Ian McCulloch is the distinctive singer and frontman of the group, but it is founding guitarist Will Sergeant who has been in every iteration of the band - even the years when McCulloch briefly bowed out. In addition to keeping the band going, Sergeant dabbled in electronic side projects such as Glide and Electrafixion and had a number of experimental solo albums. At 59, he's also began delving into visual art, selling his paintings online and having a few gallery shows.
He spoke from his home studio on the occasion of It's All Live Now, a live Echo & the Bunnymen album of cover songs, recorded in 1985 for Swedish radio and never officially released on its own, finally getting a lavish vinyl reissue.
Will Sergeant: Pretty good for the minute. We've got a big tour coming up in America this summer. We did a big tour last year with about seven weeks in America. We've done a few things over here, a few in Europe - Spain, France and that. A few around Britain. We're doing the Royal Albert Hall later in the year. There's a lot of stuff going on. We're on the verge of signing a new record deal. Whether that comes off or not is another story again, but they want us to do a new album and also an orchestrated album, which sounds interesting.
Songfacts: Have you been writing some things? Is there new material to be recorded?
Sergeant: Yeah. I've got a few things together, Mac's got some stuff together, and we've been collaborating a bit, sending files backwards and forward. It's coming along. It's doing all right actually. It does go through patches, but it's actually great right now.
Songfacts: Let's talk about some of the big songs of the Bunnymen, like "The Killing Moon." How did that come about?
Sergeant: We'd all been given acoustic guitars by Washburn and we were all playing around with them, so the album was heading to a more acoustic world. I was going over to Mac's house - we had a 4-track there and we were just coming up with riffs and chord sequences and stuff like that. "The Killing Moon" was one of them, and it just sort of developed.
I think it was done after all the "Ocean Rain" stuff. It was maybe done after that, and it was done separately. We recorded in Bath, which is southwest of England, in a place called Crescent Studio. It was just another song at the time, but it sort of rose above the rest. At the time, it wasn't a big hit over here or anything.
Songfacts: Some of your hits were received differently in the UK than the US. Why do you think that was?
Sergeant: Different tastes, isn't it? It's the way the Americans look at British music. They look at it in a different light.
We used to get people who'd come up to us and say, "Oh yeah, I'm into all that British stuff: The Gang of Four, the Clash, the Bunnymen, Howard Jones." And you think, How has Howard Jones made that list? They had this blanket thing. Over in England, no one would like Howard Jones if you were into the Clash. It used to puzzle us - it was just weird.
Songfacts: And "The Cutter" wasn't as big a hit here as it was in Britain, right?
Sergeant: No. I think it got to #7 in Britain [close, it went to #8]. It was a funny time, you know. A funny period. It was all that British Invasion thing. We did a few tours of America where we just playing clubs - the Paradise, and places like that. The Channel in Boston. We'd do these clubs and we were kind of like another band. It might have been when the movie Urgh! A Music War came out and that put us on another level. We had been playing to a few hundred people and then we started selling out. And then they put a six-track vinyl sampler out and that did really well. I can't remember what was on that. It was "The Back of Love" or something like that.
It just started started building. It was building naturally, and then we ended up doing the Greek Theater in Hollywood and the sheds and places like that. All of the sudden the crowd started changing - they'd become, like really young kids. You're thinking, Why? It was just weird. I'd be walking around with Les [Pattinson, bass] and Pete [de Freitas, drums] in the crowd and no one knew who were were. It all changed. It was just odd. Right around "Lips Like Sugar," it really changed.
The movie got some of its cult status from regular replay on late night shows like USA Network's Night Flight. This century, it occasionally shows up on VH1 Classic.
Sergeant: It was sort of two different things. We originally got signed by Seymour Stein of Sire Records. We were going to be on Sire in the UK, as well, but they used up all the money on The Undertones, so we got moved over to this label they made up called Korova. It was just Warners really, but we liked it because it made it seem a little special.
