In the wake of getting the news that Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch is finally getting around to putting out another solo album – his fourth, if you’re counting – I found myself thinking back to 2001, when I did a phoner with him for Amplifier Magazine in conjunction with the release of the Bunnymen’s then-new album, Flowers.
It was a conversation of epic length, and had it been for an online publication, it might well have run completely intact, but as it was back in those lazy, hazy days when print was still popular, it was trimmed way, way down…like, to the point where I was legitimately upset at how little of the conversation ultimately made it into the final piece. Not that this sort didn’t happen all the time, but while I got over it pretty quickly on most occasions, this one really bothered me, probably because it was one of the rare occasions during that era where A) it wasn’t just a straight Q&A, and B) I felt like I’d been at least moderately successfully at reproducing the style of the British music-magazine journalists I’d been worshiping from afar for so many years.
Mind you, I’m no longer quite as sure that I really nailed the latter, but there’s still some great stuff here from McCulloch, at least. I’m hoping I can get back on the phone with him in conjunction with the release of Holy Ghosts, which streets on April 22. If not, though, at least I’ll always have this.
“Hello, may I speak to Ian?”
“Yes! This is him!” Ian McCulloch says, cheerily.
Someone else picks up the phone; a female voice says, “Hello?”
“It’s for me,” says McCulloch, calmly.
“Oh.” She hangs up. This is the first confirmation that I’ve phoned McCulloch at his home in the UK; it is not the last.
Thankfully, McCulloch’s in better form today than he was the day before, when he called off his interview obligations due to illness. Though he’s instantly apologetic about the brief delay in play, he’s well within his rights to try and get back up to top form, what with the rapid pace of his current promotional schedule for Echo and the Bunnymen’s forthcoming album, Flowers. Best to take advantage of recovery time when you can get it.
Flowers is the Bunnymen’s first album after the semi-fiasco that was their deal with London Records; it’s being released on Cooking Vinyl in most of the free world, though it’s set to emerge on spinART in the States.
“Cooking Vinyl kinda spoke to a few different labels (about American distribution), and spinART seemed to be the one that they favored,” says McCulloch. “We haven’t actually met them yet! I would like to have done, but the management people seemed very happy with them. It can’t be any worse than London was!”
The Bunnymen’s previous album, What Are You Doing To Do With Your Life?, the second of their contract with London Records, came out in 1999 to tremendous critical praise. Saleswise, however, it sank like a stone.
“After the last album, we felt we were undervalued,” says McCulloch. “Part of that was the fault of…well, no-one’s fault; that’s just how it was. (But) London didn’t exactly break their back to get the last album out there to people. But they came to us and said, ‘Look, we don’t want to let you go.’ There was a period where it seemed they were trying to add extensions onto the time to pick up the contract, and I think we gave them one because, at that point, we were away, anyway. After that, though, we said, ‘Nah, look, let’s make up your minds.’ So they came up to us and said, ‘Will you take less money than is in the contract?’ We weren’t exactly on the millions, anyway, so we just said, ‘No.’ The people who’d signed us…really, it had all changed. It was all different personnel, so we didn’t really feel as though we belonged there, anyway. So it’s the best thing we could’ve done.”
McCulloch believed—and continues to believe—that What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? is one of the Bunnymen’s best efforts, but to underline another reason for his dissatisfaction with London, the record received no real promotional support from the label.
“I’m sure there are still lots of people who don’t even know that it came out,” says McCulloch. “I was in Japan about five weeks ago, talking to journalists who I talked to before 10 years ago, and there were about five of them who didn’t even know there was an album after Evergreen. Still, it was at least confirmation that (its lack of success) wasn’t the fault of the album.”
It’s still a bit confusing to all parties concerned that the album received no push, particularly since its predecessor had spawned a moderate hit for the band, “I Want To Be There (When You Come).” Nonetheless, the amount of publicity it scored in the States was virtually nonexistent.
“To be frank, I hated the fellow who ran the company,” says McCulloch. “He was a charmer, but he was so smarmy. Even before Evergreen came out, I went over there and did some promo and to meet him. I’d gone all the way to New York with the manager, and we arranged a meeting, and he cancelled at the last minute, so that wasn’t a great start. Then, when we played New York, he didn’t show up. It was all that kind of thing. So I’ve never liked him.
