Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch talks influencing friend Chris Martin: ‘I'd turn up and tell him when the lyrics were a bit s***’

Echo & the Bunnymen may not have become as popular in the States as their Second British Invasion peers like Depeche Mode or the Cure, but the Liverpool post-punks’ influence has been immense — recently explored in The Stars, the Oceans & the Moon, a compilation of reimagined rerecordings from their classic catalog. Not only did their hit “The Killing Moon” reach a new generation when it was the soundtrack of the powerful opening scene of Donnie Darko, but the Bunnymen were also a massive influence on Coldplay, the most successful British band of the past 20 years.

Coldplay frontman and longtime Ian McCulloch admirer Chris Martin famously wore McCulloch’s classic raincoat in the studio while recording “In My Place,” the lead single off Coldplay’s sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. (“That was the best thing they ever recorded as well, due to my coat,” the always amusing and never humble McCulloch tells Yahoo Entertainment.) McCulloch was there to support Martin during the making of that breakthrough album and its follow-up, X&Y. As a friendship formed, Coldplay later repaid the favor, multiple times. For instance, Coldplay’s Martin and Jonny Buckland, respectively, played piano and guitar on McCulloch’s solo album, Slideling, and they invited McCulloch to perform the Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar” with them at Scotland’s T in the Park festival.

Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment about his bond with Martin, who used to call him “Macco” (“No one has ever called me Macco, and I love it”), during an interview to promote The Stars, the Oceans & the Moon, the always amusing and never humble McCulloch recalls how he and the Coldplay singer first connected. “He mentioned lyric writers in Rolling Stone. He said he wasn’t a good one, unlike Dylan and me — and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, who’s Dylan?’” he chuckles. “No, but it was lovely, all right. And he said in one interview I more or less co-produced their album. I’m still waiting for the sodding billion-pound check. I believe he’s still got a two-and-a-half billion-quid check he’s going to give me one of these days. I wouldn’t want it. I wouldn’t know what to spend it on, apart from bitter and the odd tequila-and-orange.”

Chris Martin and Ian McCulloch performing during the One Big No anti-war concert at Shepherds Bush Empire in London. (Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Chris Martin and Ian McCulloch performing during the One Big No anti-war concert at Shepherds Bush Empire in London. (Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

As for the specific effect his raincoat had on A Rush of Blood, McCulloch only says, “I am fashion.” But he has fond memories of hanging with Coldplay in the Liverpool studio where the album was recorded. “I just went in and did David Bowie impressions — ‘All right, Chris, how’s it going?’ — and stuff like that, and trying to make him laugh, because he was a serious Devon man. … So I’d turn up and tell him when the lyrics were a bit s***, and that was it.”

In a 2002 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Martin was much more effusive. “Ian McCulloch really was a good influence on the record,” Martin said. “The only thing we were occasionally missing [while recording] was some confidence. And sometimes Ian, because we became friends, he’d come in, and you’d feel all right about everything. Because he’s a very confident guy … I don’t know, he just made me feel really confident about the fact that we were trying to push ourselves a little bit. He made me feel like it was OK to be obsessed with a record. … It’s really cool when people you respect start to respect you.”

As for other, specific ways that McCulloch influenced the album, Martin said, giving his best McCulloch impression, “The only way that we really collaborated was that one day he said to me, ‘Chris, the record sounds OK … but have you got a song that goes 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3? ‘Cause every record should have one, Chris.’ So I thought, ‘No, s***, we haven’t!’ So, over the weekend, we did a song. So there’s one song on the record that he basically told us to write … a song called ‘A Whisper.’ It does what he says, really, but very fast.”

McCulloch also jokingly tells Yahoo Entertainment that he advised Coldplay now to name their third album something other than X&Y. “I said, ‘Use other letters in your sodding titles. Either have one with three words and some more of the alphabet than this f***ing.’ … They were appealing to algebra dimwits, you know?” He also said he told Martin not to hop onstage, but Martin blithely ignored that advice. “And he went on to be the biggest sodding dude on the planet, which is great. … I love that side of Chris, that he doesn’t take it too seriously.”

McCulloch admits that he hasn’t seen Martin in ages “He texted me about six years after I’d texted him last, and he said, ‘I miss you, Macco,’ and all that, and then I said, ‘All right, do you fancy a pint in Liverpool next week?’ No reply.” But he speaks fondly of Martin, stressing, “He’s great, and his voice is brilliant.”

Perhaps Echo & the Bunnymen never really got their critical due in the U.S. — as opposed to England, where they influenced a generation — because, as McCulloch puts it, they “weren’t the greatest at shaking hands” or “playing the game.” For instance, he recalls that in the band’s first televised interview, when they were asked for their opinion on America, their guitarist Will Sergeant quipped, “I don’t like it. I want to go home!” McCulloch also says, “I think Warner Bros., the record company, they had the best band in the world, critically, and it was obvious that it was different and special, and they tried to get us to be produced by Bob Clearmountain, Steve Lillywhite, whoever had the sound of that year, whatever. And it was like, ‘We’re from Liverpool. Whatever you advise, we’ll go the other way’ — because that’s what Liverpool people do.”

But the Bunnymen’s music has stood the test of time. As for their arguably most influential song, the above-mentioned “The Killing Moon,” McCulloch still declares it “the greatest song ever written” (because the Bunnymen’s “The Cutter” is the “second-greatest song ever written, and that was the choice I had to make,” of course). McCulloch didn’t just rerecord it for his band’s new compilation, but he also redid it with A-ha for their MTV Unplugged special in Norway. (“They recorded it with me, actually,” McCulloch clarifies.)

Reflecting on revisiting “The Killing Moon” and other Echo classics in the studio — timed, if accidentally, with the 40th anniversary of his band — McCulloch says, “The songs have changed for me. … If some smart-arse says, ‘What makes you think this is worth doing, redoing “The Killing Moon,” which you’ve already said is the greatest song ever written?’ — it is the greatest song ever written, but it has to stay as that recording … I felt like I had to understand aging. Because it’s easy to write a song when you’re 23. It’s not easy to write ‘The Killing Moon,’ but it’s far off that fate and whoever’s waiting there for you to give yourself to.”

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