Ian McCulloch was watching Pointless recently. He likes Pointless, and quizzes in general, particularly newspaper crosswords. The first thing he said to me upon our meeting today was: “The Independent? I like their crosswords; they’re hard.” Anyway, Pointless, the pre-dinnertime quiz show on BBC1. “They were asking for songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title, and seven people, maybe eight, came up with our song, ‘The Killing Moon’, and [co-presenter] Richard Osman goes, ‘Ah, Echo and the Bunnymen… whatever happened to them?’”
A livid McCulloch all but levitates in his seat.
“I’ll tell you what happened to us, you prick,” he seethes. “New fucking classic album out soon, that’s what.”
36 years since their formation in Liverpool, and McCulloch is still spouting fighting talk. He always has. In 1984, the man proclaimed the band’s just-released fourth album, Ocean Rain, “the greatest album ever made”, and last year, to accompany a solo tour, he announced: “To any newcomers to my music, and to avoid any confusion as to which Ian I am, I’ll be the one with the greatest voice in the history of time.” And now, of new album Meteorites, which he has already informed Richard Osman – albeit by shouting at the telly – is a classic, he says: “It’s what Echo and the Bunnymen are meant to be, up there in heaven, untouchable, celestial, beautiful and real. It has changed my life.” We meet on an overcast day in a Thames-side hotel, McCulloch no more than 45 minutes late. He sits before me, mock scowling, eyes concealed behind a pair of prescription sunglasses, and he laughs dryly as he admits that his repeated assertions of arrogance over the years are largely dispatched to offset any lingering self-doubt.
“I’m a Scouser, that’s how we talk, and I always did like a bit of lip. But I do set the bar high for myself. What’s the point otherwise?” He says he occasionally hears good music from other acts -–he loved REM’s Automatic for the People, some of Arcade Fire, “and that one that broke through for Elbow [2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid], though they still strike me as a band in search of a chorus” – but insists that no one really competes with his band in terms of verve, and wit, and style. His bar, he insists, is set higher than most. “I’m talking Michelangelo, da Vinci, Rembrandt. That’s the level of art we’re aiming for.”
And does he ever reach it?
The mock scowl no longer seems quite so mock. “Of course I do. What kind of question is that?”
The suggestion that Meteorites, Echo and the Bunnymen’s 12th album, has changed his life might not, it turns out, prove a hollow claim. Ian McCulloch is 54 years old now, and has recently endured the worst depression of his life. It was in writing these new songs that he managed to escape it. Little wonder so many sound quite so blue. “Where is the hope in me?” he wonders in the title track, while, three songs later, Is This a Breakdown’s disarmingly buoyant melody ultimately fails to obscure its author’s very dark heart. “What have you got to make my eyes bleed?” he sinisterly sings.
“Well, you know, behind the jokes, the joie de vivre, is a certain melancholy, yeah,” he concedes. “I’m pretty much a recluse these days. It’s not good. The more reclusive I am, the more withdrawn from life I feel. I’m reading a lot of Wilfred Owen.” Finding a small biscuit on the saucer beneath his coffee cup, he breaks off a piece and pops it into his mouth.
“I don’t really want to harp on about this too much, but that’s what the album is all about, that’s why it’s tinged all the way through with darkness. I got low. I’m better now. I’m just trying to find balance in life, though I’m not sure I ever will.”
His current personal circumstances may not be helping. In 2003, he split from Lorraine Fox, the mother of his two children, Candy and Mimi, now 21 and 18, while his most recent relationship – with former X Factor contestant Zoe Devlin, and which produced another daughter, Dusty, now four – ended recently. Delicately, I ask him why. He shrugs.
“I’m not the easiest person to live with. I just don’t understand not getting my own way. And I can’t understand anybody else’s viewpoint, but then who does? A Liberal Democrat perhaps, but not me.”
A generation ago, McCulloch was all strut and swagger. The man had a way with drama, and created some wonderfully visceral songs – “Rescue”, “Silver”, “The Cutter” – that ramped up his implacable cool, and helped power his band, in tandem with U2, to the brink of major global success. But then, during one of their biggest tours, McCulloch, no stranger to the rock-star tantrum, purportedly threw an almighty one, and quit. It was 1988. Suddenly, U2 were on their own.
“I never had a tantrum,” he says now. “I just felt if we carried on, we’d destroy our myth, and I never wanted that.”
Instead, he went solo, before eventually reuniting with Bunnymen guitarist Will Sargeant, and to hell with the myth: first on the side project Electrafixion, then a resurrected Bunnymen.
They may no longer be the force they once were, but the music remains convincing, and McCulloch is in as commanding voice as ever.
In person, he’s more broken these days, less invincible, but the vulnerability suits him; you warm to him. And if life has proved complicated, then the music, at least, has remained a constant. We talk about how little he envies U2 (“I never wanted to make platitudinous rock”), and how the OCD that has ruled his life for so long – he was diagnosed in childhood – is now being redirected elsewhere, less tap-tapping of flat surfaces than a mild addiction to quiz shows and crosswords. His living room, he tells me, is overflowing with newspapers (“even the Daily Mail”), each of them opened at the crossword, a pen never far from his hand.
His depression, he hopes, is behind him, at least for now. He’s working hard on keeping it that way, focusing on the positive: the new album, an upcoming tour, and the fact that continued reasons for living abound. One of which is the return to form of his beloved Liverpool FC.
“In terms of flair and accomplishment, me and the club are running parallel again. Liverpool have once again shown they are the best team to watch, and we have proved that we are still the best band to listen to.”
He laughs out loud, and for a sustained moment his face shines with a pure and radiant joy.
‘Meteorites’ is released on 26 May