Ian McCulloch

Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen | Interview

ICONIC indie band Echo & The Bunnymen are back sounding like they never before and will be playing Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on Monday 15 October. Their new album – The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon– sees the Liverpool legends reinterpreting 13 of their most beloved songs from their back catalogue with ‘strings and things’. Neil Collins chats with singer Ian McCulloch about his latest masterpiece and four decades of the Bunnymen, plus his mutual respect for the Manics and his thoughts on Noel Gallagher’s comments about Liverpool FC fans…

The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon tour starts in Dublin on 12 October before heading across Europe and then onto USA throughout November and December. I’m guessing preparations are in full swing? 

Ian McCulloch: Yes, I’m doing lots of promo at the moment, and it’s been fantastic. It’s been the best I can ever remember, and it seems people are really up for the record. Across the board it’s been great – in Europe, in Britain, and I’m going to America before the tour starts to do some promo over there as well, so I’ve actually really enjoyed it. I usually do with promo, but sometimes I find myself get a cob on with someone – usually a foreign interviewer who’s limited in his English – that can drive me around the bend, but I’ve been patient on this one.

What have the summer gigs been like including the Royal Albert Hall and at Bristol Harbour where you played with The Jesus & Mary Chain and Peter Hook & The Light?

Ian McCulloch: The Royal Albert Hall was fantastic. I liked the Bristol one, but the atmosphere was a little bit strange. We’re not the sort of band that tries to entertain particularly other than doing the songs as well as we do, and I never try to mollycoddle audiences. But it just seemed a bit flat, maybe because where it was in the open air and it maybe had been a bit of a long day by the time we got on. But the Royal Albert Hall – since Sinatra died, that’s my gaff! We’ve never done a bad gig there. We’ve never done anything less than a great one to be honest.

Do you think a bit of the atmosphere is lost to the surroundings at these outdoor gigs?

Ian McCulloch: I think that can happen sometimes. People are so used to festivals now and love seeing bands in one go. I’ve always thought of festivals as a necessary evil and I’ve never really enjoyed them. Having said that, we did a festival recently in Margate with The Libertines, and that was fantastic. There are festivals I do love especially at night-time. The Bristol one was at night, which was why it was surprising that there wasn’t more atmosphere, but sometimes it can be the city. I think in Bristol we’ve always had – not a tough time of it – but it’s never been the most rapturous of receptions. I think it’s just a case of capturing the right venue though because the previous indoor gigs at Bristol Academy were great.

Your slot at Victorious Festival in Portsmouth a couple of years ago before Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds headline set was good though…

Ian McCulloch: Yeah, that was fantastic again. It’s funny with Noel because he came to see us backstage at the Royal Albert Hall as he asked us to do a Teenage Cancer Trust gig with him, and he said “I don’t know where I’ve been the last 20 years, but you were absolutely unbelievable!” He was never a Bunnymen fan before, but since then he has been and at Portsmouth too he said “That was incredible!” I would understand someone that busy maybe missing us, but it’s nice to have that Scouse-Mancunian rivalry.

He has taken the mick out of Liverpool fans recently though by saying they get too carried away and compared them to the Queen Mother in thinking that everyone loves them.

Ian McCulloch: The Queen Mother?! Well, I’m into the Monarchy and I’m one of the few in music to admit that I’m glad we have them.

He’s got a few Scousers in his band, so I was think he was ribbing them more than anything…

Ian McCulloch: Of course! The bassist – the Scouse lad from The Zutons – is incredible. I watched them at Portsmouth and thought “God, he’s got it bang together”.

I wouldn’t say we (Liverpool) are entitled to success, but I think it’s around the corner anyway. We don’t have to be scared of anyone, and we’re breathing down Man City’s neck. It’s impossible for them to have the same kind of season as last year, and I don’t think they’ll do too well in the Champions League either – it’s going to take them season after season getting used to it.

I think Liverpool can challenge on all fronts. The league is within our grasp, and we’re leading it while not even playing well. People are focusing on us beating City twice, but I think it’s more important to beat Man United. You’ve got to get ahead of them to win anything and they’re still the team that sticks in our craw. I think as long as we don’t drop points against whoever is top, it’s fine to be just behind them and then we can go full throttle after Christmas.

You’re returning to Cardiff on Monday 15 October at St David’s Hall. What are your memories of playing the Welsh capital over the years?

Ian McCulloch: I thought the last gig we played there at Cardiff Uni was great. I just remember thinking “This is much better” because it wasn’t always a safe gig. But I’m glad Wales is on the tour because every holiday I ever had as a kid was in Wales – usually days out in North Wales.

