Ian McCulloch

by John Elsasser

A quarter-century after starting Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch—to his credit—remains a confident, emotive singer/songwriter with something to offer. (In other words, no one needs to pull him aside and politely suggest that he please go away.) On Slideling (spinART), his first solo record since 1992’s Mysterio, the Bunnymen leader puts forth his most emotionally expansive record to date. His cool, rollicking swagger can be heard on the opening track, the catchy “Love In Veins,” as well as on the album’s best song, “Sliding,” on which he’s aided by guitarist Jon Buckland and vocalist Chris Martin of Coldplay. At age 44, McCulloch has decided to revisit the Liverpool of his youth. On moving ballad “Playgrounds And City Parks,” he recalls being a lonely 12-year-old staying out past dark. Meanwhile, approaching midlife is a theme throughout “Seasons.” “It’s running out of time/It’s half past yours and mine,” he sings. Perhaps fueled by Coldplay’s youthful, enthusiastic endorsement of the Bunnymen as inspiration, McCulloch has a newfound momentum. Given the chilling grandeur that has marked all the Bunnymen records—not to mention Slideling—McCulloch seems destined to never stop.

MAGNET sat down with McCulloch one afternoon in a Midtown Manhattan hotel, where he was enjoying his first beer of the day.

Aside from parting with the Bunnymen, you had to deal with the death of your father while making Candleland in 1989. Meanwhile, 11 years have passed since the release of Mysterio, your second solo record. How are you different now? How did that influence the making of Slideling?
Well, it’s a growing-up thing. When I formed the Bunnymen at age 18 or 19, I felt like I was one year old in terms of proper experience. I lived a little shy life as a kid. I liked my football and my records. In 1988, when I decided it was time to split the band, that was my adolescence that I never had. Well, not adolescence, but the part afterward when you’re supposed to forge your own way somehow and become a bit of a man. And I think Slideling is about that—I now know who I am properly. And I can go back to the playgrounds and city parks. The song “Playgrounds And City Parks” reminded me of where I came from and the boy who kind of missed out. There’s a confidence to it that isn’t on the first two records. There’s a sense of loss on those two albums. Now, this is a bloke who can remember the slide in the park. There’s a lot of allegorical shit going on. I’m back in the playground. I’m still attracted to the slide more than the seesaw. I like the climb because I know there’s a slide waiting. Now I know that when you get to the bottom, you can go back up again. It’s great. I still get excited. I love coming to America. You see those names on the tour sheets, and it’s like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland. Cleveland rocks. It’s a thrill.

You’ve lived in Liverpool all your life. Ever think about leaving?
I like being away and coming back and telling my mates about where I’ve been. They’re like, “You bastard.” No, Liverpool is my muse.

I can’t help but notice that you’re in a really good mood.
I’ve never felt so fired up about life and stuff. It feels like I’m just starting. Creatively, I’m singing songs in my head all the time. It’s like, “I’ll remember that one.” I’ve got my next solo record already written in my head and quite a bit of the next Bunnymen record, which is what I want to do next. Then another solo record. It’s not a problem now, the process of where that material comes from and worrying about whether I’m going to dry up. It seems to be easier now.

With this enthusiasm, what’s going to happen when you get back together with Will Sergeant for the next Bunnymen record?
I want it to be the defining Bunnymen record. I think the first four albums are brilliant. I want it to be the best of all of them.

I read an interview upon the release of Mysterio where you said you weren’t comfortable writing your own music, that you missed the collaboration with Will. How do you feel about writing solo now?
It was a tough time then anyway, to say goodbye to your band and your father on the same day. It was only later that I realized that I felt a sense of release and a sense of change that was going to be good for me. Once the glow wore off, I realized that it was going to be harder than I had thought it would be. I’m just very resilient. I feel like a boxer—no matter how many times you hit me, I may go down, but I’ll always be up by the count of nine, and I’ll come back and hopefully get you on the chin. I know I’m going to stick around for a lot longer. I’ve always been like, on the surface, “Yeah, this song is the best one ever written.” You say that, but then I think, “God, what if I do start writing crap songs?” If I want to be taken seriously, I want people to laugh at my jokes, but when I write a song, I want people to think, “That doesn’t come from lazying around.” I don’t like being seen as lazy, but I like being seen as someone who can just do something great on a whim, effortless. What I’ve realized is that the initial inspiration for the tune and the initial crafting of the song is effortless, but if you want that extra 10 percent, that’s when you have to get down and say, “This isn’t quite as I hear it in my head.” That’s what I’ve put in on this record.

Coldplay hung out with you while they worked on A Rush Of Blood To The Head. What was your role?
I walked in (to the studio) one day and did a little David Bowie dance—I just started making them laugh. I don’t want to speak for them, but I think there was a sense of, “How do we top Parachutes?” So I said, “Let’s have a listen.” And they played me “Clocks,” and I said that was better than most things I’d heard anywhere. If anything, I think I just lightened the mood white I was in the studio. The time I was in there I just made them laugh.

Do you see yourself in Coldplay or any of the newer U.K. bands, like the Coral, when you were at their point in their careers?
With the Coral, I’m sure they also think they’re the best band on the planet. I think Chris Martin is starting to think Coldplay is up there. Before we started the Bunnymen, even before we hit a note, it was like, “We have to be the best band in the world, or what’s the point?” That Coral album is great. It’s so odd. The best bands always seem not just in with what’s going on. That’s a Liverpool band. Any other city would have produced the Hives or the Vines. And we come up with the Coral, who are better because, at the end of the day, that Coral album will stand up better. I’m proud that they’re from my neck of the woods.

Last December, Q magazine gave the Bunnymen the Inspiration Award. What was your reaction to that?
It validates everything that we’ve tried to achieve—cool, great timeless music. It’s not like an inspiration award affecting the past, it’s affecting the current music. Coldplay is one of the biggest bands in the world. There’s Bunnymen in them. That’s what’s great. If they’re getting the Grammy, and we’re in there, then give us a Grammy. Whatever our sound is and whatever we’ve done, we’re as valid as any band because we’re in that Coldplay record.

Are you comfortable with being a more senior member in the alternative-music world?
I’m a timeless icon. [Laughs] I still have my old nose. I mean, yeah, I’ve never felt more at home. Because in all of that 1980s period, I knew that we were the dudes on the planet, the coolest fucking band—apart from the Velvets, maybe—ever. I knew that, but it felt awkward because there were all these other piles of shit around. Maybe I’ve been waiting for a band like Coldplay. Like if I’ve inspired that, if I’ve been part of their sound and growth, then that means I’ve grown as well. When me and Liam (Gallagher) hooked up around (1997’s) Evergreen album, I just felt at home. It was like being in Liverpool instead of hanging around those poor-faced bastards who used to haunt the ‘80s. I could get on with it. Even though Oasis is not the same type of music, Liam has his vibe—it was like they’ve read my interviews and left out all the big words and gone with the rest. With Coldplay, I don’t feel like I’m walking in like I’m Willie Nelson. With the Coldplay lads, I think they’re like, “This fucker is like an 18-year-old, coming in, doing these little dances and cracking jokes.” I’ve finally realized that is the real me, trying to make people laugh their heads off and then breaking their hearts with a song. That’s a good combo. And the fact that my skin hasn’t turned into, like, Joan Collins’ labia lips. That’s good. I’m 44. Still, it feels young. But 88 is not an age anyone in my family got to. So that’s a fucking tough idea to get used to. But it’s a fact. I also think, like Michael Jackson, that I could live forever. But the only way for me to live forever is through great songs. And that’s what I intend to keep doing during my songwriting life—just to go for timeless greatness.