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Echo And The Bunnymen: “Our Backs Were Against The Wall,” Says Will Sergeant

Echo And The Bunnymen: “Our Backs Were Against The Wall,” Says Will Sergeant

Defiantly creative, Echo And The Bunnymen’s music resounds through the ages. “We thought we were the best band in the world,” they tell Dig!


Formed in 1978 amid the dying breaths of punk’s first wave, Liverpudlian group Echo And The Bunnymen harnessed punk’s raised-middle-finger attitude to their own knack for a skewed melody and sonic innovation, taking no prisoners as they eventually assailed the mainstream. Across six years and their first four albums, the group developed a sound that went from stripped-down post-punk to experimental new wave and neo-psychedelia, with their pathological aversion towards toeing the line forcing the world to come to them.

“We were wrapped up in our own little world, very protective of everything,” Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant tells Dig! Once accused by former manager Bill Drummond (later to form pop-art antagonists The KLF with Jimmy Cauty) of feeling as though “changing chord was selling out”, Sergeant adds, “I almost didn’t want anyone to know about us.” After the group released their first single, The Pictures On My Wall, in 1979, he says, “I wanted to know everybody that bought it – like wanting to vet them. Make sure they were cool enough.”

Listen to the best of Echo And The Bunnymen here.

“It was always done as an artistic thing… We thought everything else was rubbish”

“It was never done to make money or sell any records,” the guitarist asserts of Echo And The Bunnymen’s creative impetus. “It was always done as an artistic thing… We thought everything else was rubbish, except for a few bands. That was just our attitude, but it helped us get through.”

Originally formed as a three-piece – Sergeant, Ian McCulloch on guitar and vocals, and Les Pattinson on bass – Echo And The Bunnymen took inspiration from the boundary-pushers that had gone before them. “I really liked The Doors. I loved the dynamic way their songs would go from being really loud to really quiet, changing the mood,” Sergeant says. The guitarist also found a kinship with other bands that were pushing the punk template forward – Buzzcocks and Joy Division in the neighbouring city of Manchester; Mekons and Gang Of Four in Leeds; The Comsat Angels and the early incarnation of The Human League in Sheffield; Talking Heads, Pere Ubu and Suicide in the US. “At one point my nickname was ‘Manchester’, because I like all the Manchester bands,” Sergeant says. “We all loved The Fall, and we all started dressing in crappy clothes, like The Fall did… I was quite an expert at dressing like a shit member of The Fall.”

That, however, is where any conscious attempts to emulate other groups ended. “I listened to people, but I didn’t try to play their stuff,” Sergeant says. “I’m not really interested in doing that… because I don’t want to be coloured by what they did or the way they write. I want to just be me. So I never really learned to play Stairway To Heaven or anything like that. I can just about manage Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water…”

Rather, Echo And The Bunnymen fashioned their own sound: spacious, often doomy, and set further apart with their use of a drum machine as opposed to a real-life sticksman – though the electronic kit that underpinned the group’s early live performances would, inadvertently, become a personality in itself when the band’s name inspired a long-running myth.

“It was a throwaway thing to shut some journalist up”

“It was just a crazy name that one of Mac’s mates thought up,” Sergeant reveals. “I didn’t know anything about it until we did our first gig. We were just announced as Echo And The Bunnymen. I thought, What the fuck’s that? That’s horrible.

“Band names are weird, but you grow into them and they start to take on their own life,” Sergeant continues. “People started thinking Mac was Echo. We didn’t like it, and he didn’t like it, either. We didn’t want to be Mac’s Bunnymen, and he didn’t want to be Echo. One time, someone said, ‘Who’s Echo?’ And Mac went, ‘It’s the drum machine.’ It was a throwaway thing just to shut some journalist up. So we propagated that rumour.”

As well as adding a little mystique, the drum machine also helped the fledgling group tighten their playing. “When we started, we couldn’t play very well – I couldn’t, anyway,” Sergeant admits. “Les had only just learned to play bass, but straight away he was really good at being tight… At one point there was a tape going round of all my mistakes – ‘Will’s Mistakes On Gigs’ – because I wasn’t that proficient. I had the ideas, but I didn’t know how to execute them in exactly the same way every time.” The drum machine, however, “gave us a real steady, solid base to play rhythmically”.

