Will Sergeant is best known for his work with Echo and the Bunnymen, but he also has strong ties with contemporary experimental music, in the form of performances and recordings as Glide. He has worked with Liverpool minimalists Skyray, and Longstone, Cheltenham’s finest purveyors of bleep - all on the Ochre label. Will seems the least likely rock star around, having buried his light in the 30-odd branched bushel of the Serpents and ploughed a very individual furrow with his solo ‘Themes for Grind’ album and his current Glide project. He seems bemused by the attention lavished upon him in the Bunnymen and genuinely comes across as having a lifelong passion for experimentation with sound - sometimes with a pronounced psychedelic flavour. He seems amiable and unpretentious with a good sense of humour and a healthy distance from most of the excesses of "showbiz". It was no coincidence that this was the first interview I’d done exclusively via e-mail. Previous trips to meet interesting cultural persons were always concluded in a sweaty pub swamped with cigarette smoke and beer spillages, the conversation getting more and more slurred as the afternoon wore on. This one was conducted in clean virtual space, Will’s enthusiasm for technology, especially its more liberating aspects were made plain via the manifestoes of his recordings as Glide - though they’ve always had a live angle as we shall see later on…
PT: Looking at the last Glide record I see you’ve been working on Koan, a program probably most famously used by Brian Eno, which develops previously recorded or generated material itself...
WS: I was a big Eno fan from the early Roxy days, anyone who used to play a Revox was OK by me. If there’s one gig that will remain with me it’s Roxy at the Liverpool Empire ‘73. Everyone shouting "Eno, Eno, Eno". This cheesed Ferry off and that’s when the shit hit the fan between the two of them and Eno left. It was an amazing gig. When Eno started working with U2 it pissed me off a bit, especially as I was pushing for him to produce ‘Heaven up Here’. Mac and Rob Dickens said he was too weird. I said "that’s why I want him", but it was no use. The Koan piece was originally created as a sound work for the Ars Electronica project under the title of ‘Sound Drifting’. 16 sound works from the four corners of the world were sent as MP3 streams. This was then mixed using a custom built program called ‘The Sound Drifter’, it all sounds a bit techno and arty - and indeed it was - but it turned out very trippy, so it was worth it. I also helped with a 9 hour radio mix (2 hours on duty) for Kunstradio and an on-site installation at the media deck in the Austrian town of Lintz. They also did an online mix for several days.
(A quick visit to the Kunstradio site tells me it’s "letting things happen, listening to the world, but not actively trying to decorate the world; duration and evolving processes - the aesthetics of sounds on site . . . an underlying temporary system of data-processing, recycling etc").
My piece was really 1 of the 16 components. I felt that it stood up on its own so it went on the new Glide album. Next year I hope to create an installation affiliated to the University of Georgia, Athens GA. To be staged in a castle in the Tuscany town of Cortona, Italy. We hope to stream sound from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) and create a kind of dada sound work in honour of the founders of the dada movement. When I say we, I will be collaborating with sound artist, Colin Fallows.
"Streaming sound from the four corners of the world" seems to be the future, what with FSOL broadcasting their album down the ISDN line and people playing to clubs from different countries - how do you see the future of music being changed by all this?
It’s already happening but it’s bypassing the usual media involvement so you don’t always see it. It’s a real grass roots kind of thing, a quiet revolution - you must already know all of this though. The net has opened my eyes to all kinds of creative possibilities (I am currently building an internet radio station/archive featuring dada sound works and imagery, working title "dada dispensary"). We have seen the labels shitting themselves and clamping down on the Napster site, but this is only the beginning. Bands will become more and more self sufficient: Using the net and bypassing big labels will become more and more common. It’s already happening and I think it’s a great time. For the first time we don’t have to be told what is cool by some jerks at a crummy record company. Believe me, I’ve met a few. I now hear all my music news from friends on the net who got info off other friends on the net. Soon there will be a band who become massive via the net, just like the ‘Dancing Baby’ thing or ‘The Blair Witch Project’. Both of these things were promoted by word of mouth on a huge scale. The snowball is already rolling, wrap up warm… I actually think all this new technology is nothing without an imagination to use the tools though.
