It's been 30 years since U2's War drummed its way into the world, but just five since Steve Lillywhite spoke to @U2 about the album. For this reason, he was nervous that some of the new content would be redundant for fans. After I assured him that I wouldn't repeat any previous questions, he was ready to jump on a call with me and time-travel back to 1983 to discuss the last U2 album he fully produced.
Of course, because Lillywhite is such a lively personality, the conversation took us well beyond War. We even played a game.
I want to have a little fun before we dive into the interview to spark your memories of the album, if you'll indulge me. I'd like to play the word association game with you—
Oh, my God!
—where I say the song title and you say the very first word that comes to mind.
Are you my therapist?
Let me see if I can pull up the songs on iTunes. It will help me to see them (pause). OK -- fire away!
"Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"New Year's Day"
"Like A Song"
Drums ... at the end.
"Two Hearts Beat As One"
Whew! That was fun.
I've never played that game before!
On the Creation of War
You just mentioned that "The Refugee" was not yours. Where were you when the band was working on that song?
In those days, I foolishly never wanted to produce more than one album with anyone. Because I thought, "I can do so many records, and it's not fair to the artist. They need to work with other producers to learn how to get influences from other people, not just me." So at the end of Boy I said, "Okay, I'll do a second album -- you know I don't think it's right -- but I'll do your second album."
So I did October, and October was maybe not considered as commercially successful as Boy, so I said, "Look guys, you really should try someone else now because we haven't taken it to the next stage."
At that point they went and did some recording with Sandy Pearlman, who was the Blue Oyster Cult's manager, but they also did stuff with this Irish guy who later on became involved in Riverdance. His name was Bill Whelan.
They did "The Refugee" and I remember wondering why they didn't do the [whole] album with him. They heard it and went, "Well, maybe it's not exactly how we want to be."
But "The Refugee" stayed [on the album].
Yeah, yeah. They didn't write that many songs in those days so it was a case of using virtually everything we recorded. You know, the posthumous U2 album will not have a lot of finished songs because of the way that they work. (laughs) It will have a lot of half-started songs!
I can believe that.
So anyway -- they called me up and said, "Steve, what are you doing in September?" And I said, "Nothing," and they said, "Do you want to come and do our third album?" so I said, "Okay," and did War. But they said, "Look we've got this song [called] 'The Refugee,'" and we all listened to it and I thought, "Yeah that sounds pretty good," so I said, "Let's just carry on working with that."
That was actually the first song that was done, or close to done?
So, you're in the studio and you're getting deeper into the recordings. U2 wants to conquer the world, they haven't quite [done that] yet and the sessions are going well, but the singer needs an extra push. You allegedly gave him that extra push, as Niall Stokes indicated in his book Into The Heart. There's a specific passage that reads:
The recording of War had been exhilarating, tense and finally draining. There were times during the course of their incarceration in Windmill when Steve Lillywhite had to push Bono to the limits, forcing him to sing until his throat bled.
Now, is that true? Did Bono's throat really bleed???
(With sarcasm) Was the Earth made in seven days?? I don't think he bled. Yes, I pushed Bono, but for Bono to be pushed? He's the world's biggest self-pusher. It was a case of us all pushing together. Yes, it sounds great that I pushed Bono, and you know... (pause) maybe I did make his throat bleed!
Lyric writing certainly didn't come as easy to him in those days as it does now. In those days he would sometimes write a poem and come into the studio and say, "Listen to this! I've got the lyrics!" and he would start reading them out like a poem and I would go, "Yeah, that sounds great Bono, but go and sing them because they're not lyrics to a song until they're joined onto the song."
And of course he would go out and sing this poem that he wrote and they didn't really connect. So he realized then, I think, that he only really writes as he's singing. Things sort of appear in his mind when he loses himself and then he'll go and craft the words out of this sort of altered state that he puts himself in.
We've seen a little bit of that in some of their videos of him doing what the Irish call "keening" where they yell from their soul until words come out.
Yeah, sort of Shaman-istic.
On the Songs
You've mentioned in the past that when you made this album, none of you were really thinking about what song would become the "radio song," but "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" obviously enjoyed constant rotation on the radio and MTV.
Were you surprised that these two bubbled to the top?
When I'm making an album I get so involved in all the songs that I feel that my job is not to decide which one is the hit, because by definition if I decide which one is the hit I might work on that one more than some of the others and I'm very careful to treat everyone the same. I think of songs as people so I want to treat the songs the same way as I treat people. It doesn't matter if you're the richest person or the poorest person. I'd like to think I'll treat you the same whoever you are. And I feel songs are like that.
