It’s 3pm on a sunny Monday afternoon and we’re sat in Paul McCartney’s countryside studio, listening to the most successful musician in the entire world (a quantifiable fact) make cow puns. In an almost comically-in-character turn up for the books, the famed animal rights campaigner just been told that his petition to help save a pregnant cow unfairly earmarked for death row has been successful. Visibly chuffed, Paul spends the next few moments riffing on potential headlines: “Love Me Moo?”
If these particular scenes are about as surreal as they come, then that’s just what it’s like spending time in the company of a bona fide legend. The bookshelves that stand near him hold the same texts as thousands all over the world – a hefty copy of The Beatles’ Anthology; a Linda McCartney recipe book – except in this house… well, it’s a bit different isn’t it. And as the endlessly charming 75-year-old flits between apologising for the 3D-printed version of his own face that also sits on the shelf (“It’s a bit strange having this in here…”), excitably showing us around his studio (yes, we did lose our minds a little), and throwing out anecdotes about his tenure in the greatest band of all time, you can’t help but feel that everything here comes imbued with an extra dash of magic, just by association.
We’re not just here to geek out, though. We’re here to chat with Sir Macca about his forthcoming new album ‘Egypt Station’ – set for release on September 7th and recorded with super producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia) with an unexpected one-song production cameo from OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (also responsible for tracks from the likes of Demi Lovato and Maroon 5).
Listen to the first tracks from the album – ‘I Don’t Know’ and ‘Come On To Me’ – below.
Since releasing 2013’s ‘New’, you’ve worked with Kanye and Rihanna and now taken on a pair of new, younger producers for ‘Egypt Station’. What makes you continue to keep trying out new collaborations?
You know what it is? It’s ‘cause I get asked. I don’t actually plan too much of this stuff, but for instance with Kanye, my manager just rang me up and said, ‘Kanye’s interested in working with you’. So what would you do? I went, OK great! I didn’t know what we were gonna do or how it was gonna work, so I just took my guitar along and let him lead the dance. We ended up just talking a lot. I played a few little things and one of them ended up as ‘FourFiveSeconds’ with Rihanna. It’s more a question of me feeling lucky that these people are interested [in working with me] and think that I can bring something to it. For me, I feel great. I like diversity.
Do you listen to quite a diverse array of music?
I was a big fan of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. That was the record of his that I really envied. I thought, oh he’s done some good stuff. ‘Watch The Throne’ with Jay-Z [too]. I like that. It’s not like I’m a big hip hop fan, but I went to see Kanye and Jay-Z and really came away thinking it was like urban poetry. I was very impressed. So when the word came that he wanted to work with me, I was flattered.
Did you learn anything from working with Kanye? Is it a two-way street in that respect?
Really [it is]. With Kanye, I learnt a lot. We had a method in our early days of The Beatles and with Wings that I used all the way through for writing songs. I would sit down with a guitar or at a piano and make it up and complete it. Then that’s it, you’ve done your song, and then you’re ready to roll and go in the studio.
With him, it was much more made up as we went along – so much so that I didn’t even realise that I was making songs. We had two or three afternoons where we just hung out together in a Beverly Hills hotel in the bungalows out the back, and he had his engineer and was set up with a couple of microphones incase anything happened. I was tootling around on guitar, and Kanye spent a lot of time just looking at pictures of Kim on his computer. I’m thinking, are we ever gonna get around to writing?! But it turns out he was writing. That’s his muse. He was listening to this riff I was doing and obviously he knew in his mind that he could use that, so he took it, sped it up and then somehow he got Rihanna to sing on it. She’s a big favourite of mine anyway, so that just came without me lifting a finger.
Why did you choose to work with Ryan Tedder on album track ‘Fuh You’?
There’s always a little thing that sparks these things off. It’s not like I’m going around, checking the internet for who to work with next. There’s always a little occurrence. So I’d been working with Greg [Kurstin] who’s the main producer. I had a couple of weeks off but I was itching to keep going. My manager said, why don’t you try someone else? I liked the idea of Ryan and I listened to [Beyoncé’s] ‘Halo’ that he was part of.
I was gonna say before about [writing] ‘All Day’ with Kanye – just the other day I happened to look at the writing credits and there’s about 50 people! There were only three of them I knew and one of them’s Kendrick Lamar! I’m thinking, I’ve written a song with Kendrick Lamar?! I wish I’d met him! But that’s just the way they do it these days. The other day I was reading an article about this guy from Dirty Projectors who’s a band I like, and it says that his latest claim to fame was that he wrote the middle eight for ‘FourFiveSeconds’. Oh, so that’s how that happened! All these little mysteries, that’s how he pulls them together. It’s fascinating.
So out of all the producers that were suggested, I liked Ryan, rung him up and we chatted. He said, ‘What do you hope to get [out of this]?’. I was like, oh I don’t know. And then I thought, come on Paul, don’t be so shy. So I said, ‘A hit?’ And he was like ‘Yeah! Now you’re talking my language! The world loves a hit!’ So that was our brief. To do something commercial. In a week, we ended up with three songs and one of them was ‘Fuh You’, which is on the album.
