A legendary producer bridging the old & new in music: Steve Lillywhite

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak theJakartaPost.com 11/30/14

Although he’s a record producer who has defined the benchmarks for the global music industry, Steve Lillywhite says that he is still the same person he was 40 years ago.

He still enters a recording studio with excitement, feeling the joy of working with creative people — even on the other side of the globe from home.

“I’m always trying to feel like when I walked in a studio the first time at 17 in 1962,” said the British producer, who defined the sounds of U2 and The Dave Matthews Band from their debuts. “I was full of awe. Working with great musicians who make something from their heart will stop you from being complacent.”

Lillywhite spoke during breaks as a judge in the Guinness Amplify Talent Development competition, where he was also a mentor for four selected indie bands. He will produce the winning band’s single and local label Musica Studios will distribute it.

He is full of charm and passion for his job and music — as well as good-natured jokes and a lot of stories about the artists he’s worked with — including how he teased The Killer’s vocalist Brandon Flowers a lot on faith and religion.

Lillywhite, a five-time Grammy award winner who has produced more than 500 records since he got his start in 1977, also has worked with The Rolling Stones, Phish, Peter Gabriel, The Talking Heads and Jason Mraz, among others.

He was as in-demand then as he is now.

Of his time in Jakarta producing NOAH’s Second Chance album under Musica, Lillywhite said he had a great time riding unruly ojek (motorcycle taxis) and eating gado-gado (salad with spicy peanut sauce) on the street.

“I have high standards. I always focus on the voice,” Lillywhite said of his craft — and why he first came to Jakarta for work. “For me, [NOAH frontman] Ariel is one of the best voices. I love working with him.”

Another reason was that he saw how the industry was changing from a technical and business standpoint, given that recording studios have slowly been replaced by computers and that art and commerce were no longer so closely tied as before.

“It is a good change, but not for me. That’s why I’m here. Musica is more like a family; everyone is connected, just like in the old times. More than most, young producers don’t know what it was like to create the best records in the 1970s. I know both worlds and I like mixing them.”

However, Lillywhite is no Luddite. He works with ProTools to mix audio, even though he says the process makes him feel like a typist.

He prefers his own way of processing at a recording studio by tracking, a method that he found worked well in finding the right compression for drum ambience — clapping his hands a few times in different spots.

“There is a science to it,” he says. “The best spot to place the drum set is the spot that has more echoes.”

The sound of drums was his signature in his early years, although Steve says he has loosened up after producing the second album of singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.

“At that time I was working with U2, Simple Minds and Big Country. I made [Crenshaw’s] record different, but later I realized that I was putting my sound on it. I should listen to their music and let it grow.”

While Lillywhite was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to British music, he prefers to call himself a captain.

“I don’t build the ship. I’m the captain of the ship. I decorate it. I take full responsibility,” he said, explaining why he didn’t think much of whether he was given too much credit — or the blame — for his works.

“A producer doesn’t go: ‘Ah, that’s a good production’ on a record. They should go: ‘That’s great music.’

“I used to tell aspiring producers to find local recording studios and make them useful. But now, studios are dying. Now, I would tell them to do whatever they do because they love music. They could help a musician friend to make them a record,” he said. “Just get involved.”

As about his best work, Lillywhite cites the Counting Crow’s Hard Candy; U2’s Boy, Juanes’ Loco de Amor — the first Latino pop album to win a Grammy; the Dave Matthews Band’s Crash and This is War from 30 Seconds to Mars.

Lillywhite, who landed a job as a tape operator at a recording studio — the womb, as he calls it — when he was 17, said part of his strength as a producer was that he was a fluent communicator — and a little bit of a teacher.

He has built lasting relationships with his artists, including U2’s Bono and, more recently, Jared Leto, the from 30 Seconds to Mars.

“Jared told me once: ‘Steve, you’re the only man over 50 whose advice I would listen to.’ That’s the greatest thing someone ever said to me.”

Although Lillywhite has a lot to say about the music industry, he says he is not writing a book anytime soon.

“I have started talking with a friend, like in an interview, and he writes it up. But I feel that it needs to be in my language, but I’m not a writer. If I still have to do it, as there are lots of things from the past I have forgotten about.”

“Maybe I have wisdom on something. I would like to talk about the idea of art and how the ideas changed the world.”

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