Producer Steve Lillywhite is likely never called a slacker. Having entered the music business in the '70s, he has since won multiple Grammys and worked with some of the biggest names in music, from U2 to the Rolling Stones to Talking Heads. More recently, he signed MGMT to Columbia Records during his tenure as Senior Vice President of A&R. And he still goes out to shows all the time, waiting to fall in love with a new group of artists and produce their next album.
Somewhere in between recording with Bono and eating dinner in Dublin, Lillywhite took a some time to catch up with Paste about how he got started in the music industry, how much he likes NPR and why he will fight to save the recording studio.
Paste: We posted a news story the other day about how you’ve signed on with WXPN to do "The Lillywhite Sessions at Avatar Studios."
Lillywhite: That’s right, it’s something that I thought would be a bit of fun, really, because people spend so many weeks and months making albums nowadays. I thought it would just be a nice thing to do, to go in pretty much like in the old-style recording where you go in for three hours and see what you can come up with.
So there’s a definite time restraint, and sometimes having a time restraint enables you to be very creative in a short space of time. So it’s really that, and to be honest, I’ve done a couple of them already, and the great thing about it is that I get to record these people as they are on tour. When people are on tour, they’re really good singing, and they’re really at the top of their game. So we’ve got some really good performances already, and I’m really excited to be doing this as much as I can, even though I have another job which is as a proper record producer.
But I think this is a good idea, and certainly the name of it: "The Lillywhite Sessions." I did this album with a band called Dave Matthews Band, well, it was an album that I never really got paid for and it got given away free on the Internet at the height of Napster, and I thought, “Well, if I don’t get anything for it, the least I can do is to own my own name.” So I’m going to call this "The Lillywhite Sessions" because people sort of know what that is anyway, even though it has nothing to do with Dave Matthews Band. I just thought, “Well, I should own my own thing.” If I ever do a book, I’m going to call it The Lillywhite Sessions. I would just like to get my name out there as something as well as a producer, to try to do something a bit different.
Paste: I think there’ll be some big name recognition with "The Lillywhite Sessions" linked up to that album.
Lillywhite: Yeah, and NPR is great; they don’t have to play commercial music, they can just do what they want, and they’ve got great taste, these people. I’m a big supporter of NPR. It doesn’t take commerciality into account, and I think that’s really good.
Paste: Was it your idea? Did you approach them, or did they approach you to do the show?
Lillywhite: Well, a friend of mine was in Philly, and basically, World Café was saying that they sometimes have trouble getting artists to come out to Philadelphia, that they would love to do something in New York. And I said, “Well, I’m in New York and Avatar Studios is a spectacular studio. Why don’t we all join up and have a bit of fun?” It won’t take long, and we should be able to give the listeners something really good to listen to.
Paste: The first one is going to be She & Him.
Lillywhite: She & Him, yes, and you know Zooey. I think when she made her album, you know, it’s a great album, but the way that she sings now is breathtaking. And you listen to the album, you think she’s a good singer. When you hear this session, you realize she’s a great singer. It’s so beautiful. You’ll love it. Yeah, so that’s about it, really.
Paste: So were these the people that you were scheduled to work with already, or did you sign them up for the program itself?
Lillywhite: No, I can pretty much bring people in myself if I want. She & Him was something that was decided by the radio station, but to be honest, if I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the artist, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s only for three hours. And there’s no questioning that these sort of people are creative people, and it’s not like I’m going to get someone who is…any American Idol people. You know, I’m going to get real artists who are serious about their music. Well, not that American Idol isn’t serious, you know, but I think it’s going to be really good.
Paste: You’ve worked with U2, Talking Heads, Matchbox 20 and Guster. How do you decide which ones are right for you and which ones aren’t going to be for you?
Lillywhite: There are so many different things I have to… Well, for instance, Matchbox 20 is a band I’d always liked, but never really thought I’d be their producer. But when they called me up, and they said they wanted to make a different sounding record from their last one, I was interested, and then I had a meeting, and the thing about them is that they all wanted me to do it for different albums I’d produced. It wasn’t all because I’d worked with one group, you know?
And I remember, for instance, with Guster, when I went to see them, all the songs I liked when they played live were songs that were going to be on the album for me to produce, so I thought, “Wow, this is great! I love these songs.”
It was a no-brainer, and I went to see a band the other day, and the one song they played that was a new song was my favorite, and I went, “Oh my God, I have to produce this band.” There’s a band called Blue October, and they’ve done quite well without anyone really knowing who they are. I’m going to be doing their album next.
Paste: When you started in the music industry, you were a tape operator. Did you expect to get to where you are now from your job with Polygram, or was it a glorious accident? Did you kind of find your way as your were going along, or is this how you hoped it would be?
Lillywhite: Well, everyone always thinks it’s an accident to start with, but you can only con people once or twice. To be able to still make good records 30 years later, I think you have to have some talent. But for me, how it started was punk rock in the late '70s, and that’s how I got my first break really. It was great, I really enjoyed it and I like the attitude of punk rock. That’s how I’m going to carry on with my work.
Paste: On June 5 you’re going to be doing a preview on NPR of the "Sessions," and you’re going to give away the top five songs significant to your career, is that right?
Lillywhite: I think I am, yes. I looked at my records, I had to go on the Internet to remind myself who I’d produced, and I chose five songs really for the stories that go with them as much as the music. There are quite a few records I could have chosen that would have been pretty good, but the stories were good for these five, so I think you’ll enjoy the music if not my talking.
Paste: And what is it about Avatar Studios that’s so legendary? Is it because it’s been around for so long? The many different people have recorded there?
Lillywhite: It’s been around for so long, but also recording studios are really being hit by the recession in the music business slow down. Because of the cost of real estate being so high in Manhattan, there are very few studios left. I grew up in recording studios and I'm forever grateful for them. Avatar Studio is my favorite studio in New York. There’s no question.