press enter to search

Music producer Steve Lillywhite: On fried chicken and CDs

Evie Breese

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, March 21, 2019  /  06:01 pm
Music producer Steve Lillywhite: On fried chicken and CDs

Unusual mentor: Music producer Steve Lillywhite poses in his Blok M home with a painting of Dennis the Sumatran orangutan. (The Jakarta Post/Evie Breese)

If you go to your local KFC fast food franchise, you might pick up a CD alongside your dinner of fried chicken and a mango float. What you might not realize is that the music in your hands has been selected by Steve Lillywhite – producer of legendary bands U2, the Rolling Stones and the Killers.

Lillywhite certainly knows a thing or two about good music.

Speaking to the The Jakarta Post at his home in the Blok M area, South Jakarta about his time producing some of the world’s biggest bands, he joked: “I produced the Rolling Stones you know; I’ve got high with everyone”.

However, those days are now in the distant past as he has swapped partying for mint tea with his Indonesian fiancee and driving in Los Angeles for meandering around Blok M, earning him the nickname “the Bule of Blok M”.

An invitation to produce an album for pop rock band Noah originally brought Lillywhite to Jakarta in 2014. However, it was a job offer from businessman Ricardo Gelael of Jagonya Music and Sport Indonesia (JMSI) that gave him the chance to stay.

Of his first impressions of Indonesia, Lillywhite recalled: “Seeing someone hold a CD and open it up and really just devour its contents.” It was something he hadn’t seen in LA or New York for a long time.

He also recalls being struck by just how musical Indonesia is as a nation, seeing the country as “on a par with Ireland or Brazil” with its love of music.

JMSI has, in essence, turned KFC into Indonesia’s biggest CD store. More than half a million CDs are sold a month in the more than 650 KFCs that stretch right across the archipelago from Banda Aceh to Meruake in Papua. A selection of 10 albums or compilations and a few DVDs are available for customers to pick up with their meals.

Shifting from music production to distribution, Lillywhite said he has had to learn to be a businessman. His usual tactic is to look at the statistics behind artists who are about to get big, or are already very popular, before approaching them for a deal. However, sometimes he likes to take a punt.

“If I want to take a punt I’ll put [an artist] that I want to build up in a compilation album […] People are starting to think in terms of playlists rather than in terms of albums,” explained the producer, who in 2012 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his contributions to music.

The compilation album, Story of a Broken Heart, has been one of his big sellers, with a selection of sorrowful tunes to appeal to Indonesians’ love of bumpy romances.

As a producer, Lillywhite’s personal taste would guide with whom he wanted to work and the music they would collaborate on.

Now in his 60s, he is a firm believer in giving the people what they want and nimbly selects music to suit the tastes of whoever walks through those red and white doors.

Award winning: Steve Lillywhite is seen with one of his Grammy Awards when telling his friend and writer Paul Goddard about first meeting U2. 
Award winning: Steve Lillywhite is seen with one of his Grammy Awards when telling his friend and writer Paul Goddard about first meeting U2. (Courtesy of Paul L Goddard/-)

The six-time Grammy Award-winning producer said: “Just because I don’t like something that a 20-year-old likes doesn’t mean it’s bad.”

Young singer Rizky Febian's album is currently the most popular on sale.

Despite having zero reservations about the new job himself – in fact he liked the randomness of it – Lillywhite admitted his friends were perplexed.

“They thought I was mad, especially someone like Bono, [who asked]: ‘You’re in Indonesia and you’re working for KFC?’”

He said the “randomness” of his journey from a basement studio in London in the 1980s, where he would sit at the mixing desk with the four members of U2 behind him snickering like naughty schoolchildren, to peddling CDs in smoggy Jakarta is to be turned into a long-awaited memoir.  

Giving The Jakarta Post an exclusive peek into the book, Lillywhite said: “I’ve known U2 since they were nothing […] so I think the book’s going to start out with me meeting U2, but it’s also going to be going backwards and forwards between me 35 years ago and here in Indonesia.” Asked how the meeting came about he laughed. “You’ll have to read the book and see.”

With more KFC stores opening each month they bring with them the availability of CDs in the nooks and crannies of the nation where they may otherwise be inaccessible.

Yet, the trend-bucking popularity of CDs here even as much of world has turned its back on physical music cannot last forever.

“For every smartphone sold that’s one potential CD sale lost,” he lamented.

JMSI and KFC have been in talks about rolling out a streaming service and Lillywhite said he believes it’s all still to be played for in Indonesia.

What is certain, however, is that this rock and roll legend is going to supply Indonesians with music they can touch and feel for as long as possible. (ste)

-The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post