“We knew we were never gonna get anywhere with London in America, that it was purely our following buying (the album),” he continues. “The last tour we did with absolutely no help from (the label). But we felt good about it, because we sold the tickets purely by ourselves. I think the American side of it strengthened our resolve to go where we felt was best for us, because America’s always been (good) in terms of fans, and, I suppose, the press. The British press has always been good as well, but we’ve always had that kind of profile over there. People like the Pavements lads, Hole, the Flaming Lips, all of them kind of people have always cited us as a major influence.”
McCulloch suddenly drifts away for a moment as someone on his end speaks to him. “Okay,” he says to them, “have a good one. Good luck!”
He comes back to the phone. “Sorry. I was just saying something to my wife.”
Post-London and pre-spinART, the Bunnymen put out Avalanche, an EP through the internet-based Gimme Music. The disc’s material is downloadable from the site or, for a slightly more expensive price, can be mailed out in CD form.
“That was a strange one,” admits McCulloch. “The person who actually did sign us to London, he phoned us early last year and said that some people he knew were kinda setting up this Gimme Music thing. He was actually one of the best ones (at London), but he’s no longer at London; he left not long after we did. When we were talking toward the end of the deal, he actually said, ‘If I were you, I’d go somewhere else.’ So, y’know, it was all kinda…we knew what the state of the company was, and the likelihood of us being treated any differently being marginal, minimal, whatever. So he says, there’s this company, there’s not a lot in it, it’s just a one-off, depending if you want to do something. Cos he knew that we were kinda biding our time before signing to anyone or even before really looking for any deals. We didn’t actively go looking for any deals; Will and I just decided to enjoy not being signed for about six months and then kinda start seeing people. But in the meantime, it was purely a one-off deal.’”
“Will was always interested in the internet,” he continues. “Plus, we’d been contemplating doing our own things, knowing that we, with a certain fanbase, if we sold our own stuff, we’d be in a sole position of power and everything would come to us. It didn’t work that way, just ‘cause I starting thinking, bloody hell, we can’t even get it together to phone anyone. We’re still the most naïve incompetents when it comes to the business side; we’re rubbish. And I said to Will, we could be here ’til doomsday if we try to do it ourselves, let’s get serious. Let’s at least get someone who can put our records out and into the shops. Initially, I started thinking, yeah, let’s just do it through the ‘net and on our website and alert our fanbase and let’s just play to the converted, but…it’s not that there’s no fun in it; I just think we’re one of the most important groups of all time, and I just think we need to make proper records and get them out there.”
And so Cooking Vinyl has done with Flowers. The way McCulloch describes how hard the Bunnymen’s new label has got him working to get the word out about the record, however, it’s no wonder his resistance is down.
“Since Cooking Vinyl have taken over, I haven’t stopped; my feet have barely hit the ground,” he says. “I was home yesterday; I felt terrible. Today, I feel alright, after a really good sleep. And I’m off tomorrow, for Lisbon, Paris, and Amsterdam. Boy, just the fact that I’ve been…I’d like to say ‘jetsetting,’ but leave the ‘set’ out. I’m the jet, I s’pose, in terms of some of them having been propeller jobs. But I’ve been to many a far-flung place over the last two months.
“Warners never even did that,” McCulloch continues. “Warners always treated a promo trip as a pain-in-the-ass expense that you might have to do in America, you might have to do some in England, and some along the English coast of Europe: France, Belgium, and Holland. But with Cooking Vinyl, they’ve had me in…the first was Hong Kong, then Taiwan, then Tokyo. And Germany. Normally, if I do go to Germany to do press, it’ll be Hamburg, in and out. And, this time, it was Cologne, Hamburg, and Berlin. It’s a real eye-opener. All the majors did was kinda shrink our globe, I think, if they deemed it not worth bothering about. They always think of it as units. If you sell 3,000 records in Norway, they just think, 3,000 units, not worth it. I was saying to Johnny Marr, it’s 3,000 people, that means you can go there and play, and people can see you play.
