Ian McCulloch on revisiting Echo & The Bunnymen classics
1980s alternative icons Echo & The Bunnymen have recorded a new album featuring some of their most classic tracks 'reinterpreted': Amazingly, it's really good. David Roy spoke to Bunnymen boss Ian McCulloch about doing justice to old songs in new ways ahead of the group's sold-out Dublin Olympia show
WHEN long-established groups decide to re-record their biggest songs, such revisionist endeavours rarely end up replacing the original releases in the hearts and record collections of fans.
At best, they become interesting curios, such as last year's George Best 20 from The Wedding Present, which found David Gedge revisiting his band's beloved 1987 debut with Steve Albini at the controls, or Kate Bush's Director's Cut collection of back catalogue tunes 'brought up to date' from 2011.
At worst, we're talking instant charity shop fodder: see The Wonder Stuff's entirely pointless 2008 re-recording of their classic LP The Eight Legged Groove Machine.
Thus, you can forgive Echo & The Bunnymen devotees for eyeing the imminent release of The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon with trepidation.
Due out on October 5, it promises a smorgasbord of 13 top moments from the Liverpool alternative pop titans 'rearranged and transformed' via 'strings and things', plus two new songs.
Happily, they needn't worry: crooner Ian McCulloch and his perennial guitar-wielding musical foil Will Sergeant (the last men standing from the group's original 1978 line-up) have realised that 'bigger' is not necessarily better when it comes to revisiting past glories like The Killing Moon, Bring On The Dancing Horses and Rescue, while quality newies The Sonambulist and How Far? should whet appetites for their next LP 'proper'.
Indeed, the Bunnymen's creative engine display an admirable lightness of touch throughout this deftly executed trawl through their best-known repertoire, the first fruit of a recently inked record deal with BMG.
Bring On The Dancing Horses has an appealing, demo-esque directness restored to it from the slightly over-produced 1985 original, refocusing the song on Sergeant's choppy guitar work and an age-defyingly powerful vocal performance from McCulloch; 1999 single Rust is pared back even further and treated to some swelling brass melodies, while a croonsome album-closing crack at The Killing Moon swaps the trademark guitar line of the Bunnymen's signature song for ghostly piano: the effect is spine-tingling.
Likewise, the traditionally anthemic Seven Seas becomes a beautifully mournful ballad with accordion flourishes, early tune Zimbo simmers as an even dreamier slow-burner on this swoonsome, drums-free interpretation and Crocodiles tune Stars are Stars is reborn via a slinky, Richard Hawley-esque retro guitar pop make-over/under.
Elsewhere, a soul-funk infused take on Rescue, with its pumping Doors-y Hammond, ravey synths and clipped psychedelic guitar work makes for a damn fine and fun reworking that should sound great live.
Mac' is on record as saying, "I’m not doing this for anyone else, I’m doing it as it’s important to me to make the songs better. I have to do it."
Apparently, the singer's never been happy with the sound of his vocals on the band's first four LPs.
"Hearing them back I was like 'who the f*** is that?!'" McCulloch cringes, sounding refreshed and enthusiastic during a Friday afternoon round of phone interviews to promote the new record and its attendant tour, which kicks off with a sold-out show at Dublin's Olympia Theatre on October 12.
"I was young but I was trying to be old – [sings] 'Seeven seeeeeeas'. I just don't like it. Everything else on the records sounds great – except me!
"[So], instead of trying to get multi-tracks of the originals [to remix songs and/or re-do vocals], it was like let's just change them and come up with an angle on every one."
With Will Sargeant largely sidelined during recording due to illness, this re-imagining process was largely in the lap of McCulloch and the album's co-producer, Andy Wright.
But did the Bunnymen leader know instinctively how to approach the old songs in a new way?
"Kind of," he tells me. "I knew I had to lead with rhythm guitar, which has been mixed too low on some of the [original] tracks. Andy Wright and his engineer came in because, as much as I had the ideas, I wanted someone to bring it over the line.
"Like, the accordion part in Seven Seas – although I'd love to be able to say I played the accordion, I just played that [part] ham-fisted on a keyboard. Then, when the string players came in, Andy asked the accordionist to play it.
"I wanted that one to be like a sea shanty by someone who didn't sail anymore."
As for revisiting The Killing Moon, their best known number and the one tune on the album that will receive closest scrutiny/harshest judgment – it seems Mac actually took the task of returning to this sacred ground for Bunnymentals in his stride.
"It's my moon!" he exclaims. "You all can have the other one, but I'm having The Killing Moon.
He adds: "There's been so many cover versions of The Killing Moon that I just thought, 'I'm going to sing it like I'm standing on the moon'.
"I think it was the last song we did and I only did one take – most of it [the album] was one take."
While not all of the The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon is so satisfying – an even gentler reworking of Ocean Rain isn't really sufficiently different from the majestic original, a nicely downbeat take on superb 1997 comeback ballad Nothing Lasts Forever might have been better still if they'd ditched its strings altogether and an admirably groovesome attempt at Lips Like Sugar can't quite match the intense pop buzz of the masterful original – Mac's vocals do sound fantastic throughout.
Indeed, it's much more than a mere 'curio': this record hits the target often enough to warrant a thorough investigation by fans. And, as the first fruit of their new record deal with heavy hitter BMG, the project marks an interesting start to the latest chapter of the Bunnymen's long and storied career, which first flourished under the guidance of the Warner Music empire.
"We haven't been on a major for ages," enthuses Mac of the band's new international deal. "It gives us a bit more protection and they can afford to be a bit more expansive with ideas to do with touring and stuff.
"It feels better because it's more of a campaign over years rather than 'I hope this one's a hit'."
They've had the stars, the oceans and the moon: now the rest is there for the taking once again.
:: Echo & The Bunnymen, October 12, The Olympia, Dublin. The Stars, The Oceans & The Moon is released on October 5.