Rock music would’ve had a very different feel in the early ’80s if it weren’t for Steve Lillywhite, one of the era’s most in-demand producers and the architect of the “Big Music” sound of bands like U2, Big Country, and Simple Minds. Lillywhite has maintained a relatively high profile in the industry ever since, whether working with modern acts like Dave Matthews Band, for whom Lillywhite produced four albums (the fourth of which was never officially released, though it’s had a long afterlife on the gray market) or serving as an executive at Columbia Records. Recently, Lillywhite has made headlines with his campaign to take over Simon Cowell’s spot as judge on American Idol when Cowell defects for The X Factor at the end of this season. Lillywhite spoke with The A.V. Club about that campaign and about his long run in the music business.
The A.V. Club: How serious is your pitch to replace Simon Cowell as an American Idol judge, and what do you think your odds are?
Steve Lillywhite: I am completely serious. When I decide to do something, I decide to really do it. It’s not my decision whether I get it or not, but it’s my decision on how I can present myself. People who only know me from my work say, “Why would you want to do this?” But people who know my personality say, “Steve, you’d be perfect on that show.” I think I have the credentials. I’ve been pretty successful in the music business for a while, but it’s more my personality that I think I can bring. And also I think I’m a good spotter of talent. People say, “Oh you just work with rock music.” Well, I don’t see what I do as rock music. I see bands like Nickelback as rock music. Take U2. Bono is basically Frank Sinatra with electric guitars. He’s a crooner. I’ve worked with such a varied set of singers, from Chris Cornell and Rob Thomas and Jason Mraz and Jared Leto to Peter Gabriel and Morrissey. I’m working with Amy Lee of Evanescence at the moment. For me, the singer is actually the most important element. When I work with someone, it all comes down to whether I like the singer or not. So I just want to extend that into the judging process. And my odds? Who knows? I don’t know.
AVC: Has anybody from the show contacted you?
SL: Not at all. I’m investing a little bit of time. I made one little video, which took me 20 minutes. I’m going to make a slightly more succinct video tomorrow and send that in and maybe post it online because that’s the world we live in now. I don’t think the public has anything to do with this decision, but if Perez Hilton can post a video stating what he could offer, then why shouldn’t I?
AVC: In your time in the industry, have you ever met any of the judges?
SL: I knew [Simon] Cowell back in the mid-’80s, actually. I met him a couple of times and that was it. To be honest, our worlds haven’t really collided that much, but I highly respect him. I think the one difference between the two of us is that his vision of a “star” is a lot narrower than mine. I know what he expects a star to be and I agree with it, but I would expand that a bit because I think there’s a slightly wider view of what a star could be. I think the American public takes American Idol very seriously, because basically, you all invented pop music. And anything that America invents, America is serious about. But I think I would provide a slightly more varied palette, and maybe if I was one the judges, some potential contestants might think, “Oh I’m gonna give this a go because Lillywhite might like me.” But I am not a rock producer. I don’t see that. I once turned down Guns N’ Roses. I don’t like shouting. I’m a melody guy. I love great melody. Okay, Chris Cornell is a rock singer, but mostly what I do I call pop music because it’s popular.
AVC: What kind of judge do you think you’d be?
SL: Well, based on the fact that 99 percent of music is rubbish, I would not mince my words, but I would be fair. And you’ll never hear me say, “That’s a bit pitchy.”
AVC: Can you pledge right here and now to come up with better analogies than “karaoke,” “cruise ship,” and “lounge singer”?
SL: Yes of course. First off, I’d ask, “Do you want to be in this person’s world?” That’s so important. There’s a couple of contestants this year that, yes, their world looks like an interesting world. I would want to be in their world, and that’s how I would try and mentor them. I would say, “Look, you need to get people interested in you.” You have to fashion your world. You’re a salesman, and for two minutes on stage, you’re selling your vacuum cleaner. You have to make sure your vacuum cleaner is the best fucking vacuum cleaner that you can fashion.
AVC: So you’ve been watching Idol this season?
