Songwriter Interviews

Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen

by Dan MacIntosh

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The Echo & The Bunnymen frontman explores "The Killing Moon," talks about his "cryptic without being contentious" lyrics, and tries to popularize a new punctuation.

With the October 5, 2018 release of The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon, an album where Echo & The Bunnymen reinterpret some of their most popular songs (in addition to two new tracks), now's a good time to delve deeper into a few of these significant musical moments.

Echo & The Bunnymen fulfilled a unique role in the evolution of British rock music. Although many of lead singer Ian McCulloch's lyrics are cryptically dark, dark enough to find favor with the Goth crowd, his musical partner in crime, guitarist Will Sergeant, colors the band's songs with many distinctly non-Goth-y influences that range from The Velvet Underground to The Doors. And like Sisters of Mercy, another Goth favorite strongly influenced by Leonard Cohen (one that even took its name from one of that great man's songs), McCulloch dug Leonard Cohen before digging him was cool.

McCulloch sometimes comes off as arrogant in the press, but over the phone, he's very likable. He's also suitably proud of his work.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I love one of the album's two new songs, "How Far?" which includes the great line, "We're all astronauts looking for heaven."

Ian McCulloch: That whole song, for me, was a David Bowie moment. I felt like I'd written "Starman" or something. Not just because of the astral thing, but because it just had something of Bowie:

We're not the ones, we're not the ones
Are we not the ones he played?
Are we not the ones betrayed?


I've realized after singing it that I was singing it to some kind of god.

Are we not the ones?

We're supposed to believe and yet we're still looking for this heaven. Hence, the astronaut helmet on the cover of the album. Instead of the unknown soldier, the unknown astronaut.

I never think about too many specifics. When I write lyrics like "The Killing Moon," it sounds vaguer than it actually is. I always think, This is the meaning. I never really tell people what the meaning is to all the songs because that surely spoils their journey. When they listen to something like "The Killing Moon," there are so many different ideas of what that is about. To me it's like to be or not to be moments, "The Killing Moon."

With "How Far?," that's my Lord's Prayer. I know the Lord's Prayer is a massive thing to compare it to, but it's what I like to do with songs: rhetorical questions aimed at someone who doesn't even exist. That's how I like to write. And I always know my answers to it, but I want it to be just cryptic enough without it being contentious. I love cryptic puzzles. I do a lot of crosswords. I'm always looking for anagrams and wordplay and stuff. That's an obsession I like to apply to songs.

With songs you have to keep it simpler, or they're just rubbish. But I'm really glad you picked up on that. When I came up with, "Here we are, we're all lost," I just thought, It's an astral thing. It was just my kind of song.

It was one of those moments for me. When we recorded it, it must have been what Bowie felt when he wrote "Life On Mars" or when he actually sang it in a studio. That's a hell of a song to compare it to but that's what I always aim for. I've never set out going, I want to write this song like Dylan, David Bowie or whoever, but when it happens, it feels like one of the things you've loved all your life. Like what I felt when I listened to Ziggy Stardust or Hunky Dory. And that was the moment I got with that song. I just felt like I was in the Hunky Dory album. Those moments are why I love doing it.

Songfacts: That leads me to my next question. Do you believe it's in the human DNA, so to speak, to want to know about heaven and the afterlife and God? Do you think that's built into us?

McCulloch: Yeah. People say that's the meaning of life: No one knows about what happens after you die. It's clearly not a god with a white beard sitting on a cloud, but we can't possibly know. People think there's nothing after, but who are these experts who say you can't believe in anything? That everything's futile? I believe in pre-destiny and that's what "The Killing Moon" is about. But it's clearly not futile.

It's scary, but sometimes people who aren't believers in anything that could possibly be beyond our ken, they seem to be the ones in life who moan more than they dream. I don't sit down wondering what I'm going to be in an afterlife. People are all made up of particles of bits. Some people say bits of nothing, but if it's so negative, don't make everyone feel that way. Don't spoil it for people and say there's nothing. Let them just do what they believe.

I don't go to church, I don't pray, but a friend of mine, Jonathan Jackson, he's in this program Nashville. He supported us - his band supported The Bunnymen in the last shows we did in Britain. I just love him. He believes in God and he texted me saying that "How Far?" is a song he thinks of as a prayer. I thought, No one's ever said that. But that's what I'm doing it for. It's kind of praying to my own soul, hoping that I can raise it out of whatever fog or quagmire. I don't know what sadness or melancholy you have in your life, but it's more melancholy than anything, and I was born with it. I wake up and it's usually about something.

I'm not even Catholic. I'm not in love with the Catholic church where they just go into a box and talk to the priest who will say how many Hail Marys to do to take care of all this feeling of guilt. But when Jonathan said that, I thought it was a great way of feeling it. And it's why, when I was 13, before everyone started liking Leonard Cohen and everyone said to me, "Why are you listening to that?" I said, "He's sending me things." I preferred when I was the only person who seemed to like him, especially when, in one of the first serious interviews for the Bunnymen, I mentioned him. I remember the journalist saying, "Oh, he's like suicide. Why are you listening to that music?" And I thought, That's so lazy. Especially for someone who is in music.

Echo, 1978
But even as a teenager, I thought, whatever they think of him, he writes better words than that journalist had ever done to discuss life. I don't mean to put down journalists, but someone in that position should understand something as brilliant as Leonard Cohen. He just lazily said that, probably to make his colleagues think, Yeah, he's nailed him.

