- 01 Nov 18
Post-punk icon Ian McCulloch on reworking Echo & The Bunnymen’s biggest hits, hanging out with Phil Lynott back in the day, and why he’s finally developed an appreciation of U2 – sort of.
Echo & The Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch is pondering the evils of social media, one of many topics on which he has a robust opinion.
“My favourite was ‘Ian McCulloch is just a gay Stevie Wonder wannabe’,” he says. “I thought – what’s wrong with that?! He could be accused of racism, blindism and gayism that fella! So yeah, I’m standing up for the gay Stevie Wonder wannabes.
“Everyone is an expert on everyone else now,” he continues. “I don’t even know what the sod I am about, which I like. I’m still thinking, ‘What the sod I am doing?’”
The purpose of our conversation – which veers delightfully off course at several junctures – is the release of The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, a reimagining of the Bunnymen’s greatest hits plus two new tracks. The concept on paper is a cause for concern, but the songs sound vital and different, whilst still being true to their original selves – mostly due to McCulloch’s wizened vocals, which invest tracks like ‘Rust’ with a sage maturity.
“I produced the record, so it’s largely me that dictated it,” explains McCulloch. “Not like a dictator, but I saw what I wanted to do and it was very easy as well. People were concerned. Like, our manager who is a great friend of mine said, ‘I was worried for ya, but when I heard it – bloody hell! You’ve nailed it.’ It seems to have stirred people’s interests.”
The vocals on the originals were of particular concern to Mac. “They sound posh! I know that sounds weird, but all the time I was trying to sing like Bowie, so that’s probably what it was. A lot of people used to say that I had one of the best voices going. I was really looking forward to doing ‘Killing Moon’ and ‘Ocean Rain’, which I did in one or two takes. It was always generally the first take that was the one.” Reworking originals is heresy for some fans – was he worried about a backlash?
“If I had have been thinking about them I would have never done anything,” he scoffs. “There are probably some people who think the original ‘Monkeys’ is the only good thing we ever did. There will be those sort of fans, but like I have said, I am the biggest fan of all – so I’m not likely to go and ruin things. Picasso and all those dudes did loads of different versions over several years of ‘Nude In Blue’ or ‘Clothed Person In Red’ or whatever. I am not a great student of the history of art, but when I did it for my A-levels, I don’t remember remember critics saying, ‘I’m a Picasso fan, but I think it’s crap now – he should have given it up when he was 20.’”
Appreciation for Bunnymen’s current collection was reflected in the speed at which their recent Dublin show sold out. The knockout performance was emotional not only for the audience but for Mac, who was visibly moved when the crowd joined in for every word of ‘The Cutter’ and ‘The Killing Moon’.
“I’ve lots of great memories of playing here,” he enthuses. “We did three McGonagle’s shows back to back in about ’81. Phil Lynott turned up and brought me out on the town with him! He was about ten foot tall and most of that was his head! He was just brilliant, he was a bloke with so much charm. I think he had just been a judge at the Miss Ireland competition or something. So I’m tagging along behind him totally out of my depth. I’m usually confident walking in places but not that night! It was like, ‘Fucking ‘ell! He’s a proper one him!’”
Talking of all things Irish, Mac is known for putting the boot into Bono, but has softened his approach in recent times.
“It was always tongue-in-cheek what I was saying and how I was saying it,” he concedes. “I’ve stopped being embarrassed for him now, I just laugh at him… He knows well what he’s doing. They have written some fantastic songs, ‘One’ being their best. He can belt it out and he has a great sense of melody.”
“I don’t know what happened to born again Christianity, I think it died again. They used that for their own ends cleverly in America. If you say you’re into god, all of the mid-west are going to tag along. And I’m sure they’re not arsed about what I’m saying, they live in a different world really. But Adam Clayton’s bass playing is fucking brilliant.”
Didn’t he wear an Echo & The Bunnymen t-shirt at some point on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour?
“Yeah! In Germany,” says McCulloch. “Well, he’s the coolest one, he always has been. But whenever they mention us, it is always in very glowing terms.”
Mac has on several occasions compared himself and his trusty foil Will Sergeant to Burton and Taylor. So who is Liz and who’s Richard and why? “Well, I’m both really,” he says. “In terms of physiognomy, I think there is a lot of Liz Taylor in me, but I’m more like Richard Burton as a character. (Affects deep Welsh accent) ‘Well now boyo!’ They were fantastic, she got married to everyone she met I think. Richard Burton was amazing and she was lovely until she started eating Michael Jackson’s leftovers.”
McCulloch & Sergeant’s creative magic is evident on the album’s two new offerings, ‘The Somnambulist’ and ‘How Far?’ Lyrically, the latter quite literally aims for altitude – ‘We’re adrift / We’re astronauts looking for heaven’”.
“Yeah, that’s my favourite lyric on the whole album I think,” says Ian. “It’s a song I am singing to god in a way. I am asking him what the marks are out of ten so far and that. Will had a piece of music and I added the vocal line and the choppy guitars. I actually listened to T-Rex yesterday and thought, ‘That’s the guitar I used – I unwittingly ripped off T-Rex!’ “It has an atmosphere that makes me feel close to Bowie. I used to try and sing like him, sit the way he sat, stand the way he stood. He changed everything, he changed the sodding plane. You can see him everywhere. People started looking different, men started to look more feminine. It was him, it wasn’t Elton John stomping around singing ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Sodding Fighting’.”
And what about ‘The Somnambulist’?
“Well said! Peasy my manager can’t say it. He says ‘SalmonImpissed’ or something that sounds like a French starter. It’s about me, I used to sleepwalk a lot about the age of 5 or 6, and then I started having out of body experiences. It would be a split-second thing. The first lyric I got was the chorus lyric. I like playing on words and making a riddle, not a riddle, an anti-riddle.
“I do live a lot of my time on my own, in my own head and I like that. If anyone comes around I want them to sod off within about two minutes. They can do my shopping though, that would be handy – and I always try to make them laugh. I’m usually on a different level, because I’ve been on my tod probably talking to myself – even the radiators react to my wit.” A new album of original Bunnymen material is imminent, and Mac is as enthused as ever when quizzed on the topic, citing new wave and early Bunnymen as stylistic influences.
“The new songs are like strange pop and I always thought pop was great, T-Rex, Bowie and that. I mentioned ‘Crocodiles’ and ‘Heaven Up Here’ as the songs are kind of rhythmic, spikier than we’ve been for a long time. The Talking Heads reference… I learnt a lot off David Byrne and Lou Reed, all that chopping, I love that kind of rhythm guitar. I’m really excited about this one. We got signed to BMG on the basis of the new songs.”
And as for an album mission statement? Mac’s got it covered.
“The new album is more coming out of the trenches bayonetting every fucker,” he says. “I’m wearing a fantastic suit of armour with spikes coming out of it all over the place. I don’t need a horse for this, I’m just jousting standing up.
“It’s me about telling people to piss off – not only people around me, but you know the person who thinks they are an expert on everything and knows nothing… who are these fuckers?! Especially online with these pseudonyms and aliases, like I’m the London Valley Fucking Lancer – no you’re not. It’s really some sod called called Simon.”
The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon is out now on BMG.