Interview with Steve Harris

By Waldo Jaquith

At the age of 14, Steve Harris got a job in a music studio and, many dedicated years of work later, he's worked his way up to working with some of the biggest names in music. His credits for mixing, engineering, and producing include Kula Shaker, Santana, Ben Kweller, U2, Counting Crows, Foo Fighters and, of course, Dave Matthews Band. After engineering Before These Crowded Streets and the Lillywhite Sessions, Harris was asked by the band to take the lead on Busted Stuff, which he produced earlier this year. In this candid, exclusive interview, Steve Harris talks to about how he started working with DMB, the Lillywhite Sessions, Busted Stuff, Everyday, and much more. Who is Steve Harris?

Steve Harris: One lucky boy who gets paid for doing something he absolutely loves. How did you come to work with Dave Matthews Band?

SH: I was first introduced to Steve Lillywhite by an A&R friend of mine, who suggested we meet in a pub in London. He was looking for an engineer to work on the Crash album. I was sort of unknown with not much of a track record at the time and I think Steve was a tad reluctant to meet me but eventually gave me half an hour. I had never listened to DMB but I really wanted to meet Steve as he was a bit of a hero of mine then. I sort of knew I wasn't going to get the job but we ended up going out till the early hours and had a really good time. Jon Sikket engineered Crash and did a fine job.

Fast forward two years and I had just had a big hit album in the UK with Kula Shaker when the phone rings and it's Steve Lillywhite. Would I like to engineer the next DMB album in San Francisco? I still hadn't listened to UTTAD or Crash but said I would love to...who wouldn't? Fast forward another three months and I'm behind the FOH [front of house] mixing desk at the Shoreline Amphitheater for the first of two gigs for the Bridge School Benefit. I've just met the band and crew backstage and now I'm about to hear them live for the first time, just two days before we start recording together. They played "Two Step." My jaw dropped and I fell in love. What was it like making the transition to DMB engineer to DMB producer?

SH: Very easy to be honest. From the very first day I was asked to do Busted Stuff I had a clear picture in my head of how I would like the album to turn out. I was really hoping I would be asked to produce the album that was to become the Lillywhite sessions, especially after how well the Santana session for Supernatural went the year before, but that wasn't to be, and I was happy to be engineering anyway. I always felt it was destiny for me to produce a DMB album so when I eventually got my chance to do so, I didn't feel like a fish out of water. It felt right. What did your role as producer of Busted Stuff entail? How did it vary from the traditional role of producer, if at all?

SH: I don't think there is a traditional role for a producer. We all do our own thing in our own way. There are so many ways to make an album and that diversity is what's so fantastic about record making. I would hate all records to sound the same, how boring would that be! Whenever I listen to "TSB" or "Two Step" or even "I Did It," I'm in awe. I could never make a record that sound like those records, Even if I tried to it would, of course sound very different. But that's not saying it wouldn't be better. Its all down to personal taste. My role as the producer on Busted Stuff was to make an album that I and the five band members were happy and proud of. How I did that manifests in many different ways from getting a kick drum sound to working out what would be a good time to stop for coffee to OKing a mix, and lots in-between. Do you have any thoughts on the Lillywhite Sessions debacle?

SH: That particular collection of recordings represents six months of work for me so when I first found out we were not going to finish them I was of course disappointed but also very relieved. When we stopped recording for the band to start their summer tour, I returned to England with one of the eight CDs that I had made. Five for the Band, one for SL [Steve Lillywhite], one for Bruce Flohr, and the one for myself and had written on them "the summer so far". We only did that because all the other CDs that I had made up to then, I had called "the story so far". "The summer so far" was never going to be an album title, by the way, just a way to distinguish what was then the most up-to-date CD.

When I got home and played the CD I couldn't listen to it. It felt lifeless and wrong and didn't sound that great to me either. I think I only played it twice then and haven't listened to it since. In fact when a copy was eventually stolen and leaked on the net I was very worried because I couldn't find my copy for a while until I found it one day, out of its case propping up my son's train set.

I had the most wonderful time in Charlottesville doing the LS and spent a large majority of it riding the band's ATVs, drinking heavily and playing golf, Frisbee golf, etc. It was like the best summer camp ever. The bad part was going back into the studio because it was so dark and moody... Really cool but very oppressive. The food was fantastic and I learnt to throw a football properly thanks to Carter and Roi. I'm sure Carter could throw a football to the moon if he wanted to. What an arm! But for the making of an album it wasn't very productive. It was at first, but as the weeks turned to months I think we all lost heart and drive, but because we were all having such a great time outside, no one wanted to rock the boat.

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