Runrig and The Band From Rockall: Calum MacDonald talks about the band and side project

Sunday 16th June 2013

Tony Cummings interviewed Calum MacDhonhnaill, better known as Calum MacDonald of the band RUNRIG


Maybe it's my Scottish ancestry but if there's one live concert above all others that I would like to attend this year, it would be Runrig's 40th Anniversary show, to be held at the Black Isle Showground, Muir Of Ord, near Inverness on 10th August. Runrig are, for me, the greatest ever exponents of Celtic rock who down the years have produced such stunning albums as 1987's 'The Cutter And The Clan', 1989's 'Searchlight' and 1991's 'The Big Wheel' and although hardcore Runrig fans might suggest that the band have never been quite the same since lead singer Donnie Munro departed in 1997 to enter the world of politics, there are still tens of thousands of fans of Runrig's epic and enormous musical soundscapes. Last year two of the founding members of Runrig, bass guitarist Rory MacDonald and brother percussionist Calum MacDonald took time out from their Runrig duties to record an album under the name The Band From Rockall. From his home in Contin in the Scottish highlands Calum spoke to me about Runrig and 'The Band From Rockall' album.

Tony: Why record a side-project?

Calum: It's something we've wanted to do for many years. Because of the work with Runrig, we never got the time to do it. We took a year and a half off. Everyone was doing side-projects; it was a good diversion from the band, a good way to recharge the batteries, and fulfil an ambition for ourselves.

Tony: Were there things that would've been impossible with Runrig?

Calum: It's completely different, yeah. For Rory and me, because we're songwriters, we always wanted to do a solo project reflecting something of the early content of the songs. We didn't want the album to be polished or overproduced - a big, massive sound - we wanted it to be about the songs. We recorded it, more or less, in home studios to give it that kind of feel, to retain the heart of the song. It was a labour of love.

Tony: What was the inspiration behind the songs?

Calum: I don't know if you know the history of Rockall. It's halfway between America and the Western Isles of Scotland, where we grew up in the late '50s, '60s. It was a fantastic place to be. Musically, you grew up with a strong Gaelic language, music culture, and at the same time rock and roll was coming in on the radios - the pop revolution was starting. Growing up with these two things, it was a really exciting time. We wanted to retain on our album something of the freshness of that first experience. Rockall was an image: a place that's halfway between America, the rock influence, and the Western Isles, more traditional Gaelic.

Tony: You've got some very interesting guests on the Band From Rockall project.

Calum: To be honest, Rory did all of the guitars, most of the keyboards; I did the drums. The extra musicians we brought in were icing on the cake - but very significant and very good nevertheless. We used a couple of jazz brass players - a saxophonist and trumpet player - we used Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, in a very minimal way, and we used a lovely singer from Denmark, Sine Lauritsen, who was recommended to us - we were looking for a foil to Rory's voice, and she worked out really well.

Tony: One of the themes on the album is a deep affection for family.

Calum: The most difficult thing for this record was deciding on the actual songs. We wanted to write some new stuff, but we've got decades-worth of songs sitting on shelves, and a lot of them are songs that for one reason or another wouldn't be Runrig songs. We've often thought, 'It'd be nice to do something with that someday'. So we had many songs to choose from; that was very difficult to tie down to a CD which is ten or 12 tracks. But when we did choose them, you could see there was a very strong personal attachment to certain songs - the family scene, which is always part of our work anyway - not just in a personal sense, but in a wider sense of where you've come from, influences. A lot of the songs have that sense of family.

Tony: What does your family think of 'The Band From Rockall' album?

Calum: They love it - absolutely love it. We're working on a film at the moment: we filmed the process of doing it. There's a one-hour documentary film which came out on the BBC last year. It's called The Band From Rockall. That has been great, because we've been able to tell the story not just in song, but on film as well. Making the film was like making a song. And you're able to expand on things like family, deal with it in other ways. It's often very frustrating, songwriting, because you write this song, you've got three verses and a chorus - a middle-eight if you're lucky - when you really want to write a novel. You really want to get into it and tell a big story. The film gave us a chance to broaden the perspective.

Tony: Runrig has taken you around the world. Have you grown tired of the rock and roll lifestyle and living in Holiday Inns?

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Reader Comments

Posted by Pat Gawler in East Lothian @ 13:07 on Apr 11 2018

Don't know what I would do without Runrig. I came to Scotland in 1989 to study Scottish History, and never went back. 20.7.2013 at the Castle for Celebration in the City was the happiest evening of my life. They fill so many of my needs - music, Scottish History, green issues, the land and its people, beliefs, etc. Can't thank them enough for everything they contribute to my life.

Posted by Peter Steer in Stoke Gabriel, Devon @ 11:56 on Dec 27 2014

Being a long time fan of Runrig, and having lived on Skye for many years until recently, I find the music really touches the soul and evokes such a feeling for the culture of the Highlands and Islands.
The Band From Rockall was a wonderful album and documentary showing the sheer talent and love of their homeland that the MacDonald brothers show with their music. I feel it deeply every time I listen to anything they produce. Thank you boys.

Posted by Brian Carter in Banchory @ 01:31 on Mar 8 2014

I moved to Scotland in 1980, and on the first night of arriving I saw Runrig on a Grampian TV program after the news. One performance was an instrumental and the second was sung in Gaelic and although I had no idea what the words meant I was touched by the emotion, feeling and the way the music touched me. It was heartfelt and therefore it touched me. I covered that instrumental from Heartland for years in a band and I've been a fan ever since.
Music crosses all barriers, religion, black or white, rich or poor and may the Great Spirit speak softly to them for their contribution to humanity.

Posted by John Carmichael in Stenhousemuir @ 15:41 on Oct 13 2013

Just heard The Band From Rockall for the first time love it, two of the finest songwriters this country has ever seen from the best band that ever came out of embarrassed it has taken me until now to hear the solo album.
God Bless .
Callum and Rory.

Posted by Kathryn Schultz in Germantown, east of Memphis, T @ 06:37 on Jun 17 2013

I appreciate so much being able to read this interview with Calum Macdonald of Runrig and The Band from Rockall, especially that you brought out the spiritual aspects of his Christian commitment and song-writing.

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