“Me and Mac became really good at rhythm guitar because we were sitting in my back room in Melling” – a village just north of Liverpool – “chugging away on E and A chords for hours on end, throwing in the odd C chord. We got tighter. We got better… Mac’s a really good rhythm guitarist.”

“What a great frontman… He’s our David Bowie”

McCulloch also emerged as the archetypal rock poet: defiant in the face of all adversity, with a dash of Jim Morrison’s elemental lyricism added to his own inimitable swagger and lyrical dexterity. “He’s so good with words – and what a great frontman,” Sergeant says. “He’s got that arrogant snarl. It’s a bit Johnny Rotten and it’s a bit Jacques Brel. He’s our David Bowie, isn’t he?” One early song, Going Up, soon to appear on The Bunnymen’s 1980 debut album, Crocodiles, made it clear to Sergeant how McCulloch’s lyrical imagery would elevate the group’s music. “I like the surreal element of his lyrics – there’s a line where he goes, ‘Rusty chalk-dust walker.’ I don’t know what that is, but I love that combination of words and the sound of them. It’s interesting and intriguing… He’s just a one-off.”

On the cusp of recording Crocodiles, and with most of the elements that would define Echo And The Bunnymen in place, drummer Pete De Freitas joined the group, “And it changed completely,” Sergeant says.

Born in Trinidad And Tobago and raised in Somerset, in the South West of England, De Freitas’ presence “meant that we could have dynamics in the songs, which was what we were all about. Pete was brilliant at that – he could drop it down to zero and then back up to 10,000. He played the marimba, he did a bit of piano here and there, and he could play the guitar.” Adding crucial textures to all his work with The Bunnymen, the drummer died, aged 27, in a motorcycling accident in 1989. “When we did our first rehearsal with him, I didn’t know how good he was,” Sergeant reflects today. “It was only later on, when he was given free rein to be more creative, that I realised, Bloody hell, we’ve got someone here that’s amazing.”

“Things just fell into our laps… The more obnoxious we were, the more people wanted”

With their line-up finalised, Echo And The Bunnymen signed to the Korova label – named after the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange – who made Crocodiles their first ever album release.

Having honed their sound over two years’ worth of gigging, the group entered Rockfield Studios, in Monmouth, Wales, with ambitions to go beyond their early stage performances. “I think it might have been Brian Eno who said the studio is another instrument – and it is,” Sergeant says. “It was definitely more intricate. We weren’t just trying to do a live thing. We did a lot of overdubs and stuff like that, trying to make things interesting.” Feeling as though the guitar “was the most important ingredient” of the group’s songs, “I’d keep layering up guitars forever, and they’d get the shepherd’s crook and hoick me out of the studio.

“I had to do quite a lot of dropping-in,” Sergeant admits. “I remember on Villiers Terrace, I was dropping in for individual notes quite a lot. It was pretty complicated for me to play the arpeggio guitar bits. I was not used to it. I was used to thrashing away on chords and the odd little simple guitar bit.”

Elsewhere on Crocodiles, a re-recording of The Pictures On My Wall turned the sparse original into something laden with heavy portent, while album closer Happy Death Men signposted the crepuscular sound of the group’s follow-up album, Heaven Up Here.

Released on 18 July 1980, Crocodiles appealed to both the indie crowd and the more pop-leaning critics alike. Hailed by NME as “probably the best album this year by a British band”, and with Smash Hits calling it “proof positive that there’s just no substitute for a good song delivered with power and emotion”, the album also gained traction in the US, where the staunchly anti-establishment Creem praised it as “a moody, mysterious, fascinating record”, and the mainstream arbiters of taste, Rolling Stone, gave it four out of five stars.

“We were arrogant little shits, so we didn’t really care,” Sergeant notes today. “Things just fell into our laps all the time. The more obnoxious or awkward we were, the more people wanted. That’s the way it works. But we didn’t realise we were doing that. We turned down loads of things all the time – we used to go, ‘I’m not doing that. That band’s on it. We hate them.’ But it gave us credibility: ‘Oh, Echo And The Bunnymen, they don’t sell out.’” Even a brush with rock god Robert Plant, during the recording of Crocodiles, couldn’t faze them.

