Echo & The Bunnymen Won't Turn Down the Volume

Francis Jones talks to the Feile 06 headliners

It’s a surreal moment, backstage at Andersonstown Leisure Centre when I'm ushered into a handball court-cum-interview room, to find myself face-to-face with Echo & The Bunnymen founding member and guitar godhead, Will Sergeant.

In tandem with fellow survivor, Ian ‘Mac The Mouth’ McCulloch, Sergeant remains the driving force behind this seminal eighties rock band, a band whose influence, darkly romantic lyricism and melodramatic, guitar menace continues to resonate in the current, rock-noir obsessed market.

Headliners of Féile an Phobail 2006, The Bunnymen have just wowed a sell-out audience with a decades-spanning, time defying set that incorporated early glories ‘The Killing Moon’, ‘The Cutter’ and ‘Lips Like Sugar’ and latter loves such as ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’.

Sergeant is, not surprisingly, in buoyant, talkative mood. Still in stage apparel of dark shirt and tie, face hidden behind the trademark fringe, he appears fervent, yet unassuming, enthused about this latest stage in the Bunnymen’s career and keen to recall their past rendezvous with Belfast fans...

‘Yeah, we’ve played Belfast on a number of occasions; I remember how they always used to put us up in that Europa Hotel. So, we’ve performed here maybe three or four times, the last time, before tonight, seventeen years ago.

'Really the reason we haven’t been back in a while is because we haven’t been asked, simple as that. You’ve also got to take into account that we broke up and got back together during that period. It’s just one of those things.’

Given their performance and the reception received, it is clear that the seventeen year wait was worth it.

‘Yeah, the gig was brilliant. We normally have a keyboard player, he was missing tonight so we played a rockier set, which is what I like, it’s good to strip things down now and again.

'Before the show we had a good little tour around, up the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. So we did that thing of going and looking at the wall murals and I suppose it’s a shame that that’s what it’s all about, but it’s like history. It’s interesting for us, to be able to find the truth of something instead of just what you see on the telly and to know that people have to actually live it.’

Sergeant and, the aptly named, ‘Mac The Mouth’ McCulloch provide the perfect counterpoint to one another. Whereas the frontman is keen, at every opportunity, to further his reputation as an outrageous braggart, Sergeant is modesty personified.

Indeed when I mention the holy trinity of eighties guitar bands, The Smiths, The Cure and Echo & The Bunnymen he seems almost embarrassed, quick to shift attention and to suggest that he is unaware of his band’s place in the Rock pantheon.

‘I suppose people are saying it more and more, but for me I would just want us to be known as a classic band. Bands like The Doors and Love; to me those bands are the pinnacle. If a band says they’ve started up because they’ve seen us that’s great.

'Just don’t expect me to believe they’re the best band in the world because I’ve got so many records from the sixties and the seventies, from amazin’ bands, proper bands, bands that make us look like a bag a shit.’

When discussing the current guitar scene Sergeant is dismissive, unsure if there are any real innovators left, and unwilling to express admiration for what he perceives as the fleetingly fashionable.

‘I have to say I don’t really get that into the new bands. There might be few current bands I like, but that’s only because they remind me of sixties or seventies bands. You get these artists who are from an older generation and they make out they’re into all the latest bands just so they can look hip. It’s absolute bullshit.

'I saw recently how Elton John was going on about the Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire. But, you can’t tell me he’s sitting around playing this fucking stuff, more likely he’ll be sat at home listening to Aretha Franklin.’

Even when they were at the peak of their commercial success, the Bunnymen couldn’t help but remain outsiders.

‘We didn’t go to London, we didn’t play the game. I live 15 miles from Liverpool, Mac lives in the centre of Liverpool and we have our office there. We’ve never moved away, never done all the arse licking that was required, pissed people off more than anything. That’s just the way we are, awkward bastards.’

There’s a strong, coursing sense of self-belief to Echo & The Bunnymen, evidenced most obviously by the unfailingly grandiose statements of McCulloch.

‘A lot of that’s down to Mac, the things he says. Sometimes, when we play, I do believe we’re the greatest band in the world. But, Mac he’ll just say it all the time and sometimes I’m just thinking "give it a rest". I suppose it’s just a quote thing.

'Years ago we didn’t get upset about it; actually we quite liked him saying it. Back then you thought you could be the best band in the world, or the biggest, or whatever you want to call it. But, now it’s a bit different saying it, we’re getting on a bit, d’yer know what I mean?’

Given the breadth of their career, the 80’s zenith, various soundtrack slots and Britpop-era rebirth, the band’s fanbase is anything but typical.

‘It’s changing all the time, lots of new people coming in. And I dunno, I think that’s partly down to the likes of Coldplay and Editors going on about us. Probably the same way I used to go on about The Doors and then all our fans started getting their records, even though they’d never heard of ‘em.

It’s kind of grown a little bit; Donnie Darko did us a lot of good as well. So when they come they hear ‘The Killing Moon’, but they also recognise some of the others as well, they’re like ‘fucking hell, did they do that?’ and when you think about it there’s a lot of really good songs in the set.’

Given everything Echo & The Bunnymen have achieved it would be easy for Sergeant and McCulloch to sit back and rest on their laurels. Actually, suggests Sergeant, it’s the sitting back and not getting too embroiled that keeps the band invigorated.

‘Well, we don’t do that much. The thing is I don’t go home and start playing me guitar all the time, trying to decide whether to play ‘Smoke On The Water’ or not. I only play when I’m on duty, writing, recording or playing live.

'I think that’s what keeps us from treading around the same thing all the time. If I was at home perfecting, I dunno, Jeff Beck riffs or something then you get into the mentality of that is how the guitar should be played.

'I like to see it as a blank canvas every time, to try and do something different every night, stretch it in a new direction. I still listen to music all the time though and I DJ in Liverpool. And I’ve got kids now, funny they’re always telling me to turn the music down. Surely it should be the other way around?’