Ben Tallon is best known for his illustration work. But he has been quietly steering the creative direction of Quenched Music and new musicians for almost four years. Now he is directing Xpress, an awareness campaign on behalf of CALM. Sitting in the Quenched Music office, he sits surrounded by spray cans, paints and piles of paper covered in ink.
“How I came about doing Xpress was through going to see CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) about helping out with a book I had been writing.” He says. ”Danni Skerritt and I met Danny Keehan about possible link ups between Quenched and CALM through Factory Foundation who recently headed Thirty-One. (A thirty one track album to benefit CALM.) Factory Foundation is run by Esther O’Callaghan and Danny. We just got talking and I was really taken by CALM’s work and just how overlooked suicide is. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid direct experience with it but many close people in my circle have had to go through losing someone in that way. So to be entrusted with the direction of a campaign… what a great chance to work for people instead of businesses and brands. It goes way back though, I suppose… If ever something was happening in the local community where I couldn’t physically or financially help, I’d draw something. If somebody pissed me off at school or college… I’m not confrontational, so I’d draw them really accurately and then just drop this massive doodled dick on their head or something equally childish. Then at university I became caught up in my dissertation, which I wrote on graphic activism and it got a little more serious for me. Work that makes a positive change is where my career is going in the long term. I started to follow Banksy’s work because he’s clever and he speaks to thousands of people through one image. There’s real power in that and not enough people use it for good.”
Will a project like this, firmly routed in the arts, help extend CALM’s reach into creative sectors? Ben says,
“Definitely. You’re always going to get people from the arts that want to get involved because they see how their talents can effectively help others and those who do it because it just looks cool. Either motivation is great because at the end of the day if CALM benefits from the work, then everybody wins. Art, music and film are all channels that people have more access to thanks to technology.”
Ben is from Keighley, a small town in West Yorkshire. It’s not a place that is known for its involvement in the arts, more for its trades. How did his deep involvement with the arts begin?
“Family. Definitely family. We had a lot of artistic throughout. My mum studied art at college, but back then, the opportunities to push it were not as plentiful. She always kept it up and is a ridiculously talented drawer and painter. So I grew up seeing that and you follow your parent’s lead. My dad was a great drawer too, so was my uncle. When he visited, he’d get the sketchbooks out and we’d have these little ‘draw offs.’ I used to get so wound up that I wasn’t instantly as good as him at seven years old. So I’d spend the whole week in between visits drawing furiously in an effort to catch up to his level, wounded by what I genuinely saw as a defeat. By the time he came around the next week, and mentioned that I had improved, I’d be made up. Even my grand parents were pivotal. My nan, she used to deck the dining table in tape, glue, papers, pens, crayons, you name it. Chocolate biscuits on a plate incase I got fed up. Her and my grandad would grin and say, ‘you love the sticky tape lad!’ and I’d just go mental with the colours. At school, there were a few other competitive lads who could draw well. We were close to fighting on many occasions over it but it stops you from getting sloppy or complacent, much like the level of competition out there today. So silly but again, it’s those personal relationships born of a common interest that keep my mind from wandering to negative channels, even if I was an unbearable wanker in art classes.”
Inspiration is often key when picking up a pen, or strumming those first chords on a guitar. What drives Ben in his work?
“I think its really important that creative inspirations come from a person’s own life and experiences. I grew up watching and playing football, watching wrestling and trying to wrestle on crusty mattresses in fields. When you grow up watching more or less exclusively, activities that are win or lose competitions, you find yourself trying to emulate it in your own way. It certainly gives me the impetus to get out bed in the morning. I look at my art and think, ‘what can I do now to be the absolute best?’ I’m some way off being that, if there is such a thing, but I want to take the industry new places, hence projects like Xpress. I’m quite ambitious and sport has a lot to answer for in that respect. Growing up surrounded by two or three council estates helped me. The things you get up to as a kid, they stayed with me – long hours outdoors, winding up neighbours and going too far, heckling older kids for a chase, thankfully, when you find a positive direction for that energy such as freelancing, it helps stay focused. I had parents who earned little, but sacrificed so much to make sure my brother and I had everything we needed and a little of what we wanted. They showed me the path that would eventually lead me here – hard work, self-sacrifice, belief and just caring about more than money. Some of the lads my age were not as fortunate as me in their upbringing and you started to see the toll that takes in adulthood and it’s sad. Everyone needs belonging and direction. So now, with the skills the hard work and my parent’s sacrifices brought me, I like to think I can make a positive difference in a society where some people don’t have the support I had. Hopefully through Xpress we can help empower people by showing them ways to express their emotions and experiences.”
The main themes of this project focus on not just artistic expression, but simply getting things off your chest. What have been the key highlights from the projects early stages? Ben says
“I’ve had to go new places with this. I’ve come from being an illustrator with an illustration degree. Then thanks to the competitive nature within me, I wanted to do more, so Quenched happened, to try and address the state of the music industry. Then you’re working in film and writing a book about the whole journey. Through all of this, there are tiny collaborations and important friendships. Without the talent and generosity of those friends and the guys at CALM and Factory Foundation, I wouldn’t be in a position to do any of this. Then there’s the flip side which is the walls of agents, management, publishers that make this so difficult to pull off when you’re just trying to help a certain group of people. We’ve had some big names on board for the album, only for their labels to step in and veto the use of the track. We’ll get there somehow…”
Much of Ben’s illustration and design work has a trademark edge to it. It’s this that gained him clients such as WWE, The Guardian and Channel 4 and subsequently led to Quenched Music and Xpress. How does his own work serve as a form of expression?
“If I see something on the news, or learn something in conversation, I draw. I make a poster, scribble something down in my sketchbook and often create something quite political or socially driven. I’m quite politically uneducated, so I have to have people explain things to me. So image making or writing offers me a place to share my views in a place that thrives on opinion, not facts. It can be simple. I can show up at an exhibition or a gig or just write something in my sketchbook. I can have a rant, with my mouth, pen or computer. It doesn’t have to be fucking tapestry to clear your head. With Xpress, I didn’t want to showcase A-List celebrities to gain easy recognition. I wanted to show people and their methods of expression that others can relate to and get actively involved with, doing or supporting. It could be a scribble or a tweet. It could be a mural or a full acoustic set. Just listen to an album and think about why it moves you. There’s a lot out there to take in. It’s all very accessible these days and doesn’t have be difficult, the benefits are huge.”
Interview by Danni Skerritt
Photography by Danny Allison