Echo and the Bunnymen: ‘We weren’t a fluffy pop band’

They are four prime examples of British post-punk yet for years, Echo and the Bunnymen’s albums Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain have been unavailable in the format in which they were originally released.

Echo and the Bunnymen

Now at last the quartet have finally been re-released on vinyl – and the band’s guitarist Will Sergeant says he is “made up” about it.

“We’ve been going on about it for years, why aren’t the records on vinyl,” says the 63-year-old. “You see all these other bands from that period, they’ve all got the vinyl out and you think why haven’t [Warners] got it together and put it out. They’ve done it now.”

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The Bunnymen’s fondness for psychedelia, The Doors and Captain Beefheart distinguished them from many of their post-punk contemporaries. So too did Sergeant’s unabashed love of progressive rock. “I know it was hip to say, ‘I was never into Emerson Lake and Palmer’ or whatever, but when I was 14, I was, so tough,” he says. “It was tied in with my youth and growing up. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, they were the underground bands at the time. They sold millions but everything sold millions. They were the freaks that were into that stuff, the outsiders.

“It was only later on when punk came along and said, ‘Oh no, we don’t want that any more, they can play too good’ and then they all denied that they were ever into them in the first place. That’s a load of rubbish, that’s all there was about or Mud or Showaddywaddy. What are you going to choose: The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Showaddywaddy? And you’re the one that unhip? Sorry.”

By the time the Bunnymen made Crocodiles Pete de Freitas had joined the band, replacing their drum machine. Sergeant believes his arrival brought a “totally” new dynamic to their sound. “We had a drum machine up until then that would just tick away. We couldn’t programme it or change the beat mid-song, there was no ebb and flow or quiet and loud bits. It was great, I loved the drum machine stuff, I was into Eno and all this sort of stuff, Kraftwerk, and was aware of drum machines, but when Pete came along, it was like it had gone from black-and-white to colour, it was a completely different kettle of fish.

“You could have takedown sections, intros with drums. A drummer is like somebody with a map for the song as well. There’s like little signals all the time that a drummer is doing, you can’t get lost, it’s like having a sat nav, so it was great that sort of side of it, and he was such a powerful drummer as well.

“We’d seen Gary Dwyer drumming in The Teardrop Explodes and Stephen Morris in Joy Division and a few other people, but we didn’t really know much about drummers. I was focused in on guitars anyway. It’s only when you get rehearsing that you realise how important a drummer is. Look at all the accolades that Charlie Watts has just got. There was nothing flash about Charlie, but it was solid and it was pure and it was necessary what he did. They’re a massive part of a band and it was great that they can put their own character into the songs, like Charlie and Pete de Freitas and Keith Moon did.”

Crocodiles was largely produced by Dave Balfe and Bill Drummond. Sergeant says: “They were just more vibe merchants than anything else. I don’t think they knew a lot about producing, they knew when they liked it and when they didn’t like it. Balfey was always trying to get in on it, going ‘I’ll put a keyboard on that’, and we were always arguing with him. I went for a meal with Balfey the other week and he’s all right but at the time he was annoying, trying to make it more poppy than we wanted it to be.”

The Bunnymen’s second album, Heaven Up Here, carried them into the top ten and they started making inroads into the US market too. Sergeant, however, takes issue with singer Ian McCulloch’s assertion that the album was more the guitarist’s record than his own. “Mac always says that, but you know what he’s really saying there? He’s saying that ‘all the rest of them are mine’ and that’s bulls*** because they were all all of us,” he says. “I used to be confused by that comment. I thought ‘what are you talking about – as though I had nothing to do with the others, are you kidding?’ It’s a clever psychological stab.”

A melancholy record, the journalist Simon Reynolds observed that compared to Joy Division’s Closer, which came out in the same year, it “turned its face to the light”. Sergeant is less sure its tone is ultimately optimistic, adding: “I never thought about us against anybody else. I like music and I like other bands, but I don’t see it as like a competition, there’s plenty of space for everybody.”

Their third album Porcupine proved a difficult record to make. Sergeant says the issue was “more the label didn’t like what we’d done” than any inter-band fractiousness. “They made us go in (to the studio) and do more, remix stuff and all that, and it was annoying because you’ve spent ages and you think this is the way it should be and then they go, ‘we don’t like that, can you go in and do it again?’

“It was us that was paying for it, at the end of the day. You don’t think about it at the time, it’s only later on when you realise you still owe the record label loads of money.”

