Q&A - Will Sergeant
Artist and writer Bryan Biggs interviews Echo & The Bunnymen's Will Sergeant ahead of Will's in conversation at Bluecoat’s This is Now: Film and Video After Punk event on Monday 2 May.
Q: The Bunnymen came together during the heady days of Eric’s. The bands coming out of that scene were unlike the predominantly London punk groups that helped inspire them. Were you aware at the time that there was something distinctive about this new Liverpool sound? And if so, how would you define it?
A: I had grown up as a ‘Trog’ influenced by my older brother and his friends, they were still clinging on to the last shallow dying breaths of hippie-dom. So consequently I was listening to Free, Cream, Taste, Led Zeppelin. Jethro Tull, Family etc. As I got a little older and things were developing I was drawn to the glam of Roxy Music and Bowie and Alice Cooper and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and of course I loved Dr. Feelgood. I think both of these bands had a big influence on the punk scene but never get the recognition. As things moved on to punk the bands I liked were mainly American. Suicide, Pere Ubu, The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads. And my all time favorites The Residents of course, not exactly what you would call punk in the British sense of the word. These were technical players of intricate music and not the thrash of punk which after all was just the American garage sound rehashed with a touch of the Who and the Freakbeat / Mod scene of the 1960’s thrown in.
Lyrically things had changed though. Out was acid and in was anarchy… apparently. But having said that to an 18 year old it was all very cool exciting and fresh and threatening to the old brigade and I liked that very much.
Q: In terms of influences, I am skeptical about the claim that everyone was listening to the Doors, Velvet Underground, Stooges, MC5 etc. That heavy, doomy late-60s US sound was certainly influential, but there seemed to be a more dreamy, playful psychedelia informing groups like yours and the Teardrops. Who were you grooving to and what guitarists fired you up?
A: I have sort of answered some of this question in the last one. When we were punks I was still into the Doors and the Velvets. The Velvets would get played at Eric’s back then anyway .and had been for quite some time at least 1972 the stooges and the MC5 I did not now, and in Iggy’s case not really till Bowie started working with him. So you are partly right. At the beginning I was the only one of our group of friends into the Doors and I collected all the albums, after I had heard Strange Days and my brothers London Flat about 71-72 I became quite obsessed with them and used all my money to collect the albums. As for guitarist I loved Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from Television. The British bands I was into back then included Wire and the Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, and Joy Division. The bands with a bit more about them than angry shouting and snarling for the sake of it.
Q: The ‘Eric’s Explosion’ bands all had fantastic names that reflected a more playful, perhaps surreal Scouse sensibility: Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark, Dalek I Love You, and later The Pale Fountains, The Lotus Eaters, The Icicle Works etc., compared to the punkier Mancunian outfits with grittier sounding names like Warsaw, Buzzcocks, Slaughter & the Dogs. How much attention went into the band’s name (and was ‘Echo’ really the drum machine)?
A: I agree. There was a kind of Dada/surreal element to all the bands names. The word ‘whacky’ was bandied around quite a lot at that time. But we didn’t really talk about a name, I can’t remember ever discussing it with Mac. In 1978 we had been getting together on a weekly basis to ‘write songs’ we would record things on my cassette player and think wow! we were the Velvet Underground, I assume Mac would be Lou Reed and I would be John Cale or Sterling Morrison. My drum machine would be Mo of course. I had a job as a trainee chef at Henderson’s department store on Church Street, and I had Thursdays off. This was the day we would meet up at my Dad's house in Melling 8 miles from Liverpool City Centre.
This is how the name came about. We were asked to support the Teardrop Explodes at a party for Julian Cope’s teacher training college in Huyton I think called C.F.Mott . We still didn’t have a name and it didn’t seem that important we were really fresh and Les had only joined and bought a bass guitar on the Sunday and the gig was on Wednesday. I had a bought a drum a while back machine called a ‘mini pops junior’. Brian Eno had one I think this is when they first came to my attention on the album Another Green World, but it could have been earlier with Kraftwerk. Anyway this is what happened we are all set to go on Julian Cope jumps up on the stage and announces us as Echo and the Bunnymen - we did not really choose the name. Mac had a flat with a student called Paul Elerbeck and he had made a list of names for the band. Mona Lisa and the Grease guns, Glycerol and the Fan Extractors, the Dazmen and Echo and the Bunnymen. Julian was aware of the list and it seems, he just took to that one and that was that. The Drum machine was christened Echo by us after we started doing interviews and they would ask “Who is Echo?” So we would always say the drum machine to divert any sort of leadership idea. There was always a power struggle back then.
