Interview by Katherine Yeske Taylor
With 2020 being the 40th anniversary of Echo & the Bunnymen’s celebrated debut album, Crocodiles, we thought it would be a good time to check in with guitarist Will Sergeant.
The band’s 1980s albums — Heaven Up Here (1981), Porcupine (1983), Ocean Rain (1984) and Echo and the Bunnymen (1987) – and such singles as “The Killing Moon,” “The Cutter,” “Lips Like Sugar” and “Bring on the Dancing Horses” made the band influential post-punk pioneers. Despite a tumultuous history of lineup changes and hiatuses, Echo has never ended, touring often and releasing a dozen studio albums (plus 2018’s The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, a collection of old songs redone with two new tracks).
Singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant founded the band in 1978 and remain its mainstays. We reached Sergeant at his home outside of Liverpool.
Coming from Liverpool must be hard for musicians. The Beatles are a tough act to follow…
In the early days with the Bunnymen, I used to say that I hated the Beatles. But after a while, you do realize that that’s a stupid thing to say. The Beatles were amazing. They really were. They opened the doors for a lot of other bands afterwards. What I really liked about them was the experimental stuff that they did in the studio.
What was it like in Liverpool when you were growing up?
It was kind of scary. There was a lot of skinheads and stuff like that going on. It was always seen as a trouble-causing kind of place. The factories were always on strike, and they were always militant, that sort of thing. It did have a tough image. But underneath, it’s not that tough: it’s friendly. It’s come on a lot in the last few years, that’s for sure.
How did you avoid becoming a skinhead yourself?
I had friends who were more into the hippie side of the world, even though I was probably a bit late for hippie-ness. We were into the heavier stuff. The skinheads were generally into ska music. Which I liked, but I liked people like Roxy Music and David Bowie more.
How did you make the leap from being a fan to actually playing music?
I had a guitar when I was about thirteen, but I didn’t even know how to tune it. I used it to make noises on it and roll things down the strings and use it almost like an experimental sound machine. So I sold that, and then later on, when I started going to Eric’s, the club in Liverpool, everybody was starting bands. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t play well. That gave us the impetus to do it, but there was no big plan behind it. I was really into Roxy Music and Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, these sorts of experimental bands. I bought a drum machine. Nobody had a drum machine then. There was only one band that I knew [then] that had guitars and a drum machine, and that was a French band called Métal Urbain. They were kind of punk but with a drum machine. They were good.
Your guitar playing is so distinctive. How’d you learn to play like that?
I didn’t start doing it until I was 20. I was working as a chef, so I bought a guitar first, before the drum machine. It was a Fender 12-string acoustic. I bought a book on where to put your fingers to make chords and just practiced and practiced. I never really learnt anybody else’s songs. If I started learning how to play other people’s songs, you end up sounding like them, so I don’t really want to do that. I just like to make me own stuff up. I think that was how I got a unique way of playing, if you like.
You must have a natural knack for it then.
No, I don’t think I have. I find a way around it if it’s complicated. I’ll find a little way that’s easy for me. A lot of the time, I’ll just do the simple things that maybe somebody [else] would think, “I’m not doing that — it’s too simple.” But if you do it with commitment, it’s okay!
There’s a short video of you at a soundcheck doing cool spacey stuff. Do you ever just sit around and do that all day?
I never play the guitar unless I’m doing something to do with the band or one of me solo recordings or whatever. I don’t sit around playing guitar. Never.
You don’t get rusty if you don’t play for a while?
I’m constantly rusty! I’m not trying to be Eric Clapton. I don’t want to be. So I don’t mind it being a bit shit! [laughs] That’s what makes it interesting to me.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yeah, it was called “Monkeys.” It was just a riff at first, a one-string kind of thing. It was when me and Mac [singer Ian McCulloch] first got together doing stuff. It’s a bit like The Fall because we were really into them. It morphed into a proper song eventually [and appeared on the band’s 1980 debut album, Crocodiles]. But at one point, it was just me toodling around on one string and Mac playing an E chord, pretty much.
What’s your songwriting process like now?
Same sort of thing, just sit down with the guitar. I’ll just start playing and see what happens. I don’t think about it too deeply. I think if you start thinking about it, it ends up false. Something always happens. There’s always something you can develop. It’s odd.
It’s like magic!
It is magic, ‘cause I don’t know where the hell it comes from! It was after about 20 years of playing the guitar that I realized that the notes are in alphabetical order – I’d never noticed that it goes A, A sharp, B… [laughs] I’ve never even thought about it. I just knew that, if I go two spaces up there, that sounds okay. And if I go three spaces from there, that’s okay. It becomes this sort of pattern. But I wasn’t ever thinking about notes or what they were. So I’m not really a technical guitarist, where I know what notes go with what. You get more happy accidents that way when you don’t know what you’re doing, really. I know vaguely what I’m doing. So I never play the guitar unless I’m using it like a tool.
Not even just for the pure joy of playing?
