Mega-Producer Steve Lillywhite Looks Back on Storied Past; Talks U2, Morrissey, Keith Richards
Steve Lillywhite has worked on over 500 albums, including the first three U2 records and benchmark follow-ups like The Joshua Tree and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. In some bit of twisted fate, he says he owes much of it to late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.
“U2 was going to do their first album with a producer called Martin Hannett, who produced Joy Division and was part of that dark Factory Records sound,” the English producer and five-time Grammy winner told the audience at the ASCAP Expo in Hollywood on Friday. “He did their first single. Then Ian Curtis committed suicide and all of a sudden, Martin Hannett didn’t want to go and do the U2 album. Luckily enough, I was no. 2 on that list. So thank you, Ian Curtis!”
The group of aspiring producers, songwriters, and performers assembled in Ballroom 1 of the LOEWS Hollywood Hotel groaned loudly at Lillywhite’s tasteless joke, but he quickly won the crowd back over: “I didn’t make him commit suicide! I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Lillywhite was full of otherwise good-natured jokes, charm, charisma, pointedly outspoken atheism and colorful stories about a variety of the artists he’s worked with since he got his start in 1977. It’s a long list that includes The Rolling Stones, Phish, Peter Gabriel, The Killers, The Talking Heads, Jason Mraz, The Pogues and more. Last year, he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to British music, which still makes the onetime punk/new-waver chuckle.
ASCAP EVP of Communications & Media Erik Philbrook did his best to keep Lillywhite on course during a lengthy and lively conversation filled with wisecracks, insights and anecdotes. “Have you ever talked about God with Bono?” was the one line from Philbrook that elicited as much laughter as his interview subject scored regularly. Lillywhite demurred on that one, but he did reveal a secret about how the line “Hello! Hello! I’m at a place called Vertigo” beat out alternates. The studio cook liked it.
He had stories about Keith Richards, too. “The great thing about Keith Richards is that he never buys clothes. He’ll go, ‘I like that jacket. I’ll do you a swap.’ And of course everyone wants to swap clothes with Keith Richards. It’s great because Keith Richards gets what he wants. And you go, ‘I’ve got Keith Richards' jacket!’”
And Morrissey. “Morrissey is probably one of the more eccentric people I’ve ever worked with. He’s fearless in a lot of ways. Is this being filmed? I won’t tell that one. OK, I just won’t say the names. There was a very, very well known American manager. We’re in the studio out in the country in England. This manager managed probably the biggest solo artist in the world and he wanted to meet with Morrissey. He flew from Los Angeles to the studio. He walked in, Morrissey walked behind him, and Morrissey disappeared. Couldn’t find Morrissey anywhere. It got more and more embarrassing. Eventually, the manager just left. Then Morrissey came out. I asked him why he had left and he said, ‘I didn’t like his hair.’ He’s fearless.”
Lillywhite talked about the big intelligence of Jared Leto, saying the 30 Seconds To Mars frontman “runs the online marketing side of things better than anyone I’ve ever seen. When you’re not on the road, when you don’t have a record out, that’s when you should be the most engaging with fans. I always like to look at a band’s website. It’s so depressing when you go on a band’s website who hasn’t had an album out in two years and you go to the news section and it’s from March, 2011. And their Twitter page has one or two Tweets from a year ago. You need to always engage your fans. It’s that journey, the whole idea that you have this world you want your fans to engage in. I know ASCAP is all about the song, but, for me, it’s a bigger thing. It’s about an artist creating this world that people want to belong to.”
He spoke several times about that “journey,” about bands like The Beatles who change and evolve and take listeners for a ride. “What a great act is, is someone you can go on that journey with. Bono has that aesthetic in buckets,” he said. “Boy isn’t like Achtung Baby isn’t like The Joshua Tree isn’t like Pop.”
Lillywhite said his career sprung from a “fear of not being able to do anything else.” At 17, he landed a job as a tape op at a recording studio. “Back in the day, when recording studios were living, being, cultures. Recording studio culture is really only now alive in Los Angeles and Nashville, in America at least.” The boss would let the employees bring in their own acts on the weekends. His roommate was friends with ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, who had just moved to England. Lillywhite produced his solo record, which included the classic cut “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” Next, Siouxsie and the Banshees manager called and Lillywhite found himself with his first hit single, “Hong Kong Garden.”
He was inspired by punk but always more interested in the more melodic side, particularly as the scene developed into new wave and he worked with bands like Psychedelic Furs. “I’ve always looked at everything as art. I’ve never looked at something as commercial. Is this good? Do I like it? Therefore, it’s gonna do well.”
U2 were getting plenty of ink from weekly British music publications Sounds, Melody Maker and NME. Lillywhite says the industry went over to Dublin to see them, but “apparently it was the worst gig. All of a sudden, all the A&R men and all the journalists said, ‘Oh, no good.’” Six months later, they did manage to score a deal with Island Records. Paul McGuinness drove Lillywhite 45 minutes to one of the band’s gigs and played him demos the entire way there. “The worst sounding demos I’d heard,” he recalled. “But McGuiness was a good manager. In salesman mode.”
Lillywhite had certain rules for a time, but eventually grew to understand and appreciate a broader spectrum of music. “In those early days, I would never allow a guitar player to bend a note. Edge called it ‘nerdling.’ And that’s dismissing anything Dave Gilmour has ever done, which is ridiculous! As you get older, you can understand both sides, which is a good thing. I can understand the left and right.”
Peter Gabriel put Lillywhite outside of his comfort zone, in a good way. “I had only worked with punk bands and new wave bands at that point. Peter Gabriel was more from the era before, the era we were rebelling against.” Dave Matthews Band is “probably the type of band I absolutely hated when I was into punk rock,” yet he’s since become a fan, of course, making several records with them, including the massive Under the Table and Dreaming and last year’s Away from the World.
As the panel began to draw to a close, his biggest piece of advice to aspiring producers was this: “There is no winning. Only not losing.”