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The Producer: Steve Lillywhite

U2 Magazine, No. 14, March 01, 1985
By: By Geoff Parkyn

 

Geoff: How did you first get into producing -- did you start as an engineer?

Steve: Well, I started as a tea-boy, really. I worked my way up from assistant engineer to engineer, and I suppose my first break in production was that if no one had the studio booked on weekends, you could take your own projects in and do your own thing. So we all had our own little projects, and one of my projects was what was to become Ultravox -- with John Foxx as lead singer, although they were called Tiger Lily at the time.

So I did these demos with them, and they thought they were really good, and they signed a deal with Island. Now the band wanted me to carry on working with them on their first album, but Island said they'd need a name producer, because obviously I hadn't really done anything before. Surprisingly enough, the third production credit on the album was Brian Eno!

The credit on the sleeve was "Produced by Brian Eno, Ultravox and Steve Lillywhite." But Eno wasn't there all the time -- I was there most of the time. Then I was offered a job by Island -- I was still staff engineer at Phonogram Studios at the time. I dropped everything and went to work for Island for four years during which time I worked with various people.

Did you do the other two Island Ultravox albums as well?

I did the second one, which was Ha! Ha! Ha!, and then they went with Conny Plank to do Systems of Romance, which was a really good record. And that was when John Foxx split and they were dropped from Island and were picked up by Chrysalis.

So I'm working for Island as a mixture between A&R, producing and engineering. I was working with Johnny Thunders on a solo album of his, and while we were in the studio Siouxsie and the Banshees' manager came down, liked what he heard and asked me to do their first single, which I did. It was "Hong Kong Garden," which is one of their biggest hits still.

That's what really started it off. Then after the Banshees came a lot of other punk bands -- some of which were successful: the Members, XTC, early Psychedelic Furs -- Penetration I did an album with. There seemed to be a lot happening around that time...

Then one day I got a phone call from Peter Gabriel's manager who said that Peter would really like to meet [me] with a voice to producing an album. I thought it was one of my mates winding me up! So I met with Peter and we both had pretty similar ideas. The great thing about Peter on that album was that nothing was allowed to be normal. If it was normal it wasn't right.

Well, all the cymbals went out the door to start with...

Yeah, which was great for me because at the time I was experimenting with ambience in terms of drum sounds, but the only problem whenever you miked up a drum kit from a long way away, everytime you hit the cymbal it would be too loud -- but the actual drum sounded great miked from 20 yards away.

Did it take you a long time to get that drum sound with Phil Collins? He was already interested in that different sound, wasn't he?

No, it didn't take long, but he'd never done it before. All those drum sounds were pretty much invented by me and Hugh Padgham, who was engineering on the record. We were both fiddling about with the desk -- it was the first solid state logic desk in London that had limiters and compressors on every channel, which meant that you could do it relatively quickly. And noise gates and stuff -- so it worked out very well that record, and was thought of, well, still is thought of, in hallowed terms.

And a much-copied drum sound...

In fact, a much-copied drum sound. So by this point things were going pretty well. Then I did a record with Tom Robinson, with his Sector 27. It was quite a good record actually, but didn't have that hit single you need nowadays.

For some reason I went over to Dublin with Tom Robinson to see a gig of his, and backstage there was this note, "Could Steve Lillywhite please contact Adam Clayton from U2." I'd heard of U2, they'd had a hell of a lot of press before they signed, and no one was really quite sure whether to sign them.

A few journalists had gone over to Dublin reporting on the Irish scene, and saying, "There's this great band U2," but for some reason every time a record company went over to check them out on the vibe of the press, the band played terrible gigs. So their record deal was a good few months after people possibly thought it could have been.

They'd already done "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" with Martin Hannett, and in fact Hannett was booked to do the follow-up, but then Ian Curtis died and everything was a bit up in the air. So for some reason Hannett couldn't do it. They contacted me, after this gig, and I don't think I even phoned back; I do remember getting the message from Adam, who was in those days Paul McGuinness' co-manager! Well, Adam was the manager before Paul McGuinness.

