At the start of the millennium, Benji Webbe was feeling like he may have missed his chance at making a life for himself in music. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to be honest,” the Skindred frontman remembers. “[Benji’s previous band] Dub War had split up but I was still coming up with song ideas. Back then it was just me jamming with [Skindred bassist] Dan Pugsley, but we couldn’t find anyone else that we really wanted to play with.”
As Dan and Benji tried in vain to play with various unsuitable musicians their frustrations grew, to the point where the pair of them decided to start creating music by themselves. “We just went off on our own and were writing as a pair,” Benji continues. “If nothing had come of it then I guess I would have gone off to try to do something else. But we thought we had some good stuff; a few of the songs that ended up on our first record actually came out of that first session.”
One of these would go on to become a Skindred anthem. “Dan came up with the idea for Nobody back then,” says Benji. “He brought it in one day and I remember thinking that there was definitely something about it that I liked, that I could add something really cool to it.”
Although the duo had a few songs that they believed in, they still were without half a band – until a chance meeting with Benji’s former Dub War bandmates gave birth to Skinded’s first incarnation.
“I went to a party and I bumped into Jeff [Rose, guitar] and Ginge [AKA Martin Ford, drums] and I was telling them that we had some great songs, but nobody to play them with us!” Benji laughs. “So, they offered to join the band. We had split amicably so I didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t do that.”
With Skindred now a complete band they headed out on the road, honing the skills that would see them become that most consistently brilliant of live bands that we have come to know and love. During these shows Benji would study the crowd reactions to certain songs. One seemed to constantly get a huge response.
“We were playing bottom of the bill on all kinds of little tours, playing pubs and toilet venues, just putting ourselves out and about, you know how it is,” he grins. “But, wherever we went, this song Nobody was getting people moving every night. I was watching it and thinking ‘Hmm… we got a good one here!’ So, I knew when we went in to record that we had to get that song right, because I thought it could be an important one for us.”
Not everyone quite felt the same. Skindred were newly signed to US label Bieler Bros, and, with their record bosses based on the other side of the Atlantic, the band were summoned from Newport to LA to record their debut album with high-profile producer Howard Benson. A man Benji describes as “hard work”.
“Howard had some funny ideas.” Benji sighs. “He had produced P.O.D., Crazy Town, all that stuff. He had a pretty different idea to what he wanted us to sound like to me. It’s fucking rock’n’roll! I wanted it raw and live and fresh! We recorded the music to Nobody and when it came to doing the vocals I just went in the booth and threw out whatever I was feeling. You know me, it wasn’t planned too far in advance, I just like to vibe on stuff. I was in there doing my thing, I came out and thought I’d nailed it and Howard wasn’t happy. He said that it would never work and that we should just delete it there and then. I don’t even think he wanted it on the album, let alone as a single.”
Of course, Benji Webbe is not the sort of person to be dissuaded from his opinion on the strength of one producer’s say-so.
“We bashed heads over it, definitely,” he says. “I think, in our career since, we maybe have tried to do things that were a bit different and unnatural, or we have listened to what the label wanted a bit. But I was sure about this song, I really believed in it, and I wasn’t afraid to tell Howard what I thought. And, well, I ended up getting my own way, so...”
Indeed he did. Nobody stayed on the record, and Skindred’s debut album, Babylon, was released on July 3, 2002. But the drama that characterised the early years of the band wasn’t quite over just yet.
“A lot of the same things that led to Dub War breaking up were coming up again,” says Benji. “Jeff and Ginge didn’t really want to tour, they had families and wanted a quiet life, and so we went and found Mikey [Demus, guitar] and Arya [Goggin, drums] and that’s when we really became Skindred. The album was repackaged and re-released a couple of years later, and we’ve just never looked back have we?”
Finally settled and secure, Skindred embarked on a touring schedule so intense that it would petrify even the most hardened road warriors. “We toured all over the US with whoever would have us,” Benji declares. “That’s always been one of our strongest points. We are probably the only band that can go out, as we did, with Korn and Gogol Bordello and get the same reaction from both fanbases.”
And, again, night after night, Nobody was getting the biggest response of all of their material. But, as Benji remembers it, the song was really boosted when it was included on the soundtrack for the game Need For Speed: Underground 2 in 2005.
“I never thought much about it, I never played those games growing up,” he laughs. “I just thought we might get a little bit of money for it. But then suddenly I’ve got these kids coming up to me going, ‘Oh! Need For Speed! Need For Speed!’ They told me they had never heard our band until they heard us on that game. It opened us up to a whole new audience, like Top Of The Pops did to me when I was a little kid. This was 2005, so it was just at the start of this new way of consuming music, and kids were getting new music, not from TV or the radio, but from films and the internet and computer games. That doesn’t really seem to happen anymore, which is a bit of a shame, really.”
As the years have progressed, Skindred have become an institution in the metal scene, spending more than a decade turning up to festivals the world over and casually blowing everyone offstage. By this point, they’ve got more bangers than your local butcher, but Nobody remains in the set at every show they play, enduring as the band’s back catalogue continues to grow.
“Oh, we have to play it every time,” Benji snaps back immediately when asked if he ever thinks about giving Nobody a rest. “I want people to come and have the best possible time that they can have at a Skindred show. That song is still getting one of the best reactions all these years later; why would we drop that?”
But how does Benji personally feel when he’s playing the song now compared to those vital early shows?
“Well, it’s usually one of the last few songs in the set,” he smiles. “And, these days, I get to the end of our set and I’m usually feeling pretty spent. It’s a draining experience fronting Skindred, you gotta know that! I give it everything every night. When it comes to Nobody I might be lagging a little bit, and then that last bit before the final drop comes in gives me a little breather, and I always make sure I look out over the crowd. I tell you, every night without fail, they are losing it to that part, and it just lifts me. It gives me that boost to finish off the rest of the set. So I love it; I love playing it, because I love feeding off of that energy.”
A pretty good legacy for a song written by a pair of musicians without a band, without knowing if they had a future in music and without knowing if the finished song would ever even see the light of day.
“Yeah, we’ve done alright, haven’t we?” Benji laughs as he thinks back on his band’s history. “I’ve always just loved music, whatever type of music I can get in my ears, and back then a lot of people had written me off. A lot of people thought Skindred were just another band jumping on that nu metal bandwagon. But I think that we have proved everyone wrong. I think that we’re just thought of as Skindred now. We’re not a part of a scene, we’re our own thing, and songs like Nobody were really important to us on that journey.”
Originally published in Metal Hammer #333
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