Steve Lillywhite Talks ‘Huge Honor’ of Being First Outside Producer for Japan’s Luna Sea: Interview

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One of Japan’s most renowned rock bands, LUNA SEA, released its 10th studio album, CROSS, in December 2019. The quintet’s first album in two years coincided with their 30th anniversary and displays a significant musical evolution.

Having self-produced all of their previous studio outputs, the album was the first time the band brought in an outside producer: none other than five-time Grammy winner Steve Lillywhite, who has worked with some of the world’s biggest rock acts, including U2, The Rolling Stones, XTC and The Killers. Billboard Japan spoke with Lillywhite to find out how he met LUNA SEA and what inspired their first collaboration.

How did you first hear about LUNA SEA?

It was about five years ago. I was in Tokyo for a music convention, where I was doing a little speaking gig. That’s how I got chatting with INORAN through a mutual friend. And a few years later, I heard LUNA SEA was thinking about working with a producer for the first time in 30 years. All the members had different visions about the album, but for some strange reason, all the roads led to Steve Lillywhite. When each member named their favorite-sounding album, I had produced them all.

What was your first impression of the band when you met them?

My rule for working with an artist is, I always want to see them live. I can listen to their CD, but I don’t know how they came to that sound. So, it’s important that I see the band in the flesh. So, I go to LUNA SEA’s show at the Saitama Super Arena and think, “Oh my God, this is a band that can play. They have passion.”

So, the next question is: What are they like as people? Then I met and spoke with the guys. They are very funny and each one of them is like a cartoon character — like in anime, you know? I give them all names. SUGIZO is Mr. Detail. Shinya is Mr. Happy, always telling jokes and so happy. J is Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll, and INORAN is Mr. Sloppy. Mind you, I don’t mean it in a bad way, you need some sloppiness against Mr. Detail. You somehow need to meet in the middle.

And the singer Ryuichi is Mr. Frank Sinatra, because he is the ballad singer. He is not Axl Rose. He is romantic. So, you put all those things together, and it all goes crazy. But it is good crazy.

What was your role as a producer on CROSS?

My job was to make an album they would love and they could be proud of. But I also have to make an album that the world would like. My ego was the least important thing during the recording process. I’m not the type of person who would have the musicians record myriads of takes. If I have one really good take, that’s it.

Some producers think that they must make their contribution worthwhile, but does it always work? No. Once a producer makes a hit record, their ego becomes the most important thing. That’s not how I work. The music is the most important thing.

Not all the records that I’ve done have been commercially successful. But I can’t remember anyone that has said, “God, I hate the record you made with me.” They usually say, “It didn’t sell one million copies, but I’m still proud of it.” It’s important for me to make albums that the artists will have their grandchildren listen to.

This was the first time you worked with a Japanese artist. How different was it compared to working with British or American artists?

From what I’ve experienced, Japanese artists tend to be careful about working to the minute details and making things tidy. SUGIZO is Mr. Detail of course, but even INORAN, Mr. Sloppy, is way more detailed than most British or American artists. INORAN is nothing compared to the sloppiness of any of the four members of U2. I’m just teasing him. SUGIZO works to microscopic details. INORAN would bring 10 different guitar tracks for me to choose from, and SUGIZO would present me with just one perfect track. SUGIZO is knowledgeable about music from any era, and INORAN likes to drink, that brings us the best contrast.

Having produced many artists from around the world, why did you choose LUNA SEA as the first Japanese artist to work with?

If I work with a Japanese artist, I want to make sure it’s the best, and that is what they are. My past does not dictate the future. It’s not like, “Hey, I produced U2 30 years ago, aren’t I cool?” That’s totally irrelevant. It’s what you are doing now and what you will be doing that is important.

So, I am always nervous when I am working with someone. It’s a real responsibility. They let me into their world, and LUNA SEA trusted me with their baby. And they have never let anyone touch their baby for 30 years. That is real trust. It’s a huge honor. I can’t act like a big-time producer. Of course, I get nervous too!

Did you feel any language barriers working with a Japanese vocalist?

I don’t care, and it doesn’t matter. Ryuichi’s voice was full of passion, it didn’t really matter what his passion was aimed at. You tend to reach a creative wall when you are making a record. A producer’s job is to put a door and a knob so they can get to the other side and move forward.

From the eyes of an Englishman, do you see LUNA SEA’s music being influenced by British music?

Yes, you hear bits and pieces of British influence. They loved British music so much they even flew to London to do the very first photo shoot, when they were 20 years old. They loved Ireland also, which is where U2 is from. In “LUCA,” you can hear tiny bits of “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to a certain extent, and “You’re knocking at my door” might remind you of “Bullet The Blue Sky.” They share the same chaotic mood. However, the sounds of those songs are totally different. They’ve evolved from their influences and created something very unique.

Will you be working with LUNA SEA again in the near future?

I certainly hope so. CROSS has brought them together once again. They are in love with one another. I think they want to work with me again. I am sure that they can do different stuff. It thrills me to see where the band is heading.

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