U2, Dave Matthews Producer Reflects On 20 Years Of Hits

Studio-veteran Steve Lillywhite gives lowdown on guiding some of the biggest albums of the past 20 years.

Not everyone could boast about being behind recordings from some of the biggest rock stars of the past 20 years, but producer Steve Lillywhite can.

Despite his major role in developing high-profile artists such as U2 and the Dave Matthews Band, as well as production jobs with Peter Gabriel, Phish and the Rolling Stones, the veteran sessions-producer knows his place in the recording studio.

"I am not a songwriter. ... The musicians I work with build this ship, and it's my job to steer the ship into port. I'm the captain," Lillywhite said Monday in an online SonicNet/Yahoo! chat.

"On some records I have a lot to do with arrangements and others not so much. XTC had spot-on arrangements, whereas early U2 albums needed guidance. So we worked together on making them what they were."

What they were, ultimately proved to be albums by some of the biggest names in rock, such as U2, the Stones, Peter Gabriel, the Talking Heads and Phish. Lillywhite took the helm for the recording of the Dave Matthews Band's three latest albums, including the multi-platinum Before These Crowded Streets (1998).

"When I heard 'Remember Two Things,' I thought, 'this is a band I must produce,' " he recalled.

Lillywhite described the different approaches they took in recording the three Dave Matthews Band albums.

There were three sounds and three ways of recording. "On the first album, the basic tracks were done with Dave [Matthews] and guitar player Tim Reynolds panned left and right. And that was pretty much it. There were no electrics on that record.

"Tim would overdub more acoustics. Dave never does a guitar overdub. When it came to Crash, we kept them acoustic and miked them up through amps."

For Before These Crowded Streets, which included such songs as "Don't Drink the Water" (RealAudio excerpt), he said that he and the band went back to just acoustics but then did a fair amount of electric overdubbing with Reynolds. Violin and saxophone were much the same on each album, he said, explaining that he adds reverbs and choruses post-recording.

"Dave's grown up a lot ... lost some innocence, but gained something else. Experience, I suppose," he concluded.

With this host of production credits to his name, Lillywhite should have little trouble finding new acts for his own Gobstopper Records label, which the producer said he hopes to have up and running by May.

Lillywhite was instrumental in getting U2's career launched, producing the Irish superstar rock band's first three albums, Boy (1980), October (1981) and their breakthrough, War (1983). He also worked on several tracks from the group's most popular album, 1987's The Joshua Tree, which has sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. today, according to Island Records. He remembered Bono as the most attentive in the studio, urging the band to come up with a tighter and tougher sound.

U2 became more experimental in their recording as their albums became increasingly successful, Lillywhite recalled.

"They were serious on the first albums. As success came, they loosened up more and more," said Lillywhite. "And as they grew up they became more confident."

Lillywhite cited "With or Without You" (RealAudio excerpt), from The Joshua Tree, as his favorite U2 track.

"I sort-of molded that song and really enjoyed putting that together," he said. "Even though at the time it was really intense stuff, I just look back and remember it being fun."

Lillywhite worked with Phish on Billy Breathes (1996). During his time with the Phish, he said, he helped them to develop a singular sound and allowed them to develop their musicianship rather than fret over production.

"I really enjoyed that album, certainly; the second half of that album is one of my favorite pieces of music I've ever done, just because of the way it flows," he said.

Lillywhite cited U2's Achtung Baby (1991) and Radiohead's OK Computer (1997) as his favorite albums of this decade.

Although he has helped guide so many artists to success, he has not been above picking up a tip or two along the way from rock veterans such as Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, whom he worked with when he produced the band's Dirty Work (1986) album.

"It's attitudes. You can't say in words what attitude really is, but he [Keith Richards] passes on a rock 'n' roll attitude. ... I'll give you an example. The way he plays the guitar, it goes out of tune very easily," Lillywhite said.

"So towards the end of a song it would go sour," he continued. "And I would turn down the guitar sound, but he said, 'Turn it up,' and somehow it sounded right. That's what I learned -- even if it sounds wrong, turn it up loud and it'll sound right. But if you are intimidated and turn it down, people know it's a mistake."