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Producer Steve Lillywhite is having a banner 2012. With a new Dave Matthews Band album under his belt (Away From the World, out Sept. 11) — his first with the group in more than a decade — and The Killers’ latest, Battle Born, on deck for release a week later, he’s currently entrenched deep in the musical belly of 30 Seconds to Mars, the band fronted by Jared Leto, who not only has defied the long-standing curse of actors unsuccessfully attempting to transition to rock stars but managed to take music business matters into his own hands.
You could say the same of the 57-year-old Lillywhite, a CBE (Commander of British Empire) who has been writing his own rock ticket for the better part of four decades. Albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Phish, Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds and Matchbox Twenty all have Lillywhite’s name on them along with his signature sound, often called the “Big Music” — spacious, cathedral-like and massive, with his trademark splashing reverb.
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Recognized as producer of the year by the Grammys in 2006, Lillywhite’s number might be coming up again, it seems — and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time as he prepares to give a keynote address at this year’s AES. Now if someone will just give him a TV show gig …
The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with the London native to talk about his influences, the reunion with Matthews and the continuation of the Lillywhite musical legacy in son Jamie, who manages Ellie Goulding.
The Hollywood Reporter: You produced the first three Dave Matthews Band albums, which were breakthrough releases for the band; then what happened?
Steve Lillywhite: I hadn’t spoken to Dave in 10 years. Now, this is not unusual because Dave isn’t one of those people who you keep in touch with — I carried on with my life and they with theirs. There had been talk on the previous album of working together, but nothing came about. Eventually, Dave and [DMB multi-instrumentalist] Tim Reynolds were playing a show in New York, and I went to see them. I remember walking backstage near the dressing rooms, and Dave said he heard my voice. He said my laugh felt really nice.
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THR: A lot has been written about the cause of the friction with DMB — from recording delays to unintentional leaks to Matthews going through a rough patch following the death of his father. Looking back now, what was your take?
Lillywhite: I was fired when they decided that the album later known as the The Lillywhite Sessions was not deemed right by someone. Yes, it was a dark album, but to some of his fans, they think even the rough versions of those songs were very special, and I never got a chance to finish them. I’d like to at some point. I mentioned it. I don’t know … Dave and I never argued. When I was fired, we just never spoke to each other. But we reconnected, and it was great. We’re men, and men are shallow — we don’t remember things like women do. Or we don’t bring it up and blurt it out at inappropriate moments. When bridges are trying to be built, we don’t detonate them. [Laughs]
THR: Can you describe what it was like to be back in the studio with DMB?
Lillywhite: We talked, and Dave said he would love to do it up in Seattle, where he lives. That was great because I wanted to get most of the band away from their homes so we could move the process along. They never listen to any takes back, they just play. And actually the vibe in the studio was fantastic. There was no grief. On the first three albums, there was always some element of tension that wasn’t quite right. But on this one, everyone was a little bit older. We knew that we wanted to make a piece of art. I knew I didn’t want blanket electric guitars all over it. I wanted to keep it acoustic and put electric on at the very end. And suddenly, when you take away electric guitars, it gives room to other instruments — like the violin — to perform.
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THR: What was the process like of working with The Killlers’ Brandon Flowers?
Lillywhite: Some artists have lyrics written, but Brandon will just sing anything that comes out. He’s like David Byrne in that respect. He always said he’s Mr. 80 Percent — he’d write very quickly and the song would be 80 percent good. He’s got a beautiful voice. One of the best lyric writers of the moment.
THR: And Jared Leto, what impressed you most about him?
Lillywhite: Jared is brilliant at working on the digital and fan side of things. He started a company called VYRT where it’s a one-day-only, live, three-hour event on the Internet. You pay money, like $15, and the band will talk, they’ll play, they’ll have a string quartet. … It’s a nice little production.
THR: When you started out, you were so young and so were the bands you worked with. These artists are not kids. Is that easier?
Lillywhite: Brandon I still consider a kid; he’s 30. Jared is 40 and introduces me as his dad. I don’t just want to work with older acts, but I like growing old with them. Someone like David Bowie could never acknowledge that he was middle-aged. Michael Jackson was terrible at it; he always wanted to be Peter Pan. But look at Willie Nelson and Neil Young — they’re fantastic, and you don’t want them to chase the current trend. Mick Jagger without The Rolling Stones might have done “Moves Like Jagger!”
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THR: How much do you pay attention to the charts?
Lillywhite: Only when I have records out. I look at the airplay charts. I’m aware of formats. I do believe in art and commerce coming together. Lots of people say it’s the song. For me, it’s not always the song — there’s something bigger: the spirit of an artist. When I take on a project, I listen to the voice, which is why I would be a good judge on a television show.
THR: So you’re still gunning for a gig on American Idol or a series like it?
Lillywhite: I feel I’ve got something to offer. There hasn’t been a new Brit since Piers Morgan, and I’m not like the Piers Morgan, Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Cowell type — I’m sort of the opposite of them.
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THR: You’ve been incredibly productive in each of the past four decades. Which era of music do you most define yourself by?
Lillywhite: I was the ’80s! [Laughs]. It’s when I did most of my albums. Amazing, this is my fifth decade, and I’m still only 14 — can you believe that? But there was a time in the early 2000s when I had a couple of corporate jobs — Columbia and Mercury Records in England — and they were good, but that culture is not for me. I love creativity and working with creative people.
THR: Have you ever seen the movie 24 Hour Party People, and do you consider the key players in that scene — from Factory Records founder Tony Wilson to producer Martin Hannett — your contemporaries?
Lillywhite: I haven’t seen 24 Hour Party People. During that time, I was in London, and that was Manchester. But I hung out with the Happy Mondays because Kirsty (MacColl), my first wife, did some backing vocals on a remix of a song called “Hallelujah.” I knew Tony Wilson, and Martin Hannett was my hero. It’s how I got the U2 job.
THR: Can you elaborate?
Lillywhite: Martin Hannett produced U2’s first single, and he was going to do the album. But then Ian Curtis [of Joy Division] committed suicide, and Hannett got all weird and said he wasn’t in the right head space to produce U2. So they went back to their list, and I was on it. But [U2 manager] Paul McGuinness always tells a funny story of Martin Hannett. They couldn’t afford to put him in a hotel, so Paul offered the spare room stay at his house then found him looking through his medicine cabinet for cough syrup.
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THR: Your son Jamie is managing Ellie Goulding, who has really been a runaway success.
Lillywhite: It’s taken a year, but Ellie can’t be doing any better. She’s No. 1! Not bad for us Lillywhites. Although I’m now being known as Jamie Lillywhite’s dad — and it’s great. … He’s been advising me. Ellie has got a voice. I love her. She’s coming out with a new record in October. She doesn’t want another single off this album. But as things go these days, she’s selling 150,000 singles a week and only 3,000 albums. Isn’t that terrible?
THR: You’ve worked on some of the most important records in music history. You’ve won Grammys and certainly the respect of your peers. If you had to pinpoint a career highlight, what would it be?
Lillywhite: There’s an arts program on the BBC called Arena, and they wanted to do a show on Brian Eno. So Brian, in his typical Brian Eno-ish manner, said: “I don’t want to do anything about music, except for one thing: I want to have a filmed conversation with me, Steve Lillywhite and Malcolm Gladwell.” So the three of us sat around the table talking: Brian, one of the brainiest and most insightful people I know; Gladwell one of the biggest thinkers in the world; And me, who likes to look at tits! It was quite surreal.
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