"The vocal glides gracefully between recognizable language and fluent Bongolese -- semilinguistic scat forming temporary bridges over lyrical gaps."
-- Brian Eno
Closer to the Edge (pt. 2)
December 04, 2002
All That You Can't Leave Behind was very obviously a back to basics album, bringing the band full circle. Which kind of begs the question, where to next for U2?
It's very early days and I don't know quite where it's gonna go but, myself right now, I'm getting very excited about bands playing together in a room and what that sounds like. It sounds very fresh to me. So the albums I'm excited about are things like the Sonic Youth record or Mudhoney -- things that are very visceral. And dynamics and interaction of musicians is really a part of those records. You don't really hear a lot in the way of production or manipulation of the sound. It is what it is. As pop music gets more and more produced, and hip-hop gets more and more sophisticated sonically, I think there's a real power to a raw band sound.
What drives you to continue making music? I mean, you've been in U2 for more than half your life now and, at this stage, you've basically done and had it all -- number one albums, sold-out world tours, loads of prestigious awards and accolades, more money then you could ever possibly spend...
I wish!!! (Laughs).
Oh come on, Edge! You're loaded!
Well, you know what? The great thing about that side of it is I don't have to worry about it (grins).
Actually, I know this is a bit of a daft question, but do you have "The Edge" as your name on your credit card?
I don't -- no (laughs).
Does Bono have "Bono"?
Em...I couldn't swear to it. I dunno. But I am "David Evans" to customs officials, policemen and sales assistants!!
A lot of rock & roll bands break-up when they become really successful because they all have fuck-you money, and so can easily afford to walk if the going gets tough. Given that none of you are short of a few bob, what do you think keeps U2 together?
I think bands break-up a lot of times because they get successful and they forget how hard it is to be great. And they start to think it's easy -- and that everything they do is great, because they're great. And I just think that's what it is. A certain kind of madness breaks out and they lose the plot. I think one thing about us as a band is we're not afraid of criticism. And if something is really not great, we wanna hear! (Laughs) We're not interested in having our feelings spared by a producer or an engineer or somebody, if it's really not there. We'd like to find out before the record's in the shops.
Looking back, is there any U2 release you feel was a mistake? I'm thinking October...
I think we had something great going on the first album, Boy, and then we released a single called "Fire," and, in retrospect, that was not the next step up. When we got to the October album -- you know, we were on the road, it was very hard, it was the famous "difficult second record"...But I think, looking back, there's a strength to that album. It's subtle, but there's a real strength. And even though it probably wasn't the album we went out to make, I still really rate it. So I don't have any problems with that. But "Fire" wasn't...(pauses). I was disappointed at the time with it, that we didn't get something stronger to follow-up on the Boy album.
That was recorded way back in the early '80s. What do you think of the changes that have happened in Ireland since then?
I think some of them are really good and some of them are not so great. I think that there's an element of materialism that's come into Irish culture, which I don't ever remember before. And that's kind of a negative. But I think there's a great vitality and a sense that anything's possible, which is a new idea. Because in the 70's and 80's when we were starting out, it was a very different story and there was a very evident sense that if you were from Ireland then really -- particularly in music -- your best option was just buying a Transit van and buying a PA and just do the ballrooms. That's the way to set yourself up. The idea of making records or going on the road abroad was just...(shakes head). It only happened to a few bands and all of those bands seemed to run out of resolve or confidence in themselves at a certain point.
Which bands are you thinking of?
I seem to remember so many American tours that Thin Lizzy had that were about to break -- or Rory Gallagher the same. They always seemed to be on the verge of breaking. And I'm sure they were in some respects. But I always thought there was this sense, which was probably beaten into them as kids, that they should not expect to succeed, they should not expect to really go all the way. And that is definitely gone now and I really think that's great because any of those bands -- Lizzy and Rory Gallagher particularly, but a lot of other groups as well -- could've really gone all the way and, for whatever reason, didn't.
What do you make of Ireland's recently discovered talent for manufactured pop?
