"I've nothing against synths, contrary to popular belief -- it's the machines who play the machines that worry me."
Closer to the Edge (pt. 1)
December 04, 2002
With a new "best of" bringing the band's story up to date U2's guitar man steps forward to riff on good times and bad, the private life of a public figure, discovering the secrets of the universe on mushrooms and why, after all these years, few things match the high of being a member of U2.
In common with its occasional occupants, U2's famous Hanover Quay studio on Dublin's Docklands is still standing tall and sturdy in the midst of a whole lot of rock & rubble. As the Nineties segued into the noughties, most of the buildings surrounding the innocuous-looking, warehouse-like structure were demolished to make way for an as-yet-unfinished public promenade, but as Sam, the highly affable studio manager, explains, "The corporation seem to have slowed up the project a bit, so it should be here for another couple of years yet."
If cracking new single "Electrical Storm" is anything to go on (and, of course, it is) then it's probably safe to say that the same is true of U2. Barring death, divorce or disaster, Bono, Larry, Adam and Edge will undoubtedly be with us for another couple of years yet. Midway through their third decade together, and coming off the back of the enormous twin successes of their acclaimed All That You Can't Leave Behind album and the subsequent Elevation tour, the band have never seemed so tight, potent, real and relevant. As the vast majority of their contemporaries fall by the wayside, fade into obscurity or survive by unashamedly rehashing their tired old formulas, U2 are one of the few acts who've been around since the '70s who're still risk-taking, still experimenting with sonic png tbilities and pushing the rock & roll envelope out. No wonder they've just been put on a stamp!
Inside, through the heavy metal door and past the security cameras, Hanover Quay is bright, spacious and if not quite alive with activity, not quite dead either. The band haven't arrived yet but have telephonically communicated that they're on their way (with the exception of Bono, who's lying low somewhere, recuperating from his latest trans-Atlantic jaunt).
Downstairs in the Green Room, Donal Scannel and Sebastian Clayton are busily setting up the equipment for an interview with Sebastian's older -- and slightly better known -- sibling, to be broadcast on the band's website U2.com. One floor above them, in a big, airy room with a full-sized paddle boat on the wall (presumably there in case Flood comes around), Sam offers your reporter culinary delights from a well-stocked buffet, while veteran band aide Principle Management's Sheila Roche chats and reminisces about the last ten years of U2. In a nutshell, she says, it's been madness -- but memorable madness.
Certainly the last ten years represent a fairly wild and turbulent period in the group's history -- a decade that saw them maturing, but never mellowing. Their forthcoming The Best & The B-Sides of 1990 - 2000 showcase the hits and highs of a hugely experimental body of work crafted and grafted against all sorts of difficult deadlines and unforeseen odds -- creative differences, sozzled bass players, dearly departed friends and massive malfunctioning mechanical lemons amongst them.
But no need to elaborate further, because the man millions know simply as the Edge has just walked up the stairs, politely apologising for the lateness of his arrival. Slim, trim and healthier-looking than your average rock guitarist, he looks great for a 41-year-old -- so great, in fact, that he can somehow get away with dressing like a 14-year-old without looking ridiculous. Today, his trademark skullcap is a knitted black affair, his top is as white, bright and expensive as his gleaming teeth, and his widely flared denims are held together at the seams with enough safety pins to spark a full-scale airport security alert. Pretty nifty for a father of four [sic].
Once comfortably seated in an adjoining room, we swiftly get down to business. A consummate professional, who takes the whole interview business more seriously than most, he listens to each question intently and measures his responses very carefully. His sentences come slowly, and in fits and starts...so that you're never quite sure if he's finished talking... or if there's an addendum...and then another little observation at the end.
All told, he's a highly articulate interviewee...but an absolute bitch to transcribe.
OLAF TYARANSEN: The band made a massive artistic leap from 1987's The Joshua Tree to 1991's Achtung Baby. How would you define the difference between '80s U2 and '90s U2?
THE EDGE: I think we made a play for artistic freedom at the beginning of the '90s, partly out of a sense that we needed to move on and try something very different, and also out of a sense of just wanting to change the way the band were perceived. It got a bit stifling at the end of the '80s because of the massive success of The Joshua Tree, and also I suppose our music at that point was so against the grain -- you know, that was the period of "Material Girl" and Reagan and Thatcher politics. And we were kind of coming in, sounding incredibly earnest in having a political conscience, and I think at the end of that tour we felt that we'd been robbed of any kind of...balance...to the way people perceived us.