So certainly at the end of the album I see songs like a horse race. When you finish the album, all the horses are lined up together on the starting line and none of them for us are more important than any other, but of course as the race goes on, some horses really pull away and obviously "New Year's Day" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" pulled away and became almost household songs, but at the time I remember thinking "Sunday Bloody Sunday" was great. Edge had spent the summer working on it while we were all on holiday.
But "New Year's Day"? It was one of those songs I thought, "God, I love that song," but I wasn't sure that it was going to be such a big song for them. You know, "I Will Follow" had a really great Edge riff and the main riff of "New Year's Day" was piano.
It's the bass line!
Well, yes it's the bass line/piano combination.
Which was different at the time, at least.
Yes it was. And I wasn't sure how it was going to connect, but I have to say there was one young kid in the studio who sat in the back -- I've mentioned this before -- this kid who would always freak out when "New Year's Day" came on.
I listened to the youngster.
He should be a studio guy now, that young kid.
I can't remember his name, but he was an intern.
What a lucky intern!
You know, nowadays, I would never let anyone in the studio just to sit around. I don't know what happened to him.
Maybe he'll see this interview and reach out.
That would be great.
So, who decided that The Edge would sing lead on "Seconds"? What were those conversations like?
Oh my God. I don't know. Wow! That's the first time I've been asked that and I'm trying to remember. That's weird.
Is it the second song [on the album]?
It's the second song on the album and then you've got a different singer. Very strange! You know I haven't listened to the album for many years, because I never do. And there are some strange things that are unique to War that are not like any other U2 album. Things like trumpet solos.
Yeah -- I think that's why this is my favorite U2 album.
(in disbelief) It is? Really?
Absolutely. I listen to it all the time. When I in high school I listened to it every day. It was War on the way to school and Abbey Road on the way back.
I'm in rare company!
I do get tired of some of their albums, but I never get tired of this one.
Well maybe it is because you've got the strange -- you've got The Edge singing, you've got the Coconuts on it, a trumpet player...
Speaking of the Coconuts, who decided that there would be female voices on this [album]?
Oh, it was so random. It just so happened that Kid Creole and the Coconuts were not that big a band in the U.S., but in the U.K. they were, probably for about six months, the biggest band in the country. I mean, they had some amazing songs and No. 1 singles and everyone was in love with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. And they happened to be on the same record label [as U2] -- Island Records. They were playing in Dublin and I think they reached out to the band and said, "Come to the show!" So we went to the show. And I can't remember who it was -- it may have well been me -- someone pipes out, "If you have a day off tomorrow maybe you want to come by the studio, and who knows? Maybe sing?"
So the next day they came by the studio and they were these very cute young girls from New York who were sassy and full of spirit and we were all flirting like mad with them and "Surrender" was the song that we used them on. But it was purely because they were in town. There was never any talk of "let's get girl singers on this song"; it was more that they were there.
Weren't they also the beginning of "Red Light?" The (singing) dah-duh duh, dah-duh duh. That part?
I think so, yes. That as well.
So they just got lucky? It was timing.
I don't know if they got lucky because I'm not sure if they got paid.
U2 always talks about how they'd like to go back and revisit Pop. War obviously didn't suffer the same backlash from fans as that album did, but as one of the key people who brought it to life, are there any specific songs you would revisit if given the chance?
I can't think of any.
So you're not as much of a perfectionist? I think the band members have trouble letting go of their babies.
Oh, absolutely! That's why they bring me in.
And you have to have a sense of trust. Because at the end of the day they've got no idea. They're just humans. They're so involved in it. But they have a team of people that they trust and I'm one of them. But whether or not I'm going to be invited to help out on this new album, I don't know. But if I am, I'll do it. And if I'm not -- fine. I still love them to death and wish them well.
I know that they put themselves through so much.
And they haven't mellowed with age?
Yes, they have. Everyone changes with age. I think the good thing about U2's change with age is that they've become less paranoid in some ways.
Bono has become more like his dad. He's a very funny man now; self-effacing and great fun to be with. In the early days, he was very serious.
[He had] the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Yeah, he was still trying to understand what it was all about.
On the Media
In the early days, NME magazine was especially brutal toward U2, and their writer Gavin Martin offered up a particularly scathing review about War. He wrote:
Rock music as a naive communal "we can change the world" pursuit went rigor mortis when the Stones played Altamont and the three Js (Janis, Jimi and Jim) topped themselves. If it's to be stirred to life again, it will be through spontaneous action -- not calculated manifestoes from the soapbox.