“I was kinda worried about going on an indie, but they’re more professional. It feels more big-time than the majors. Unless you’re Madonna, it doesn’t really do you any good (to be on a major label). You get an advance, but, like, we were on a rubbish contract all through Warners, then you’d hear of these groups coming in, getting these millions of pounds deals, and we’d say, ‘What the bloody hell…?’ We were always on some pittance of a wage that we gave each other, with our publishing money separate. We were hardly buying yachts and jets, y’know? “You go through the years, and people do ask me…well, like, loads of people have said, on this last lot of promotion, ‘It’s your sound that these people seemed to have tapped into,’ or, ‘Before the Bunnymen, there was no sound like it. Doesn’t it piss you off that all of these other bands have cashed in on something you invented?’ And I’ve never thought of it like that. As long as you’ve got a roof over your head, y’know?”
At this moment, the topic switches rather rapidly from major label deals to smart-arse journalists. It seems somewhat abrupt, until I realize that McCulloch has unintentionally set himself on this path by referencing “this last lot of promotion.” Apparently, they were quite a nasty bunch.
“Not so much for this album, but, for the last record, you’d get the odd interviewer who asks some old-fashioned question like, ‘Why are you still doing it?’” snorts McCulloch. “One of those who thinks he’s being smart. It’s, like, ‘Listen to the record, you dozy bastard.’ Or you’ve got some people saying, ‘This record is finally proof that you know what you’re doing,’ and I’m, like, ‘Well, thank you for deigning to allow us our career!'”
With that, McCulloch utters a sound clearly intended to signify, “Fine, whatever.”
“All I know,” he says, “is that I haven’t felt this way about…well, not so much the record, but about us as a band…in a long while. It seems like Cooking Vinyl definitely know their people out in the various territories. Cos, like, there’s interviews turning up that, if we’d been on London or Warners, I wouldn’t’ve gotten to say. Some journalists have told me that, in fact. They’ve said…”
There is a sudden moment of silence. McCulloch’s other line has beeped.
“Erm,” he begins, sounding a bit embarrassed, “can I just see who this person is?”
McCulloch clicks over. The very proper British telephone service says, in a crisp accent, “Please hold the line.” How thoughtful.
He clicks back. “Hello? Sorry. One of me daughter’s friends. I should’ve put a screen on the calls.”
McCulloch returns to his train of thought, having left out a box car somewhere, but his obvious point was that even journalists…yes, even journalists…are aware that, from a promotional standpoint, Cooking Vinyl rules and London blows.
Even a few years down the line (and several minutes into the interview), McCulloch is clearly still extremely bothered by the fact that What Are You Going To Do With Your Life? was a commercial flop. In all seriousness, it sounds as though each journalist who bemoans the album’s lack of promotional push is affecting McCulloch’s emotional well-being in a positive fashion.
It’s very therapeutic, apparently.
“It’s good for me to know all this stuff,” he says. “There must’ve been a reason that last record didn’t (sell many copies). I mean, the people who know it love it. But the fact that a lot of people didn’t even know that we made one…it’s almost a sueable case, I think. That record company, for some reason, disallowed loads of our fans. There was no advert for it, there was no poster campaign, there was nothing. It was the first album I think we’ve ever made that there wasn’t an ad in the NME (New Musical Express), saying, ‘Echo & The Bunnymen album out on whatever date.’ I was flabbergasted. And then it got fantastic reviews, possibly the best reviews we’ve ever had. And, so, then I was on the phone to the manager, saying, ‘Now they’re going to do an ad with a quote, right?’ I mean, for any old bag of crap, they’ll put an advert in, saying, ‘Really good album, 6 out of 10 from the NME.’ But still nothing came.”
McCulloch sighs, then says, positively, “Ah, well, onwards and upwards, eh? I suppose in a way it’s been good for this (new) record. And, hopefully, it’ll live on like (David Bowie’s) Hunky-Dory, and people can go back and discover it for the first time. I mean, I didn’t know how many albums Bowie had made when I got Ziggy Stardust, or even what they were called, but I went back and discovered them. Not all at once, of course, because I didn’t have very much money, but…oh!”
Enter Ian McCulloch’s cat.
