Published Oct 25, 2009They don't call him Mac the Mouth for nothing. What was planned as an in-depth conversation about Echo & the Bunnymen with front-man Ian McCulloch, turned into mostly listening to the Mouth go to work in a brief 20-minute phone conversation. Few singers have the chutzpah to repeatedly proclaim their band as "brilliant" and "the most important band to ever put an album out" without pulling someone's leg - Mac is legendary for being one of them. Unfortunately, he's also a real talker, who unless you interject will just keep going. He's like a wiser, cooler Gallagher brother who not only made one brilliant album, but five of them. The one, however, brought Mac, his long-time partner in crime, guitarist Will Sargeant and the rest of the newish players that make up the Bunnymen circa 2009 to Toronto to perform with an orchestra. Ocean Rain, their 1984 classic, is without a doubt the perfect album to receive such royal treatment. Hypnotic, dramatic, lush, exotic and perpetually climactic, it will soon be heard up in outer space, thanks to astronaut and Bunnymen fan Timothy Korpa. And rightfully so.
But Echo & the Bunnymen are not just a retro act revisiting their best work. They also have a new album out called The Fountain, which Mac has called the best album since Ocean Rain. While that's arguable, the album demonstrates that even in their (early) 50s, McCulloch and Sargeant are still a vital music-making partnership that can hold their own with the rest of the young and old - something Mac was all too happy to point out to me.
Echo and the Bunnymen were the first cool band I ever listened to. I remember buying the Lost Boys soundtrack when I was nine. Your cover of the Doors' "People Are Strange" really stood out.
Aww, that's brilliant. So, you were only nine. It's cool that you could get into good music at that point. I can thank the Doors for that then.
You played some intimate shows in New York and Boston. How were they?
Yeah, they were great. New York was especially great because the great were very responsive and my mood was good. It was give and take. Sometimes you go and sing your head and think, "I wish I was watching telly." I don't want to criticize Boston too much, but I thought the audience was very Sunday night lame. I thought, "What's the point of doing this?" I just thought we couldn't have given any more to get so little back from the crowd. I mean, I thought the band was perfect. But the New York thing was great. It's always tough to go to a place where there's no production. We're not 19 anymore. And we give it our all, I've never knowingly undersold. It was great to get it back from the New York crowd. It was great, it was cool, and we sounded brilliant, so...
I've been to the Mercury Lounge a few times. I can't imagine seeing you guys in such a cosy venue.
Yeah, it's got something about it. We all turned up to the sound check and thought, "Bloody hell." But during the gig it just felt really special. I had my eyes closed singing the whole time, but it was great. I understand why people thought it would be a cool thing to do. It was the talk of the town and stuff. That's nice. Once you're on stage it all depends on the audience though. The people in Boston all seemed like they were fans and it went down well, but it seemed like they were watching a band they had never heard or heard of. It was strange, but it might have been a Sunday night thing, or me, thinking it would be like the night before in New York. People say New York is a tough crowd but it was brilliant.
I can't see you getting a tough crowd in Toronto.
Nah, Toronto's always been brilliant. That's why we picked it. We're only doing a handful of these shows with the orchestra. They're not an easy thing to pull off, getting the orchestra players in strange towns. And Toronto was picked by me, I think. We'd do New York, San Francisco, L.A., DC and the other one was Toronto, because it's always been a great place to play. I love Canada. And the customs today were brilliant! I flew in and it was just easy. Sometimes when you're in the tour bus they can keep you there for hours. But no, it was a beautiful day today too. And I'm going to go out for an Indian tonight! That's the great thing about Toronto, it feels so much more European. We'd only been in America for a few days, and I love America, but I also love that about Toronto. I wish it were colder though. I'm sure people think it's quite cold, but I like when there is a bite in the air. Hopefully that just means people will want to come out to the show.
The Ocean Rain show, it's still a rock'n'roll show, in a way because we do two sets. I suppose it's a "best of" or compilation set and then we finish with Ocean Rain. I want it to be an evening out too, instead of just going to gig. Even though it has an eight o'clock start, which I think is mad, I don't know why it's so early. But I suppose it is a classical album so it should be like a night at the opera.
The album is 25 years old this year. Is that where the idea for these shows came from? An anniversary celebration?
Not so much, no, because we'd had a Bunnymen 25-year thing, touring as the "most inspirational band of all time" - my phrase to go with the poster. But it was that I wanted to readjust the position of how I felt about the Bunnymen and the status and stature of the band. I suppose before [The Fountain] came out I wanted to go to a different level and feel more like... the Bunnymen are the most important band to ever put an album out. And the Beatles, maybe the Stones. I think we're up there in the top ten greatest bands of all time. I think we're very special, and sometimes you can forget that and just get used to doing the regular tour and the way you're supposed to, with a budget. The point is to not lose money on stuff; we're paying for an orchestra so it's tough breaking even, but I get more out of it then I would doing a tour to get a financial profit. It just felt right to get on the stage of Royal Albert Hall or Radio City Music Hall. It's not about the size of the venue but the way they fit with the Bunnymen. And I just felt that we were back in place. Still outside of the musical rat race. I just felt that we were very Bunnymen about things again, and playing one of the greatest albums of all time.
Is Ocean Rain your favourite album you've made?
Yeah. But I love The Fountain and I love What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? But in terms of the romanticism about Ocean Rain, it was half done in Paris. It's a masterpiece, and I'm saying that because that's what critics have finally admitted to - 25 years later with these shows. It's better live as well. It's so exciting, like something that's never been opened before. Even though we never did those songs with an orchestra until we started playing these shows over the last year.
So you're using players from each city to form the orchestra?
Yeah, we're using Torontoians or Torontians. We're using people who are based here. Because we bring the conduction [Rupert Christie]. Lou Reed used him for the Berlin shows with an orchestra. He's brilliant and he knows his musicians. We do sound check with them before the show, but these orchestra players know how to follow the dots. The people we used in England were brilliant; some of them were fans and we just got carried away. We make a point of talking to the orchestra, they are part of the band.
How would you compare being in the Bunnymen now compared to back in 1984?
It's pretty much the same, really. It seems like we're having to prove ourselves to critics or whoever. It's about doing my favourite thing, Echo & the Bunnymen, singing those songs. It feels the same - same hair, glasses, shoes. In a way, it's like Leonard Cohen - does he feel any different? I know he probably thinks he can now sell out around the world. It's taken him 40 years to pay his dues. And that's a great thing because there were so many detractors where Leonard Cohen was concerned. People have finally stopped saying "Leonard Cohen's so depressing," and they're now going to see him because everyone's talking about him. It's a life-changing concert. And I feel kind of like that. Maybe one day everyone in the world will come see Echo & the Bunnymen because they've been told we've paid our dues.
And you'll be doing this when you're 74 years old?
I don't see why not. I've always followed people like Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, they seem like something more than just a flavour of the decade. At 74 whether I'm singing on a cloud with the rest of the choir of angels, I'll still be singing. Now that's your last quote because it's the kind of thing Leonard Cohen would say.