At the risk of demythologising Echo & The Bunnymen’s aura, here’s something about their guitar player that the sepulchral ‘The Killing Moon’ might not suggest: Will Sergeant is funny, approachable and wonderfully self defacing. Gregarious and occasionally self-amused at our questions, Sergeant seems content to offer the truth of his reality rather than continue decorating the chapel his fans have built around the band. “That [riff],” he cackles, “What that was, I just did that as we were tuning up. Before we were doing a take or whatever, I was just ‘Ding ding ding..ding diddle ding’; scratching away at the guitar. I was just making sure it was in tune, or it sounded alright. We put the backing track down, and we went for a meal. We went for a curry around the corner – we were in Bath. And when we came back, the producer [David Lord] had just spliced together what he heard on the backing track. He put it onto another track, put it on another tape, and joined it together, and put together this repeated motif. He said, ‘I’ve done this thing for the intro: see what you think!’ We all thought it was great, but I don’t really know how I did it.”
Sergeant has performed the lick in concert, paying diligence to what fans recognise as the central hook, even though he admits that it’s more tribute than reproduction. The recording, lushly produced and sung with incredible restraint from the traditionally boisterous Ian McCulloch, still captures the attention from all walks of life, even those amongst the most cynical and detached from pop culture. There’s the yearning lyric, the thunderous bass, the shimmering guitar arpeggios, and the light, feathery drums that offer the record a timelessness nowhere to be heard among the synth machines that populated the radios in 1984. “Pete did ‘Killing Moon’ with sticks, but it sounded a bit ordinary,” Sergeant explained. “I think Mac suggested that since Pete had been getting into using brushes that he use brushes, and they did the drum track again. It made it lighter, more mysterious; more kind of ‘Classic!’ We’d been listening to Dave Brubeck and ‘Take 5’. It’s jazz, and it has amazing drums on it. It was a big influence on our style of drumming.”
Sergeant, his Liverpudlian vowels as pronounced as ever, is here to discuss his new book, Bunnyman, a strangely affecting account of a city that birthed three of the world’s most dazzlingly inventive outfits. To my ears, Echo & The Bunnymen stand as the missing link between the daring artpop of The Beatles’ later years and the feisty, chorus heavy anthems pencilled by three-hit wonders Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But the success of Echo & The Bunnymen stemmed from yet another genre of music, and one that swept all over England in the wake of The Damned’s propulsive single ‘New Rose’. “The punk thing had come,” Sergeant says, “And it didn’t last long. It lasted about a year, before it had become a bit…predictable.”
Change, it seemed, was inevitable: “People like us who were punk were moving on to bands like Talking Heads, or Pere Ubu from Cleveland,” Sergeant added. “And they were lumped in with all the punks, even though they weren’t really punk; ‘Psycho Killer’ was about the most punk thing, and that’s not ‘Anarchy In The UK’. We were looking for something new, and the papers were looking for the new thing, as they still are. We stood out, because we weren’t punk, but we weren’t going as wanky as prog.”
Of course, there’s been a lot of overlap between the genres. Early seventies albums Quadrophenia and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway now sound like proto-punk masterworks, while Paul Weller led The Jam to more pictorial and pastoral territories on All Mod Cons. But Sergeant does have a point about their public image. No matter how lofty the lyrics, or gigantic the production sound, the band never lost touch of their background, earmarking a return to more immediate rock. “It was still pure and valid somehow,” Sergeant continues. “I like Joy Division as well. We were just moving forward. I was personally looking back to the sixties more than anything. I love the sixties- the psychedelic stuff-more than anything.”
“When you do ‘em [gigs], you’re just in the moment, and you get on with it,” Sergeant continues, “But looking back, I think it was a [cool] thing to do. I couldn’t play guitar, really-piddle around on the E string, and go onstage. Without punk, we wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think. Punk sort of enabled you to say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it, and I don’t care if you think I can’t play.’We were watching bands every week that couldn’t really play, [but] the sort of exuberance and attitude came across enough. In a way, if you could really play, it was a disadvantage. Some bands we saw at Eric’s Club, like The Police, we thought were shit because they were too good.”
