Franz Ferdinand: Access all areas

Gavin Martin has been in the studio with Franz Ferdinand as they work on their next album - via their webcam, that is. Everyone from The Beatles to U2 has done it, but is it wise to let the cameras in?
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The Independent Culture

During the recording sessions for Franz Ferdinand's new album, the band have not just been making music. Between work on the eagerly anticipated follow-up to their million selling eponymous debut album, the Scottish band have been finessing their other talents in their Highlands recording and rehearsal space.

They have been practising their aim by throwing hatchets at an archery target. In the narrow country roads that lead from the studio into the nearby village, they have formed a cycle relay team to deliver letters to the local post office. On one notable journey, the guitarist Nick McCarthy bundled his laptop and boom mike into his car, drove to a nearby burn to record the sound of a small waterfall. Back at the studio he decided that the sound of rocks over water was unusable and ditched the recording.

These and other Franz Ferdinand adventures, soundtracked with exclusive new instrumental backing, have been filmed and put on their official website. Though not unique in documenting their activities in this way, Franz Ferdinand have embraced the interactive webcam medium more enthusiastically than their peers. Reasons for reluctance are obvious - the wish to keep inter-band rivalries and heated debate private, the fear of giving away trade secrets before the album is ready for release.

And although it's now possible for a suitably motivated band to fulfill The Clash's early punk aspiration to host their own TV station no-one has taken up the challenge. With record companies providing the funding and bands devoted to shaping their next album, insurrectionary rock n' roll broadcasts remain a distant dream.

Alternatively a Big Brother-style round-the-clock surveillance during a recording stint is likely to make any band look boring. Franz Ferdinand's record companies, Rough Trade and Sony, hope that the investment they've made in web footage of the band will stimulate bigger sales when the new album is released. The group see it as a way of maintaining contact with their fans while not directly in the public eye.

"They are all arty guys so creating the content is fun for them, they like the idea they can get across the right image, talking to the camera is talking directly to the fans," explains Chris Hassell from the band's digital partners DS Emotion.

Those hoping to watch the Franz recording process take shape may be disappointed. "They don't want to open up too much about music they are still creating," Hassell admits. "They are interested in making mini-movies - that's a cool way of leaking out a bit of music and getting feedback from it. They make the videos themselves and send them to us. We offer advice and comment but the content is entirely up to them."

DS Emotion are also working with Kaiser Chiefs to turn the text diary on their website into an audio podcast that can be downloaded to an MP3 player or ipod. Chris Hassell insists that being proactive with such web-based activity allows bands to control their image and, most importantly, have fun.

It is certainly in stark contrast to the first instances of rock bands being documented in the studio, in pre-webcam days. Mick Jagger may have intended to show the shaping of his latest masterpiece when he invited Jean Luc Godard into the studio to film the recording of "Sympathy For The Devil" in 1968. But the events captured on the resulting film One by One were seldom fun, and the documentary exposed a raw wound at the heart of a band when the evidently wasted - and soon to be replaced - guitarist Brian Jones glumly asked, "what can I play?" Jagger may have intended that his testy "I don't know Brian, what can you play?" retort be filmed to show Jones lowly status in the band, but he certainly had no control over the pseudo-revolutionary plot Godard weaved into the studio footage.

When The Beatles brought the cameras in to watch the rehearsals for Let It Be, the result was a film showing a band falling apart and not, as intended, making a fresh start. Paull McCartney patronising the guitarist George Harrison and the persistent presence of Yoko One by John Lennon's side showed the fractures that would lead to their split. Everything was slipping beyond the band's control, the sense of fun lost somewhere in the past.

Rock bands, particularly artful image-conscious rock bands, have evidently learned from those early revelations. U2 were one of the first groups to use webcams. But although much excitement occasioned the announcement that followers would be able to log-in and tune in to the creation of the group's Pop album, the reality was more prosaic. Caroline van Oosten de Boer was one of a group of fans that set up a weblog to monitor what U2's cameras saw - but found little to report.

"It was very organised and directed with a time delay in operation. Plus the camera was trained on a very uninteresting part of the studio. Basically, all you saw was people sitting on the couch," says De Boer.

The band turned the webcam on once again during the final stages of recording All That You Can't Leave Behind. This time a slightly more sophisticated monitoring system was set up, and viewers were able to watch Bono sitting with his laptop on his knee and singing lyrics into a microphone. Although sometimes seen cradling a set of bongos, Larry Mullen seemed to spend all his time in from of the camera reading the day's newspapers.

The webcam's function according to De Boer was "to create a buzz among hardcore fans and let them know that an album was on the way." In that respect it worked, helping All That You Can't Leave Behind become the band's most successful album in years. So successful, in fact, that by the time the group came to record their current release How to Dismantle an Atom Bomb, the momentum was already rolling and the studio was kept webcam-free.

During Blur's Think Tank sessions the absence of the guitarist Graham Coxon from most of the footage alerted fans to the guitarist's imminent departure. Viewers were also teased with a prospective track listing that included the still eagerly awaited song "Elton John's Cock".

But it was Radiohead, with web casts during the recording of both Kid A and Hail to the Thief, who offered fans the most generous webcam coverage. As sessions for their new album progress visitors to their site will be hoping for a repeat of the three-hour broadcast made on December 2002.

Rather than broadcast on the web, some bands prefer to gather webcam footage for future DVD release. Footage from the camera used to give early still photos of Coldplay recording X&Y on Chris Martin and co's official website will be used in a forthcoming Let It Be-style documentary - presumably without the split. Elbow are doing something similar in documenting the recording of their album.

The potential may be ripe for exploiting but for now studio webcams have limited appeal. Who apart from a true obsessive would be interested in Franz Ferdinand's cycling skills? And, impressive as they are, is anyone better off for viewing alt-folkie Laura Veirs accomplishments with a skipping rope on her official site?

Maybe Noel Gallagher wasn't simply being a Luddite when he firmly rejected the idea of bands n cams. "I don't want to know how you make your records and I don't want you to know how I make my records," said the Oasis mainman. "The more information you give people, the more the magic goes out of the music. Webcams in studios I find appalling. Ours would be quite interesting as it goes, you'd just see a load of people sitting around drinking."

Interesting? Maybe, but the last time I looked, there's quite a few places you can do that without having to log-on to a website.