Echo and the Bunnymen
An interview with Ian McCulloch
by Chris Adams
The scene: The Paramount Hotel in midtown Manhattan, May 16th, a day before Echo and the Bunnymen‘s first of two low-key shows at the Mercury Lounge, 3PM. After a five-hour journey by train from Boston, a cab ride to Queens to drop off my bag of crap for the weekend, and a cab ride back into the city, during which the driver gets hopelessly lost (how can you not find Manhattan?), I stumble semi-dazed into the lobby of the hotel, virtually walk into a remarkably alert-looking Bobby Gillespie (of Primal Scream), and place a call to Island Records to confirm that I’ve arrived for my scheduled interview with Ian McCulloch. Moments later, Heinz, half of the Bunnymen’s ace management team and all-around great guy, emerges from the elevator, greets me warmly, and sets me up at a table in the mezzanine overlooking the tastefully lit ultra-modern lobby. We shoot the shit for a few minutes, I hand him an article I’ve written on the Bunnymen reformation, and he heads off to get Mac, who’s been imprisoned in his hotel room all day, fielding phone interviews from journalists all over the globe. A few moments later, Heinz returns and hey, there’s Mac, looking every inch the rock ‘n’ roll icon he’s meant to be. Where a lotta bands these days look worse than your average road crew (hello, Mansun!), Mac knows his role, and dresses accordingly. Today he’s decked out in an electric-turquoise button-down, a long dark blue double-breasted navy coat, black pinstripe trousers, and football (soccer, whatever) boots. Top that off with a pair of groovy rectangular shades and a thatch of studiously-tousled hair and voila! – instant bohemian royalty. Even better, Mac’s in a good mood. The last time we’d spoken, about ten months previously in Boston, Mac seemed exhausted and vaguely bewildered, even resigned – and hours later, Electrafixion played what turned out to be their very last show. Today, however, he’s all handshakes and wisecracks, easy with a laugh and brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. A million writers have written this a million times, but let me be among the first to mean it: Mac’s back. And this time around, he knows it. Greetings are exchanged, and drinks are ordered. Mac goes with a Chardonnay, I order a Beaujolais Nouveau – or, as Mac observes, “a Beaujolais not-very-nouveau – it’s out of season” – and we settle down to the business at hand.
Let’s start with the obvious: Just a couple days ago, at the Courtyard of Cream, was the first time you, Les, and Will have played in almost ten years – how’d it go?
As the Bunnymen, yeah. And it was a total thrill, a big success. (Peers down into lobby) Is that Les down there?
I don’t think so. But I saw Bobby Gillespie just a few minutes ago.
Yeah, we saw ’em last night – I think they’re going home today. Last night when we checked in Mani (Scream bassist, formerly of the Stone Roses) gave a big “Ian McCulloch! Ian McCulloch!” And that’s been happening a lot lately. People I’ve never really met are like “Aww…the Bunnymen…” It’s weird. That, combined with knowing that the record’s right, and everyone else thinks that something’s happening… it’s kind of like having a seal of approval. These people that were obviously fans somewhere, and are now really into it (the “reunion”)… it’s good. And also, I’m looking the part, y’know?
In terms of looking…
(Matter-of-factly) Like a dude! But Cream, yeah, it was great… and I know it’s gonna improve by like a hundred… well, twenty percent. But the really good moments were brilliant, and it was like a special atmosphere, like the unique band that we always were. I mean, it’s in the music, y’know? It’s not just because onstage I’ve got stage presence – that’s part of it, because a lot of people are used to seeing “the boy next door” giving it would-be singing – but it’s because the music has got a real magic to it. There’s almost a threat, cos it’s so soddin’ cool and out there. Even with simple songs like “Rescue,” we just have this edge – which is kind of an overused description – but it’s got sumthin’ that’s so unique it’s threatening. It does surprise people when they see a band like the Bunnymen. It’s different, y’know? It’s not just “rock and roll.” On things like “Forgiven” it’s important that you hear that it’s real, y’know? And that matters, when lyrically, it’s possibly the best thing I’ve ever written.
It’s certainly one of the most intimate things you’ve ever written – especially those last four lines. It’s like the most legitimately personal Bunnymen ballad, whereas say “Ocean Rain” was more metaphysical, it could apply to anyone or anything, not just… you know… “the many moods of Ian McCulloch..”
