Skindred's Second Coming: Eclectic Welsh Outfit Ready to Reclaim America with 'Big Tings'
Still a top draw at European festivals, Skindred is finding a home on American radio once again with "That's My Jam's" multi-genre sound.
Big Tings is the seventh album from Welsh raga-cum-metal outfit Skindred. The group's bag of tricks has historically incorporated dashes of hip-hop, jungle, dubstep, and a host of other genres. If that seems like a lot to swallow all one time, rest easy. At the bottom of it, are rump-shaking beats meant to bang the head that does not bang in rooms the size of an Irish county.
The latest doesn't disappoint, particularly with the rhythm-intensive title track, a song so eclectic that it could pass into infamy on either alternative or contemporary country (OK, a bit of a stretch but maybe) radio. Then there's "That's My Jam", a tune that became a sensation on Active Radio in the U.S. earlier this year, marking the first time in many years that the band reached the airwaves on American shores.
Though Skindred had once been something of an alt darling in the land of positive thinking and restaurants serving up chicken wings, denim shorts, and oversized breasts, things have been dark on that continent in recent years. But drummer Arya Goggin says that he and his bandmates (vocalist Benji Webbe, bassist Daniel Pugsley, guitarist Michael Fry) are ready to come back and reclaim the country as their own.
Speaking on a mid-summer afternoon between major festival dates in Europe, Goggin is appropriately outsized, warm and humorous in conversation. What's clear throughout is that he's positive that Skindred can rise in the American market once more.
Did you have a sense of the kind of record you were going to make when you went into the studio this last time?
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a totally conscious decision. We're, at the heart, a heavy rock band with lots of different elements: punk, metal, dub, reggae, hip-hop, drum 'n' bass. We've built up a good cult following over the years. But sometimes it's a double-edged sword. You've got this secret weapon but sometimes people don't want the weapon. They don't want the special sauce. So it becomes a matter of, "How do we get a wider audience and still keep the Skindred sound?"
It was down to deconstructing songs we'd done before and saying, "That worked, that didn't work." In music, just because you can doesn't always mean that you should. I know that's a Jurassic Park quote but that's how we looked at it! Maybe it was smarter to do smaller bits here and there. It was cool. It was a challenge. A lot of the time songwriters think their shit don't stink and the writing process for this album was a reminder that it does quite a lot actually.
There was this time in the late '80s and early '90s when Faith No More and Mr. Bungle practiced this radical eclecticism in their music. That's interesting and can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Was that your attitude this time out?
That's exactly my attitude! This is the way I looked at it: In England and Europe, we're headlining a venue like Brixton Academy with 5,000 people. But we'll also play Download to 80,000. They're going mental while we're playing. But I'm only putting 5,000 of them in a room. How do we get the other 75,000?
Success in music is as much about timing as anything else. Sometimes the timing's not right. Sometimes the songs that could have helped us weren't there. I think that with this record they are there. That seems to be the resounding thing listeners. They seem to say, "When did Skindred learn to write songs?" [laughs]
In my hometown, the local arena hosts legacy acts: Def Leppard and Journey just came through. Then you go to a large theatre-sized room for Bush and/or Stone Temple Pilots headlining over a lesser-known band that may or may not have some mileage. Then it's clubs for everything else. You don't often go to an arena and see and up-and-coming bands on the bill and you don't see the mid-sized bands headlining mid-sized rooms as much. Is it like that in Europe right now as well?
It's the whole question of "Who are tomorrow's headliners?" I'm giving away my age here, but I first saw Ozzy Osbourne when he came out of retirement to do "I'm Done: The Last Tour!" That was in 1996. He's been wheeled out every year since then. He was supposed to be done 20 years ago. He's still the headliner! My worry is, as you're saying, that next step seems to be taken up by the Def Leppards and the Ozzys. They're iconic; they're all fantastic, it's great. What else have you got? Disturbed? Avenged Sevenfold? There seems to be a big leap. It's difficult.
