Rockin' On | Feature | September 1987 | Photos: Chuck Pulin
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN
THE GAME RESTARTED
"I'm looking for a new direction / Where in the world am I?" ("New Direction")
In May of this year, it was Sao Paulo and Rio. Echo And The Bunnymen were following the heavy footprints made by The Cure and The Banshees. Sell-out gigs and praise peppered reviews would have been pleasing under any circumstances,
but the warmth of the Latin reception was all the more encouraging since the tour of Brazil presented the first opportunity to play live for a considerable time. In the interim period, their major concerns had been a lot closer to home.
Ian McCulloch's daughter Candy is rapidly approaching her first birthday. Bassist Les Pattinson has also recently experienced the joys of parenthood and guitarist Will Sergeant has elected to go shopping with his girlfriend rather than join Mac for this interview. Somebody mumbled something about buying himself a wedding suit.
Happy families, then. Has the responsibility of becoming a father given Mac a new perspective?
"Yeah, it makes you see things a lot fresher. It's made me a lot more content. I don't feel as though I've got to please people like the critics any more. It's so ironic anyway. Some people loved us and others hated us for exactly the same reasons, so you're lulled into a false sense of belonging. Really, it's about writing songs you enjoy doing."
Ahh, songs. Songs, perhaps, like the heavyweight, guitar laden "All In Your Mind", the stomping, pomp compounded pounding of "Satellite" and the lolling, keyboard spangled "Blue Blue Ocean". Songs featured on the band's new LP, recorded in a six-month period beginning last October and appearing under the banner "Echo And The Bunnymen".
It seems a ludicrous title for their sixth album and for a group once positively careful about such important touches. Yet "Echo And The Bunnymen" marks a restart and the 11 tracks offer the broadest selection of musical styles on a Bunnymen LP since their debut, "Crocodiles".
"In some ways, I think people will listen to it and actually hear the music a lot more rather then wanting to explore the subconsciousness of it – and that can only be a good thing," says McCulloch. "In general, the album is quite aggressive. It's not violent, it's not the Sex Pistols, but it probably rocks out a lot more than many would expect from us at our age. But it's not something we did consciously, to prove we're not getting old, it's just that when you pick up a guitar after months of not playing, you want to hit it.
"We want to branch out, not to change dramatically, just to get some different fans. I still think some people will still be put off by us if they hear 'New Direction', but 'All My Life' and 'The Game' depart from what we've done before and 'Bedbugs And Ballyhoo' is one that everybody will like.
"It's one of those songs that nobody seems to write any more. It's quite jazzy, though it's not like one of those cocktail jazzy things that all those people with zippo haircuts make, trying to be like Sade. It's got a real
feel, a real swing to it. It's a natural thing, it's not an attempt to impress the likes of Robert Elms. He'd hate it, he'd think it was too weird. It's just a good tune.
"Other tracks, such as 'Satellite', are pretty throwaway. I didn't feel I had to say something on every song – and when I do I'm not trying to borrow credibility off any particular situation."
One of the most striking tracks on the LP is "Bombers Bay", a chewy chunk of profound pop, luxurious in guitar and keyboard collages and the stirring of strings. Lyrically, it's precise and incisive.
"It's vaguely political and it's about war, but it's also about..." Mac pauses. It turns out to be a long wait. "It's about beauty in the face of war and all the structures and obstacles of life and the order of life..." He stops again. He's looking confused. "I don't know," he eventually continues. "I don't know what it's about. That's probably why I love it, because I haven't quite worked out what I'm on about. It's like a freedom song, an innocent song. It's really hard to capture that innocence."
The choice of "The Game", the album's opening track, as the first Echo And The Bunnymen single since "Bring On The Dancing Horses" failed to grab the imagination and tempt the silver pennies of the British public, making only a fleeting impression on the national charts. Musically lethargic, its significance lies largely with the cleverly crafted, autobiographical lyrics.
"It sounds corny, but the first verse is 'Through the crying hours of your glitter years / And the living out of your tinsel tears / The midnight trains I'd never made / 'Cos I'd already played The Game'. It's very easy to get into a situation where you sing about your own little world, but it's very worrying when you get to 28 or 29 years old and you're still trying to say good things and make grand statements that are really all to do with the fact that 'I'm in a rock group and all these fans follow me'. So you end up singing about things like midnight trains and recycling all that stuff. 'The Game' is about the smallness of being in a band and I thought it was important to put that out."
It seems as though Echo And The Bunnymen, having left behind their original ideas and ideals, having irretrievably lost their impetus, have become caught in a trap entirely of their own making. The pop spiral was merely going round and round, a continual struggle upwards and onwards, a physical and mental effort to tread a well worn path, a variation of the optical illusion in which blocks of steps are positioned so as to lead nowhere but back to the start. A new direction was desperately needed.
"There's that great feeling when you capture something in a concert, which we used to do around the time of the 'Heaven Up Here' album. Nobody could touch us for totally involving an audience emotionally, but it was usually the wrong kind of emotion they wanted to take home with them. You know, that gloomy thing. It was a weird time, a whole generation wanting this feeling of sadness. Not a personal thing, but to share in this mad sorrow which, for us, offstage, didn't really exist.
"At the end of the last British tour, I knew it couldn't go on that way. Everyone was feeling old and Will was saying, 'We shouldn't be doing this, we should have proper jobs'. It doesn't feel like that any longer. We're not stuck in that miserable limbo now.
"Like when we did 'Ocean Rain' in Brazil, it was more of a sexy song, it was more powerful than singing low and croaking away, pretending that I had the blues and acting depressed. Doing different, making people laugh, is just as valid. So one minute we'd be very emotional, the next we'd be having a laugh and doing stupid dances. It's a lot easier. Entertainment is a lot better than misery."
Soon after the British tour McCulloch is talking about, the Bunnymen's original replacement for Echo, Peter De Freitas, left the band to work with another Liverpool outfit, The Sex Gods. Despite initally being reluctant to talk about De Freitas's departure and his subsequent return, Mac eventually relents.
"It was just a minor hiccup," he says. "He went on holiday and didn't come back, that's all. The fact that he did some recording with others may not have been healthy, but he's back, that's the main thing.
"All those stories that went around... He did go adrift, he was walking some kind of tightrope, but there was nothing like the stuff that was invented, like he'd joined the Moonies or was off painting the side of the World Trade Building. He's two years younger than me, three years younger than Will and Les, so when we were feeling old, he was feeling the same but he was only 24 or so. It made him freak out and want to have a good time. That's probably a fair enough reaction."
Echo And The Bunnymen have grown up and grown through it all, perhaps because of it all, perhaps in spite of it all. Their relaxed attitude, their sense of humour – listen to the lyrics of "Bedbugs And Ballyhoo" – are welcome additives to a band already responsible for some of the cleverest and most succinct pop of the decade.
Would it be correct to suggest that the Bunnymen have not only come to terms with their success, but have begun to fully capitalise on it?
"Yeah, we're a lot better adjusted. But I don't regret any of those old days of being moody. It was part of me. When I was 22, it was fine. I used to be a potential manic depressive anyway, so I quite liked it. But now I'd like to be known as a good singer rather than as a moody bastard."