Ian McCulloch’s ear has been affixed to a telephone receiver since 8 a.m. By the time our interview is over, he will have talked to journalists from Australia and the United States for 10 hours straight. Before waking, he dreamed about taking a shower. “Not because I stunk. Because I knew I’d need one. It’s so much better when you’re doing hours of interviews; it’s best to get the shower in.”
Because we live on a rotating sphere, it’s morning for me and I’m still on my first cup of coffee. But despite connection troubles between me and his Liverpool office, different accents and varied forms of fatigue, we meet somewhere in the middle to discuss hot dogs, death and electronic music. And for his last interview of the day, he quips, “I think I’ve got me second wind.”
Ian McCulloch is cool — perhaps the coolest man in rock, rarely seen without sunglasses. They’ll come in handy when he and his gloomy post-punk pancake-pale band venture outside before dark on the Farmer Jack stage, Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Comerica Tastefest, for the first gig of their U.S. tour.
Mac admits it’s a little weird that the Bunnymen are performing at an outdoor festival, but once you’ve done it a few times, he says, you just close your eyes and everything’s groovy. When I mention that a million people showed up in Detroit for an electronic music festival a month ago, he asks his office manager to buy some synthesizers and another drum machine. “That sounds like where the crowds are. I might do that. Maybe, just mention that we might be thinking of going electronic on the next album.
“I do think festivals are good, though,” he adds. “There’s a place where people can just go and even if they’re not that familiar with a band, if they hear a song they like, it can turn them on. It is a good forum for that. But if they don’t like it, they can just as easily go to the hot dog stand.”
Flowers, the band’s eighth album, arrives four years after the “comeback,” 12 years after drummer Pete de Freitas died in a car accident and more than two decades after McCulloch, Will Sargeant (guitar) and Echo (the drum machine) joined forces in 1978 to become the best band in the world.
Although that vision never fully actualized, it’s not due to modesty on McCulloch’s part.
“I’ve got the best singing voice around,” he told Emma Yates from Liverpool’s Daily Post in May. He does admit, however, that if John Lennon were still around, he might have some competition.
“‘The King of Kings,’ that’s the song that most people ask me about,” McCulloch offers. “‘Who is the king of kings? What’s it like with broken wings these days?’ My stance is, it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. And if they ask me, ‘What is it about? I think it’s about Jesus,’ I’ll say, ‘No, it’s about me.’”
Alongside McCulloch and Sargeant are three new Bunnymen, replacing bassist Les Pattinson and de Freitas. Although Alex Gleave (bass), Vinny Jamieson (drums) and Ceri James (keyboards) were babies when the Bunnymen first played Eric’s in Liverpool in 1978, McCulloch doesn’t think they’re as young as they’re being portrayed in the media.
“People think we’re cradle-snatching. Some of them look older than me — but I can’t go into that because one of them’s here. No, he looks about the same age, kind of 27. Will does look his age,” he says snidely, “but I’m getting away with murder. So I mean, it’s not how old you are. It’s how old you look, I always think.”
Flowers has been likened to a debut album since it has a renewed energy about it, calling to mind the vital freshness of the band’s first album, Crocodiles.
“It was written very quickly,” McCulloch says. “Will kind of came to my house with his drum machine and a guitar and he played like he used to, but with a bit more sexiness I think, more fluidity and less angularity than on the first album. Crocodiles was a lot more trigonometry and this one is a little more undulating, I think. Kind of a little bit more groovy. And obviously, we’ve got a different drummer now. I think Vinny, he’s kind of very Italian-looking. And his name sounds it certainly. And he adds that kind of bubba dee bubba da bubba dap thing, that consigularism. Have you seen the film, Analyze This? I’ve seen it six times this year. It’s fun. I love it. Billy Crystal is great. But anyway, back to the album — there are lots of similarities, but it’s kind of less angsted-up …
“It’s kind of like Crocodiles in that there are little couplets that kind of maybe intrigue. You don’t really know what the lyrics are really about. There are some lyrics in the album that are very to the point and direct and what you hear is what they mean, basically, but there’s a lot of me just playing about in the pub, having a pint and writing the lyrics on the back of a beer muff.”
For those who were wondering, the drum machine Sargeant brought over wasn’t the famous original.
“Echo got stolen from Liverpool,” McCulloch sighs. “I wish it had been stolen somewhere else because Liverpool has this reputation for people not being too bothered about … I reckon it was nicked by someone from Manchester. But we’ve had this drum machine with us probably since around 1979, so it’s kind of like a cousin of Echo.”
Toward the end of the interview, Mac’s as witty as ever when discussing his experiences touring the United States.
“I love everything about touring America. It’s fantastic. America’s fantastic. There was a phase where the English would go, ‘America, everyone says have a nice day. What a load of crap. It’s so false. Bollocks.’ But I believe they mean it. You go into a store and the girl at the cash till goes, ‘Here’s your dime change and have a nice day.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I think I might now.’ I love that. America’s great. I’m not into all these dudes who shoot people at McDonald’s, but, ya know, America’s fantastic. And names, like Philadelphia, they have to be funky. Chicago and Detroit. There’s not many songs about Detroit, but I’ll see what I can do.”
The band has been around for a long time, but since what is referred to as “the comeback” — the release of Evergreen in 1997 – it’s almost as if they’ve been reborn. Much like L.L. Cool J, however, McCulloch doesn’t call it a comeback.
“I don’t know why they do that. I don’t call any of it a comeback or a come-forward or a come-lately. It’s just another record in our canon and it’s great. Just get on with it or go and play your Radiohead record and just leave us to do what we do. Comeback, schmomback. When I come back from the dead and do a solo record, that’s a certain comeback. Speaking of which, I’m popular at the morgues.
“What do you call it if you’re practicing your own funeral and you lie in a coffin in one of them long cars?
“It’s a re-hearse-al.”
Ba dam bat.
Flowers does call to mind a funeral with its references to, of course, flowers, as well as song titles such as “Buried Alive,” “Life Goes On,” “Eternity Turns” and “Burn For Me,” but McCulloch denies that the album is a metaphor for the end. Rhino may be releasing a four-disc, 72-song retrospective called Echo and the Bunnymen: Crystal Days 1979-1999, but he says there are more ideas afoot, including his third solo album, which he hopes might include a duet with Courtney Love.
“There’s gonna be plenty of albums. I’m gonna do a solo one and then there’ll be a Bunnymen one. And I’m sure there’ll be an electronic sort of Detroit thing. A million people can’t be wrong.”