Just months before drummer John Bonham’s death, the Led Zeppelin frontman was staying with Rockfield’s owners while searching for a place to buy in Monmouthshire. “He gave us a lift into Monmouth one day, and we went to the pub,” Sergeant recalls. “Punk had happened, and I remember saying to him, ‘Don’t worry, Robert. Led Zeppelin will be back.’ How arrogant! We were the new kids on the block. What the fuck did we know? It’s ridiculous, really.”

“We’ve always been able to come up with a good tune – something dark, mysterious”

Wasting no time, Echo And The Bunnymen released Heaven Up Here a mere ten months after Crocodiles, on 30 May 1981. Doubling down on their experimentalism in the studio, the group also sharpened their songwriting. “We didn’t talk about it like that. We just did what we did. It was a natural development in rehearsal rooms,” Sergeant says.

“We’ve always been able to come up with a good tune – something that’s dark, mysterious or even joyous. All it is is combinations of notes. It’s like colours – some colours go with other colours, others don’t. And sometimes some colours that you think aren’t gonna go together do go together. They make a third in your brain.”

Fresh from engineering Simple Minds’ Empires And Dance and Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call albums, producer Hugh Jones also helped the group expand their sonic palette. “He knew loads of stuff,” Sergeant says. “He’d do things like put the amp down the end of a corridor, and the microphones at the other end – funny little tricks to make it sound bigger or more interesting or stranger.”

For his part, Sergeant brought his own new ideas to the Heaven Up Here sessions. Solo recordings that he had made for a film by sometime Bunnymen video director Bill Butt, released in 1982 as Themes For Grind (“It was all drum-machine noises and weird stuff. I had this two-note, droney guitar thing”), bled into All My Colours, which also featured a guest turn from Les Penning, who delivered subtly haunting motifs by bending the notes on his recorder. Meanwhile, Sergeant dedicated himself to getting unconventional noises from his own instrument.

“I was trying to make it trippy”

“I remember playing with a pair of scissors – a bit like the way Jimmy Page used a bow, but I had these scissors, and I was only doing one note. Sometimes I took the other strings off the guitar, so they weren’t in the way. Or I’d tape the strings down, so I wasn’t going to hit them by accident. There was a lot of attention to detail.

“I was trying to make it trippy, so I sort of banished cymbals,” Sergeant continues. “There might be the odd crash or a hi-hat on the album, but that set Pete off into this tribal tom-tom thing. He was up for it – he loved doing it. It was like a test.” One unlikely conversation even found the band considering a radical step into Northern soul territory.

“There’s a lot of almost-funk guitar. That had probably come from the way Talking Heads played,” Sergeant notes. “I remember we wanted to go Northern soul at one point. Or take elements of that, like the beats – that four-on-the-floor snare beat, with the bass going. It’s quite Bunnymen when you think about it. But it was just talk.” A particularly catchy Les Pattinson bassline provided the seed for Heaven Up Here’s lead single, A Promise, a song which inspired Ian McCulloch to deliver one of his most impassioned vocals and offered a rare glimmer of hope on a collection of otherwise desolate material.

“That was an interesting one,” Sergeant says. “We didn’t have enough tracks for the record. There was a place called The Old Mill at Rockfield” – now a separate recording facility called Monnow Valley Studio – “and we went down there to try and make up another song for the album. And that became A Promise.” But though McCulloch’s lyrics “talk about light on the waves and all that stuff”, and Heaven Up Here’s album cover captured the group in a shadowy portrait on the beach as the sun rose behind them, Sergeant hears the album as a “mainly dark and existential” collection of songs.

As uncompromising as it was, Heaven Up Here didn’t prepare anyone – including supporters such as NME, who praised it as “one of the most superior articulations of ‘rock’ form in living memory” – for Echo And The Bunnymen’s third record, an album which ended up being as prickly as its title.

“We were trying to keep it as real as possible”

Having plumbed emotional depths in order to reach creative peaks with Heaven Up Here, Echo And The Bunnymen were brought back to Earth when Korova rejected its follow-up, Porcupine. Struggling to hear commercial potential in the group’s efforts, the label sent them away to re-record the whole thing.

