Music Editor Fred Bruce discusses musical experimentation and time travel with legendary Echo & The Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant.
Few bands can claim a discography as evocative and enduring as Echo & The Bunnymen. From humble beginnings in 1970s Liverpool, the band’s wild soundscapes and gothic theatricality are as breathtaking now as they were 40 years ago.
Much of this success can be attributed to the band’s legendary guitarist, although he would never admit so himself. Finding acclaim in both the music scene and, more recently, the art world, Will Sergeant’s memoir Bunnyman is a fascinating insight into the world before the Bunnymen’s arrival. With the band set to tour at the start of next year, I caught up with Will to discuss the changing music industry, his own pre-history, and the difficulties with time travel.
The Glasgow Guardian: Bunnyman spends a lot of time on the music discovery process growing up in post-war Liverpool, like trading records with the neighbours across the road. Do you think streaming has made this discovery easier, or does it encourage people to stay within their comfort zones?
Will Sergeant: I think the internet has probably made it easier. It was a lot of hard work without any of that about. If you wanted to track down a record there was no Discogs you could just click on, you had to properly hunt it down. You’d hear “Oh, so-and-so have this record” and you’d have to run down and buy it, or there’d be a lot of adverts in the back of NME if record stores had some of the more out-there albums. The mainstream places like WHSmith would just be filled with Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd, so it was definitely harder to find experimental music.
GG: Speaking of more out-there material, your solo record Themes for ‘Grind’ certainly falls into that category. What were the origins of this forward-thinking film score?
WS: Bill Butt came and told me his idea for a film about this character called Grind who had “appeared” and didn’t really understand how life works. He worked in a razor-blade sharpening factory, and was based on a lad Bill knew from Bristol. They lived together in these digs for theatre types ‘cause Bill was a stage designer, and so we all fell in with them and met Bill Drummond [Echo and the Bunnymen’s manager] there, which is why the Bunnymen have that theatrical vibe.
GG: Do you think Grind the film will ever see the light of day?
WS: It’ll depend if Bill starts doing it all again. He had done some filming with [Nicholas Farrel] actually, until Chariots of Fire came out and he got quite busy. A lot of the footage was in the back of his car which then got stolen, so we would have had to start everything again. The vibe of the film was quite unusual, sort of sci-fi, you know? Nobody knew where this bloke came from – he’d get his wage packet every week and leave it in a big heap in the front room. I think he lived in a boat with a TV and a generator that would drown the sound out and cause interference on the screen. He was never going to fit in, always an outsider - at one point he was going to be a conquistador that just showed up one day in Bristol Square. It sounded like quite a good idea, and not a million miles away from Mr Bean.
GG: Very David Lynch does Mr Bean.
GG: And the album itself, which is coming up for 40 years old now, was incredibly ahead of its time. How did you find the process of making those sorts of sort in an era predating today’s technology?
WS: All I had at the time was a four-track recorder which I used for everything. I didn’t know how to play the keyboard or anything, so I was really just experimenting all the time – it’s weird listening back thinking “how the hell was I doing that?”. Honestly, I don’t know. I just kept playing and eventually got a fairly naff string synth and a Casio, and a clavioline that made this droning sound. I was doing it in this big knocked-out warehouse space when the rest of the lads showed up and heard. I think it was Bill Drummond who convinced me to chuck it into the Bunnymen and it turned into Zimbo. I’ve still got the original demo on cassette.
GG: Oh wow – did you find that during the attic clear-out a few months back?
WS: Yeah, I got loads of cassettes from there. Haven’t got much interest, mind, but I put what I could online so people could hear the early stages of the songs. We must’ve reused the cassettes and gone over them; recorded the John Peel show over the top or something.
GG: What you were saying about the Grind recording fits in well with how you’ve described the creative process in the past - a sort of “stumbling upon” method with both your music and your art. Did you find the change to a more grounded memoir difficult, with a concrete beginning, middle, and end?
WS: I didn’t really find it difficult actually. The story’s there, you know, you’ve just got to use your memory and ask people questions. I could fill in the blanks by looking stuff up online and see we did so-and-so gig in August 1970 something, and I like the internet for that. It’s not everything that happened, just what you remember, so researching online triggers other memories. It’s following a line, not like writing a novel where you have to invent things, all these things happened – from my point of view, anyway. People can disagree but it’s my story, eh?
GG: Yeah, they can write their own.
WS: Exactly, it’s a “dry your eyes” sort of thing.
GG: Speaking of the gigs in the early days, now that the Bunnymen have achieved such popularity, do you miss the out-of-the-way gigs that you were able to play back in the day?
WS: Yeah, I’m always going on about how we should be playing weirder places again. There was this amazing theatre on the coast somewhere, maybe Cornwall, that was built out of this rock going right into the sea. I love these weird places, like when Pink Floyd played Pompeii. I went to the pictures to see that, so I always think we should play in those kind of spaces. When the Bunnymen played in these little islands around Iceland, I think it makes you as a band look more interesting. The Uffizi Square in Florence was another one. We were sponsored by the local Communist Party, and then later another one by the local Fascists.
GG: Good to get the balance.
WS: Yeah! Well that’s what it was like in Italy. Although we didn’t end up doing the Fascist one, it was going to be on this big football pitch but they didn’t have any electricity. They thought we’d just bring the electricity with us, so we turned up with the stage on one end of the pitch and there was one plug in the toilets on the other end and we just had to say “well, this isn’t going to work”.
GG: That may have been for the best…
WS: Probably, in fairness.
GG: Can you see the band returning to those smaller gigs at any stage, or has that time passed?
WS: It’s just getting the rest of the band interested. Playing that Glasgow gig at the Bandstand was great because it was something different, and it’s always a good crowd there.
GG: To round things out, Bunnyman ends just as Echo and the Bunnymen began to take shape. How difficult was the decision to give up the trainee chef job in order to commit full time to the band?
WS: It was really difficult. What happened was we had just been given a publishing deal, but it was still a case of giving up actual wages for a shot at music. It was a difficult decision, though I was already getting bored of that place. It wasn’t as interesting as when I started, so realising that we could actually give ourselves a wage was amazing. We all gave stuff up – Pete [former drummer] was at Cambridge or Oxbridge, so it was a big decision for all of us.
GG: Thankfully it worked out pretty well in the end.
WS: True. It’s all those crossroads you come to in your life. You go down one road and it's a completely different story, one little alteration changes everything. That’s why time travel is so difficult – you go back in time and start messing around, the space-time continuum gets knackered.
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