“NO ONE EVER WANTS TO TALK TO ME—EVEN back in the group’s glory days,” shrugs Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant as we walk to the band’s tour bus to, well, talk. The 51- year-old guitarist had just finished a soundcheck (see the video at guitarplayer.com)—strangely, without lead vocalist Ian McCulloch involved— for a two-set concert where the band performed 1984’s Ocean Rain in its entirety with orchestral backing, and then hit the stage to rock through its ’80s hits, as well as tracks from 2009’s The Fountain.
“I guess I was never a part of the shred thing, and I was never a Jeff Beck or a Yngwie Malmsteen, and, as Echo and the Bunnymen are a song-oriented band, I perhaps didn’t generate the kind of excitement that magazines such as yours look for in guitar players,” he continues.
Whatever Sergeant’s assessment of his talents (or music journalism’s alleged ignorance of same), the minimalist riffs and evocative soundscapes created by the affable, unassuming musician are not only staples of new-wave guitar, but also aural “textbooks” of how the guitar’s voice can be expanded, mutilated, and twisted to illuminate otherwise conventional songcraft. Armed with a black Telecaster washed in reverb and delay, Sergeant’s performances on Echo and the Bunnymen’s ’80s tracks avoided barre chords and obvious rock-isms in favor of sparse melodic lines, shimmering arpeggios, undulating riffs, and vibey tremolo-bar wanking. Everything he did—and still does, only now with a Fender Jaguar and a Boss GT-8—also has that elusive “hook” quality. Whether playing an intro riff or a backing rhythm line, it’s spooky how each part is almost as memorable as the song’s vocal melody. And, to this day, Sergeant continues to explore experimental sonic vistas—most recently in his scores for an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Liverpool museum.
You’re a pretty idiosyncratic player. Did anyone influence that direction?
I’m not really the type of person to copy anybody else’s record. It never interested me to sit around and play “Smoke on the Water” or whatever, so I just kind of made it all up on my own. I did like all the psychedelic Indian stuff that the Beatles got into—all the droning D string parts—which is probably why I got into using so much reverb. Or maybe I like the fact that filling the sound out is a “talent compensater” when you’re playing on one string [laughs].
I don’t think compensating for a lack of talent is what drove you to develop so many cool ambient and weird sounds, is it?
Yes—well, we were pretty adamant in the early days about being anti-synthesizer, but we still liked some of those sounds on other people’s records. For example, I think a lot of the melodic stuff I played came from trying to emulate Kraftwerk. So I had to find new ways of making sounds with the guitar, and I didn’t want to use effects like chorus. Chorus always sounded too nice to me—it made me feel sick [laughs]. So I’d end up dragging a pair of scissors across the guitar strings with a lot of delay or reverb, or I’d put my foot to a wah pedal really fast until it sounded like water or something. It was always a process of just sounding different, you know. We’d come out of the punk thing where there were no rules, so if we came up with something that sounded too rock, we’d bin it straight away. We thought that stuff was too corny—too Status Quo. This is why I loved Television, and how they’d hang so intensely on one note for maybe too long, and phrase it on the off beats. Or the discordant stuff on Bowie’s Low—also The Fall and Joy Division. I just love making a racket!
You managed to get hits with some pretty outside guitar playing, while, in America, the guitars on popular records tend to be far less experimental. Why do you think that is?
In America, it’s all about that rock thing— tight trousers and cowboy boots and jumping around and posing. British people aren’t like that, generally, and I think Americans do rock a lot better than we do. But we do have that British art school tradition of seeking to do things differently in our favor.