“It was pretty annoying,” Sergeant says. “I can’t remember what was wrong with the original version, or whether we re-recorded it all, or if there was stuff we kept. It’s all just a blur… I know they didn’t like The Back Of Love. We snuck in and remixed it on the sly… It was quite avant-garde. We had a section in the middle where we got some of those toys you swirl around your head – they’re like corrugated tubes – and they were all vaguely in the key of E. It added this odd sound.”

Eventually approved for release on 4 February 1983, Porcupine was also notable for Echo And The Bunnymen’s first use of strings – something the group would explore to even greater effect on their next album. “It was just trying to experiment with different sounds,” Sergeant explains. “I liked Scott Walker and Love. They had strings and trumpets or whatever, so why not try other bits? We were open to ideas… but we were trying to keep it as real as possible. We avoided synthesisers quite a lot, so if there were any weird sounds to be made, it was either on the guitar or treated piano or something like that. Or backwards. I loved doing all the backwards stuff.

“A lot of Indian influence was going on,” he continues. “I really liked the track Porcupine. That little lead guitar thing that I did at the beginning – I was really chuffed with it at the time. It sounded like a properly formed, almost classical thing.”

Combining all these elements into a clear statement of intent, Porcupine’s opening track, The Cutter, was the perfect riposte to any doubt thrown the album’s way. With McCulloch’s lyrics seemingly reflecting on the record’s initial reception while avowing the group’s continued determination to leapfrog their previous achievements (“Spare us the cutter/Couldn’t cut the/Mustard/Conquering myself until/I see another hurdle approaching”), the song took Echo And The Bunnymen into the UK Top 10 for the first time, where it peaked at No.8, helping Porcupine to settle at No.2 in the album chart.

Sergeant puts The Cutter’s success down to its immediately arresting neo-psychedelic opening – “that mad Indian violin stuff” – performed by violinist and composer L Shankar. “He played this double-necked violin. It was a Perspex kind of thing, and he could get the bow to do drones on the other next neck at the same time. So he’s playing one neck with his fingers, and the other neck’s doing a drone in the background. He’d been playing since he was three. He knew everything about the instrument. It was second nature to him.”

“We nearly died… What the hell were we doing?”

If Porcupine was the work of a group standing at a precipice, its artwork was a literal interpretation of that. With album covers that had already pictured The Bunnymen framed by moody uplighting in the woods (Crocodiles) and silhouetted on the beach (Heaven Up Here), they decided to keep the natural theme going, and flew to Iceland, where they posed for photos at the frozen Gullfoss waterfall – “and nearly died”, Sergeant laughs.

With just two hours of daylight at their disposal, and the chosen location being over 70 miles inland from Iceland’s capitol of Reykjavík, the band had to get up at three o’clock in the morning in order to drive to Gullfoss in time for the sun to come up. “That little ledge we stood on was about six foot wide,” Sergeant says. “On the other side was a 400-foot drop. We were pissing about, pushing each other – ‘Tell your mum I saved ya!’” On the way back from the shoot, the group stopped off for more photos in the middle of a blizzard as it swept across the tundra. “Afterwards, we thought, What the hell were we doing? None of us were prepared for the 30-degree-below temperatures.” Nor was Reykjavík’s airport equipped for the weather conditions that repeatedly forced the group’s plane to make return landings after taking off. “It was too heavy with ice. Once they’d cleared one side of the plane, the other had already iced up again.” With a rope to guide them across the frozen tarmac and back to the terminal – “just a big shed” – every time the flight was abandoned, the group felt “like mountaineers, but we were going across flat land”. Once the electrics went, “We had to sit in there for hours in the dark until the wind subsided and they de-iced the plane… We were all shitting ourselves.”

“We were out of our comfort zone… It was like a fresh start”

Having survived the ordeal – and returned with an album cover Q magazine later described as “the epitome of rock band as heroic archetype” – Echo And The Bunnymen chose an altogether less life-threatening location to record their fourth album, Ocean Rain.

“Mac wanted to go to Paris to get a romantic feel. And we were all into Jacques Brel and people like that. So we went for the big, epic string sound,” Sergeant says. Despite Pete De Freitas’ fluent French, “We were out of our comfort zone completely, because we didn’t know how it all worked over there, or how they recorded. It was like a fresh start.”

