Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch Is an International Treasure

photo by Roger Sargent

Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch Is an International Treasure
By Jaime Lees

Ian McCulloch does not disappoint. Known for being highly quotable and wickedly mouthy, the lead singer and songwriter of Echo & the Bunnymen is as humorous as he is brilliant. He’s a natural charmer and, strangely, harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa. But after weeks of running into dead ends while trying to track him down, the man known as “Mac” is on the other end of the line, full of hilarious insight.

The Liverpool native’s whip-smart quips are delivered with a Scouse accent so thick that his punchlines would often be indecipherable without context. (When he says “Bunnymen” it frequently sounds like he’s saying “boogeyman.”) McCulloch says his comedic skills and habit of talking himself up are uniquely Liverpool traits — think John Lennon’s sharp sarcasm and notorious bravado.

“We have this defensive, attacking way of doing things in Liverpool, and we’re always taking the piss,” McCulloch explains. “But making someone laugh their head off? I get more from that than the crowds clattering after songs. To see me brother’s face streaming with laughter tears — him or anyone else — and I’ll be laughing meself. I’m me own court jester.”

Far from the moody, brooding demeanor that you might expect from someone who rarely removes his heavily tinted sunglasses, McCulloch is delightfully warm and buoyant. His conversation is sprinkled with dead-accurate vocal impressions of David Bowie (his long-time hero), Iggy Pop, Gary Oldman and Lemmy Kilmister. (Mac says with reverence: “I can’t do Lou [Reed]. I just don’t have the spite.”)

McCulloch has every reason to be upbeat. Echo & the Bunnymen is well into a second stretch in the spotlight. Formed in 1978, the group released five albums before McCulloch walked away in the late 1980s. McCulloch and legendary original Bunnyman guitarist Will Sergeant joined up again for a short-lived side band called Electrafixion in 1994 before finally reclaiming the Bunnymen name in 1997. Since then the group has released another six albums, with a new one due out next year. The band also signed to major label BMG in June and is co-headlining a summer tour — coming to Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre on July 22 — with the Violent Femmes.

While many of the other bands that found success during the era of ’80s new-wave were dorky or avuncular, the Bunnymen were perceived as sultry sex shamans who had come to steal your girlfriend away for a mystical magic carpet ride. The Bunnymen expanded on the sounds that were expected for their genre, and released pointy post-punk songs including “The Cutter” and “Rescue,” but also sweeping, cinematic masterpieces like “The Killing Moon” and “Ocean Rain.” Their sheer grandness was unrivaled in magnitude.

McCulloch agrees with that assessment. In fact, he is known for asserting that his band is the greatest in the world and cheekily insisting that the Bunnymen did everything first and did everything best. His old habit of constant self-aggrandizing in the press has been famously adopted by Liam Gallagher of Oasis, a similarity that hasn’t gone unnoticed by McCulloch himself. He laughs at the comparison.

“I like Liam. I think he’s good. He always has been good. I like his thing. Someone showed me his tweets, and to have that front, I think it’s fantastic,” McCulloch says. “But on stage he’s never smiled. I used to do that, too. You come on stage and no one understands why you have a bit of an attitude. And maybe I didn’t understand. It’s just easier, probably, than being nice. He’s funny, you know, but maybe Liam could also say that [funny stuff] on stage. As a joke.” (One can readily imagine the twinkle in McCulloch’s eye as he delivers this expertly restrained condescension.)

But McCulloch will always have more than a couple of things to hang over Gallagher’s head. First of all, he had already perfected the outerwear-as-fashion-statement thing before young Gallagher even grew into his unibrow. But most importantly: that voice.

McCulloch’s expressive, shockingly clear singing voice is his greatest asset. Over the years, his lush purr has deepened, giving him the ability to sing with a velvety, panty-dropping richness.

“I don’t hear a lot of voices that stop you in your tracks, like mine,” McCulloch rightfully brags. “And it’s gonna get better. I’m still holding it together. But I find it hard to listen to the old stuff ’cause it’s like, that’s not me there. Now when I sing I just want to sound as real as possible.

“Sometimes when you’re younger, you kind of use your voice as a disguise — when you’re an eighteen-year-old trying to sound deep and poetic,” he continues. “Most of the songs that I can’t do, it’s because of that. That’s not to take away from all of the people — there are fans who like songs that I like the least.”

Though audiences might hold tightly to older songs, McCulloch’s newer music is easily among his best — more modern tracks such as “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “Rust” and “History Chimes” are well on their way to becoming future classics.

For as much as he boasts about his skills, though, McCulloch still ducks compliments. When presented with a list of his accomplishments, he quickly attempts to dilute their importance by interrupting with, “And I’m good at table tennis! But only one game and it depends on how many serves. I play meself and I’m still ahead.”

And when the long interview is coming to a close, McCulloch stays true to his off-stage hobby: cracking up anyone who will listen.

“Any doubts about content, make it up,” he says. “I don’t mind, as long as you don’t misquote you.”

link: Riverfront Times