Fun Lovin’ Criminals returned this year after a hefty half-decade long legal battle with a new album and a busy season of touring across the U.K. and beyond. Last Tuesday the trio delivered a brilliant performance at Lincoln’s Engine Shed, to a not-so brilliant crowd that unfortunately saw the intimate atmosphere as an invitation to yell wisecracks and grab the band’s attention between every song. Despite the repetitive drunken disruption Huey, Fast and Frank were as cool and charismatic as ever and, even after a tragic weekend that had forced them to reschedule several dates, their dynamic set left ears ringing across the city.
Before the show Scott Kershaw shared a couple of beers and a lengthy chat with drummer Frank Benbini to discuss record companies, the bureaucracy behind the business, Prince and the past, present and future of Fun Lovin’ Criminals.
So, you’re back! Could you shed a little light on the events of the past five years?
We were caught in a legal battle with our former management, so we were not in the frame of mind to write music as we were pretty much just tied down with that. Me and Fast worked on our little reggae project that we do on the side; reworking a Prince album, the Purple Rain soundtrack, in a reggae format. We did that to tick us over for a little while, because when you go into the studio with the Criminals it’s an ordeal. There’s a lot to live up to with each record and we just weren’t in the productive frame of mind because of all the legal shit. Eventually we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel and we realised it was time to start knuckling down.
Once you returned to the studio how did you go about creating Classic Fantastic?
Past records normally start by listening to a lot of vintage stuff on vinyl, finding little riffs and sampling stuff, but this time we approached it from a different direction. We tried sampling ourselves, so I’d go into the studio and play some old ’70s beats and then we’d sample that, mess it up, use that as a backbone and then I’d play again on top, so there was a lot of technical work going on. We were conscious that we wanted to create a more up-tempo record. The last two were smothered with world trade references and were a little down, so we really wanted to bring the tempo back up, but we had to get the fucking lawsuit out of the way first because we were not in the mood to write that sort of material, as you can imagine. It was not a fun time. So we got that out of the way and then began concentrating on our music again and it came quickly once we got back in the studio. Eventually we chose about a dozen songs that we wanted and ended up with Classic Fantastic.
The album is definitely up-tempo, and it really sounds like there’s a celebration behind each track. Is that how it felt to be back in the studio?
It was definitely a relief. Every time that we were close to finishing a track I’d always say ‘right, does this sound like we’re putting the fun back into the Fun Lovin’ Criminals?’ That was essentially the phrase that was written on the board from the word go. We always have to put the stoner jams on Criminal albums, so there’s Rewind and El Malo and stuff like that, but the majority is very upbeat. While it was definitely a conscious thing to make it a little more uplifting we were genuinely relieved to get it out, and I think that does strengthen the album.
After experiencing the brutal side of the industry you’ve released this through your own label. What have you learnt from the legal battle?
Record companies have been on their arse and it’s not worth doing it that way anymore. For any bands out there, if you can do it yourself then do. All you need is to get some money together to go out and pay for your marketing, pay for promotion, pay for your studio time and then everything begins to fall into place if you’re good enough. You’ll get an agent and then you can play live and before you know it you’re off and running. It’s hard but it’s possible, and you don’t need a record company. No one needs a record company. Actually selling your music is a fucking nightmare because any kid above twelve years old knows how to download pretty much anything, so you many as well just give your music away and make sure that your shows are fucking chocked out because that’s the only place you’ll make any money. It is hard, and it’s alright for me to say what I’m about to say, because Prince has a couple of hundred million in the bank, but what he does now is amazing management. He gives away his music for free and then advertises a load of shows in the same week and his shows are sold out. Well of course, he’s just given you an album, you’re all into it, and then he says now pay seventy pounds to see me and the dude is fucking banked up because that’s very, very smart business. But he can afford to do that, while these young bands need every penny for their tracks, but the idea is sound, because it’s filling the gigs. Record companies are done mate. They’ve had their day and they are over.
Live music is clearly so important for artists, but do you believe it to be as socially important for audiences today as in decades past, when recorded music was much less accessible?
Definitely. Live is where it’s at. There’s nothing better than seeing a show or going to a festival. It’s a celebration, you know? Sitting in traffic and listening to an album in your car passes the time, but it’s not exactly fun. It’s all about being in a field with your best mates, out of your fucking head and one of your bands come on and you’re all singing along to your favourite song. It’s the best. There’ll always be business for those bands playing live, and it’ll probably be the only business left. As a band you might as well chop the middle man out, get yourself a big-arse back line, get yourself a promotional team and tour, and then everything will come back to you 100%.
There has always been a reputation for Fun Lovin’ Criminals great gigs, and you clearly get a huge buzz from performing, but do you enjoy being on the road?
I enjoy the two hours each night between when I’m preparing to go onstage and when I come off. I love that bit, but the rest of it is fucking hard work. Imagine ten dudes all living on a bus for a month. At times it’s hilarious, the best days of your life, and at times tiring. It’s like anything and when you’re living out of each other’s pockets there is going to be a few bust ups along the way. You get arguments, tantrums and the odd fight, but then tonight when we’re on stage that’s why we’re here and you’ve just got to remember that sometimes when you’re having a fucking hissy fit. When you get tired you get snappy, and it’s like any other job in that respect, but that moment before you go on it’s like ‘Yeah, this is wicked. This is what it’s all about.’ We still love doing it, we might make out we don’t sometimes, we might even think it, but we do deep down.
Now that the tour’s back on track are you psyched up for tonight’s show and the gigs beyond?
Yeah, we’ve just got over a rough weekend, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and this is our first show back. We’d just started going and then we had to stop, but now the whole team’s back together, we’ve got our younger brothers out, and it’s great. Hopefully we’ll just keep on going forward now.
Hopefully so. Do you now have five-years of creativity to release in the studio, or after the tour are you planning on taking it easy for a while?
Well we’ve recently done remixes for several artists, working with Roots Manuva, Lily Allen, Coldplay, Black Seeds and Fat Freddy’s Drop. The Prince album, Purple Reggae, will hopefully be out next year and we’ll probably do a few dates to back it up as well, but that’s just the stuff that me and Fast do on the side. I’m working on another Uncle Frank record, Smiles For Miles, but the Criminals always come first. This Friday we’ll be multi-tracking the show in London and next year the Criminals will, after seventeen years, be putting out a live album and live DVD and Blu-ray. That’s the immediate future. At the end of the year we might do an EP, which is something we’ve not done since ’95, where we’ll put out four brand new tracks that you’ll be able to get digitally. So that’s the next chapter for Fun Lovin’ Criminals, and it should be quite a busy year if everything goes ahead smoothly.
So Fun Lovin’ Criminals are going to continue rocking for some time then?
I think so, yeah. People still seem to love us, and they come and see us all over. I think you just have to keep it as real as possible. We’re cool lads on stage, we’ll have a beer with you, but at the same time, while we make out what we do is really cool and effortless, we want to put on the best show that we can for the people. We take what we do on stage really fucking seriously. Even though we’ve not got something that’s riding high in the charts, in the space of a month we’ll be playing to 40,000 people over different shows. That’s pretty fucking good for a band that’s been going almost twenty years.