Early on, the British press dubbed Echo and the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch “Mac the Mouth” because of his brash attitude and overwhelming ego. Thirty-plus years after the post-punk group came out of Liverpool with college-radio hits like “The Cutter,” “The Killing Moon,” and “Lips Like Sugar,” McCulloch is still at it. The band doesn't receive much airplay these days, but the singer continues to think highly of himself and the current incarnation of Bunnymen, which includes original guitarist Will Sergeant. McCulloch recently spoke about the band and last year’s solid new album, The Fountain. The group plays House of Blues on Thursday. —Jeff Niesel
As a band that had a number of hits in the ’80s, you could easily just play your old tunes. But you haven’t done that. How important is it that you continue to record new albums?
It’s like no one said to Picasso when he was 63, “Why are you still painting?” It was what he did. I think the Bunnymen is an art form and we’re artists. To have written the songs we have, whether it’s “The Killing Moon,” “Rescue” or “The Idolness of Gods” off The Fountain, it’s not like we’re doing it for popular appeal. We’re doing it because we’re the Van Goghs of rock.
I like the title track to your latest album, The Fountain. Did something in particular inspire it?
Lyrically, that’s what I enjoy doing. I love playing with words. Some songs are more direct and some are more tongue-in-cheek. I love attempting to say something honest about myself and coloring it with a bit of a romantic ethos.
The sea seems to figure into numerous songs. How much are you inspired by the ocean?
I love being near water. Coming from Liverpool, the pier head, where a lot of the buildings are, is my favorite part of city, though I’m shit scared of the water. I love being on a ferry and standing there and feeling like I own the sea or the channels at least. It’s when people start jumping in that I get nervous. If I can’t see the bottom I’m not going in. But I like the idea of being the masthead of a ship rather than the dealing with the water so much. I love looking at the water. I love the sound it makes when it laps against the shore. I love its movement more than anything. I’m equally in love with the sky. A clear blue sky is brilliant, maybe even more than the sea the way the clouds can just hang there. The ominous sky is the best. But again, I’m not going to be chasing twisters. I’m not the bravest when it comes to the elements. I just like singing about them.
You and guitarist Will Sergeant have worked together steadily since the band reformed in 1997. Explain the chemistry that exists between the two of you.
We’re each other’s palettes. We haven’t run out of colors. When we run out of colors, maybe we won’t be together. We see each other as the best part of what we are. We don’t have to live with each other. He thinks I’m the best singer and I know he’s the best guitarist. That just seems right. We don’t live in each other’s pockets when we’re back home. I feel like we’re the best football club of the world. We go on tour and that’s our football season and we make records and tour and always deliver statements of intent. We feel like we’re untouchable in terms of what we’ve done and what we want to do. The next album is going to be brilliant. I want the next album to be more organic from the word go. I want to get in there and play loud and sing at the top of my voice again. Somebody asked me about my style of singing and suggested I couldn’t hit the notes I used to. But when we play live, I hit those notes purer and better than I ever did in the past. I defy anyone to sing “The Back of Love.” It’s a vocal miracle almost, especially live. It’s a roller coaster vocally and Pavarotti couldn’t have sung it.
You’ve said that songwriting isn’t difficult but it needs to be imbued with “some personal longing or sorrow.” Is that a well that never runs dry?
Yeah. “My Unrequited Life” is one title I have for a book. If I have to explain what my songs are about or my lyrics mean, it’s unrequited life. With that as a mindset, it’s impossible to run dry. That’s my ethos. It’s my faith almost.
Why else would I feel so unrequited after all I’ve done?
Do you have any regrets about the statements you made when the band first started out?
Not really, no. I think they’re all fairly accurate. I nailed Bono well before the rest of the world got it. It doesn’t matter if you can write good melodies, it’s whether anyone would want to be in your company for more than three seconds. That’s the issue. Underneath all those platitudes, there’s nothing there. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is a good song maybe but it doesn’t match up to the size of his raison d’etre. He’s never funny. It’s hard to like him. Everybody feels like that. It’s the problem of the showman, I suppose. But wear a pair of sandals, for fuck’s sake. Even Jesus wore sandals.