Bandwidth Sessions: An Interview With Will McConnell (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

I think it would be cool to make that film, and that some band from Belfast or Dublin becomes the next U2 or Van Morrison and I have an interview with them sitting on their front step in their pajamas in their early years.

Garrett Tiedemann: When a band says it was not your best, how do you work with that? How do you keep from getting hard on yourself and thinking you failed in the work and sticking to your guns with the aesthetic and approach that is uniquely yours? What do you usually take from it besides confusion?

Will McConnell: To be a creative person for a living, or at least work with creative people, I guess you have to have a thick skin—and I admit that I don’t fully have that. I do take people’s opinions to heart. I’m a filmmaker who works with musicians. Generally in the film world anyone who I’ve ever met has been helpful, friendly, encouraging, willing to hear ideas, willing to reward enthusiasm and passion. Unfortunately, at least in the British Isles, I’ve not found the music industry as open minded. I’ve been through the mill quite a bit with managers and PR agents who think they can walk all over you, and they even treat each other like dirt. I guess there’s just this theory that you have to be tough to make it in the music business. It’s still very macho—and that’s a sad thing. Most big music industry people who I work with—and I have to stress this is with international labels, not indies and not unsigned artists—but most will only talk to me if they want something out of me. There’s very little room for art for art’s sake there, and maybe that’s why that particular industry is dying a death. So I try to avoid labels and big artists and egos as much as I can, because I’m interested in doing things another way. The old cliché is true: You have to believe in what you are doing strongly enough to not let that stuff get to you, and surround yourself with the people who are good to work with.

I had a day job last year, making videos for the London Olympics. I just wanted to see what it was like to cut very conventional news reportage. I maybe shouldn’t admit this because I’ll lose whatever credibility points I have left. But in a way I think it made my work better; producing so-called “normal” videos for a while reminded me of what the rules are, which you need to know if you’re at all interested in bending them. I was offered a wedding once which I had to say no to. I’m not exactly sure what made them look at my one-take-shaky-camera-oddly-coloured session videos and think, There’s the man we need to record the most romantic day of our lives!

GT: Did you find it difficult at all to acclimate to the straight up structure? Did you find any tools from it, besides the rules of the straight game, that you can apply to what you are doing?

WM: Playing the straight game was actually great fun. A friend of mine worked in California under a remarkable independent filmmaker called Rob Nilsson, and his famous advice to him was, “Don’t go down main street.” It’s kind of a mantra amongst my geeky filmmaker friends, a reminder to keep on our own path. But I took a little detour down main street and quite liked it there. I could see what attracts filmmakers to the vertical structure, and the regularity and the safety of the work. And I found it so mind numbingly boring that the first thing I did when I got home from a day’s work was I wanted to film more and more stuff out of the box. Working for a company, I had to be on my best behavior every day when I turned up for a shoot, so on one of my own bandwidth sessions shoots during that summer I would edit angry, I would shoot angry, and I found the results were different according to how I felt. A film can respond organically to a filmmaker’s mood, to how he’s holding the camera in his hand. On the flip side, working for a contract allows you to put on a mask. It’s not really your project, it’s someone else’s. So you can fake a smile when you don’t really feel like a smile, you can walk up to strangers on the street and interview them about the most inane subjects, because deep down you don’t have an emotional connection to it. So I learned that maybe I do have that thick skin after all, and that I can bring as little or as much feeling to a project as I want, and I can let that feeling affect the work as much or as little as I want.

GT: In discussing your aesthetic and process, how do you generally work with a band to make one of these? Is it planned out or do you all just show up and you have your one camera and you go? Do you change with each band and process?

WM: In terms of aesthetic, it’s always something I discuss with the artist beforehand. I always ask them if there’s anywhere in particular they’d like to film or have anything in mind, because I want to make the video as much their creation as my own. For me it should be a true collaboration. Sometimes where we film or how we film is a matter of simple necessity; a musician will be in a certain place at a certain time and have this much availability, and it’s these limitations that allow the fun of the real “field recording” process to come through. The best things I’ve ever recorded have been on the back step of a pub in the Belfast rain, or in a sports field with gale force winds. Once we pick a spot to record, and have sussed out personnel, like what instruments are being played and by how many, then I know how many mics to bring. And once we arrive on location I do just kind of go with the flow and make it up as I go along, and it’s just me acting as a one man crew with one camera. I often want artists to respond to the space that we’re recording in, so I’ll ask them to pick somewhere that has use or significance for them, be it a reverby church or the practice room where they played their first notes together. The idea is to create an emotional resonance for the performer, and hopefully just sometimes to trick them into letting their guard down. At the beginning of doing this I was kind of tricked into finding the most outlandish locations I could for my artists—say, a funfair or a cool coffee shop with lots of crazy crap on the walls—but that quickly worked against me. The space should serve the artist’s performance, not try to compete against it for your attention.

GT: Do you have an end goal with all this or are you happy just going day to day and playing the song collector angle? Are there other things you would like to do yet?

WM: I’d like to think that I’ll keep recording musicians well into my 60s. Think of how many bands I could have done by then, or at least to be pointing a camera in some direction or another for as long as music and film still interests me. This year I’ve started working outside Ireland, with a few videos I recorded at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and it was remarkable easy and, what’s more, really fun.

The beauty of the Bandwidth Sessions website is that it can be an outlet for whatever it is I want to do as an artist myself – there are so many ways to “record” something after all. At the moment I have a few ideas related to audio and podcasting, as well as collaborating with musicians in different media than just video, so you’ll hopefully see the website diversifying in the future.

I am interested in other distribution formats outside the web and YouTube, so I have a dream of putting a cap or a kind of marker on my time recording bands in Northern Ireland (where I’m from and where I’ve done the vast majority of my work) with a feature length film, just to see how they look up on the big screen or an HD TV. One of the films that got me started doing this was a documentary called Shellshock Rock made by a true genius from Belfast called John T. Davis. He made it as a student hanging out in punk clubs during the Troubles in Belfast—bands like the Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, and Rudi playing pubs surrounded by barbed wire with soldiers standing outside. It’s a truly remarkable film and an indelible document of a time in a country’s history. I kind of imagine I could make a feature that is the all-gone-good aftermath of that film, a document of Belfast in 2013 heading into an optimistic future. The 1970s in Ireland is seen as a golden age for music, but there are actually more young bands signed to major record labels now than there were then.

There was a documentary made in the 1980s by Tony Gayton and James Herbert called Athens Georgia: Inside/Out. The two filmmakers were documenting the lively college rock and art scene in Athens, and it features exclusive interviews with the biggest band in the world at that time, The B-52s, along with some young upstarts called R.E.M. who are just getting going. I think it would be cool to make that film, and that some band from Belfast or Dublin becomes the next U2 or Van Morrison and I have an interview with them sitting on their front step in their pajamas in their early years.

GT: What bands have you not worked with, but would love to?

WM: The one artist I want to work with more than anyone is Paul McCartney. I just hope he’s reading this. I’m becoming more interested in Irish folk music; rock is the new folk anyway so it’s a natural progression back to the source. A friend of mine has Christie Moore’s phone number but I’m too scared to ask him for it. And if I could pick one artist who I would love to record but never could, it would be Margaret Barry. She was one of the great Irish folk singer-players of the 20th century. She was completely itinerant, she just travelled and sang on street corners and pubs. She died in a nursing home in the ’80s not far from where I live, with not nearly enough recordings and even fewer images of her in existence, but we know about her because of song recorders and archivists who captured some of that magic.

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