“I’m thinking, I’ve written a song with Kendrick Lamar?! I wish I’d met him!”
Are you a fan of modern, commercial pop music?
I think some of it’s great. It comes in and out of fashion, but years ago I saw Ed Sheeran on Hollyoaks of all places.
Are you a regular Hollyoaks viewer?!
No, not really, but it just happened to be on. A lot of stuff with me, it just happens to be on… Nancy, my wife, makes fun of me. She says, Paul’ll watch anything, and she’s right. I’ll be flicking around and there’ll be a rugby match and I’ll be like, ah I’ll watch this. Or it’ll be Antiques Roadshow or it’ll be Pointless. One of these moments was Hollyoaks and there was this red-haired busker standing there playing guitar. I thought, he’s good. One of my favourites at the moment is Christine and the Queens. That new song’s like a little Michael Jackson song.
This record was made while you were compiling the 50th anniversary re-release of ‘Sgt Pepper’ – did going back through your old work start to influence you again?
Yeah, you’re right. Because there was so much on about it – the programmes about how we made it [etc]. I remember going up to the studio a couple of times with Greg and saying, oh well I was listening to this programme last night and I thought on ‘Penny Lane’ it was just one piano that I played but it turns out it’s eight! We were goofing around on that, and it inspires you and makes you think you can go anywhere. It’s still gonna sound like a piano, but sonically you can play with it. ‘…Pepper’ was a big influence.
There’s a track on the new record, ‘Despite Repeated Warnings’, which goes off on sonic tangents in a similar way to ‘A Day In The Life’ [from ‘Sgt. Pepper]…
‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Live And Let Die’, ‘Band On The Run’… they’re episodic things. It’s something that music’s been doing for a while. It kind of started in the ’60s with, I think it was called ‘Teenage Opera’, and I think that sparked people. Then we did ‘A Day In The Life’ which really cemented it for me.
Is it true that you nearly didn’t put your middle eight into that track?
Oh no, I was very up for wangling that one in… I’m a great believer in stuff happening, whether that’s fatalistic or whatever. I tell people this story with The Beatles from years ago in the early days when we used to come down to London and go back up in the van to Liverpool. There was a blizzard in one of those big winters, we were going up the M1 in the van and you couldn’t see the road; our old roadie made a mistake and our van slipped down the embankment. We were looking up thinking, how the hell are we gonna get back up there? What do we do now?! And one of us just said, ‘Well something will happen’.That became the mantra, and I kind of still believe that. Things fall into place, so I just kind of let things happen. I know it’s a dumb thing to say, but it’s true. We thumbed a lift and got out of the situation and it almost became this dumb / clever thing to say.
So I do that with someone ringing me up like Kanye, or Dave Grohl who rung me up when he was making ‘Sound City’. He said he was just having a jam with a couple of mates, so I roll up there with the theory that something will happen and I’m playing this crazy little cigar-box guitar that I’m enjoying and these other guys join in, Dave gets on the drums. We jam around and then Dave says something like ‘We haven’t done this forever, man!’ I’m like, what do you mean? He’s like, ‘The band!’ I’m being a total thick-head. And it turns out the other guys are the rest of Nirvana. Then we end up getting a Grammy for this thing we did, just by following the trail, letting things happen.
“We were a great little band – I think we can agree on that.”
Now, ‘Sgt. Pepper…’ is widely regarded as one of the most influential albums of all time and one that really invented the idea of the album as a whole work rather than a collection of singles. Was it really that coincidental?
That’s the interesting thing about it. If you’re lucky and if you’re good as we were with ‘Sgt. Pepper…’, then it’s going to turn into something special.
Did you know when you were writing it that it would be a special one?
It felt special, yeah. Particularly because we weren’t touring, so all our attention was devoted to the album. And the best thing was that there was someone in the NME who said, ‘Oh, The Beatles have had it. They’ve gone cold and dried up’. And we’re like [chuckles cheekily] because we knew what we were making. Talk on, baby. Just keep talking. Because we knew that wasn’t true and that we were making something pretty cool. Then after that we released ‘The White Album’ and completely changed and made something that wasn’t multi-layered and was quite stripped back and of the times.
Have you finished preparing the 50th anniversary package of that one yet?
It’s all in place, I’ve just got a couple of essays [to approve]. It’s all lined up and it’s really good.
Are there any moments you’d forgotten about when you were trawling back through the archives?
Something sparks another memory, but it’s really nice because we were a great little band – I think we can agree on that. So for me to be a part of that and to be remembering it is great; all these little things remind me of it and I do learn things.
The album itself [‘The White Album’] is very cool and it sounds like you’re in the room; that’s the great thing about doing remasters. But we’ve also got some demos of the songs, so you get things stripped right back to just John’s voice and a guitar. You just think, how fucking good was John?! Amazing. We were just doing it; it was amazing. We were having a good time.
Paul McCartney’s new album ‘Egypt Station’ is on 7th September via Capitol Records. Pre-order it now.
Photos by Sam Rock, of Paul recording at Abbey Road Studio in November 2017, during the recording of Egypt Station.