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As the story goes, Echo & The Bunnymen formed in Liverpool in 1978, consisting of vocalist and rhythm guitarist Ian McCulloch, lead guitarist Will Sergeant, and Les Pattinson on bass. Shortly after, Pete De Freitas found himself as the drummer for the Bunnymen. Not many bands could celebrate forty years of their music – they’ve broken the mould not merely by existing or surviving, but by thriving.
Like many others, after first hearing Echo and The Bunnymen on The Pretty In Pink soundtrack, their track ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ quickly found itself on repeat. “We didn’t have to do any negotiating to push it,” starts Will Sergeant. “I think it was John Hughes, who just wanted songs of the day. We were doing alright in America. Obviously, The Psychedelic Furs are on there. He must’ve liked that sort of stuff coming out of Britain. He just picked that song because he liked it. We didn’t have much to do with it, we just agreed for him to use it. Generally, you get through the thing saying, ‘Are we okay to use this track?’ We always generally go, ‘Yeah.’ The same thing happened with Donnie Darko, just a small film at the time. It’s good for us and it’s good for them as well.”
Naturally, Sergeant’s influences have changed over time. “I think at the very beginning, where I was more into bands like The Fall and a lot of American bands like Television, Talking Heads, and people like that. Now, I’ve [collected] a lot more records over the years, I’ve got a much wider scope of things that I can be influenced by. But when you’re doing songs, you don’t really think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be influenced by Led Zeppelin.’ It just comes out of the ends of your fingers and you start going with [it].
“A couple of notes sound good together and you just keep going with it. I think everything influences you. Even things that are bad because it influences you to stay away. If you start doing something that starts sounding like something that you hate, ‘Ah, I’m not going down that road.’ I’ve got so many records that I’ve listened to over the years. It’s all just in there like this big soup and different flavours come out of it.”
Not unlike many other music lovers, Sergeant has his favourite records which he always plays. He still loves the early David Bowie ones, The Doors, Velvet Underground, Mogwai, and Kraftwerk. “I’d say probably the most treasured one is Ziggy Stardust, signed by Bowie.”
As for how he got them signed, that’s a story in itself. “Well, he actually signed 50 records for me. We were doing a gig with him. We did like six shows with him in France. We were a support band as well as Placebo. I just took all of these Bowie records together in a big box. 15 singles and 35 albums and he signed every one. One of them was bootleg, he signed them all.”
Sergeant reminisces about the time his hand stopped working when he first met Bowie. “He was a really nice fella. I wasn’t big mates with him but I spoke to him a couple of times. I spilled my drink all over him and, honestly, [it was] so funny. I had a glass of lager. We’d done our gig and he came back to our dressing room and he was just like, ‘Hello, well done’ or whatever. I opened the door and Bowie was [standing] there, I was a massive Bowie fan. My hand just stopped functioning and then the glass dropped on the floor. It smashed and all the lager splattered up his purple jumpsuit. He had no shoes on because he was about to go on stage and I was like, ‘F***ing hell’. He hurried off down the corridor. I saw him the next day and said, ‘I’m sorry for spilling all my ale down you.’ ‘I never noticed a thing,’ he said. He was dead sound.”
Discussing his favourite venues, Sergeant tells us he’s always enjoyed playing The Barrowlands in Glasgow. Although, he astutely notes that it’s always the crowd that does it for him. “If the crowd [is] into it, you’re into it. It spurs you on to do more. They feed off you and you feed off that. It’s a corny thing to say but it’s true. I think all the Barrowlands gigs that we did in Glasgow are pretty special to me.”
The band is getting ready for their forthcoming Spring tour next year and naturally, their fanbase has changed over time in a way you might expect. “They’ve got older,” says Sergeant, jokingly. He adds: “There’s still [younger] people that come but it’s generally older people. That’s what they were into. I still like records that I liked when I was 16/17/18, I still play them. It’s part of your story and your history, don’t change it.”
In the 1980s Sergeant was known to use a black Fender Telecaster and Fender Jaguar. He doesn’t have a favourite guitar nowadays: “I’ve got too many guitars. I need to get rid of some of them. You end up getting given them for free. Every guitar has its own characteristics and they’re all useful. I haven’t really got one that I stick to or pick as my favourite. I’ve got one guitar that’s probably the best guitar I’ve got. It’s actually a Gretsch Country Gentleman 1963. That’s a really good guitar. I don’t even know where it is. I think it might be downstairs in my little studio.”
While on the topic of studios, they still record a lot at Henley-on-Thames. He says, “There’s a studio there called The Doghouse. We go wherever. In the beginning we did a lot of recording at Rockfield Studios in Wales. We loved it there. And then we did it in Paris because we were trying to get a more European vibe. It was an old traditional studio called Les Studios des Dames. It was a proper old school place, it was a bit like the BBC in the 50s or something.
“Kind of like an institutional vibe. Amazing, really old-fashioned equipment, all that old stuff that has valves and tubes on it as well. Super collectible now. The new stuff doesn’t sound as good. Even though it’s better technology, it still doesn’t sound as good as valves. The things with valves sound better, warmer. They’ve got what they call headroom. You don’t really have headroom on digital recording and [if you] play it too loud, it just sounds crap. With a valve, it can squash the sound and make it so it doesn’t distort. Or if it does distort, it’s a nice warm distortion.”