SL: Of course. If anybody says, “I want to be a judge, but I’m not watching the show,” that’s complacency to the nth degree. I haven’t watched every season, because sometimes I’m away doing an album and I’ve just missed it. Before DVR, if you didn’t video it, you missed it. But now, it’s on the DVR. I come back every night from the studio and boom, there I am, watching it.
AVC: The type of artist they’re looking for has definitely changed over the years. They used to want a Christina Aguilera type, but they seem to want someone more like Feist or Corinne Bailey Rae now.
SL: When X Factor comes out, which has a much broader palette, I think American Idol will have to expand what it’s looking for. As I say, Simon Cowell’s vision of what a star is is very narrow. My version is slightly wider, and I’d try and reflect that in the sort of contestants I would champion for the show.
AVC: You’ve been in the business now for almost 40 years…
SL: Shut up. Not that long. [Laughs.] Not that long.
AVC: You were an engineer on a Golden Earring album in 1972, right?
SL: Okay, yes. I was a button-pusher.
AVC: Given where you began, and given that you’ve spent time on the business side recently as well as the artistic side, how have your views of the industry changed over the past 40 years?
SL: Oh, it’s completely different. When I started out in the studios, engineers pretty much wore white coats with pens in the top pockets, that sort of thing. There were no CDs, there was no digital. There was a very healthy culture of recording studios. That’s how I grew up. But the world is a forever-changing place and it’s great. I embrace the change. My Columbia stint ended because there was a change in regime at the top, but I left having helped sign MGMT, and that’s the sort of artist who doesn’t only make you a profit, but it makes other people want to sign to you. Nirvana signed to Geffen because Sonic Youth were on there. MGMT is that sort of band. They’re a magnet band.
AVC: Do you get the sense that the industry still has that long-view? Do the label accountants ever think that, “Okay, this band may only sell 20,000 copies of their album this year, but that record’s going to keep selling 20,000 a year for the next 20 years, and the next album might sell 100,000….?”
SL: Well, that’s the trouble. It’s a business, and if they could structure your business model to allow that to happen, then they would. But the major label business model is based on millions of records a year, and sometimes people aren’t ready yet to sell their big album. The Joshua Tree was U2’s fifth album. They built themselves up to that point. But it’s also a lot cheaper to make records now. If you’re fearless and you go for it and you have a great idea, people will buy it. We have great tools at the moment to make great music. Sometimes people are scared of those tools. They think those tools rule them. You have to rule your tools and you have to do it yourself.
AVC: So you embrace all the new technology, like ProTools?
SL: Oh absolutely. It’s fantastic. What used to take me five hours of grafting and stuff now takes me five minutes if I do it right. That’s how I love using it. I don’t like using it in the way everyone uses it. It’s a great tool as a tape recorder. I love a lot of the things it can do and as I say, I use it.
AVC: In the 1970s, you were working as an engineer for major rock bands, and then you found Ultravox and became their producer, and went on to work with a lot of new wave and post-punk acts. What was that era like for you, as music transitioned to something new?
SL: For me, as a producer, it was a catch-22 situation. You only get the work if you have a hit, but how do you get the hit if you haven’t got the work? And then all of a sudden this wave comes along that was punk rock. I was out every night going to all the clubs, which were full of bands who couldn’t play. So what better than to have a producer who couldn’t produce? [Laughs.] Ultravox were called Tiger Lily when I met them, and at that time at the studio I worked at, I was allowed on weekends to take my own projects in. So I did their demos. From these demos they got a record deal with Island Records, which was when I first worked at Island. The guys said, “We want Steve Lillywhite to work on our album.” And Island said, quite rightly, “Who is this kid? He hasn’t done anything. You need somebody else in there to help.” And they said, “Well, you know, we love Brian Eno.” So that was the first time I met Brian. We co-produced it. I was there all the time, while Brian tends to come in and out. He’s got a great overall view of things, but he’s not always there.
Ultravox! was not a hit record. But I was very lucky, because I was always out on the scene. You’ve got to be in it to win it, as that awful expression goes, and I was always around. My roommate happened to know this guy, Johnny Thunders from The New York Dolls, who had moved over to London with his band The Heartbreakers. The Heartbreakers were quite imploding at the time and Johnny was going to make a solo album. So, being my cocky self, I piped up and said, “I’ll do your solo record. I can make it sound a lot better than that bloody Heartbreakers album.” So he said okay and I went into the studio and cut his album called So Alone, which funnily enough, a lot of people now say to me, “Steve, that’s the best record you’ve ever done,” which is a bit depressing really, because it was pretty much the second album I did. [Laughs.]