With all the freedom of foreigners exploring an unknown country, the group availed themselves of their new studio’s equipment for songs such as The Yo Yo Man, whose haunted-house interlude came out of a gleeful improvisation. “There were loads of funny little keyboards, like celeste. They had a xylophone. They had a piano with drawing pins in the beaters, which gave it a metallic clank. Les was on the marimba – he was just dragging things up and down the scales.” The wider album’s more pronounced acoustic feel was also encouraged after Sergeant, McCulloch and Pattinson received a collection of new guitars from manufacturers Washburn, which “inspired us to go in a more acoustic way”.

Looking to expand upon L Shankar’s solo violin playing on Porcupine, The Bunnymen enlisted a collaborator who could help them realise their ambitions by scoring arrangements for a 35-piece string section. Adam Peters, then a recent graduate of London’s Royal Academy Of Music, flew over to Paris and sat in a lounge room above the studio, listening to tapes of the group’s new music and transcribing it for piano. “In his mind, he could hear all the orchestration,” Sergeant says. “It was hard for us to imagine, but he knew exactly what it was going to sound like. He’d take riffs and combinations of notes that we’d done, and transpose them into this orchestrated thing.” When local session players were called in to record their parts, however, the young, relatively untested Peters initially met with resistance from the experienced French ensemble – particularly when he corrected mistakes in their playing.

“It had all been organised overnight – everything was in a rush all the time,” Sergeant says. “So Adam’s at the lectern with his baton, and they were all ignoring him. He shouted at them, ‘Hey! Pay attention!’ And then they were shitting themselves… At the end, it was quite funny. They all stood up and applauded. It was like, ‘Actually, you’ve done a really good job there.’ Adam thanked them all in French because he was fluent. So all this, ‘Who’s this prick?’ they’d been saying – he’d heard it all.”

“It’s become synonymous with us… like the only thing we’ve ever done”

Released on 4 May 1984, the group’s masterpiece was initially given a stormy reception. “Ocean Rain got slagged off,” Sergeant says. “They said it sounded like The Moody Blues – and that was meant to be a bad a thing! I’ve got loads of Moody Blues albums. I think they’re great.” Now hailed as the high point in Echo And The Bunnymen’s four-decade career, it also contains the group’s best-known song: The Killing Moon.

Downplaying the way the song looms over the rest of their work, Sergeant says, “It was just a very inventive recording session. We put a load of autoharp and stuff like that on it. I bought an African marimba as well, which wasn’t in Western tune, but we used it anyway. And I’d just bought a semi-acoustic Vox 12-string guitar that was rubbish at staying in tune, but it had a dead interesting sound, and we recorded it through a couple of mics.”

Experiments with recording techniques also led to one of The Killing Moon’s defining sonic hallmarks. After recording the basic chord progressions, the group turned the tape over, added reverb and then re-recorded the effects onto a separate track. “So when you turned it the other way, you got this big sweeping reverb coming into the chord, and that added an otherworldly vibe to it,” Sergeant says. Adam Peters, too, bolstered his contributions with extra effects. “The strings are actually a combination of a keyboard called a Kerzweil, which was a very expensive piece of kit that they had in the studio, and Adam playing a couple of runs with his cello on top, to give it a realistic edge – the growl of the string. And he did a couple of different octaves. That’s how it sounds so big.”

“We thought we were the best band in the world”

Like The Cutter before it, The Killing Moon vaulted into the UK Top 10, en route to being hailed as Ocean Rain’s – and the band’s – artistic high-water mark. “I thought it was a great song. But you can’t see into the future,” Sergeant says. “It’s become synonymous with us. It’s almost like the only thing we’ve ever done.”

Though, amid line-up changes and hiatuses, Echo And The Bunnymen have since recorded over twice as many albums, it’s their first four records, from the early 80s, that fans keep returning to. “It’s the original line-up, isn’t it?” Sergeant says by way of explanation.

“If you’re all playing together in the studio, and you’ve got the sound right, there’s like another element that joins in,” he says of the music they captured during this period. “You can’t quite put your finger on it… it’s like trying to get to the end of a rainbow or something.” Reflecting on the group’s legacy, Sergeant adds, “It was like our backs were against the wall, with our bayonets sticking out. We always thought we were the best band in the world.”

Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain have been reissued in coloured-vinyl variants.

Buy the exclusive 4LP bundle at the Dig store!

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