Echo & The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant Talks Tone, Color & Craft

For a certain type of guitarist, the legacy of Echo & The Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant looms large. In the hair metal ‘80s, when speedy solos often reigned and even the lush, fingerpicked, arpeggiated gloriousness of Johnny Marr’s style seemed superhuman, Sergeant was saying more with one or two notes than most guitarists did with 20.

Sergeant is a total colorist who embraced his craft and blurred lines as only a multidisciplinary artist could, painting with sound and sculpting melodies as a self-taught player. Shamelessly lifting from heroes took a backseat to approaching everything with no preconceived notions—only "what if" as a driving philosophy. "I like trying to make a guitar sound less like a guitar," Sergeant says. "There’s always some new way to strum or flick it."

will sergeant on stage playing a red fender jaguar
Will Sergeant.

At times, Sergeant seemed to approach the guitar like a prepared piano. EBows were often employed, and tracks like "Zimbo" were played by bowing the strings with a pair of scissors. "I had a piece of an old lamp I’d use to scrape the strings, or I’d use shredded picks sometimes, just to get a new sound. Often, the solution to any problem was just ‘hit the guitar harder.’ I used to break a lot of strings."

Most of the time, Sergeant’s stock in trade is playing how others don’t (or won’t) and exploring when not to play, to add tension and release. He always delivers le note juste: parts so masterfully thought-out and economical that it showcases his intent, not lack of ability. Unlike the sweep pickers, he mostly stands alone in his field—the patron saint of those who have no interest in shredding, preferring texture and happy accidents to laboriously studied technique.

Much like how Germany’s Motorik (a.k.a. "Krautrock") artists took cues from the sound of a rebuilding post-war Germany, a similar type of echolalia can be found in Sergeant’s playing—only influenced by the sea, which borders his native Liverpool region. From tumult to placidity, sometimes mere measures apart in the same tune, his phrasing is often as unpredictable as the ocean itself. His fingerprints are on nearly every shoegaze and dream pop band that formed later.

Fellow polymath Jack White is also the skipper of Third Man Records. His lesser-known but absolutely superb book publishing arm has dropped quite a few titles well worth your time—most recently, the U.S. pressing of Bunnyman: ​​Post-War Kid to Post-Punk Guitarist of Echo and the Bunnymen, which is Will Sergeant’s memoir about growing up in post-war Northern England under fairly bleak circumstances. It’s a deep look into how an artist is formed. The usual "as a means of escape" themes are in there, but it also purveys a sense of making do between Bowie coming to town and the next Slade concert. An awkward kid who owns a cheap guitar and not much else is going to find a use for his idle hands. "Why not?"

Indeed, why not write a book about it? A book that’s sometimes less about Sergeant, specifically, and more about what life was like for any kid growing up when glam and pub rock transitioned into punk. "I had a fairly interesting childhood with a freaky family and everything," Sergeant says.

Bunnyman: ​​Post-War Kid to Post-Punk Guitarist of Echo and the Bunnymen

"I just wanted to document it. At the time, I didn’t think ‘my dad’s a tyrant’ or anything, but it wasn’t always easy to write about that period. Everybody seemed normal and nice, but behind closed doors it was like ‘anything goes.’ As a father you think ‘Imagine treating kids like that, now!’ Writing about it felt brilliant because I could put myself back in that situation. Your mind is amazing in how it lets you time travel. The next thing I knew, I was recalling other stories from the time—things like the time someone put a rat under a covered dish at the restaurant where I worked and presented it to one of the waitresses."

Constable released the book in the U.K. over the summer, and now it’s hit U.S. shores. "Exciting times. It’s not so much about the book signings, but rather what comes up during the conversations at those—a real nostalgia trip. We did one in London, and they had a DJ playing all of the songs I mentioned in the book."

It hasn’t been spoken about much, but many of the kids who would become punks had pretty diverse tastes, which included bands that could be described with the dreaded P-word. "My friends and I were listening to things like Yes and Pink Floyd—now well-known as prog bands. At the time, they were in the bins right next to Roxy Music. Then again, some of Roxy’s stuff is quite out there, too. One song has RAF fighters flying around and bombs going off for five minutes.

"So many punks insist that they were never into it, but that’s not true. I hate when people act like they just went straight into the studio with their brand-new ideas. John Lydon had his ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt, but I think he liked Van der Graaf Generator, didn’t he? You can’t get more prog than that. PiL were influenced by Krautrock. Can are uber cool now, but they were totally a prog group. Everyone who was a little left-field was into left-field bands. It sounds crazy to call Led Zeppelin one, but they were at the time. That crazy bit in the middle of ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ when things start panning from speaker to speaker? When we were kids, we were like ‘WOW, that’s incredible,’ even the kids that would grow up to be punk."