So Achtung Baby, the first album of the '90s, was a definite play to redress the balance and show other sides of what we were about as artists and, you know, just people really. So hence the interest in new lyric approaches, introducing some irony, writing from the third person, things that we hadn't done before. And, from a musical point of view, still wanting to communicate in the way that we always do to a mass audience, but bringing into our sound a lot more extreme influences, a lot of industrial music, a lot of dance music -- aesthetics that wouldn't have been part of what we'd done in the '80s.
You also began utilising a lot of studio technology...
We'd always seen the studio as a creative tool but I think in the 90's work we pushed that a stage further. I suppose the sound of some of our early records is a band playing very simple ideas but making great use out of simple things. When it came to the 90's work, we were being more experimental and we got more interested in the abuse of technology -- seeing what happens when you push something to the point where it's almost about to break. There's a certain texture to the sound, particularly of Achtung Baby, which is very much about technology on the verge of breakdown.
It was about relationships on the verge of breakdown as well, wasn't it? By all accounts, the band's early sessions in Berlin's Hansa Studios were fairly strained.
Yeah. Well, I think anytime you make a radical change to what you've been doing, it's a case of everyone having to reassess, so there was a period at the beginning of the '90s where there was so much up for grabs and everyone had to find their feet again in a new milieu. And that took a while.
Larry thought he was being phased out of the band at one point, didn't he?
(Laughs) I think we all guard our corner of what it is to be in U2 quite jealously, and I think Larry might have felt a little threatened when we started using drum machines. But we never had it in our mind to go out on the road, or indeed into the studio, and not use Larry. It's just as a songwriting tool, sometimes it gets inspiring to start a piece from some completely different point of view. And so loops on drum machines and a lot of the dance forms were great springboards for us as songwriters. But those periods of friction were I guess the kind of thing that might split up bands that had less of a sense of being a band. And it's one of the things that makes what we do special -- the fact that we are a real band, that there is a lot of commitment and loyalty and a deep friendship there. So it would take a hell of a lot to really threaten those relationships and that commitment to U2 -- for all of us. So in that sense it might have been a bad period, but it didn't last very long.
The band's internal relationships weren't the only ones under strain. You were in the process of getting divorced and Guggi's long-term relationship had also just ended. How did you feel about Bono lyrically expressing what he imagined to be going on in your head?
Well...(pauses). I suppose there's a certain kind of bleeding of ideas and, em...(long pause). I suppose there's an emotional connection between the members of the band. So it felt like, although I recognised something that I was going through in a song, it just felt like he was writing in a general sense about what was happening amongst our group of friends.
You were all turning thirty around then, weren't you?
Yeah. There was a lot of stuff going on (smiles wryly). Some not-so-great stuff, and a lot of great stuff. I suppose Bono was just picking up what was in the air and it came through in the lyrics. But, in a lot of cases, the music is the thing that inspires the lyric and the themes.
He writes a lot of his lyrics on the mic, doesn't he?
Yeah. Often the lyric is the last thing. In fact, most of the time it's the last thing. So we'll up with Bono trying to figure out what the music is saying and, I guess, therefore, since my end of it is the music, a lot of what I was going through was going into the music.
Tracks like "Love Is Blindness"?
Actually, that was one that Bono did write the lyric for first. It started out just on piano. But things like "Ultraviolet," "You're So Cruel," songs like that. The sort of feeling was very strong. And with our material, we start out with a sense of a piece of music and where it might go, and we chip away and try different versions of it until it starts to become the best example of that, in terms of its arrangement. So it takes on a certain crystal form. And at that point then you get into the lyric phase -- and you finish up the songs. So there's a long process where the music is worked on.
But in Ireland it's funny how lyrics are the...(pauses). I suppose because Ireland is a literary place, lyrics are what people pick up on. I think it's the only country in the world, particularly related to Hot Press, where the music isn't associated with the songwriting. In Hot Press, songwriting is always a Bono reference, not a U2 reference, which I find interesting.
Does that piss you off?
Well, it used to surprise me somewhat. At this point I just take it as one of the idiosyncrasies of this country. In some ways Ireland is very highly developed on a literary perspective, but I suppose very underdeveloped in a musical or visual way. It's a unique perspective in Ireland, I think.
Speaking of visual perspectives, tell me how the idea for the Zoo TV tour came about.
