Steve Lillywhite is one of music’s most creative, prolific and accomplished producers. Six Grammys, credits in excess of 500 records, and a vast roster of superstar acts—U2, the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, Peter Gabriel, Morrissey, Annie Lennox and scores more—attest to the singular mark he’s left on every piece of music he’s touched.
Born in Egham, England, Lillywhite began working as a tape operator at Polygram in 1972. He landed a big break when his demos with Ultravox scored the band a contract with Island Records. Lillywhite joined the label as a staff producer and quickly went on to helm new wave acts Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Psychedelic Furs, XTC and Peter Gabriel.
His profile was elevated further when he helped craft U2’s debut album Boy. It was the beginning of a creative partnership that produced 1987’s The Joshua Tree, 1991’s Achtung Baby and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. “With the Rolling Stones, I only had a little bit to do with them overall,” says Lillywhite of his contribution to 1986’s Dirty Work. “But with U2, I really have been a part of their DNA.”
Most recently, Lillywhite, 60, embraced a big change—moving to Indonesia. “A few years ago, I was invited to do a keynote at a conference in Singapore,” says Lillywhite, from Avatar Studios during a rare trip to Manhattan. “I was told that there was a band in Indonesia, Noah, looking for a producer for three songs. I videoconferenced with them and it sounded great. I recorded with them a year ago.”
Impressed by the creative possibilities, Lillywhite stayed in the country and went on to produce singer Iwan Fals, whom he describes as an Indonesian mixture of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and an all-female band. “One reason I’m doing this: If you can empower women in Muslim countries, it’s great,” he says. “There are dark forces and fundamentalism in every religion, and women are the key to keeping that fundamentalism away.”
Describe your role as a producer.
I’m not a dictator, but I do feel like I’m the alpha male in the studio. I’ve been in the studio for so many years that I control it, but in a way where people don’t think it’s being controlled. That’s not being big-headed. It just comes from experience, coupled with my personality, and a little bit of talent. But much more than talent, it’s about dedication. Bono described a good producer as someone who can last the course. That was very nice of him to say—he was sort of saying it because I have lasted the course with them.
Importance of a studio’s gear?
I’ve always said that I’ve made the best records in the worst studios and the worst records in the best studios, so if a good studio is a prerequisite for a good record, I have yet to discover that. In fact, in 43 years, there’s not one rule that I’ve come to believe is an absolute standard, except for one thing: I never let people eat in the control room.
Because this is my church! About the only form of spirituality or religion that I’ve been able to accept is the magic that happens when you get a bunch of people together in a recording studio. I think eating at your workplace is a terrible habit. You wouldn’t go to church while a sermon is being delivered and munch on a hamburger or deviled eggs, would you? As I said, this is my church.
What’s your process with U2?
With U2, the end of an album is chaotic—but that chaos can make for great art. Bono won’t sing until a song is mixed and then he’ll rewrite it. He’ll come in, say it sounds fantastic, and sing it. He’ll do a great job, then he’ll say, “It just needs a bit more music,” so Edge then picks up the guitar and starts playing. He changes a chord here or there and it sounds good. But this process of fiddling with sounds and chords can take days. Then we need to change the bass because the chords are now different, and the drums need to change, too. Suddenly—three weeks later—you’ve got a whole new song. Three weeks ago, Bono said he loved what we had, but now the song has split and you have two different songs. It’s like a tree. Some of their entire albums come from three or four song ideas.
On All That You Can’t Leave Behind, my job was to come in and make singles, help them finish off the hits. They told me they had two songs they wanted to work on, “Walk On” and “Home.” I loved the chorus of “Walk On” but not the verse, but I loved the verse of “Home.” That was funny, they said, because the two used to be the same song. That was a moment where the songs branched out and I worked with them to put them back together.
How’d that work?
I’m very good at being logical and putting things like that in order. I have ideas, but I much prefer that an artist give me 10 ideas and have me say, “I’ll take this and this and put this over here.” I hate it when someone says, “Steve, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” What do I want? A nice life? (laughs) I have no ambition in that way. So in this situation, I took “Home” and “Walk On” and put them together again.
What was it like working with Phish?
They can play everything, but that is not good. Limitations in art are what make great art, so when you can play everything, how do you choose what to play? Personally, I’d like them to make another Dark Side of the Moon. To me, they’re a prog band that jams wonderfully, moving around through different time signatures and such. [Phish frontman] Trey [Anastasio] liked how I described the band when they jam—it’s like looking at the sky and seeing hundreds of birds flying together and suddenly they all turn at once. They don’t say, “OK, turn in three, two, one.” They just do it. That’s what a great band like Phish does when they jam. To me, that’s what makes [1996’s] Billy Breathes so good. It condenses what they do into 45 minutes. It’s as good a concept album as I’ve ever done.
How was it a concept album?
Well, it had a flow—and the idea of an almost singular vision throughout is important for me. Most albums are now done by multiple producers, in multiple studios—even bands like Maroon 5. The songs are never put in the same mixing bowl and never see their “albumness” until the mastering suite. The problem with that approach is that you don’t have a conception of the overall dish from the beginning. What I love to do is to sequence an album early on, so every time we’re playing it back and adjusting things, we’re building the project as an album rather than just working on specific songs.
Was working with the Dave Matthews Band similar to Phish?
I don’t consider the Dave Matthews Band a jam band. They have a lot of different people playing solos. There was a time when talking about jamming would have been terrible for me. When I started in punk rock, I wouldn’t even let guitarists bend notes because that felt like excess fat. There’s something great about being young and opinionated because it offers you the parameters of your art, but being older can mean that you’re more open to everything. I’m certainly a lot more appreciative of different music these days.
What are some common elements among great bands you’ve worked with?
They’re greater than the sum of their parts. If a drummer leaves a great band, for example, it can be really bad, because sometimes the drummer isn’t just the drummer. He’s the guy who says, “I don’t like that.” You can have the best drummer in the world, but if you’re just paying him a wage, he’ll never say that the music isn’t good enough. A great band happens when all of the members share a vision. That’s what makes the group greater than the sum of its parts.
Did you find that true of the Stones?
Absolutely. When they all get together and it locks in, there’s something magical. I worked on the album where Mick and Keith were not really talking—a shame—but it was what it was, and I knew that it was not going to be a classic album. But who turns down the opportunity to produce the Rolling Stones? I learned a lot more from them than they ever learned from me, but it was interesting how 99 percent of the time, it was dysfunctional. Occasionally, though, it wasn’t.
It was like cogs in a watch. Suddenly, one would start moving and click, and then they would all start working in an amazing way. I got a glimpse of how they might have been 10 percent of the time, 10 years previously. When I was with them, it was maybe .5 percent of the time. It was a great experience.
Can you elaborate on the relationship between chaos and art?
Sometimes great art comes from chaos and, historically, that chaos came from drugs and drinking. Drugs can get you to that point of chaos quickly, but drugs don’t make the art great—it’s the chaos that does that. And you can get there without the drugs, but it’s more difficult. I’m 18 years sober, and when I got sober I wondered how I would make albums. I was so used to drinking, smoking weed, and doing coke to stay up late that I didn’t even know if I would enjoy what I was doing. But that said, I’m very proud of my 18 years of sobriety. It’s been great.