When conducting interviews, I always try to be as professional as possible. If I happen to be a super fan, I try hard not to show it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t absolutely shaking in my Doc Martens, waiting while the phone rang. I saw the music video for “Lips Like Sugar” on MTV many, many years ago and have been listening ever since; I had no idea what to expect from Ian. Their manager, Pete, briefed me beforehand. “Looks like he’s had a good day, you’ll have a good interview. He’s what we call ‘chipper.’” As I waited through the dial tone, cigarettes and sunglasses and the lyrics to “The Killing Moon” swam through my head and I started to worry that maybe chipper meant something different in England.
I imagined a dark, sulky, brooding singer who gives monotone, one-word responses to lengthy, open-ended questions. I was afraid I’d bore him—there aren’t many new and exciting questions to answer after an impressive 33-year career. Since their formation in 1978, Echo & The Bunnymen have released 11 albums, played damn near everywhere, and left a lasting mark on the music industry, being an inspiration to many bands and musicians. I was sure he must have heard and answered it all before. But even if this was in fact the case, he didn’t show it. Despite some occasionally spotty reception, he was friendly, sincere and open; the same painful honesty that comes through in his lyrics, translated over on the phone.
He didn’t even sigh or hint at any disdain, when I inquired about the background of the band’s name; something I knew for sure he’d answered a million-billion times—something I already knew the answer to, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear firsthand. He just laughed, and told me the story. “We had a gig coming up but I don’t think we had a solid name at the time, and a friend of ours kept coming up with the funniest ones. We thought Echo & The Bunnymen was just as stupid as the others, but it was the most memorable, I thought, and it was great for the time. I said yeah, that’s the one. And still, after all these years, people know it.”
Though the name is certainly interesting, it wouldn’t have gotten them nearly as far as it has without the raw talent to back it up. Their music is emotive, passionate and relatable. Transcendent, as they’ve proven. The music has survived split-ups, reformations, lineup changes—even death. It all just comes right back together, as if by some ethereal force. I asked him why he thought that was.
“I suppose it’s because Will [Sergeant] and I know how brilliant we are together. Like, we’re very close but not at the same time; we don’t necessarily hang out everyday. But there’s just this feeling we both have, this sense of purpose. Echo & The Bunnymen means so much to so many people… We feel lucky and fulfilled as artists. We can express ourselves together, it’s no use trying to make it work with anyone else. We’re connected in that sense. It’s almost spiritual.”
And that’s really something special, considering that a lot of the bands that came up around the same time as they did, playing similar music in similar genres, also sort of faded away into obscurity in that late-‘80s time frame as well. But here, we have a band that’s stuck around, that’s still turning out records and singles, and is still relevant today—not only to people who started listening in 1980, but to people just now discovering them as well. It’s the dream of every musician alive. But to what does Ian attribute this success to? Knowing what you want, and making it happen. Making it your own.
“There’s something special about the power of a great song, a great lyric, a great tune; it helps people get through. I knew I was going to live my life differently. I saw David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and it stuck with me, I was sure for years after that, it was what I was going to do. I felt I would be singing in a band and writing great songs my whole life. It was what I wanted. It‘s very important, to go for what you want.”
Ian and the guys have made it seem easy, but it surely can’t all be roses. So many factors in the music industry contribute to stress and excessive demands and sometimes, the breakdown of everything a band is about, everything they believe in. Some guys can’t take it, but Echo & The Bunnymen have been at it for decades.
“It’s hard to say. I didn’t really think about stress in terms of the rising fame of the band, or things like that, so it was hard to tell. Was I feeling stressed about the band, or stressed about the things that change and affect someone as they grow? I wasn’t sure. So much happens to a person as they learn and develop, much like in a band. But I was doing things, and creating things, and that was enough. I really can’t see myself ever doing anything else.”
In the last few months they’ve been extensively touring, playing their first two albums in their entirety each night: 1980’s Crocodiles and 1981’s Heaven Up Here. It has been very successful thus far, and in May, they bring the Crocodiles & Heaven Up Here Tour to the U.S. It’s a real treat for fans who’ve been there since the beginning. Or fans like myself who dove into the entire discography and cherished these records years after their release. But does playing two entire albums every night wear them out?
“Well, we’ll play both records in their entirety, then go offstage for a few, then come back and play more songs. Songs that aren’t on either of those records, just ones we want to play anyway. It’s a long show. It doesn’t feel exhausting vocally; it’s a pleasure really, and we all get a real thrill from it. I don’t feel tired on stage. It’s all split up; we play slower songs to relax a little then dive into rougher songs. There’s an almost physical ebb and flow to it. Honestly, I could have a broken back, but once I’m on stage I don’t feel anything else.”
Personally, I am stoked as hell to see them play. I’ll be seeing them for the first time in Philly. I always feel different when going to see bands I love from England or Europe. It’s a different sort of excitement, knowing I can’t exactly see them often, and that I’m there, and it’s special. I wondered if U.S. audiences maybe reacted differently at their shows than U.K. audiences did.
“Oh yeah, sure. In England, oftentimes the shows are more of a boy’s thing. They go and they drink and get rowdy and they want to beat people up—that’s not The Bunnymen. I feel like Americans get the subtleties, they take more of it in. It’s a journey for them. They’re there for the music. I love playing in America; it’s the best. I enjoy the distance between cities and getting to site see while traveling, it’s fantastic. America gets a lot of bad press, but I think it’s lovely.”
To be able to have a career that is just as great, and a presence that is just as strong back home as it is overseas, is one hell of an achievement. I asked him about the band’s plans for the next few decades, and he laughed. “Well, I’m not sure. We’re far from finished though. I want to put a new album out, absolutely. A new album, and it will be the best album, and we’ll take it from there.”
You’d think that 33 years and 11 albums would tap a band out, creatively, but no. The music just literally never ends, and it’s something I relate to as well, constantly writing and constantly working. “Journalism is very important, and guiding, too,” he told me, as we got ever so slightly off-topic. “People read things in papers and magazines and they find their new favorite bands, or learn new things that are going on in new places. Words have a way of reaching people. You‘re fortunate to have that ability.” And if I didn’t know it before, I sure as hell do now; that conversation will stick with me forever.
“Always be true to yourself. Don’t settle for anything less than what you want, and don’t lie in songs.” It seems to be a rather valuable lesson; that genuine feel to everything they do has taken them so far.
Echo & The Bunnymen play the Trocadero in Philadelphia on May 12 and Irving Plaza in NYC on May 13. For more info, visit the official website: bunnymen.com.