Ian McCulloch: Still heaven up here

Twenty-five years after their first gig, Echo & The Bunnymen's singer, Ian McCulloch, tells Fiona Sturges why the band are still the best
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The shades stay on all afternoon, of course. To Ian McCulloch, the pasty-faced, pouty-lipped frontman of Echo & The Bunnymen, they are a vital accessory for a pop legend, even on a damp October afternoon in Liverpool. Without them, it is possible that you might not recognise him at all. Age, it seems, has finally caught up with the man nicknamed Mac the Mouth. His youthful pretty-boy looks have settled into something more noticeably middle-aged, and the shadows under his eyes are more pronounced than ever. His thick black hair still looks as though it has been caught in a tornado, however, and the bolshiness remains undiminished. McCulloch is renowned for his arrogance and bad temper and, where interviewers are concerned, is known to have a particularly short fuse.

Certainly, when we meet for lunch in his favourite Chinese restaurant, he barely looks up from his food and I am left to make small-talk with his good-natured manager, Peasy. Later on, after relocating to the studio where McCulloch and the Bunnymen guitarist Will Sergeant are rehearsing for their upcoming tour, his mood takes a turn for the better. He has, apparently, decided to be nice. Besides, if there is something McCulloch likes to do it is talk, and interviews offer an irresistible opportunity to sing his own praises and set the world to rights.

Today marks 25 years since the Bunnymen first made their stage debut at Eric's club in Liverpool. Their moody, neo-psychedelic songs, which betrayed their devotion to The Doors, defined the sound and atmosphere of the early Eighties and made them one of the most important bands of the post-punk era. Under the supervision of their manager and mentor Bill Drummond (who went on to found the KLF), they plotted tours along ley lines and on one occasion, crossed Liverpool with an army of fans on bicycles in the shape of Echo, the mystical rabbit.

But although they enjoyed countless triumphs, the Bunnymen were beset by torment, tantrums and tragedy. In the sleeve notes to their 1997 compilation Ballyhoo, Drummond sums up their career as "Lies, deceit, hatred, hotel floors, cocaine dealers, transit vans, acid trips, broken amplifiers, American girls, service stations, loss of innocence, corrupt road crews, missed opportunities, vanity, broken promises, shit gigs, bad sex, crap mixes, late VAT returns, petulance, incompetence, petty rivalry and Pete de Freitas dying."

Received wisdom has it that the Bunnymen were destined for stadium status and should have been as big as U2 and Simple Minds in the Eighties. McCulloch, who has always been disparaging about his peers, disagrees. "We knew we couldn't wear stupid hats and cowboys boots and look like John Cougar Mellencamp," he rumbles. "It was like, hang on a sec, they're playing a different game to us. We never had a game plan. It wasn't about the trophies or the yachts. We were very passionate about what we did, and that's what's always set us apart. It was the record company who tried to make out that we were these under-achievers. We were no more under- achieving than Jimi Hendrix or The Doors."

Proud as he is of his back catalogue, McCulloch insists he feels little nostalgia for the early days. "I'm not really nostalgic. I am when it comes to seeing black- and-white films or photos of family or remembering things when I was a kid. But when it comes to the band, I'm not at all. We were and still are the best."

McCulloch's near ceaseless self-promotion clearly masks a seam of insecurity. Throughout our hour-long chat he repeatedly lays into the music press, in particular the NME. Still stung at not having been included in their review of a music festival in California the previous month, he seizes the opportunity to vent his spleen. "We easily stole the show, we blew everyone off stage, except maybe for The Violent Femmes," he thunders. "Then they wrote about Duran Duran, for Christ's sake. Mind you, they've had it in for us probably from the day I said 'the NME's a load of shite and it needs the Bunnymen to be cool'. I can't help it if they hold a grudge."

Despite my best efforts to change the subject, there is no stopping him. Bad reviews he can cope with, but being ignored? "What surprises me about the NME," he continues, "is that they've never understood how important we are. Your Interpols, Thrills and Star Spangles, they always come over and say 'You were the band for us'. But you never see that mentioned. We're in people's lineage. We came out of the Velvets and Bowie and The Doors. They were part of our background and we were never shy of saying that. Now other bands have sprung from us and people should know where they came from."

