Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant: how we made The Killing Moon

Ian McCulloch: ‘My wife had a cob on because I’d been out all night – then I played the song and she cried’

Ian McCulloch, singer-songwriter

I’ve always said that The Killing Moon is the greatest song ever written. I’m sure Paul Simon would be entitled say the same about Bridge Over Troubled Water, but for me The Killing Moon is more than just a song. It’s a psalm, almost hymnal. It’s about everything, from birth to death to eternity and God – whatever that is – and the eternal battle between fate and the human will. It contains the answer to the meaning of life. It’s my “To be or not to be …

I love it all the more because I didn’t pore over it for days on end. One morning, I just sat bolt upright in bed with this line in my head: “Fate up against your will. Through the thick and thin. He will wait until you give yourself to him.” You don’t dream things like that and remember them. That’s why I’ve always half credited the lyric to God. It’s never happened before or since. I got up and started working the chords out. I played David Bowie’s Space Oddity backwards, then started messing around with the chords. By the time I’d finished, it sounded nothing like Space Oddity.

The rest of the lyrics came quickly, almost as if I knew them already. The title and a lot of the astronomical imagery, such as “your sky all hung with jewels”, came about because, as a kid, I’d always loved The Sky at Night and Star Trek, and I remembered the moon landing. I was up all night wishing I had a telescope.

Watch Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon – video

The song was recorded in Bath and Liverpool. I wasn’t happy with the drums or the way it sounded in Bath, so I refused to sing on it. Plus I’d got a cold after staying out one night with Adam Peters, the cello player. So me and Pete de Freitas, our drummer, went to Amazon studios in Kirkby and finished it with Gil Norton mixing. I got home around 9am, slightly the worse for wear, and [former wife] Lorraine had a cob on with me for being out all night. I played her the song and said, “That’s what we’ve been doing”, and she cried.

Will Sergeant, guitarist

For me, it was a trip to Russia that fed into The Killing Moon. Me and Les Pattinson, our bassist, knew some people at the polytechnic in Liverpool who were going, and they said we could come. It was £200 for 10 days, including flights. We went to Leningrad, then this place called Kazam, where nobody from outside Russia had been since 1943 or something. We went to a museum full of tractor parts and this very strange party organised by the young communists where everyone wore pressed Bri-nylon flares. But there was a lot of music and we came back full of ideas of Russian balalaika bands, which Les used for the middle of the song – this rumbling, mandolin-style bass thing.

During the recording, we went for a curry round the corner, and when we came back the producer had found this twangy thing on tape that I’d done tuning the guitar. He insisted it go in the song. It became the best-known guitar line in our entire catalogue.

Mac might have come up with the lyrics and all that, but it was definitely a team effort. The strings are just Adam Peters on cello and the producer on some state-of-the-art keyboard thing he had. Mac says he suggested that Pete play the drums with brushes, but I know Pete had already been inspired by the gentler, jazzier way of playing on Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, which we’d all been listening to.

I still love The Killing Moon. The lyrics are mysterious and it’s open to interpretation. It’s got a timeless quality. Years after it was a hit, we got an email saying this bloke wanted to use the song in a film, Donnie Darko, which we didn’t think would go anywhere, so accepted a one-off £3,000. Then when the director did the director’s cut he replaced The Killing Moon with Never Tear Us Apart by INXS. Aren’t some people knobheads?

• Echo and the Bunnymen are on tour from 22 May. Details: bunnymen.com.

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Interviews by Dave Simpson

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