How Echo and the Bunnymens went from post-punk beginners to masters of orchestral pop rock
Echo and the Bunnymen, pictured above, arrive in Cambridge
It took only four years for Echo and the Bunnymen to grow from early post-punk beginners to purveyors of complex orchestral pop rock masterpieces.
It’s a journey that is recounted in the Liverpool legends’ first four albums – Crocodiles, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine and Ocean Rain – which will be reissued on vinyl on October 22.
And it was a journey that took place at such a speed that it even surprised the band’s guitarist, Will Sergeant.
“It was a rapid development to not really be able to play guitar with all of us being good at our individual songs,” said Sgt.
The “all of us” in question were the sergeant, singer Ian McCulloch, drummer Pete De Freitas and bassist Les Pattinson – the cool quartet as you love it behind the distinctive sound of The Bunnymen.
“Pete De Freitas was an incredible drummer,” continued the sergeant, “very expressive and would take him somewhere else. He would use the drums as a musical instrument more than just to keep the beat.
“I think we’ve become more confident. The more you do, the more you learn and the more you realize what can be done in the studios.
“We’ve always loved Scott Walker and Love, people like that who used strings and other instruments – flutes and the like.
“So we wanted to try something like that to go further.”
There was no big plan, however, said the sergeant.
“It was a natural thing – for me anyway,” he explained. “I didn’t think we would do this and then make this album.
“You just make adjustments and see how it goes. And they all integrated well.
“What you are listening to at that moment influences and filters you. You are not trying to scam it, it just tracks what you are doing one way or another.
“I really like The Doors. And their perspective on dynamics would come into play.
“At the time, I didn’t know what the dynamics were! I just thought it was good when you got a little loud and then it got quiet.
“I didn’t know at the time that it was called dynamics, but that’s what we all were – it wasn’t like the Ramones who just started and everything was on one level throughout.”
Most of the songs from these first four albums are rightly considered classics and remain favorites of the Bunnymen live set – as fans will attest at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire on February 19 during their tour under the Banner Celebrating 40 Years of Magical Songs. .
Among these is The Killing Moon, one of their greatest hits and often touted by McCulloch as “the greatest song ever written”. The sergeant wouldn’t disagree either.
“I can’t think of better ones,” he said. “It was great to record it too. We did a lot of interesting things on the recording of that one – reverse reverb, studio techniques that I didn’t know how to do but that the recording engineer and producer knew.
“I did an autoharp thing. I bought this autoharp – it’s a triangular shaped thing and it has about fifty strings and you press those keys on the top and it dampens any strings that are not relevant to that chord and you strum on it – jumped, jumped! It’s a cheap way to do a hard burst and I used it.
“We used reverse reverb, which is a technical term for when you flip the tape and put reverb on the sound. When you go back, the reverb is before the sound, not after, so it fades – zhiiiinng!
“It’s really hard to do it on a computer – you can’t really do it, it’s too inconvenient. You can invert sounds, move them and place them.
Sergeant’s guitar intro for the song is instantly recognizable – but it was completely unintentional.
“We were getting ready to do a backing track and I had my 12-string box, a brand new guitar that I had bought,” he explained.
“It was a 60’s guitar – I haven’t had it for a long time so I used it a lot because that’s what happens, you buy a new guitar and you start using it until another one comes up and you think ‘I like this one now’.
“I was in the studio in Bath and we were wading around, just checking to make sure it was right, then we all went out for our dinner at the curry house around the corner.
“We went back to the studio, David Lord, who was the producer, said, ‘I found this little track on the backing track and made this little intro – see what you think.
“Even that wasn’t an easy thing to do because we would have had to copy that little passage of notes onto another tape and then send it to the multitrack. You couldn’t just move it around like you can now on a computer – it was all precision.
“When we heard it we thought it was great. Problem was, it was a disposable little thing and I had to remember how I did it!
“I think I might have it around now!” But it was a hard thing to learn because it was just a stupid little thing that I did. It was a happy accident.
“It happens all the time. Sometimes when you put down guitars there are other things that creep in that you can’t really put your finger on.
“I know Pete Townshend talked about it. It all sounds good, but when you put it all together there’s a fifth element in there – it’s all connected and there’s this overflow of ethereal weirdness and you don’t know where it’s coming from.
With the exception of a short period in the mid-1990s, the Bunnymen continued to write, record, and entertain audiences indoors and at festivals.
The upcoming tour – inevitably delayed due to Covid – is a celebration of that.
“It has been incredible,” said Sgt. “It’s a dream come true. I didn’t even know I had this dream at the time, that was the problem!
“I was a little miserable when everything was going, maybe I was trying to be too super cool?” So cool half the time I didn’t like it. I liked it but I couldn’t take a step back and think “wow, we are in Japan, here”.
“I have been around the world several times, but before the Bunnymen I had only been to Wales for a few days – it was a holiday from hell, I was in a caravan with my grand- mother. It was horrible and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
He’s had ups and downs, of course. De Freitas tragically died in a motorcycle accident, Pattinson left in 1998 and even McCulloch left the group.
“Life is like that,” thought the sergeant. “There are no roads that are too smooth. Even the Queen, God bless her, has had a rocky path. You would think she would have the smoothest road of the lot.
Now, with the wheels of the entertainment industry turning again after the peak of the pandemic, that road will hopefully get a little smoother.
However, the sergeant admits he’s a little nervous about playing live again after so long.
“We’ll have to have a good week of rehearsals,” he said, “my fingers are dead soft now because I didn’t play.
“So there’s a bit of trepidation there – can I remember all the songs?” You have like a map in your head and sometimes you forget where you left off.
“I’ve done this a few times – you sort of pull away and think it is, I have this complicated part coming up now!
“Most of the time, when you think about it too much, it’s when there is a problem. Much of it is muscle memory. You let your fingers walk.
“What’s good about the Bunnymen is that we have a few songs where we can go completely off the map and go on one – it’s the buzz on stage and an interesting thing because you never know what. what will happen.
“We have kind of a base for all of this, but we can drift around a bit with Do It Clean and Lips Like Sugar – it can sound pretty trippy and I like it.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time you play the right notes. If I play a note that is out of tune, I play it back to give the impression that I intended to do so! It’s like someone stumbles across the street when you’re a kid – ‘I wanted to do this, what are you looking at?’ “
And there is one thing in particular that the sergeant is looking forward to.
“I like the crowd,” he said. “I know it’s cheesy and cheesy, but the crowd is what makes it for me – seeing the crowd walking in. And the more they get into it, the more it really nourishes you.
“If we slip into something we’ve never done before, a new sound or try something different with a guitar that works, that’s great.
“It’s power. I play my records loud but it’s not like when you crack into an E chord and have the amps behind you with distortion or whatever, it fills you with power. You feel like Zeus!
For more information or to purchase the reissued vinyls, click here.
For tour tickets, click here.
SCheck out the latest news, information, conversations and more, all tailored to your neighborhood, in your InYourArea live stream here.