Plan B arrives at ShortList’s photoshoot feeling pained. He’s come straight from the dentist, but it wasn’t having his teeth tinkered with that’s left him troubled; it was the surgery’s television schedule.
“They were showing some sh*tty rom-com,” he tells us, sparking up the first of many cigarettes in preparation for an afternoon on a Hoxton rooftop. “But I saw they had a David Attenborough DVD, too. I was like, ‘F*ck this – get David on.’”
However, it’s not just dental surgeries in which the 28-year-old, also known as Ben Drew, is choosing brutal reality over romantic ideals.
While his chart-topping 2010 album The Defamation Of Strickland Banks was awash with outlandish characters and bittersweet love stories, his latest offering – the soundtrack to his directorial debut, Ill Manors – is grounded firmly in real life. Drew has chosen the UK’s inner city as a muse for his latest offering. As anyone who’s seen the film or heard the superbly rowdy coalition-baiting title track will have guessed, the album is an incendiary listen. But, as its creator explains once he’s safely down from the roof, making it was far from an easy ride…
We hear the album required a few late nights. How did you cope?
Vodka. Red Bull. That’s it. I lived in the studio for six weeks. The day before the album had to be finished there were three songs that weren’t done. One didn’t even have lyrics. So I was up all night, smashing the vodka, writing and re-writing. I went a bit mental, to be honest. It’s not ideal working in that kind of environment – even if you’re writing sad, negative sh*t, you need to be happy, and I was just f*cking drained.
Presumably you slept for three days solid afterwards, though?
No, I had a gig in Majorca the next day, and I’d cancelled two flights because I was still finishing the album, so I ended up on f*cking easyJet. Everyone recognised me, but it was all right, thankfully. I was thinking, “This could go two ways – really f*cking horrible or OK.” Luckily it was OK. I hadn’t slept for nearly 48 hours, though. I only got through the gig by telling everyone to bring me all the tequila they could find.
The album’s first single, Ill Manors, was inspired by last year’s UK riots. Can you see similar uprisings happening again in the near future?
I can see a situation like that happening again, because I don’t think anything’s been done to prevent it. It happened and people said, “Look how much scum we have in this country. Let’s put this scum in prison, let’s punish them.” That ain’t gonna work, is it? They’ll come out of prison 10 times f*cking worse. It’s about education. Kids are lacking life education. That’s why it’s crazy when you hear about politicians wanting to ban hip-hop; I think hip-hop should be played in schools. The songs [on the Ill Manors album] are about real life. I’m being honest about drugs and illegal sh*t. There are kids so naive about drugs that they come across crack and heroin and they think it’s just like that spliff they smoked last week. I remember a mate of mine who I used to go out to Essex to buy acid and ecstasy with – he got caught in school once with 200 ecstasy pills. You’d think after that, his parents would put him in drug education, but no. So, when this kid comes across heroin, he thinks it’s just like every other drug. Bang: the geezer’s f*cked. The education I want to give kids is not politically correct – no politician could ever endorse it, because it would f*ck up his career. So, f*ck politicians – they’re always compromised by what they know is the truth and what the majority believes is the truth.
Johnny Marr banned David Cameron from liking The Smiths. Would you be outraged if the PM said he liked your new album?
No, I think it would be cool if he said that. You can’t treat politicians like they’re some alien race. But obviously I wouldn’t go straight back and say, “I really like David Cameron, too – let’s have tea and f*cking scones together,” because that’s never going to happen.
You turned down a collaboration with Jay-Z that was set up to help you infiltrate the US market. Do you have any interest in breaking the US?
I want people like [Jay-Z] to come to me and say, “I like what you’re doing, let’s collaborate.” Otherwise, I’d just be licking their arse. People stop me in the street and say, “I make music too – let’s collaborate.” I’m like, “I don’t know who the f*ck you are, mate. You just want to ride off my success.” Music should be a personal thing; the minute you start thinking, “Who can I get in with?” you’re basically saying you don’t give a f*ck about artistic expression. You only give a f*ck about money.
You’re not planning to appear on The X Factor any time soon, then?