From that, and this is a long-winded story, Siouxsie & The Banshees’ manager came by the studio and liked what he heard and asked me to cut the first Siouxsie single, “Hong Kong Garden.” Then I had my hit! In September of ’78, I had a Top 10 hit in England with “Hong Kong Garden” and I thought, “I love this. I never want to give this up.” Maybe all of this was subconscious as well as conscious, but I began to realize that punk rock was a great attitude, but a limited art form. I gravitated to the arty side of punk. I didn’t like The UK Subs and all that shouting stuff. I’ve never liked shouting. I love melody—which ties back in to my ability to be a judge on American Idol. [Laughs.] It’s true! I love melody. So I would go for the art, always, which led me to bands like XTC and The Psychedelic Furs. All of this was well before U2.
Peter Gabriel’s third solo album was the first time I worked with someone who was older than me, both physically and in their musical life. Peter Gabriel came from that time we didn’t talk about. Pre-punk. That stuff we all hated then. We were rebelling against Supertramp, The Eagles, and all that sort of proggy, indulgent stuff. Now I love it, but when you’re young, you’re much more opinionated than you are as you get older. When Peter Gabriel’s manager phoned me up, I thought it was a joke. I thought someone was teasing me, but when I met Peter, I got why he wanted someone young and fresh, and we had a great time in 1980 working together.
But Peter’s not the fastest worker in the world. He’s even slower now than he was then. We would take breaks during Peter’s album and I would go off and do a Psychedelic Furs album or something. That was when I got the call from U2 and they flew me over to see a gig I think on the west coast of Ireland, in Cork. I was picked up by a Mr. Paul McGuinness and of course when you think Ireland and a name like McGuinness, I was absolutely convinced I’d be meeting a man on a tractor with straw in his hair. But instead it was this wonderful, well-spoken gentleman, who proceeded to drive me for 40 minutes to the gig, playing me the worst-sounding demos you have ever heard. He was in such a salesman mode, but I was thinking, “This is terrible.” These recordings were so bad. God bless Paul McGuinness. His job is not to critique. His job is to sell. He is the best manager I’ve ever worked with because of that. If Bono says, “I want a lemon,” Paul McGuinness says, “How big?” And it’ll be a fucking big lemon.
So anyway, we went to the gig and if I’d based my opinion on the demos he played me in the car, I never would’ve done the record. But I saw the band live and I got it. I saw something there. I saw a passion in that lead singer. Again, this can tie back to my ability to discover talent at a very early stage, because what I saw in Bono was no different to what he has now. He was just a diamond in the rough and I can find those diamonds still on American Idol. [Laughs.] So anyway, that leads us up to now.
AVC: With “Hong Kong Garden” coming so early in your career, how much of its sound was you dictating to the band and how much was The Banshees telling you what they wanted? And has that dynamic changed over time?
SL: When people ask, “What is a record producer?” I always say that it’s a lot like a film director, but not as dictatorial because I’m collaborative. I like to talk to my artists. I like to find out what they want and help them realize their vision. So I will say, “I want it this way,” they will say, “We want it that way,” we’ll knock heads, we’ll talk for hours about the various ways we could do it, about what supports the lyrical content, and at the end of the day we’ll come to a compromise. We’ll find a way of making it work. As I always say, they build the ship, but it’s my job to steer it. I love being able to choose a good ship, but as long as there’s something there to work with, I can bring out the best. That’s what I do. In general, my personality is very good for nurturing. I’m very empathetic to my artists. You speak to anyone who’s worked with me and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, Steve’s great. He doesn’t have the ego.”
AVC: Do you think you have a signature sound?
