[MUSIC: Interview] Plan B
Benjamin Ballance-Drew aka Ben Drew – aka Plan B – is as eclectic and restless as his name changes suggest. A rapper, producer and songwriter with a soaring and smooth soul timbre, Drew first emerged making hip hop tunes, before stumbling down the RnB lust-song path and then settling into a more grime-filled rap sound. Similarly, his acting career evolved into producing, directing, writing and editing his own short films, and while his latest album, iLL Manors, was released this year, it is not a stand-alone album: it is the soundtrack to his first feature film, also iLL Manors, that has been dubbed a kind of hip hop musical. Even a boring day in the life of Plan B sounds utterly exhausting: crammed in before an onslaught of media obligations is a suit fitting, a haircut, a trip to the dentist, the gym and French lessons.
With the release of iLL Manors, have music and film finally reached equal footing in the life of Ben Drew? “I love music equally as much as I love film,” he answers. He talks with boundless enthusiasm and pure Brit charm. “I feel that I’ve mastered the art of music to a degree; I know how to make a good album, how to look at it objectively and know whether or not it is good enough to be released. With film, I feel like I’m still learning. I love the rawness of that expression and inexperience, because that can give your art character. I think the iLL Manors film has a lot of character. It may not be as polished – that’s because it was made on a low budget by someone who hadn’t done a feature before. But I think that my talent as someone who can direct actors is visible in the film – I think.
“For all of the criticisms you can lay on the film, I think it has that character,” he continues. “I chose my cast wisely, a lot of them unknown, and I’m allowing them to improvise and to bring their own unique angle to it. I really love raw talent. I love being a raw talent and I love seeing it. I love film because there is so much to learn, and I guess because I am polished in my music, I feel that I can get across a deeper meaning to people. I am at two different levels with both of my art forms, but I still get so much out of both.”
While critics and fans are focusing on the film and the album as two distinct entities, Drew finds it impossible to separate them. “I don’t want to separate them – I can’t,” he says. “In hindsight, I wish the album had’ve come out first and then the film after that over here. A lot of people now want to see the film, but they can’t until it comes out on DVD. If it had happened the other way we would have had a greater level of box office success. It’s not that I’m driven towards making money at all – I’m driven towards people seeing my art, and box office success proves how many people went to see it. The whole point of my art is to convey a message to people, and have them experience it.”
Given the dilemma posed by the mutual dependence of the film on the music and vice versa, the prospect of preparing a live show for the iLL Manors tour has been yet another exhausting labour of love for Drew. Even finishing the album in the first place presented a host of issues. “The album was a headache because once the film had been out in the cinema, I had to finish it,” he explains. “In the film you’ll hear one verse, maybe a chorus, and then it will go back to the dialogue. The film tells part of the story and the songs tell the other half, relying on each other, so I had to make the album work in its own right. I spent eight weeks living in the studio writing the rest of the parts of the songs, and I went out of my mind. Kind of like when I finished the editing of the film. I moved the editing suite to my mum’s house over Christmas and sat in there for about a month and a half with only one other editor. I had cabin fever, drinking vodka and Red Bull just trying to stay focused and not go insane.”
With his two biggest albums vastly disparate affairs – 2010’s soulful The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, and this year’s grimey, hip hop-fueled iLL Manors – Drew has managed to appease various audience expectations with a new live show. “I think I’ve figured a way to make the songs work on their own. We just did a forest tour; when you headline V Festival in the UK they won’t let you back on the next year, so you have the option to do this forest tour where they erect stages in forests up and down the UK,” he explains. “We changed the show [for the tour]. We split the stage in two, so for the first half we’re wearing suits and we do the Strickland Banks stuff, and then for the second half we have a beat boxer going while we get changed into clothes we’re more comfortable in, and do the ill Manors stuff.” Judging by the success of those shows, Plan B’s upcoming Australian tour is set to be awesome.
What: iLL Manors is out now on Atlantic, through Warner Music
With: The Presets, Nero, Passion Pit, Tame Impala, Justice (DJ set), Robyn, Chiddy Bang, Wiley, Labrinth, Hermitude and more
Where: Parklife @ Centennial Park
When: Sunday September 30