Last time I saw Will Sergeant, I was barely two feet away from him on a Sunday night in the snug bar of The Continental, Preston, Lancashire, thrilling to the garage/surf punk spectacle and hearing sensation that is Michael & the Angelos, the ‘60s cartoon-ish alter-egos of equally-mysterious Liverpool band The Kool Aiders.
That was at Tuff Life Boogie’s Preston Pop Fest in late August, with Echo & the Bunnymen’s guitar hero as enthralled as the rest of us – barely a couple of dozen as it turned out, the rest of the festival-goers back in the main room, waiting for The Bluebells to bring the curtain down on a happening indie pop weekend.
Word was that when the organiser told the band he’d head back through and drum up a few more punters, frontman Bob Parker (also ex-Walkingseeds) wasn’t so bothered about numbers, clearly preferring a low-key approach.
“Ah! A good night that, and it’s a great place, The Continental.”
I reckon my ears were still recovering from chief Kool Aider Bob and his band a couple of weeks on. Do you two go back a long way?
“Me and Bob? Oh yeah, years. I played some stuff with (his previous band) The Mel-o-Tones and did lights for them once or twice. And I’m The Hawk.”
Tune into Michael & the Angelos’ website Radio Hour episodes and that’ll make more sense, if you’re not yet hip to that particular trip. Besides, any words I write won’t do justice to this amazing sonic happening. Highly recommended.
“It’s a great idea. I’m always saying he should get someone in like Matt Groening, referencing all the ‘60s, ‘70s and even the punk stuff.”
You clearly still enjoy a bit of dirty rock’n’roll and garage rock alongside an appreciation of the likes of Love, early Genesis, and all that.
“I love all that stuff – that classic record period from the ‘50s through to the ‘80s. It’s kind of what I’m about really. And I love records, so I’m chuffed they’re putting all these LPs out on vinyl again. They’ve been going on about it for years, and everyone else seemed to have their records coming back out on vinyl.”
That’s our excuse for a chat, the re-release of the classic first four LPs by Echo & the Bunnymen, from the years 1980/84, available again on vinyl from this weekend.
Formed in Liverpool in 1978 with Will on lead guitar, Ian McCulloch on vocals and rhythm guitar, and Les Pattinson on bass, Echo & the Bunnymen were soon joined by Pete De Freitas on drums. The rest is history.
Debut 7” single ‘Pictures on My Wall’ c/w ‘Read It in Books’ was released via Zoo Records in 1979, the A-side then appearing on first album Crocodiles in 1980, cementing the band’s reputation amidst a growing wave of post-punk outfits, the NME describing it as ‘probably the best album this year by a British band’. Ultimately breaking into the top-20, it garnered much critical acclaim.
They followed that with the release of the Shine So Hard EP in 1981, recorded live at Pavilion Gardens, Buxton, then second studio album Heaven Up Here the same year, the band’s first UK top-10 album, going on to win the 1981 NME Best Album award. Considered slightly darker, Heaven Up Here was produced by Hugh Jones and was well received by critics and fans, highlights including ‘A Promise’, ‘Over the Wall’ and ‘Show of Strength’.
Then the Bunnymen’s cult status was transformed into mainstream success in 1983 with the release of third LP Porcupine, produced by future Lightning Seeds creator Ian Broudie, their best chart performances following, ‘The Cutter’ reaching No.8 in the singles charts and the LP No.2 in the album charts, soon certified gold.
And 1984 brought fourth studio album Ocean Rain, regarded by many as the band’s classic opus, recorded in Liverpool and Paris, incorporating a 35-piece orchestra, award-winning composer Adam Peters – still a close friend of Will – scoring the strings for an album best known for classic singles ‘Silver’, ‘Seven Seas’ and ‘The Killing Moon’.
Heading into Cornwall recently, dropping my youngest daughter off to start at university, I saw the sign from the A30 near Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor for Warleggan/St Neot/Mount, the way to Carnglaze Caverns, where the cover of Ocean Rain was shot,an extra copy back in the day giving me a chance to Blu Tack that iconic photographic image by Brian Griffin to my bedroom wall, Brian’s photos and Martyn Atkins’ design also featuring on the three previous LPs. Perhaps I should arrange a pilgrimage one day, take a boat out and stab a sorry heart in the water with my favourite finger, in a Mac style.
