‘You’d go to the fridge and it’d be full of grub, not half a tin of beans’
As Echo and the Bunnymen eye a live return to their home city, MALCOLM WYATT talked to Lancashire born-and-bred guitar hero Will Sergeant.
Some 36 years after Echo and the Bunnymen’s legendary live debut at Liverpool’s cult club Eric’s, they’re still very much with us.
The band have 12 albums behind them and are starting on a 13th, and this month play dates in Newcastle, Birmingham, Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool.
The original drum machine suggesting the name has long gone, drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorbike accident more than a quarter of a century ago, and bass player Les Pattinson is now in Australia.
But singer Ian McCulloch and lead guitarist Will Sergeant remain on board, with the latter – due to Mac’s five-year absence from 1989 – the only constant member.
When I caught up with Will this week, the 56-year-old came over as nothing less than grounded, level-headed and without ego, for all the ups and downs over the years.
Some of the darker moments between band-mates and rival groups from that post-punk Liverpool scene are well chronicled. But there’s obviously a bit of love too.
For all his world travels with his music and his artwork, Will’s not strayed too far from his Melling roots, telling me proudly he’s a ‘Lancashire lad – born and bred’.
He’s based in Scarisbrick these days, with a home studio set-up, while Mac lives ‘just across town, around Woolton way’.
You probably know the rough story, the band forming in Liverpool in 1978 and responsible for some of the late 20th century’s most celebrated singles, including Rescue, The Back of Love, The Cutter, Never Stop, The Killing Moon, Seven Seas, Bring On The Dancing Horses and Nothing Lasts Forever.
They were rightly lauded as an album band too, Crocodiles (1980), Heaven Up Here (1981), Porcupine (1983) and Ocean Rain (1984) ensuring major success, with a triumphant return in Evergreen (1997) and many more less-trumpeted but similarly acclaimed cuts since.
And there remains a deep love for The Bunnymen all over the world, although it’s clearly not been an easy ride.
The latest LP, last June’s splendid Meteorites – their first in five years – showcases a band still on fine form, featuring 10 new McCulloch songs.
It’s unmistakably The Bunnymen, with several stand-outs, and should appeal to a wider audience, not least a few Elbow fans I reckon.
So is Will slightly peeved it hasn’t inspired huge sales yet?
“No. That’s finished, all that stuff. We’re not in that world anymore. People aren’t that interested. There are too many other things to spend your cash on.”
Didn’t you go down the ‘pledge’ route with the latest album?
“Yeah, but I didn’t have a right lot to do with that. The management dealt with all that, rather than me and Mac.
“I’ve done my own solo projects though, and quite like it, because it puts the power back in your hands.
“You can decide what you’re going to put out, without pressure from anyone but yourself.
“We’ve since parted company with that management though, and now have part of our old management, who seem to know us a bit better.”
Even when The Bunnymen had the big company backing, they retained an indie spirit, not least thinking back to Will’s 1978 self-produced Weird as Fish.
“I never wanted to be just some lackey for a record company. That’s never going to work with me.
“I’m too much of a control freak. That’s where the tension’s been with Mac. He’s a control freak too.”
You’ve always had musical outlets, including Glide and Poltergeist (also featuring Les Pattinson).
“I’d say the Poltergeist album was a good one, considering we did it for buttons and recorded it at my house, on a computer and with a few bits of drums in a studio.
“It was done pretty cheap, but I think that’s the way forward. You don’t need these big studios anymore. It’s a whole different vibe.”
Some of those experiences have been good for Will though, not least The Bunnymen’s work at Wales’ Rockfield Studios.
“I loved it there. It was probably the happiest time of my life, until all the usual marriage, kids and the rest of that.
“We’d never really experienced that before. We were just scumbags from Liverpool, but then all of a sudden treated by nice people.
“You’d go to the fridge and it would be stocked full of grub, rather than getting by on half a tin of beans. It was just brilliant.
“Ultimately, you pay for everything, but we didn’t really think of that at the time.”
Was it good to be back with Ormskirk-born Les (who left the band in 1997) for the Poltergeist project?
“It was, but he’s moved to Australia now. I did say when he left I’ll get someone else in and carry on though.”
When that came out, Will said it gave him free rein rather than just be a session player for Mac in The Bunnymen. So what changed?
“Getting shot of that management. They saw Mac as the only one that mattered as far as I could tell. They’d hardly get in touch with me.
“But we’ve since met and started writing together, and it’s been alright. That’s all I want really – to be in my own band. That’s not really a lot to ask, is it?”
What did Will first see and hear that made him think he wanted to pick up a guitar?
“As soon as you’re into music, you want to play guitar, but you just think that’s for posh kids who go to posh schools and have lessons.
“You dream of being Jimmy Page or whoever, but think that’s for other people – not for you.
“It was punk that fired all that. You realised you didn’t have to be a Julian Bream style player.
“Then there were the likes of Brian Eno, just having a few knobs to twiddle and a tape recorder. You thought, ‘I can do that!’
“I bought my first tape recorder from the Freemans catalogue when I was around 15. I had a paper round, so would have been paying for it from that.
“Then I had a Saturday job in catering, one that became full time. That was in Liverpool and led me to find Eric’s really.”
Will’s day job as a commis chef was in a department store in the city, overlapping with his time in The Bunnymen, just as his band, Pete Wylie’s Wah! and The Teardrop Explodes were finding their feet.