SL: I used to, because I thought I knew what I was doing, and that’s always a bad thing for anyone. Complacency is one of the worst things in the world. I had a signature drum sound in the early ’80s. One guy once said to me, “Steve, you know you pretty much dictated the sound of music in the ’80s, with the way your drum sound was bastardized and emulated.” I said, “That’s ridiculous.” He was tracing back the lineage of what I did in the very early ‘80s to all rock music in the ‘80s, which is ridiculous. But I did have a drum sound, that’s true. I would always do the same thing, and I thought I knew what I was doing, and when that little bit of complacency sets in, you make a big mistake and you learn from it.
When I produced Marshall Crenshaw’s Field Day I realized I had done the wrong thing. Marshall has always championed that album and said, “Yes that’s how I wanted it to sound.” But I listen back to it now and while there’s some interesting moments, the guy is a singer-songwriter and I maybe stepped on it a bit too much. So I realized that I can’t do that sound all the time. It’s like Phil Spector. As great as Phil Spector is, you can’t put a Phil Spector sound on everything. I did have a sound when I worked with Simple Minds, Big Country, U2, and then I then did that on Marshall Crenshaw and I realized, “Uh oh.”
Don’t go in with pre-conceived ideas, because if you go in with pre-conceived ideas or a formula, then you’re sunk. You have to go in as if every record is your first, because by doing that, you clear your brain. All that left-brain stuff, which is the small-mindedness, put it in little boxes… all that should be gone. Get rid of the left-brain stuff. Let the right-brain stuff come through because you can access the left-brain stuff at any time, and why not stay open to possibility? You can always pull it back and use your experience to put it back on the rails if it goes wrong.
AVC: Were you reacting at all against the sound of the other big name producers of the time, or were there things they were doing that you paid close attention to?
SL: Well, probably my favorite producer in the world is Trevor Horn. There are moments on his record that make me go, “Fuck!” That middle bit of Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” all of that first Frankie Goes To Hollywood record… Although I’m good friends with [Frankie frontman] Holly Johnson and he said to me once, “Steve, you know Trevor Horn told us to go and listen to that Simple Minds album you did and base our sound on that?” I love Trevor. He’s a lovely man.
The records at the time that really made me go, “Fuck!” were the Sex Pistols records. They had a sound that beat every other record out at the time. You’d be in a club and you’d hear loads of punk records and then “God Save the Queen” came on and it was just, “Oh my God!” Why did that sound so much better? One of the reasons was that most punk music was very fast. The Sex Pistols were not fast, so the sound had room to breathe more and it was a much more open sound. That Steve Jones guitar sound… there was punk attitude obviously, but their songs were a lot slower, so they could dig in more.
AVC: You worked helped define the sound of artists like U2 and The Dave Matthews Band, and then they went on to work with other producers. When you listened to their later records, did you ever think about what you would’ve done?
SL: Oh never. Life’s too short. Why be passive about something you can’t change? I love U2. They’re my friends and I’m very influenced by Bono’s dedication to his art. He leaves no stone unturned. He’s always trying. He’s the biggest over-achiever I’ve ever met. He’s not the most talented person I’ve worked with at all, but he’s a great singer, a great crooner. He has to push himself right to the edge to get to where he gets. His faith obviously helps him through that. Dave Matthews Band? That was always a little bit overblown. I felt like I never finished the album I was supposed to be doing at the time, their fourth album. I don’t dwell on it. It’s fine.
AVC: You worked with two bands—XTC and Psychedelic Furs—who moved from working with you to working with Todd Rundgren.
SL: That’s funny. When I was working with the Furs, their catchphrase as such was “beautiful chaos” and I guess they wanted to tone down the chaos a bit. They did well from it. I haven’t spoken to them in forever. Richard Butler was always older than me and now mysteriously, whenever you read anything, he’s younger. How is that possible? [Laughs.]
AVC: Also, while U2 went from working with you to working with Brian Eno, Talking Heads went from working with Brian Eno to working with you. It’s like the bands traded producers.
SL: In a way it’s more satisfying to work with a band from the beginning of their career than towards the end. With Talking Heads I did their last album, Naked. It wasn’t as commercially successful as some of their other ones, but it had some good stuff. Maybe it was a bit long, but I think “(Nothing But) Flowers” was a great song and it does speak to the talents of Johnny Marr, who I got to come over to Paris and cut some guitars with. David Byrne is such a great artist, always changing it up and not looking at the charts. Just looking at what he does as art. It’s great.