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. I definitely wanted to get away from metaphysical stuff. When someone called me the “master metaphysician” of rock and roll, I loved it, at the time – even though I didn’t know what the sod it meant! But at the same time it made me think that maybe I could get away with not really expressing meself. I mean, I love all that kind of stuff, that cryptic quality, and I still have that, but I’ve tempered it a little bit. Since Candleland I’ve started writing less cryptically, and that is what I think is best about this record. To me, that’s what separates us from the past.
What’s the consensus of the whole band about the new album?
We love it. We think, as a collection of really good songs, it’s our best album. I think it’s obvious that it’s the strongest songwriting… whether it’s got a “Killing Moon,” I dunno. Somebody said to me the other day “The Killing Moon” is so hard to top, and I said “I know it is!”- it’s the best song of the eighties, and one of the best songs of all time, I think. But our place in time is forever – we don’t belong in a decade. But sometimes you do have to qualify what you say by placing it in a certain time. When I first came up with “Forgiven,” Will said “This is better than `The Killing Moon.'” And it will be, to some people, but…
It’s all subjective.
Exactly. Everything is subjective when you’re at the mercy of public taste, a taste that’s dictated to you by the NME or whatever. It’s all kinda mad, but this time around I’ve been aware of that, and I’ve tried to just write simple songs and see them through. There’s more chords floating around on this album than any other Bunnymen album, which should appeal to the people who never really rated us as proper songwriters – which baffled me, completely. What do you think of the album?
It’s the first Bunnymen album that works as a body of finely crafted pop songs, whereas a lot of, say,Heaven Up Here or Porcupine are built as much on intangibles like vibe and atmosphere as anything else. Like, I love “Over the Wall,” but if you stripped it down to just acoustic guitars, it wouldn’t work as a song.
Yeah, nine out of twelve of these songs were written on acoustic guitars. “Too Young To Kneel” – I had that chord sequence for soddin’ ages. They were written on a settee in my living room, while the telly was on, and I just worked at them. I kept them simple, but knew that if I took things off certain chords, it would sound different and go with the melody line better. Just things like that, where in the past I probably would’ve been (laconically) “D-G-A – sounds fantastic, we’re the Bunnymen…” Now, those little things do enhance what you’re doing, and it keeps me interested, cos I am still very primitive when it comes to playing. I’m a good rhythm guitar player, but there’s things I refused to learn when we were doing our thing early on – I’d think “Oh, sod it, Lou wouldn’t bother”- but Lou did bother. So this time, I just thought “these are my songs, I wanna make them differently.” And I think that, without being “muso,” it’s more care for the songs, instead of just thinking “I’ll make do with this” which happened on Mysterio. I mean, there’s some great songs – “Heaven’s Gate” I think’s fantastic – but there were others where I’d make some lyrics up in three minutes that were just kind of weird or interesting. I know now that I was kidding meself. And that’s what I did for the first four Bunnymen albums… even when I was writing shit… some of it is shit, I mean, I listen back to it and think “what the fuck were you soddin’ on about?” – but I got away with it because I cared about it. I’d listen back to it and think I’d found the soddin’ hidden meaning to some dark area in people’s souls. By the fifth album, like “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” – I wrote that lyric in about two minutes, and I knew it was probably… genius. And Jake Brockman and I drove back to the studio, to do the b-sides, and he says to me “those lyrics are shite.” And I said, “those are the best lyrics I’ve ever written” and I explained every word to him. I made this shit up on the spot that all related. I knew he’d be a sucker for some political meaning behind the song, so I related “buffalo and bison” to red Indians, and… I kinda forget what it was, but I made it up very quickly. But really, I was stuck, and I just thought “buffalo” – there’s a real good animal name. As you know, I’m a fan of animal names, if not animals themselves – unless they’re on a plate.
I have a question about one of the lyrics on “Too Young To Kneel” which I can’t make out. It goes… “can your touch/turn me gold…” Next line: what is that you’re saying?
“Make my glitter shine.”
Oh… I thought it said “bladder.” You can understand my confusion.
