B y T i m o t h y G a s s e n
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN might be the second most famous rock band ever to come from Liverpool. On a steamy 1992 summer night, however, they stand idly on stage, drenched in sweat. The P.A. won't work, and they storm off to their tour bus more than a little peeved.
The band had been fighting larger obstacles for years, including the departure of their pop-idol vocalist Ian McCulloch, and the loss of a major label record contract after a 12-year stay.
These re-formed Bunnymen (also without original drummer Pete De Freitas, who died in 1988) soon reappear with a vengeance, and rip through a blistering 90-minute set. Almost as if shaking off the demons of frustration, Will Sergeant attacks his various guitars, unleashing a cornucopia of effects and wailing tones.
Most pop observers never knew it, but this last-gasp lineup of The Bunnymen was brilliant in its own way.
"I enjoyed it at the time and I think what we did was good, but I did it to prove that the singer wasn't the end-all or be-all of the band," reflects Sergeant today. "It's a point that wasn't really worth bothering to prove."
The guitarist now realizes his self-proclaimed mission to continue the Bunnymen without McCulloch fell on mostly deaf ears. "A lot of people turned their back on it straight away," he says without resentment. "The whole thing was a bit mad, really. We were never going to convince people, and that's what we were trying to do."
The McCulloch-less Bunnymen nevertheless released the sparkling Reverberation LP in 1990, then two excellent CD singles on their own label, calling it quits early in 1993. Sergeant used the new free time to delve more fully into his continuing solo project, dubbed Glide.
"I got into the dance music scene that was going on in England, early on when it was quite psychedelic and trippy," he says. "I've always been into the psychedelic stuff, and I saw it as an extension of that. Now the dance scene is all crap--it's really boring--but when it started it was trance-like."
Feelings between Sergeant and McCulloch had remained icy--both privately and publicly--since 1988. Sergeant's attitude towards McCulloch was polite at best in a 1992 conversation with a reporter.
A reunion seemed like the last possible option--but it happened.
Sergeant can now chuckle about the duo's 1993 reconciliation and subsequent founding of their new band, Electrafixion. "After four or five years of not speaking, we just buried the hatchet, and it wasn't that difficult, really," he says. "All the reasons that we didn't speak to each other were really not that important."
McCulloch had completed two solo albums for The Bunnymen's old record label, Sire, but the sudden reunion with Sergeant brought up some other interesting possibilities.
"At first there was talk about us doing The Bunnymen again, with me, Mac (McCulloch) and (original bassist) Les (Pattinson), but we didn't really want to do that," explains the guitarist. "It would have been easy for the record company to push for that. It would have made their job easier. But they've been behind the new thing from the start. They're not trying to make us cheesy."
The reborn collaboration clicked again almost immediately. "February 1994 was the first recording that we did, but we were writing before that, so it's been a while already (with the new band)," Sergeant says enthusiastically. "It's easier to communicate now, because it's just the two of us, basically." (The duo is augmented by a drummer and bassist for recording, with an additional guitarist rounding out the touring quintet.)
The reunited pair, sporting a new Electrafixion album, are less than concerned with the inevitable Echo & The Bunnymen comparisons. "We don't care," Sergeant offers with another laugh. "I think the new band has elements of The Bunnymen because of how I play guitar and how he (McCulloch) sings, but I'm doing more different guitar sounds than I've ever done before, a lot of forceful stuff.
"In the early Bunnymen I tried to play as trebly and spindly as I possibly could, but now I like to 'force out' for a while. I do like it."
Sergeant is also excited about reaching a new generation that has never heard The Bunnymen. "This is the groovy thing about the new band," he continues. "I don't feel like some kind of old rocker. I think the new record proves that. It's more aggressive and wilder than the Bunnymen were."
Electrafixion is also helping Sergeant to achieve another goal. "I want to prove that I am a good guitarist," he says seriously. "I don't want to sound big-headed, but I think I'm better than some of the others (who are praised in the press)."
Sergeant has been widely acknowledged as one of the most expressive and intuitive rock guitarists of the past 15 years--but Echo & The Bunnymen never cracked the U.S. market commercially like other less interesting groups.
"You know, there were reasons for that," he offers mischievously, "because we didn't want to play the game. It's a game that you play. You have to be nice to certain people and all the rest of it and they'll be nice to you by selling your records. We didn't want to go along with all that crap."
This time around with a major label, Sergeant seems ready to seize the opportunity fully--but still without compromise. "We haven't got much time to piss about, and we can't be as snotty as we used to be," he notes. "We don't particularly want to be--that's more a young man's game, a bit stupid, liking shooting yourself in the foot."
Hardly hanging on to past glories, Sergeant is revitalized by Electrafixion. "In some ways this is more fun now than back then. Then I had a real chip on my shoulder, you know? I didn't like America then," he says. "It took me quite a few years in The Bunnymen to get into it. I'm just a kid from Liverpool, and everything over here was just too weird."
Electrafixion will tour extensively in the U.S. this fall and next spring in support of their adrenaline-dosed debut LP Burned. With the soaring vocals of McCulloch and massively creative guitar of Sergeant back together for another run, a whole new Liverpool legend is set to be built.
"Between the two of us it's a mighty sound," Sergeant purrs, a hint of satisfaction echoing deep in his voice.
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