Well, great pop is interesting and I've always liked it. And there is a lot of great pop, but there's also a lot of really discardable pop and I just have no interest to be honest. I wouldn't be bothered to get upset about it, because it's always been around. There's always been throwaway music. I don't think this period is any different except that loads of it seems to be made in Ireland these days (laughs). But that's OK. Occasionally, some great new stuff comes out. There's a lot of great new bands and there's a lot of great energy, and that's nice to see.
I think at this point also, the U2 thing is much less of an impediment to young Irish groups. Because for years it seemed that every record company in the world was just looking for the next U2 -- and signing anything that they thought sounded like it could become the next U2. It must have been very soul destroying for other groups who were on a different path. But I don't think that's where it's at now. There's so many other kinds of music being recognised.
Do you regret your own attempt to nurture that recognition yourselves with U2's now-defunct Mother label?
I don't regret it because I think it gave a lot of groups a chance that they wouldn't have had otherwise. And at the same time I don't think it would have been appropriate to have done it with a more commercial mentality because that wouldn't have done what we wanted to do -- which was to give something back, as it were, to the Irish music business.
The truth is that it's very hard for labels to exist in Ireland because really you've gotta exist where the biggest market is and you've gotta have access to the greatest number of new artists. Because it's only maybe one or two a year that really break big. So to really have a chance of being commercially successful you've gotta be in America and you've gotta be, I suppose to some extent, in Britain. So it's really hard. Unless you're running a shoestring kind of operation and concentrating on very established styles and markets, you're always gonna be struggling. But we really wanted to do something in Ireland, giving Irish artists the chance and featuring new bands. So I wouldn't change anything. And I'm not sure we ever thought, "Hey, this is gonna be a big label!" I always think, in the back of our minds, we just saw it more like an opportunity to give something back to the Irish scene.
Have you encountered much home-grown begrudgery?
Early on, yes, there was a lot of begrudgery, but not at this point. I think people are maybe...suspicious, and if we get too distant you can sense people getting cynical about the group. I think contact is important to people feeling they have a part of what we're about. So when we're doing shows and, I suppose, doing interviews...(pauses). But sometimes when we're away a lot, you come back and you start to see a certain cynicism about the band coming back again. It goes in cycles. You can almost take the temperature and get a feel for what people are thinking about the band at any given time. Around the time of the Slane concerts there was a huge amount of affection for the band...but I don't know what it is right now (laughs).
You've got a second home in the south of France. How much of the year do you spend there?
Not as much as sometimes I'd like, because the kids are at school. It probably averages out about four weeks a year.
How's your francais?
Not very good! (Laughs).
You don't seem to overly involve yourself in any of Bono's extracurricular activities...
We've always been involved with the political stuff. He's taken on a lot of it over the last few years himself, because he's had the opportunity to do it and he's very good at it. If all of us were up to it, there'd never be any records or anything made (laughs). But we fully support him in it and, whilst I'm not necessarily up to speed on everything that he's up to, we talk a lot about it and I know all the people that are part of the team. And from time to time we talk to them about ideas and brainstorm. So I don't think of it as just something that Bono's doing over here, that's completely separate to U2. I just see it as Bono's found this very effective way of tapping into the political world and he's just doing what he can to maximise that impact. And I think the results are stunning!
He's not doing it on his own, he has some great people working with him. And he's also, to some extent, pushing an open door, because there are a lot of administrations around the world who really do agree with the principles of debt cancellation and see the need to do something about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. But what he's provided for a lot of these administrations is a way of focusing their electorate on the issues and turning it into a celebrated cause, as opposed to one that's just been looked at by civil servants and lesser members of the government. This is now something that people are talking about. And whenever you get attention put on an issue like this and people start talking about it, politicians feel more comfortable in doing things, because what they really ultimately wanna know is that their people are behind it. So I think it's been great. And the figures involved are staggering. You're talking billions of dollars. And if it ultimately goes through to the extent that Bono and his friends are trying to push for, it's an incredible change. It makes Live Aid look like a drop in the ocean. It's like so many hundreds of times bigger in terms of its impact.
We were talking about the Gulf War earlier. What do you think of what's happening at the moment?