Over here it seems to be about a festival culture. When someone sees a name higher up on the bill that's like a head start. It's perception: "Oh wow! That band, they're huge! They're playing Korn or the Deftones. These are big bands." If you're not fortunate enough to get those kinds of breaks you're going to struggle.
If you're at a smorgasbord, you'll grab an extra piece of ham even if you'd never otherwise add it to a meal.
[laughs] That's totally it. But they don't have to watch. At a festival, it's not just one stage. I just wonder about that other 75. What's the disconnect? Are they just watching because it's the only thing going on? I don't think that's the case. I think the disconnect is that extra little bit of ham. I wanna know how you made the ham the main ingredient.
I think maybe it's "the song." You see bands up there, and they have "the song". I don't want to talk shit, but there are bands that had that one hit and people will show up to hear that song. That song's great, but the rest is dog shit. Who knows? Maybe we've got "that song" in there, and more people will turn up next time.
So how do you become the band that doesn't have "the song" but the band that has "the songs"?
A lot of the time those things are taken away from you. We're going to go in and write what we want to write. Obviously, we can talk about how we want it to be successful but until someone gets behind it, until the machine, the whole team, is working at it, it doesn't matter. I don't think you can put out a bad song and expect it to do well with the machine. It still has to be good. But if the machine's not in place maybe it's not going to reach its potential.
We were signed to a major label the first time around. We all took for granted how much work and how much money was put into our band. We thought that was the norm. Then that goes away, and you say, "How come the second record didn't do as well? I'm sure the songs are better because I wrote them and they're better to me. Are the fans not into that?"
Then you realize that the machine's not behind it, so it's not even going to get to the fans. I think with this new record the machine seems to be in place. We've been absent from America for a long time. The fact that the American side of things is now saying, "We're going to put some eggs in some baskets and see where it goes" is exciting.
How do you characterize your relationship with the U.S.?
We were in America from 2003 until 2009. Nonstop. Our singer ended up living in America. So did our guitar player. He's actually married to an American. She was from Denver and lives here now. Our singer was in a relationship with at the time with an American. So, that's been a massive part of the band's life. Not just musically.
We'd been there for so long. There were times when I went home twice a year: Christmas and a bit of the summer for festivals; then I'd be back in America, just touring and touring. A lot of people in the UK and elsewhere thought we were an American band. It was hilarious because we were having a lot more success in America than over here.
Now it's completely the opposite. In 2009 we swapped managers. We were managed by some American guys called the Bieler Brothers. When we parted with them we took on a British manager. It just made sense at the time to put some work into Europe and the UK to see where we could get. It was cool but after a couple of years we got an ache to go back to America. We couldn't. The momentum had died.
We had bad label decisions over there. Finally, the stars have aligned and we're able to do it, but it feels like such a long time since we've been over there and been able to make a dent and properly work it.
You have to work America. That's what we learned early on. We were happy to get in the van and tour back and forth and really work it. A lot of our British peers weren't up for doing that at the time and we said, "Brilliant! That's more for us!" America is so huge though. Daunting.
I spoke with a Texas musician last week and joked with him that you could spend half of your life just touring that state. It's 11 hours wide.
Mental. Absolutely mental.
It takes, what, six or eight hours to go through the entirety of England?
You can get from Land's End to the top before Scotland in about six hours. If you include Scotland, you're about 10 hours.
We were on tour one time with Papa Roach, and these girls would come to the shows and say, "Oh, we've traveled 10 hours to see you." I'd think, "Are you fucking mad? Ten hours?" But they'd say, "Well, that's the only time we'd be able to see you." It was ten hours or nothing. But you can do England in 10 hours. Bands over here will do a three-four week tour of the UK.
We'll play Bristol. Newport, in Wales, is 30 miles away. People won't go from Newport to watch us in Bristol. They won't get on the train, which will cost them six pounds. They'll say, "Oh, we'll wait until you play Newport." Really?
There's also this regional thing here. You can have a band that's huge in the Midwest but dead in the South or dead in the Pacific Northwest. And it's just chance.