“Ah, I think we stayed in Fowey – tucked away in this little guest house – when we were doing that.”
Will’s been on the mind a fair bit this last couple of years, having raised his social media profile somewhat to mark the release and success of Bunnyman: A Memoir (Constable, 2021), retelling part one of his life story, from formative years growing up in Melling – an outlying Liverpool district back then classed as within Lancashire, not far from where he still resides – through to the early days of the band. Is he hard at work on part two now?
“Yeah. I’m getting all my research together at the moment.”
Are you re-immersing yourself in that next era (with Pete de Freitas on board by that point)?
“Yeah, I find I can travel back in time in my mind, remembering what we were wearing, the sort of things we were influenced by, what we were into, how we recorded, all that. It’s amazing what can be dragged up.”
Is it a cathartic experience?
“It’s nice, like having a time machine. With the first one, a lot of it was about being a kid, and that was great, going back to then and what we used to get up to, all those scallywag things we used to do.”
You’re not so far from that patch now, around 10 miles from your Melling roots, right?
“Yeah, if that. I just like it round here. When we were bigger, in our heyday – I was going to say massive, but we were never massive – loads of bands moved to London, and it was like, ‘Why move to London?’. It was full of fakers.
“To me, London seemed to be too many people scrambling around. We were trying not to do that. We turned down more things than we did. Even if there was some band on down there we didn’t like the look of, or they had the wrong trousers on or something. ‘We’re not going on with them,’ y’know. ‘They’re shit!’. London felt a bit like that, everyone too desperately trying to impress the local A&R man and all that stuff.”
There was a lot more money being thrown at bands then, it seemed. Those of you still playing all these years on seem to have a far healthier attitude, playing for the right reasons – loving being in a band, playing live and making music, rather than chasing chart-topping status and vast sums of money. Competition doesn’t seem to be such an issue.
“Yeah, it’s not really like that anymore. It’s not a game, anyway. There was always a bit of rivalry between us and people like U2 … although I think they won that one! Ha.”
Speaking of whom, breakthrough Irish band Inhaler played an Action Records promotion in late summer at the afore-mentioned Continental, and catching footage of them at Reading Festival shortly after, I felt seeing frontman Elijah Hewson in action was like watching his dad in U2’s early days.
“We share a roadie with them, and we’ve met them a couple of times. They’re a really nice bunch. Dead cool, like. And it’s a difficult track to follow, isn’t it? I’ve seen them live, and they were good.”
From February onwards, Will should be back out on the road with the Bunnymen again, with 20 live dates lined up for a classic band who managed 20 top-20 UK singles. Which made me wonder, for all his cool demeanour, was he ever secretly thrilled about the prospect of chart hits, Top of the Pops appearances, and all that?
“Only once. I think it was for ‘The Cutter’. Rob Dickens at the record label had loads of stuff he’d been given in his office, like a Pee-wee Herman bike with flat tyres. Me and Les were disgusted that the tyres weren’t even pumped up. We loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
“He also had – just leaning against the wall – an Andy Warhol Electric Chair print. I said, ‘That’s great!’, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, someone gave me that’, or he bought it for buttons or something. He said, ‘I tell you what – if your single gets to No.5, you can have it’. So I really wanted to get to No.5 … and I think it got to No.7, so I hit the post on that one. And I think he would have given it me, he was a man of his word.”
It actually reached No.8, the first of three Bunnymen top-10 hits. Not bad for a lad born on the Lancashire side of Liverpool. And going back to those roots, Odyssey style, I mention to Will how Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt would often return to his childhood address on my old patch in Woking, Surrey, gazing at the house where he lived from his car, re-igniting memories. Is that the case with Will and Melling, taking a walk or drive down Station Road, looking at his family home?
“Yeah, and the weird thing is, our house was the shittiest in the road – towards the end of Dad’s life, her and Dad’s life had fallen to bits – but someone’s bought it, done it up, and it’s now the poshest house in the street, extended and everything. It looks like it doesn’t belong there.”
