LOS ANGELES—In the early days, if you played well it was just sheer luck." Ian McCulloch, a.k.a. Mac, lead singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter for Echo and the Bunnymen, is reminiscing about the group's ancient history over his second tequila and orange juice at a Sunset Strip restaurant. Drummer Pete De Freitas is wolfing down a dessert waffle as he listens in.
We won people over on charm more than anything else," McCulloch continues. "We were three naive, innocent-looking chumps from Liverpool with a drum machine, and people felt sorry for us."
There's little reason to feel sorry for the Bunnymen these days. For one thing, the drum machine – jocularly dubbed "Echo" – is gone, having been replaced by De Freitas in late 1979. For another, the Mersey-side quartet has become one of the most formidable and critically acclaimed English bands.
Their first album, Crocodiles, released in the U.S. in January by Sire, won raves from the English and American press. Their second, Heaven Up Here, issued here in late June, delivers a further refinement of the group's unique style – a fusion of the somber themes and taut rhythms of English postpunk with the sound of such late-Sixties American units as the Doors and the Velvet Underground. And their recent first American tour has won them the adulation of new fans.
McCulloch formed the Bunnymen in October 1978 in Liverpool, a seaport that hasn't witnessed such a burst of musical activity since the Beatles era. One early jam-session group, the Crucial Three, united McCulloch with Julian Cope, leader of the Teardrop Explodes, and Pete Wylie, today head of the band Wah! Heat. Mac was also a short-lived member of the original Teardrop lineup. "It wasn't a proper group," he explains, "until I got kicked out. I just didn't turn up for the rehearsals."
On the rebound, McCulloch found a perfect collaborator in lead guitarist Will Sergeant, a Doors fan and lover of musical "weirdness." "With the Teardrops, there were so many egos knocking around; everybody wanted to be number one," McCulloch says. "When I met Will, I felt I didn't have to be nervous or embarrassed about singing or playing guitar."
After six weeks of rehearsals, McCulloch and Sergeant were invited to open for the Teardrop Explodes at a private party. They borrowed a keyboard player and decided to use the drum machine, but were still without a bassist until the Sunday before the show, when Sergeant's school friend Les Pattinson entered the picture.
"I arrived late to rehearsal as usual," McCulloch recalls. "Les had given Will a lift, and he had a bass guitar that he'd bought that morning. I admired his cheek, really." The band, with Pattinson, made its debut that Wednesday, playing a fifteen-minute version of "Monkeys."
Within months, word got around Liverpool about "this stupid group that had the nerve to go onstage without being able to play," McCulloch says. Among, those impressed were Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe of Zoo Records, which subsequently released a haunting, acoustic-tinged Bunnymen single called "Pictures on My Wall" in March 1979. To the band's surprise, the record was named Single of the Week in two English music papers. "I expected it to be ignored," Mac confesses. "All of a sudden the press thought we were this new-sounding group like no one else around."
When Crocodiles was issued in Britain last year (on Korova Records, a company founded by Sire chief Seymour Stein and Rob Dickens, a Warner Bros, executive), some members of the press tagged its potent yet suggestive sound "neopsychedelic," a label the band is somewhat disturbed by. "The majority of the music press that has mentioned psychedelia has said that we're not psychedelic," De Freitas says. "But the more people mention it, even if they're saying we're not, the greater our reputation for being psychedelic gets." What do they call it, then? "Boony music," McCulloch replies. "It's all you can say."
Although their music has gotten stronger and more technically involved, the Bunnymen still proudly assert their status as beginners.
"We're still babies," McCulloch says. "We haven't used up all our ideas. We're not that competent yet. And that's good."
This story is from the July 9th, 1981 issue of Rolling Stone.