Producer Steve Lillywhite ought to write a book. The man who was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) by the Queen of England in 2012 knows how to tell a story, and not in a longwinded way — just beautiful short nuggets of information and humor.
Lillywhite is currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he is running Jagonya Music and Sport, selling 600,000 CDs a month in KFC shops. On top of that, he recently worked on his ninth U2 album and has been producing Indonesian acts. But on Saturday he was at Canadian Music Week in Toronto, where he delivered a keynote interview and shared stories about The Rolling Stones, Morrissey, David Byrne, U2, Dave Matthews Band, Jason Mraz and more.
Here are some of the highlights from the memorable conversation.
Still don’t really know him. He’s the only artist I know that wears a Morrissey T-shirt, He literally comes down for breakfast with a Morrissey T-shirt. He’s a very gentle vegetarian and that’s probably the most untidy hair I’ve ever seen him have [shows photo]. I mean he would always be perfectly quiffed and just a lovely man who was very shy… I always remember the story, I was in the studio, he would just let me and the band do all the music, he wouldn’t come in. I would work on the song with the band and then Morrissey would come in and listen. Anyway he would say, “Steve, The Who, Sheppard’s Bush, 1965,” and then just walk out. Okay. I sort of got the idea of what he meant. He was a man of very few words and actually most of the words he uses he steals. There’s no question he’s a poet who loves his Oscar Wilde and he takes vast swathes of lyrics from other people.
Other than The Joshua Tree, they always try and tour a new album. This is why Bono always wants to do six or seven new songs. Now to do six or seven new songs, they have to drop hits and if they don’t replace them with hits he just hates looking at an audience that don’t react to the songs. And the audience want to hear hits. There are always their like eight double hits that they’ll always do, but they’ve got so many great hits like “Mysterious Ways,” and songs that were not maybe in their top 10 but are still amazing hits, they’ve done a lot.
On Dave Matthews Band:
What was said at the time is we’ll park the album. We’ll finish the album in September and it will come out at Christmas… I did a bunch of rough mixes myself on the morning of the day we left, made five CDs for the members of the band and we went away for the summer. August I get the phone call from Mr. [Coran] Capshaw, the manager: “You’re out.” So I said, “Okay, whatever.” The idea is to rerecord the album with Glen Ballard, but Glen Ballard decided to co-write with Dave pretty much a whole new album. So my album was pocked. There’s a whole new album that came out with Glen Ballard producing and this was considered by real Dave Matthews fans as being a bit of a… “What’s this?” you know? And then someone — and I had no idea who — leaked my album onto Napster and this just spread like wildfire. People made CD covers and it was called the Lilywhite Sessions. And this album was so good it actually even got reviewed in Entertainment Weekly next to the real official album and got much better reviews. So I got all the kudos and none of the cash.
On Talking Heads:
Naked — 1988. Was that 30 years ago? That’s when I recorded Naked. It was the last ever Talking Heads album and it was fantastic actually. We had a nice budget for recording, so we all went to Paris, all had nice apartments in Paris, would go to work. I’m going to tell you this story very quickly because it is a funny story and it’s a true story. The reason we went to Paris is we wanted to use a lot of African influence. There’s a lot of great African musicians in Paris all from Ivory Coast, the French-speaking countries, so communication was a little bit of a problem, part of the story.
So anyway, everyday we would have a new guest musician who would come and play with us, to come and hang out, from Africa. Conga player or keyboard, you know. One day we were very excited because towards the end of the session we heard that we were going to get this fucking great guitar player. This was the guy everyone recommended to us. Now, all the sessions started at 10 in the morning. So, 10 in the morning this guy hadn’t come, five past 10, this African guy walked in and we said, “You guitarist? You play guitar?” He goes, “Yeah, yeah, I play guitar.” So we said, “Where’s your guitar?” He said, “Don’t have it.” True story.
So us being white and middle class, we say, “Don’t worry don’t worry, come and sit down.” So he came and sat down and we started the song and he started playing. He had a riff — literally this is a true story — 20 minutes later, this guy comes and says, “Hi guys I’m so sorry I’m late.” And we went, who is this? It was a messenger. It was a messenger that had brought a cassette of yet another musician. So, we had to say to the great guy, “I’m really sorry but this guy is here.”
But the story gets even weirder because the songs had chord changes, but this guy — it was on a song called “Blind,” which was the first song on the album, great song — he was playing this riff, but every time the chord changed, he wouldn’t change his notes. He would just play the same riff. We said, “Change the riff,” and he said, “No no no, you take out.”
On David Byrne and his parents:
He doesn’t look you in the eye. The funny thing about David Byrne is you think of him as being the archetype New Yorker, but his parents were headhunted by Westinghouse in the ’50s to go and work; his dad was an engineer. They came over from Scotland. His parents still have the most broadest Scottish accent and you can just imagine David going to school, being so embarrassed. I met his parents and I couldn’t understand them. You know some Scottish accents are like [adopts Scottish accent] “Howya doin’?” and his parents were just like that. They hadn’t lost their accent. Of course he became American because he was so embarrassed, I think. We’re all embarrassed.
On Jason Mraz:
I’ve realized, about when you’re looking for hits, it is a bit like prospecting for gold… The Jason Mraz album I did was okay; it was his second album [Mr. A-Z], I love Jason. He’s amazing. Great falsetto. But there was a song during the recording that we cut a version of, it was the song “I’m Yours.” So I’m listening to this song and it’s really weird. I can’t really tell where the chorus is because the whole song is chorus, but for some reason we never finish this song and I just let it go. I got involved in all the other weirder things on the album and, of course, that fucking song, I let it go. If I had finished that song… But, again, I learned. You learn from your mistakes. And this was a big nugget of gold in the basket that I was just like, “Nope.” Oh my God.
On The Rolling Stones:
I was brought in by Mick [Jagger] because Mick always knows who’s the current guy. This was 1986 and I was, word was that Mick said to Elton John, “Who’s the young kid who’s really good?’ and Elton — who is always on everything — said, “Well, there’s this guy Steve Lillywhite. You’ve got to check him out.” So I went over to Paris and I got the job. So I was brought in by Mick, but the very funny thing, when I walked into the studio saying hi to all the engineer guys, everyone has these lock knives. Not great knives, it was just a thing to do. Two weeks later, I had my own. You become part of the whole scene [laughs]. But I was brought in by Mick, but it was much cooler to hang out with Keith [Richards]. It was okay. Keith and Mick were really not talking to each other and it was okay. Had a song “Harlem Shuffle” and another song called “One Hit to the Body,” which is okay, but I always said I produced the worst Rolling Stones album ever until the next one.
On Keith Richards:
No one wants to die but there’s certain signs that you’re living your life close to the edge. The great thing about Keith is that the music always brought him back. So whenever someone does die of drugs and all that, I always think the music was not strong enough for them. That’s the great thing about Keith is that the music was strong enough to pull him back from any danger that he felt and that’s a really great thing about anyone, but Mick really pulls that band on. he great thing about The Stones is that they don’t have loads of backing tapes. They’re a great blues band.