‘Themes From GRIND’ seems ahead of its time now.
The GRIND album was me fucking around with tapes, but on a grander scale than I had been used to. I had invested in a Teac 4-track with money borrowed from Bill Drummond. When I listen to it now it always surprises me how I managed to get the weird sounds without much equipment. I don’t even think there’s a synth on the album!
Were people surprised to see you put out a record like that? I bet they expected it to sound like the Durutti Column!
I was never that interested in playing the guitar, but it seemed this is what you had to do to be in a band. I loved Tom Verlaine but had no interest in learning all the riffs off ‘Marquee Moon’. I’m more interested in making the guitar sound like something from outer space. Creating sounds nobody else could.
I love the front cover too... is that New York? People are still putting records out like that now, with very similar cover images and considering themselves to be on the cutting edge of everything. Some of it sounds like The Sabres of Paradise to me, that quite sinister, filmic quality, and yet GRIND predated it by quite a long time.
The front cover is a photo of the factory that "Grind" works at in the film. It was taken by Bill Butt and is in Bristol.
I have to admit I never realised ‘Themes from GRIND’ was from a film. Who directed it, what year did it come out?
It never got released so it couldn’t be much more obscure. The film was in the back of Bill Butt’s car, a Volkswagon variant and it got stolen. (He directed a few Bunnymen videos and did all the KLF stuff). I had already recorded the soundtrack so I decided to put it out on my own label (‘92 Happy Customers’). The film was an early version of a very dark Mr. Bean type character (‘Grind’) who worked sharpening razor blades in the factory (on the front cover of the album). He ate Pot Noodle and watched the TV connected to a generator so he couldn’t hear the sound and the genni interfered with the picture. He would come home and place his wage packet on a heap of other unopened wage packets and no-one knew where he came from. He just arrived. The story was based on a bloke called Mike who used to live in Bills’ back garden in an old lifeboat. Bill developed the story over the years. At one point I remember he was a conquistador who fell through a time hole into the Bristol docks. Last time I spoke to him he was still thinking of getting it together one day... I know Andy Weatherall from The Sabres liked ‘Grind’ a lot, he’s recently done a mix for me. Available from Ochre records.
Is the archive of dada stuff Tristan Tzara, Guy Debord, Raoul Hausmann, Hugo Ball, Duchamp etc?
You got it in one. All the names you have mentioned will be featured, also Marie Osmond’s version of "Karawane". The project is part of a fellowship at John Moores University, Liverpool. I will be working in collaboration with Colin Fallows from Liverpool Art School (who is much more of an expert in this field than I) and he will be contributing with the history etc. I will be designing and we will add further contemporary content. We hope to get across that, without these forward thinkers, life today would be very different. After all, they were the "freaks", "punks" and "hippies" of the time and should not be forgotten: They opened many doors for us. The radio station will feature interviews, sound works old and new, it will run in sync. with the site so you can tune in and explore it as you listen - it’s ambitious but possible... We will also have MP3 sound and will be inviting artists to submit work to be featured on the site.
Marie Osmond’s version of ‘Karawane’? Could you enlarge on that? (I’m scared already... I almost daren’t ask)
Don’t be afraid, it won’t harm you! Marie Osmond was asked to perform the piece on an American show called ‘Ripleys Believe It Or Not’ - a kind of American Record Breakers. They asked her to recite the first line of the Hugo Ball poem ‘Karawane’ in order to make a fool of her and the work. So incensed by their attitude, she learned the whole thing and delivered a fine rendition. This happened in 1984.
