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How Steve 'The Closer' Lillywhite Helped Spider-Man Turn On The Music

@U2, June 16, 2011
By: Scott Calhoun


Superproducer Steve Lillywhite spoke with @U2 the day before Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark opened on Broadway and the album he produced of the show's music dropped. After helping the show get loud, Lillywhite was told by Bono and The Edge to take these songs and make a record that could stand on its own. We talked about what it took, how he did it and about the prospects for another great U2 album.
@U2: You were first called in to work on improving the sound in the theater for the show, right?

Lillywhite: Right. Before I did the album, Bono called me because he saw the songs were not speaking during the show and he wanted me to come down and help work on the sound of the show. Which I did to a small extent, because basically it was in such a state of flux and there was a lot of tension in trying to get things changed. This was back in February.

@U2: What was the main problem with the show's sound?
Lillywhite: You know what it's like, in any art form when there's sound and visuals involved, the sound always comes second. Look at the Black Eyed Peas on the Super Bowl. I mean, it looked spectacular but this is what us sound people have to deal with. So it was a little bit of a compromise. I could try and do what I did and we got it better to a certain stage, but we knew the problems were much more to do with the plot of the show.

@U2: What did you say to Julie Taymor about the sound of the show falling below the visuals?

I told her and she would agree about it, but then she'd run off and do something else that was … oh, you wouldn't believe …

@U2: What fixes were you able to make?

Lillywhite: Well, it just felt very quiet to me. But the thing is, you know, is it a Broadway show or is it a rock concert? So we had a lot of discussion as to how loud it should be, and I got them to have it a bit louder. And there was a little bit of, "Oh! It sounds a lot better." So that was when Bono said, "Steve, I want you to do the album."

@U2: At that point in the show's development, was it clear which songs they wanted on the album?

Lillywhite: Because the show was in flux anyway -- the songs were being changed continuously -- Bono and Edge said to me, "Look, these are the songs, go and make an album of these songs and make it a good album." And we all agreed that, obviously, if it's different from the show, then it will be different from the show. Because we didn't know, really, how the versions in the show would end up. So, before it closed for the retooling, I went in and we cut a load of songs. In the early versions of the show, when you saw the songs you wouldn't have really known how good they were, because they all sounded like they were coming through a paper bag.

@U2: What was making them sound that bad?

Lillywhite: A lot of it was to do with the sound system and, again, the visuals were put ahead of the sound. It was like there was a Ferrari there but it was only being driven at 10 percent. No one really knew how to drive it.

So when I really got to know the songs, I thought, "My God, some of these songs are really pretty special."

@U2: Which ones stood out early on?

Lillywhite: I loved "Bouncing Off The Walls," "Boy Falls" and "Rise Above" right away. But then other ones became really good once I got them in the studio and we started kicking them around. Songs like "Picture This" and "No More" certainly are songs I think are really strong on the album.

@U2: Who did you take into the studio with you?

Lillywhite: Well, [the band] Carney, but there were actually 19 total musicians. And for various reasons which I don't quite know, there were actually two bass players. There was Carney's and then another guy as well.

@U2: Did you get to bring in some of your own choices for the studio musicians?

Lillywhite: Not really, but only later for "Freak Like Me" I was recommended Shea Taylor to do some programming and so we brought him in. He's worked with Beyoncé and he's really good.

And obviously Alex Da Kid. There's a whole story about "Rise Above." We thought, "This is a great chorus," but the problem is that with the version in the show, the girl's verse modulates. So we tried different girls singing it. We tried it with Mary Jane singing it as a duet and Bono wrote a whole new set of lyrics for Mary Jane to sing, but for some reason it never sounded like a hit single, once it changed key. I mean, when Reeve sings it it's fantastic, so that's when we decided to bring in Alex Da Kid to do his remix and he was very good. So there was a lot of time spent on "Rise Above," both on the first and second versions.

But other songs came about really quickly and I think it's a really listenable album.

@U2: So your goal was to make an album instead of a recording of the show?

Lillywhite: I was given the songs and told, "Make an album." The moment I gave the producers of the show versions of the first recording session, which was "Boy Falls," "Picture This," "Rise Above," and "I Just Can't Walk Away," they heard it and went, "Oh my God, this is fantastic," because they saw this great album coming out of it.

@U2: Was there much discussion over capturing the flow of the show and maybe using only the cast singers?

Lillywhite: What Bono and Edge asked me to do was make a record that would stand up on its own accord. Now obviously, it has some Broadway elements to it. It has the chorus, and you need to have the big fifteen people singing and all that. But hopefully it's not sort of cheesy.

You have to think, "How much of the show should you put into this?" And Broadway, as a thing, is for people from 8 to 80. There are certain versions of songs in the show that are just different, like "Picture This." Even though it's Bono, we have a version with Reeve singing it in the show, but our version, hopefully sounds a bit more like The Who and it's got a lot of energy. The version in the show sounds, I think, a bit light. But that's good and it works.

@U2: Are there plans to make more recordings of the show?    

