Now that Warners has remastered the first five albums, who better than guitarist will Sergeant to walk us through the back catalogue? jenny Knight pricks up her ears...
With a frontman given to verbal diarrhoea and untimely solo excursions, a maverick manager best known for burning a million quid, and a record company intent on moulding them into the next Peter Gabriel, things have always been fraught in the Bunnymen camp.
Formed amid the Liverpool post-punk scene by Will Sergeant and Ian 'Mac The Mouth' McCulloch after the latter was kicked out of The Teardrop Explodes, they recruited bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete de Freitas and were snapped up by Warners, who even created a label for them so as not to offend anyone's punk sensibilities whilst catapulting them to great things. McCulloch and Sergeant have always been something of an Odd Couple, reliably scathing of each other, yet inexorably entwined for the greater good of the band. This creative partnership has stirred up eight eclectic studio albums and has, in Will Sergeant, produced the greatest champion of the echo effect since Duane Eddy...
Will Sergeant: 'Our first album was produced by Ian Broudie from The Lightning Seeds, and Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, who called themselves The Chameleons. We had quite a few fights with Balfe. One day he put some shitty keyboard sound on or something, and Mac had him around the throat and on the deck. Nobody was going to his aid, put it that way...
'It's always a bit intense like that - it was then, it still is. I did a screaming solo on Happy Death Men because I was so wound up with all of them. There's a bit in the middle of it where there's literally a big scream. That's me, getting pissed off.
'I had a Telecaster on HP from Rushworths in Liverpool and I got quite into effects. I had all sorts of echo boxes, like the Space Echo, as well as a weird old Yamaha digital delay and a phaser. We didn't use synthesisers at all at this point unless Balfe sneaked them on - we thought they weren't punk rock. We used to use Fender Twin Reverbs because we liked that brittle, scratchy sound, being into the Velvets.
'I remember standing on top of my amp when I was doing the track Crocodiles and my fingers were all cut to bits, blood everywhere... I was just so into doing this dead fast riff. That was based on a Dr Feelgood idea - Wilko Johnson used to do that choppy, walking-up-and-down thing. I also loved the way Television's Tom Verlaine wobbled the string with his finger - I'd learned to do that. Now I've discovered that he nicked it off [Fairport Convention's] Richard Thompson. That's great, because it just shows how music keeps going forward.'
Heaven Up Here
'This was done very quickly. We were rehearsing for an American tour, so we'd record 'til all hours, rehearsing in this pig shed and having no sleep. It was mad; we were all hallucinating by the end. It was recorded at Rockfield and produced by Hugh Jones, who spent hours with me, messing around with my sounds. We did explore different avenues - Pete was making odd sounds with little slit drums and things. I didn't like cymbals, so they were banned. Hugh was great at processing the sounds through all this studio swag - the AMS's and Eventide Harmonisers. Even on this album, though, Over The Wall is the only track with actual synths on.
'I was using my Tele and a Space Echo a lot. When I was making this album I wanted to sound like Tony McPhee from The Groundhogs, from listening to them when I was 12 - that meandering, echoey guitar. I was using my new E-Bow on Over The Wall, and Les used it on bass on Broke My Neck. This was what I call my "D period" - I was getting into that thing of having the D string droning, like on A Promise. Was Mac crying through A Promise? I dunno - was he? I probably upset him. Dry your eyes! On Zimbo I played a guitar with a pair of scissors, bowing it... I use a plectrum when we play it now. We did go in for a bit of sound effects. The beginning of With A Hip is actually a dredger in Bristol docks. We took a little tape player down and recorded it - it was like a field trip.'
'I remember the head of Warners, Rob Dickens, coming to listen to The Back Of Love. He hated it and wanted us to record everything again, so we went into Air studios with Ian Broudie. The album's got quite an Eastern feel, although the only Eastern things I was listening to were The Beatles and George Harrison. I just loved that trippy, mystical, droney sound... I used to hire one of those Coral Electric Sitars every time we did a record, but as soon as I got it out it just used to sound like a comedy instrument. We mainly used guitars laden with echo and reverb; scratching the strings, playing in weird ways.
