Paul McCartney’s Producer Greg Kurstin Breaks Down ‘Egypt Station’
Paul McCartney cut most of his new album, Egypt Station, in Los Angeles and Sussex, England, but for the finishing touches, there was only one place to go: Abbey Road in London. For producer Greg Kurstin, stepping into the studio where the Beatles recorded the vast majority of their music was an overwhelming experience. “I was pinching myself constantly,” he says. “The Mrs Mills piano [a 1905 Steinway Vertegrand] that they used on so many Beatles cuts was in the corner. At one point he played ‘Lady Madonna’ on it in the hallway and everyone gathered around.”
The impromptu hallway performance was just one of many surreal moments Kurstin – who has worked with everyone from Adele to Beck and Foo Fighters – had during the two-year period it took to record Egypt Station, which comes out September 7th. He phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about his childhood love of the Beatles, his first meeting with McCartney and how he wound up producing the LP. He also reveals new information about many of the songs they created together.
Were you a big Beatles fan as a teenager?
Yeah, definitely. The Beatles are a band I’ve always loved. There was so much variety there and the music was so complex. With the Beatles and the Beach Boys, there was so much more going on than with the other music I was listening to. There would be a rock song and then something referencing some sort of older music, like a jazz-influenced thing or early English pop music. The complexity of their music always appealed to me.
What was your favorite Beatles album back then?
Revolver has always been the one I’ve gone back to. At different phases of my life I’ll listen to different Beatles albums, but Revolver is the one I really loved and kept returning to.
Let’s flash forward. How did you first meet Paul McCartney?
We did a session together for this film. I’m still not sure if it’s happening or not, but we spent one day live in the studio with a full band, a brass section, background singers and everything for this song that Paul had written for an animated film. I don’t know what the status of it is, but I think it was a trial for Paul and me. I think he wanted to see what it was like working with me. That was the first time.
Do you know the name of this movie?
I don’t, to be honest. It’s an animated movie based on a book, but I don’t know exactly what. I really didn’t get that much information on it.
How long ago did that happen?
At least three years ago, if not more. My timeline skills are horrible, but it was at least a year before I began working on the album.
How did that one song turn into you working on a whole album with him?
A year after that session he reached out about working on some stuff. It wasn’t really like an album commitment at the beginning. It just sort of evolved into that. He expressed that he was into the idea of working together on some stuff to see how it went. In the beginning, I believe, it was just him and his band in the studio. He brought in some songs and we started working on them. It felt like a good vibe and we were very comfortable with each other. We’ve worked together since then in little blocks of time in between his tours and stuff like that. It would be two weeks here and then another two weeks there. Sometimes we were in America and sometimes in England. We’d mix it up. This was spread out after a couple of years.
What shape were the songs in when you began? Did he have demos?
It varied. Sometimes he’d come in with a little bit of piano part with a vocal that he recorded on a phone. Sometimes at the studio in England he would kind of demo a little idea by himself where he’d play a few different instruments. Sometimes they were a little bit more arranged, but most of the time it was just a sketch of an idea. Sometimes he’d work them out in rehearsal with the band.
Sometimes it would just be him with a little seed of an idea and he’d ask me to help arrange the song where I could say, “Oh, maybe that section will go into that section and maybe you’d call that the chorus and that the verse. Maybe cut this section in half.” Other times the same song would have different versions in different states, or we’d just create most of the song in the studio. He’d rehearse it with the band and then we would deconstruct that version and try pulling everything out and turning it into something else. There was a lot of deconstruction in the studio.
This was always his touring band, right?
Yes. His touring band is on the album, but I’d say a lot of it is him playing a lot of the instruments. He’s a great drummer. He played a lot of the drums on the record. And then sometimes he’d have Abe [Laboriel] drum as well. But there was a lot of time where it was just me, Paul and the engineers in the studio and I would occasionally play here or there. The bass, obviously, is pretty much all Paul. He also played piano a lot of the times and sometimes guitar. There’s a few songs that have his band and there’s a lot where Paul is playing most of the instruments.
What’s an example of a song that’s basically just Paul?
“Confidante” is mostly just Paul, but then sometimes a studio musician would come in and play a little bit of strings, like a cello would be added or sometimes it would be a cimbalom. We did some sessions at Abbey Road, which was very, very cool. I’d never worked there before, so it was amazing to go in there with Paul and get the tour and hear the stories.
Tell me more about what it was like working there.
I mean, it was amazing. He’d tell stories and you could visualize him and John [Lennon] and the band there as kids. They were just so young. He’d say, “Oh, yeah, we’d play down here and run up the stairs excited to hear what it sounded like.” I could visualize him as a young man recording those albums. They were so innocent. He told countless stories about the echo chamber. He said he’d hide out there with John, kind of giggling and laughing when there would be another session in another studio. If you solo’d any of those tracks you’d probably hear them laughing.
