Last summer, the seminal British post-punk group Echo & the Bunnymen embarked on a co-headlining U.S. tour with the equally influential American post-punk outfit Violent Femmes. It was such a success, they’ve decided to reunite for a two-week, 11-date jaunt through the Southern states this month. Both tours were the brainchild of Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch, who spoke to Folio Weekly from his home in Liverpool, England.
In a pronounced Scouse accent, the 59-year-old singer and guitarist explains that the “flip-flop tour” is his preferred method of plying the United States. In their native Britain, Echo & the Bunnymen are legend, but here in the U.S.—despite a string of 1980s alternative radio hits that continue to be featured in movies and television (like Donnie Darko and “Stranger Things,” among many others)—the band has never quite been able to shake the “cult” label, though they were contemporaries of New Order and The Cure. Perhaps it has something to do with the group’s staunchly anti-commercial stance and delight in publicly bedeviling folks like Jim Kerr (Simple Minds) and Bono (U2).
In a 2011 interview with the Independent, McCulloch pulled very few punches, calling Bono (Nobbo is his pet name for the singer), a “real proper c***” and a “fake.” In a 2015 article, he likened the band’s “giveaway album” to rape. “They didn’t get that you just can’t do that.”
Looking over his career, he appears to have viewed it through the lens of art rather than something more insidious and soul stealing. "There was never going to be any kowtowing to America," he said in that 2011 interview.
It seems—though the band never reached U2 levels of mega-stardom, they were arguably poised to do so—they still had a deeply rewarding and ultimately uncynical career. “Everyone’s heard our songs,” says McCulloch, “but they don’t know who wrote them. It’s always been a problem for us, especially in the States.”
Indeed, in a July 2017 article in the Guardian that was really more of a starry-eyed love note to the band (we’re not judging, we fan hard for them, too), writer Dave Simpson noted that though they were often “press darlings,” with “their romantically doomy mentality a perfect choice for wistful teenage hipsters,” they never really broke into the U.S. scene. But perhaps that’s how they wanted it.
In one of the band's earliest trips stateside, Will Sergeant, Bunnymen guitarist, emphatically stated that he hated the country and would rather be back home. How’s that for wooing the press and a nation of potential fans?
Eventually, the band members undertook their first co-headlining U.S. tour with New Order in 1987. It was every goth’s dream line-up, a smorgasbord of the best of British New Wave, Zoo Records meets Factory. And it allowed both bands to play bigger venues and increase their respective audiences.
This time around, McCulloch and Bunnymen co-founder Sergeant opted for an American group that seems at first an unlikely fit. It turns out, McCulloch and Sergeant have both been Violent Femmes fans since the beginning.
“We’ve always loved Violent Femmes,” he says to FW. “We used to play that first record all the time. In the studio, everywhere. Yeah, we’re totally different bands, but it’s all on the indie spectrum, not just the underground stuff, but pop as well. People can appreciate that. It’s a good balance. Not a bad bill, to be honest.”
There are two Florida dates on the tour, giving each band a chance to headline in the Sunshine State. The Bunnymen are topping the bill at Orlando’s House of Blues on July 20, and Violent Femmes are closing out the night at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on July 21.
When asked if this “flip-flop” concept agrees with the ego, McCulloch—who often cites Echo & the Bunnymen as the best band in the world and his own “The Killing Moon” as the greatest song of all time—waxes diplomatic.
“There's always going to be an element of friendly rivalry,” he says, “but we’ve done this before and I think this time will be even more relaxed. We’re looking forward to catching up with them.”
Then he pauses and reflects.
“Maybe they have the advantage being American, but our songs are more well-known generally.”