In conversation with Will Sergeant of Echo & the Bunnymen

Formed in Liverpool in 1978, Echo and the Bunnymen remain one of the most recognisable and influential names in British indie and post-punk music. Originally part of Liverpool’s thriving underground post-punk scene, performing at the legendary Eric’s Club alongside the likes of OMD and The Teardrop Explodes, among countless others, the group went on to achieve mainstream success with 3 top ten hits during the 1980s. 

Now, over 40 years later, the band are reissuing their first 4 albums (Crocodiles (1980), Heaven Up Here (1981), Porcupine (1983) and Ocean Rain (1984)) on heavyweight black vinyl along with some limited-edition coloured vinyl versions. In addition to the reissues, the group are touring the UK in 2022 and are set to play Leeds O2 Academy on the 2nd February. 

The Gryphon spoke to guitarist Will Sergeant about the early days of Echo and the Bunnymen, the music that transformed them from an obscure indie secret to a household name,  as well as how it feels to perform those classic songs 40 years later.

The 63-year-old guitarist said of the reissued albums, “I always wanted them to become classic records, up there with The Kinks or Love or The Velvets [The Velvet Underground] – people just generally have them in their record collection”. As previously mentioned, the first Bunnymen album came out over 40 years ago, when asked whether he thought, upon helping to create these now classic albums, that they would still be being listened to four decades later, Sergeant replied, “I think when you’re doing anything you think it’s the most important thing in the world – creatively, artistically. That’s the way I used to think, like we were the centre of the universe.”, he laughed, “We’d get a little mention in the NME and I’d think ‘we are the most important band in the world ever’. That’s the way you have to think about it, otherwise what’s the point in doing it?”. Given the popularity and influence of Echo and the Bunnymen in the early 1980s, he was not far wrong. 

The blossoming scene of indie music in the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw hundreds of new bands and independent labels springing up all over the country. As Will remembers, “Punk rock started that whole indie thing on a major scale, there were always small labels, but they were always trying to be in the charts. Punk opened it up to be really experimental so it kind of just blew the doors open. All of a sudden you didn’t need all these major labels; you could actually do it yourself.”. Like many bands during this period, Echo and the Bunnymen released their first single ‘The Pictures on My Wall’ (1979) through an independent label: Zoo Records. 

Many indie labels came and went throughout the 70s and 80s, but only a handful reached such a legendary status as Zoo. The label was set up by David Balfe (who later created Food Records, the label which released the majority of Blur’s discography) and Bill Drummond (most notable as being one half of The KLF) after their band, Big In Japan, had split up in 1978. “It’s the beginning, isn’t it?”, Sergeant said of the importance of independent labels, 

“Bands that are straight away on big labels are always a bit cheesy. You’ve got to start off and grow your own little vibe with your mates and people that find out about you on the grapevine and all that stuff. It’s always the best way, you end up with a more solid following later on. I think that’s what has kept us going – a lot of people that still come to see us now, saw us at Eric’s or saw us on our very first tours during the drum machine year [in lieu of a drummer, the Bunnymen used a drum machine in the early days].”. Sergeant continued, “It’s a good foundation to have a start on an indie label, and later on if you get anywhere them records can become highly sought after even if they’re crap. Look at Joy Division – I remember going into Penny Lane Records in Liverpool and they had a rack full of ‘An Ideal For Living’, they couldn’t get rid of them! Now they go for a fortune.”, at the time of writing there are 3 copies of An Ideal For Living for sale on the online record buying platform Discogs, all priced above £4000. 

The album reissues on exclusive coloured vinyl. Photo: Ian Cheek Press

Ultimately, though, Zoo Records was fairly short-lived, “it was becoming a bit tiresome, running up and down the country with boxes of records in the back of Balfey’s car”. So, the Bunnymen ended up signing for Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, “It was led by Bill Drummond really, he’d sort of sidestepped into management. He managed us and The Teardrop Explodes and sort of got us a deal with Warner.”. Despite being signed to Warner, Echo and the Bunnymen’s records were released under the ‘Korova’ imprint (named after the Korova Milk Bar featured in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), “they’d sort of invented us this label called ‘Korova’ which was kind of cool, we didn’t really want ‘Warner Brothers’ written all over everything, so it added a bit of mystique to it, you know?”. There is often a fear of ‘selling out’ within the independent music scene; even The Clash were branded ‘sell-outs’ when they signed to CBS Records in 1977, some even saw it as the death of punk [see the lyrics to ‘Punk is Dead’ by Crass], but the Bunnymen did not see it this way: “A lot of these indie labels do go through major labels anyway, so we just sort of went along with it really, didn’t really think about it. At the time it just felt like the next logical step.”. 

Echo and the Bunnymen are, after a covid-enduced delay, set to embark on a tour of the UK and Ireland in February of 2022. As the only constant member of the Bunnymen, when asked about how it felt to still be playing these songs live Sergeant joked, “We’re probably a bit more confident – well I am, you’d think I would be after this long. It’s great. There’s nothing better than playing live, that’s the best thing about the band. Seeing the crowd’s reaction, it’s the best. Some crowds are better than others, obviously, some try and be too cool. Barrowland in Glasgow is the best place to play, I love it there.”.

Echo and the Bunnymen will visit the O2 Academy Leeds on the 2nd February, tickets are available via the O2 Academy website.