Q: From tentative beginnings (I remember I think your first gig at Eric’s) the Bunnymen quickly developed a real intensity in their sound that perfectly matched the songs’ lyrics. You see this well in the Shine So Hard film. Can you describe what the chemistry was that brought all the elements together in such a compelling way – both on record and live?
A: There was and still is a lot of tension in the band, as I said earlier a power struggle. We all wanted to do it our way and this would lead to … not so much fights as moody silences. I never wanted it to be too pop or easy music and we were all attracted to the darker side of pop, so I think this angst just permeated into the records and gigs.
Q: The words ‘Shine So Hard’ seem to sum the band up: crystalline and menacing at the same time. What do you remember about the making of the film and did you get a sense of what its director John Smith was trying to do? Was it what you expected when you saw the result?
A: We were always trying to do things other bands did not do. We felt separate from it all, arrogantly above all the rest. The film idea was just another thing we thought well none of our rivals are doing this so we will. There was also an element of lets get the urban gorilla chic that we had started wearing documented. We had just decided to stop wearing the camouflage clothing as it was becoming a little predictable by then and thought it would be good to get some sort of record of it. To me it was Bill Butt that was the director but I guess it was more of a team effort. Bill Butt was our lighting man and responsible for some of our great stark and exciting light shows. There were a lot of theatrical elements brought into the band live shows by Bill Butt. When we saw the film it was a thrill to see the band live really, the other weird little bits are a bit embarrassing but it is quite funny the way the little vignettes capture our personality’s Mac: vain Me: introverted Les: boyish mechanical and Pete: bookish and clumsy. I think they are pretty accurate short hand for all of us at the time. I watched it again a few years back and it seemed quite refreshingly slow by todays standards and the filming was a lot more arty than I remembered it is as much an art film than band documentary.
Q: Bill Drummond’s visionary early management helped create a mystique around the band – playing gigs in unusual locations, khaki stage gear and camouflage sets, the Crystal Day – to what extent was he the ‘Fifth Bunnyman’? How would you summarize what Bill brought, and why couldn’t that relationship last?
A: The mystique was us really desperately trying to be cool and the at gave us a kind of scary persona the press were a little scared of us they needed us more that we needed them it felt like at the time. Les and me came up with the camo idea but it just sort of happened. We were getting ready in some dodgy hotel in Stoke or somewhere for a gig and we both tuned up with camo pants on and the idea sort of grew naturally from there. After that when we went to any town we would hit the local army and navy store and by more and more military gear. I remember Les had a bulletproof vest that he wore on stage, it weighed a ton. The stage sets and the whole military thing grew from that and the film Apocalypse Now that we all loved. It was a fantastic time and unified the band crew and Bill with us all dressing the same even the crew. We felt like an invading army turning up at gigs.
Bill is an enabler someone would say something off the top of their head and he would make it happen ie: “Lets play in the Cathedral” and I say “…and I can play a sitar” next it was organized by Bill. At the time we could do anything. We had no boundaries and Bill made us believe that. Either he knew how to do it or would find out how to do things for us. He could open doors. We would play in odd places, have photo shoots in Iceland or a cave or somewhere go to the Isle of Skye and tour village halls all around Scotland and then play the Albert Hall no one was doing these things at the time to make a film? Yes we could do it all because of Bill.
Q: In a couple of years it’ll be four decades since you started out. What keeps it enjoyable still (assuming it is!)?
A: True it’s not as enjoyable as when it was the four of us against the world. The real camaraderie has become less of an important thing. We have hired guns and they are all dedicated to the band. Being in a band it still is the best job in the world. It’s impossible to convey the feeling of power and beauty when you strike a chord or note just perfectly. When the ephemeral chance of a special moment can appear at anytime during any song and you were part of it, even if it was by keeping silent and letting some space exist, these things still happen every time we play. The crowd going nuts as they recognize the beginning notes of a particular favorite. So yes it’s almost 40 years and it’s not quite the same but every day is not quite the same anyway it would be boring if it were. I have been to more places on the planet than Alan Whicker and getting paid for the honor. We always say the gigs are free you are paying us for the hassle of airports or sitting on buses or vans for millions of miles.
What’s not to like?
Will Sergeant is in conversation at Bluecoat’s This is Now: Film and Video After Punk event on Monday 2 May. Will's band Poltergeist play FestEVOL at Camp & Furnace on 1 May.
Photo - Alex Hurst