With labels nowadays, if you don't have a big success story right away they just get rid of you. Whereas then, they'd think, It's still growing, let's give them another chance and see how it goes on. And if it grew through word of mouth, you'd end up bigger.
It's very instant now, isn't it? Everybody wants something instantly. They say, "I'm going to buy the new album, I want the MP3 now!" I'd rather send off for the vinyl or go to the shop. I'm not that desperate to have it now, and then delete it a couple of days later when you need a little bit more space. You're deleting things that were supposedly important to you. I've got albums that I liked, then I hated and now I kind of like again. You look at it from a different point of view: It's like a snapshot into a period of your life.
I was at a car-boot sale once - like a flea market in America - and this bloke had a box and it was all mono Beatles records from the '60s. It was an older bloke, and he had all his albums, and I was like, "What are you doing? That's your youth you're selling there!" I said, "Look you're going to get nothing for them here, they're worth a lot of money, so you should be looking into a specialist buyer or eBay or something." I could have taken advantage of him. I could have bought the lot of them for about 20 quid, but I didn't. He put them back in is car.
Songfacts: Having record labels that give you a chance over time allowed you to have a long career.
Sergeant: Our first couple of albums sold like 30,000 copies. It sounds like a lot now, because nobody sells records at all now, but then, it was not that much, really. Then we got to the "Lips Like Sugar" period, which got up to a half million, which was still not much compared to the U2s of this world. It was still small scale. The Velvet Underground's first album didn't sell anything when it first came out, but everyone seems to have it now - or at least pretend they've got it.
Songfacts: You're the only person who has been in every version of the band. What keeps you going with it?
Sergeant: I started it, I'll finish it, I suppose. It's me job. It's what I like doing. I go around the world and play music. There's not a lot of bad things to say. It's not like I'm getting up to work down in the mines 10 hours a day. And it's fun. It's great. There's nothing better than playing live. That's my favorite thing.
Echo & The Bunnymen's It's All Live Now, much bootlegged, had its only official release as part of a 2001 CD boxed set. This is the first time it's been available as a free-standing album, and the first time it's been issued on vinyl. Sergeant also wrote liner notes for the package. The pressing is based on pre-orders: 2,967 numbered LPs are expected to ship in early June. Some may be available at specialty record stores.
It's All Live Now is only the second offering from the company; its first release was MC5's The Motor City Five earlier this year. Its next release, in July, will be Secret Machines' Now Here is Nowhere, which has been out of print since its original release in 2004. Orders are currently being taken for the fourth release, The Dream Syndicate The Complete Live at Raji's. Never issued on vinyl, only an edited version was ever released in Europe in 1989. It's due out in August.
And votes are coming in on what will be next. It's between The Stooges' Highlights from the Funhouse Sessions, excerpted from the boxed set; soul man Howard Tate's self-titled 1972 album and Plan 9's Keep Your Cool and Read the Rules, originally released in 1985.
The tracklist for It's All Live Now is:
"She Cracked" - The Modern Lovers
"It's All Over Now Baby Blue"
"Soul Kitchen" - The Doors
"Action Woman" - The Litter
"Paint it Black" - The Rolling Stones
"Run, Run, Run" - The Velvet Underground
"Friction" - Television
"Crocodiles" - Echo
"Heroin" - The Velvet Underground
"Do It Clean" - Echo
I buy vinyl, so I'm all for it. I only ever buy vinyl. I went through the whole CD thing but never really stopped buying vinyl, or picking up vinyl on tours and stuff like that. Now it's all I ever play, really. Whenever I buy a new record, it's vinyl every time. I go to second hand shops - Amoeba and all the usual places.
I think everything should be on vinyl. It's not just the sound of it, it's the whole thing of having an album that looks great and you have all the large art work. CDs just look so crap, don't they? I just find it's more of an artistic item than an MP3. What the fuck's that? Rubbish.
