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 and Dublin before a home city return for a February 20 show at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
The original drum machine disputed to have suggested 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.
Singer Ian McCulloch and lead guitarist Will Sergeant resolutely remain on board though, with the latter – due to Mac’s five-year absence from 1989 – the only constant member.
And for all the up and downs over the years, when I caught up with Will this week, the 56-year-old came over as nothing less than grounded, level-headed and without ego.
Some of the darker moments between band-mates and rival groups from that post-punk Liverpool scene are well chronicled. But there’s obviously plenty of love too.
For all those world travels with his music and artwork, Will’s not strayed far from his Melling roots either, 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, but the band formed in Liverpool in 1978 and were responsible for some of the late 20th century’s most celebrated singles and albums.
As mentioned in my recent interview with Julian Cope, I only recently revisited those years courtesy of the legendary lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes’ Head On memoirs, recalling his years on that Liverpool punk and post-punk scene from 1976-82.
Will and Mac obviously played key parts in all that, Will’s first mention coming in early 1978 as Julian recalls how – along with Mac and Paul Simpson – they first heard game-changing Pere Ubu album, The Modern Dance.
At that stage, it seems that Will and Simmo were Industrial/Domestic, described by Julian as ‘a noise group with two guitars, through echo units’, adding, ‘We joined up the two groups one time at Will’s house and recorded a version of Satisfaction and the Big in Japan theme tune. Will played way off key all the time. It sounded great, but I thought he was so weird that I couldn’t tell if it was intentional.’
Simmo later moved over to the Teardrop Explodes faction, with Mac and Will soon playing together, Les Pattinson then joining them.
There are many fly-on-the-wall moments in music history for me, and one involves a trip to Eric’s for the night in mid-November ’78 that the fledgling Echo and The Bunnymen opened for The Teardrop Explodes, both bands’ first outing.
That proved to be a catalyst for both groups, let alone Pete Wylie in the wings, and Will returns to Julian’s story a few more times from there, not least when his band stole a march with the release of their debut album, Crocodiles, in the summer of 1980.
That album included some great moments, including the first of many great Bunnymen singles, Rescue, by which time drummer Pete de Freitas was on board. And in time, they were rightly lauded as an album band too, follow-up Heaven Up Here (1981) then Porcupine (1983) and Ocean Rain (1984) ensuring their elevation to the big time and plenty of acclaim.
This is not the place for that full history, but I will mention a triumphant return in 1997 with Evergreen after that initial term, and signpost many less-trumpeted but similarly worthy cuts since.
And there certainly remains a deep love for The Bunnymen all over the world, although it’s clearly not been an easy ride.
The band’s latest LP, last June’s splendid Meteorites – their first in five years – showcases an outfit 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 that it hasn’t inspired huge sales yet?
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.
“That’s exactly it. 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.”
Do you get offers for soundtrack work?
“No. Never. Have you got any?”
Afraid not. That surprises me that he’s not approached more often though.
“I got offered a couple of adverts once, but never saw the ad at the end of it. I think it was for whisky. In the end they used Fanfare for the Common Man instead.
“You can spend hours and hours and submit something, and they might not like it. But I think I’m perfect for that sort of stuff.”
Some of those bigger studio experiences have been good for Will though, not least The Bunnymen’s work in South Wales at Rockfield Studios, again with some of the odder moments chronicles in Head On.
“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.”
I get the impression from Julian’s book that Will’s first band forays into a recording career were slightly frustrated by interference from the likes of Dave Balfe, the Zoo Records associate of Bill Drummond, who in later years signed Blur (and was the subject of their first No.1, Country House). So what did Will make of Julian’s memoirs?
“I’ve never read them, and believe that book’s hard to get hold of now. I’m not a big reader though. It’s just time. I’d rather have a record on, or watch a film or some TV. I can’t concentrate – there’s always 20 things going on in my head.”
I certainly get the impression Julian was a prolific diary-writer, otherwise he might not have remembered quite as much about those days.
“Well – remembered, or just made some of it up! I know the story about the camouflage netting was a lot of bollocks – totally.
“That was me and Les. We came out of our hotel room one morning, both wearing army pants, and between the two of us from there started conspiring to make it a bit more of a uniform.
“They had us down as a band with no image, almost, so we thought we’d make a strong image, and the camou netting was just a development of that. Julian’s version is just nonsense.”
Was it good to be back with Les (who left The Bunnymen 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.
“I think he thought it might be massive, but no one really noticed, and we’re not really flavour of the month anymore.
“There are a few diehard fans, mind. But it’s only weird instrumental stuff – it’s hardly Top of the Pops material.”
When that album came out, Will said it gave him free rein rather than just be a session player for Mac in The Bunnymen. So what changed?
“I think it was 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?”
Sorry to remind you, but at your advancing age, do you still like to turn up the amps and let rip, or are you more mellow these days?
