them in the fucking face. Being in a band for so long, we’re very different people from very different backgrounds. It’s a relationship, so I’ve got to sit on my hands when some things are said. In rock’n’roll, bands break up over little things. It’s so Spinal Tap.” 

Guitarist Mikey Demus puts it a little more diplomatically. “We care about each other and we support each other and we’re still doing it after all this time,” he offers. “Some people learn their roles over time. I feel like I’ve never known myself better and I’ve never known the people around me better. Sometimes things are very fractious, but we’re all quite bloody-minded. We all love what we do. And you have to love it. 

"I think maybe people take Skindred for granted, touring hard and releasing music, but it could all go, just like that. I’m pleased we get to say we’re doing it in 2023, against all odds. We’ve never been massively commercially successful or super-cool, but we’re still doing it – the people’s choice.”

Benji Webbe thinks that everything about Skindred – their sound, their determination, their feistiness – is a product of his upbringing. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Newport, he’d lost both parents by the age of 13 and was what he describes as a “feral” teenager. “If I ain’t doing Skindred, I’m doing Skindred, I’ve got fuck all else,” he says. He loved his brother Clifford’s reggae records, but also loved Bowie, Kiss, Sweet and T.Rex, and didn’t see why he had to choose between the two. “There’s no way I could pick a lane,” he says. 

Losing his parents so early put a drive in him, he reckons. “I had to bring my own happiness. I never had Christmas presents. I could look at rock’n’roll and say it owes me this and it owes me that. But I don’t look at what I haven’t got, I look at what I have got. That’s what gets me through. From an orphan to where I am now it’s a fucking great journey.” 

A crucial part of Skindred’s success has been and still is their thrilling live shows. To see Webbe on stage conducting an audience of frenzied diehards is to see him in his element. He’s never nervous beforehand, he says, just anxious to get among it. “I know I’m the guy who’s going to bring these people alive, that I’m gonna set this place on fire. Whether it’s eighty thousand people at Download or a pub with six people, it’s the same thing for me, the same energy. I want people to leave with something. I like the cheque, don’t get me wrong. But I get the opportunity to give people who are going through it a little hope in the darkness, and that’s more important to me than any cheque.” 

He says at the band’s first ever gig he was exactly the same as he is now. “I’ve always been like this,” he declares. One key difference was the absence of his trademark exuberant outfits, such as the sequinned UK flag jacket he unveiled at Download in 2011, or the Michael Jackson-gone-anarcho-punk look he sported a few years later. 

The move into more showy costumes came when a friend came to watch the band and told him the gig was great, but he could barely make him out in the fug. “After that, it hit me,” he enthuses. “I started watching people like the Pope – when he turns up, you know he’s in the room – and Liberace and Elvis Presley. I started with little studs here and there, and then it developed: ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna get a feather boa!’”

It was while working with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo in LA that he visited the home of the late flamboyant showman Liberace’s, and had a lightbulb moment. “I saw his clothes and I was floored,” he says. “This thing hit me and I thought: ‘I’m born again. I’m taking the power of Liberace onto the stage with me. You’ve got to be who you are called to be. When I go to Asda, if I wanna wear my crazy shit, I wear it. Where I live, people used to look at me when I first started doing it, now it’s nothing. I’m doing the gardening in a sequinned full leather jacket.”

For Webbe, the trickiest time in the band was while they were making 2018’s Big Tings. Until then, vocals, lyrics and melodies were solely his domain, but suddenly his bandmates wanted to pitch in. 

“Mikey came up and said: ‘I’ve got a song.’ Dan said: ‘I’ve got a song.’ And I was like: ‘Fuck you! I’m the songwriter, motherfuckers!’ That hurt a little, and I had to realise we’re all in this together. I had to check out the Queen vibe, and see that they did the same thing.” 

His ego was bruised, though. 

“Some of the songs, they just said: ‘Sing this, fucko!’ I was like: ‘Whaaat?!’ They’d be like: ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ and I’d turn into Miss Piggy: ‘What, moi?!’ It was a difficult time.” 

On the new record he learned to be a little more open to collaboration. It was guitarist Mikey Demus who came up with the ‘gimme that boom’ phrase on the song of the same name. While Webbe’s initial reaction was: “That’s fucking shit!” the band’s producer suggested to him that there was something in it. 

“I took a big breath and chilled the fuck out,” the singer says. It turned into one of the standout songs on new album Smile, Gimme That Boom’s crunching rock groove providing Webbe with a platform to be at his most magnetic and playful. When Webbe thinks of where Skindred are in their career, he imagines a ladder with 10 rungs on it and sees them as four steps in. 

“I’ve been doing this for nearly twenty-five years with these guys, and I’ve got six steps to go,” he says. “I live on a shithole council estate, I own my own house on a council estate. No one else owns their own house, but I wanna be there because I know there’s kids in that street who look up to me and go: ‘That guy could be anywhere he wanted to but he chooses to be where we are.’ I want to stay grounded within my mind and soul.” 

With that, it’s time for the band to finish their drinks and make the short stroll to Wembley Arena. There they go, 25 years in the making; two decades and more that has taken in highs and lows, hard-won success, huge shows, awards, and a lot of Benji Webbe sitting on his hands. Skindred are still on the up, and there are six of 10 steps still to go. 

Smile is out now via Earache Records.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.