November 20, 2009 Sam J.C./Daily Swarm
Steve Lillywhite is the man responsible for producing the debut albums by U2 and Dave Matthews Band as well as many of their subsequent million-selling releases. While Bono and Dave have both consistently trusted Steve to fit their visions between the speakers, so have artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, Johnny Thunders, Ultravox, Guster, She & Him, XTC, Jason Mraz, The Pogues, Counting Crows, Siouxie and the Banshees, The La’s, David Byrne, Morrissey, Chris Cornell, Phish, Matchbox 20 and many more.
The Daily Swarm: When you began, were there any specific albums or producers that initially inspired you to pursue a career in music production?
Steve Lillywhite: I was a big David Bowie fan. The Tony Visconti records and the Ken Scott records of the early 70s were fantastic.
produced by Ken Scott interview with Tony Visconti
And of course, I loved Phil Spector. In fact some of his “wall of sound” records probably influenced me during the early 80s. Some of the records I made during that time were quite dense sounding. But in general, my favorite records are ones you don’t hear production. You just hear a great record.
produced by Phil Spector
How would you define what a record producer does and how has the role of a record producer evolved over the decades?
It was always a very wide thing because sometimes the producer is the guy who sits back and doesn’t do anything and actually nowadays a lot of producers are not even in the studio. Even though it says, “Produced by…” they are much more of an overseer.
The term record producer is very broad. Basically you’re responsible for the quality of the end product however you do it. So when people say, “Oh, Rick Rubin is never there,” if it’s a good record, it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t need to be there. I wish I could be like that but I tend to feel I need to be there to make half decent records.
I tend to be a little more hands-on. If I do your record, I’m there all the time, so I’ll never do two albums at the same time. Some people do three or four albums at the same time. I find I have to concentrate fully on what I am doing to hopefully make a good record.
Do you act as the engineer on all the albums you produce?
I am not an engineer. I always have to have a technician with me. I sit at the desk and I push the faders up but I don’t consider myself an engineer.
I love balancing the music. I let my engineer do all the mic settings and all that stuff unless I see something I don’t like and I say, “Let’s do this.” I allow people the space to be creative on all fronts.
Have recording budgets gotten smaller in recent years and does that affect how you are able to get the job done?
Different records have different budgets. You work with U2 and there doesn’t seem like there’s any budget whatsoever. You work with other people and it’s different. I like a nice budget but I like nice music even better.
How important is the studio environment to your process?
I’ve worked everywhere from a toilet to the best studio in the world. I’ve made great sounds in a toilet and I’ve made rubbish sounds in the most expensive studio. That’s not what it’s all about, really. Although I do love studios and I love great microphones. It’s more how you go about it.
You produced the first three U2 albums on your own and then Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were hired as the producers for The Unforgettable Fire. The three of you have worked together as co-producers on almost all the subsequent U2 albums. Were you initially hesitant to work in such an unconventional “team” scenario with Eno and Lanois?
No. After the first album I said U2 should work with someone else. And then certainly after October, I said, “Look, guys, this hasn’t done as well as the first one. You should definitely work with someone else. And they went, “Okay.”
And they went and did some tracks with some other people. They didn’t like what they heard and they came back and said, “Steve, I know you said you wouldn’t but what are you doing in September?” and I said, “Nothing.” And they said, “Would you like to do our third album?” And I said “Alright, then.”
Nowadays it’s very rare for any one producer, let alone three producers, to work with a particular artist across their career. Can you describe your working style with Eno, Lanois and U2 and why it works?
The best way to describe it is it’s not just mixing. A lot of people are just mixers and they do a great job but what I do with U2 is way beyond that.
Are you familiar with the game of baseball? They have this guy that comes in to pitch towards to end: the closer. I think that’s pretty much my job with them. Whether I start pitching in the 9th inning or the 7th or the 5th, my job is to help finish it.
Eno and Lanois do a great job of getting it all prepped and then I come in. I think it has a lot to do with the band seeing me and they’re going, “Oh, Steve’s here. We’d better get to work.”
I was the very first studio experience for them when they were young kids so they sort of revert to type a a little bit…but maybe not. We’ve had success and U2 doesn’t analyze really. It’s all about the heart. All they know is that when we get in a room together, things happen.
Do you have a lot of communication with Eno and Lanois during the process?
Yeah, yeah, we’re great friends, especially Brian Eno. He is one of the most intelligent, witty, self-confident people I have ever met. He always has great ideas as well.
He’s not really a fan of the band, so his job is to bring something that is not U2 to it. And my job is to bring it back to some form of U2.