The Bunnymen were formed from the ashes of The Crucial Three, a fleeting collaboration between McCulloch, Pete Wylie and Julian Cope. Wylie and Cope left the group to form The Teardrop Explodes and Wah! respectively, leaving their frontman to rethink his plans for world domination. In the summer of 1978 McCulloch was introduced to Sergeant with whom he began recording demos under the moniker Echo! After bringing in the bassist Les Pattinson, the trio made their live debut in November as Echo & The Bunnymen.

Their first single "Pictures on My Wall", released in March 1979, made Single Of The Week in both Sounds and Melody Maker, though it was not until they appeared with Joy Division at the YMCA in London to hysterical reviews that their fortunes really changed. Within two months the Bunnymen had signed a record deal with Sire, swapped their drum machine for the real-life drummer Pete de Freitas and started work on their debut album, Crocodiles.

McCulloch was quick to make his presence felt in what he believed to be an ailing music scene, deriding his rivals to journalists while extolling the brilliance of the Bunnymen. Was he putting on an act?

"No, it was all me," he replies with a grin. "It was the best bit, sitting down with all these idiots and shooting my mouth off. I said a few things that I shouldn't have but I'm a scouser. I'm still like that now."

With their next three albums, Heaven up Here, Porcupine (which yielded their first Top 10 single, "The Cutter") and Ocean Rain, the Bunnymen appeared to go from strength to strength but tension was brewing under the surface. Relations within the band were disintegrating as the members' alcohol and cocaine habits spiralled out of control. At the start of 1986, a drug-addled De Freitas left the group to join a band called The Sex Gods, but returnedto the fold six months later, having had what appeared to be a nervous breakdown.

Next came 1987's self-titled fifth LP. Parading big choruses and shiny production values, it was a foolhardy attempt to play to the mainstream. Though it sold well in America, McCulloch despised it and decided that the game was up. At the end of a show in Japan the singer walked off stage and announced that the band would split.

"As soon as I said it everyone was on the phone - management, record company, friends - saying 'You're mad,'" he recalls. "The album had already done half a million in America. I don't know, maybe if I hadn't been on that treadmill and had had a bit of a rest it would have been different."

The following year De Freitas was killed in a motorcycle accident. For a while, Sergeant and Pattinson soldiered on as the Bunnymen, enlisting Noel Burke as McCulloch's replacement. But after receiving a critical mauling for their album Reverberation, they called it a day.

Having made a handful of solo albums, McCulloch was reunited with Sergeant in 1994 for the short-lived Electrafixion. Two years later the Bunnymen were back together and 1997 heralded Evergreen, a superb LP yielding their biggest and arguably best single yet, "Nothing Lasts Forever."

"You see, there was method in my madness," cries McCulloch triumphantly. "If I hadn't broken the band up we would have never made 'Nothing Lasts Forever', and that's the best song I ever wrote. Everyone said at the time that it was the best comeback ever made, and they were right."

It comes as little surprise to discover that McCulloch was a shy child andsuffered from a compulsive disorder syndrome that meant he would obsessively wash his hands and find it hard to walk in and out of rooms. More damaging to the young McCulloch's self-assurance, though, was his severe myopia.

"I couldn't see a thing," he remembers. "I didn't tell my mates I wore glasses until I was 17 when they started making cool, tinted ones. Until then, if I was out and about I would just squint a lot. People thought I was ignoring them by not saying hello but I didn't know they were there. Walking around half blind and trying not to let on to anyone, I suppose I developed this moody vibe. It's still with me now."

It was this perceived aloofness that, says McCulloch, made him perfect frontman fodder - that and his "bloody brilliant" singing voice. "Music was all I was ever going to do," he states. "I wasn't just going to be in a band, I was going to be in the best one, I was going to have the best voice and write the best words. I was going to look great, although that doesn't stay the same. When I was 20, 21 it was all about the look and seeming to be the real thing. It probably was the real thing, but I feel so much more confident now."

Despite the trauma and tragedy that has dogged the band, McCulloch says he only has one regret. "That we didn't look after the money side of things. The last 10 years have been a real struggle. You think you've paid your tax because you've written out a couple of cheques and then suddenly you've got to scrape together thousands of quid. So yes, I wish I'd saved some cash. Otherwise I wouldn't change a thing. I'm glad I'm a Taurus, I'm glad I'm a scouser and I'm glad I've got the best voice in the rock world. There's a lot to be said for that."

Echo & The Bunnymen are on tour from 26-30 November (www.bunnymen.com). The albums 'Crocodiles', 'Heaven Up Here', 'Porcupine', 'Ocean Rain' and 'Echo & The Bunnymen' are reissued through WSM