One thing about the Bunnymen was their sense of event. Crystal Day was a total, almost Situationist event. Bill Drummond then took that sense of adventure through to the KLF. I see the importance of the event is kept up with Glide too, in live appearances, the last Glide record being titled ‘Performance’ which is a word maybe more associated with an event rather than ambient sound-sculpturing...
Yes, we were always trying to create a special feeling at the Bunnymen gigs, I tried to think of as many whacky things we could do. I didn’t start a band to be caged by someone’s idea of what it can’t do. The Glide records are an amalgamation of live sounds and samples. I like the idea that it’s never the same twice. I’m currently setting up a monthly club in Liverpool with Paul (Skyray) Simpson and Colin Fallows in which we hope to carry on that kind of event mentality. It will be in a recently discovered Victorian theatre. We hope to create an exotic cabaret with electronics, storytelling and spiritualist weirdos. David Lynch meets Edgar Allen Poe at Leo Theremin’s psyche happening. Wish us luck.
Julian Cope was in the press recently talking about some of the stuff from the era covered on ‘Floored Genius 3’ where he says you casually ripped out with some scales that were from no western notation he’d ever heard.
We used to have little sessions in my dad’s house on a Thursday - my day off work, and the stuff on ‘Floored Genius 3’ you mention is from those sessions. The drum was a cardboard box and I think Copey was singing into an old guitar pickup plugged into my amp. Paul Simpson (Skyray) was on melodica and backing vocals (all bands of that period had melodicas). As for the eastern connection it all came from the Beatles - especially George. I loved all the Beatles’ trippy stuff, the sitars. The Shankar we worked with on ‘Porcupine’ was not the legendary Ravi (though people commonly think he is!) but the even trippier L. Shankar, who plays a 10-string double neck violin. An amazing instrument that can create a drone at the same time as playing the tune. He started learning to play when he was 3.
So were these sessions done on your day off from the Bunnymen?
No. I used to work as a trainee chef in a large department store in the centre of Liverpool. I find it strange thinking back to those days now. I was there straight from school, firstly as a Saturday job (this enabled me to have the best record collection of all my classmates) then full time. I worked there for about 5 years, the Bunnymen only overlapped this time by a few months. We were just starting to get gigs in London and I would be getting back to Liverpool at about 7am then going straight to work. It was obvious I had to leave, so I did. The people there thought I was mad to give up a job to start a band. A couple of months later the whole place closed down and it’s now a clothes shop. But I do think without this job in the centre of town I would never have been exposed to the club scene in Liverpool. The store was just around the corner from Eric’s. Somehow it became apparent to me that there were these wierdos hanging out down Matthew Street and Probe Records - which was my lunchtime haunt. I went on my own and was completely entranced by the punk scene. I got into music due to the old big brother and his mates being a gang of "hippies", "Trogs", they were into Led Zepp, Jethro Tull, Taste, Black Sabbath, Family, Deep Purple and The Who. My brother was partially taken with Daltrey’s curly perm ‘Tommy’ period. I remember The Pink Fairies were very big down our road. We even went to see them at the Liverpool stadium which was a great gig (run by Roger Eagle by the way). This was the early seventies and we would record Top of the Pops at my friends’ house over the road, on an old reel-to-reel tape machine with a little mike up against the TV speaker. We would only record the likes of Canned Heat, The Stones, The Who etc. We did have a soft spot for Mungo Jerry. I seem to be rambling on a bit, sorry...
Could you give us your highest Bunnymen high point and lowest Bunnymen low point?
Now you are expecting a lot. There have been so many ups and downs in this band you would need a week to think of them all. But here’s a few:
1. Albert Hall. All three were very cool.
2. John Peel calling us "the Mighty Echo and the Bunnymen" after our first Peel session. It felt important. What a guy!
3. Concorde to America. It was about ‘86. I hate flying and this was the only time I ever felt safe!
4. Walking across the frozen River Volga at Kazan U.S.S.R. Christmas 1984. Welcome to Narnia. (Not strictly a Bunnymen event but I was with Les, Bill Butt and Jake).