No blue plaque to follow? No chance of the National Trust coming in, as they did with Forthlin Road and Menlove Avenue for Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s homes further into the city?
“No, it’s a completely different house now. You wouldn’t recognise it.”
If you had the chance to go back and be a fly on the wall for Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes sharing the bill at the legendary Eric’s in Liverpool, late ’78, what do you think you’d make of each band?
“Well, we weren’t the competent players we became. I think the Teardrops could play a lot better than us. Mick Finkler was great on the guitar and Julian (Cope) was obviously a really good bass player. I don’t know what I’d think, but …”
You clearly had something about you.
“Yeah, with Mac up front and everything. He’s sort of got it, hasn’t he, you can’t really deny it. He’s got something. As a frontman, if you can bottle that … like an arrogance … an assuredness, he exudes it.”
Thinking of the vinyl reissues of the early LPs, do you still have and play the originals? I recall Noddy Holder once saying he lent someone a copy of his first LP with Ambrose Slade and didn’t get it back, and he didn’t have one for years.
“Our records? There’s loads I haven’t got. Half the time, they put things out and don’t even send us them. There was one that came out not long ago with sunflowers on the cover. I never got that.”
The day I spoke to Will, I was hoping the postie would knock on the door with a copy of Will’s Bunnyman, but I was still waiting when we spoke.
“Well, Costco have got it cheap! The cheapest I’ve seen. No VAT.”
Recently, I read Steve Hanley’s entertaining, informative Fall memoir, The Big Midweek – Life Inside The Fall, and there’s a mention of a meet-up between your bands in Liverpool, around 40 years ago, Mac and his old pal Mark E. Smith trading insults and cutting repartee, while Steve made small talk with Les and new Radio 1 DJ Janice Long.
He also revealed how he got home and put on Heaven Up Here, suggesting he could play Les’ parts and join you. It seems he felt he might have had an easier life in your band. Do you think he would have?
“Yeah. I met him the other day, actually, when I did a book signing and talk with Dave Haslam in Manchester at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. We had a chat in the bog! I’m set to do another with John Robb at the Louder Than Words festival. I think with Marc Riley and Steve we’re all going to be out for a curry later. It’s gonna be a hoot, that night. Nice lads.”
That date with John Robb – on Saturday, November 13th, at Innside, First Street, Manchester, with ticket details here – sounds like a winner, judging by their conversation for John’s Louder Than War website in July (linked here). In fact, John has contributed to my forthcoming Fall appreciation, and Will too has good memories of seeing The Fall.
“I loved The Fall. They were just different, weren’t they, kind of like … they weren’t really punk, but they weren’t anything and didn’t want to be anything. They were their own thing. And I loved Mark E. Smith. He was funny as fuck!”
Was there a particular period you liked above all others?
“I bought all the records for maybe 10 years. They kind of drifted off from there. Live at the Witch Trials was great. I loved the cover – the pencil drawing. Pendle’s not so far from here, really, and it’s got that sort of weird, dark satanic mill kind of feel. Kind of odd, that, places like Saddleworth Moor and Holcombe Hill, spooky kind of areas. The Fall almost tapped into that with the area they were based, and it played into his lyrics.
“And I love the way he used to use people’s names. Like ‘Taxi for Mr Nelson!’. That was great. The only ones now doing something slightly similar are Sleaford Mods. Yeah, The Fall were great.”
When did you last play live, and where was that?
“Erm, 2019, I can’t remember where.”
Records suggest it was at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh with the Bunnymen on December 18th, 2019. Have you missed all that?
“Er, it’s a weird thing with playing live. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of anxiety. After a few gigs you get into a flow though, and it becomes okay. You stop worrying. But it’s a lot of worry for me. Is it going to work, will I get all the parts right, will we get the sound correct, not too loud and not too quiet?
“And because I have loads of effects and things I play with, it’s not just playing the guitar. It’s pressing on loads of pedals, making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. And tuned up. It’s like Pressure Central. But once you’ve done a couple, it kind of eases and becomes natural. And I’m going to have to play soon, because all my fingers have gone soft.”
There has been a long gap … not as if I’m trying to add to your anxiety on that front.