They used to do it with Lou Reed. Berlin was universally slagged as an album and now people call it a work of art, and it is. That would get me into a discussion about the culture of magazines, which I think is one of the laziest things I've ever seen. Or a fancy newspaper: "This is what we can tell you about what you should like." From ballet to what's on TV. It just struck me, especially in London. Like, why do you think you're experts?

At the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that line in "How Far?" You didn't start off with, "Why did you do versions of the old songs?" You mentioned that new song, which is key to everything for me and explains the new "Killing Moon" as much as anything. It's because I've been on the moon that is "The Killing Moon." No one else has really been on that moon because I sing it as I wrote it. It's my moon now. Not the one up in the sky, but "The Killing Moon" is my moon - I know everything about it. I feel it from day to day, but it changes all the time.

Every now and then and I go, "Wow! That was like some kind of scripture for me, that song." It doesn't mean it's about God, but it's my parable that I had to write for myself first, but it seems lots of people see "The Killing Moon" as a special song.

Songfacts: I do want to talk a little bit about the songs on the album, simply because so many of them are so different. "Rescue," which is a great song, is slowed down. It's almost like you slowed it down so it sounds like the blues. Was that your intention?

McCulloch: My intention initially was to play a different rhythm guitar line, because all that chink-chink-chink, I didn't even realize how much slower it was because I didn't want to listen to the originals. It was more based on how they felt live to me.

"Rescue" doesn't change that much, that song, but that blues feel is more pronounced, especially at the end when I go, "Is this the blues I'm singin'[?]" I like that rhetorical question. Well, it's not even a rhetorical question; it's a non-rhetorical, rhetorical question.

I've been working on this: When I write in texts, there's no symbol for a rhetorical question, and I ask so many when I'm talking to friends. There's nothing for it in the English dictionaries. So, when I finish a rhetorical sentence, I thought if I put the left-hand bracket, and then a question mark in the middle, then the right-hand closed bracket, that is a rhetorical question mark. I want to try to get it in the dictionary. That's going to be next.

Songfacts: Well, good luck.

McCulloch: Well, I don't see why not. There are always new words. So use that, and if I see it in the dictionary, I'll know you've done it, Dan.

Songfacts: Why don't I try it[?]

When the group formed in 1978, they didn't have a drummer, so they used a Korg drum machine on their demos. And just as Darius Rucker became "Hootie," McCulloch was assumed to be "Echo." So the band told the press that "Echo" was the name of their drum machine, a tall tale that made a reliable talking point.
Songfacts: "Bedbugs and Ballyhoo" is one of the most fun wordplay songs I think you've ever written. Do you remember what happened and how you came up with all that verbiage to squeeze in there?

McCulloch: Well, I did this with "Dancing Horses." We'd done "Dancing Horses" in Brussels and that was a single. It took ages, we spent a lot of time on that one song. It was meant to be our year off, but it was never a year off anyway. It was a stupid idea and it was just a smug way of us saying, We're so far ahead of every other band, we're taking off a year so you can try to catch up.

That was kind of what that message was, but it was never explained properly, and if I had said that I'd have been crucified. This fella's so arrogant. And it wasn't arrogance, it was just funny, because I'm from Liverpool and especially when we're in Liverpool with fellow Liverpudlians, everything we say is designed to be like one-upmanship. Your friend says something that's a little bit funny and then you just twist it around and say something that's funnier.

So, with the wordplay thing, that's something I do every day. "Silverfish and Jesus, Jesus and Silverfish." That makes you think of when they're feeding on the five thousand. And then, "Gibberish and genius, genius and gibberish." It was my way of responding to people that say, "Oh, the words are just any old stuff." So, we're saying, "Before you can say anything, I've just told you, genius and gibberish."

"Buffalo and bison." Somebody I worked closely with is Jake Drake-Brockman, who was one of the key members of The Bunnymen tours. We needed a B-side when we did "Over Your Shoulder," so we went into the studio near Manchester somewhere because it was the closest one we could get into for one day. Les [Pattinson] came up with the bassline and I had the rhythm and chords. This Jake fella, we were close, but I never trusted his judgement on anything because he had a hyphenated name and he was from the south of England - he was from a posh village. So, I never trusted his taste or what he had to say. He said, "That song's rubbish." He ridiculed it. And I said, "No, Jake, it's about imperialism." That's why we play it.

I don't even know how the hell I made that crap up. Maybe it is about imperialism, in a way, or the way people just cower when there's a bully. Or someone who's giving you something and you're down on your knees saying, "Please, yeah, yeah, yeah," and then, "No, no, no."

Echo, 1987
Songfacts: I think one of your most beautiful songs is "Bring On The Dancing Horses," but I've never quite understood what you were trying to say with that. What inspired that?

McCulloch: I only realized when I was doing this version what I think it's about. It's about, are we statues or are we human? Not like The Killers' thing but it's about heart and soul: "Jimmy Brown, made of stone." I'm not Jimmy Brown, I'm someone else. I'm the one who's just shivering and saying "the words of every lie I've heard."

It's about the way people would sooner look at statues than themselves. We revere things that tell us about ourselves. It's that thing of how we think art is very important. A life without art, who knows what that would be like? We think the Mona Lisa is this thing that's valuable, when something else isn't.

You know, "The Killing Moon," you get that for one penny and it pisses over the Mona Lisa. You don't even have to pay for "The Killing Moon" or these songs like "Jumpin' Jack Flash." If you're told something's great and something's worthwhile, people start believing it. That's why I started talking about "The Killing Moon" being a great song lyric, and some people believe it now. I've always thought it was because it's a really good song.

September 28, 2018
Here's our interview with Will Sergeant

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