“You’re enemies because of the rowing or some shit, aren’t you?”
With this accurate summation of the Oxford-Cambridge relationship, I sat down with drummer Frank Benbini in the sick room of The Junction in Cambridge and our interview was underway.
The Fun Lovin’ Criminals are touring for their sixth studio album Classic Fantastic – despite the fact the record almost did not happen. Embroiled in “an expensive lawsuit” (cryptically, no further information could be disclosed) with the band’s former manager, their artistic juices were halted for five years. “We just weren’t getting the head space to be creative, but eventually we saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Regardless of this setback, their latest album is a return to the simple party anthems which helped the band reach stardom in 1996. “I felt conscious that I wanted the songs to be more upbeat.
“The last two records just did not have the same feel as they were still affected by 9/11, so this record had to be full of music you could get ready for a night out and have some drinks with friends to.” It is; recent releases ‘Classic Fantastic’ and ‘Mister Sun’ have the crowd jumping frantically at the evening gig, along with the old hits.
The band themselves have changed, though. Formerly known for hard partying and drug-taking, the guys have all hit 40. “This tour is funny because we have lots of family with us. There’s a lot of laughter and giggles instead of the usual hangovers. Me and Fast have our brothers here which is really nice.” For instance, when asked about raucous tour stories, Benbini alludes to “too many”, preferring to excitedly convey how amazing his brother’s band, and opening act, The Rivers are.
He also lights up when asked about the band’s collaboration with Roots Manuva. “He’s the man!” Frank tells me beaming, “He’s so laid back with a great grasp of the philosophy of English language. I used to dance to ‘Witness the Fitness’ in clubs and now he’s singing on my track… it’s mad.”
But what is Benbini’s opinion of other British hip-hop acts? “I don’t feel the current scene filled with rappers like Dizzee Rascal. A lot of acts just seem the same right now.”
These words have extra resonance given that the Criminals are one of the most unique bands of recent years. Just about covered by funk, hip hop, rock, blues and jazz, the band members all have varying music tastes which they contribute into recordings, completed by “a singer who doesn’t sing and a guitarist who loves disco riffs.”
“We try and demonstrate this in our shows too,” Benbini explains, “You can walk into one of our gigs and think ‘wow, this is a kick ass rock band!’ and then go to the toilet and return to a slow love song. An ideal show is like a heart monitor, it goes up and down to keep the crowd happy. I wish we could do a whole show with a constant ‘up’ like Rage Against the Machine, but then I think I would fucking die once it was over!”
With the plan to release some EPs at the start of next year and their Shepherds Bush show being made into a live CD, the Criminals obviously have no desire to relax after their busy touring year. Although their new lives in the UK seem to reflect a matured band, they have no desire to slow down their music anytime soon, and Frank leaves making me promise to check out what proved to be a gig that even Rage would have enjoyed.