IT’S late to do so, but Echo and the Bunnymen’s singer, Ian McCulloch, is determined to have his say about U2’s controversial album ‘giveaway’ last year.
“It was a case of ‘you’re having us, even if you don’t want us’ — that’s like some kind of rape or something,” says McCulloch, referring to the deal with Apple whereby U2’s LP, Songs of Innocence, was crowbarred without consent into the inboxes of 300m iTunes customers.
“They didn’t get that you just can’t do that. They’ve done it and suffered as a consequence. I know people who used to be fans, but can’t stand them because of that side of them.”
McCulloch (55) speaks with vehemence, which will be no surprise to people who have followed the Bunnymen through their multitude of ups-and-downs. Across a 35-year career, the flinty Liverpool native has arguably styled himself the ‘anti-Bono’: he can be just as preening and attention-grabbing, yet, as he sees it, has a different artistic motivation.
This was obvious in the mid-1980s, when U2 were beginning their ascent to global stardom. But the smart money was on the Bunnymen to break through — they had, it may be contended, better songs and, in McCulloch, a frontman for the ages.
He had wonderfully ludicrous hair, and never left the house without a painted-on rockstar sneer. You expected the world to tumble at his feet, when, in fact, it was to Bono we flocked. McCulloch says this was because he put his belief in art, whereas U2 prioritised commerce. A case in point: the Bunnymen’s decision to record their most totemic album, 1984’s Ocean Rain, with an orchestra in Paris, rather than taking the U2 route of wooing America with a burnished, anthemic sound.
“I thought the LP giveaway was so ‘them’. I’ve said a lot of bad stuff about U2 — at the end of the day, they’ve written some great tunes. Not necessarily anything I’d like to have written, but, still, take a song like ‘One’…it is unbelievable. But they try to assimilate everything into U2.”
He takes particular issue with U2’s referencing of The Ramones on their new LP (via single ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’).
“I was the first person in Liverpool to buy The Ramones’s first album, and Horses [by Patti Smith]. They were on import. I was straight off the blocks with that. I find [U2’s championing of the early punk scene] really bogus.”
McCulloch delights in his sobriquet ‘Mac the Mouth’ — a reference to his loudly proclaimed belief that the Bunnymen are among the greatest rock bands of all time.
Without question, they have had their moments: Ocean Rain was a classic, and its big single, ‘The Killing Moon’, one of the most iconic rock songs of the ’80s.
As a frontman, McCulloch has been no less influential: the arrogant pose he adopts on stage — hands behind the back, head tilted forward — was an obvious inspiration for the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown and for Liam Gallagher of Oasis. He is the original cocky lead singer.
I’ve interviewed McCulloch on several occasions. While happy to insult rival bands, he could be moody and withdrawn. Today, he is endlessly chipper. He says that, over the past several years, he has battled depression — which, in 2011, threatened the future of the Bunnymen after he threw a strop on stage in Glasgow. However, McCulloch says he has worked through his issues — recording last year’s Bunnymen LP, Meteorites, was, he reports, cathartic, and an experience for which he feels much the better.
“I’ve had melancholy downers since I was a kid,” he says. “They wouldn’t hang around for that long. I like to laugh — and to make people laugh. So, usually, it was not something I had every day. On this occasion, it lasted a long time.”
Always an introvert, McCulloch became closed-off from friends . His relationship with Bunnymen guitarist, Will Sergeant, became precarious — after the Glasgow meltdown, it was an open question whether they would continue to write and perform together. McCulloch was in a dark, quite frightening place.
Salvation came, as it often has through his life, from music. One day, McCulloch retrieved a battered bass guitar and started to bash out a tune. The sound was mournful, drenched with feeling. It was as if he had attached a lightning rod to his soul.
“It felt special from the off,” he says. “I was using an acoustic bass and it had this twang to it. It inspired me — I was reminded of earlier Bunnymen stuff. I just ran with it.”
He played the songs to his wife. She entirely approved of the new direction. But she urged him to write more expressive lyrics — to channel the pain with which he was so visibly wrestling (and which she believed could be traced to childhood and his relationship with his father, a compulsive gambler).
“The album was me trying to jog myself [out of the depression]. That’s what the record is about. It was about finding the hope inside me.”
McCulloch also dialled back on his drinking. He was never an out-of -control boozer. However, as his emotional health improved, he felt less inclined to drown his woes. Soon, he began to lose weight: to look and feel better.
“What I was dealing with was something inside of me,” he says. “It was there before I ever started drinking. Drinking can compound the melancholy. Of course, on a good night it can make you feel [happier]. I try not to box those places off. “
“I’ve always been someone who can drink loads,” McCulloch says. “I’d drink and drink and nothing would happen. Maybe I’d feel ‘grey’ or dark, or whatever. I didn’t get drunk — my tolerance has always been very high. Now, I feel a million times better. I do have the occasional glass — and don’t beat myself up about it.”
- Echo and the Bunnymen play Olympia, Dublin, February 18