My favourite memory of Cardiff was spending a day or two with the Manics when we recorded Some Kind of Nothingness. I had a great time, the hotel was great and I loved driving into Cardiff past the Castle. We had got just over the Severn Bridge, and I was sitting down with my manager at the time and I just thought “Wow, this isn’t the Cardiff I remember!” The first time we went there, we hadn’t seen the centre or any of the stuff that’s there now and it’s been completely done up like a posh city. I’m not saying that in a bad way, but it looked lovely. I never went to any of the Liverpool finals in Cardiff as I was always away, but it really impressed me. I’m hoping to have a day off in Cardiff, and it would be great to catch up with the Manics.

Have you read the piece Nicky Wire recently wrote on the Bunnymen?

Ian McCulloch:  It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I thought I had Nicky Wire’s number, but it must be on an old phone, but I’ll find a way of getting in touch. He really gets into the essence of why the Bunnymen are so special, and it puts us in the right context in that we had this “otherness” that separated us from everyone else. I thought the way he described us was just beautiful. The whole piece was bang on, and was certainly how I would’ve written it.

Echo & The Bunnymen was the first gig some of the Manics went to at Bristol’s Colston Hall back in the 80s, and there’s a pic of you signing an autograph for James Dean Bradfield! Were they pinching themselves to have you in the studio performing with them?

Ian McCulloch: Maybe a bit, but we had met up with each before and I can be funny rather than what my public image might be, and they knew my funny side. There was an element of that, but I was really made up that they asked for me. It was kind of a mutual appreciation thing. I threw in a few Bowie impressions…I’m doing a Morgan Freeman one at the moment too! I’ve been pretty good impressions since I was a kid. I think my first one was Elvis actually.

Did you know that Nicky Wire actually ground a tooth out of his head getting the arrangements for Some Kind of Nothingness exactly right?

Ian McCulloch: (laughs) Oh bloody hell, I didn’t know that.

How has the new album The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon been received by the critics so far?

Ian McCulloch: As far as I’m aware, it’s been brilliant across the board for the first time in ages. There have been a lot of congratulations, but when someone from France says “This is a masterpiece”, you kind of go “Bloody hell, no one from France has said that in a long time!”

I feel like I’ve definitely produced something properly. I was so focused on every second of every day and my days were longer than most as I had to take care of everything and not just the bits I was doing. We were recording in a gaff near Henley – it’s like a little, wooden hut more than anything, but you can sleep in there. It’s fairly OK accommodation, very primitive. So I go to my room – the only one with a lockable door – the rest of the people have to sleep in a dormitory thing, it’s proper Dad’s Army! And I would go in there and just listen non-stop and check and re-check that everything was sounding how I heard it in my head.

I sent mixes of it to my wife Lorraine and although we’re not together any more, we’re still very close and I value her opinion. From the earliest stages, she said “What the hell is going on here?! Your voice is off the charts!” She knows my voice – not better than me – but better than most. Some people may say “It’s not like the old days”, but I didn’t sing it like the old days. I don’t like listening to that voice, it doesn’t ring true to me. The early stuff is fantastic, but some of these songs are 40 years old, and they need to have changed a bit. Just for me. I’m the one who sings these songs, and no one else.

I knew I had to put an angle on them, and bring them – not so much up-to-date because I think our stuff doesn’t age generally – but to bring the voice and the lyrics out. I think with bands, lyrics can often be overlooked and people get used to the sound of a group, but my lyrics are there to grow with me and the audience. A song like Rescue, which I wrote when I was 19, I haven’t strayed too far from. I just put some more funky things in there, which I thought it never had. I don’t think the actual groove of the song was ever used enough, it was all stop and start on the first one.

The critics have singled out some songs which I didn’t think they would like Zimbo as being their favourite on the album, which is weird as I had imagined someone saying “How dare he take the drums out!” I had to take the drums out as it was Pete de Freitas (former drummer who died in a motorcycle crash in 1989). Fair enough getting someone to do it live, but there was no way I was going to get someone to commit Pete’s part to record.

But if The Killing Moon is the greatest song ever written, and Ocean Rain the greatest album ever made, then how do you improve on perfection with the new versions of the classics on this album?

Ian McCulloch: I didn’t say they were perfect, I said they were the greatest, but if you’re saying they’re perfection… I mis-said something where I said I wanted to make them better, but it’s more that I wanted to make them different and equally iconic. The critics seem to think that I’ve got it right. But there was a version of The Killing Moon before the one people know on the John Peel Session, and maybe someone thought “I preferred the version on the Peel Session”, so I’m like “There you go!” And then we did the released version, there would’ve been a complainer then. So if I would’ve gone into this album thinking there were going to be moaners – and there’s bound to be somewhere – I tend of think “Go and write your own songs, and see what you think of them in 40 years’ time!”

All of these experts and judges…I never go on social media because it’s boring to me and I’m not going to take any opinions on there that seriously because I’ve got to please myself. But one person out there will get it like I do. My whole purpose is to be in someone’s heart and soul.