As it happens, Echo & The Bunnymen fashioned their stagecraft to the plodding beat of a primitive drum machine (Pete de Freitas would join sometime later). Although programmed to play a functional beat, contemporary technology was not advanced enough to lead the band to greater heights. What they really needed was the work of a trusted percussionist, his cymbal gauging the audience’s reactions and bass pedals pushing the guitars along. “You could change the beat a bit [of a drum machine],” Sergeant admits, “But playing the guitar, I’m not going to be doing that! I’d just start the drum machine, and it would tick away. What was really good was that it was really good for us, timing wise. We got really good at timing, getting tight. When you go slightly out at a gig, a drummer can kind of compensate and bring you all back in together. The drummer is almost like a conductor.”
Tidy metaphor! “Those flurries that he does leads you to the next piece, so it’s much better with a drummer!” But what metaphor, or descriptor, would Sergeant use to describe his particular style of guitar playing?
“I don’t know,” he says, pausing as if to stroke his beard. “I don’t really think about it: it just sort of happens. I just sort of put the guitar on and start tootling around; ‘Those notes sound good together. I’ve got no real formal background in music, so I don’t really know what I’m doing, which I think sort of leads to mistakes, or a guitarist who does know what they’re doing would go down a different avenue-a more conventional avenue! I think that helps me not being technically trained; I taught meself.”
His use of bar chords, he says, isn’t the “correct” way of doing it. “It’s The Ramones way,” Sergeant explains, clearly unembarrassed by the admission. From the bristling ‘Seven Seas’ to the choppy, kaleidoscopic weight of ‘The Cutter’, Sergeant has recorded several indelible guitar hooks, but it’s the barrelling, Byrds-like riff that centres ‘Rescue’ which arguably remains his most beloved creation. “That was Ian Broudie,” he says. “We were produced by Ian Broudie, and he was just a young kid like us. He was in a band called Big In Japan with Bill Drummond, Jayne Casey and Holly Johnson. They were just punks in Eric’s [Club]. Somehow, and I don’t know how to this day, he knew about studio techniques. Like he had been in a couple of bands before Big In Japan, but what we did was we recorded the guitar-the intro thing-and then he slowed the tape down, and recorded it again. If you did that on a computer, it would be perfectly rigid. I’m talking about a minuscule of a second – slight thing. Tape recorders, when they’re playing, you can’t tell ‘absolutely spot on’ like a clock. They’re not like that. So, when the two guitars were recorded together, there was like this weird sound passing each other: one speeding up a bit, one slowing down a bit. And it kind of gave it that jangly chorus effect.”
Broudie, a technical savant who knew “what a compressor was”, naturally took the plunge into songwriting in later years, and his whimsical ‘Three Lions’ was adopted as the unofficial anthem by the England football team of 2021 and many failed tournaments prior. Echo & The Bunnymen continued touring and recording throughout the eighties, earmarking a selection of albums that are breathtaking in their versatility and ambition. “I know when we play ‘Over The Wall’ live, Macca [sic] says, ‘This is the song that will set us apart from all the rest,’” Sergeant explains. “He’s probably right!” The guitar player was re-introduced to some of the band’s more idiosyncratic outlets when he agreed to take part in one of Tim Burgess’s Listening Parties on Twitter. “What you do is line up the record, and everyone does the same thing around the world, and you comment on them. I haven’t listened to some of them for…20 years. And when I played them again, I was really surprised. ‘Higher Hell’, I thought was great. There’s loads of dead good bits on them all! I like playing ‘Do It Clean’, because it’s a rocker; I like playing ‘Over The Wall’ because it’s trippy; I like playing ‘Killing Moon’ because it’s an amazing song.”