'The violinist, Shankar, was amazing on Heads Will Roll and The Cutter. We were in New York on tour and me and Drummond went to see his manager. He showed us this video of Shankar playing this 10-string violin with two necks. He had this drone going on one and he was playing the other one as well. Bill then added trumpets to The Cutter without telling us. Well... he says they're trumpets! That almost caused death, that. I was so pissed off. It was too late to stop it, which was always the way. We used to have a little saying: "It's not worth worrying about - tomorrow there'll be a new hurt to heal."'
'We went to Paris because we were into classic Jacques Brel and Scott Walker and we thought it would be the place, even though Jacques Brel's from Belgium. The studio had a plate reverb, which is a wooden box about 10 inches wide by four foot high and eight foot long, and they feed the signal in one end and it vibrates the plate so you get that reverb. It really does sound like those great old Scott Walker records. We had all kinds going through it. They also had this huge echo chamber that was a square-tiled room with a ladder into it, with a speaker and a microphone on the other side. The solo of Ocean Rain was done down there, and I actually played my guitar and had my amp in there with me - it was wild.
`We did the single Killing Moon in Bath, in Crescent Studios. The solo is just my Vox 12-string mic'd up; it's not even through the amp. On the choruses I used an Autoharp with a reverse reverb, which is a groovy little technique that we used a lot. We were also trying to emulate the pizzicato violins in an orchestra, and we'd stay up all hours with Adam Peters working out little bits.'
Echo & The Bunnymen
'We took some time off before making this because Mac wanted to explore his solo thing - that was a bad idea, because we were really cooking. I couldn't believe it when Rob Dickens brought us into his office and played us Peter Gabriel's album: "I want you to sound like this!" I think he escaped with his life that day.
`We ended up having this producer, Laurie Latham, who is Mr Meticulous. He'd get Pete to do the drums and then he'd have them sampled and place them where he wanted them. It was a dead long and involved process and it made everything go on forever. We also had an Emulator by then as well - we were the first people in the country to buy one. We'd got it so we could do the string sounds live, but we did a load of programming on it too.
'As well as my Tele I'd just got a Squier Strat, and I used that quite a lot through a Roland JC120 amp. It was whatever I like the shape of that week, more than the sound! I had a big thing that we used to call "The Tower", which had all these effects built in and then a huge multi-core cable to this massive, customised foot pedal. You needed a forklift truck to move it around.
`Everybody at that point was getting a bit cheesed off, because we'd done that LP once and then we had to do it again because they came up and said they didn't like it. Up till that point, it seemed like everything we did was "acclaimed", and you start to feel indestructible and you lose interest. But this album sold really well in the States and we'd started playing to 10,000 people over there. Then, of course, Mac left.'
'Rob Dickens phoned up, and I don't know if he did this out of spite to Mac because they'd fallen out, but he suggested we keep the name and get another singer. We also wanted to piss Mac off as well, because he'd pissed us off by us doing all that work and then had tried to reap all the benefit for himself. We started off doing a song for Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson from The B52's. We had the same manager and they were up for it, but the bloke in the band had a bit of a cob on over it, so it never happened in the end. Instead we found a bloke called Noel Burke.
'Reverberation turned out to be a lot more psychedelic.., because all of a sudden I was completely in charge. We got Geoff Emerick in, who'd engineered Revolver and Sergeant Pepper, He's got all the old-school techniques - we had tape loops all over the place, and he got in this Indian ensemble and the bloke who did the strings on T-Rex records. It was good at the time, but we were obviously getting slagged to bits - it's the combination of me and Mac that works the best. I know that. We should have changed the name, and if we had I think we would have done something.'
