“Two questions in, and it’s already utterly banal.” We’re off to a bad start. Ian McCulloch is late to the interview, his first in the U.S. for Echo and the Bunnymen’s forthcoming 11th album, The Fountain. He looks a touch disheveled, unshaven with a pair of sunglasses on, as he shakes my hand and sits down in a table in the Chelsea office, walls lined with Aerosmith gold records and a smell emanating from a bowl of cat food sitting next to us.
I lob a couple of softballs to start and he bats them off, as if the whole thing is a waste of precious time. “I don’t like to be interrupted,” he adds, deadpan. A couple more questions in and he apologizes. It’s been a rough morning. These things happen. And when the subject of songwriting comes up, the 50-year-old rock star happily rips into the issue as though no one had ever broached it in his presence before.
“It’s quite different,” begins. “In the old days I’d write melody lines and the lyrics around them. I get the sense of melody in my head—usually in the shower. I sing phrases. I’m not normally one who sings for the sake of it, but I do sing comedy songs in the shower. Generally now my melody lines come a capella, rather than with an instrument. I think it’s a reversal of how most people, where it feels like an actual way or writing. You nail a tune and then work out the actual instrumentation. I’ve always got the songs pretty well mapped out, because once I have the melody lines, I’ll write the chords to go with it. There’s usually maybe a bit that is missing like a middle eight or an alto, which can come just by singing the rest over and over again. But generally I write the songs, start to finish. I’ll get the melodies then I’ll work out the lyrics.”
Thirty years in, it’s clear that McCulloch still has a passion for songwriting, a spark of creativity not dulled by his band’s touring revisiting of its 1984 classic, Ocean Rain, full backing orchestra in tow. It’s an album, McCulloch insists, that is as fresh 25 years later as it was when it was first recorded.
“I think our songs sound like they’re from the future. That’s how I’ve always felt about our stuff. We’ve always aimed it to be timeless. We certainly never wanted it to sound dated. Because we never used synths, really. Our music had more to do with Television or the Velvets—it was more like the New Yorky stuff, Patti Smith and all of that. And Bowie. Will loved Television and I loved the Ramones.”
Being from the future, after all, means never having to succumb to the trappings of modern music. “I don’t think about what it’s going to sound like on the radio, because I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t listen to much music at all, to be honest. I play crosswords and watch BBC News.”
Or for that matter, Coldplay, in spite of an appearance by that band’s lead singer on one of The Fountain’s tracks. “It seems like just a gimmick to put into reviews. What’s that got to do with anything? I’ve been in Echo and the Bunnymen for 30 years, what am I going to learn from Coldplay? It’s ridiculous.”