Echo and the Bunnymen

The New York Observer; 1997

Ian McCulloch Returns (Cue the Dancing Horses)

“I hope they look better than the guys in Depeche Mode,” whispered a fan waiting for Echo and the Bunnymen to take the stage at the Mercury Lounge on May 18.

That’s a pretty high hope. The remaining members of the British postpunk group that ruled the alternative airwaves in the 80’s — singer Ian McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, bassist Les Pattinson — are now pushing 40. Needless to say, the club was packed with old fans eager to witness the grandfathers of neo-psychedelic alt-rock play their first American show in nearly 10 years. It would be a little taste of what was to come when their new album, Evergreen (London), hit the streets on July 1. Cordoned off by a makeshift masking-tape barrier, the band filed out into the swampy blue stage light. “It’s like the Royal visit,” somebody said.

To some, Echo and the Bunnymen are royalty. The 80’s are remembered (and celebrated, these days) as the era of stupidly named, musically inept, MTV-identified bands such as Kajagoogoo and Flock of Seagulls. But some bands — the Bunnymen, the Smiths, R.E.M., the Replacements, the Jam, New Order, the Cure, Hüsker Dü — managed to survive much of the decade by throwing intelligent, melodic rock in the face of crap. Watching Mr. McCulloch, 38, blow his cigarette smoke around the stage that night, his still-agile voice alternating between growls, shrieks and pure Sinatraesque crooning, his famously high coif backlit in blue, it felt like 1984 all over again — the last time anybody really thought of Echo and the Bunnymen as cool.

What there is of the band’s mystique has always centered around Mr. McCulloch — or “Mac the Mouth,” as the British press often refer to him. Sitting in the upstairs bar at the Paramount Hotel two days after the Mercury Lounge show, smoking Marlboro Reds and throwing back glasses of Baileys on ice, it was obvious that Mac’s mouth hadn’t lost its nerve.

“In Britain, we were fifteen years ahead of our time. In America, we were fifty,” Mr. McCulloch said. Wearing a blue peacoat, jeans, blue retro sneakers from Diesel and dark blue-tinted shades (“They’re prescription!” he insisted), Mr. McCulloch, who has been known to be prickly, was the picture of good humor.

“Actually, I’ve always felt America prefers music to hairstyles,” he said. “I mean, it’s obvious when you look at a lot of people walking the streets that they prefer anything to making an effort in appearance.”

For someone who staked his reputation on his very “It-ness,” Mr. McCulloch had a lot to lose coming out with a new album more than a decade after the Bunnymen’s glory days. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Our manager said, ‘You will get a lot of people just not wanting this.’ But I said, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to go for making the best record we’ve ever made, and be better live than we ever were, and be the coolest band on the planet again.”

Lucky for him, Evergreen is pretty good. Softer than previous Bunnymen albums, but filled with plenty of radio-friendly tunes, Evergreen is proof that mellowing with age doesn’t have to mean becoming the Eagles.

When asked why he reformed the band now, Mr. McCulloch said he had been writing unfinished songs for the past nine years, then realized he wanted them to be heard. The band’s contract with Warner Brothers’ Korova label had expired and they were free to use the band’s name again. So, Mr. McCulloch and Mr. Sergeant decided to reunite, and within months they had 20 songs.

“It was obvious that we were going to make the greatest record of 1997,” Mr. McCulloch said. He was dead serious. “I knew, sitting in me living room.”

One can make the assumption that the band reformed to cash in on the current 80’s nostalgia craze. (Get in your VW and repeat after me: “Da, Da, Da.”) After all, Mr. McCulloch’s two solo outings, 1989’s Candleland and 1992’s Mysterio, as well as Electrafixion, a different project with Mr. Sergeant, didn’t exactly set the charts ablaze. But Mr. McCulloch snorted at the suggestion.

“We did a press conference in Liverpool the day of the first gig there,” he said, “and someone was asking whether there was a commercial reason behind using the name and reforming. And I thought, ‘What a stupid question.'” Mr. McCulloch sighed. “The whole world’s commercial. Obviously, it’s part of it. It’s only commercial in the fact that I want more people to hear it. We’ve never been motivated by money.”

Of course not. Mr. McCulloch is driven by the desire to leave his mark on the world, and has contempt for people he calls “no-marks” — shortsighted, unambitious people, or anyone in the music business who stands in his way. In case you haven’t noticed, massive ego is Mr. McCulloch’s schtick. No one who saw Echo and the Bunnymen perform “Do It Clean” and “Killing Moon” 13 years ago could imagine him allowing his band to come back and flop. Mr. McCulloch said he saw many young people in the audience when he was on the Electrafixion tour, kids who were too young to have seen the Bunnymen in their heyday. It got him thinking that America would embrace him this time around because, in his opinion, Americans listen more.

“There’s less sense of cool in America,” he said. “And when there is a sense of cool, it’s generally very mistaken.” Adopting a flat American accent, he mimicked a fan: “It’s cool, man. You know who you remind me of? Tears for Fears, man.” Mr. McCulloch laughed, then turned thoughtful.

“I do want people to realize that I’m serious about what I do, that the kind of facade of the way you dress, the way your hair is, the way you smoke a cigarette is dead important. But people have got to realize that I’m serious about being more than a pair of lips.”

The great paradox with Echo and the Bunnymen is that for a band with such a confident leader, Mr. McCulloch writes mostly about feelings of self-doubt and guilt. “People never got it!” he said, slamming his palm on the table. “It’s like, ‘Mac the Mouth.'” Slam! “‘He was an arrogant bastard.'” Slam! “‘Let’s put him on the front cover.'” No slam.

The Bunnymen are too long in the tooth to grace the covers of alt-rock tastemaker mags like Spin, but they have more of a chance of being taken seriously than some of the other 80’s artists releasing brand-new albums in 1997. The list reads like a who’s who from that “Totally 80’s” late-night infomercial: INXS, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, ABC, UB40, Swing Out Sister, The Blow Monkey’s Dr. Robert.

How does Mr. McCulloch feel about getting lumped in with those groups? “We’ve got nothing to do with it,” he spat. “We didn’t at the time. I said everything was shit, apart from us. We were 15 years ahead of our time, so how can we be anything to do with the 80’s?”

There’s the wind-up, here’s the pitch:

“It must have been MTV’s retro lunch or whatever,” he said, recalling his most recent moment of enlightenment, “but they were playing Big Country — one of the crimes of rock-and-roll — and it suddenly just dawned on me: They’re groups. It’s not just one person making that decision to be utterly crap, it’s four of them or more! That’s a lot of collective stupidity.”

Sad but true. So, bring on the dancing horses.