No disrespect to anyone involved in those shows but all they do is boost your profile as a celebrity. There are a lot of pop acts with just a pretty face and a half-decent voice. They don’t even write their own sh*t. I’m lucky enough to have a gift that allows me to create things from nothing: music, films, fictional characters. Others don’t have that, so their work goes into their image as a celebrity. So, if I have a gift like this, wouldn’t I be neglecting it if I appeared on a show like The X Factor?
You’ve started appearing more regularly in films – have you had any particularly ridiculous acting offers?
You mean for sh*t films? I get those every day. I’m offered roles that would stereotype me as an actor. But when I read a script that feels like it’s been done a thousand times, I just f*ck it off.
That’s why The Sweeney [forthcoming film in which Drew stars] is interesting – you’re playing against type as a good guy…
Well, I play him as a bad guy, actually [laughs]. I was cast because they wanted an East End white boy from the streets, so how else could I play him? But he’s a copper, so instead of being a complete c*nt – like the character I played in Harry Brown – I’m a good guy deep down. I still tried to give it that kind of darkness, though.
You star alongside Ray Winstone – what was he like to work with?
In some ways, Ray’s like a god to me. One night he took me and Allen Leech [another actor in The Sweeney] out to one of his favourite restaurants. We all went back to Ray’s because he’s got a bar in his house, and by the end it was so late – and we were all so drunk – that me and Allen ended up kipping round his. It’s great to have that relationship with someone you admire so much.
Do you look at actors such as Winstone, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth and think, “I’d like to be at that level in 20 years”?
Oh mate, Tim Roth in Made In Britain – f*cking amazing. In 20 years, I’d love to be at the level they’re at, but it depends how I look. Some people don’t age well for films. They lose that spark. Oldman’s still got it, Ray’s still got it. It all depends on what fate’s got in store for me.
The Strickland Banks album drew praise from Elton John and Paul McCartney. Any more famous fans come out of the woodwork recently?
Actually, [US record producer] Tony Visconti came up to me the other day and said, “David Bowie’s really into your stuff.” I was like, “F*cking hell!” That was amazing, because my mum always used to say I reminded her of David Bowie. I listened to him and I was like, “I don’t sound anything like him,” but she meant my diversity was similar to his. I just knew him from Labyrinth. My sister used to watch that and the f*cking Breakfast Club the whole time when I was a kid, so that was what I remembered him from [laughs].
Did you experience any surreal moments at the height of the Strickland Banks success?
When Rolf Harris came up to me after my speech at the Ivor Novellos in 2011 [Drew spoke about the adversity he’d faced during his rise to fame]. He had tears in his eyes and he said, “What you said up there inspired me to want to write songs again.” I said to him, “This is so f*cked up! I remember watching you draw cartoons when I was four – you haven’t changed. I feel like you’re my grandad because I’ve known you my whole life.” He did act like my grandad later that night. We had a photo together and as I never smile in pictures, he was telling me, “Come on, smile! Show your teeth!” I did smile in the end. He’s Rolf f*cking Harris – I’ve got to do what he says. You don’t say no to Rolf.
As an East End boy, do you have any Olympics tickets?
No. But if someone offers me tickets to the women’s volleyball when Brazil are playing – bang: I’m there. Front row, with binoculars [laughs].
Finally, what’s been your weirdest experience with a fan?
I remember a gig at Leeds University when a geezer came up to me, pilled off his head, and asked me to f*ck his girlfriend [laughs]. Seriously. He goes [adopts Northern accent], “I f*cking love your music – can you f*ck me girlfriend?” I thought he was joking, so I said, “I don’t know – what does she look like?” He pulls her out of the crowd and she plants one [a kiss] on my lips. I was thinking, “She’s quite fit… What should I do?” She said, “My boyfriend loves your music, but I f*cking hate it.” I was like, “But you still want to f*ck me?” and she says, “Yeah.” I was looking at the geezer thinking, “When you come down, you’re going to be so upset about this.” I had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, but I listened to the angel and walked away.
Ill Manors – Original Soundtrack Album is released on 23 July through 679/Atlantic Records
(Photography: Jude Edginton)