I eventually got back over to Ireland to see a gig of theirs, and they were so young. I'd always been the youngest -- and I was producing at quite an early age, 23 or so -- and for the first time there was this band and I was five years older than the eldest guy in the band.

So we went in the studio and the first thing we did was "A Day Without Me," which we thought was pretty good then. But when you listen back to it, it's probably quite childish, but everyone seemed to like it, so I was asked to do the first album.

So did you hit it off with U2 from the word go?

Yes. There weren't that many producers around who were doing the new sorts of music. It worked out well.

You stayed over in Dublin to work on the album at Windmill Lane?

That was in the days when, I think everyone will agree, Windmill Lane wasn't the world class studio it is now. It was the best in Ireland, but to be honest that wasn't saying a lot. So for the sorts of technical things we had I think it turned out quite well. The album was called Boy and the mood of everybody on it was childish. All the silly noises on "I Will Follow" in the middle section, me and Bono -- I'll always remember this -- Bono was breaking bottles in the back and I had a push-bike upside down on its saddle, turning the wheels and running a knife along the spokes. All silly things like that...

So it was very spontaneous then?

Yes, it was. It was a vibe and it was great. Even in those days Bono didn't have all the lyrics written, even for the first album.

Usually for a first album most of the songs have been played live for a while.

Yes. The first album was the easiest in that respect. It was the most rehearsed of all the albums I did with them. Even then it wasn't as rehearsed as virtually everyone else's first album. I can remember the record company not really thinking Boy was that good, and it didn't go very much over here, but in America where the band were doing some touring -- "I Will Follow" started getting some radio play and all of a sudden it looked like a healthy base to start the band's career.

Did you spend much time with them between recording Boy and October?

Yes, I went on tour with them.

So you could see the different developments and changes?

They were growing as people, mentally they were becoming aware. The London scene is a thriving music scene -- everything is happening compared to Dublin in those days. So for them everything was new and it was like being born in a lot of ways -- getting lots of new ideas together. Then it was time to do the second album.

After touring constantly for a year or so...

Right. And no one really thinking, "Hang on, we've got to write songs." They had about three weeks to rehearse, and they had about ten ideas for tracks. They didn't have any completed songs, put it that way -- they were musical pieces. So we went in the studio and recorded these musical pieces, and then Bono was going in and singing his heart out without any lyrics, and whatever came out...He'd do, say, five vocal tapes and I'd sit through them and they'd all be completely different. I'd go through each of the vocal tapes and make a composite tape up, which had a rough idea of what I thought was a good melody -- flicking between the faders. Bono would take that away and carry on writing the words, a better version of what he was singing. Then he'd go in and sing it again. Bono does have difficulty in sitting down and actually writing words out -- he sings whatever comes out. It's a very painful process for him -- I'm sure he'd admit this -- he puts himself through a lot of hardship to come out with what he feels are his best lyrics.

How long did you have to record October?

I think it worked out about six weeks or seven. Probably a week over what the first album took. The record company were a lot more pleased, they thought, "Yes. This is it!" I must admit of all the three albums I did with them it was probably the least focused. It had some nice things, and subsequently a lot of people said -- which I think is quite true -- that the records don't sound as good as they do live. When U2 go out live with all engines going, it doesn't sound the same.

A lot of reasons it isn't the same is because it was the cart before the horse. They'd go in and we'd make the record, and no one knew their part compared to what the vocals would be. Everyone was pretty much working in the dark.

So the songs hadn't had a chance to work themselves in and evolve??