I totally remember that. We'd play these radio festivals in America and there'd be these bands I'd never heard of. You'd go to Florida and there's a band that's bigger than the "national" band that would headline somewhere else and be huge. I'd never heard of them but Florida was their place. Over here? If you're big in England, you're big in England. It's pretty standard. It doesn't really change from Scotland to Wales. But you can have a band that's massive in Louisiana but does no business in Illinois.
How are your dealings with the American market different now?
I feel like we're starting out again over there. When you have something, say airplay, you don't care about it. Take it away, and it's all you fucking want. Then you start having scraps with the band, with managers, with the label. You start saying, "Why did a song we wrote 15 years when we didn't care about radio wind up all over radio? And now we're trying to get our songs heard there and now we can't."
I think American radio was always bigger than us. I think it takes someone to see potential in a song and make it work. That's the way that I have to believe it, anyway. I think up to this point there wasn't anything that suited the audience for active rock and alternative. This time out, when she heard "That's My Jam" she liked it. A few years ago we went to her with something from Kill the Power, our fifth album, and said, "Look, we've got this song that we think will be great for radio." She said, "I'll be honest, I'm not really interested."
This time American success wasn't on our minds, but it happened anyway. I'd like to say it was a master plan but I think you'd see right through me!
Do you have a sense of who listens to your music?
I don't think we knew our audience for a long time. You can strive to be accepted by a world that doesn't want you. Especially in the UK. The press there is notoriously snobby. As a musician, you have ego, and you want your critics to love you. You want your peers to love you. You chase certain things and forget that people are people.
We play to a rock audience. That's our core. It's a very broad rock audience, but the core is mainly male, I think. And it's age 15 right up to 50 or 60. For the older guys, it's something new that reminds them of when they first discovered rock. And for the kids it is new. Because we're grown men, we're not a kiddie band.
I don't know how it is in the States, but here if you're 18 or 19, you've got to be doing something that's so good or so great that a 50-year-old man is going to get it.
And this goes back to that missing 75,000. There are dudes in the back who think, "I don't want to mosh and jump around. I want to be entertained by a show. I want to sing along, put my fist in the air." Those are the guys I want to come to the party. They're still buying records; they're still buying merch.
I've always enjoyed the journey of a musician. I like to see the changes from album to album. I've always liked bands that take risks. I don't want to listen to bands do the same thing over and over again unless they're AC/DC.
You can be angry. You can be political. You can be whatever you want to be as long as it's real. Then I'm there with you.
Metal fans can be intensely loyal but you can't step outside certain parameters.
If we play a metal festival like Wacken it always goes off. We've done it two or three times. That's Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper. And then of course there's the guy off in the corner doing medieval jousting. We come on and sound a bit like Abba compared to everything else. That's great! You stand out. There's melody they weren't expecting, there's groove they weren't expecting. It brings a bit of sunshine to a dark day.
We played Grasspop in Belgium this year, and the headliners were Judas Priest, Perfect Circle, Ozzy Osbourne, Limp Bizkit, us. Limp Bizkit absolutely killed it. There were guys out there with the denim patches and absolutely loving it. People didn't have to like it; they could just leave so when they don't you think, "Wow! This is great."
It's tricky to work with humor because if you play it too much one way you're a comedy band, not enough and you're grumpy, stodgy.
As soon as Benji, our vocalist opens his mouth; it's evident that it's tongue-in-cheek. There are lyrics that are very heavy, very serious. Things about him being stabbed, things about life, death, things wrong with the world. It's all common things, but it's delivered with a hint and twist of positivity.
You talk about all those things, be dark and dour, but you can put a positive spin on it. Light out of dark. Old school reggae, old school rebel music.
When I go to a show I want to be entertained and I feel like Benji does that. His vocal style and personality are important to that. He says shit that only he can get away with. I think, "How did you say that and get a laugh? If I said that I'd be lynched!" I think that's where the power comes from. I've got to give him credit.
And, also, we're really funny people! [laughs]