Relations with Warners didn’t even improve when the band wrote the standout single The Cutter. “They didn’t like that either,” Sergeant says. “Bill Drummond went in again and mixed it on the sly and put these horrible trumpets on it. They were like keyboard trumpets and I was really p***ed off. Now it all seems so petty but at the time you’re very precious. It’s like Picasso doing a painting and somebody coming along and saying ‘what about a bit of white here?’ or ‘that face looks a bit odd, can you make it smile?’ It really p***ed me off that sort of interference, but it happened a bit.”

Released in 1984, the band’s fourth album Ocean Rain is regarded as their magnum opus. Sergeant says he was keen for it to be more musically expansive than its predecessors. “Me and Les had just been to Russia on holiday and that influenced us quite a lot,” he says. “We were in the studio in Paris and they had a load of really old-fashioned keyboards like a celeste and a piano that had drawing pins in the beater that gave it a crisp, prangy kind of sound, like a Western bar kind of thing or a Mrs Mills knees up. We used all those sort of things in the background with guitars.

“The fact that we were in a foreign country as well, we did everything differently. They had this amazing plate reverb, it was a great big wooden box in the basement and everything could be sent through this and sounded amazing. It just made it sound like one of the Scott Walker records, it was really warm reverb. We didn’t mix it there because there wasn’t enough tracks to record the reverb. What they do sometimes if there’s a spare track they’ll record the sound of the reverb just on its own and you can have it in the mix wherever you want it. It actually sounded better for me when we were in Paris, but it’s still great.”

At the time the album was marketed as ‘the greatest album ever made’. Sergeant quips that he “didn’t disbelieve” such hyperbole. “Things are claimed about all products, what does it matter?” he says. “It’s not like (claiming) we were bigger than God.”

Having revisited the albums for a series of Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Parties, Sergeant says he found his perspective on them had changed “a little bit”.

“I was very pleased with them,” he says. “At the time when you’re doing them there might be a little guitar thing that really annoys you or you do something and it sounds not quite right, some little stupid niggly thing and it’s all you can hear when you’re in the studio listening to it. After 20-odd years you’ve forgotten about all those things and then you just listen to it as a record, a piece of art, it’s kind of refreshing. I was really chuffed with how they sounded. There were a lot of little sounds in the background that I’d forgotten about.

“Those listening parties are great. When you used to buy records years ago, when you were 133 or 14, you’d go round your mate’s house, have a cup of tea and listen to Foxtrot or something by Pink Floyd and you’d listen to the whole thing. You were there just to listen to the record and that was what it was all about. It doesn’t seem to be like that now, there’s no communal listening or if there is, it’s just on in the background. People listen now on headphones on trains and skip from track to track or album to album on Spotify. They’re missing out on (the fact that) a lot of records were made to be listened to whole. That’s what’s great about the vinyl revolution, people are listening to the full record again. The bad thing is when you do sit down and play a whole record, there might be tracks you don’t like but after a while you get used to them. The old saying was ‘it’s a grower’, everything doesn’t have to be instant.”

Sergeant’s memoir Bunnyman has been one of this year’s most acclaimed music books. Writing the book made him look at his youth through “different eyes”, he says. “At the time, I was probably a bit of an obnoxious cretin. I’d argue over things that now when I’m looking back I think what was I arguing about? But to me it was (important), and I think that’s what made us what we were. We weren’t a fluffy pop band that would go along and do anything. I hated doing Top of the Pops. One time I didn’t go, somebody had to take my place and pretend they were me. It wasn’t all about being on Top of the Pops for me, it was more the creative side of it, making things that were interesting or being involved in something that was good, and I wanted it to last the test of time. I didn’t want it to be some throwaway pop stuff, which it isn’t.

“There are songs on (the albums) which you’d call pop songs but they’re on their own terms. The Cutter’s got mad bits. Back of Love has got a weird bit in the middle where it drops down and there’s all kinds of mad noises. We had those whirly things that you swirl around your head – that noise. We found a load of them in the studio and were twirling them round. It wasn’t even the right note but it sort of fitted in a chaotic way. I love things that aren’t the usual. I don’t want things to be what you expect.”

Next year the Bunnymen embark on a UK tour. Sergeant admits to “being a bit scared” by the prospect. “We haven’t played since 2019, so it’s a bit of a daunting thing,” he says. “My fingers are all dead soft from not playing the guitar. It takes a while for it to stop hurting. It’s also remembering where all the effects go in each song. But I’m sure after a while it will be all right.”

Echo and the Bunnymen play at Sheffield City Hall on February 1, 2022 and Leeds O2 Academy on February 2.