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Meeting his idols: Stories from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch

Monday 21st, July 2014 / 11:39
By Susanne Tabata

Photo: Roger Sargent

VANCOUVER — “Fate up against your will”: The chorus that put Echo and the Bunnymen onto best song lists forever is the smallest fraction of what makes Ian McCulloch so sought after these days. And he knows it. Arcade Fire just had him perform “The Cutter” at Earl’s Court, Lana Del Rey just claimed “The Killing Moon” is the one song she wished she’d written, and his band just started another North American tour in support of their 12th album, Meteorite. McCulloch really is filling the void in post-punk folklore, and we’re better for it.

So often post-punk’s beginnings get eclipsed in the media by the punk scene which literally overlapped it.

“I was so glad when the punk thing happened,” McCulloch says. “I met fellow like-minded people and it grew. There was so much music being created and it all sounded different. It’s weird, I always think of us as post-punk but it was only a year or 18 months. I saw the Pistols and Iggy at Eric’s. And the Clash on my 18th birthday – May 5, 1977 – and within 14 months I was playing on the same stage. Everyone was forming groups in those days.”

As for regional differences in sound, McCulloch says: “Liverpool has never had one sound. People here are more after a fun time and that falls in line more with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The Bunnymen had more in common with Manchester. They seemed to understand us. London bands, southern bands were more into the pop game, we were a lot more serious.”

It’s well known McCulloch is the ultimate Bowie fan: “I met Bowie many times and each time it’s weird. It’s not that you shouldn’t meet your heroes; you should just make sure if you do meet them you don’t make an exhibition of yourself, which I didn’t. Thank God. If I had been 12 in a different era, Bowie wouldn’t have been there. And where would I be? I was naïve about music. We never had a record player; we just got a radio. When I heard his voice on the radio, it took me to outer space. Not just because it was called ‘Starman’, he had this worldly voice that took you somewhere.”

At 16, McCulloch had four people he wanted to meet: Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. He was an early fan of Cohen.

“Other people in music would say he’s a miserable bastard when I would say he was brilliant. And then he becomes popular and loads of people come out of the woodwork who never liked him in the first place. With Leonard Cohen I nearly melted when I met him in Dublin at 29. (1988).

“It was at hotel bar. I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked lost. I said, ‘I just want to say I think you’re the best. I’m going to your show.’ And just in case he doesn’t know who the hell I am, I’ll give him a copy of Ocean Rain. It was on a pre-recorded cassette with cellophane on it. I gave it to him and he looked at it and said, ‘People tell me you’re an amazing poet.’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ I was very shy at 29. I wasn’t used to being that coy or going red when I met people. Cohen said, ‘I thought you’d say hello in London.’ He’d already been there and I had a pass to the dressing room but I just didn’t. In the bar in Dublin it was just me and him so I wasn’t self-conscious. I bought him a bottle of red wine. He brought me onto the tour bus and introduced me to the band. He opened it and shared it out with everyone. It was a thrill.”

McCulloch also looks back fondly on his first interaction with Lou Reed.

“I met him once at a festival in Holland, one that Iggy was at as well. In the canteen area I was talking to Iggy and saying. ‘Have you seen Lou Reed yet? And he said, ‘No and I don’t want to. He’ll probably stab me.’ I’d thought Iggy was tougher than Lou but apparently Lou was the tough guy.”

Echo and the Bunnymen were opening for Lou Reed and this time when McCulloch knocked on the dressing room door to praise the headliner, “I knocked on his dressing room and told him, ‘I love you and think you’re great.’ And he said, ‘Well you sounded pretty great from here.’ I went to dinner with Lou Reed when we played the Ocean Rain gig at Radio City in NY. He couldn’t make it to the show and said we should go for dinner. I went to the cash box and got 500 dollars, thinking it would be enough for the meal.

“That’s the least thing I can do for Lou Reed because I’ve knicked loads of his riffs over the years. So there I am with 500 and he’s brought a coterie of people with him. He kept ordering for everyone. ‘Yeah, we’re having black cod. Have you eaten it?’ he said. ‘No I haven’t.’ He says, ‘Well, we’re having black cod.’ There was no way black cod could cost so much. Then there was the wine. I said ‘I erred on the side of red.’ He said, ‘I’ll have a white.’ It was fantastic. I thought what a total and ultra Lou Reed bastard he is. He might have said, ‘you can have red if you want,’ and I said, ‘Oh, it’s OK, we can have white.’”

“So at the end the boy comes with these four house salads and this white wine that Lou Reed thinks is brilliant. I seemed to have had two glasses of [it] and half a black cod and one piece of lettuce. It was this new Japanese restaurant that he loved. I ask for the bill thinking it’s pushing it. I’ve got $500. I look at the bill and it’s 995 dollars or something. I said to Rupert, ‘I’ve blown it.’ Rupert (Christie) went out and got 500 himself and we paid for it. It was the best 1,000 dollars I’ve ever spent. Not for the food but for Lou Reed. I’d spend it all again.”

McCulloch has made years of headlines in the music press taking a swing at Nobbo – Bono – but admits early on that the journalists tried to rope them in with U2 and Simple Minds. “Over the years I do think he’s written some very good songs.”

So who does Mac like these days? “Jake Bugg. Love him. Reminds me of me when I was a little whipper snapper. We’ve met a few times and I’ll tell him, ‘Don’t care about anyone else. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t take any advice from anyone apart from me.’ I think Lana Del Rey’s really good. Arcade Fire, I just sang ‘The Cutter’ at Earl’s Court with them. I like jazz and classical music because there’s no bad singing on it.”

For new fans, the songwriter recommends the album Ocean Rain because “you can understand what came before and what came after from that record.” As for the single “The Killing Moon”, “I had the chords and the melody line. One day I woke up in bed on a sunny day and I sat up with the complete chords and lyrics in my head. I thought I didn’t write that. It’s never happened before or since.” The recording took place in Liverpool and Bathe and the rest of it was in Paris. “I always refer to it as one of the greatest songs of all time, the greatest song ever written… half tongue in cheek and half because maybe it is. It’s got a long reaching effect and a long-lasting effect. It will also stir people’s feelings and imaginations. More than any other song of any other band, it’s the song that is most envied by other bands. Lana Del Rey told me there were two songs she wished she had written, ‘The Killing Moon’ and ‘Hotel California.’ There are plans for me and her to do something together, though she might not know it yet.”

Echo and the Bunnymen perform at the Commodore Ballroom on August 5th.

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