“The cat’s looking at this photo of me,” says McCulloch. “It’s the old NME one, the framed one that Anton Corbjin did for me, and it’s in the hall on the floor for some reason…I think Lorraine is thinking about putting some pictures up…and the cat’s gone right up to and is looking at it, like, ‘There’s the fella who doesn’t feed me properly.’ ‘Cept I do, just not all the time. Lorraine found out that the best stuff for her is this healthy kind of country stuff. That and water. Forever. Until she dies. And I just think that’s a terrible life for a cat. So, quite often, I’ll feed her some proper stuff. And Lorraine’s, like, ‘That’s wrong,’ and she’s always hovering around me now when I’m at the fridge. I just think, ‘What a boring life.’ And I don’t believe it, anyway. I think she just sticks with the (country stuff) ‘cause it’s easier. We had a cat before this one, and I used to love to open the tins of cat food for it, ‘cause the cat’s going mad for it, jumping up. All that jelly-like stuff in the tin, and the chicken livers and such…that’s what they want, y’know.”
In an effort to shift the topic back to music, I ask McCulloch to answer a question I’d always wondered about: how the unlikely collaboration of Echo and the Bunnymen with Fun Lovin’ Criminals on What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? came to pass.
“Oh, I’d heard their stuff, had the album and played it to death, and then I met them in a club in L.A.,” says McCulloch. “I went over and said, ‘Hi, boys. I think you’re the best thing I’ve heard for years.’ And Huey said, ‘Hey, man, that’s great, thanks a lot.’ And we just hung out that night, and, since then, we always hook up when we’re in each other’s towns…or even neutral towns. Neutral towns are sometimes better. More damage, less to pay.”
If that last comment makes it sound as though Ian and the Criminals are a potentially-dangerous combination when together, you’re not wrong: apparently, plans last to collaborate for a McCulloch solo project never quite made it off the ground, mostly due to his and the Criminals’ mutual reputations for enjoying themselves a bit too much.
“Last year, we were two days away from going to Hawaii for a month, ‘cause my manager had done this deal with the record company where it was for me, with (Fun Lovin’ Criminals) producing, and maybe a couple of co-writes,” says McCulloch. “But it just fell apart. I think the people who were signing off on the money got cold feet when they realized it was just gonna be me and them. Not exactly four of the world’s most responsible or timid people, spending four weeks in Hawaii, allegedly bringing home this album…? I started to get worried about it as well! Initially, we were gonna record it in Acapulco, and I thought, ‘Fantastic!’ And then it was Hawaii, and I was, ‘Just as good!’ But then I started thinking, and I said to my manager, ‘Bloody hell! What the hell are we going to get done?’ I think we’d’ve ended up trying to record the entire album on the last three days, after I’d spent the rest of the time trying to drink Hawaii dry!”
Another McCulloch solo album is not out of the picture forever, however.
“I’ve got all the songs for the album; I’ve got about 20, actually,” says McCulloch. “I’m gonna do some with Ian Broudie, who produced Porcupine and, of course, he’s in the Lightning Seeds and stuff. He’s gonna do three or four; we might co-write one. I’ll produce some of the tracks as well, probably. I don’t want to spend a fortune on it. Like, the great thing about this new Bunnymen album is that we’ve done it very quickly and not wasted any money at all; it’s probably the quickest and cheapest album we’ve ever made, and it doesn’t suffer at all for that. So I’ll probably produce quite a bit meself, ‘cause that’s one less producer to pay, and I know what I’m doing.”
The only possible exception to this theory: Ken Nelson, who produced Coldplay.
The reason, says McCulloch, is “‘cause he’s a local lad and I’ve known him for twenty years; he said he’d do it for nothing, but I’d probably have to give him a little bit. I don’t think he’ll be squeezing me for too much. But there are a few songs that, for the vocal sound and the piano sound, I’d like it to be as good as on that (Coldplay) record. And if it was left to me to produce it…I know my arrangements aren’t exactly the greatest, sonically. But I’d like someone to do some of the key songs. Actually, they’re all kinda key songs on this album; every one sounds like a single. But, at some point, I’ll have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll do those ones.’ But it’s gonna be a hell of a record. I’ve been describing it as my attempt at the missing record between Hunky Dory and Transformer. I don’t know if it is…but I’d like it to be up there with those.”
Despite McCulloch’s excitement (and possible hyperbole) about the project, recording of the album is not set to commence for another three months yet.
[2013 sidebar: The resulting album, Slideling, eventually emerged in 2003, but while Nelson didn’t end up producing anything for McCulloch, Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland did turn up on the songs “Arthur” and “Sliding.”]
