INTERVIEW: Ian McCulloch – “We write great songs and we’ve written some of the greatest”

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN are back with THE STARS, THE OCEANS & THE MOON, to be released by BMG on 5 October.  The album sees the band return to their peerless back catalogue to reinterpret thirteen of their most beloved songs with ‘strings and things’, alongside the new tracks HOW FAR and THE SOMNAMBULIST. Recorded at The Dog House Studios with co-producer Andy Wright, ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN handpicked the selection of tracks for the album from their majestic, four-decade spanning archive. Mark Millar caught up with Ian McCulloch over two days to talk about the new album. 


Echo & the Bunnymen return in October with the Stars, The Oceans & The Moon your first full release in four years. The majority of the songs are updated versions of old songs with two brand new songs. Why did you decide to redo songs that fans treasure and most would say they are great as they are?

Ian McCulloch: Well, no one treasured the songs more than me. A lot of the reason for doing it was we have been playing some of the songs for nearly forty years, and some of them are forty years old like Rescue. We have been playing them and singing them for most of the live set over the years, they are the staple songs. They are the songs I thought emotionally and lyrically connected. A song like The Killing Moon, for example, the meaning hasn’t changed over the years because the definition is open-ended anyway. That’s what I like about the way we do songs. We always aim not to be trapped in a particular time.

I didn’t sit down for a month musing or mulling over the songs. They were the ones that I wanted to change, and it’s not about stamping on anyone’s memory. I don’t think every song is necessarily the one for me. With Seven Seas, for example, it’s not a pop sing-along song, and I hated the way I pronounced my ‘E’s.’ In those days when I was nineteen, I might as well have been three I was so naive. So when I went into the studio, I was trying to be David Bowie. I wouldn’t change The Back of Love because its perfect to me its the right tempo the right aggression and the right rush you couldn’t slow it down, but with Seven Seas, it’s like hold on this fella is sailing around the world kissing the tortoiseshell isn’t necessarily what my version of a sailor was, he is more Captain Birdseye without the fish fingers. It’s a sea shanty except there’s not that much shanty too it.

I wasn’t too sensitive to what diehard fans would say because they never wrote the songs in the first place it was us. I would say have your feelings and emotions about it but don’t encroach so much that you think you wrote it or it was entirely just for you. It’s weird I wanted David Bowie to do an acoustic show in Liverpool, and I would be the only part of the audience, just to hear him singing Heroes on an acoustic guitar. I’ve always thought if the song and the artist are great then how could you not like Bowie doing a song like Soul Love on the kazoo or something? I think most of the songs we have done are special.

The way I approached these songs was to try and imagine myself in wherever I think the person in the song would have ended up forty years later. And with The Killing Moon, if anyone asks me why I re-recorded it, ill say because I own that fucking moon and I will do with it what I want, and also I’m singing like I’m on that moon now like I know the terrain. I’m singing it from wherever that killing moon is I understand it. It does change its meaning and fate is ever closer, and that’s as good a reason as any, thirty-something years ago that was the baby killing moon. I wouldn’t say the new one is the definitive version the original one is but its an entirely different angle on it I think, and it’s a lonelier version. It was one take I didn’t want to hang around. I’ve sung these songs most of my life so I shouldn’t be farting around replacing lines, it is what it is.

The Killing Moon is now regarded as a classic although Stewart Copeland (The Police) didn’t think so when he reviewed it in Smash Hits. He’s a twat anyway and always has been. I thought; “Hang on this proves that you are a bigger twat than Sting.” Because if Sting reviewed it he would have understood that it was a fucking classic. He said something like; “I thought the one-note guitar solos had gone out of fashion and ceased to be.” I thought; “What are you on about you fuckwit?” In any civilised world, he would be shot to death by firing squad or by two firing squads in case the first lot missed him, He’s just one annoying bastard.

As mentioned there are two brand new Bunnymen songs on the record called ‘How Far? And The Somnambulist’ Both songs fit seamlessly with the classic songs included.