I think it started with "The Fly" video. Bono, given that he's the focus, he's the communicator when it comes to the shows, he's standing in the middle of the stage putting over the lyrics and the songs -- he suddenly found this other way to perform, through that video. That opened a certain door for him, and when we started putting the show together with our designer, Pete Williams, we got the idea of taking images, taking TV as an idea, and putting screens on stage. That started us down that road and, as a result of working with various different video artists, we ended up with Zoo TV.
You looked like you were having fun with it!
It was just an incredible playpen -- especially for Bono. It was so inspiring a place to be. No one had ever gone there in terms of live performance, so it was virgin territory and we were just having an absolute ball working with all these great people and pushing out the envelope of what rock & roll in a live context can be about. In some ways it was getting back to some of the very earliest shows that we'd done in McGonagles, where we were touching on more of a performance art mixed with rock & roll aspect of it. It was like coming back. And also I suppose some of the early [Virgin] Prunes' shows that we had been part of. So those early ideas were finding a place in this new live idea.
Using television was certainly a very timely idea, given that the Gulf War was starting and TV news channels were suddenly required viewing.
Yeah. Once we'd figured out that it was going to be television, a lot of connections started to happen. It was a very dark time with the Gulf War. I think it was the period when cable TV -- particularly CNN and Sky -- started to have a major impact. Because it was like you were watching history unfolding live on TV. But what we were aware of was how editorialised that coverage was. It was having the opposite effect to what you might have imagined. Instead of it drawing people closer to the issues and making people more aware -- and therefore more concerned -- about what was actually happening, and more motivated, it was actually desensitising people to what was going on.
It became a form of entertainment...
Yeah, it was almost as if the news had become another entertainment form, and at the end of the news you just turned off and went back to your life. There seemed to be no sense that there was any need to respond in any way. And I think we're seeing now that the net result of that is there's a much greater appetite for "reality TV," as they call it. I think that is completely as a result of this thirst people have developed for not fiction, but what's actually happening, as a form of entertainment. And it smacks of the Roman Coliseum or whatever -- people showing up to watch the latest tragedy unfolding. And I guess with the Zoo TV shows we were trying to draw some attention to what was going on.
How did the live link-ups with Sarajevo come about?
We first made contact with this guy Carter, who was an American. He'd gone to Sarajevo...(pauses). I think he'd had some traumatic experience, I think his girlfriend had dumped him or something had freaked him out. I dunno. Anyway, some people would go and get drunk, but he decided to go and move to Sarajevo. And he hung out there for a while -- I think he'd studied film in college -- and next thing he's in the middle of hell. And he started to shoot some footage of what was going on and interviewing people. So he showed up in the early part of the outdoor tour, when we were playing in Italy, and he showed us some of his footage and was telling us what was going on in Sarajevo -- about this underground music scene and how people, during the evening when the mortars were going off, would go underground to these death metal clubs, where they'd use the heaviest of music to drown out the noise. And he suggested that we might try and get there, that it would make a big difference. So we tried to smuggle ourselves onto a UN plane and go a week or so after he first contacted us, but in the end we couldn't get permission. And we were in the middle of a tour and the insurance company were going crazy so we sort of gave up the idea, and basically said, "We'll see you again, we'll be back."
Sarajevo was a pretty dangerous place to be heading. Is there a fearless aspect to the band?
I don't think any more than anyone (shrugs). In some ways we're very privileged because we do have a lot of back-up, and if we're ever in a position where there's real danger, we're probably gonna be given some pretty good advice about how to handle ourselves. So it's not like we're like he was, walking completely blind into a situation. I don't think we're particularly courageous in that sense. We're curious. I think that's probably a stronger trait. We were very curious about what was going on and we wanted to see if there was anything that we could do that might have some impact, make some difference.
Basically we were up for being taken advantage of for the benefit of the people of Sarajevo, in whatever way that that might be good. So anyway, we couldn't go to Sarajevo, but then this idea came up of utilising the Zoo TV broadcast equipment and actually beaming in interviews, which we could do live from Sarajevo and beam them into the shows in Europe. Which we did.
There was a fairly mixed reaction to that, wasn't there?
Some would say it was so heavy and such a downer for the audience that it kind of ruined the shows. But although there were a couple of occasions where I think there was a major impact and you could feel the whole vibe disappearing, I think it's probably the thing that the people who were at those shows will remember longer than anything else. Just that moment of seeing the un-editorialised view of what was going on. Just normal people explaining what was happening in Sarajevo, what their life was like. And it had a sort of power that no news report had. We really just gave up the stage for whatever length of time the interviews were -- sometimes they were two minutes, sometimes ten minutes. And I'm sure there were people who didn't want to watch, who didn't wanna hear what was happening, who were just there for a quiet night out.