Right. And then after a couple of months gigging those songs were punched into shape. So I always said to them, "When you're on these long tours in the States, before every gig why don't you just jam or do something and write a song, and just ease a new song into the set every three or four gigs. Just try something new." If they took more chances live, because they don't take that many chances -- once they've got a set they stick to the tried and tested -- I think that's true of a lot of bands. I was always trying to get them to make life a little easier for when they got back into the studio.

Were you a bit disappointed with how October was received?

Yes, it did better over here, and they had a half-hit with "Fire." I'd always said I'd never do more than two records with anyone, and they were quite aware of this. I gave them a few ideas of people, and they went in and tried some stuff with Sandy Pearlman -- who did Blue Oyster Cult and the 2nd Clash album -- but that didn't work out with them, and a couple of other people they'd talked to didn't work out either.

Then I remember one day they phoned me up and said, "Look, Steve, you know you said you didn't want to work with us again, and we said, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.'? Well, to be honest, we can't find anyone. What are you doing in September?" And just my luck I wasn't booked up for anything. I don't like hooking myself up for one project after another for the next year or so.

And there's no escape?

There's no escape. So I had the time, they wanted me to do it. I thought, "Well, this is one of the best groups in the world..."

And by this time you were very close friends really.

Yeah. It was a friendly thing as well. I thought, "Well, I've got to make a record with them that shows them as they really are." So they had a fair amount of time to write more -- but they still weren't prepared. They still had ideas, and Bono had the chorus of a song, but not the verse. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was probably one of the most written things. Except the lyrics on the verse, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was pretty much there.

War had much more of the "live" sound really.

Yes, what the band were known for. Whenever we did something on that album it was, "Hang on, let's make it hard." The Edge, a classic guitar player, would come out with these nice pretty things, and Bono would go, "Come on, Edge, give it a bit more." Not the ethereal feel which they can do really easily. The band were so hot live, we thought we'd make a hard-hitting album -- not heavy metal, though. -- nobody wanted that. It had to have a hard edge to it, but in a special way. A lot of the sounds on War I was quite pleased with, like "Seconds" -- the drums.

So recording was through September and October...

And probably into November a bit -- that was the longest record I've made with them. Towards the end I got ill and had to go into hospital in Ireland, and nobody in the hospital could understand. They said, "What's more important -- this record or your health?" And I said, "I'm sorry, but it's this record." If I hadn't been finished in that last two weeks it wouldn't have been released on schedule.

With "New Year's Day" we got the hit that everyone knew they could do. Well, we all know the power of a hit single these days, but U2 get away with it more than most -- they don't need a hit single now. In fact, if they had a Number One hit I think it would probably do them a little more harm than good. It's great for them to have Top Ten singles, but to ever get to Number One (I know it's Bono's big aim) -- well, it keeps them serious, and they are a serious group.

So you achieved what you set out to do?

Well, we achieved what we set out to, and we're still mates, and in fact I was helping them find a producer for this album. I suggested Trevor Horn, and they came back to me and said, "What about Brian Eno?" -- I said that would be great.

The funny thing was about a week before they started I went over to Dublin and down to Slane, and it was just exactly the same thing as for all the other albums -- they had one complete song, and they steamed through "Pride," and "Pride" was the only song they had for that album.

So to have the pressure at that point is an important part?

Yes, and Bono will never say, "Right. That's it." He'll always continue to improve it until the last possible moment. There are very emotional things towards the end of records, for instance "40" was done on the last night, 'cause there was this other band that were starting then. It was incredible -- Bono singing "40" with this other band waiting outside! We'd not even started mixing it yet. Bono was doing the vocal while we were doing the mixing, and we got out by 7:00. "New Year's Day" was mixed in ten minutes. It really is just attitude -- you can do things really quickly if you want to.

What do you think of the mood on The Unforgettable Fire?

It was good, it was the right change to make at the time, but it's still not the enormous album -- the one. But it's good for them because it's still always just underneath being the really big one, so their base, their foundation as a band right now is awe-inspiring, you know.



© U2 Magazine, 1985. All rights reserved.

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