Beyond U2 and throughout your career you’ve worked with very diverse artists. Is there a thread that connects all the people you’ve produced?
One thread I hope is that they are all great songwriters. There was a time in the early 80s where I used the same sounds on everything I produced. And then I made a record with a guy called Marshall Crenshaw that sort of didn’t work with my sound.
Subsequently, I realized there really are no rules. You have to take each artist completely from their own perspective and work for what’s best for them. So after working with Marshall Crenshaw, I realized that I thought I had a formula but I didn’t. If I ever think I have formula, I am not as good a producer as I want to be.
Are there some specific personality traits of yours that have enabled you to be a successful producer?
I’ve been around a while but I still feel like I have something to pass onto people and younger bands because I am very good at getting the best out of musicians. I don’t ever want to change what they do.
If I decide I want to work with someone, I have great faith that I can bring out the best of what they are. I am not a songwriter and I don’t want to be an average songwriter. I am not trying to steal anyone’s thunder.
I want to make the best record for them. So when I take on something, I feel that’s really a big decision for me because I don’t want to fuck anyone’s career up.
I haven’t batted 1000% but no one ever does. I think most artists I work with enjoy the process and enjoy the end result. They can play it for their grandchildren and feel confident that what they’re playing is something that they really believed in. And that’s what I want to do.
I love arranging artist’s ideas. If they have too many ideas, I love that because my job is to filter and I am very, very good at that and I find it very easy as well.
From Morrissey to David Byrne to Bono you’ve worked with musicians who seem to have a very strong personal artistic vision. Is it difficult introducing new ideas to such people and why do they trust you?
I try to expand. They present their ideas and my job is to fit them in a format as a way that is best for them. I have my ideas and I discuss with them and we have a lot of talking conceptually as to how we want it to be. I have a good sense of self-confidence in what I do.
I remember when I worked with Phish about ten years ago. They came out of the studio and said, “Steve, we’ve never felt more like musicians than we do now.” And that was because I enabled them to not think too much. I enabled them to do what they do best and that’s all I want.
I want musicians to perform from the heart. If they’re performing from the head, I am not so interested. I have ways of trying to make them work from the heart. I can make people relaxed. Quite often after making an album, artists will go, “My god, how did that happen. It all seemed to just go.”
In the 80s, you tended to work with a lot of British alternative and new wave artists, and then in the 90s through the 00s you made several albums with the two biggest American jam bands, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band. Considering what your musical background was, what attracted you to work with these two particular groups?
It was very weird but I’ve always tried to spread what I do based on just whether I think it’s good or not. I worked with Peter Gabriel in 1980 and he was very different from Sioxsie and the Banshees and the punk rock that I was also doing.
Dave Matthews was before Phish. I remember hearing their independent CD called Remember Two Things and hearing a song called “Ants Marching” and just thinking, “Oh my god. I love this song. This is such a smash.” And after that saying, “I have to go and produce this band.”
I was living in London at the time and they’d actually decided to work with someone else. So I had to come over to America and basically pitch myself to such an extent that I wouldn’t take no for an answer because I knew I was the guy for this band.
A lot of people thought, “Oh, they’ll never be successful because it’s too jazzy or it’s too this.” I never think like that. If I like it I think,“how can I put it in a format that people will also enjoy?”
It’s like when I saw Guster for the first time. It was just two acoustics and bongos but there was something great about them and a challenge to take what they had and make it work.
In addition to Dave Matthews and Phish, in recent years you’ve produced Matchbox 20, Counting Crows and Jason Mraz. Are you thinking about commercial viability in all cases when you go into the studio?
Absolutely. My fundamental belief, which goes to my soul, is the fact that art and commerce can coincide together. They can coexist together. But I have never made a record for commerce. I’ve always made records for art.
All I thought with Dave Matthews was how short should a 10-minute song be? So I did a lot of editing, a lot of making it seem just the right length, the right amount of soloing. But obviously solos become exactly the same thing when you play them over and over again.
Were Phish or Dave Matthews reluctant for you to shorten their songs?
No, no, no. This is the confidence that I have. I can allow an artist to be musicians and I let them play and they let me produce. But I have to earn that right and I earn that right by explaining to them and by my actions.
You only earn any right by your actions. I wouldn’t produce anyone if they just thought, “Oh, we’ll have Steve Lillywhite because of what he’s done.” I would think they would want to say, “Steve, how would you be able to help us out?” I want to be able to sell myself.
