Mike McLean and Will Sergeant (Echo & the Bunnymen) Talk Joy Division, Nirvana Lore, and More

Plus, the post-punk legend's new memoir.

Mike McLean is a member of the psych band Zacht Automaat; Will Sergeant is a guitarist and a founding member of Echo & the Bunnymen. Will is one of Mike’s musical heroes, so they caught up at the end of last year to celebrate the release of Will’s memoir Bunnyman (which is out now via Third Man Books). Here, they talk about growing up in Northern England, seeing Joy Division live, how Kurt Cobain’s iconic green cardigan was actually Will’s, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Mike McLean: I remember being a young guy, living outside the city like you did out in the countryside in Lancashire, and wondering how to get down there, how to afford that guitar. How did you afford your first guitar? 

Will Sergeant: My first real guitar was a Telecaster. I used to pay weekly payments.

Mike: Hire purchase.

Will: Yeah, HP. It was from Rushworth, a shop in Liverpool that had been there for, like, donkey’s years. The Beatles used to buy all their stuff there, and there were all pictures of the Beatles buying Hofner guitars and things.

Mike: How much was the guitar? And how much was your weekly wage, say?

Will: When I got the guitar, it was probably something like £30 a week. When I started, I was getting £14 a week. But I think [the guitar] was about 180 quid. It wasn’t super expensive, but it was a good guitar. And it was really heavy — the thing with the ‘70s Telecasters is they were ridiculously heavy. I don’t know the wood they were making them out of, I don’t know what effect it had on the sound, but it was so heavy. But I had nothing to compare it, to because I’d never had a crappy little guitar, like a Kay guitar from Woolworths.

Mike: Like some pawn shop guitars. Is that the three saddles and the flat thing on the back? You’ve got the one with the Bigsby on it, like the tremolo arm and all that.

Will: Yeah, but I put that on. We were in France and we went to a music shop to get some bits and bobs, and they had these Bigsby bars. They weren’t real ones, and they were only, like, a few francs. I bought two of them, because I have two Telecasters — they’re exactly the same, I’ve got a spare one for live and everything. I put all collage stuff over both of them. And then I lent one to Pete de Freitas when he was doing some stuff; he lived in London, and I never saw it again. You know, obviously he got killed [in a motorcycle accident] and I didn’t really want to ask for it.

Mike: I mean, he could kind of play anything, I imagine. 

Will: Yeah. He played guitar, he could play a piano. He was no Richard Clayderman, you know what I mean? But he could play a bit. He did stuff on our records. He did more than drums, he did all the percussion, did loads of marimba. If we needed any little sounds or bits of piano, just following the bass or something, Pete was the one to do it. 

Mike: There’s that B-side where it’s repeating the marimba line.

Will: “Fuel.”

Mike: Yeah, that’s it.

Will: I brought that back from Paris. It was in a kind of market, it was just a marimba from somewhere in Africa that had old gourds at the bottom of it. It got smashed up in the end. It wasn’t in tune with our sort of tuning. It was in its own little tune, but we kind of worked around it somehow — I think we changed the tune of the guitars.

Mike: There’s always a place for that. We used to have a dulcimer — god knows how many strings on it. It takes forever to retune one of the hammer ones, it didn’t have the hammer. You just leave it around, and if you’re doing a bounce thing — you’re going from one thing, smash to another thing, you kind of drag your fingers across the out of tune dulcimer in between, and you can honestly glue anything to anything and make it make sense. It’s got that kind of smashed glass of thing going on.

Back to the book, though. You’re, like, 13 years old, riding around the canals — I’ve been up that way doing archaeology, and I know the kind of the Midlands and northwestern England. It’s supposed to be grim up North, they used to tell us around here when we all wanted to be from Manchester when we were 16 or whatever. But I’ve seen from your Twitter, it’s beautiful out there. When you were a kid, was it idyllic? It sounds like in the book, it’s idyllic and you’re riding around, you’re doing beautiful things. And there’s also having to escape the skinheads at the chippy down the road.