Well, I never felt that there would be a unilateral action from America without some kind of support from the UN. I hope that turns out to be the case because I think it would be really hard to justify America going off on their own without the support of the UN. I would find that difficult to support. I think if the UN are behind action, I suppose I'll just have to feel that it's justified. There's definitely a threat there. It's not a nice feeling to think that there's the potential for nuclear weapons to fall into the wrong hands. But I suppose in the end I would prefer to see a solution being put forward that does not involve invading Iraq. Because there's so many negatives, not simply for the innocent people of Iraq, but in terms of its impact on stability around the world. So if there's another way, I think it would be definitely preferable.
Do you pay close attention to Irish politics?
I would not consider myself fully up to speed but I try and keep abreast of what's going on. And the same in the North, I would try and keep on top of what's happening.
U2 have had some involvement there, haven't they?
Yeah. I've done a couple of things with the SDLP, who I would still see as being the real heroes of the North, in terms of what they've contributed and the stance that they've maintained since their inception through the most difficult of times. Catching bullets from both sides and whatever. They are very courageous people -- John Hume, in particular. And right now they don't seem to be reaping the benefits of it, that I believe they deserve politically. But they still have a huge part to play in the North and it would be nice to see them going from strength to strength.
Do you meet many politicians generally?
I'm sure more than most rock & roll guitar players. But not nearly as many as Bono (laughs).
I see from the gossip columns that you've been having some planning permission problems recently. You don't know any politicians who could help?
No. So I was thinking of trying to arrange a special charity concert in aid of rock stars having planning permission problems! (Laughs)
Does it annoy you when the Irish press gloats over things like that?
Not really. I know the score. They're just trying to sell newspapers and we're relatively easy targets for that kind of thing.
Have you ever been hurt by something that's been written?
Personally, no. But on other people's behalf, I have. But they're in the past and I don't really wanna drag them up again. It's not terribly complicated. Newspapers have to sell copies, it's a completely commercial decision. I suppose it's a shame that the tabloid mentality which has ruled the roost in Britain for so many years is now so well-established in the Irish media. I think of it as somewhat of a loss of innocence in a sense. It does seem that Irish newspapers are far more savvy in that respect than they used to be. And again getting back to the Zoo TV idea of the news as entertainment, I suppose it has always had that element but it seems to be becoming more and more of that as time goes on.
Yourself, Larry and Bono were all members of the Shalom Christian prayer group in the early days of U2. Are you still religious?
I still have a spiritual life, but I'm not really a fan of religion per se. You know, what I believe is very much what I ended up coming to. It's not a doctrine that is connected to any church or any religious group. It's very much my own personal thing. But I have to say that I think there's a lot of great people in churches -- very highly motivated people. Bono's run into a lot of them working in Africa and they're incredible. It's very hard to say anything bad about where they're coming from or what they believe. So I guess in some ways, I'm open to all that stuff. It just doesn't work for me.
Are you raising your kids as Catholics?
Em...technically yes, but again I'm not in favour of presenting something that I think is ultimately very personal in any kind of fundamental way. I think it's really up to everyone, when they reach a certain age, to figure it out for themselves. You know, they are Catholic in terms of their upbringing or whatever, but really they'll decide themselves what they wanna believe, when they get older.
What ages are they?
My eldest is 18 and my youngest is three.
Bono and Larry both have young kids as well. Will that make touring more difficult in the immediate future?
Well, it's never been easy leaving your family, and it certainly doesn't get any easier when you've got kids. You just try and balance it out. I think we'll probably do fewer of the very long tours because that's what really takes its toll. But I mean we are really a live band. That's where we started out and that's one of the main things people think about when they think of U2, is our concerts, so I can't see us stopping or seriously cutting back. But we probably won't have the tours going on for quite so long.
Are you going to tour to promote the Best Of?
No. We'll wait until we've done another studio record and then we'll decide what we wanna do. We really had a great time on the last tour.
Was that because Elevation was far less cluttered with onstage gadgetry and special effects than Zoo TV and PopMart?