When I look for records, I tend to go for the ones that don't have the bar code on the back. It really keeps everything going. At least it's got people back into the physical thing of putting on a record, putting a needle down on it and listening to it. You know, it's a magical thing when you think about it: scraping a diamond across a little track, and it makes a sound as good as a CD if not better. It's like witchcraft.
Songfacts: Do you issue vinyl when you put out new records?
Sergeant: Yeah. When I do my little records, I always do vinyl. The Bunnymen put out vinyl because when we were going, that's all there was. CDs came out too, but they weren't as big as vinyl at the time.
But yeah, they're reissuing them all. They all got reissued as vinyl records and then there are some special editions and things like that. We don't get much of a say in all of that - it's between Warners and whoever wants to put them out. I've done some liner notes for some of them.
Songfacts: When you put out a new Bunnymen record, will it be out on vinyl as well?
Sergeant: I would have thought so, because there's such a resurgence in the vinyl world now. The last one was, and pretty much the other ones have been. You're forced to do it now. You're forced by the consumer.
Songfacts: It's All Live Now has not been on vinyl before this, right?
Sergeant: I think there's probably a bootleg floating around. I haven't actually got one, but I know that it's around because it was recorded for the radio, so it has reasonable quality. But this is taken from the proper tapes and everything, so it should be all right.
Songfacts: Can you tell the difference? Have you heard this new version?
Sergeant: I've only heard the odd track that's been on reissues and things like that. I heard "Action Woman." We did "Action Woman" at one point, that was on Pebbles, I think as a secret track. I heard it years ago, but I haven't heard it lately.
Sergeant: That was all my record collection. I love all that stuff - I love all that garage stuff, all the Nuggets and Pebbles and that sorts of stuff, and I loved all of the British psych stuff as well, people like Tomorrow and Tintern Abbey's "Vacuum Cleaner." All that stuff is just what I presented.
Songfacts: Can you recall the occasion when this show was recorded?
Sergeant: We were always trying to find things to do that were a bit different. They were opening a bar on Bold Street, which is in the center of Liverpool, and we sort of felt obliged to do it, so we said we'd do it but we'll just do cover versions.
It was kind of a challenge really, because we weren't the sort of band that sat around playing "Smoke on the Water" or whatever. We just never bothered to learn anybody else's song, except maybe the odd Velvets song or something like that, and we played that pretty bad. We just sort of made it up as we went along.
So we had to learn all these songs, and I just suggested songs to do, and then we did it. Everyone was a bit bemused. The Bunnymen, we were at the height of our hipness and we're doing a load of cover versions in this little tiny cafe in the middle of Liverpool. But afterwards, we were going to do another tour, and all the support bands we used were crap - we hated them. So we came up with this idea: Should we support ourselves and do the cover set? And that's when it got recorded for this Swedish radio thing.
It was based on my record collection really. Mac threw one up - he wanted to do a Bowie one, and we did rehearse it. I can't remember if it was "After All" or "All the Madmen" - it was off The Man Who Sold the World, I think. It didn't sound that great, so we binned that one. We couldn't get it to sound right, basically. We weren't good enough musicians to do that. It was pretty early on.
To really sit down and learn how to play other people's songs, I'm not really interested. I'm more about what I like to do, taking it forward with my own ideas, really.
Songfacts: It's a pretty good collection of songs. The Modern Lovers aren't covered that often. And then you included some more widely known things - "Paint it Black" and the Doors song.
Sergeant: Yeah. We used to get compared to The Doors. I don't know why. It's probably because Mac had that kind of lower voice, similar to Jim Morrison. He never liked The Doors when we started out. He sort of got into them, as weeks went on, because I was always playing the tapes in the van. Then he got into the whole thing.
Yeah, they were a bit obvious, but I think they were a bit less obvious at the time. "Paint It Black" may be pretty obvious, but it's not "Satisfaction" is it? Or "Brown Sugar."
