Siberia is without question the strongest of the four albums the Bunnymen have released since their 1997 comeback Evergreen, a satisfying collection of singalong Brit rock fuelled by the sky-high reach of Mac’s bluesy Scouser vocals and the confident sweep of Will Sergeant’s guitar. But where Mac has bellowed sweet victory in every interview on the subject of Siberia, Will’s confidence is understated. He is quietly pleased with their latest long-player – a record he says is staple Bunnymen but also finely balanced – but he is also perfectly happy to hear about Mac’s blustering self-congratulations. As the only other survivor of the decades, destruction and reformation of the Bunnymen, Will has long since learnt the value of Ian McCulloch’s bigger-than-Jesus rock god conceit.
“Liam from Oasis owes him a lot, Ian Brown and people like that, they’ve all got that kind of Mac attitude, which is what you need for a singer, innit? You need somebody that’s going ‘look at me, I’m the top boy’. No good having a little shy dude that sits in the back, like me,” Will chuckles. “Of course, if you do an interview when Mac’s about, you don’t get a word in. I quite like doing them on me own. Better than him just talking over you.”
Sergeant is relaxed in the mid-morning gloom of a Liverpool Autumn. At 47, he seems convinced that the worst storms of his music career are behind him – and the Bunnymen have certainly had their share. From their 1980 debut Crocodiles to the eponymous 1987 album, Echo and the Bunnymen made a handful of extraordinary records that made a huge impact on the generation of musicians to follow, but never quite pushed them to superband status. Ian quit the band in 1988, leaving Will, bassist Les Pattinson and drummer Pete de Freitas to record the ill-advised Reveberation album with vocalist Noel Burke, which debuted to critical frost shortly after de Freitas died in a motorcycle accident, and the remaining members disbanded in the early 90s.
When Mac, Sergeant and Pattinson reformed the Bunnymen for Evergreen, they were well-due the retrospective canonisation that greeted them, with everyone from Chris Martin to Stephen Malkmus citing the band as a major influence. The dust hadn’t quite settled however, with Pattinson taking his leave for a second time just before 1999’s What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? was recorded and the band parting company with London Records that same year. Resigning with SpinArt for the 2001 release, Flowers, Mac and Sergeant were determined to find workable groove. In the case of Siberia, this meant working mostly apart.
“I’d record during the day and Mac’d record at night,” Will explains. “Once we’d got the backing tracks done, the bass and the drums, I’d go in and lay out all my stuff and Mac’d come in about 7 o’clock and do all his vocal takes and stuff – his acoustic guitar bits and rhythm guitar. It wasn’t a case of ‘I don’t want to be in the studio with him’ it was just a great way of getting loads done in a day. And we’d done loads of pre-production, so we knew what was going on the record anyway, we just had to get the sounds right. It was a good way of working.”
The British press, ever rumour-mongering, have latched onto the possibility that the Bunnymen’s unconventional recording habits might spell ongoing unrest for a largely restless band. According to Will, The Liverpool Echo built a story around he and Mac staying in different hotels during their latest publicity tour, which the guitarist shrugged off as a unfounded beat-up of the fact that these two very adult musicians no longer live in each other’s pockets. In the current incarnation of the Bunnymen, a healthy distance has bred an even healthier professional respect.
“He lets me do what I do and I let him do what he does. Things had come to a head a bit on the What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? album, which I hated cause I was kind of excluded from the equation there by Mac and the manager at the time. He just sort of saw the Bunnymen as Mac, and that’s not what it was about. I just said ‘get rid of the manager or I’m going’. These days, we know what each other is about. It’s a pushing and pulling thing, you know. I want it to be more weirder and rockier and he wants it to be more mellow and ballady. There’s a middle ground there that everyone’s happy with.”
Having found their feet together, and worked out what they’re good at, Sergeant and Mac employed producer Hugh Jones to help them return to the quintessential Bunnymen sound. Jones, who last worked with the band on their 1981 classic Heaven Up There, must in some way be credited with the epic and dreamy oceans of sound that make Siberia a faithful successor to the band’s earliest triumphs. They have recaptured the energy and brooding romance of their heyday, and Sergeant is happy to report that there is still an audience for the Bunnymen sound.
“We just played Reading Festival in a big tent the other week and everyone there was young. I don’t know whether that’s just because everyone that goes to Reading Festival is young or there were just people checking us out, but they were all there and they were all into it and they all went mad. You wonder how these people know our stuff, you know, it must be like their granddad’s album. Whatever it was, it felt great.”
Siberia is out now through Shock.