AVC: Speaking of working with artists in the latter part of the career, you worked with The Rolling Stones on Dirty Work.
SL: Yes, I produced the worst-ever Rolling Stones album. Until the one after, that is. [Laughs.] But basically, I couldn’t turn down The Rolling Stones. A real man would never turn down the chance of working with legends like them. But that doesn’t mean I knew it was going to be any good whatsoever. You need a good tailwind to make a great record, and there wasn’t a great tailwind with the Stones at that point. There was too much bitterness. It was the bad end of the drug-taking. It was just messy, but I had to do it. I learned a lot more from them than they learned from me, that’s all I can say about that experience. Maybe “Harlem Shuffle” was okay. That was sort of a hit. They didn’t tour the album or anything. I enjoyed working with them and it was great fun hanging out with Keith Richards.
AVC: Do you ever feel like you’ve gotten too much credit or too much blame for the records you produced?
SL: I don’t know. I’m very responsible. Maybe I get blamed for some, but I do try my hardest at whatever I do. I really put my everything in. That’s why I’m not the sort of person who can run a business and make records. I can’t make two records at the same time. Whatever I do, I have to concentrate on and put everything in, because if I don’t, I’m just not good. I really need to push myself and try my hardest every time, because I come from the premise that I’m not very good and I have to give my best. Otherwise, I don’t deliver. Which, again, is what I would do with Idol. I would put my all into that job.
AVC: Ever thought of writing a memoir?
SL: I’m actually trying to do that, given the fact that record sales are so bad. I’ve built this brand up over the years, and now the question is, how do I monetize this brand? It sounds very mercenary, but I have a mortgage and divorces and stuff like that. [Laughs.] So I’m always trying to think of how I can make money. Because people don’t buy records. The public thinks, “Oh, I give that band $200 a year on concert tickets.” The big artists make all their money on the road, but the only way I make money is if people buy the album. So yes, there well may be The Lillywhite Story at some point.
AVC: What are your five favorite albums that you’ve produced? Which would you listen to just for pleasure?
SL: As a rule, I never listen to any records that I’ve worked on after I’m done, and I’ll tell you exactly why. Because once you finish them, there’s nothing you can do about it. But you still have opinions. You either like it or dislike it. If you like it, there’s the possibility of feeling complacent, and if you dislike it, there’s the possibility of uncertainty. And I think complacency and uncertainty are two very negative emotions. I’ve been doing this Internet radio show where I’ve been playing some of my songs occasionally, and I don’t like doing it. That’s my theory in general on listening back. Don’t want to be complacent; don’t want to be uncertain.
Having said that, my answer on those five albums are as follows: I love The La’s, their one album. I love Big Country’s The Crossing. I really helped fashion the sound for that band. They’d done some recording with Chris Thomas, who did The Sex Pistols and is a big hero of mine, but it didn’t work out. So I felt like I did something my hero couldn’t do, and that made me feel really good. I love the Jason Mraz album I did, Mr. A-Z. But I’m so annoyed as well because we cut a demo of that song “I’m Yours” and I thought, “Boy, that’s a hit record. That’s a fantastic song.” And the A&R guy said, “Oh no. Don’t worry, the single’s gonna be….” And like an idiot I was passive and I said okay. I learned from that. Shit! If I’d insisted that we cut that song for our album, the album would’ve been huge.
So that’s three. I suppose there has to be a U2 one. Either Boy or War. No, let’s say October. Bono said that he lost his lyrics, but who knows if he would’ve used those lyrics. Anyone who can get away with a song where the only lyric is “Rejoice” has to be pretty good. And I really enjoyed working with Phish last year, for their album Joy.
AVC: Can I add three?
AVC: XTC’s Black Sea, The Psychedelic Furs’ Talk Talk Talk, and Simple Minds’ Sparkle in the Rain.
SL: Oh yeah, XTC, that’s a good one. Simple Minds, that was a cocaine album. [Laughs.] Hey, it was the ’80s. Everybody took drugs in the ’80s. I don’t do that anymore. But I better not talk about drugs… might hurt my chances at American Idol.