(Laughs) Yeah, that whole song… it’s probably the one I’m least happy with lyrically. I think they’re really good lyrics, but maybe there’s not enough twists in ’em. But I like the purity of it. The last bit’s fantastic – “One more question answered/ In the falling stars/I heard they found/death on Mars.” “Death On Mars” – That was nearly the album title. There was this big news, and all the scientists were getting really pleased with themselves cos they’d found that rock, and that proved that there had been life on Mars, and I thought, all they found is death on Mars. A lot of this album is about the transience of everything… “Nothing Lasts Forever” in particular… “I want it now” is the key line of the album, in a way. I don’t want a fossil to prove that I walked here, or that soddin’ apemen walked here. History’s got its place, but it’s generally within history. I’m against the whole nostalgia thing… I’m not nostalgic about the Bunnymen in 1983 – it was great, you know? I had a great time but I feel I’m a dude, still – I’m a different kind of dude. And I write better lyrics, probably. That “death on Mars” was just a kind of little tongue-in-cheek, but deep, observation.
Once in an interview you said that “we are Bunnymen, and you don’t come across a Bunnyman every day.” So my question is “what’s a Bunnyman?”
I was talking shite! (laughter) Nawww… actually, I thought of another title for this piece that’s coming up in the NME… “The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Bunnymen Empire,” sumthin’ like that y’know, so they don’t just go “Liam Hops To It” or whatever. A Bunnyman … it can be a state of mind. It was just my way of saying that we were a different breed, that it wasn’t just a rock and roll group… it was about something more.
How’s things with Mike Lee working out? Is he gonna be the permanent drummer, or will his commitments to Page and Plant make that impossible?
He’s fantastic. And thankfully, they (Page and Plant) can afford to take their time writing and recording, and with soddin’ Genius (indicates Paul Toogood, Bunnymen manager and dead-ringer for early ’60s Elvis, who’s just stopped by) managing us, everything’s great – I think it’s gonna work out. Paul knows the Zep people anyway. I know Robert Plant, a little. He phoned up, day one in the studio, and said “have a great one, he’s a great drummer” – dead nice.
Wasn’t Plant a Bunnymen fan?
He was, yeah, which was, for Will, obviously, a great thrill. For me… some Zep stuff’s fantastic, but there’s a lot that just isn’t my thing. But I love the fact that Robert Plant loves us. I mean, musically, we were not comparable at all, but they did do their own thing, and they looked like dudes, y’know? They were separate from Deep Purp. In the same way that Deep Purp were the U2, Led Zep were the Bunnymen. At least they had their own sense of cred, and were, obviously, great musicians.
Yeah, and there was something exotic about some of their stuff, like “Kashmir” or whatever. Speaking of which, you were just filming a video in Morocco, weren’t ya?
Yeah, and some photos for the album cover. Norman Watson did ’em – he’s fantastic. What I didn’t want is glam photos of me looking great. That was tried. Paul and I agreed that, when it comes to certain types of advertising, like billboards or whatever, then that works, and it worked when I was solo. But the whole reason this (the Bunnymen) is working is because I’m now back in the right context, as part of one of the best bands of all time, and not just a pretty face on a cover, cos that did me no favors. I think people are suspicious of someone looking like a dude, y’know? People look at Morrissey and think “oh, he’s not too good-lookin’ – he must be a good lyric writer.” “Sheila Take a Bow” – what the sod is that about?
It’s just something for shut-ins in damp bedsits to analyze into the ground, presumably…
Yeah, and never get around to shaggin’ anyone, which is one of the basic things in life. But it’s dudes who look like me who are heftin’! I’ve got no time for that soddin’ camp shite! I mean, I’ll do the androgyne with the best of ’em, but even that’s a thing of the past – I like being a dude, y’know? This isn’t anti-gay or anything, but I do want people to know that the sexuality I use is for the girls out there. I mean, they can look, but no touching, cos me wife is fantastic.
All in all, you seem pretty happy with the way everything’s going, both professionally and personally.
Yeah, it’s good. I’m learning where I wanna go. Whereas two years ago, I was just givin’ in to soddin’ existential shite in me own head, thinking “I don’t give a crap about any of this,” y’know “I don’t want a nice settee, I don’t want a nice garden, I couldn’t give a crap…” Because of my surroundings and everything I just thought I was becoming part of the ether, and that’s where I belonged. It was all a load of bollocks, fueled by not enough sleep, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, every soddin’ time for five years. And now I’m in the right place and it’s like… alright! And I’m gonna make the most of it. I’m not gonna put meself through the same shite. I wanna do four Bunnymen albums, and sod Vegas. I dunno what I’ll do after that, but… I’ll be people’s mate, and be a great guy! But now it’s like “Where are you now/we’re over here/it may be hell down there/cos it’s heaven up here.”