Or a loud night out!
Oh yeah, a loud night out -- very loud! (Laughs) But we just thought it was an opportunity to maybe try and get some attention back onto Sarajevo, because at that point it had completely dropped off the front pages of the newspapers -- it was page 5 or 6, if you were lucky -- but the siege was continuing and there were people being killed every day. So we just thought it was valid because, in the end, there's always been a political aspect to the band and it's part of what we do. And people coming to our shows might not have expected it but, if they knew what we were like as a band, they shouldn't have been particularly surprised by it.
U2's next record was 1993's Zooropa, which was partly recorded while you were still on tour. But you were the main driving force behind it, weren't you?
Because of my position as the kind of musical instigator, I spent a lot of time on my own going through a lot of tapes from previous albums, you know, some of the stuff we'd worked up while we were on the road and then some new ideas. So I got quite a lot of stuff together for what was supposed to be an EP, and I was playing everyone these things, laying it out -- you know, "These are what we can start work on, what do you wanna work on?" And we did I suppose a week or so, and then Bono came in one day and said, "Look, I know it might sound a bit mad but I think, with all the stuff you've got going here, we might have another album. What do you say we just push a bit further and a bit harder, bring in some producers -- see what Brian's [Eno} doing, see what Flood's doing -- and we'll try and do a very quick record." And I just thought, well, there's no downside to trying it, if it doesn't happen we can still do an EP. But we really pushed very hard and got through a lot of ideas quickly.
But not quite quickly enough...
No. Unfortunately, we didn't finish before the next leg of the tour started, so there was about a ten-day period at the end of the Zooropa sessions when we were flying back from concerts and doing mixes in Dublin. I'd be in the studio until 3 or 4 in the morning, and then going home, getting up the next day and getting on a plane at lunchtime, going off doing a show, coming back at 1am, staying up again till 4am. So it was pretty mind-numbing by the end. But it's a record I really love, because it does have a certain spontaneity, a certain sense of ideas left in their raw form.
It's probably one of U2's least emotional records.
That's true generally, but then there's songs like "Stay" and "The First Time" that are incredibly resonant emotionally.
And there's also "Numb," which you sang...
Well, that's the least emotional song (laughs).
Is that how you felt at the time? Numb?
I think it was definitely a comment on what we've just been talking about -- the TV news as entertainment syndrome. Just that sense that you were getting bombarded with so much that you actually were finding yourself shutting down and unable to respond because there was so much imagery and information being thrown at you. So that was really where that lyric came from.
There was also a lot of U2 imagery and information flying around out there, particularly on that tour. As the band's level of celebrity dramatically increased, did you ever feel that, like the song says, you were giving yourselves away?
At times when you're on the road I think you probably feel that. You start to become so caught up in the shows, and you're constantly travelling, you don't really see your friends or your family, so you are in a sense cocooned. And that was in the middle of that tour so I suppose there is that side of it. But I think over the years we've figured out how to make sure that you don't completely lose your connection with whatever your connection to reality happens to be. And I'm sure mine is very different to most people's (laughs).
You've pretty much managed to keep your personal life out of the press -- certainly a lot more than Adam and Bono. Is that a deliberate strategy?
It's something you have to manage. I didn't get into a rock & roll band to become a celebrity. I like the fact that I'm known for the music that we produce, because in the end that's what I'm interested in. And in the end I think it's the thing that we will be remembered for.
Do you enjoy any aspects of your celebrity?
I don't particularly. I don't particularly relish being in the press. I don't particularly crave that sort of attention. Again, when it comes along because of the music or because of the shows or because of the albums, I like it because I think it reflects well on what we're about as a band. But when it's about you divorced from what you do, when it's fame for being famous, I really can do without that. I know some people would talk about publicity -- about getting a great piece of publicity -- but I really don't have any interest.
Tell me how U2's next '90s project -- the Passengers' album Original Soundtracks 1 -- came about.
Well, we always start a project with an experiment. For example, before Achtung Baby, Bono and myself did the music for a stage production of A Clockwork Orange in London.
Actually, I was hoping that "Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk" would make the B-sides of the Best Of.
Yeah, that track had something. But that work was done very quickly and really it wasn't made as a record, because what we were doing was writing music that could be performed live. So there was never a record, as such, of that work.
Anthony Burgess [author of A Clockwork Orange] wasn't overly impressed with it, was he?