5. Tripping with Les at the Rockfield Studios Christmas party about 1981/2. We were given the keys that night.
1. Pete gets killed on his pride and joy Ducatti. Everything else seems a bit trivial compared to this. Be assured there have been many many shit times and it’s not over yet...
Whose idea was it to play Gregorian chants before the Bunnymen came on stage?
Mine of course - I wanted the gigs to be a religious experience.
The fifth album ‘Echo and the Bunnymen’ (1987). What was the genesis of that record? I believe you did an early version of the album that was scrapped?
Yes, we did a version that the record label manager thought was crap. It was. We did it again and slicked it up a bit. This was also crap, which goes to show you can’t polish a turd.
Could you tell us a bit more about the Bunnymen tours of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides and bussing fans on the mystery tour to the gig in Buxton? Again, setting yourself apart from the less imaginative bands with your dreaming up of events... Also, there’s an almost psychogeographical obsession with locations, especially remote ones, which comes through on the first four LP sleeves and ‘Evergreen’s’ too... could you tell us a bit more about this? Is it anything to do with finding freedom in open spaces, in the same way the Serpents did when doing their album in Wales?
Being in a band for me was never about becoming a star or any of that shit. Mac wanted to be star more than anything, and he achieved that for a short time. Now he finds it hard to cope without adulation. I always knew it was a load of bollocks and this caused tension and still does. I always pushed for us to do more interesting events, Drummond would take in what you said and before you knew where you were he had organised something groovy - like going to Iceland, or a happening in the Peak District, to freak out the minds of the audience. The things that rattled my cage as a kid were The Velvets, Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the psychedelic happenings in San Francisco and London in the sixties. They seemed so much more intriguing. The way the rest of the groups around then (and now) have to resort to licking arses to get on Top of the Pops was not my idea of fun. There was a great feeling of "lets go on an adventure", to explore strange new worlds, to go where no man has gone before. So making the gigs seem like events rather than sticking to the usual formula fitted the bill. The only problem is you can’t always make every gig a special event. If you want to be in a band now, your first step is to go to drama school, dance lessons, or the ultimate credentials, become a fucking red coat at Butlins. What happened to being cool? This is not a comment from a sad old rocker past his sell by date, but from a fan of bands who is stunned and saddened by the sheep-like behaviour of the public.
What was it like working on the Serpents album?
The Serpents’ thing is half "let’s make a record" and half "lets get off our faces". And it’s a very good combination. Alter the ingredients and the vibe would go out the window for sure. There are so many people involved it’s always fresh.
Is it true you ended up in a tree house playing?
The studio in Wales where we record Serpents stuff has a tree house in a wood. We didn’t play in it, although I chose to kip there. And damned fine it was too. Someone turned up with some mushroom wine - "Satan’s Sperm". It made the whole experience rather interesting. All that was lacking was Edward Woodward in the head of a giant wicker man.
Could you point us to specific instances of your work on The Serpents LP? For obvious reasons it’s very difficult working out who did what on the record? Or would you rather leave the record shrouded in the mystery that somehow already shadows it?
As we all go in together and just let it kick off then pick out the best bits, it’s a bit difficult to say who did what. We were swapping and changing about all the time and there were a lot of people drifting in and out, joining in for a bit then getting off for a cup of tea or whatever. I really liked that approach. It’s a very good way to make an interesting record. The vibe was meant to have a lot of prog aspects or Floydian flavours and I think we succeeded in those aims. We also had a fucking good time without the pressure of an A&R man breathing down our necks. It was True Freedom for a couple of days and if I could just get a bit hippy here it was Very Beautiful Man. I played some lead stuff here and there, also a touch of Ebo guitar. But most of the time I was making little ambient sounds and plugging and unplugging my guitar lead through various effects - check the last track for little guitar bits and noises. I wasn’t there for the mixing but they did a very good job. It has a lot of the feel of the day.