“Well, I’m frightened anyway.”
Has the lockdown been a good time for your artwork too? Or was the writing all-consuming?
“I’ve done a bit. I got into doing collages for a while, just for the fun of it really. I started the writing before the lockdown. That sort of came initially from doing …. these records have been re-released before by a smaller label that licensed them, with these fancy booklets. And those liner notes kind of started me off on the writing thing.
“Around 2013, I think it was, I started a science fiction story. I got to about 17 chapters, and it was all about a world where instead of industrial technology, it was more bio-genetic. I got deeply into it, then that film Avatar came out, and I just thought, ‘Fucking hell, this is too similar!’. But I might revisit it. And I’d love to do short stories. I love John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, James Herbert, all that.”
As for the memoirs, part two will cover from Pete’s early days with the band. Up until when?”
“I might go up to the end of Heaven Up Here. That’s a couple of records, loads of touring, Europe for the first time, all that stuff. That was the first time I’d ever been abroad. To Belgium, a place called Plan K, these sort of hipsters running these nights. Joy Division were on the week before.
“A Certain Ratio, us and The Teardrops went over and did it, in this old sugar refinery. I’d never seen anything like that, thinking you could do anything you liked in Europe – get an old factory and turn it into a gig without much money or interference from authorities. It seemed to be a place that was open.”
Records suggest that was in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek on January 26th 1980, with William S. Burroughs, Buzzcocks, Cabaret Voltaire and Scritti Politti among the previous year’s guests there, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on 12 days earlier than the Bunnymen. And such happenings are something this up’n’coming generation of bands won’t be able to experience at this rate, post-Brexit. It would cost too much to get over and play, with too many new bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
“Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen there.”
Last time we spoke, in early 2015, you told me you weren’t a big reader and you’d rather put a record on. You seem to have proved yourself wrong on that front.
“I’m not much of a reader. I’m better with an audio book in the car, driving around, or on dog walks with the headphones on. “I’m listening at the moment to Shantaram (by Gregory David Roberts), about an Australian who breaks out of jail, ending up in Bombay, embroiled in all sorts in these shanty towns. It’s brilliant, and my mate Adam Peters is doing the soundtrack music for a series. They’re in Thailand filming at the minute. He’s asked me to help with odd bits.”
As you mentioned Australia, how’s Bunnymen bass player Les doing? Is he still Down Under?
“He’s alright. I’m in touch with him most days, via WhatsApp or whatever. He’s always sending me jokes and pictures. It looks amazing, where he lives. In Mornington, Melbourne, on this big bay. They go sailing and all that. He does trials riding too.”
With that, our time slot is well and truly done, but Will tells me we should catch up at the Conti again soon – where he also caught Can’s Damo Suzuki and Gnod fairly recently – and revealed a few details about another musical project he has lined up.
“I’m toying with the idea of going out and doing ambient gigs on my own. I’ve got to plan it out, work out what I’m going to do, get some projections together. There’s a bloke round here with an organic farm and he built this baboon house in his back garden, made for Knowsley Safari Park. He’s made it into this groovy space. He’s a bit of a hippie. They do yoga in there and sound baths.
“I was saying you could put things on, like poetry readings or ambient nights. I was going to do something acoustic with our keyboard player, do some of his tunes and some of mine, then I was thinking of something more electronic, with a table-top set-up, something we used to do years ago, under the name Glide. But keep it minimal.”
By then, your fingers may be more hardened up again.
“I probably wouldn’t be playing the guitar. Last time I did the Glide stuff, I played guitar with a screwdriver and a metal rod. I’d thrash the shit out of it! Using the screwdriver like a slide, with open tuning … maybe a bit violent for a gentle ambient night.”
The first four Echo & the Bunnymen LPs (Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain) are available from today (Friday, October 22nd) on heavyweight black vinyl and limited-edition coloured vinyl, with further details via https://lnk.to/EchoandtheBunnymen_Vinyl.
Meanwhile, Mac, Will, and the current line-up will be playing a full UK and Irish tour in Spring 2022 to celebrate Echo & the Bunnymen’s 40-year careers. For ticket details head here. And for all the latest on the Bunnymen, head to their website or keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.