“Charlietown” from the Fusion 5 demos
Audio File

“By far, I think I’m a much better singer than musician,” laughs Ben Fagan, robust frontman with local rock band the Plainfield Project. Last week, the amiable singer/guitarist personally snagged two top spots on City Paper‘s annual Best of Charleston readers’ picks — one for “Best Male Vocalist,” and one for “Best Male Musician.”

“If the definition of musician has to do with instrumentation, then by no means do I even belong in that category,” Fagan says. “My guitar skills are very basic. I don’t consider myself one of the best guitar players in town. It’s not even close.”

Fagan is perhaps best known for his stint on national TV. Two years ago, he spent 33 days filming the CBS reality TV series Pirate Master, and he won the whole thing — cash prize and all. While he may shrug off the excitement and hype of that small-screen adventure, he doesn’t cringe at the recent accolades as a local musician and bandleader at all. For the second year in a row (much to the shock of some in the scene), the reggae-tinged groove-rock band won the readers’ pick for “Best Local Band” by popular vote. Last year, some considered it a fluke. This year, the band’s success appears to be much more tangible and hard-won.

“Winning ‘Best Local Band’ is great exposure,” says lead guitarist/vocalist Carter West. “Last year, we were playing smaller clubs, and we definitely got some flak for it. But we have some really great family and friends who do a lot to come out and support us.”

West’s bandmates feel the same way. Fagan’s pride is especially detectable.

“I do believe that we are one of the best bands in Charleston,” Fagan says. “And I will proudly and humbly accept being one of the best vocalists in town. As a songwriter and lyricist, I feel pretty good. I’m a rhythmic singer, and I like to be percussive with the lyrics. But I would rather have had that Best Musician award go to somebody else who deserves it, like our guitar player Carter. He’s one of the baddest lead guitar players I’ve been around. He knows the game.

“You can’t get too cocky because there are so many great musicians in this area,” Fagan adds. “As a band, we had our fingers crossed. We wanted to get it because this will be a pivotal year for us, in terms of travel and going out independently. Winning ‘Best Local Band’ certainly helps us get our foot in the door in other places.”

The Plainfield Project first came together in 2007 as a casual bar band under the name One Night Stand. Fagan, who still plays in an acoustic duo with his brother Chris as the Fagan Brothers, assembled some like-minded friends to jam and have fun — nothing too serious and ambitious.

“One Night Stand never practiced ever,” chuckles Fagan. “We had a whole year’s worth of gigs under our belt, but not one practice. We just kind of came together for live gigs and just goofed off. If I didn’t know the lyrics, I just free-styled.

West and drummer Daniel Shahid stuck with Fagan as One Night Stand detoured into a more focused musical project. Bassist vocalist Matt Thompson (formerly of Overstood) came onboard last year. He initially joining as a temporary bassist, but he fell into the music and camaraderie so easily, the band asked him to stay permanently. Organist/keyboardist Ross Bogan filled out the current lineup just a few months ago.

“I am getting better as a guitar player, but the band’s sound has really improved and become so full,” says Fagan. “I can concentrate more on the lyrics and singing than before. The addition of Ross helps give the guitars some room to explore.”

As Fagan’s songwriting collaborator, West enjoys healthy input with new song arrangements and ideas. His tasteful, dynamic rhythm and lead styles are equally valuable, though, making him a bit of a co-leader.

“Ben and I do a lot to shape the tones and the sounds,” West says. “Matt’s been a great new bass player. He has some great ideas. And Ross is a little savant — an extremely good piano player. He adds a different element to the band and makes our style a bit broader.”

The band recently conducted meetings with a few labels, investors, and studio producers, but decided to step away from them to focus on doing an independent live album this spring.

“I look at our band as more of a live band, more of an improvisational band, and more of a stage band,” says West. “Live, we sound a little rougher and organic.”

Much of the syncopated approach and rhythmic groove of the band anchors on drummer Daniel Shahid’s chops and technique .An energetic and crisp timekeeper, Shahid’s style derives a lot from the modern school of Dave Matthews Band’s Carter Beauford and 311’s Chad Sexton.

“I think my own playing is light years ahead of where I was when we did those first demos,” Shahid says. “Playing with Matt has calmed me down a bit. I came from less of a reggae background than Matty or Carter, but they’ve taught me a lot.”

The band has two solid years of gigging and a demo (recorded at the old Fusion Five) under their belts. Now, with the momentum from the recent recognition, Fagan and his bandmates have big plans for 2009. The quintet recently bought an old diesel Bookmobile bus and refurbished it for all the band gear and accommodations.

“We are a live band, and we’re going to record our own record during this first phase,” says Fagan. “It’ll be a big step to promote awareness. The best way to gain a fan-base is to make it as easy as possible for them to hear your music for the first time.”

Determined, diligent, and undistracted, the Plainfield Project may or may not be the “best” band in town, but they’re certainly one of the most ambitious and focused. Keep your eyes and ears out for more.

Visit www.myspace.com/theplainfieldproject for more info and gig dates.

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