The band is re-releasing their first four albums, Crocodiles (1980), Heaven Up Here (1981), Porcupine (1983), and Ocean Rain (1984), on vinyl on the 22nd of October. Their debut Crocodiles was described at the time by NME as “probably the best album this year by a British band”. It broke into the Top 20 Album charts and is still widely regarded as one of the finest debuts ever created. Their sophomore album Heaven Up Here won the 1981 NME Best Album award and a place in the Top 10 album charts. Their third album, Porcupine marked their best chart performance. It reached #2 in the album charts and went to be certified gold. Their fourth album Ocean Rain, was recorded in Liverpool and Paris and featured a 35-piece orchestra featuring award-winning composer Adam Peters scoring the strings. The albums are each available as standard 180g black vinyl as well as special edition coloured vinyl.
“They were out on vinyl when they came out. They have been released on vinyl [with] special booklets with lines and notes that I wrote. This is the first time [the record label] have thought, ‘Wait a minute, vinyl is selling, let’s try and sell the Bunnymen records’. It’s good, I’m a big vinyl fan. When you’ve bought a vinyl, you feel like you’ve bought something. If it’s an mp3 or you’ve downloaded something online, what have you got if your phone falls down the toilet? It’ll be on the Cloud, it’s not the same where you show it to your mates and go, ‘Look at the colour on this.’”
Sergeant may not have had a say in what colours the re-released vinyls were made, however, the important factor is that the vinyls are now more readily available for others to enjoy. He says, “They just decided to do it. When you have a contract with a big label like that, it’s what you do. You want them to sell the records, not have them hidden away. I want them to be available.”
With the newly released vinyl coming out in October, Sergeant has gained a new appreciation for each album after not listening to them for a while. “I used to always say, Heaven Up Here [was my favourite]. But I’ve done some of those listening parties, a Tim Burgess thing. I did the first four albums. I haven’t played them for years. You don’t sit at home playing your own records. I never do that. Once you come out of the studio, you’ve heard them over five million times and you’re fed up [with them]. You need a big chunk of space between listening to it again. When you’re recording, there’s always something that annoys you. ‘I wish that guitar was a bit louder’, or ‘I didn’t like the sound of that guitar’. But if you have a huge space, like twenty years, you’ve forgotten all about those and you just see it as a whole.
“When I played the full records, I thought Porcupine was really good. It was dead interesting and had a lot of really good sounds on. I think the first four are all great in their own way. I’m not just saying that to try and flog them. That was because I hadn’t heard them for ages and then when I played them, I was pleased with what we sounded like, ‘God yeah, I remember doing that sound’ or ‘I remember Pete playing that thing’. It’s great, it was a real trip down memory lane. I like them all and don’t have a favourite out of those four.”
For their upcoming tour, Sergeant does have a track he’s particularly looking forward to playing on his forthcoming tour. “I always like doing ‘Over The Wall’, it’s got a few bits where I can kick-off. I like the ones that we play where we don’t have to stick to the path. Don’t have to stick to the script and we can change it a little bit.”
As for which song is his personal favourite where he gets to change the script, he immediately has one in mind. “There’s a song, ‘Do It Clean’, where we have dropped down sections where we can wig out or whatever. I like that a lot because you never know what’s going to happen. ‘Lips Like Sugar’, it’s on the fifth album, that live is much better than the record. I really like playing that one live. We generally do that one as an encore, near the end of the set. It can last twenty minutes.”
When a band is as influential as Echo & The Bunnymen are, it’s only natural that other artists will recognise that. Various bands from The Killers to The Foo Fighters to Arcade Fire have all cited them as an influence, with The Killers even covering ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’ at the Liverpool Echo Arena in 2012.
When asked if there have been any unexpected fans of his music, he says: “I like Nouvelle Vague. They normally do slightly jazzy, samba-styled versions of your songs. They’ve done a few of ours. I was quite pleased that [they did] it as I like their stuff anyway. The Killers; I didn’t know that they did like us.”
Pointing towards the future, the band still has plenty of cards up their sleeves. “We’ve got a tour in February, starting with Sheffield. We’ll take it from there. We started doing a new record but I’m not sure where we’re at with it with all the Covid stuff. It’s been on hold for a while because when things get shelved for a bit, they become a bit difficult to get back into. There’s also some stuff in America coming up but we’re not sure whether you can still go to America.”
Tickets for their forthcoming tour are available here and you can pre-order the re-releases here.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN UK Spring Tour Dates
Tue 01 SHEFFIELD City Hall
Wed 02 LEEDS O2 Academy
Fri 04 BOURNEMOUTH O2 Academy
Sat 05 CARDIFF St David’s Hall
Mon 07 LONDON Roundhouse
Wed 09 DUBLIN Olympia Theatre
Fri 11 NORWICH UEA
Sat 12 GATESHEAD Sage
Mon 14 LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Wed 16 MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Thu 17 NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Sat 19 CAMBRIDGE Corn Exchange
Sun 20 BRISTOL O2 Academy
Tue 22 LONDON O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Wed 23 NORTHAMPTON Derngate
Fri 25 MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Sat 26 BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy
Mon 28 GLASGOW Barrowland
Tue 01 GLASGOW Barrowland
Wed 06 BEXHILL De La Warr Pavilion