tue 12/12/2017

Interview: U2 Producer Steve Lillywhite on the Alchemy of Hit-Making | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: U2 Producer Steve Lillywhite on the Alchemy of Hit-Making

Interview: U2 Producer Steve Lillywhite on the Alchemy of Hit-Making

Newly honoured record producer discusses working with Irish gigastars

Steve Lillywhite: pro Bono

Record producer Steve Lillywhite has been awarded a CBE in the 2012 New Year Honours list. Born in 1955, Lillywhite started his career in the late 1970s working with new wave and post-punk bands such as XTC and Siouxsie & The Banshees. He went on to produce everyone from Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads to Morrissey and Kirsty MacColl, to whom he was once married. His most enduring relationship, however, is with U2. It began with Lillywhite producing their 1980 debut album, Boy, and has continued to the present day. Here he recalls being in the studio as their 2004 hit, “Vertigo”, came together.

* * *

When I got brought in to produce How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb everyone was feeling a bit low. The band had done a fair bit of recording with another producer [Chris Thomas] and they decided it was time to change the team around. I came over to Dublin and they played me what they’d done, which included a song called "Native Son" that was marked down to be the first single. I liked the song, but I felt that it could be recorded with a bit more energy so I asked them to re-record it. I set them up in a completely different way to how they’d been recording up to this point, put the drums in a different place, and I changed the sound completely. It was still the same song, but I took them out of their comfort zone.

They know the level the bar is at and they won’t leave any stone unturned. They’ll write the song after you’ve mixed it!

The band started jamming it and it was really coming together, sounding great. I said to Bono, who was sitting behind me in the control room, "Why don’t you go out there and do a live vocal? That way we’ll really be able to tell how it’s going." He goes out there, we get him set up, and the band start playing. He starts singing "Native Son", and pretty much by the first chorus he puts the microphone down and says, "Nah, I can’t sing that. That’s not good enough."

Basically, the moment he started singing the song with the band, Bono projected himself a year into the future, on a stage at Madison Square Garden, and he suddenly realised he couldn’t sing it with the passion he really wanted. Bono has this great knack, which I’ve never really seen with anyone else, of putting a song in the set as he’s writing it. He’s thinking, ‘Ooh, this could replace such-and-such; or this could be a great opener.’ He looks at the album as being the tour as well, and the last thing they want to do is a tour that’s embarrassing when they play the new album. Most bands from their era, that’s the reality: the crowd just go crazy for the hits. U2 manage to still play half a dozen songs off the new album every time and it really works.  

So he decided to rewrite the words and melody. We cut the backing track and it sounded really good, but we must have spent days and days and days working on the chorus. Bono had a rhythm for the chorus but he couldn’t get the words, and he was trying and trying. Then one day, just one of the many things that he did was sing "Hello, Hello." And of course, we all went, "Ohhh, I’m not sure about that, to be honest." It certainly wasn’t a white light moment. But then I thought there might be something in this. I double-tracked his voice, which is something U2 have never done – have two Bonos – but for some reason it bolstered up this very simple "Hello, Hello" riff. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s those little things that help move an idea forward.

Bit by bit people would come in and listen. The great thing about U2 is that they always involve a team of people on listening duties – friends and family. They’re not isolated in a bubble, there’s a lot of playback and discussion, and people were saying, "That’s really good!" And we’d go, "Really?"

Eventually, after changing the chorus, changing the words, the final version of "Vertigo" just sort of leaked into life. It’s the same music as "Native Son," although personally I think the playing on my version is a bit spunkier, but it’s a completely different set of lyrics and a completely different melody. Except for the "To be free-ee" bit at the end of the chorus. That’s the same in both tracks.

"Native Son" was a good song, but it didn’t have that special, visceral "U2 thing". This is what makes them such a great band: for them "good" is about the worst thing you could ever say. When they have a new record coming out it has to have that wow factor. "Beautiful Day" had it, and "Vertigo" has it too. It has become one of their top five songs. It’s one of those songs that, if they’re having the worst gig in the world, they know they can pull it out and get the crowd back.
 
They know the level the bar is at and they won’t leave any stone unturned. They’ll write the song after you’ve mixed it! They’ve been able to afford themselves a style of making music that is unique. They go off on tangents, they try everything, and good luck to them - it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes to make a record, as long as it doesn’t sound like it took that long. It has to sound like they didn’t try too hard.

Watch the video for "Vertigo" by U2

The moment he started singing the song with the band, Bono projected himself a year into the future, on a stage at Madison Square Garden

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Hey check out (and like) an awesome video interview with the Grammy Award Winning producer Steve Lillywhite, who has worked with artists such as U2, The Rolling Stones, etc at: http://culturecatch.com/vidcast/steve-lillywhite

I don't think U2 could ever have a "bad gig"... They're musical geniuses!

Not enough about another true genius, producer Chris Thomas, who, along with the extraordinary work done by Bill Price, his partner-in-crime, has given us a catalogue of the most varied and wonderful music imaginable...Thanks guys for all the music...AND for all the fun we had together back in'73-'74 at AIR...xxoo's deb

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