That's obviously referring to Bono and his lyrics. Do you ever want to call people like that after you've had these enormous amounts of success, and just tell them to stick it?
No! That review the next day was fish-and-chip paper.
So negative things like that don't get to you?
You know the thing is: if the positive gets to you, like if you go, "Hey, we're great..." then the negative will get to you [as well]. And I try not to let either the positive or the negative get to me. I try and say, "Well, you know, I've done my best and it's not for everyone."
But especially with NME in those days, they were never fashionable. So however good the record was going to be, it would never have gotten a good review. NME in those days was critical of the act rather than of the music.
Flashing back again to July of 1983, Trouser Press interviewed U2 and Bono explained how they got you back for the production of War. He's quoted as saying:
I rang up Steve and in a flash he said, 'I'll be over.' He said we're his favorite group. It's a very close thing.
Do you play favorites with the artists you work with? If so, are U2 still at the top of your list?
Of course. I've worked with big bands and I've worked with big bands that were not big bands when I started. It's much more satisfying going on a journey with a band, which I have done with U2.
Let's remember back in 1980, I'd already had a handful of hits and they were this new band coming out of Dublin, so really to go on a journey with them and see them go from where they were to the biggest band in the world is quite special.
And I've produced the Rolling Stones and The Talking Heads, but those were one-offs. With U2 -- and very similarly with Dave Matthews -- I feel such a closeness to them.
It must be comforting to work with people you already have a rapport with because then you don't have to get all of the basics out of the way.
Well, you could argue that familiarity breeds contempt.
I guess that's true too. But U2 sort of chews up and spits out their producers with the exception of you, [Brian] Eno and [Daniel] Lanois. So maybe you're just in that zone that works with them really well.
I have an even more broad job with them now. They haven't asked me to start an album since 1983 -- since War, but I've been involved with all of them. They bring me in towards the end to help close them. I think that when they see me walk into the studio they revert back to the first time they saw me, where it's like, "Oh my God, here's Steve, we better knuckle down because we're students and we have to finish our record now."
That makes sense.
And I have a matter-of-fact way of dealing with them, and I'm not scared to say, "Come on guys, this can be better."
But also a lot of the things that I say to them are things I've learned from them. (laughing) They've just maybe forgotten them. It's like, "Where's the hook? Bono, you told me that songs have to have hooks! Musical hooks as well as lyrical hooks."
So, you call their bluffs?
Yeah, 'cause they tend to forget things because they're lovely and Irish. Their sense of the ridiculous is ridiculous.
Around the time of War, Bono was a member of the "lead singers club," which by all accounts consisted of him, Simon LeBon, Michael Hutchence and Sting sitting by a pool drinking cocktails. Is there an exclusive club for producers? Do you all hang out together the way rock stars do?
No, not really. Funnily enough we don't have that many occasions when we can hang out. Maybe bands hang out a little bit in festivals and things like that or in shows, but when you're a producer, you're in your own little room; you're doing your thing.
I definitely have a very simple criteria about other producers: They either deserve to live or deserve to die.
Well, it's true. And I've met equal amounts of both and I would never say which ones deserve to die, but I'm very good friends with Flood -- I love Flood. There are some people I just despise and I think they're destroying music.
Is there anybody that you've wanted to produce but haven't had the opportunity to work with? Or are still hoping to [produce]?
I've loved Mumford & Sons since I first heard them and I would love to have done any recording with them. I actually bumped into them last night and they said, "We met you when you were finishing No Line On The Horizon," which was pretty cool. They've got a real good thing.
There are certain artists at certain points in their careers. I would've liked [to produce] David Bowie or The Clash when they were at their height.
I saw Neil Young last night -- he played at this thing and he was so full of attitude -- he was fantastic.
That's right! The Grammys are this weekend. Hence why you're in California!
Yeah, it was the MusiCares concert honoring Bruce Springsteen and all of these people came and sung a Bruce Springsteen song. John Legend did "Dancing In The Dark."
Did anybody do "Hungry Heart?"
Yes! In fact the guy who I'm producing next did "Hungry Heart." His name is Juanes. He's a huge Latin superstar, but not many people know him here. I think we're going to do an English-speaking record as well as a Spanish-speaking record, so it's very exciting. He's fantastic.
Is it really difficult to produce something in a different language?
