Big mouth, bigger heart: Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen on mystery, challenging fans, Bowie and Bono
Peter Ormerod talks to Ian McCulloch ahead of his shows at Warwick Arts Centre and in Northampton
There are a few seconds when Ian McCulloch falls silent. They come when he performs an impression of Charlie Chaplin.
“Good, isn’t it?,” he says, before resuming what passes for normal service.
Speaking to the man known for nigh on 40 years as Mac the Mouth is an intoxicating experience. Conversation swerves and dips and soars. Wit and witticisms abound. But what becomes clear is that however big his mouth his, his heart is even bigger.
McCulloch is the frontman of Echo and the Bunnymen. They were at the forefront of the early-’80s post-punk scene, making music that for all its grandeur and majesty carried a rare emotional intimacy. Their biggest hits - the likes of The Cutter, Seven Seas, The Killing Moon and Nothing Lasts Forever - married bite and edge with an unashamed warmth and beauty. “We were the band that fellers who liked footy could cry to without feeling they were soppy,” says McCulloch. “And those fellers who went to the footy, that was all the throng they needed - when they got home, they wanted us. Not platitudinous stuff.”
Echo and the Bunnymen are soon to be performing in Northampton and at Warwick Arts Centre. But don’t expect a mere nostalgia-fest. Their latest album, The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, due out on October 5, features reworkings of some of their most beloved material. Some are embellishments, fleshings-out; others are rather more radical. The tunes and lyrics are intact, but the worlds they inhabit are often strikingly different.
“I was on a mission - getting that thing back, the raison d’etre,” says McCulloch. “Sometimes you can convince yourself ‘yeah, that’s good enough’, but it isn’t.
“Some people say that this music the background to their life. And I say to them it’s the background of my life and the foreground of my life. Maybe I can lead them down the garden path or take them on a different walk or journey. I wasn’t at all worried about it - I thought ‘I know these songs’.
“I wanted to hear them differently, and I knew I could sing them differently. It wasn’t necessarily about making them better - I want to hear them in a way that I want to hear them now. And also to be more brittle - my voice is more exposed. I didn’t like my posh voice when I did it - I cringe when I hear it. It was me trying to be David Bowie but sounding like Roger Moore.”And McCulloch has little time for those he considers unnecessarily puritanical about the band’s work.
“We were never a band that said ‘please like us or love us’,” he says. “They should know that. People think I’m contrary, but I’m not. I’m just trying to get this setlist right so we all enjoy those moments of pure mystery and magic that very few bands can be or ever could be, and that’s why we’re here - not just to rock out.
“If anyone loves or knows the Bunnymen inside out, it’s me, and I wouldn’t do it to let anyone down or the band down. It’s to see if we can get that thing that belongs somewhere out of our reach, that just hovers. And I’ve had so many of those moments playing live with the Bunnymen that I kind know you don’t get that if you don’t try.”
But this being McCulloch, the ridiculous is never far from the sublime. In an hour of conversation, a cast of characters ranging from Cary Grant to Debbie McGee make cameo appearances. Proceedings end with an enthusiastic rendition of Little Dwarf, a delightfully crude ditty he wrote in Brazil.
Down to earth, yet reaching for the heavens: the sound may have changed, but the Bunnymen are still the Bunnymen.
* Here are a few other highlights of the conversation, which began with a 15-minute discussion about David Bowie's hair...
"When the punk thing happened, I always wanted a Bowie haircut - a Ziggy one, not an Aladdin Sane mullet. He's the only dude in the history of time who could get away with a mullet.
"With the Thin White Duke, all it was was that you'd comb your hair back. I never dyed it - I'd have become too close to being a Bowie parodist. That was before I actually became one professionally.
"He's the man - that amount of great hairdos and looks and face that launched a lot more than a thousand ships. Coming from a 1969 curly-haird beatnik type thing - he looked weird, not in a good way. He looked like Bamber Gascoigne's son.
"The best look ever was Thomas Jerome Newton. That donkey jacket probably cost Â£2,000. He could wear anything. The look of him in that was beautiful. It was stunning - I remember going to see that and then getting a donkey jacket and walked over from Eric's every night in the wind, trying to get the wind to catch it every night like his, giving it the whole 'I'm an alien'. The influence he had - I was a footy lad really but I was quite androgynous, so he helped me out big time.
"He made some mistakes and some real bad mistakes but four or five of the most iconically beautiful looks ever."
McCulloch on...revisiting The Killing Moon, which he believes is the greatest song ever written:
"I know why The Killing Moon is different - because I know what that moon is now. It's not Neil Armstrong's moon. The Killing Moon is mine. So if anyone says 'you shouldn't have done that', they're telling the person who actually owns the Killing Moon and has actually stood on it that I can't do it any way I want. When I heard the backing track I thought 'that's it, I'm on the moon, alone, no rocket ships, and I'm singing to someone else - I am the moon'.
"I attach so much importance to that song - I describe it as the greatest song ever written, because it's more than a song. It means more. It's like a spiritual song from outer space. That's how it felt writing it - it wasn't a dream, I just woke up like someone had jolted me from wherever, in the heavens or the back end of the universe, to go 'wake up and write this'. I never get up out of bed straight away if I can help it. I realised I had to go round five times from G to C minor in the chorus and we never did that with the Bunnymen - it was two, four or eight. It wasn't necessarily divine intervention - I think it came from the moon."
McCulloch on...the response from audiences:
"Judging by the reactions, we might do two Killing Moons and bookend the set, and I'm not sure which way round it'll be. You have to judge it by the audience - you need to have Shaqiri or Firmino. If they look at you like you've just invented striptease, it's either a good thing or not, but it's similar in that you're exposed. It's why I like seated venues - now you can't just hide. And also now, you're forced to listen - not just to the sound, but to the meaning of these songs. These aren't anthems that everyone can chant along to - we couldn't write an anthem in a million years, because it involves having to think like an audience or a throng. Most national anthems are rubbish, most rock anthems are rubbish. Unless they're sung by Foreigner."
McCulloch on...Bono, a frequent object of his ire in the early 1980s:
"God love us, he's finally lost his voice! This might shock people even more, but I want to tell people that a lot of that was rivalry in the early days. It was like a football team, which is what we felt like - everyone else is rubbish and we're the best. I went to the match every fortnight at Anfield and it was funny - tongue in cheek doesn't often translate on to the written page. It was that "love me" and "I'll breathe heavily in songs to add import". But they've written some great songs which is undeniable. Get well soon!"
* Echo and the Bunnymen play at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton on October 20 and Warwick Arts Centre on October 21. Visit www.bunnymen.com for details.