The band never wished to sound like anyone else; advice Sergeant wishes to impart to the younger bands following in their wake. The Stone Roses, he says, loved their material, but he also credits them with developing their own unique sound. “You can take influences from things that you like, but don’t be like, ‘I wanna be like,’ he said, before pausing and adding: “I can’t think of a new band, I’m so old!”
Although grateful for the internet, Sergeant is quick to highlight the importance of discovering new music in a more ordered, organic manner. A chance encounter with a Velvet Underground album led to a lifelong fascination with the band. He liked the album cover and later came to love the music. “It was a fluke,” he says, but one he’s happy to contend with. “They influenced us, but we didn’t really sound like them. I think Jesus and Mary Chain wanted to [actually] sound like them.”
Buoyed by his experience writing liner notes for reissues, Sergeant opted to commit his early memories to print. The Liverpool he knew wasn’t the champion of Beatles iconography that it is today, and like many Beatle authors before him, he queries the city’s decision to demolish The Cavern Club. But like many bands of the seventies, Echo & The Bunnymen were loath to praise a group who spearheaded music for an entirely different era and audience. “The punk thing felt like ours,” he explains, “While The Beatles felt like our older brothers. I did an interview once where I said I hated The Beatles, but that was just because – like you just said – did The Beatles become a thing? That got on our nerves a bit, but I don’t hate The Beatles [chuckles].”
Sergeant claims he has some of their albums, but there was no shortage of influences on the band. Vocalist Ian McCulloch enjoyed the works of Jewish laureates Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, while Sergeant had The Doors on repeat. “I liked The Doors at the time. The others didn’t really like them that much, but I played them so much in the van they got used to them.”
It must have been a thrill for him when keyboardist Ray Manzarek agreed to record the band. “The film people [The Lost Boys] asked us to do it [‘People Are Strange’]. They wanted that track, but they wanted it by a newer band, rather than use the original…Obviously, Robbie Krieger plays it a lot better than I do.”
He’s continually modest about his guitar playing, and at one point, credits The Stone Roses’ John Squire as the more accomplished guitar player. But like us, he agrees that Pete De Freitas should be better remembered than he appears to be. “A lot of drummers do rate him, and there’s a lot of people who know how good he was. But I know what you mean: he’s not always there with Bonham and Keith Moon and all that.” More happily though, he recalls the commitment De Freitas brought to the stage: “We all got into suits at one point, and he’d go on with a suit on; jacket and everything, thundering away. And by the end of the gig, it looked like he’d come out of a shower, or jumped into a swimming pool. He was absolutely – I’m not joking – sopping wet with sweat!”
De Freitas died in 1989, and Les Pattinson – the bassist who holds an “amazing memory” for recalling what Echo & The Bunnymen recorded at 10cc hideout, Strawberry Studios – had left the band by the turn of the millennium. This leaves Sergeant and McCulloch as band custodians, still holding true to the movement they started 40 something years ago. Journalist Tony Fletcher wrote an excellent book on the quartet, but Sergeant is the first person to write up an account from the band’s perspective. He says there will be a follow up, and they’re in the early stages of recording an album. “My theory is the less you play, the more you stumble on,” he says, suggesting that he’d ‘stumble’ on the same thing every day if he rehearsed on a more consistent basis.
And what can he promise us about the next book? “This next one will be when Pete De Freitas joins, and doing Crocodiles, the first tour in America. Yeah, from when Pete De Freitas joins, and I might do another one after that. There’s plenty of stories. We always liked to play in unusual places; a lot of that came from Bill Drummond. He was a bit of an adventurer, even before he became a band manager. He went to Iceland on a fishing boat- he did some crazy stuff. So, a lot of the places we used to play were places he wanted to go back to-islands around Scotland, Iceland and all that.”
And with any luck, they’ll play those places again!
‘Bunnyman: A Memoir by Will Sergeant’ is available from 15 July 2021, published by Constable/Little Brown in hardcover, Ebook and audiobook (read by the author).