“Yeah, and I’ve just been blasting out some music this morning! I won’t tell you what though – it might put you off.”
You can’t leave me dangling there, Will. Come on, spill the beans!
“Mmm … it was Hergest Ridge by Mike Oldfield actually!”
We’ll, I could have been guessing a long while before I came up with that.
“Well, I loved Tubular Bells when it came out, and all of those bands from that era get slagged off, but I still love Yes, E.L.P. and all that.
“It’s the music of my childhood, y’know and I revisit all that stuff all the time.”
So what did Will first see and hear that made him think he wanted to pick up a guitar?
“Well, 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 back then – as a commis chef in a department store in the city – overlapped with his time in The Bunnymen, just as his band, Pete Wylie’s Wah! line-up that particular month, and The Teardrop Explodes were finding their feet.
“When the rush died off at around two in the afternoon, I’d wander around in my lunch-hour 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. But what amazes me now, looking back, was how short a spell of time it was between The Beatles and the Merseybeat movement then punk and new wave.
“I know. I find it amazing that I bought my first Velvet Underground record when I was around 13, a compilation. That would have been 1971, so was only around four years later, but to us kids those four years were a lifetime.
“Now that period of time is nothing to us. It’s not fair – it should be the other way round.”
So, getting back up to date, has Will 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.
Was art always important to you, or is that more a recent release from the music side?
“I’ve always been into art, and loved the lessons at school. Our art teacher was a bit of a nobhead but …”
Do you think that’s what stopped you going down that line and off to art school?
“Yeah. They were different days.”
But perhaps it wasn’t meant to be at that stage, and instead he rose to fame with The Bunnymen.
Along the way, the band worked with some big names in the studios too, something that clearly has helped Will learn his craft. I’m thinking of people like Hugh Jones at Rockfield …
“Yeah, I loved working with Hugh …”
Then there was studio engineer Geoff Emerick, best known for his work with The Beatles …
“He was great …”
“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, former Killing Joke guitarist Youth, best known for work with Paul McCartney’s The Fireman project, Embrace, U2 and The Verve perhaps. What made you choose him?
“That was through the same management. 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 remember hearing how on Crowded House’s Together Alone he loved to get the band in the right zone with a little primal screaming in the mornings.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t there in the morning! 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 don’t … 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!
“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.”
Getting back to those old adversaries from your formative days in Liverpool, does Will 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), then Eddie Lundon (China Crisis), and 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.”
And I see Pete Wylie’s going down the Pledge Music line music himself now, working on the superbly-titled Pete Sounds album.
“Is he? Well, record companies can’t see any money in it, so for something like us it makes sense. We are on a proper label in America though, through Universal.”
After all these years, 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 (from 1984’s Ocean Rain)… There’s loads, and a lot more I like than I don’t like.”
As an album, I love Evergreen.
“By Barbara Streisand?”
“Yeah, it was great, having Les back and everything. Siberia (2005) was good too, and Flowers (2001).”
You mentioned Mike Oldfield earlier. From that same era, I was thinking of Jeff Lynne recently re-recording his whole back-catalogue. Is that something you’d consider? Take for example Ocean Rain, rightly 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.”
What was the last great new album you loved and inspired you?
“I quite like a band called The Soundcarriers, cut from that Broadcast, Stereolab cloth, a little loungey and 60s-ish.
“I like The Black Angels, and recently bought that Jacco Gardner album. I liked the sound of the Temples album and someone told me he did that in a bedroom situation, rather than a big studio.”
So have you got 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’ve a few dates coming, including a home fixture for Liverpool Philharmonic on February 20. 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!”
Not together, I’m guessing. Then again, on reflection, the thought of seeing Harry, Stouffer the Cat and co. covering Non-Alignment Pact would be a site to see.
”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.”
I seem to recall the Royal Court Theatre offered a bit of that from past jaunts there to see the afore-mentioned Crowded House and The Lightning Seeds.
“Yeah, that used to be an amazing gig. But now I believe it’s more a comedy place rather than for bands.”
After these February dates, there’s also the Gigantic all-dayer in late May at Manchester Academy, although clearly Will’s taking each gig as it comes – to amend the sporting cliché – and hadn’t looked that far ahead yet.
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.
“We only used that first one rarely, on Street to Street (the 1979 version of Monkeys on that Liverpool bands compilation) and the first single (The Pictures on My Wall, also 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.”
For ticket details of Echo and The Bunnymen’s forthcoming UK dates, call 0844 811 0051 or go to their http://www.bunnymen.com/ website, while you can find out more about Will’s artwork at http://www.willsergeant.com/.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt interview/feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on February 5th, 2015. For the online version of the original, head here.
And if you missed the recent writewyattuk interview/feature with Julian Cope, try this link here.