When he first met U2 to record Boy, Steve Lillywhite had already worked with Ultravox, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Psychedelic Furs, Peter Gabriel and XTC. Today, he is one of the most sought after producers in the business. Brian Draper visited him at home in London for U2.Com, to talk about his role as the main producer on How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.
U2.Com: How did you feel, having to take over the album from Chris Thomas?
I produced U2’s first three albums from scratch and then, on The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they brought me in later to expand the team and help finish things on time. There was a very good vibe on those albums. This time I sensed there was a slightly different job for me. For the first time, the magic was not in the building.
They’re all such nice guys – too nice - and they didn’t want to admit that it wasn’t going well. Chris Thomas is a great producer; you can put the best record producer together with the best band in the world, but if there’s no chemistry... I know that it’s nothing against Chris. The chemistry just wasn’t working.
U2.Com: Even within the band?
I don’t know. I don’t think the band ever blame themselves. They’re so close, that if Bono blames Edge for anything then he’s only blaming himself, really.
U2.Com: What did you think of the work that had already been done?
I sat down with Edge for about three hours while we listened to a whole slew of songs. (Edge, in his wonderfulness, was making copious notes the whole time.) Everything I heard sounded worthy, but nothing had that magical quality that U2 have when they are great – when the sum is greater than the parts. A U2 concert is full of joy, and you want to transpose those feelings into making a record. But they weren’t there.
So, I told them that the recordings were lacklustre, and they were a couple of songs short. Only someone who’s worked for them for all these years could really say that to U2. It’s not a nice thing to say.
U2.Com: How did they take it?
At the time, they said "Well, OK" - but boy did they take it to heart. I went away and returned a month later after Chris Thomas had left, by which time they’d done some "power hours" – which is where they just jam to get the seed of a song.
There’s two parts to your brain, the creative and the analytical, and the great artists – I’ve worked with a few – are the ones who can be truly creative and truly analytical. Everything they’d done up to that point had a purpose and a reason, but these "power hours" introduced some creative nuggets.
U2.Com: Did you want to start on new material straight away?
It was very important that we didn’t just try and re-cut all of the old stuff. That would have felt like a continuation of the bad things that had happened. So we worked on the new songs for a few weeks and got those going. And then we turned to a song that we’d always thought was everybody’s favourite – "Native Son". It was good, but I wanted to re-cut it because it didn’t have the U2 spark.
The band had been recording in this tiny room, and I thought it was important to take them out of their comfort zone. They own a warehouse next to the studio, where they store all their stage clothes. I got them to clear it out, and set it up so that we could record them where they could strut - where they could be more "U2". It was a big decision, because they’d been recording for six or seven years in this other place. If it failed, I would have failed.
U2.Com: Did you have a particular sound in mind?
I thought I would try for more of the sound that I got with them originally – an ambient, clattery sound which Bono has been quoted as saying that he hates. But I stuck to my guns and set up two drum-kits - one in a very live, ambient room, and one in a deader area.
When Bono came in, I could see him thinking, "Oh God, Lillywhite’s at it again!" We played him the two sounds and he closed his eyes and told us the one he liked. It was the one he was convinced he hated… We fooled him. No, he fooled himself.
We got the guitar sounding really good, and Adam was flying on the bass. There was a great feeling. And then I thought, it’s best if Bono goes up and does a live vocal – let’s get it really raw and do it like the old days. But when he started singing "Native Son", it was rubbish.
I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "I can’t sing that." The way Bono looks at it, he’s got to go out for two years around the world flogging his wares and he has to believe in what he’s selling. Bono will not look you in the eye and say, "This is the best record we’ve made for years," if he doesn’t believe it. He’s got high standards.
So, we spent a long time trying to make it into what it is now. There must have been 20 different choruses, and another ten different chord changes we tried in the chorus. Eventually we stuck with the original chorus, which had the same chords as "Native Son". But we couldn’t sing "Native Son".
I double-tracked Bono’s voice, which we’ve never done before. It made it sound better, and eventually it became "Vertigo" - but it wasn’t like, "That’s the one!" We still thought it might not be good enough.
U2.Com: But it began to grow on you?
Through other people coming in, yes. Jimmy Iovine was raving about it, because for him and the Americans, U2 is a rock band.
U2 don’t see themselves as a rock band. They find rock the most difficult thing to do. Mid-tempo ballads with big washy things are what they’re great at. "Vertigo" feels like a piece of gold, now. But we didn’t recognise the gold at the time.
U2.Com: Did the sadness begin to lift as you went on?
It pretty much went, yes, because it was like we were starting a new album. You can’t put your finger on it, but when I get in there with them, we have fun. Something happens, I don’t know why. Words can’t really describe the things that happen with U2. There’s something magical and mystical in the way U2 evolves.
I like to create a situation in which everyone is getting on, almost like a youth club. It seems ridiculous, but in the early days I’d take various band members out for a game of table tennis, to forget about everything. Edge used to be pretty good, but I was always the champ.
U2.Com: What made you bring in Jacknife Lee?
Bono likes what he calls "the Brian Eno slot" – a mad professor who can add something from outside the box. I’d heard from a friend about Jacknife, so I went and had lunch with him. He came along with a big bag of records and said, "Steve, I just can’t stop buying them." So I thought, "This is the guy!"
U2.Com: And was he?
He was great. Very humble. We set him up in a little room and all of a sudden the sense of community and the feeling was wonderful. We were on a roll.
U2.Com: And then you got Flood in?
We needed someone to expand the team for the final month. So Larry, I think, suggested Flood.
Flood’s a great bloke. He had been slightly bruised by the whole Pop experience - that album was a big responsibility, and it was madness in the end. They had to finish it on time because they had a big lemon being winched onto the truck ready to go on tour. And of course, lemons wait for no man.
I cajoled Flood into coming back on board – like, you have to cajole someone into working with U2! - but we got him in and it was fantastic.
In the final two or three weeks, we had all these different rooms going, and I would be running around between them, and the band would be running around, and it was a real workshop. It all turned out well...
In the second part of our Steve Lillywhite interview we find what happened to "Xanax and Wine", how "Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own" arrived, why "A Man And A Woman" splits fans "by gender" and which song Edge calls "the sorbet track".