Ian McCulloch: They are the greatest songs ever written (laughs) especially How Far? – I love it. When I was singing it, I thought “This is Mick Ronson playing a choppy guitar.” I thought id written something from Bowie’s Starman period. It all came together so quickly we want to get the next album out next year maybe in October. We’ve got loads of songs, so it’s going to be hard whittling them down. They sound like Crocodiles and Heaven Up Here with a weird Talking Heads pop thing to them. We got signed to BMG purely on the strength of the demos of the new songs. I was surprised with BMG they have been brilliant they suggested we put this record out before the new songs. After that I thought “I’ve got to do this record now.” and when I told people, they said, “That sounds like a great idea.” We were in a meeting with BMG, and I said “I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m doing it as it’s important to me to make the songs better. I have to do it”. And they put that as the main quote on the press release for the album. I was amazed they picked that quote I can’t remember saying it, that would never have happened with Warner Brothers. We write great songs, and we always fucking did, and we’ve written some of the greatest.

Do you approach songwriting differently when writing for the Bunnymen than what you would for your solo material such as your last solo album the excellent Pro Patria Mori?

Ian McCulloch: Pro Patria Mori was overlooked. I think I produced it too much, but you learn as you go, but I definitely approach writing for the band differently from my solo material. When a song comes along, I don’t intend to, but I’ll know that it’s for the Bunnymen. With the Bunnymen songs it feels like I’m singing in a gang or other people, not just me but with the solo thing I think I’m aiming at one person, someone I don’t know or someone that I know will get it. With The Killing Moon, I didn’t think that everyone in the world would love it, but it seems now they do after all this time which is excellent, it’s still growing. With Nothing Lasts Forever I knew. I had that song from probably around Candleland time or just after. I thought “I can’t do this now.” Not that I ever thought the Bunnymen would come back, but maybe I thought I could sell it to Frank Sinatra, but then when the Bunnymen got back together, I thought “That’s why I kept that song back.” Even though it wasn’t intentional in the first place, It just seemed perfect.

With the Bunnymen thing, I know I want to sing those songs on stage with the band so everyone knows how great we can be or how important it is to have a Bunnymen song that you can believe in. In The Margins was another one off the Siberia album where I thought that. Will didn’t like Rust, and that’s a Bunnymen song through and through and his guitar on it is great. He hated making What Are You Going to do with Your Life? because he didn’t think he was playing the guitar. His guitar on that album is fantastic just deft touches that still sound like him. He thinks if it’s not loud or whatever it’s not him and he’s not expressing himself. But the skill of his playing I can only compare to Mick Ronson what he can do with an electric guitar.

His playing on the new version of Ocean Rain at the beginning of each verse is heartbreaking. It’s like some sea creature swimming around in there with its own little sound. I love the fact that he’s done subtle things on this new album and people who have heard it have said “There’s not a lot of Will Sergeant on it.” but he’s all over the fucking place. On some songs, we thought let’s try Will’s bits on a violin or cello. I think Will is like an orchestra in himself and the fact that he uses different sounds he knows he can see it as a picture like I can.

What’s the secret of you and Will Sergeant’s long-lasting relationship?

Ian McCulloch:  I don’t know if we disagree then the next day we are alright. We are both a pair of fucking stubborn bastards. On this album Will said to me “Mac if you want to do a song with vocals and spoons go for it if you feel that’s right” and I was made up because Will has never done that. He knew that I wasn’t going to destroy songs or deconstruct them for the sake of it. Will did a lot of his stuff for the album at home because he’s got a studio there. We had to make the most of our time in the studio because we could only do one thing at one time, so we decided to split our time to make the most of the schedule to get as much done. Andy Wright, the co-producer, went up to Will’s house and recorded with him.

Echo & the Bunnymen have had many hit albums over your 40-year career but Is there an album or song in your catalogue that you thought should have charted higher and maybe received more credit?

Ian McCulloch:  Yeah all of them. We are well known, but it’s strange the number of people who don’t know we wrote The Killing Moon or Nothing Lasts Forever. It does baffle me, for instance, a band like the Cure are so many times bigger than us I don’t understand that. I think Robert Smith is great and I know he’s a massive Echo & the Bunnymen fan and he doesn’t go out of his way to being liked. Maybe it was their Goth look with size 50 shoes at the bottom that appealed to a disenfranchised kid whereas I never entertained any of that I just thought we were that great everyone could be into us, it is what it is. We have done this album not only to reach a new audience but to remind people who wrote these songs.

You are back on a major label (BMG) for the first time in twenty years. It must take some pressure off after having to finance and crowdfund some of your previous records.