There were also lots of stories about the console. There’d be a setting for classical and a setting for pop. They’d have the switch set to pop when the Beatles recorded and John and Paul would be like, “Why do they get classical? What do they do that we don’t?” They thought they were getting short-changed or something.
At what point did the sessions move to Abbey Road?
I’m terrible with time, but it was towards the end of the album. It was more of a sweetening session, just the tail end of going through all the songs. We had a string quartet and a harp player. Then we had a cimbalom musician come in and to sweeten some of the songs, doubling some of the melodies. We doubled some of the piano. You can hear it on the intro to “I Don’t Know.” It was really, really cool.
What was it like the first few times you had to give Paul a note or ask him to change something? It must have been odd telling a Beatle how to improve a song.
It was [laughs]. It is strange, but I know that’s what he really wants from me. I just have to take a breath and say it. Sometimes it might not go over very well, but he was always really cool. I remember a couple of times where I might have suggested something that might have been challenging. I can’t remember specifically, but I remember him just sort of carrying on and I’m wondering, “Did he hear me?” Then maybe half an hour would go by and I’d say, “Hey, Paul, what about that idea I mentioned a little while ago?” He said, “Oh, I heard you. I was just pretending to ignore you.” We’d just laugh about it. Then sometimes two days later he’d try the idea and I’d be like, “Wow, OK.” I thought I failed miserably with the idea, but he came back to it and really tried. I think he’s always listening, always absorbing.
I did have to think a couple of times before I’d say something. But then after I got more comfortable with him and got to know him better, I just couldn’t think about it. I’d just throw out an idea and he’d be cool with it. Sometimes I would have to mention something two or three times if I really believed in it. If he challenged me and wasn’t into the idea, I would realize, you know, that this is coming from a Beatle. He’s tried everything at this point. He’s done experimental albums. He’s done pop albums. Anything I could possibly ever want to do in the studio, he’s been there and tried it.
Before you began recording, did you guys talk about the sort of sound you wanted to achieve on the album?
Yeah. He would mention the variety that Beatles records had and he wanted to bring in different moods, different ideas. There are some songs that just rock and there’s some that are more acoustic and there’s a Brazilian-influenced one and just so many different kind of things. Sonically, he wanted to avoid anything ordinary. He wanted to experiment. Take a song like “Hunt” or “Hunt You Down” – I’m not sure of the exact title he ended up using. He’d say, “Let’s pull out the guitars. A guitar is too obvious here. Let’s have a cello doing that.”
He loved to pull everything out and try to be minimal. Sometimes we did have a lot of things going on, but other times we’d strip it way down and say, “Let’s just have drums and one orchestral instrument. Let’s have bass clarinet playing what would normally be a guitar part.” He really wanted to push the arrangement in unusual ways. I was very supportive of that. It’s easy to flip into the usual, “Here’s the band playing the song in a very typical way.” But he wanted to push the boundaries.
I see that the album begins with “Station I” and ends with “Station II.” What can you tell me about those tracks?
That started with a choir piece that Paul had worked out on the keyboard. Then we brought in David Campbell to help arrange the choir. We went into a cathedral to record that, which was really cool. It started with us in the studio. Paul had worked out some chords that he wanted the voices to do. Then we started creating different ambient noises, some of which came from tape loops. He had a little portable reel-to-reel player, the one they used on Revolver for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That was done on this little Brenell tape machine. We created some of the sounds on that, like slowing down guitars.
It’s the same exact tape machine from “Tomorrow Never Knows”?
I’m pretty sure that it is. He was a kid back then experimenting and being like, “Hey, if you do this, it actually loops and you can slow down the tape and make these cool effects.” John had one too.
I’ve read that “Despite Repeated Warnings” is a real epic.
It is. That’s in the style of some of Paul’s other epic, extended songs like “Band on the Run” and “Live and Let Die.” These are songs that are epic and orchestral and have many different sections and movements to them. This one was his concept. Lyrically, he could probably tell you what it’s about, but there’s definitely some political references there.
He took the band into the rehearsal room and worked out the structure of it and brought it to L.A. and I worked with them and we tweaked it and worked out the arrangement. It was a long evolution to get it to where it got in the end. A lot of orchestral musicians came in. We had brass players and the Muscle Shoals horn guys came in to do some brass stuff. It was quite the job of getting that together because it was like five or six songs in one. It’s about seven minutes long.
What about “Happy With You?”
