Echo & The Bunnymen: The Alchemy of Melancholy

Photo by Roger Sargent

Music Features Echo & The Bunnymen
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“I’ve been fairly open about stuff,” notes Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch. “It’s been ups and downs. Quite a lot of downs. The downs have lasted a long time, to be honest. It was one of those things where I never thought I was depressed. Just melancholic.”

He’s speaking about the events leading up to the writing and recording of Echo and The Bunnymen’s new album, Meteorites. But that declaration could be extrapolated to cover his career as a whole.

At its core, Echo & Bunnymen has always been about McCulloch’s exploration of emotions at polar ends of the spectrum: Love and hate. Lust and devotion. Loneliness and oppression. “I’m the yo-yo man, always up and down,” McCulloch sang on 1984’s Ocean Rain track “Yo-Yo Man.” If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that he will say and sing whatever he’s thinking.

Hey, they don’t call him “Mac the Mouth” for nothing.

It’s been five years since Echo & The Bunnymen’s last album, 2009’s The Fountain. Emotionally, a lot has changed for McCulloch. He’s been tamed by both vocal issues that have forced the band to shuffle a number of live dates and an extended bout of introspection that led him carve out much of the rock ‘n’ roll excess from his life. As a result, he chooses his words carefully, starting with the obvious lede—he’s ready to let fans in on certain aspects of his life.

“I was looking back on my dad and childhood,” he says simply. “I’ve always enjoyed the solitary gloom. It’s something you get used to. It defines you.”

Finally ready to explore these emotions, he took to noodling in his Liverpool flat, working out his feelings as he developed new tracks. The songs were then brought to his writing partner and Bunnymen guitarist, Will Sergeant, where they were fleshed out with additional instrumentals.

Despite the intense nature of his sonic sketch sketches, McCulloch never considered releasing the album as a solo project, as he did with 2013’s Holy Ghosts. As McCulloch reveals, the j’en sais quoi of the material demanded it become a band album.

“I sensed there was an element of ‘woe is me,’” he says. “That’s a phrase I’ve been using a lot. But there was also a sense that these songs were the Bunnymen.”

The pair infused new energy into the trademark Bunnymen sound, balancing McCulloch’s ennui with flourishes of strings that often suggest a latter-day follow-up to their 1984 album, Ocean Rain. He calls Meteorites his most honest album to date. It’s easy to see why—nearly all of the straightforward lines play like a therapy session laid bare. “Hope, where is the hope in here?/Can it be found among all the ghosts in here?” McCulloch howls on the opening title track against a haunting orchestral and guitar backing that suggests an impending cathartic release. On “Is This Breakdown” he plays the voices in his head, his vocal pleading, “Is this a breakdown? I don’t think so” looped and layered into a backing choir.

Just don’t mistake the “personal” tone of the material as an attempt by McCulloch to explain himself. Although he makes it clear that he appreciates having an audience after making music for so many years, he doesn’t particularly care if listeners “get him.” After all, he’s already accomplished what he wanted to simply through the writing and recording process.

“I don’t like therapy or the idea of being understood,” he says, audibly recoiling at the thought. “I find when you do a good thing and someone pats you on the back, I hate it. Especially when that good thing is just an ordinary good thing. If you’re like me and you don’t drink for a week, people go ‘Oh, that’s fantastic!’ That would make me want to drink more! If someone says, ‘Your songs are the greatest songs ever,’ that’s fine. But if someone tells me I’m the best, I hate that.”

It’s a surprising statement from the flamboyant musician, who holds his place on stage with a regal grace and in conversation has been known to rank himself and his music among the rock greats. But McCulloch insists that the divide between assured vocalist and humble songwriter isn’t as big as it may appear.

“Performing live is my natural habitat,” he notes. “I don’t mind people watching. I just feel at home there. I sing songs because I put so much into them. They resonate years later. It’s like looking back on a painting.”

After 10 albums and 36 years, it’s a large canvas—one that’s slowly expanded to include both the lows (McCulloch leaving the band in 1988 to pursue a solo career and being replaced by Noel Burke) and the pop culture highs (their signature song “Killing Moon” appeared on the Donnie Darko soundtrack). It’s a partnership that has survived over three decades and seems poised to carry on, even though McCulloch humbly refuses to speculate on how they might be viewed in the future.

“It’s funny,” he says, mulling over the idea of legacy. “It implies that our music will still around when we’re gone. I don’t know what that legacy is because I can’t define what people think…It’s great that every generation picks it up as time goes on. Especially in America because of Donnie Darko. It really helped our profile. But I’ve never thought about what people will think when we’re gone. I’m like a ghost, going through everyone’s houses while they’re playing our music. But I can’t imagine our legacy in 100 years or whatever. That’s not up to me.”