No, he wasn't, but I guess we weren't 100% surprised by that. I think he saw himself as a great composer and a part-time writer (laughs)...But he also only ever really wrote one book that captured the imagination, even though he was extremely prolific. But anyway, the Passengers record was a project like that -- an experimental project that we hatched the plan for with Eno. At first it was to be a soundtrack album, but as no appropriate film came up we just kept working and eventually decided to release the record as a pretend soundtrack. So all the sleeve-notes are related to non-existent movies. A lot of people really liked the record. Dance companies use it a lot, film documentary makers -- it's always been licensed to this use or that use. And it has one of my favourite U2 songs on it, which is "Miss Sarajevo."
But isn't that a Passengers' song, rather than a proper U2 song?
Well, it's on Passengers and it is credited as Passengers, but I suppose of the pieces it's the one that Bono and myself probably put the most time into. And at the time both of us realised that it would be really important to have at least a couple of fully fledged songs on the record. So we put a lot of time into "Miss Sarajevo" and "Your Blue Room," just to complete the circle.
And then came the Pop album in '97, which didn't get particularly great reviews...
We got some great reviews for that!
I know -- I wrote one of them. But Adam has been quite disparaging about it in the past and Larry practically disowned it in Q magazine this month!
I like it. I think it could've been better. But maybe what you've gotta realise is that the things that would irritate us are things that a lot of people would never even notice. Things like the last few percent of the mixing...
You had to rush to get it finished in order to get out and tour it, didn't you?
Yeah. We had to mix it in a real hurry and the last few weeks of that record were incredibly busy and full-on. It's always like that with us, but there was a slight air of desperation that time because we knew that we just had to finish it and do it, because there was so much pressure on us to get over to start rehearsals for the tour. And PopMart was a major undertaking because it was outdoors from the get-go and it was a big production and all the rest. So unfortunately we felt a little bit cheated as we finished that record. We felt that we needed a few extra weeks, maybe even just to get a bit of objectivity and reconsider some of the mixes and make sure that they were the best ones, etc., etc. So that's really what Larry was talking about. But I don't think the songs themselves were gonna change that much. This is just the arrangements, the streamlining of the sound. So I have to say that I still stand over the record.
I notice that you've used new mixes of the two songs taken from Pop on the Best Of.
Yeah. We have a chance now with the new mixes on the Best Of to revisit those songs and iron out those fine points that we didn't get a chance to get to on the album itself. A lot of people are probably going to prefer the original mixes, but I think that this is closest to what we had intended at the time.
Gavin Friday once told me that the best way to approach Pop is to treat it almost like a vinyl double album -- four very distinct sides of three songs each.
Yeah, it's funny how songs can sometimes fall into those divisions. I mean, it's not really the way we were thinking at the time but it often happens that there are movements within a record that you can spot afterwards. It starts to take on a sense of continuity that you hadn't anticipated.
Why the decision to experiment with dance culture?
A certain amount of it was just reacting to the situation we were in, where Larry couldn't play for a couple of months. He'd hurt his back and was told he couldn't really play for a couple of months, so he was exercising and all of that. Anyway, we didn't have Larry so we thought, well, let's just start writing with loops and drum beats. I mean that's how I generally start anyway. Dating back to the War album, you know, I always worked on my own with drum machines and four-track cassette machines and got something going.
The available technology has moved on quite a lot from 1983...
It has a bit, yeah (smiles). But, at this point, I suppose it was the first time we were using loops. And Howie B. was coming in with stuff he'd prepared. And some of the best stuff that came out of those sessions were actually the live jams that we would set up, where I'd be on guitar, Howie would be on loops and Bono would be on voice. And Adam, I suppose, would be on bass sometimes as well. But there's a kind of spontaneity which is incredible.
The thing is translating that into a U2 song. The songs took a lot of different turns. And at one point I remember during the mixing, we were getting our first few mixes back -- a couple from Nellie Hooper, who was working in London, and we were working on our own in Dublin -- and there was just something missing in the first rough mixes. And Flood at that point basically made it known that he really thought we were missing that band chemistry. That even though the conception of the record had been about dance aesthetics, in the end the unique thing that we had when we played together was one of the key ingredients of what made U2 what it is. And that was what was missing -- whatever way we play when we're playing together. So we did change two or three of the tunes, and we took out drum loops and got Larry playing. And we brought the record back from this position of being very trip-hop influenced, and brought it back to being closer to a U2 record. I think almost at that point we were setting ourselves up for All That You Can't Leave Behind. Because by the end of the album we'd kind of taken the band as far in one direction as we could.