No. Because I can’t play other people’s songs, so nobody wants to hear it. “Can’t you play bloody ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or something?” [laughs] I think I am quite good at picking out simple tunes that stick, that’s what it is.
When you and Mac first formed the band, how did you know you’d play music so well together?
It wasn’t that planned or organized. I vaguely knew Mac. I’d seen him in Eric’s a few times. Somebody told me that he could sing. I bought a guitar and was learning chords just because it was the thing to do. Every week, people would come up to you and say, “I’ve started a band.” It just seemed to be what everyone was doing. I said to Mac, “Do you want to come to our house and play around on guitars and see what happens?” And he came, and that was that. We used to chug away on our guitars and imagine that we were the Velvet Underground. Then it just developed. We had a few songs, and somebody asked us, “Do you want to play at Eric’s?” We said yeah, even though we didn’t realize what it entailed. Mac didn’t have an amplifier. We didn’t have a bass player. Then our friend Les [Pattinson] piped up and said, “I’ll be the bass player!” He’d never even touched a bass before. So it was that simple. Things like that were happening all the time at Eric’s. It was a very fertile time and place.
What do you think it was about your band that allowed you to go on and have a successful career?
At the very beginning, it was because we were a guitar band with a drum machine. You know that band from New York, Suicide? I really liked them. They had a drum machine, as well. They were an inspiration. We loved the New York bands: Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith. I think we stood out because everybody else was trying to be like the Sex Pistols. To me, that had all finished. As soon as [punk] kids were on the King’s Road in London, getting photographs taken with tourists, it was like, “That’s not what punk is about.” Rubbish. Just stupid. So that was over then. I’d rather do what Tom Verlaine does.
You were very successful right out the gate. But that means expectations for your work have always been high. How do you get past that?
I just ignore that kind of pressure. I don’t care about that. I’m not lying in bed going, “Oh, shit — I’ve got to do another song that sounds like ‘The Cutter’ or ‘Killing “Moon’.” I’m not bothered. I’ll do what I do and if people like it, they like it. And if I like it, it’s the most important thing.
Are there any songs that you think haven’t gotten the attention that they really deserve because your other songs overshadowed them?
There’s loads of them. But you just move on. We’re becoming known for just “Killing Moon” now, but we’ve got loads of songs equally as good. Kids now only really know us for that song. It’s not their fault. I don’t mind, I love “Killing Moon.”
As you’re expected to play “Killing Moon” and your other hits at every show how do you keep that interesting for yourself? Some bands seem really upset about having to do that.
I’ve never had a problem with playing them. When you’re playing live and the crowd wants to hear a song and you’re playing it, it’s the best thing ever. So it was never any problem with playing the old classics that they like. I don’t understand how people can get fed up with that. I hardly ever play it, so the only time I ever hear it is when I’m playing it live, so it’s not like I’m not fed up with it. And also, you get comfortable with it because you don’t have to think too much, you know the next bit that’s coming. When we don’t play for ages and we go and do a tour, it’s really scary because you think, “I hope I can remember all the bits!” Because we just don’t rehearse, ever. So it’s like all the sudden, you’ve just got to remember it! The fourth or fifth day [of a tour], you’re getting into it, and you’re feeling more comfortable and you can enjoy it more. And we do have a lot of songs where we can go into big improvised sections. Sometimes they really work, and sometimes they don’t, but mostly they do. A lot of the time them improvised bits become standardized because they’re good. So I never get bored playing live.
Are you doing any writing these days?
I’ve got a little studio downstairs. I like puttering down there sometimes. I do a lot of keyboard stuff, all the weird little instruments and things. There’s a lad in San Francisco called Kelley Stoltz. He’s had quite a few records out. He started playing with the band a couple of years back. He’s not in it anymore, but we’re still friends. I’ve been sending him stuff, and he’s been singing on bits. I wrote these tunes and they’re good, and I think they deserve finishing off. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, if it will be in LP or a single or what. But what we’ve done turned out really good.
When you write a song, how do you decide if it should be for the band or for another project?
Well, that’s pretty easy because I don’t write anything for the band anymore. So it doesn’t really happen. Mac does everything.
Why don’t you write anything for the band anymore?
He just doesn’t listen to what I do, so what am I going to do? And he gets his way. So these things that I’ve been sending to Kelley were intended for the Bunnymen. I’ve got loads and loads of ideas, but I’m not going to ever get through.
But you must still work well together because you’ve stuck with it…
It’s not really like that. Playing live is the thing that I like doing. I used to really love the studio and now I hate it. It’s because I don’t have any input in it anymore, really. I don’t get any artistic satisfaction from it.
So you stick with it because of the live part?
Yeah, the live thing is great.
Hopefully we can all get back to live shows relatively soon. Until that gets figured out, it’s good that you’re still staying busy, anyway.
I started writing a book last year, so it’s been quite good for me to get on with it. It’s a biography. I’m enjoying it, it’s like going back in a time machine. It was an exciting time. I’ve got some good stories from school and some weird things that went on. I’ve got a publisher and everything. I do art as well. I’m always busy, I’ve got no problem creating stuff. I’m never bored.