Ian McCulloch:  Yeah it’s great being with BMG. When we were with Warners they had the best group in the world, and they fucked it up, they were shite they didn’t understand or get us. We were like no other band at the time and also the most acclaimed critically. They wanted us to be like U2, and that was probably why I have said that much about U2 in the past. It wasn’t that they were annoying or bad because they wrote some excellent songs. But I knew that everybody in Warners thought wanted us to be like U2. I resented them more for that than the actual group which I’ve only just realised now.

So your beef with U2 has gone, and you respect them now?

Ian McCulloch:  Kind of yeah! They have songs that I wish I’d written myself like One – it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, to be honest, and not the version by Johnny Cash the version by U2. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is great, I sing that in my head every day more or less. A lot of it was because people wouldn’t shut up about them. There was probably a little bit of resentment because they were on the rise very quickly and we were always lumped in together with them and Simple Minds. I remember looking at the news on the telly and Bono was there, and I thought “God what isn’t he on?” I expected to turn on Blockbusters, and he’ d be there hosting it, but it wasn’t his fault. He was in Africa trying to help some situation, and I thought to myself “You’ve got to stop this” because he was there helping, and I wasn’t so I said “Stop it now.” to myself. It’s no good for me, and he doesn’t deserve it. Its always been a bit of banter with U2 I suppose because I don’t hate any of the band.

Not that long ago I saw Adam Clayton wearing a Bunnymen T-shirt on stage, and I thought “That’s a lot cooler than slagging someone off who you don’t know”. I believe Adam Clayton is my favourite bass player, he plays it, and it sounds mega! And Larry Mullen the drummer is great as well. Looking back we were a very similar band. I saw some recent footage of U2 playing One live and Bono was standing still playing the guitar, and he was absolutely incredible, and he reminds me of John Lennon. Anyway, that’s enough of me complimenting Bono and U2 (laughs) they have always been nice about us, so hopefully, they will find out that I’ve said some nice things about them.

Do you have a record that you always return to?

Ian McCulloch: Yeah, there’s a few I suppose, but for a long time, it’s been Hunky Dory by David Bowie and Transformer by Lou Reed. If I did one in my head, it would probably be a compilation of Bowie and Lou Reed. I always go back to them even more than Leonard Cohen, but Bowie is easily at the top of the pile regarding how he influenced me, not just musically but the way I sit down and walk and stuff.

What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?

Ian McCulloch: I’ve been playing the first MGMT album recently – Time to Pretend is an incredible song. I’m never a big player of music. It’s hard to penetrate that skin that is Bowie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, and Iggy Pop. I loved Automatic for the People by R.E.M when that came out, but that was a long time ago it needs to be something that good for me to accept it. You can’t get away from music unless you just stop listening to it. There’s so much crap, and there always has been, but there’s more of it now.

What are you most grateful for about being able to be a musician every day?

Ian McCulloch:  Not having to try and think of something else to be any good at because it would be very difficult for me. I could always have written, but I didn’t want to write specifically without singing. I could have written books or novels, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was nineteen.

THE STARS, THE OCEANS & THE MOON | TRACK LISTING

• BRING ON THE DANCING HORSES
• THE SOMNAMBULIST
• NOTHING LASTS FOREVER
• LIPS LIKE SUGAR
• RESCUE
• RUST
• ANGELS & DEVILS
• BEDBUGS & BALLYHOO
• ZIMBO
• STARS ARE STARS
• SEVEN SEAS
• OCEAN RAIN
• THE CUTTER
• HOW FAR?
• THE KILLING MOON

The album will be released via BMG on 5 October 2018 in the following formats:

Limited double picture disc; available from the band’s online store only
Limited luminous double vinyl; available from HMV and independent shops only
Standard double heavyweight vinyl; cassette; CD; and all digital platforms

THE STARS, THE OCEANS & THE MOON can be pre-ordered here:

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN follow up May’s sold out tour of the UK with a further series of UK dates this autumn to coincide with the album release, as follows:

OCTOBER

Fri 12 DUBLIN Olympia
Sun 14 WARRINGTON Parr Hall
Mon 15 CARDIFF St David’s Hall
Tue 16 READING Hexagon
Thu 18 LONDON Palladium
Sat 20 NORTHAMPTON Derngate
Sun 21 WARWICK Arts Centre
Mon 22 YORK Barbican

Following on from the UK tour, ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN will play shows all across Europe and the USA from late October through to early December.

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