Songfacts: Doing the Television song seems like it would have been pretty difficult to replicate on guitar. Was that the hardest one to learn?
Sergeant: Yeah. I can't say I played it note-for-note. We were probably playing it all wrong. I know Tom Verlaine had said he'd heard it and he thought it was good. Somebody told me that at some point. I don't know whether it's true or not. We had a lot of self-belief that would take the place of talent. Well, I did anyway. So we just bluffed our way through it, no matter how it sounded.
I loved Television. They were probably my favorite band at the time. Television, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads - a lot of American stuff really. The Doors, all that stuff. I bought the records and that, but I wasn't a dedicated Sex Pistols fan or Clash fan. I was more into the American side of things: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and all that stuff. It just seemed to be more interesting.
Songfacts: Then you threw in one of your own songs from a different show, "Do It Clean," from the Royal Albert Hall.
Sergeant: I don't know why they'd done that. Probably just to fill it up, I don't know. No idea. Probably because it's got a garage edge to it. I don't know.
Songfacts: And "Crocodiles" is on there too.
Sergeant: Yeah, that could have been filling it out.
Songfacts: The music that you do on your own is a bit different than what you do with the Bunnymen - more experimental and electronic. Do you keep that separate in your mind as well?
Sergeant: Yeah, I've got a little studio downstairs. It's really tiny, with a Mac and Logic Audio, and I come up with ideas down there because I like doing it. No other reason.
I've always had a thing with the electronic world. We started out with a drum machine. That was just me. I was a massive Kraftwerk and Eno fan and Cluster and all that kind of stuff. Anything that took your mind somewhere else.
It kept me going when I was a kid, music. I've always liked things that were on the edge, like The Residents, people like that. And other people don't really get it. I always liked the odd stuff - the electronic stuff sort of comes out. I know I'm known as a guitarist, but I've always had an interest in electronic music as well.
Songfacts: You were doing it long before it became a category of dance music.
Sergeant: I did a project, though I had very little equipment in '82, called Grind that I know people like Moby and there's a bloke over here called Mixmaster Morris and a few others liked at the time. Andy Weatherall liked it. But that was me trying to be Eno really. Eno was my huge hero when I was a kid. When he was in Roxy Music, he was my favorite one.
Songfacts: Did you ever go on tour with that music?
Sergeant: We did a few gigs with the Poltergeist thing, which is a heavier version of the Bunnymen, if you like - it's a bit more prog rocky and kind of experimental, like it can be anything. We went on tour with that. Me and Les played that and our drummer Nick [Kilroe]. We had backing tapes and stuff like that. That was good. I was looking at it in that sort of Pink Floyd way. It was kind of, "We're the blokes on stage, making the noise," but we had loads of visuals, films and things, so it was basically making the whole thing an event rather than watching somebody twiddle around on a guitar or whatever. We were part of the backing track, that was the idea.
I did a tour where I had a the single with Glide, which is more in the electronic world, and I did a tour where I supported the Bunnymen on tour and I just took all the boxes of tricks and things and brought them on stage and did a few bits on guitar and keyboards or whatever. I did a support slot thing quite a few years ago that was quite good. You just have to do a half hour. I wheeled on just a little fly cage with things on it. It was pretty basic, pretty straightforward. I used to just play along with a backing thing.
Songfacts: I was surprised to learn that you've done a lot of visual art in recent years as well.
Sergeant: Yeah, I've always been interested in all forms of art, really. I've never had guts to do anything with it until like 2008 and I started doing stuff, and I've had a couple of exhibitions and things. I'm doing stuff like that all of the time. I've got to fill my time with something, you know. I've got a studio. I just go in there and get on with things that make me happy. That's what it's about, really: all these things are to make you happy, to get you through your existence. People have their own little things to do. Everybody's got something.
May 25, 2017
Here's out interview with Ian McCulloch
The band's website is bunnymen.com
Photos courtesy of Will Sergeant
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