Gaining the nickname “Mac the Mouth” for his witty put-downs of rival artists in the ‘80s, Ian McCulloch inspired a wave of forthright rock’n’roll frontmen.
However, it’s his poignant lyrics exploring love, life and fate and captivating gloomy post-punk with Echo & The Bunnymen that have helped the charismatic lead singer reach legendary status.
With a new album ‘Holy Ghosts’ (which includes orchestral reworkings of the band’s angular indie classics and his latest solo outing, ‘Pro Patria Mori’) out now, ClashMusic asked him about the books that have influenced his thirty-three year journey through rock’n’roll excess, strong opinions and majestic songwriting.
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What is your favourite book and why?
It’s ‘The White Hotel’ by DM Thomas because I’ve only read to about page forty-seven. I couldn’t get past the poem section, which is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. As one solid book of poetry and evocative writing, it’s the best. I thought I was in that poem; kind of similar to the way Leonard Cohen makes me feel like I’m in his songs. I’ve recommended it to anyone who I thought could read.
What other authors do you like?
Shakespeare. I should re-read Othello, but I’d steer clear of the comedies. It’s a bit like watching ‘On The Buses’ now. The power of his great soliloquies is like, “Bloody hell. He’s not only written it, but he’s had to work that out in his head.” It was such a different time then. He had history and politics to draw on, but the imagination that went into his soliloquies, people can’t do that now. That’s where you can say someone’s a genius.
What draws you to certain books?
Only when my brother Peter tells me I should read one. I do loads of crosswords. So I kind of like unravelling them to be honest. For me, too many authors probably think, “Oh, I want this to be a bestseller. I’ll wack a bit of mystery in there, bit of cloak and dagger. And I’ll decide on a beginning, a middle and an end.” And it’s like, you’ve already fucked it up by thinking like that.
Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?
I was rummaging through some newspapers for a crossword and I came across some of the book I started to write about three or four years ago and shelved for a bit. I wrote a list of things to put in the book that I hadn’t thought of from years ago, which for me was like, “That’s fantastic because that’s why you didn’t finish it.” One of the main themes is treason. It’s not an autobiography about the band. It’s about my thoughts and feelings and stuff.
What are you reading at the moment?
Well, I’ve got the Liverpool Echo upside down in my lap. So I’m reading ‘Five Hundred Cannabis Plants Seized At Former Nightclub’ and ‘Police And Superman Attack At Pyjama Party’. The next thing I’ll read will be ‘The Little Prince’.
What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
It’s hard to remember because I was never drawn to them. The first proper book was the first Star Trek annual ever. I got that in ’66 or ’67. There was the first Star Trek annual and an Outer Limits annual. I got them for Christmas and I loved it. I’ve never ever felt about a book like I’ve felt about them.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
Definitely. I think most Shakespeare really. “To be, or not to be: that is the question”. ‘The Killing Moon’ is my version of that. Whereas he leaves it open ended because he didn’t know what I know all those centuries ago, that’s the answer – “Fate up against your will / through the thick and thin / he will wait until / you give yourself to him.”
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
Iago from Othello. He’s the one. There’s this thing in me where once the seed’s planted, it’s hard to get rid of. And the voices that tell you things, like someone’s made it up in your head and trying to plant seeds of doubt about everything. Iago did that to Othello.
Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
If you had me and Shakespeare, it would be even better than Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I’d say, “Bill, give me the verse.” And he’ll rattle a verse off and I’d put that to three cords, maybe stick a minor in. And I’d say, “That’s your job done. Now fuck off and go and write a play.” I’d work the chorus out. And there you’d have it: all songs written by McCulloch and Shakespeare.
And finally. How do you think literature achieves timelessness?
I suppose by setting itself to the Greenwich Meridian time zone.
Words by James Evans
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‘Holy Ghosts’ is out now.