Do you require that artists do a lot of preproduction such as rehearsing the songs before you begin recording?
I don’t like preproduction. I like discussions and conceptualizing and talking about how and where it’s going to go; some big picture ideas.
And they let me produce but I have to earn it. So many producers loose their nerve. If it’s going wrong and they don’t know how to fix it, they just blindly move forward.
I’ve made records for so long that if I sense something’s going wrong, I’m so ahead of the game, I can normally fix it before it actually does go wrong. And I am not big headed. Some producers are good at some things and I happen to be pretty good at that.
In 2002, you began working for Mercury Records in the UK with the title of Managing Director. Can you describe that experience?
I went corporate for a little while and I really enjoyed it. We had some hits. I signed a band called Razorlight in England who became very successful and some other pop things.
But during the last couple of years, that was when U2 called me for the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album. So I decided to leave that job to produce the U2 album and from that I got a Grammy for Producer of the Year… so that was very good.
What exactly did your job as a Managing Director entail?
The Managing Director is like the president. That’s the British term for president. And then I had a job with Columbia Records in America over here in 2006, which was a similar sort of position. I was a Senior Vice President and we signed MGMT when I was there.
But it was not such a great time for the music business and then my boss got fired. They had different ideas and decided to bring Rick Rubin in.
As someone who comes from the creative side of the business, was working for a corporation a culture shock?
Perhaps I didn’t do my homework so well. It was a culture shock. The creative side of that job with Mercury I really enjoyed. Dealing with accountants and marketing people was a little bit more difficult for me but I did it.
Since I was 17 years old I’ve been used to dealing with creative people so dealing with people who consider it “a job” was different. I wouldn’t say I disliked it but my soul is better when I am around creative people.
Did you feel pressure that the artists you were signing would affect the financial viability of such a large company?
My belief is still the same. Art and commerce can run in tandem. If you have that as a belief it doesn’t matter if you are a producer or if you’re an A&R man or whatever you are doing.
I think you can look at MGMT. There’s a great example of good art and good commercial success.
What initially attracted to you to MGMT as a good signing for a major label?
I thought it was very good signing. A band like MGMT will get you other very cool bands. All of sudden, someone will want to sign to the label that has MGMT. I thought of it like that. And you know, those songs are hits.
Now that more alternative-sounding bands like MGMT are being embraced by the mainstream to a certain degree, how can record labels adjust their business models for selling a lower volume of music perhaps across a broader market place?
It’s not the end of the world. If you structure deals accordingly I think it’s good. But sometimes you don’t even need a major label.
Look at Phish for instance. We recorded this new album ourselves and you know, it’s not going to set the world on fire but it really helps. I think Phish are bigger now than they’ve ever been. It’s incredible.
However, with the changing economics of the music business, what kinds of commercial and artistic considerations do you make when deciding which artists to produce or sign to a label you are working for?
I look at a band like Fleet Foxes. I see it as a career, I don’t see it as one record. Maybe Fleet Foxes didn’t sell as many as Britney Spears but I think Fleet Foxes, if they’re clever, are going to have a long career with great sales and a great life.
I am not in the world of Britney Spears. She’s fine. She can do what she wants. But I’m much more interested in artists who think about their art and who see it as art.
In fact, because I’m doing this interview, can you put in a plug? I’m looking for something really cool. It doesn’t matter if they’re successful or not successful. I am very excited about doing some quick records.
People can contact me however they need to. People can find me if they want me. I’m very excited about young artists and I feel I’ve got something I can offer them.
You sound so invigorated. Do you ever get burned out after all these years?
No. The difference is I can’t go back to back on records anymore. In the 80s I could just do one after another and not get burned out. Now, I would get burned out if I did that.
So I’m like a boxer now who needs a little bit more time between bouts. But I’m ready right now.
Because more recording studios like the one where you got your start in the 1970s are closing in today’s tough economic environment, what advice would give a kid interested in being “the next Steve Lillywhite”?
It is getting more and more difficult but I still believe in studios. So just send letters to your local studio and try and get some experience. Find the local band that you love and try and record them.
Believe in your heart and not in your eyes. So many people look at music. Everything is on a screen now. That’s important but it’s also important to go where your heart goes and go where your ears go.
For more information, Swarm readers can click here to listen to online radio segments from Steve Lillywhite’s regular radio show on NPR which he hopes to restart soon. These segments include Steve’s reflections on classic records he’s been involved in as well as on-air live performances produced by Steve with artists like The Pretenders, Albert Hammond Jr., Goldfrapp and Dr. Dog.