Echo & The Bunnymen
24 June 2022
It’s a balmy spring evening in north London, and Ian McCulloch, the Bunnymen’s iconic frontman and dagger-sharp wit, is discussing The Idolness Of Gods, the epic, soul-wrenching ballad at the heart of new album The Fountain. “I can’t imagine anyone else singing it,” he says in his deep, Mersey docker’s accent. “It’s beautiful, pure, there’s a real strength to it. I haven’t heard any poetry quite like that, telling you about the crying inside, life as you grow older.”
McCulloch – trademark tousled hair and dark shades in tact – pauses for a moment. “With a soul-baring song like that,” he says, “a soul bared is… a bared-soul shared.” He grins at his tongue-tying witticism. “I need to have a ciggie after coming up with a sentence as good as that.”
Today, ‘Mac’ is in a playful mood, and with good reason. This last year has been a triumphant one for Echo & The Bunnymen, the group he formed in Liverpool in 1978 with guitarist and fellow Iggy, Velvets and Bowie fan, Will Sergeant. In September 2008, the Bunnymen were invited to perform their 1985 orchestral-rock masterpiece, Ocean Rain (famously dubbed by Mac on its release as “the greatest album ever made”), at the Royal Albert Hall, with similar sell-out shows following shortly afterwards in New York at Radio City Music Hall and the massive new arena in their native Liverpool.
Reviews of the gigs oozed adjectives such as “euphoric” and “transcendental”, the romance and grandeur of songs like The Killing Moon, Silver and Seven Seas undimmed by the passing of time. “There was a magic at those gigs that only the Bunnymen can conjure up,” ventures Mac. “It was incredible.”
Returning to London this April, the group’s appearance at Koko’s as the centrepiece of the annual Camden Crawl saw hundreds left outside on the pavement, and the band are set to fly to New York again this summer to play the massive “All Points West” Festival at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park along side Coldplay, MGMT, The Fleet Foxes, Artic Monkeys and the Beastie Boys.
That the Bunnymen are these days ‘legends’, whose extraordinary musical legacy has inspired a raft of 21st Century musicians, from Coldplay, The Killers and Glasvegas, to the Chili Peppers, Courtney Love, The Flaming Lips and Perry Farrell, is in little doubt.
Which brings us to The Fountain, a feisty album of pulsating rock anthems (Think I Need It Too, Do You Know Who I Am, Everlasting) and Bowie-ish pop (Proxy, Shroud Of Turin), all centred around a grand, reflective soul-stirring ballad (The Idolness Of Gods).
“Siberia got a lot of good press, especially in America,” explains Mac. “But it wasn’t the best thing ever, it never is. This one was exciting to make – I felt excited to think of the Bunnymen as exciting again. I’ve re-found my spite – some might call it ‘angst”, I prefer to think of it as spite.”
The Fountain was kick-started in 2007 when McCulloch began working on some new ideas with three London-based musicians. “I thought [Will Sergeant and I] needed to do stuff differently, but so the result still sounded like the Bunnymen,” he says. “What we got with Think I Need It Too and Forgotten Fields, I thought, ‘Yeah, this is how it should sound.’”
The album was pieced together over the next year, with Mac and Will working on tracks at their management’s Parr Street Studios in Liverpool.
Mac : “ The last few years have been pre-and post renaissance years, and the Bunnymen, because of this album & these songs and the Ocean Rain shows, feel more important than ever”
He points to The Idolness Of Gods’ cathartic “soul-baring” and the words of Do You Know Who I Am. “‘Do you know who I am?’ is a phrase you daren’t ever say,” he muses. “It’s very tongue in cheek, but I’m saying throughout the album that I know exactly who I am. And I feel like rubbing your noses in it again. I know what I’m on about now. It’s more like… if I was an actor, it would be like Jack Nicholson or De Niro, they just know what they’re fucking doing. But I’d like to think I choose my roles better than De Niro…
“I think that sense of confidence has been borne out by the gigs we’ve done,” he adds. “I don’t get any softer. Onstage, it’s my natural habitat.
Not that I’m looking down on the audience, but physically I am. I love it, but then I also think, What the hell is it all about?”
Among the album’s greatest moments is the shimmering, impish Shroud Of Turin, in which Mac comes face-to-face with Christ.
“The song is a kind of conversation with Jesus,” says Mac. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also just another way of praying. It was based
around a gig in Rimini at a club called, I think, The Transylvania, and I saw this image in the monitors, it was Jesus’s face. I stopped the song, and said, If you all want to file past, you can see the Shroud Of Turin. It’s also a play on ‘urine’, he pissed his keks on the cross. ‘That urine stained shroud in Rimini”
So how did you think you and Jesus would get on? “Well, we got on fine. But there’s a version of me that’s Beelzebub, and then there’s the Ian
people seem to prefer – Ian, the nice but fragile one. But he’s actually Mr Hyde. He’s the one that’s hard to live in, the awkward one that bottles things up, he’s the nightmare. Not the loon. But I love my Dr Jekyll, he just flies off, he’s a clever little sod.”
The album’s widescreen, crystalline sound is the work of Scottish producer John McLaughlin, whose credits may come as a surprise to some
Bunnymen fans. “He’s done work with Busted and Five, who I loved!” smiles Mac. “He said the Bunnymen were his favourite thing of all time, but really I think it’s The Clash and Bruce Springsteen. I just became really good friends with him. I really want a big, solid undertow beneath the lyrics, not all jingly jangly like Siberia. I wanted someone I could trust to get the sound – when he heard me playing The Idolness Of Gods with just guitar, it made him cry. He gets why I write the way I do. There’s glory in it. Certain lyrics make you go, ‘Bloody hell.’ It’s the atmosphere I can evoke with the way I sing and write melody.
“I’m just a better writer and better singer these days,” he adds. “I want to sound like Sinatra singing in the Reprise years. I know I go on about it a lot, but he’s the only one I can still aspire to better, cos I’m better than all the others. My voice has got more… honest, which fits these songs. This album is about something, rather than just sounding like it’s about something. It’s about having lived life, but still feeling like a kid. I’m a not traditional songwriter. What I do at my best is poetry.”
And how do you rate The Fountain in terms of the Bunnymen’s other albums?
Mac smiles. “It’s the best thing we’ve done since Ocean Rain…”