“I always say I don’t build the ship, but I’m the captain, and my job is to decorate that ship and steer it safely to port.”
Producer Steve Lillywhite on Punk, U2, the Stones, Getting a Medal from the Queen, Avoiding Complacency and Other Matters

By Simon Glickman

“Any producer who says, ‘I know how to make records’—I’m wary of that,” Steve Lillywhite says. “I don’t know how to make records! I’m absolutely scared stiff every time I go in.”

Lillywhite’s assertion may surprise those who know his pioneering work as producer of U2, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Talking Heads, Morrissey, Siouxie and the Banshees, Simple Minds and other era-defining artists, not to mention his subsequent collaborations with the Rolling Stones, Matchbox Twenty, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Jason Mraz and too many others to mention.

The Grammy-winning Brit has had a busy year. He recently recorded alt-rock phenoms Oberhofer, is currently finishing up the new Thirty Seconds to Mars album, produced the new disc by The Killers, re-teamed with Dave Matthews Band for a fourth disc and served as both executive producer and star of the songwriter-competition TV series The Hit, which debuted in Ireland last week and caused iTunes to crash there. Oh, and he also received a Commander of the British Empire medal from the Queen of England. So you’d think a bit of preening might be in order. But Lillywhite fears complacency above all—a belief grounded in his earliest experiences.

“Punk rock, that was my thing,” he recalls of his first forays in the studio. “It was full of bands who couldn’t play. What better than a producer who couldn’t produce? But I had that work ethic, which was inspired by bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols, and that’s still what drives me.”

At the dawn of those heady, safety-pinned days, Lillywhite was working as a tape operator at PolyGram; by night he haunted the London club scene. (“NME called me ‘ubiquitous,’ which I thought was a fantastic compliment until I found it just means ‘everywhere,’” he notes.) Since he was permitted the use of the company’s studio on weekends, he seized the opportunity to work with a glam young collective called Ultravox, and those 1976 demos landed them a deal with Island. Summoned by the band to work on their debut, Lillywhite first made the acquaintance of Brian Eno—then a Roxy Music alumnus and art-rock artist who’d just begun producing bands. The two would meet again under brighter lights, about a decade later.

The Ultravox project helped him avoid the catch 22 of needing credits to get work; he was soon helming a solo project for New York Dolls refugee Johnny Thunders, and captured the punk progenitor’s finest moment: the rough-hewn but vulnerable “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” This, in turn, drew the attention of Siouxie and the Banshees and their manager, who expressed an admiration for the Thunders LP’s big, reverb-laden drum sound. “I knew if we worked together we’d have a hit,” the producer remembers. “But we did better than that.” The track “Hong Kong Garden” became a Top 10 record in the U.K. and put him on the map.

“Punk rock was a limited art form with a great attitude,” Lillywhite muses. “I tried to expand into a big alternative sound, but remain art-based.” The dawn of the ’80s saw him working with numerous boundary-pushing bands—notably a quartet of Irish kids called U2. The success of their debut, Boy, resulted in his being invited back for subsequent sets October and War, though he usually preferred not to work with bands on multiple projects. As the decade wore on, he helped craft the sound of ’80s alternative rock with Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, Big Country and other bands.

By now Lillywhite had developed a sonic signature, and it was echoing all over the charts. “I did have a sound for a while, and then it bit me in the arse,” he says. Working with American roots-rocker Marshall Crenshaw, he helmed a disc (1984’s Field Day) that—while still beloved by many fans and the artist himself—fell flat in the marketplace. The producer regards this misstep as vital to his development. “I learned that to be a truly great producer, you can’t have a default, cookie-cutter sound,” he reflects.

In 1984 he married and collaborated with singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl, whose incisive, folk-meets-punk sensibility, he notes, influenced a generation of artists. MacColl joined the Pogues on the stellar, Lillywhite-produced “Fairytale of New York,” a top-selling Christmas single in the U.K. and still a holiday perennial. “She was such a gem, a true British institution,” he says. (They were divorced when MacColl died in a 2000 waterskiing accident; their son Jamie now manages pop thrush Ellie Goulding).

Lillywhite’s “ubiquity” on the charts landed him a gig with the Stones during a period of schism. “I had to play Henry Kissinger, shuttling between Mick and Keith,” he remembers of 1986’s Dirty Work. “There were moments of magic, but I like to say I made the worst Rolling Stones record of all time—until the next one,” he says with a laugh. “Still, a real man doesn’t say no to the Stones.”

U2 summoned him back when their sessions with Eno and Daniel Lanois for The Joshua Tree stretched over 18 months and manager Paul McGuinness sought an exit strategy. “I’m like the closer in a baseball game,” Lillywhite muses. “When they see me they psychologically go back to when they were 18—teacher’s walked into the room. So I had this ongoing thing with them where I’d come in at the end and help pull the singles.” He’s now worked on eight albums by the megastar band.

In the ’90s, Lillywhite expanded his palette considerably, producing several albums by Dave Matthews Band. “It was strange for a punk rocker—working with a band that had drum solos and didn’t start their songs until 20 minutes in,” he relates (though admitting an affinity for prog rock). The trick, he insists, was finding the right balance—letting the band stretch out while ensuring the tracks were commercially viable. “I’d do 10-15 takes and chop it all up,” he notes. His work with DMB led to collaborations with Phish and Counting Crows.

The aughts saw the veteran producer take two label posts—as a managing director at UMG under Lucian Grainge and SVP of A&R at Columbia during the rule of Will Botwin. But he’s never felt particularly at home in a corporate setting—“it’s not my world,” he says—and much prefers the itinerant pursuit of his lifelong passion.

It’s the latter enterprise, after all, that’s earned him five Grammys, including Producer of the Year, Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best Rock Album, not to mention that little honor from Her Majesty. “My mum loved it,” he says of the royal ceremony, during which he and famed actress Helena Bonham Carter were honored. “It was the ultimate establishment recognition. Jared Leto has been known to wander around the studio wearing my medal.”

And in Lillywhite’s estimation, Leto deserves to be decorated. “He’s a great artist,” the producer marvels of the Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman. “He’s truly driven—there’s no complacency. That’s my kind of artist.”

Having been based in New York for some years—where he hosted a weekly online radio show and produced numerous broadcasts for NPR, in addition to helming his other projects—Lillywhite is now preparing to relocate to Los Angeles, where he hopes to avoid joining a gym (“walking is preferable”) and to carry on doing what he does best. He’ll be looking for new bands to produce, and he wouldn’t object to being a Grammy contender once more. “I’d like to be on the ballot,” he says.

And you can call him “Commander,” if you like, but he prefers another nautical title. “I always say I don’t build the ship, but I’m the captain,” he explains of his function, “and my job is to decorate that ship and steer it safely to port.”

If you have a job that suits your personality, you’re very lucky,” Lillywhite adds. “My personality is one of persuasion without being condescending—my ego is nothing to do with it—I’m there to serve. I’ve been very blessed to be able to do it, because I’ve never found it difficult.”

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The lineup grows.
Oy vey.

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