This lack of micro-genre labeling was instrumental for discoveries. "You might be in the shops, looking for Amon Düül, Guru Guru, or Kraftwerk, and come across something completely different to check out." Recently, a lot of the groups that came immediately after that time have finally been getting their props. Wilko Johnson’s band, Dr. Feelgood, was the subject of the film Oil City Confidential. Sergeant writes lovingly about The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in his book.

Oil City Confidential Trailer

We like to think of post punk coming out of the gate as a fully formed idea from a bunch of agitated art students, not from people in leisure suits. However, these "pub bands" who lived hard and played some of the scrungiest venues in the UK are the great, unsung heroes who encouraged the kids to give it a go. A total dive bar called Eric’s—just feet away from Liverpool’s hallowed Cavern Club—became a new linchpin room a bit like New York’s CBGB. Bands started to form with aspirations that didn’t go far beyond wanting to play a set there.

"It wasn’t like ‘Let’s form a band, we’re going to be millionaires!’ We wanted to create or be part of something. It was an outlet for creative energy. We disliked bands that were too friendly with the record labels. We weren’t really that tight with them. Nobody thought they’d be able to make a living out of it. I mean, it’s embarrassing to be in a band! People ask about it, and if you’re not getting anywhere, it’s awkward. If you are doing alright, but your mates aren’t, it’s awkward." Yet a scene had sprung up. Bands were forming in terraced houses, and before long, Will found himself in one.

In Bunnyman, Sergeant tells the familiar-enough story of being almost confused by his first guitar. Are the strings supposed to sit this high? Why isn’t it loud? When it came time to get serious, he recalls, it was a different time for instrument-buying. Pre-Internet, it wasn't as easy as just finding out what your heroes played and buying that. All Sergeant knew was that needed a better guitar and some sort of amp.

"I knew about watts because of stereo systems. If you had 50 watts, that was pretty beefy, but I didn’t know the difference between valve [tube] and transistor [solid state]. H&H and Carlsbro amps were big in that scene. The H&H had a really severe tremolo! Clive Langer was in a big Liverpool band called Deaf School. He went on to produce Madness and some other greats [Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions]. One night at Eric’s, I asked what sort of amp I should get. He said ‘Oh, something like an AC30—you need at least 30 watts.’ So I got a decent 30-watt transistor amp from a catalog."

"I liked Teles, so I eventually got one. Telecasters are generally light, mine is like concrete or something. With guitars, I was concerned about the look first, sound second. You can always get something out of any guitar. If it sounds a bit shitty, rough, thin or whatever, that’s the way it is. You’ll use that to your advantage. I didn’t know the difference between a Jaguar and a Jazzmaster, I just liked the shape because I loved Television, so I got a Jaguar. It’s a proper pre-CBS one. That’s what I used a lot at the beginning. I think it’s on the inside cover of Crocodiles.

"I hadn’t really thought about that stuff until then, but things like Jags were going around, standard pick at that time. Around ‘77 or ‘78, when punk started happening, loads of guitars turned up in the shops in Liverpool. My theory is that during the Merseybeat era, everybody wanted to be in a band. They all bought guitars, generally Hofners, but none of them got anywhere. They went under beds and a few years later, got sold to music shops."

Sergeant continues, "You remember the violin-shaped Hofner basses Paul McCartney played? Every shop in Liverpool had them, they were 50 quid each—always 50 quid—and they couldn’t move them. You wouldn’t get them for 50 quid now, would you? There’s a famous picture of all the second division bands from Liverpool on the steps of St. George’s Hall. All the guitars those people had, the really nice Gretsch drum kits, Fender bass amps and stuff like that? They all just drifted into the shops. There’s probably still loads of them in closets in the Liverpool region. It was just a massive thing. Everybody had an uncle in a band."

In Bunnyman, Will tells the story of his first electric guitar, a Hofner, which was probably detritus from that era. "I never knew how to tune it. I didn’t understand any of it, it was this mysterious machine to me. I’d just make noises on it, piddle around, hold my dad’s electric shaver over the pickup and make it buzz."