I saw these comments a while back where this guy on the net thought that The Killing Moon was “muzak”, and I wanted to find out who this idiot was and get him to tell me what he knows about music, as he obviously knows a lot more about it than me! And what exactly is it about The Killing Moonis muzak?! How can a lyric like that ever fit with muzak?!

Was it a difficult process choosing which songs from your vast back catalogue that went onto the album?

Ian McCulloch: No. It was based largely on the live set, which varies from tour to tour. But the staple songs remain the same and because I’ve sung them so often over the years, they’re the ones I know and which ones I think lyrically are the better songs. It came about very quickly in its conception as well. Whatever I do in life is very much based on instinct. I wanted to do All That Jazz, but then thought that’s been done thousands and thousands of times. I still wanted to get in a couple off Crocodilesthough because they’re the older songs.

There’s two new tracks on there called The Somnambulist and How Far? Talk us through those…

Ian McCulloch:  Yeah, now we’re talking! They’re brilliant especially The Somnambulist, and I think in 40 years’ time people will really see that. We’ve done an edited version of it, which will be coming out at some point and to me the edit is more definitive. I love it, I wish we had thought of it before the album. Having said that the longer version is great too, and I thought the song entered us in to another part of where the Bunnymen reside. It felt holy. With the choppy guitars, it felt like that period when Bowie ruled the planet in ’72. It felt like I had Mick Ronson playing with me! It went through me like a déjà vu thing of when I was listening to Bowie as a kid.

Lyrically, it was about me at that time when I used to sleepwalk a lot probably from the age of 8-12. I’d have these out of body experiences, which I never told anyone about because I didn’t understand them. But they used to happen pretty frequently and they were magical moments in my life, and as soon as they stopped happening I really missed them. They felt really dangerous as well though. There were split seconds where it felt like my soul had left my body. Then I would be back and it was like “Jeez, that was the best feeling!” I was too young to know, but it was as equally beautiful as scary. It would be nice to actually find out what it was.

Your music always feels so haunting, magical and mysterious. Would you agree that your songs lend themselves easily to the string treatment?

Ian McCulloch: Yeah, I think strings have always suited us. We’ve used strings since The Back of Love, which was the third album where we used them quite attacking and almost punky. Then we moved onto using them in a more beautiful kind of way. We’ve never been afraid of strings. We never purposely make it sound lush, it’s just that it fits.

For someone who oozes so much confidence, were you always certain that the Bunnymen would return to the same positive reaction amid Britpop, and with one of your finest works ever in Evergreen?

Ian McCulloch: Yes. I knew Nothing Lasts Forever was the most important song I ever wrote. I wrote it when I was solo and I sat on it for a while, but I didn’t just leave it. Around the time of Candleland, I came up with that chord sequence and a little idea of the melody lines. I read that Leonard Cohen said that if a song takes 10 years to write, it takes that long. I knew I had this classic that was already there and everyone who heard it at the time said straight away “That’s the single!”

There was a chance we may not have been accepted the same, but I think if you put out a great song; it connects. I’ve always had that confidence in the Bunnymen – solo, not so much.

The music press famously labelled you ‘Mac the Mouth’ due to your outspoken comments. Was that something that annoyed you, or did you embrace it?

Ian McCulloch: I remember Muhammad Ali was referred to as the ‘Louisville Lip’ when I was a kid, so I would rather have been the ‘Liverpool Lip’ than ‘Mac the Mouth!’ I suppose some of it was justified at the time, but a lot of it was tongue in cheek and when you’re talking to a reporter with a Liverpool accent; they get it and you get it because you’ve got a smile on your face.

A lot of it was so Scouse, and that’s how we talked whether it was with friends or foes. I’ve got a season ticket at Liverpool, and you just get used to it – the “We’re the greatest team in Europe” kind of thing. So I set out like that because I thought I was in a footy team as much as a band, and I’d say that everyone else was crap, blah-de-blah. Occasionally I would say some little minnow from Glasgow – in a different league to us – was pretty good, or say something nice about an American band like REM with Automatic for the People, which I loved. I never thought of ‘Mac the Mouth’ as a nasty title. I think it was complimentary if anything because I was noticed. It never bothered me because loads of people say nothing, and I was opinionated. In my lyrics though, people can hear a good song and that says more than anything else.

Echo & The Bunnymen celebrate their 40thanniversary this year. Did you ever think you would still be here as good as ever after all these years?

Ian McCulloch: I never thought it would be anything else. There’s no other option and there never was. On the actual 40thanniversary, we’ve got a gig in Toronto that’s been sold out for a while. Hopefully, we’ve got the day off after so we can get bladdered.



Echo and the Bunnymen play St David’s Hall in Cardiff on October 15th.

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Neil Collins is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.