I think it was the songs. There was a lot of strong material on the album and it felt really good to be playing brand new songs and classic songs -- and realising that the new songs fit in and were easily as good as anything we'd ever done. So that was a very good feeling. Also realising that playing together as a band was as inspiring as it's ever been. We're still surprising each other and still have it when we play with each other. So that was another good feeling. And I suppose the album, because it was arranged and conceived in that form of the primary colours of rock & roll -- guitar, bass, drums and a frontman -- it just made it a more fun tour. It was more interactive. So a lot of reasons. It was good for us to strip it back again to simple, essential elements and see that it really hangs together. Because in the end it's about songs really.
What's been the highest point of U2's career for you personally?
Well, I think the last tour was a particular high point because, as I said, we were doing maybe our best tour, and maybe our best album, after being together for more than 20 years. And I think we're probably at this point able to appreciate the successes -- and the benefits of those successes -- more than we were when they first came along.
How do you mean?
When you're 23 and you're having a big tour or a big hit record, it's so overwhelming that you don't have the capacity to really relish it. You're just trying to figure out how to swim in the tide of success. But now it's like we're really appreciating this most recent success and what it is to be a band and what it is to play with people you respect and love and who inspire you. All the things that the fans have probably known for years but we were too busy to really appreciate. So this is definitely my favourite phase of the band's history. And it's a different thrill to what you get when you first have a number one album or when you first get on Top of the Pops or your first number one in America or the first time you sell out a stadium tour, but I think what's really great about this phase is that it's thrown the emphasis back on the music more and more. I'm really excited about where we can go with our music. I really think it's a great phase, a great period for us.
You've never been so popular really, have you? Both commercially and critically...
Yeah, we're hip now suddenly. We were the band who always seemed to be swimming against the tide. Suddenly we're turning around. Coldplay are talking about how big an influence we are, and so many young groups coming through are talking about our early work. We couldn't be more in the moment in terms of music generally. So it's just great. I hope we don't fuck up (laughs).
Are any new Irish bands floating your boat at the moment?
At the Hot Press Awards there were a couple of bands that I thought were really exciting. You'll have to help me with the names. I've just got a bad memory for names. I haven't heard any of them on record. One of them reminded me of the early punk days -- Undertones, Reflex, Stiff Little Fingers, that sort of vibe. Real raw stuff, real vitality.
I wasn't actually there this year, but I think you're probably talking about The Revs.
Yeah! They were one of the bands. There was another one that was even more interesting though. I think they're from the south. I'm sure Niall would know. I can't remember what they were called but they had a real vibe, a real charisma about them [The band in question was the Frames -- OT]. I think Kila have got something on a traditional front. I haven't seen them live but I hear that's quite an experience. I've got a couple of their records though.
What are your feelings on Napster?
Obviously musicians need to get paid or else there's no chance of making more records -- particularly if there's no record companies out there willing to release them. I don't think it's got to that, but I guess I'm concerned enough if rock & roll stops being a viable business. That would bother me. But I've a feeling there are a lot of positives to music interacting with the world of the Internet and computers, because actually I think people playing music on their computers is good for music. Computers are the biggest investment, so if people can find a way to enable computer owners to find music and enjoy it in a convenient manner, and still get paid, I think that'd be an incredible thing. And I think people are working on that. So far from seeing the Internet as a threat -- and there are aspects of it that have to be watched -- I think in the end it's a much bigger opportunity than it is a threat.
Adam aside, U2 never really had a reputation as wild party animals or serious hellraisers. Do you enjoy partying?
I certainly do. Always have. But you know, we were so focused on the band and everything else that we were doing that the partying was something that we really only did the odd time. I guess there's a side to that that I would see as a celebration -- like some kind of carnival -- and I don't see anything wrong with it. But you've gotta bear in mind that if you're doing it every night -- or every weekend, even -- then after a while you start to lose the reason why you're doing it. And in the end, if you do too much of any drug -- whether it's alcohol or whatever -- it will eventually end up taking the piss out of you, and you'll end up a victim. So you want to be pretty smart about how you party and what you do -- and what you don't do.
Did U2 ever go through a phase of experimentation with mind-expanding drugs a la the Beatles?
Tricky once told me a funny story about taking mushrooms with Bono in Jamaica...