Echo & The Bunnymen started in a living room, with vocalist/guitarist Ian McCulloch and bassist Les Pattinson creating some genuine chemistry with Sergeant, but they were without a drummer. A music store in the area had a Korg Mini Pops Junior, Will bought it, and the band was complete… for the most part. Bunnymen lore has long maintained that "Echo" was the name of the drum machine. That’s not actually the case, the band just liked the word.

Korg Mini Pops Junior
Korg Mini Pops Junior.

The machine, in fact, had no nickname, but it would soon be replaced with a fourth human, who was exceptionally good and formed a legendarily solid musical bond with Pattinson. The story of post punk is rich with unconventional guitarists who were free to explore with near impunity because a stellar rhythm section had their back. Gang of Four, The Pop Group, PiL, This Heat, Siouxsie & The Banshees, and Magazine were just a few of them, and the Bunnymen were certainly in that class.

"The Mini Pops was a great way to start, but when Pete de Freitas joined, it changed everything—more ‘pro’ if you know what I mean. At first, we just thought he was a guy who could play the drums good enough to be in a band, not realizing that he was a genius at it." These self-described "arrogant pricks" were now in danger of having an actual career in music. It seems unlikely that psychedelia would eventually creep into the mix as much as it did, but many of the post punk bands were enamored of it, along with the more obvious garage and freakbeat influences. "Norman, the DJ at Eric’s, used to play a lot of the ‘60s stuff, because there weren’t enough punk records to go around. He would have had to play Wire and whatever else three times a night. New bands hadn’t released anything yet.

"He’d play stuff like The Standells’ ‘Dirty Water,’ or ‘Night Time Is The Right Time’ by The Strays, Tomorrow’s ‘My White Bicycle,’ or ‘Foggy Notion’ by The Velvet Underground, which was still a bootleg at the time. Things like the Nuggets compilation. Even the earliest punk bands, like Generation X, were nodding to the ‘60s. There was a lot of really heavy dub stuff, like King Tubby, Prince Far I, ‘Croaking Lizard,’ and other trippy things."

"The Pictures on My Wall"

The 12-string guitar with an eastern scale flair is prominently featured on the albums Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, and Ocean Rain, but it was there from the beginning. "I liked The Byrds, and I loved that bright sound. I bought a 12-string acoustic because Bowie played one on Top of the Pops, when he did Ziggy Stardust. I didn’t know anything about why a 12-string was better than a 6-string, other than it had a slightly janglier sound and are hard to tune. We used it on our first single, ‘The Pictures On My Wall.’

"Then I picked up a Rickenbacker 12 in New York in the early ‘80s, at Manny’s. I can’t remember the model, but it looks like Pete Townsend’s, and I still have it. I bought it new, but the paint is cracking off now. Around ’83, we were on Denmark Street in London. There was a shop, and they had a few Vox 12s in the window for around 400 quid. The story was that they’d found a huge stash of original Vox guitars at this warehouse in Italy behind some containers or something. All of a sudden, there were loads of these things in shops in London. I bought a semi-hollow that looked like Brian Jones’.

"The solo on ‘The Killing Moon’ is that guitar, just mic’d up, no amp. The intro part of the song was just something I did when we were about to do a take, to check if my guitar was in tune, or maybe just me worry-beading around on the guitar—it wasn’t intended to be used. We went for a curry, and when we came back, the producer had copied it onto a little Revox machine and dropped it back into the 24-track twice. It’s the same bit, twice. It’s almost like sampling, if you like. The Vox was also used on ‘Seven Seas.’ ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ was the Rickenbacker. So was the solo on ‘Silver.’"

"Silver"

Apparently, most of these classic parts were just done by ear and feel. "I wasn’t competent enough to know, and I didn’t pay attention. About 10 or 15 years after I started playing guitar, I actually noticed the notes go in alphabetical order. I’d never thought about it. ‘Oh, just go there, that sounds all right. If I go two frets up it sounds a bit weird, but go three and it’s okay.’ I was just remembering little sequences and patterns that sounded good to me. Loads of times, I’ve played the wrong note, and when I did, I played it twice. Then people thought ‘Wow, he’s radical!’ [laughs] I’m not kidding. With rock and roll, there are a lot of unwritten rules. There are a lot of things you can and can’t do, but you can also ignore the rule book and do what sounds natural."

As Bunnymen productions became more lush, considerations about how to play songs live came into the picture. "I had a lot of pedals, so I had a switchboard made. A multicore cable went from it back to a flight case that sat on the amps. We called it ‘the tower.’ The case held all of my pedals, hardwired and activated from the board. Now I just use a Boss GT-1000. I like them because I can get it programmed perfectly. I have spares, programmed exactly the same, so if one fails it can be swapped out."