That’s a very simple acoustic song. It’s one of my favorites on the album, actually. It’s some acoustic and then I think he doubles it on electric guitar. He compressed it on the Fairchild, which was a real Beatles technique. I’m a music nerd, so I love to geek out on stuff like that. It’s so fun. And the song has such a simple little melody. I love it.
What’s the Brazilian song you were talking about?
That’s called “Back in Brazil.” That was one of the first songs that we recorded and we probably did four or five different versions until we got the version that we ended up with. It was one of the trickier ones to get the feel of, to get the drum groove and all that stuff. It started out as something very different than what it became. But I’m really happy with it. It has the clarinets playing the electric-piano part. It started out with electric piano and drums and the whole band, and then we stripped it all down and built it all up with orchestra instruments. When it really came to life for me was when we brought in [composer] Alan Broadbent and he helped with the arrangement. He did the strings and the clarinets and the flute and stuff like that. I like the arrangements he did on that.
So this all happened across a period of two years when he had downtime between tours?
Yeah, during his downtime. I think if you were to add up all the time it would be four or five months. We worked pretty civilized hours. 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
What was the studio like in Sussex?
That was just kind in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even know the exact location, but you’re out in the middle of farmland over there.
In the past few years, you’ve made albums with Beck, Foo Fighters and a bunch of other artist. Was it hard to work all this into your schedule?
I was always juggling, but Paul would schedule very far in advance. I knew when he’d be off the road and wanting to work. We’d put him in the calendar and he’d stay there. Beck would sometimes come in last minute and that was a juggling act. I was working on many different albums.
How did your respect for Paul as an artist deepen and change during this whole process?
I learned a lot about him. I love that he’s pushing the boundaries in his songwriting harmonically and lyrically. I was really struck by the chords that he’d bring into the session. I’m a pianist myself, so I was just amazed at his harmony and his use of melody and chords in the past. I would see him bringing in new chord progressions that I still haven’t heard. Just when you think you’ve heard everything in recorded music, he brings in a song like “Despite Repeated Warnings.” I have never heard a song ever written with that chord progression.
“I love that he’s pushing the boundaries in his songwriting harmonically and lyrically. … I would see him bringing in new chord progressions that I still haven’t heard.”
That also goes for “I Don’t Know.” He’s able to make something fresh, but it also sounds familiar. It doesn’t sound odd or unusual because he pulls it together with his nursery-rhyme melody that makes it very familiar. I’m impressed how he’s still going forward and he’s not phoning it in. He’s really putting love and care into every song. And then I love that he really wanted to be modern and current, but in his way and not in a way that’s very typical. He brought in all of these orchestral instruments, like harpsichords and harmoniums and stuff that’s sitting in his studio at home. These are very unusual instruments that are very him. I was just amazed that after all this time he’s really continuing to push the boundaries.
He’s 76. He would be forgiven if he did nothing more than tour and play the hits or even just sit on a beach somewhere. He doesn’t have to do any of this.
I think he truly loves it. And he has more enthusiasm and energy than anyone. I mean, he motivated me. Around 5 p.m. when everyone sometimes hits that little lull when your energy is down – I guess tea time, or whatever – he’s still dancing by the microphone. We had these little bells and he put them around his ankles. He was just having fun, but he was like, “Let’s record these bells as a percussion instrument.” It was just a random idea, but he was dancing around for the length of the song during two or three takes. I don’t know how he finds the energy to do that.
What song were the bells on?
I think it was “Hunt You Down.” It was one of these things where we needed some extra percussion instruments. I imagine they’d been around since the 1960s. People give him things during his travels around the world. I see things and he’d be like, “Oh, that’s from Nigeria. That one is from Asia.” There are all these little things that probably have great stories behind them.
I’d look around the studio and it would be like, “There’s the guitar that was used on the solo on ‘Taxman.’ There’s the acoustic guitar that ‘Yesterday’ was written on.” And then the [Hofner] bass he’s using is obviously the bass since 1964 or whatever. It’s amazing.
The album has 16 songs. Were more recorded?
Oh, yeah. There’s like 20-something songs that are recorded.
Will they come out in some form?
I have a feeling they will be released in some way at some point. We live in a time now where things are released digitally. I think they’ll have a use for everything. We finished pretty much every song that we put on the table. I think there’s 20, but there could be as many as 25.
Why did Ryan Tedder wind up producing one of the songs?
He produced “For You.” That happened because there was a miscommunication with the scheduling and I wasn’t able to work when Paul was off. He wanted to continue to write and record, so his management or someone get in touch with Ryan to try working with him. They created that song at that time.
Now that you’ve done this, who else is left you’d want to work with? Bob Dylan? Neil Young?
I love both of them. If the opportunity ever came, that would be incredible. But Paul is a big one for me. And unfortunately, some of my favorite artists are no longer with us.