An 'echo' from the past

Echo and the Bunnymen arrive in Israel with a dose of nostalgia.

echo bunnymen  88 298 (photo credit: )
echo bunnymen 88 298
(photo credit: )
The news that '80s British icons Echo and the Bunnymen are coming to Israel may fill some with images of Brat Pack smugness, adolescent coming of age love/lust stories, and bad haircuts, but the post-punk psychedelic hipsters were always much more about substance than style. While their odd name and liberal use of synthesizers might have lumped them into a lightweight category, their music was always much darker, intense and rocking. The band, led by enigmatic rooster-haired singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant, regularly made the Top 10 in their native land, but were mainly underground cult heroes in the US, where they were often mentioned in the same breath as prototype indie favorites The Smiths and REM. In fact, recalls Sergeant, it was only at the tail end of the Liverpool group's first incarnation in the late '80s - after their song "Bring on the Dancing Horses" was used in the film Pretty in Pink - that they began to break the American mainstream. "When that happened, and we started to become big in America, 14-year- old girls started turning up at the shows and screaming. I thought 'What's going on?" Sergeant said in a phone interview ahead of the group's maiden appearances in the country - March 7 and 8 at Zappa in Tel Aviv. "It just sort of happened - I wasn't like Ian thinking 'I'm going to be on top of the pops and want to be a star' - I never thought about that, there was no grand plan." The Bunnymen grew out a late-'70s trio featuring McCulloch, Pete Wylie, and Julian Cope. Cope and Wylie went on to form '80s groups The Teardrop Explodes and Wah!, respectively, and McCulloch met Sergeant. The pair began recording demos with the use of a drum machine, which was often credited with giving the band their name. "Yeah, that story is rubbish," Sergeant told a British magazine. "We used to tell the press we got the name [echo] from the drum machine, but that was just to shut people up, you know? We just wanted a name that was completely different, and Echo was just a word we liked." After replacing "Mr. Echo" with a live drummer (Pete De Freitas) as well as a bass player, (Les Pattinson) the band rode the momentum of punk's final morph into post-punk, creating sparkling, guitar-driven music. While they kept gaining in popularity, the bubble burst in 1989, exacerbated when De Freitas died in a car accident, and McCulloch released a solo album. Through the 90s, McCulloch and Sergeant collaborated sporadically, but finally decided to reform Echo in 1997. And surprisingly enough, their latter day albums - including 2005's Siberia - have been ranked among their very best, an achievement Sergeant attributes to experience. "Basically, it's quality control. There's so many ideas that arise when we get together - there's enough good ones to make an album's worth. Plus the albums are not so frequent - usually four years apart, so it's never been a problem. It's gratifying to have our work well received, but of course I've never read any of the reviews," he said with a laugh. The reformed Echo has now been around even longer than the original incarnation, and Sergeant gets reflective when contrasting the two versions. "It's slightly different - it's not like when we started. Back then it was like we were a gang taking on the world. There's no longer that feeling, and I miss it a little bit," he said. "We don't really have regular people playing in the band - the drummer comes and goes, we have a different bass player now than the one on Siberia - who left to move to London. We accept that, that's the way it is, but I do miss that gang mentality. But then again, it'd be a bit odd being in a gang, and going on 50, wouldn't it?" About the only constant in the Echo recipe is the partnership of McCulloch and Sergeant - as distinctive in their own way as Morrissey and Marr, or Gallagher and Gallagher. After a 25-year 'marriage', is there more tension than friendship? "There's a bit of weirdness that goes on here and there. It's mostly instinctive though - You know when he's pissed off at me about something, and he knows when I am towards him. We sense the vibes," said Sergeant. "But it's ok - we don't hang out or anything, It's mainly a working relationship. We still write together, either he'll come in with an idea or I will, or sometimes we'll just sit down together on acoustic guitars and invent things." Another aspect of the "old days" Sergeant is wistful for is the slower-paced buildup artists were afforded by both record companies and the public. "We sort of grew organically. Nowadays, that couldn't happen. Labels give bands one album to prove themselves and then dump them if they don't sell," he said. "Back then, there was more of a commitment to the long range - they'd stick with you for a few albums and help you build, like a grass roots thing. Today, if you're not instantly successful, like the Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand, they don't want to stick with you." Since they're not shooting for the pop charts anymore, Sergeant doesn't worry anymore whether the band's music is commercial. But he feels that Echo's dense style is hinted at in a myriad of current favorites - an occurrence he doesn't engender an resentment. "I think you can hear us in people like Coldplay and even U2. There's a different voice, but musically it's quite similar, isn't it? Basically, it's a rock band with simple guitar hooks."