Source: Billboard, v. 106, no. 13 (Mar. 26, 1994)
submitted by Sally Tseng

Lillywhite moves beyond the ‘Drum Thing.’

Producer Brings Vocals-First Approach To Morrissey Set

NEW YORK—Steve Lillywhite doesn’t do that drum thing anymore, he explains by telephone from his home in London. It’s kind of a Lillywhite handle-or was: that wallop heard to great effect on albums by the likes of U2 and Marshall Crenshaw in the ‘80s.

The subject in play is producer trademarks, and if that drum thing once qualified as Lillywhite’s, it has long since ceased to, and hasn’t been replaced by anything, well, definable, he admits.

"What a producer should be able to give to a project is something you can’t necessarily define," he says. "It’s difficult to explain. I mean, you want to notice a production, but in a way have it not be noticed. You want to bring out exactly the best of what an act has to offer, and just that. And for me, with a well-produced record, the first thing you say isn’t, ‘wow, that’s a well-produced record.’ You say, ‘that’s a great record,’ and you only discover the production—maybe—after a few listens."

It’s safe to say Lillywhite’s production has been discovered often, and with delight, throughout his 15-year career. Since moving from tea boy (American translation: "gofer") to tape op to engineer and producer in the ‘70s, he has racked up an enviable resume that ranges from first-credit Siouxsie & the Banshees in the late ‘70s through XTC, Peter Gabriel, U2, Simple Minds, Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl, the Pogues, David Byrne, and World Party Most recently, he wrapped Morrissey’s latest, "Vauxhall And I," due March 22 from Sire. And next up is an English country music act—his first.

If there’s a common thread tying that timeline together, Lillywhite isn’t looking to unravel the mystery, although he agrees with the assessment that he likely gravitates toward artists with strong voices. "They’re not fools," he says.

Literally speaking, recording vocals is one thing Lillywhite will admit to doing well, or at least to especially enjoying doing. That feel shows in his sure handling of "Vauxhall And I," which lets Morrissey’s vocal and lyrical subtleties shine in a lush, but uncluttered, setting.

"I thought when I took on Morrissey, what do people buy a Morrissey record for? They buy it for his voice and for his wonderful lyrics," Lillywhite says. "And this was my main concern—to get the singing right there. I think, on Morrissey’s new album, what you’ll find is that there’s a real improvement, or rather that the singing just sounds very good. I think the previous Morrissey album, ‘Your Arsenal’ was a great record for getting up and going out, but ‘Vauxhall And I’ is more of a sit back and really get into it affair. I’m very pleased with the result."

The recording process itself was "just real pleasant," Lillywhite says, and exemplified his approach to preproduction and production. "We started with demos, and we’d record the songs and then we’d do the vocals, and then realize that maybe we needed to change all the music," he says. "So we’d keep the voice and change all the music, and then do the voice again. So the preproduction was all part of the recording process. Because we had copies of the demos of the songs, but we didn’t know what Morrissey was going to sing on until I got him in to sing, and then we’d reevaluate and see what we needed to do on top of that. It worked."

"Vauxhall" was recorded analog, Lillywhite’s preferred method. "To be able to immediately cut a tape and join it onto another piece of tape is just very satisfying," he says. He doesn’t have a preferred studio—"I’m happy as long as there’s a mike and tape recorder"—but has found a new favorite in the new Eventides, the DSP 4000s, through which he’s been getting "some really interesting stuff coming out," he says. "You can gang up on it, and use lots of different sounds with each other."

And speaking of interesting stuff and different sounds, what about that country act? "His name’s Bo," Lillywhite says. "Bo Walton. And yes, that’s his real name. He’s a kid who’s English but signed to Arista Records, and he’s got a great country voice. You’ll be hearing a lot about him later this year."

Walloping fiddles? We’ll see.