“When the rush died off at around two in the afternoon, I’d wander around and go to record shops, saw these posters, and came across Eric’s. I thought that sounded interesting, and started going on my own.”
The rest is of course history. So has he learned better how to co-exist with Mac these days?
“Yeah, but we never had any punch-ups or anything like that – just cold silences and moods and all that nonsense.”
And there’s clearly that creative spark when they get together.
“Yeah, and at the end of the day – I like him, and he’s funny. Things can be difficult, but you just get through it.”
Outside of the Bunnymen and his side-projects, Will has made a name for himself through his art, with successful exhibitions in Liverpool and Los Angeles, and fine examples of his work on the band’s website.
But instead of going down the art school line, he rose to fame with The Bunnymen, learning his craft along the way through sound engineers like Hugh Jones, Geoff Emerick and fellow Liverpudlian and Lightning Seeds mastermind Ian Broudie.
“I’d like to get back to working with Ian. We see him all the time, with him being back in Liverpool. He’s one of our oldest mates.”
Meteorites saw the band work with another feted producer, Farnworth-born ex-Killing Joke guitarist Youth, best known for work with Paul McCartney’s The Fireman project, Embrace, U2 and The Verve.
“I went down to his house for about two days, did a bit of guitar, came home, and did the rest of it here.
“I’ve got pretty much the same set-up that he’s got though. So what was the point? I wasn’t that impressed to be honest.”
I’m guessing it’s going to be different this time.
“Well yeah, the way it’s going at the minute.”
Mac’s sister jokingly asked once when Will was going to learn to play the other 11 strings on his 12-string guitar. How does he rate his playing these days?
“I just don’t.”
You certainly don’t seem to get precious about all this.
“No, it’s just a tool isn’t it? It’s like saying to a plumber, ‘How do you rate your spanner work?’ It’s just a spanner!
“I like the look of guitars more. Then I just experiment and mess around. I don’t know what I’m doing half of the time.
“It’s not like I’m dialling in sounds I know. I’m just flicking through, trying to find something that sounds good. It’s just instinctive.”
Does he keep in touch with the other member of the feted Crucial Three, alongside Mac and The Teardrop Explodes’ Julian Cope – Pete Wylie?
“I see him in town now and then. I get on with Pete, and when we meet, we’ll have a drink.
”There’s still a few of us around. There’s also Paul Simpson (The Teardrop Explodes), Eddie Lundon (China Crisis), the lads from The Farm…
“Everyone gets on these days, after all that weird stuff from the ’80s. Back then, you were more likely to cross the road so you didn’t have to look at Peter Coyle out of The Lotus Eaters. That’s all gone. Everyone’s grown up.”
Is there a Bunnymen album or track you feel has been overlooked and deserves far better attention?
“Erm, I like Heads will Roll (from 1983’s Porcupine). Angels and Devils (a b-side from 1984’s Ocean Rain singles… There’s loads, and a lot more I like than I don’t like.”
I love the comeback album, Evergreen. Was that a good experience making that?
“Yeah, it was great, having Les back and everything. Siberia (2005) was good too, and Flowers (2001).”
Ocean Rain is held up as a classic. Would you change anything about that, given the chance?
“I don’t listen back to it enough to think about it, but generally with all our records I think I’d make Les’ bass a bit bassier.
“Sometimes they sound a bit thin. But that’s the way he likes to play, so it could pop out and you could hear the lines.
“I remember what’s-his-name out of U2 said to him, “Hey Les, how d’you get your bass to sound so trebly?” And he said, “I turn the treble up.”
So have you a few songs towards a new Bunnymen album?
“We’ve a couple on the go. We sat down the other week. It’s a case of finding time now, but it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
You’re at Liverpool Philharmonic soon. Looking forward to that?
“I don’t like playing it, although I love the place. I like going to things there. The last I saw was The Imagined Village folk project, with Martin Carthy and so on.
“I love a bit of folk and stuff like The Unthanks, and as a solo guitar player, I think Chris Wood is brilliant, with this weird, laconic delivery.
“I also saw Pere Ubu when they did the film soundtrack They Came From Outer Space … and Harry Hill!
”But generally I don’t like playing places where the audience is sat down. You feel like you’re entertaining. I prefer it when the band and the audience are one.
“Then you’re part of it, they’re part of it, and you can inspire each other to do things.”
There’s also the Gigantic all-dayer in late May at Manchester Academy, but Will obviously hasn’t seen his schedule that far ahead.
Wrapping up, whatever became of the original Echo and the Bunnymen drum machine?
“It got stolen, when we were in The Ministry in Liverpool, the rehearsal place we shared with The Teardrops. I’d painted it fluorescent green.
“There was another, before you could programme them, and that was used on Over the Wall (from 1981’s Heaven Up Here).
“We only used that first one rarely, on the Street to Street compilation and the first single (The Pictures on My Wall, both 1979).
“We also leant it to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and they used it on their first album (1980) a little. But then it just vanished.”
Finally, name-checking 1997’s Nothing Lasts Forever, ever think when you started with Les and Mac in 1978 you might still be at it 37 years later?
“No. I didn’t think anything of it. I remember an interview with The Beatles where they’d said it would last two years – and they only lasted 10 years in the end.
“I dunno. It’s been a very strange life … considering I’m just some scally who had a paper round.”
Echo & the Bunnymen play Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on Thursday, February 20, with ticket details for the UK dates via 0844 811 0051 or www.bunnymen.com/