We will find out.
Is it your first?
Let me see...maybe? I'm gonna say yes.
Well, good luck with that.
Juanes is a great singer. He's 40 years old, so he's not like a young kid doing it. The more difficult thing for me will be making sure he sings in English with the same emotional content that he sings in Spanish. I'd never heard of him until I Googled him and saw that he had a Twitter account. I wondered how many followers he had, and there were over 7 million!
Oh, wow! That's more [followers] than The Edge has.
Oh, but look -- U2 are so bad at social media!
Trust me, it's been my dream to solve that problem for them. It's part of my day job and I've written columns [directed] to the band offering to take over their social media in whatever capacity that they would allow. So far, no dice.
No, it's terrible. I've just finished a record with 30 Seconds to Mars and Jared Leto is the king of all this. I mean he has all these different Twitter feeds, he's constantly engaging his audience.
I hear you. U2 are always saying that they want to remain relevant with the younger audience. And I'm not even young -- in my late 30s to be exact -- but I'm on social media all the time.
I'm 57 and I am too!
Right? They have to embrace it at some point.
On Live Performances
Though the full song has never been played live, U2 has performed snippets of "Drowning Man" at 15 shows. And they've sound-checked it at countless more, most recently in 2009. What is it about that song that prevents them from playing the whole song live? Is it really difficult to play or is it a vocal thing?
It's not a vocal thing because if Bono could sing it in the studio he could sing it on a stage. There are some sonic qualities that I put into the song that I think might make it difficult to reproduce. Some of the drum sounds are not a drum kit, they're like big bass drums and I really processed them as well.
I have to say of all my productions, that's one of the ones that has acquired a timeless quality to it. It's really intense.
I wondered if because of its intensity and because it's kind of quiet that they just couldn't find a place to put it in the order of the show unless they end with it?
That's true, but well, U2 infuriate me sometimes because they never change their setlist around once they get going. I work with [the] Dave Matthews Band, and they don't repeat a song two nights running.
Yeah, I think their setlist opportunities suffer because of the big Willie Williams light shows.
Well yes, I know, but you would think that the technology is adaptable [enough] for them to dig into a pool of 30 songs.
Oh, I'm with you. As someone who goes to several concerts in succession on each tour, I get very tired of knowing what's coming next.
Exactly! Being cutting-edge nowadays to them is changing the order of two songs.
I liked [the] Elevation [tour] so much because they kind of stripped everything down and became that house band for a bit and that was fantastic.
I get the feeling that they can't go any bigger.
I should hope not after the claw!
I loved the claw and I loved that show, but they can't expand anymore. When they get in a room with Willie Williams something happens, they come up with something great. It's the same as hopefully a lot of the albums when we all get into the studio I feel that we can make something great happen. We don't know why but it just does.
I want to hear songs live that U2 evidently don't wish to resurrect. I've always wanted to hear "Red Light" live because I wanted to be their backup singer when I was a kid.
That's SO CUTE!
Are there any U2 songs, whether you produced them or not, that you've had cravings for live?
I'd love to see "11 0'Clock Tick Tock."
That's a fun one.
That's one of my favorite songs of theirs, some of my favorite lyrics of Bono's. And I didn't even do that -- they recorded that before. But I love "boys and girls collide." It's fantastic.
There was also one tour where they did "Into The Heart."
[The] Vertigo [tour], yes.
Half the audience didn't even know it, but it was great.
Yeah, that's when everybody went to get popcorn but the die-hards stayed there and enjoyed it, which was fine with me.
People like you are not in the majority. The majority want to hear the hits. But I do think seriously when they play three nights in one place they should change more around than they do.
I couldn't agree more. Especially [about] the predictable encores.
Yeah yeah yeah! We'll talk about "Moment Of Surrender" at another time.
I'm just not a big fan of that song.
Don't get me started on the last album.
But you probably will in 25 years time! (laughs)
On The End
When U2 does finally decide to pack it up and they announce their farewell tour, do you think that they should close their final show with "40"? Or do you think us fans are sentimental fools hoping that the last thing we see will be Larry taking that last drum beat and walking off the stage.
You know I've never thought of that, but that may well be the way they should do it. Or they should do "Drowning Man"!
(Laughs) They should finally finish that. That's a great idea, actually.
The first full performance ever of "Drowning Man," the last song that they ever play!
Follow Steve Lillywhite on Twitter at @sillywhite.
Photo (c) Phillips Communications, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.
(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2013.