“We’re just so busy,” says McCulloch. “It’s mad. We’re coming to America in July, and then coming back in October. We’re finally doing two American tours with one album; we haven’t done that in ages. On the second leg, we’ll probably hit the major cities again—we can always go back each time to, like, New York, L.A.., Chicago, and maybe Boston, because they’re the long-term, hardcore Bunnymen places—but we’re going to be playing the Norfolks and the Charlottes of the world as well. That’s as much America as anywhere.
“It’s such a massive country. You go from town to town, you don’t even have to cross state lines. It’s just a vast, changing, brilliant country. ‘Bloody hell, is this the same state we’re in?’ The excitement that goes through me and Will and the band and even the crew…it’s a mad country, but that’s why it’s so great. Even Pittsburgh. Like, Pittsburgh, it’s a great town, but if you looked at a tour sheet that said, ‘New York, L.A., Chicago, Pittsburgh,’ you’d go, ‘That’s the dodgy one, right there.’ But even a dodgy town, compared to, say, going to Sheffield or Leeds in England…it’s a gift. It’s God’s land to a band.”
“So, yeah, we’re got the July tour, kicks off on the east coast, ends up on the west, and then we go off to Japan, and then Australia. We’re going everywhere. We haven’t been to Australia since 1981. We only ever went there once. I wasn’t too bothered; the flies that they have there are massive. Someone said the other day, ‘What are you going to do when you back?’ I said, ‘Bring big flyswatters, ’cause I’m sure they’ve still got ’em.’ Ick. Makes me feel sick just thinking about it.”
McCulloch is excited about the band getting a chance to go worldwide with Flowers, although he’s aware that even the additional promotion provided by Cooking Vinyl and spinART may not be enough to bring shift mass units of the album.
“I don’t know what it’ll mean in terms of the record’s sales, but certainly everyone will know it’s out there, and that’s all that we can hope for, really,” he says. “We should be selling millions, really. But it’s never been about that. For me, just having the option to play in front of a thousand Norwegians is all I expect, really.”
The sound of a doorbell is suddenly audible in the background, followed by McCulloch asking, “Just a moment, would you?”
He takes the phone away from his mouth to ask someone to get the door; based on his tone, it’s likely one of his children. “It’s probably Jill,” he says.
In fact, it is Jill.
“Hi, how are ya, Jill?” McCulloch says cheerily. “I’ll be a moment; I’m just doing an interview with America. But she should be just about ready to go.”
He returns. “Ah, the life of domesticity,” he sighs.
The press release on the spinART website, while it doesn’t make any comment about it outright, makes it rather apparent that Les Pattison, longtime Bunnymen bassist, is no longer among the fold. Or, more specifically, one Alex Greave is identified as handling bass duties on the new album, the press release focuses heavily on McCulloch and Sergeant, and there is no reference to Pattison whatsoever, even though he’s been on every Bunnymen release up to this point.
“Uh, yeah, it’s true,” admits McCulloch, hesitatingly. “Does it, erm, say anything about why, though?”
It does not.
“I wish it did,” he says. “It really ought to do.”
McCulloch then goes on to explain that Pattison’s departure was strictly for personal reasons, with naught to do with any sort of conflict within the band’s ranks. Indeed, it was a combination of family illness, divorce, and child custody, all of which added up to both a need and a desire to stay home rather than record and tour with the Bunnymen.
“By not mentioning it in the press release, it makes it seem more sinister than it really is, when, in fact, it was really just something that he needed to do, that had to be done.” McCulloch allows himself a chuckle. “People try to make a lot out of saying that Will and I are now the only two original members left, when, in fact, the band began as Will, myself, and a drum machine. Then Les joined a year later, and then Pete (DeFrietas) came along after that.”
Ah, yes, the drum machine. Otherwise known as Echo…and surely the bane of McCulloch’s existence when doing interviews.
As such, the big closing question for McCulloch now seems almost inevitable: when was the last time someone asked you who Echo was, and were you successfully able to restrain yourself from smacking them?
He laughs, and says, “It’s probably been awhile since it last happened. Well, maybe not that long. But, nah, it didn’t come to violence. I mean, when I think of Echo, I think fondly of this little drum machine with green keys and buttons. It’s hard to get to wound up about it now. After all, it was a hell of a drum machine, that Echo. Put out some really great sounds.”
It did, at that.