I heard the drumkit used on the Serpents album was the Robert Wyatt kit used on Syd Barrett sessions, if it’s the one I think it is, it was given to him by Hendrix - any idea if I’m right on this? If this is so you could trace a lineage way back right through, via Hendrix, to Little Richard and that fount of rock’n’roll Macon, Georgia... (sounds tenuous I know, but bear with me). Robert Graves in ‘Goodbye to All That’ tells of how as a baby he was kissed by Swinburne who was blessed by Walter Savage Landor who was patted on the head as a child by Samuel Johnson who in turn as a child had been taken to London to be touched by Queen Anne who was... what I’m getting to (eventually) is do you feel part of a lineage of psychedelia and experimental music???
The short answer is yes. We are all connected. All is New and all is Old. As for the kit, it is entirely possible, as the owner of the studio, Laurie, had connections with The Yardbirds in the 60’s and he is also a Serpent along with his kids and wife and one or two dogs.
I got a ‘Wicker Man’ vibe from the Serpents before even hearing the album. There’s some kind of pagan/dionysian/shamanic idea behind that kind of music and that way of doing it out in the sticks, isn’t there? Do you think it sort of links up to Copey’s explorations of neolithic sites? How much do you get involved with that side of things? And do you see Copey much?
I haven’t seen Copey since the Ochre 5 night. I think what he does is very interesting, the best thing about Copey is when he says he is into something he puts his money where his mouth is and actually does something about it. It’s easy to talk about stuff. I remember the Calanish Stones on the wee Scottish Bunnymen tour at 3am with Big Bill and a journalist from the Daily Mail, our car headlights illuminating the stones. A very nice feeling of calm, and the stones were warm...
What was Ochre 5 like? The Glide stuff from there is excellent. Is that just you or did you have any collaborators? The intro sounds like Terry Riley’s tape loops. The second part sounds like Julie Cruise’s ‘Falling’ done by Neu! You at least sound like you’ve got a rhythm guitarist and a bassist on there. Any plans for an Ochre bash next year - and if so will you be playing?
The Glide set up is half played half samples and backing tracks that allow me to noodle about with various bits of gadgetry . . . like Omnichord Mooga fooga etc. All the bass and guitar bits are me but recorded in the pod. Glide is a one-man band. I have enough of playing with other people in The Bunnymen, so I like to keep the Glide thing strictly my own vibe. I can do what I like without any compromise. I’m sure if there is to be another bash Glide piloted by Sgt. Fuzz will be in attendance. I do Like Terry Riley, what I’ve heard of him. I can’t say that I went out of my way to sound like him, but I see the similarity with the track ‘Prog’.
Do you prefer working in real time "live" or in the simulacrum, or does the one compliment or inform the other? Can it be quite an isolated way of working via a digital environment?
The question of work is one of guilt and wasted time. As long as I feel like I’m making good use of my time I don’t get the feeling of guilt. I’m sure most people are like this. If I sit down and do nothing I feel uneasy. I get more enjoyment out of the Glide project than the Bunnymen, but I get more guilt as the Bunnymen provide the bread and butter. Does this make sense?
Oh yeah, I’m just the same with my day job and the Terrascope! Do you collect/listen to a lot of garage these days? . . . If not, how much did it inform what you did in the past? (I believe you used to do ‘Action Woman’ live). I think the Doors and Velvets are fairly well documented influences but what about other more obscure 60’s acts?
I get most of my records nowadays from boot sales and am a bit obsessed when it gets round to summer Sundays. I mostly go for 45’s for my old jukebox, and come across the odd pearl: Michael Angelo ‘23rd Turnoff’, ‘Arnold Layne’ . . . All input is an influence whether you accept it or not. Even crap music influences you to steer away from dross, so yes Pebbles were big influences on me but so were Boy George and Dollar . . .
