Bandwidth Sessions: An Interview With Will McConnell (Part 1)

I once had a band tell me a recording I’d done with them “was not the best session I’d ever done.” That comment just confused me.

Recently I was searching for some video of the band The Low Anthem and their cover of the Tom Waits’ song Home I’ll Never Be. In pursuit, I came across a performance video from Bandwidth Sessions.

New to my horizon, I was immediately taken with a quality and voice rarely seen anymore. Searching for humanity in the performance over an adherence to certain sight lines or production standards, there is a grab and run nature that sets the music and performance on edge, yet also instills each work with a spirit more in tune with the artist and their expression than any slick production may encounter.

I was thrilled to find somewhat of a kindred spirit in Will McConnell’s work and through the course of conversation realized the correctness of that initial gut reaction. Will is genuine and operating out of a chronicler’s desire, searching for artists of unique capabilities to capture and present so those who may otherwise be out of their borderlines receive access. This conversation took place over many months and offers insight into a creative who absolutely loves film and music, out doing this work for the purest of reasons, preserving the process by any means necessary.

Garrett Tiedemann: So, to get things rolling, how did you get started in this?

Will McConnell: Well, I was a student in cinema studies at Queens University in Belfast, where I’m from. I’d studied and dropped out of a lot of courses first in Scotland, then in London—but that’s another story—anyway, I found myself back in Belfast studying film and working at the university cinema at weekends.

I was working late in one of the labs editing an assignment when I got chatting to a classmate. She was helping her friend’s band make a music video. I offered to help, and quickly started to take over and ended up shooting and editing it myself. The band were called the Remains of Youth, and the track was called “Set Low”. It’s still on YouTube somewhere. It was literally the first time I’d ever taken a video camera out of the film lab unsupervised. It was a Panasonic GY-101, an HDV camera with a beautiful zoom lens. Maybe it was the beautiful long dusks we sometimes get here in Belfast this high up in the northern hemisphere, maybe I was still getting a handle on the focus ring, it seemed that everything I pointed the camera at looked beautiful. I thought everything I shot looked better in soft focus, and I was really interested in natural colour temperatures like cool outdoor blues and indoor oranges. That’s when I decided that everything the university was teaching us, about 3-point lighting, mounting a camera to a tripod, editing to a narrative, all of it had to go out of the window. The only music video I really liked at that time was Jem Cohen’s video for R.E.M.’s “E-bow The Letter”‘.

I had remembered seeing Jem Cohen’s film Lost Book Found on late night TV years before and had been a huge fan of his work since then. So if you watch the Remains of Youth video, you’ll see more than a bit of similarity between them.

The band loved the video and after that a few more local bands asked me to work with them—all unsigned, low budget stuff. So I thought I had better set up a website to show my work on, and Bandwidth Films was born. About that time a friend of mine in a band called The Jane Bradfords got a really great gig supporting The National on their Belfast tour date. He was recording a live session with them for BBC Radio and asked me if I wanted to record the thing on camera for posterity. In a panic I thought again, “What would Jem Cohen do?” and remembered a short film he had made with Elliot Smith, Three. I loved the raw live recording element of that film, and the idea hit me that I could make little video vignettes of bands playing live in a simple setting, and it would at least be something to put out between ‘proper’ music video projects.

So from filming The National one week, I immediately went to recording an unsigned Belfast singer called Emer O’Neill. The idea was to make a series of big-act-little-act-big-act-little act videos so that people searching for the likes of The National on YouTube might also stumble across some unknown Belfast songwriter. Bandwidth Films became ‘The Bandwidth Sessions’ and the rest is history.

There’s a really vibrant music scene here in Belfast, so there was no shortage of acts to shoot and bands kept coming. It was just around that time that I picked up on the french website Blogotheque and was really excited by what they were doing with Vincent Moon’s Takeaway Shows series. Everything about it, the colour palette, the locations, the sheer spontaneous energy of the camera appealed to me. So I made an homage, a little mini-series, meant to be just 12 episodes, called In Stores Now. The idea was to film a different Belfast band in a different shop, one song each. 68 episodes later, it’s still going strong, and bands are still coming forward from all over Ireland.

Since then the role of the website and its potential has evolved over time. Now I see myself much more as a song collector with a camera. I’m thinking about what people like Alan Lomax and Harry Everett Smith were able to bring to cultural history. We have a great tradition here in Ireland too with that kind of thing with people like Sam Henry, Seamus Ennis, to name but few. I’m just continuing their work with a video camera. I’ve built up a massive archive of recordings and one day someone will hopefully crack it open like an Easter egg and discover what a musically rich culture and time we lived in Northern Ireland in the early 2000s.

GT: Do you often have moments of recognition from people as a song collector? I know I kind of did that for you, but curious if it is a regular occurrence.

WM: I’m glad you did get that recognition about the song collector thing. It’s actually only something I’ve come to realize myself that I’m doing. It’s the same with anybody I think who has started a collection. I’m still not sure to what extent I willfully went out to record every musician that I could in Ireland, and to what extent it was just an itch I had to scratch. But I definitely have a compulsive nature, and that little bit of OCD in me does motivate me, as does finding an incredible unknown artist. That’s a huge boost that keeps me going. I’ve recorded good artists and bad ones, great ones and awful ones (I won’t say who!) but I do vainly hope that people who see my work appreciate the recording either way, even if the music isn’t their thing. One of the things I love most is when people tell me that they’ve come to appreciate an artist in a whole new way because of one of my recordings, and I think the artists see the advantage of that too.

GT: Does it typically lead to work or is it more that you are playing a part in someone’s discovery?

WM: Yes, in a sense. Artists see the stuff I’ve recorded and are kind/brave enough to approach me about working with me. That’s how I find out about most new music. And in some cases I pester musicians who I want to work with for just 20 minutes of their time to record them, and in some cases they say yes just to make me go away.

I guess because the idea of the session video is so ubiquitous now. There’s a million sites out there and why should Bandwidth Sessions be any different to most observers? There’s a kind of culture (maybe it’s from some band’s PR agent), “Oh, we should [have] an edgy session video done, it’ll show our urban new media street cred.” And people can smell that a mile off. I know I can, as someone who loves music. So I try not to get involved in that; I’m making a personal catalogue of acts who I like and I just shoot the way I think works for me and them, and sometimes people come away disappointed because it didn’t look or sound the way they had seen it in their heads. I once had a band tell me a recording I’d done with them “was not the best session I’d ever done.” That comment just confused me. The truth is, I record what’s there, but I realized at that moment that some musicians expect me to make them look or sound good, like a big budget music video.

Interview continued in Part 2.

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