Will: You know, when you’re a kid, it’s not like you’ve got anything to compare it to. I’d never been anywhere until the band. I’d been to Wales for three days, I’d been to Lake District with the Boy Scouts. But no passports or anything like that.

Mike: Yeah, we’d be walking around here in Ancaster [Ontario] in 1988 going, “I hear Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure, man, it always rains where they live. It’s so cool, it’s like brick walls and everything.” But the few bits I’ve seen in the book, you were able to get on your bikes and bash around out in countryside. Had you been thinking about this time of your life before somebody approached you, or whatever it was that led to writing the book? 

Will: I started doing bits of writing, and I found I could sort of do it — because I was crap at school, I didn’t do anything at school. But I felt like I could describe things quite well. I was doing the liner notes for reissues of Bunnymen records. They asked me to do them — they probably could have asked Mac [Ian McCulloch], but they asked me, anyway. So I did the first four records — I didn’t really want to do the grey album [their 1987 s/t record], I don’t like that one.

Mike: Not supposed to say that! But would Mac have actually done that kind of stuff? To me, the mystique is that he sort of walks around, you know, does his own thing whenever he feels like it. Would he actually sit down and do a bunch of liner notes?

Will: Yeah, he probably would. I would have thought so, why not?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, who wouldn’t want to?

Will: So I found that I could do it, and I really enjoyed doing it. I did an interview for a magazine called Long Live Vinyl, and the gal that interviewed me — we sort of lost touch for a while, but then I got back in touch with her, and there were all kinds of ideas floating around. And she got me in touch with an agent, and then I started writing, and I sent this stuff to the agent and he liked it. And then he got a couple of publishers interested, and I just picked one of them. They were both offering the same sorts of money for the deal. You know, it wasn’t a fortune, but it was pretty good for someone who’s never read in a book. So I just picked the bloke that I thought was the most approachable. And then my friend Kelley Stoltz knew the people of Third Man, and said, “Why don’t you talk to  Third Man and see if they’ll put it out in America?” And they were really keen.

Mike: Did you find it easy to write? Did you have to discipline yourself? 

Will: I’d say I wrote between, say, 1,000 words to some days 4,000 words. It’s 93,000 words altogether — it’s not like a big fat book, it’s only a 350-odd pages or something. And I didn’t really know how many pages it took for a book, you know? It was just, I was enjoying it. It was discipline, but it was also like, I was looking forward to telling the next bit. I was thinking about it all the time, and little things would come back to me like, Oh, god, I’ve gotta mention that. And then everyone goes, “How do you remember all that stuff?” Well, it’s over a life of, like, 20 years. So it looks like a lot of stuff, but it’s things that you’ve remembered that have happened along the way. It’s basically like a diary that’s already in your mind — you put it down in an interesting way and an entertaining a way, and fill in the gaps a little bit. It’s not that difficult.

Mike: And I mean, you already know the story arc. You’ve kind of got a target, which is the the end of the first year of the Bunnymen, before de Freitas enters the picture. So you’ve got a definitive end point.

Will: Yeah, I wanted a document of growing up, because I’ve got a bit of a weird family life, and then getting into music. And then the first year, or 10 gigs, with the drum machine before Pete joined. It never gets talked about, that period. It was an interesting period — we were playing with Joy Division, we did some of these great festivals.

Mike: We used to be like, “Do The Fall actually know Echo the Bunnymen? Do they know the Stockholm Monsters, or A Certain Ratio?” 

Will: I used to be quite funny with one of the lads from A Certain Ratio, Simon Topping. But I haven’t seen him for years now. I never really spoke to [Ian Curtis]. I know the others more, they were more friendly. He was kind of always out on his own, a bit quiet. I saw them a few times, but I didn’t speak to him — it was not the sort of thing you’d do. It was sort of uncool to start going over like, “Hey, I love your songs.” It just would have been a bit cheesy.

Mike: It’s also a guy your age in a band that’s just this much bigger than you. I mean, I remember bands around here, a few people that got kind of big in Canada, and I remember thinking, I better not go talk to him, because he’ll end up being the legendary blah blah blah 20 years from now. I mean, the same with Joy Division. There’s a bit in your book where the rest of your friends are in the other room, and it was like, “You’ve gotta come in and hear this. What the hell? These guys are wicked!” And your friends were like, “No, we’re going to finish these beers.” 