Any more Serpents/Ochre artist collaborations in the pipeline Will?
‘Merlin Zol’ is the architect of the Serpents and he has put it on hold as far as I know. Maybe we need to wake The Beast!
The sooner the better. Any new Bunnymen stuff planned?
We have just finished a 6 track mini album ‘Avalanche’ due for release. We are on the verge of a new deal. We have about half of the next LP under control and just need to get a bit stuck in to finish it off.
How did it feel having started out being into pre-punk music (and punk precursors such as Roxy Music) then going into and coming out of the other side of the punk scene? (Tagged "new wave" by the press). When did you realise the shift had happened and that things had gone from the pre-1976 mould and into the new territory of the punk era?
We have been called all kinds of things "New Psychedelia", "Post Modern", "Post Punk", "Bleak Northern". You don’t really take much notice when you are in the eye of the storm. I just combine sounds into a form I like and let others worry about what to call it.
Everyone from the Liverpool scene went on to do something fantastic, not just average, I mean the Bunnymen reputation speaks for itself, then there’s the KLF and all that Drummond stuff which I consider really important (and extremely entertaining!) Dave Balfe formed Food which spawned Blur, Cope again speaks for himself. Did you ever imagine it would turn out that way? At one time they’d just be plain Julian, Dave and Bill (not to mention Ian, Pete and Les) to you, does this seem strange?
It is a bit on the strange side, but we had a lot of cool things going on back then. The punk attitude kept us away from churning out crap or doing anything too naff, so we were wise to the whole big-label London attitude early on, and could see that people would step on your face to reach the next rung on the career ladder with no regrets. To most of these people it never was about being into music, it was knowing what would sell to drippy kids (no change there then). I am not prepared to play that game, maybe we would be a lot richer now if we had. "Hey Bill, pass the firelighters!"
What did you think of ‘Head On’? An accurate painting of the Liverpool scene or sensationalism?
I haven’t read it but I have heard on the grapevine there is to be a feature film made.
Who did you rate among the Liverpool scene at the outset? I believe Dalek I Love You were a pretty hot contender... any more underrated Liverpool scenesters you can think of?
Dalek I Love you were pretty bad at the time and most people thought they sucked, but it may be worth getting my copy of the album out to give it another listen just in case it has matured, like a fine old lump of Stilton!
How much did you get involved with the great strings on Ocean Rain? The instrumentation throughout that LP is fantastic, quite minimal at the same time as it is lush. I rate it among ‘Forever Changes’, ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Emotions’ by the Pretty Things as among the greatest baroque pop ever. Could you tell us anything about the making of that album?
We went to Paris to get a kind of Jaques Brel kind of vibe. The vocals and the mix were done in Kirkby a bit of a "you lookin at me?" kind of vibe! The Paris studio had a lot of old Keyboards, like celesta and harpsichord so we used them, a real old school kind of place. Studio Des Dame. They had a weird echo chamber room, you had to climb down a ladder to get to it. I remember playing the solo bits on the track ‘Ocean Rain’ in the echo chamber. They also had this incredible old slate reverb unit about 10 feet long, we had everything going through it and it sounded so warm and rich, like the old Scott Walker records - real sixties. The trouble was we mixed the record at Amazon in Kirkby and couldn’t get the same sound. Me and Les took our bikes and spent a lot of time darting about the city. Adam Peters did the string arrangements, we had a lot of influence as to which, we were going for the Brel/Scott kind of thing. Adam now lives in New York and has his own band The Family of God Who are fab - also on Ochre records.
Do you still have your fish costume from the ‘Seven Seas’ video?
Unfortunately not, it would have come in useful at our Dada works outing at Christmas!
Will Sergeant was interviewed by Steve Hanson, (c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, 2001
With Echo & The Bunymen:
Heaven Up Here
Echo & The Bunnymen
Themes For Grind
Will has also collaborated with Arp Arp and The Serpents.