Well, there's one story about me doing mushrooms, which was in the Bill Flanagan book, which was about how I discovered all the secrets of the universe in Adam's house one time. I was on my own and very, very much in the middle of a psychedelic experience. And I found my Walkman -- a little like this thing (picks up Hot Press's Sony) -- and spent about four hours recording all the insights I was getting, all these amazing pearls of wisdom. So the following evening I remembered that I had done this, so I ran up to the room, put the tape in and hit the play button. And all I could hear was, "MUMPPHH, MUMPPHHH" (makes muffled sound). I'd spent three hours talking to the battery compartment! All of that wisdom gone forever (laughs). It was a shame. As far as I can could remember, I'd figured out most of the important issues.
Which U2 record would've been most influenced by that kind of experimentation?
I don't think our work has ever been influenced by that, because I think we realised almost at the very beginning of the band...(pauses). We'd been told that all bands are out of it on stage and so we tried that once in about 1977. And it was such an unmitigated disaster that we vowed at that point that we'd never do it again. I don't know whether it's true that some bands perform out of it, but certainly that night showed us that we were not gonna be one of those bands (laughs). It just wasn't gonna work. So we've never recorded or played live while we were out of it.
Not even during the making of Pop?
No. You're just gonna end up losing sharpness, losing objectivity. And far from being a release I think it would actually dull the mind. I know a lot of people do it -- especially writers. William Gibson is famously a drinker and would do a lot of his work tanked -- you know, sitting at the typewriter with a bottle of vodka. But I don't think it would work for us.
U2 have collaborated with some interesting writers over the years -- Salman Rushdie, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg...
Yeah, William Burroughs! It's one of the great thrills of being in a band and having a certain profile, you get to hang out with people like that. And people in bands are the greatest liggers of all, in my experience.
Had you read much of his work before meeting him?
Yeah, I'd read Burroughs' and I'd read Allen's work. We actually did some work with Allen, and William was in our video for "Last Night On Earth." That was a thrill. Working with Martin Scorcese was a thrill as well. The track "The Hands That Built America" [from the new Scorcese movie Gangs of New York] turned out well. It's the William Orbit mix on the Best Of, which I think is a beautiful version, but we've done various different mixes for the movie itself. More orchestral versions, more in keeping with the period of the film. But he's just such a great character with incredible energy and creative force.
If U2 ended tomorrow, what would you do? Work on soundtracks?
I don't know. I'd probably continue working in rock & roll because, in the end, although I do quite enjoy working on soundtracks -- and I can do it -- it's not as much fun. In the end it's a director's form -- movies. And you're trying to interpret what the director wants all the time. But rock & roll -- contemporary music -- is one of the most unique forms because, almost like being a visual artist like a painter, you can put something together and release it, and no one else has to really end up having anything to do with it. If you're working in movies or TV, somebody is going to have some say in what goes out there eventually. So I like the purity of rock & roll, in that sense.
Does it ever worry you looking at bands like the Rolling Stones, still touring forty years on, that U2 won't know when to call it a day? When do you think you'll call a halt?
Well, I think really when it's no longer inspiring and no longer challenging. When it becomes too easy or people stop really giving a fuck about it. And I mean the band, you know? If it ever gets to that point...(pauses). But I can't really see it getting to that point and us not realising ourselves and calling it a day.
But I think the Stones touring is great, because you can't see the Beatles playing live any more, you can't see Elvis, you can't see so many of the great groups, but you can still see the Stones. So in that sense they're in a unique position. It might not be the original line-up, but they're still the Stones. I don't see anything wrong with it. And they still might surprise everyone. If they really started to operate as a band, if they really decided to go for it, I'm sure they could still make a great record. I'd love to hear that personally.
Do you have any other form of artistic release? Do you paint or write poetry or whatever?
I find rock & roll takes up all my time. I used to paint and I used to take photographs. I haven't for a good few years and maybe I'll get back to it at some point. But this is what I love doing -- making music. And not just any old music -- U2 music.
You're your own biggest fan!
(Laughs) Not even that, I just find it fascinating. It's a never-ending challenge -- to write the perfect song, to make the perfect album. We're still determined to give it a go.
© Hot Press, 2002.