Will: But then they all came in and watched. It was like, “Yeah, these guy are great.” You couldn’t deny it. A couple of weeks before they were Warsaw, and they were like an alright punk band. It was like, “Yeah, that’s some lads from that,” but now they were dark and amazing and strange. It just fit all that sort of Cold War vibe that was going around — you thought you were going to get nuked by the Russkies any minute, you know what I mean?

Mike: Well, you kind of wanted to, because it would look cool! So, yeah, I mean, you guys didn’t know you were telling Pete Wylie or whoever to come and see this — you didn’t know you were going to be Will Sergeant and he was going to be Pete Wylie.

Will: Yeah, and I wasn’t after anything other than trying to be in a cool and creative thing.

Mike: One more thing about Joy Division: Did you think, when they’d come back as Joy Division, Oh, my god, you can really get a lot done in three months

Will: No, I didn’t know how anything worked. I didn’t know how recording worked. I had tape recorders that I used to play around with, but I had no technical know how. So I didn’t really know that there was a thing called production, and you could completely strip a song down and rebuild it with a different vibe, which was what they did. But it was weird. It was like some sort of alchemy, turning lead into gold.

Mike: I know you were in to Pere Ubu and Eno, but was there a band that you saw that made you go, We can do this?

Will: Just loads of punk stuff. Plus, seeing Brian Eno just fucking around with a joystick on a VCS 3. I had a tape recorder, messing around, treating everyone’s sounds, so I thought, Well, I could probably do that. When I was 14 or whatever, I had a band called Poltergeist that was just talk. I reinvented it years later, kept the name, but there was already a band called Poltergeist.

Mike: There’s two Nirvanas, so… 

Will: Poltergeist UK. [Laughs.]

Mike: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Yeah, we used to have that with The Charlatans here, because the old San Francisco band The Charlatans used to play.

Will: Oh, yeah. I know the original Nirvana as well. They were kind of a hippie band. Here’s one for you: You know when Nirvana did the Unplugged, and he’s got that green cardigan on? 

Mike: Yes.

Will: That’s my cardigan.

Mike: I’ve heard this myth before! How did that work? 

Will: Courtney Love came to Liverpool when she was, like, 17 or something, and my girlfriend was quite friendly with her at the time. We went away on tour and stuff, and she was still in Liverpool, but then she went back to America. Then she came back a bit later on, by which time I’d split up with my girlfriend, but I’d still left some stuff at our flat, and one of them was that green cardigan. I think Courtney just claimed it. I’d stopped wearing it because I burnt it — I was drying it by my girlfriend’s fire — so I just left it there. Next thing, it’s for sale for $330,00.

Mike: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s kind of like Kurt Cobain’s signature look, the cardigan.

Will: Yeah, and it’s my bloody cardigan! And it’s it’s funny, too, I bought it in America on one of our tours. It’s a thrift shop buy, it was like a mohair cardigan.

Mike: It’s the six degrees of separation of rock & roll! Do you think there’ll be a second book? 

Will: Yeah, I’m doing it! I’ve got all my notes here, old newspapers and stuff from back then.

Mike: Yeah, I’ve got my copy coming any day. I can hardly wait, I’ll just devour it. The bits I’ve read already are amazing. And it’s very personable, it’s not like some big rock star, whitewashed kind of thing. It’s like talking to somebody in a pub, or something like that.

Will: Yeah, I suppose that’s my style. The thing everyone says to me, “Oh, have you read any other autobiographies?” And I don’t read them, because I don’t want to start getting colored by their experiences. It’s the same way I do guitar — I’ll listen to music, but I don’t try and land “Stairway to Heaven.” I’m not interested. I want to do my own stuff.

Michael McLean is an Oxford-educated archeologist who has worked in his field for 20 years. While splitting his time between the UK and Canada, he has played with various psychedelic bands since the late 1980s including The Battleship, Ethel and Zacht Automaat.