Ian McCulloch loves the great songwriters of his teenage years too much to seek out modern imitators, but alongside the likes of Lennon, Bowie and Lou Reed he makes space for a familiar recommendation.
“I love Jake Bugg,” says the voice behind one of Britain’s most iconic indie bands.
“It took Nottingham a while to come out with something as good as him.”
Perhaps the Echo & The Bunnymen frontman sees a little of his own character in the young songwriter. They certainly do share dry humour and a gritty honesty. But what Bugg might be too shy, McCulloch is to outspoken.
“I divide people’s opinions just by the way I am,” says the 55-year-old.
“Friends of mine let things go because they understand ‘what you see is what you get’. I like that when people say that about me, because it’s true.”
Throughout our interview McCulloch walks the tightrope between arrogance and infectious humour, but never seems to fall off on the wrong side. Indeed, he is open, funny, and – in his breathy Liverpudlian tones – thoroughly engaging.
“I divide people’s opinions just by the way I am”
We start at Meteorites, the post-punk outfit’s 12th studio album, released in June. What was the ambition this time?
“A modern-day defining Bunnymen album,” he says.
“It was so reminiscent to me of early Bunnymen, in terms of it being written around bass lines. It reminded me of Crocodiles (1980) or Heaven Up Here (1981).”
How would the band usually be defined, I wonder? McCulloch isn’t sure: “You have a song like Over The Wall, which bears no relation to Nothing Lasts Forever. That’s what I’ve always liked about the Bunnymen, I don’t think there is one trademark sound. With other groups you hear one thing and it’s like ‘oh, that will be them’. It’s maybe why we got big, but we didn’t get household-name big.”
Meteorites certainly seems to possess familiar Bunnymen qualities, however. Will Sergeant’s swirling, riff-laden guitar – “the Indian-y solo stuff,” as McCulloch describes it – and the singer’s own yearning melancholy which comes to the fore on Is This A Breakdown?, a song which suggests an insight into recent trauma.
“I was in depression for a long time,” he says.
“It’s something I’ve had as part of my character since I was a child. I always went into depressions before but this one lasted a year or two. It was horrible, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. In the past you’d come and go, and I’d ride the waves. But when a wave becomes a tsunami it’s a tough one.”
This battle forms part of a book McCulloch is currently writing: “I write with a pen in notepads, and there’s one page where the ink is smeared because of tears,” he says.
“Tears of complete and utter…not sorrow… but, those tears you can’t hold back. I was crying on to the page.”
“When a wave becomes a tsunami it’s a tough one”
Writing the album certainly helped, the singer says, but playing live has been even more therapeutic. He’s particularly enthusiastic about July’s rescheduled date at Wolverhampton Civic Hall.
“It blew my mind,” he says. “They were there from second one. They came to watch slightly in wonder… seeing us as part of their life.
“It made me allow them to sing. In the past I would say, ‘stop singing, don’t clap’ but since then, I’ve tried to let them have some of the moments. It’s really helped me because I enjoy the gig more. With the audience singing as a choir the words resonate a lot.
“It’s like, ‘whoa, is that what it means?’.
“There wasn’t one dissenting voice, just people saying ‘wow’. That’s been more therapeutic than anything.”
It’s a momentum that made the recent American tour one of their best yet.
“For them, they’re looking at a legendary band. And that’s how I want to feel. Will was saying, ‘it feels like I’m in a band like The Doors’. But I’m like, ‘Will, you always have been’.
“You can get to the point where you think, does anyone really get how great we are? In America, south America, Europe even, they do. I’m not putting down Britain, but maybe we’re too familiar.”
Perhaps then, for a band always considered to have missed out on breaking America, they have finally done so?
“No, the idea of ‘breaking America’ is ridiculous really. I’m sure bin Laden broke America, but he never got to number one in my book.”
“Bin Laden broke America, but he never got to number one in my book”
It’s not the first darkly hilarious swipe McCulloch makes, and neither is it the last. He’s particularly comical in his response to an uncomplimentary reviewer at the Sunday Times: “There’s one person in particular,” he growls. “I must have (slept with) his mum or something because it defies belief what he comes out with.
“The same week as we got ‘dud of the week’ he gives Mariah Carey a half-decent review! And he uses the word melisma, a word I’ve never even heard of before. I just thought, ‘you pretentious tw*t’. To be a writer there you have to have a half-Czechoslovakian half-Polish name that sounds like you’re an abstract expressionist.”
Water off a duck’s back, then?
McCulloch chooses another metaphor: “I don’t take things with pinches of salt, I take them with mountains of it.
“You know when you’re s**t and you know when you’re brilliant.”
Plenty of contemporaries would say McCulloch’s band are indeed the latter, but he is surprisingly modest about his own influence.
“I think it’s attitudinal as much as anything,” he says.
“When Oasis came out, it was a visual comparison…I don’t think it was necessarily clever.”
“If I’d have died, maybe around Nothing Lasts Forever (1997), I think history would look on us totally differently. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it helps to be a singer who dies.”
Not that he would wish his life any other way, of course.
“I decided to be a legend in my own lifetime.
“You get to enjoy it more, I think.”
“I don’t take things with pinches of salt, I take them with mountains of it”
For now, if not writing future material, McCulloch finds himself being angered by the daytime TV shows he watches from his sofa.
“I was watching a Sunday cooking show and there’s this band from Scotland. I don’t even know what they were called, but they were sh*te!
“In the music business there are so many deceivers. People who just want to be on the telly or on the cover of the NME. There are too many climbers out there… basically the whole record industry. It’s not just the people who run everything… you see it in the bands.”
A search later reveals the guilty culprits to be Twin Atlantic.
“They were saying all the right things, and having an opinion on Scottish independence. The only opinion is shut up or **** off. You’re part of Britain whether you like it or not, and you always should be.”
He adds: “I’m trying to think about lyrics at the minute to try and say what I think about all these people on my telly that I don’t want on my telly. People with British passports going somewhere to kill British people?
“Decapitating? It’s obscene.”
He’s referring, of course, to the brutal murder of British aid worker David Haines by extremists in Syria.
“You get these people saying, ‘no, there are two sides to this’. No there’s not. Not for that fella and his family.”
McCulloch certainly isn’t clock-watching, but as our conversation reaches the hour mark he eyes up the kettle. “With that, I think I’m going to have another cup of tea,” he says. “I enjoyed that. I’ve loved every second of it.”