Art Brut: When the band is the brand

Art Brut isn't just a pop group - it's a franchise that has spawned more than 100 Art Bruts. Tim Cumming finds out why
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The Independent Culture

Pop has never been short of wheezes to capture the imagination of punters. Echo and the Bunnymen drew attention to themselves in the early Eighties by touring the Outer Hebrides; in 2001, a post-Auteurs Luke Haines gained valuable column inches by declaring a week-long National Pop Strike, a period in which any musician could turn in his or her wares and receive amnesty for any and all "crimes" committed against pop. Haines had an album to promote at the time.

Art Brut have gone one better. The London-based punky art-pop band have leapfrogged the graft necessary to turn a creative enterprise into a brand, and have instead established the Art Brut franchise.

But we're talking a very different branding iron than the likes of The Rolling Stones or The Strolling Bones of the tribute circuit. In recording terms, Art Brut are barely out of their crib - a couple of songs in the lower reaches of the Top 50, and a nifty debut album, Bang Bang Rock & Roll, that has kept them on the road for the best part of a year.

But they've recently found themselves not just in the columns of the NME or Rolling Stone, but on US television's Business News, where the burning question was why and how a band with only one indie album behind it has, at last count, more than 100 "franchise" Art Bruts across Europe, Russia, Britain and America who have registered themselves on the band's website.

"I'm a bit scared of the franchises now," admits Eddie Argos, the band's the singer and lyricist. "It's got a bit out of hand." Argos, whose name must rival The Members' Nicky Tesco for instant retail identification, was the original impetus behind the phenomenon, and as it has mushroomed around him, he is certain only of one thing: Art Brut are no longer in control of their creation. "There was a battle of the bands between Art Brut franchises at the Luminaire in Kilburn [north London]," he says, "and they didn't tell us about it. I heard about it on XFM." He shakes his head mock-ruefully. "I feel like a proud father," he says, "a proud father whose children have left home."

His is not the first group to have the idea of a franchise. The more familiar model is the unsavoury sight of ex-Seventies bands - think the likes of the Sweet squabbling over the right to take a valuable band name out on the road. Argos's models are more idealistic than that. "The band Gong did it, there's millions of different Gongs. Mother Gong, Acid Mothers Gong, a feminist Gong. And they don't differentiate between them." The earliest example is probably the swing-era band leader Paul Whiteman, who had 52 franchise bands operating around America at the height of his success.

Art Brut, however, are not working at the heart of some money-spinning empire of live simulacra. It began, says Argos, simply as a act of encouragement. "You know when you see a band playing for the first time, everyone pulls together, the bass player's singing without a mike. I liked that. I wanted people to make bands. I love live music, and there wasn't much going on three years ago, when we started. I kept saying, form a band, form a band, and I thought it might help if I said, form a franchise, the feeling of belonging to something.

"I mentioned it at gigs. It was word of mouth and then we put the idea on the internet forum, and kids would say, 'what's a franchise?' We'd explain it, and then they invented all these rules for it. And then it went bananas"

Said rules are few. No contracts, no papers changing hands. There's no set list, costume box, no start-up fee or investment opportunity; only the taking of the name with a given number attached, with Art Brut being zero. If one franchise plays with another, you multiply the two numbers together to make a third, unique moniker. If you play with Art Brut, of course, the number is always zero.

For Argos, living in the eye of this franchise storm, it's about bringing people together. "I don't want to make money out of it. What I like is the idea of an album where Art Brut 3 cover Art Brut 17 and so on. Art Brut 7 are a Glam band, and sing songs about Star Trek. Art Brut 3 wrote a song about us, called 'Double Dating with Eddie Argos'. And another franchise wrote a song called 'NME My Enemy'. People thought it was us. They said I wrote it. I think it's Franchise 100." He pauses. "I like the fact that people are getting confused. But I wouldn't want to be confused with the rubbish Art Bruts."

We Are Scientists, their co-headliners on a recent American tour, are at the classier end of the scale. Their new album of B-sides and rarities includes an Art Brut cover, making them the first franchise to make it on to record. They clock in as Art Brut 47, and bass player Chris Cain explains the philosophy behind becoming an Art Brut franchise. "I see it as some kind of amoeba, an international, underground chain," he begins. " There's a different preparation for an Art Brut show, and different expectations.

And what do they expect? "The kind of person who comes to an Art Brut gig is the person who not only slows down at the scene of an accident but pulls over and takes out counterfeit ID and insinuates himself into the situation. People are there because they know it will be a disaster."

It is all very different, Argos insists, from the tribute phenomenon. " In a tribute band you have to sound and look like the band. But they don't sound anything like us. I wouldn't endorse a tribute band.

Instead of imitation, the Art Brut franchise is more a levelling of the playing field between audience and performer. And like Art Brut's paint-splattered happening at Barfly in Camden, north London, where the band invited its fans to paint all 5,000 covers of their second single, " Modern Art", the band is ruled by the same unruly spirit of the original Art Brut - the work of French artist Jean Dubuffet and his salon of the marginalised and insane.

The name came from a visit to the Art Brut museum in Montmartre. "I thought, this is kind of like us. I can't really sing and we couldn't really play. We were very honest. I wrote in the guest book, Art Brut - Top of the Pops."

Of the band's material, Argos says, "People think I'm ironic, but they are all personal songs. They're all true." He picks out the song " Emily Kane", a heartfelt paean to a schoolyard romance. "People here think it's funny, an emo pastiche. But in America, they were like, you must have really loved her. And I did."

She contacted him after hearing the song, and they met up - with her boyfriend - in Argos's home town of Bournemouth. "When we play the Mean Fiddler [in London], Emily Kane will be coming." And he beams, as if this is almost as good as appearing on Top of the Pops.

Art Brut play the Cockpit, Leeds (0113 244 1573), tomorrow, then tour to 17 November ( www.artbrut.co.uk); the single 'Nag Nag Nag Nag' is released on Labels/Mute on Monday

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