Burned (as Electrafixion)
'Mac and I got back together for this album and I think people were quite surprised by it - it's like Led Zeppelin or something! Mac was going through his "I love Nirvana" period. I wasn't really that arsed by Nirvana but I liked heavy guitars. I got a Gretsch Country Gent, which is great to play - a really thick, nasty beast! If you hit it a bit too hard then the bridge moves about and it goes badly out of tune, but I got some great feedback out of it. We had loads of amps on the go at once, with all the mics in different positions; everything was thunderingly loud. I've got a Fender Dual Showman that gives a bonkers sound - it's a top with two 15" speakers, like Chuck Berry used to use.
'It was a good little period, that. We did a couple of tours around here and in America and everybody went bonkers. But then we started getting people shouting out for Bunnymen songs, and they started drifting into the set. We ended up with eight songs in a 13 song set! I was saying to Mac, "This is just mad - we might as well just be the Bunnymen", and we phoned Les up and he was up for it. Now, of course, we get people coming to the gigs shouting for Electrafixion songs...'
`Our manager, Paul Toogood, somehow got his name on as "executive producer", but me and Mac produced Evergreen. It's a bit more upbeat and jangly than Burned. I was playing the Gretsch a lot and my Jaguar, which I usually play now, as well as a 12-string and Mac's 335 sometimes - on Evergreen, for instance.
'We did the strings in Abbey Road Studios, and I remember just lying on the floor while they were playing, in the middle of it all... it sounded great. I think all the time my style's changing because you're getting technically better - you can play more than one string! I couldn't believe it when Stewart Copeland once criticised me for doing "one-finger guitar solos". I thought, "Wise up, you big div!" I remember telling Mac's sister I'd got a 12-string guitar and she said, "Oh, great! When are you going to learn to play the other 11?" That was funny, But at the time I probably went away in a big sulk...'
What Are You Going To Do With Your life?
This is probably the worst album I've ever been involved with. Paul Toogood was basically seeing the Bunnymen as Mac, and it was definitely a case of "me and my mate Mac are going to make this album". I was shoved out, it was 'orrible. How? I probably just let myself be shoved out. I didn't have much to do with writing the songs; I set up my own little studio in another room with Pro Tools and came up with stuff in there. Then I'd play it to them and they'd ignore it... the whole thing was weird. There's hardly any guitar work on it - I was just going through the motions to get out of there. I spent the four weeks we were down The Doghouse sleeping in a tent pitched on the lawn because I couldn't bear to be in the same room as them. It was stupid of me to let it go that far, but it was difficult to get through the bullshit.
`Anyway, the result was I said I wouldn't do any more records unless we get rid of Paul Toogood, and the next day Mac sacked him. We got dropped by the label after that and we were wafting around wondering what to do. Then Cooking Vinyl started phoning me up and we signed to them. By then Les had left because he hated Paul as well and he'd had enough of it all.'
'This was a lot more of a team effort - Mac knew what the score was by then, and having had a big break we had loads of ideas between us. It was co-produced with Pete Collins, an engineer/producer who'd done loads of things with us in the past, and recorded with local musicians. We were into the definite panning situation. On a lot of '60s mixes you'll have drums on one side and bass on the other, and I wanted it to be like that. What's the point in having stereo if everything's in the middle? My favourite records are by people like Pink Floyd where they go bonkers with the panner,
'I really like the track Flowers, because it's quite bluesy and basic. Ceri, who's in The Mountaineers, was doing keyboards, putting them through my guitar effects for that kind of theremin effect, and Mac's doing some great rhythm guitar as well. It's a shame he doesn't play it live anymore, because he's great on the old rhythmic guitar... and he's got some good guitars. King Of Kings has got the Eastern influence again - it never goes away, that sort of stuff - and some bonkers phaser.
`We didn't play many tracks off this album on the last tour because this is the "remasters" promotion, but we're working on new material now... although don't hold your breath - we might still end up having a big fight!'
For the latest on Echo & The Bunnymen, see www.bunnymen.com