It started a lot simpler, though. "From the beginning, I was aware that there were these things called ‘pedals,’ probably because The Teardrop Explodes had some. The first delay I got was a Yamaha [E1010] with loads of big knobs on it. It was cheap, but it felt like moving to the next phase. I’d have the amp’s reverb up full all the time, just trying to make it sound a bit more spacey. I tried using phasers and choruses, but I didn’t like them because they sounded too ‘nice.’ At the beginning of ‘Rescue’ there is a chorus effect, but it’s double-tracking. Our producer, Ian Broudie, slowed the tape down by a microsecond or whatever, and I double-tracked it. It sounds sort of chimey and chorusy."

Sergeant used Roland JC-120s for a period, an amp known for its legendary chorus and, let’s just say, challenging distortion circuit. He kept the chorus off, and loved the distortion. The reverb stayed cranked. "For reverse guitar effects, I’d use a great little pedal from Electro-Harmonix called an Attack Decay. I’d set it to fade in and then come to a dead stop. To make it sound like reversed guitar, I’d have to time it just right.

"It was a bit of a hit and miss kind of thing. I have one of the new ones, but it’s a little different. I bought a Roland Space Echo and learned about changing the delay time and feedback as I was playing to make it trip out. Other than that, it was just a distortion pedal or boost. I’ll say it took me a while to realize there’s more to a guitar than the treble pickup!"

Sergeant has a long history with various Fender amps and still uses them but has also embraced some of the newer, smaller-run products. He’s been using Blackstar Artist Series amps for quite some time. "They sound great and pack some punch. I like how they look and the overall simplicity of them." And it can’t be a story about an artist from Northern England unless master songsmith and raconteur Richard Hawley shows up at some point. "Richard uses Blackstar. He put me in touch with them, and now I have a pair. He also recommended the Shin-ei because it’s such a nasty fuzz, so I got one. He always knows about the gear and what sounds good. Plus, he’s a total music nerd. He sends me YouTube singles he’s found. They’re always good. He’s our guru." He still uses quite a lot of off-the-shelf boxes as well, like the Electro-Harmonix Ravish Sitar.

"There was a period where I was playing shows with really nothing more than a Jaguar, but at a point, I decided it would be nice to have some different ones on hand. I use about 10 for live shows these days. I still mostly play a Jag or Jazzmaster, but I’d say the best guitar I own is a Gretsch Country Gentleman."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Bunnyman is not only is there very little talk about gear, the book ends around the time of their first shows with the drum machine. As the reader approaches the last pages and notices no albums have been made yet, it becomes clear that just as Julian Cope followed up Head On with Possessed, Sergeant has quite a few more stories to share. Another book has to be forthcoming, right?

"That’s always been the intention. I’ve started it, but haven’t got very far because I’ve been doing signings and conversations up and down the UK, so it’s a bit hard to concentrate and start the research part. The next thing I’ll take up is when Pete joins. The first rehearsals, doing first tours abroad, America, Crocodiles, and probably leave it at that. Then save Porcupine and Ocean Rain for another one. It takes a lot of research, recollection, making notes, and then trying to put it together so it’s entertaining. It can’t be a waste of space with a lot of name-dropping like a lot of rock and roll books are. Why do an ‘aren’t we great’ thing when there are so many other stories to talk about? I thought it was a good idea to put something out and see how it was received.

Echo & The Bunnymen - The Killing Moon (Official Music Video)

"It’s been great. Rock and roll books never get into the bestseller list of the Sunday Times, and we made it to number four. The publishers over here are so pleased. It’s a big deal when you can put that on the cover when the paperback comes out. I’ve stepped into this whole literary and publishing world. I really didn’t know how it would go, because it’s a completely different kettle of fish. I thought it might be like when an actor suddenly wants to be in a band and everybody’s like ‘Oh come on, nobody’s interested.’ But somehow I managed to transcend that!"

"YouTube was really helpful by the way. About the first ten gigs were with the drum machine. There are tapes of those gigs online. You get to hear exactly what you played and how you played it. You know exactly what Mac [Ian McCulloch] said and what the crowd did. You can get a sense of the silence and if people were interested. It was so helpful and allowed me to piece things together. I had recorded one of the early shows by plugging a Bang & Olufsen cassette machine right into the desk. At the end of the show I found out the tape had been knicked. Gone, I thought, for good. But now it’s on YouTube."

Special thanks to Richard James Foster.

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