Lillywhite: Oh, I don't know. The thing is, this album is not so completely different from the show. But if it becomes a really big show, why not do another recording? And I think the whole idea of franchising it is what Bono and Edge want, so you have it in Berlin, London, Vegas, you know -- everywhere.

Personally, I think the versions we recorded for the album are pretty much as good as they get. It's not up to me, it's up to them. It doesn't sound like a cast album, but by definition, I don't think a cast album will sound as good as what we've done.

@U2: How involved were Bono and Edge in the studio?

Lillywhite: I had complete creative control. But it was also weird, because on a U2 album nothing gets through without them OK'ing it, obviously. But on this, this was a bit more of a balancing act.

@U2: It's hard to imagine Bono and Edge not digging in deep like they would for a U2 project.

Lillywhite: They obviously had to bless the songs, but they had to realize … no offense to them, but a U2 album takes so long, and we didn't have the luxury for that. This record was done really pretty quickly.

@U2: Did you see a different approach from Bono and Edge for Broadway?

Lillywhite: They were learning it as they went, and they will say that in interviews now. It was an amazing learning process for them, and maybe something they don't want to repeat! There is one thing, though, that when you look historically at how Broadway shows have become Broadway shows, is that the song writers are in there all the time, changing the songs during rehearsals continuously. And Bono and Edge weren't there all the time. And because the plot kept changing they had to keep changing the lyrics, and so it really was a bit of a mish-mash. But at the end of the day we have a good album and the show is great.

@U2: Did Bono want to sing more on the album?

Lillywhite: He appears on three tracks, but, no, it's probably not fair to the rest of the people in the show if Bono sings them all. In fact, he didn't want to sing "Picture This."

@U2: He didn't?

Lillywhite: Well, it was actually just Bono and Edge on "Picture This," and Edge said to me, "Why am I singing a love song with Bono?" So we got Jennifer Damiano to sing the one verse, which I think works really well. And I had Reeve sing it with Jennifer, but for some reason Bono's version just sounded better.

And Bono could not sing the chorus of "Rise Above," so Reeve had to sing all the choruses. It was very strange, Bono couldn't give the feeling. I mean, he could sing it, but it didn't sound as good as when Reeve did.

@U2: And Edge sings on "Sinistereo."

Lillywhite: Yes, which is probably my favorite track. I love that track, it's so sleazy. So, you know, there's something for all the family.

@U2: Did Adam or Larry ever drop by? Did you catch yourself looking up for them in the studio?

Lillywhite: No, I never speak to Larry except when we're in the studio. I don't think I even have his phone number. I speak to Adam a lot. We're friends. He'd ask, "How's it going?" But I don't think he's heard the album yet.

The thing is, they can now concentrate on a U2 album. I think there's been a lot of stuff going on and they have not been able to really concentrate on it.

@U2: Exactly. So as U2 goes into their next round, are you scheduling some time to work with them soon?

Lillywhite: I never expect it. They are very gracious to me but, um, I never know.

@U2: You seem to have been called in, lately, to do more of a special kind of job for them.

Lillywhite: Yeah, it's a bit like in baseball, the guy who's the closer! But I've heard all the new songs. I've heard the RedOne tracks and I've heard the Danger Mouse tracks.

@U2: And?

Lillywhite: They aren't finished songs yet. And it does take them some time. Like, I spent so long on "Every Breaking Wave" for the last album and then I was with Bono in the car and he played me yet another version of it! It will be a great song, but there's not really a chorus. I suggested to them to go out and play songs live, but I think they've ended up dropping that! (Laughs.)  

@U2: That stretch in Europe when they were playing new songs, that was your idea?

Lillywhite: Yeah, because they had never done that and because live, they eventually get them good. But the trouble with the 360 tour is that it's too difficult to just get up and jam a song. It's such a big production job.

But the new songs are all coming along.

@U2: Do you hear the makings of another great U2 album?

Lillywhite: Oh, I think there will be. But, you know, it could also go the way of Pop, because it could be style over substance -- they'll be excited by the sound of it rather than be excited by the content. Especially with the RedOne stuff, because it sounds really, really professional.

@U2: That was your point about No Line On The Horizon, right, that the content got lost? The content of Fez and Northern Africa?

Lillywhite: Yeah, I still stand by the best U2 albums having a great big picture, meaning a great vision for the album. For The Joshua Tree it was the desert and you feel it, even though it wasn't really recorded in the desert. And Achtung Baby was East Germany, even though most of it was done in Dublin. And with Morocco, you don't even know it was recorded there.

@U2: A lot of U2 fans are just happy to have something new, even if it's from half of U2. What are they going to like about this new Spider-Man album?

Lillywhite: Oh I think just from the moment you put it on, with "NY Debut" you'll go, "Oh my God." And what's interesting is that it was my idea to open with that and then I lost my nerve and I wanted to open with "Boy Falls From The Sky." And then it was Bono who came back and said, "No, Steve, that's a great idea and you stick with that."

Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is available now, and can be purchased through @U2's Amazon affiliate link.

(c) @U2/Calhoun, 2011.

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