After all his years of touring and making music, lead guitarist of Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, is nowadays more likely to be found sat behind his new desk. “To show I’m serious I actually went out and bought a desk,” he says, on writing the next instalment of memoir Bunnyman. “So I’ve actually got a desk now. It’s a nice one as well, 1930s… I got it from Facebook Marketplace.”
The book itself is really a history-come-biographical story of the alternative British music scene in the 1970s, interspersed with details of Will’s personal life as he grew into the man who co-founded Echo and the Bunnymen in 1978. From his shifts as a kitchen porter to painstakingly playing guitar and entering a ‘punk’ crowd to forming a band that defined the era and the genre.
So tell the truth or shut up
– Will Sergeant, Echo and the Bunnymen
“I just wanted to tell the story from my point of view. It was my story and that’s it. I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas of what I wanted it to end up looking like, it just flowed,” he says matter-of-factly. “Because it’s a memoir the story is already there, so it’s about getting it down in an interesting and entertaining way without it being too repetitive or whatever. It just happened.”
The first half of Bunnyman, set in the years before punk rock, is an ode to the progressive rock that a young Will Sergeant was fanatic about. “Anyone that wasn’t interested in the crap chart music was into the outsider music and the outsider music at that time was prog rock. Even Roxy Music was considered progressive rock in their early years.” His Liverpudlian accent only adds gravity to his straightforward and no-nonsense persona, but the humour is always there, and he is incredibly endearing. “So tell the truth or shut up,” he laughs. Sergeant talks freely talk about his love for progressive rock while also admitting how special punk was both to him and the music he made. Punk purged music of “a lot of that wanky stuff that I still love,” the virtuosic prog rock and the spangled outfits. There’s no hypocrisy there — Echo and the Bunnymen’s sound owed a lot to what came before much of that ‘wanky stuff’ in the 1960s. “The Velvets are a major part of my influences, but yeah, punk rock came along and all of a sudden you don’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist to be in a band. You just need to know a few chords.”
It’s something that was especially important considering Sergeant’s initial skill level which was never a limitation. “At the beginning, I was just hitting it really hard, breaking strings, playing it all wrong — but your style develops and mine came from punk rock”.
Listening now, Echo and the Bunnymen’s albums hold up well to contemporary critique. Will’s humility is still evident but it’s nice to hear some pride too. “I played them again for the first time in about 20 years and you come out of it with fresh ears – when you’re in the studio there’s little niggly things that get on your nerves but after so many years you forget about that and listen to it more like a work of art. I was pleased. All of them first four, I was really pleased with them.”
I loved that tour in Scotland where we did all the little places like tiny village halls
Placing Echo and the Bunnymen on a musical spectrum is hard because, due in part to their era, they are at a crossroads. Under that post-punk umbrella, emo, shoegaze, goth, and Britpop are identifiable but that is only because of what came after the Bunnymen. Their alternative 60s influences are discernible but most of all it is the celestial and ‘big’ sound that shines through with the Bunnymen’s music. Listening to them today is a soul-nurturing experience.
It is easy to get the impression that Echo and the Bunnymen were confident in themselves. After fourth album Ocean Rain rather than hitting stadiums the band toured Scotland the Outer Hebrides, playing venues whose size easily belied their sound and success but nonetheless demonstrated that they lay outside of the notions of ‘mainstream’. “I loved that tour in Scotland where we did all the little places like tiny village halls,” Will reminisces. It was the kind of tour that would draw much publicity in the post-Covid world. “We took minimal equipment too, we had all these anglepoise lamps and put them on top of our amps for our lights and that was the light show. There was one place called Portree Gathering Hall and in the crowd, there was like one punk, one hippy, one greaser, one skinhead, just one of everything, but they were all jumping around.”
I think [The Killing Moon] is brilliant, especially the way we recorded it
It is a part of the Echo and the Bunnymen story that is so unique to them and the era they operated in. No artist, unless they were at a really high level, could dream of it nowadays. “We definitely could have [been bigger] but we loved going on adventures and playing places where nobody went. We used to go to Ireland during The Troubles when few others would, and I think they really respected that. We just liked playing places where nobody else played….it was like an adventure.”
One of the most telling aspects of Bunnyman is Will’s acknowledgement of the luck they experienced. Reading Bunnyman, it seems that the trajectory from playing their first gigs at Erics to getting offers from labels was a simple one. “There was a lot of luck involved but I (we) wasn’t trying to become like some sort of rich and famous person, I was just doing it because I loved doing it and wanted to do something creative but also to be considered hip.” Will is also completely willing to admit to how his opinions have changed. “When you’ve made an album, you’ve listened to it so many times in the studio you don’t want to hear the bloody thing again,” he says. “When you add the live aspect to it, it gives it a fresh breath of life. I always thought we were better live than on the record — but that might be because it’s just so loud!”
The music wasn’t made for their labels anyway, mostly it was made for the Bunnymen themselves. “It was all about pleasing myself. If I liked it, I liked it and that was it. The four of us were like that and everyone did their own parts we didn’t try and tell each other what to do — that coming together of four individual minds making one thing means you don’t go down the obvious path, we each came at it from our own angle which made it more interesting.”
Hearing such opinions provides a chance to bring up ‘The Killing Moon’, their biggest song which might understandably be labelled by some as overplayed. Will takes has no issue talking about it though. “I think it’s brilliant, especially the way we recorded it. We did a lot of things and studio techniques we hadn’t used before.” Small changes in the recording process can make for big differences in the final product. “I think Mac thought it was a bit ordinary, so Peter did the messing around with the brushes like a jazz thing. It was a nerve-racking movement because we had to replace the old drums and we did it at a new studio. He did the drums there and we had to play along to our backing track and rub off the old drums from the recording — there was no safety net there. If it hadn’t worked, we would have had to record the whole thing again”.
The rest is history. Will is an old hand at this sort of thing now. “We haven’t played for yonks, and we don’t know what it’s going to be like. But when I’m playing my songs, I’ve got no worries. People say how about how it must feel boring to play the same songs every night like ‘The Cutter’. But for a start, it’s a great song – why would you not want to please the bloody crowd who have paid to get in to see them and why would you not be pleased when they are pleased? I don’t get fed up with them and it’s the only time I ever hear them too because I never play the records at home.” Echo and the Bunnymen’s success might only have been fleeting but it isn’t forgotten. For the artists of today the advice from Will is simple: “Don’t try too hard. Don’t try grovelling around people all the time – people get turned off by that – somehow make them wanna come to you, that’s what we did.” He’s realistic though, “I don’t know how you’d do it nowadays, because the internet kind of spreads it all too thin.” He sounds puzzled for a second, considering, perhaps, how different things are now, but the humour is still there. “It’s just a mind boggler, innit.”