In the sleeve notes to one of Echo & The Bunnymen’s greatest hits albums, the group’s one time manager Bill Drummond describes his former charge’s career as a mixture of “lies, deceit, hatred…and a glory beyond all glories…this golden light shining down on you, bathing you, cleaning all the grime and shit from the dark corners of your soul.”
It’s a picture of a band so intense that perhaps it’s hardly surprising that, after 30 years aboard the crystal ship, Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant has taken this moment to have a break from sideman duties and explore a new direction.
Enlisting former Bunnymen bassist Les Pattinson, Sergeant’s latest project, named POLTERGEIST, sees him explore his love of instrumental soundscapes, with a four-track EP and live dates on the horizon. “It sounds a bit like mid-period Floyd with a bit of Neu! and Can,” says a pleasingly straightforward Sergeant. “At least I hope it does. We used to think The Bunnymen sounded like the Velvet Underground but we never did, even though that is what we were trying to be.”
The very mention of Pink Floyd might seem odd for a member of a band forged in the maelstrom of post-punk but for Sergeant the chance to indulge his love of all things prog was a natural progression for this most cerebral guitar hero. “I was a hippy before I was a punk,” he admits. “I had an Afghan coat and crushed velvet trousers and all that stuff. There was always that wider interest in Liverpool, which is why someone like Captain Beefheart is a god in Liverpool.
“The Bunnymen started out with a drum machine because the music I liked was stuff like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno. Phadre by Tangerine Dream was one of my favourite albums – a big synthy warble for 40 minutes. The blueprint for me was if The Bunnymen was instrumental – stuff like Over The Wall, which we could extend for a bit and not have to worry about a singer.”
Not having to worry about a singer must be an attractive proposition for this most long-suffering of lieutenants. Recent gigs have seen Ian McCulloch’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic as he treads the fine line between rock star arrogance and aggressive drunk. One recent review of a show in Glasgow accused the frontman of throwing a bottle at Sergeant, while the guitarist himself has cut an increasingly isolated and grumpy presence on stage. “When it’s great it’s great but when it’s shit it’s terrible,” sighs Sergeant. “You never know what is going to happen but Mac drives The Bunnymen now and what he says goes. A lot of the time I would like to take it further but it’s Mac who chooses the stuff that he wants to play live. It’s become difficult to rock out or wig out which is what I like doing.”
The tension between the two founder members of such a legendary band is just one of the elements that keep The Bunnymen such a vital force both live, and as recent records like 2009’s The Fountain show, in the studio. But, despite this, Sergeant is clearly far from happy with his lot. “Mac calls the shots and there’s no room for me anymore. He is such a big character that the whole thing is difficult. It’s why I started doing my art because I was not getting any artistic satisfaction from the new Bunnymen stuff. I have to do something or I’ll just go nuts!”
So important was The Bunnymen’s carefully and brilliantly realised visual awareness (there are few more beautiful or dramatic album sleeves than 1981’s Heaven Up Here), that it’s hardly surprising that in recent years Sergeant has taken a greater interest in producing abstracts, collages and silkscreen prints. “I’ve only just started taking the art seriously but it’s coming on well. I’m not the sort who sits around at home watching the TV, so I’d rather keep busy. I’m one of those idiots who can’t sit still.”
A summer exhibition in Los Angeles even saw Will return to the scene of one of his band’s early triumphs. “The gallery looked great. It was on Melrose Avenue just by Universal Studios and the reaction was nuts. We were always a big band in LA – the first time we played there we did six shows at the Whisky A Go-Go. The Doors, or what was left of The Doors, turned up to watch us!” Back in Liverpool, Poltergeist has given Sergeant the opportunity to reunite with The Bunnymen’s original bassist, an experience that followed on from the pair collaborating in the newly-reformed Wild Swans.
“It’s been brilliant with Les, as I never fell out with him. He just didn’t want to do The Bunnymen anymore, which was fair enough; but he has always been my mate since we were in the same class at school. Those are the bonds you can’t break with a band, so he was the obvious choice for Poltergeist as he’d just chucked his job in at a boat-building place. Les isn’t a massive prog rock head so I was a bit wary he was just going to think everything I played him was shit, but he liked it. I think it reminded him of his dad’s record collection which had things like Snowflakes Are Dancing by Tomita and those records that hi-fi buffs used to buy.”
Taking inspiration from the likes of Mogwai, Tortoise and Battles, Will is confident that his love of “extended instrumental bits that are atmospheric” will fit right in in a modern day Liverpool hungry for the kind of psychedelia that turned on so many of his generation.
“There are heads out there who like this kind of music that takes the mind somewhere else. Liverpool is really buzzing at the moment, and you can see it at the Kazimer and Camp And Furnace – it’s like something you’d come across in Brussels in the early 80s.”