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Older, Smarter, Wiser

Hot Press, December 31, 2009
By: Olaf Tyaransen

 

[Ed. note: This interview was published in the Hot Press 2000-2010 special edition in late 2009/early 2010. Edge was interviewed sometime in December.]

Through ten years of extraordinary turbulence, other contenders have squared up to U2 -- but the Irish four-piece have seen them all off to retain their crown as the biggest, and millions would agree the best, band in the world.

Back in late 1999, as the twentieth century drew to a close and a new millennium dawned, somebody asked Bono what were U2's plans for the coming decade. Humble as ever, the Dublin singer replied that they would be "reapplying for the job of best band in the world."

Ten years later, The Edge chuckles heartily down the phone line from New York when Hot Press asks does he think they got the job.

"I have to say, I think we did -- and probably still do by the skin of our teeth!" the 48-year-old guitarist laughs. "I know people -- a lot of people! -- would argue, but taking the entire scope into account of the songs we have already, the songs we are writing now, and the touring, etc., etc. I think so. There's a lot of bands coming up behind us, though. I like that sense of competitiveness. It's healthy.

"But I think that was a statement of intent, and also acknowledging that we don't take anything for granted, and that's actually very important in, sort of, U2 psychology. There's no one relaxing here! There's no one going, 'Oh, this is a shoo-in,' you know. 'Our next album is going to be a big album... The next tour is going to be a big tour.' Everyone's still putting everything they have into this, to make it work."

He's not exaggerating. It's the middle of a freezing December, and Edge and Bono are locked away in a "pretty cool" New York studio "doing a bit of songwriting."

They've had a busy Noughties. In between various extracurricular political and charitable campaigns, and performing at the occasional presidential inauguration, they've released three critically acclaimed, mega-selling albums -- All That You Can't Leave Behind, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon -- and played three major world tours (or rather two-and-a-half; the ongoing 360° kicks off again next June). You'd think that they'd be entitled to a little bit of R&R at this stage, but it's just not the way U2 operate.

"If you're a workaholic like ourselves, it's a form of therapy," Edge explains. "It's either write songs or become a drug addict, and we decided that it'd be far smarter and cheaper to just write some songs."

Obviously the best band in the world have no immediate plans to retire...

OLAF TYARANSEN: Where were you on the night of the millennium, Edge?

THE EDGE: The millennium? I think I was in Dublin.

Was there a big party?

The funny thing about the millennium is that it was such an anti-climax. The build-up was so intense, and then...I just remember the day was like, 'What the hell?! It's just a day'. And so I had all sorts of grand plans beforehand, but actually I think I might have been at home. Or there may have been a small party but nothing spectacular. Of course, we were all waiting for the Y2K thing [the millennium bug – OT] to wipe everybody out. You had to be sensible [laughs].

There's a conspiracy theory, that that was just a scare story put out by the software companies to panic everybody into upgrading their computer systems.

Actually, there's a great book -- which, as a journalist, may be not fun for you to read -- but it's called Flat Earth News [by Nick Davies]. And one of its central ideas is that true journalism, really, is over, and not because of anything other than the ease with which people can find out stuff on the internet. And also the fact that newspapers are cutting back so drastically on journalists, and they've got to produce so much work, that nobody checks anything anymore. It's just, people hear something, they go online, see if other people are saying the same thing and then they just write it. So this is the era of disinformation on a massive scale, and that was the prime example -- the Y2K thing.

We call it "churnalism." You're actually the fifth international rock star I've interviewed today!

Ha! Yeah, churnalism... it's getting bad [laughs].

In 2000, did you think that U2 would still be going strong 10 years later?

I'm kind of amazed that we're here, and that the decade went by so fast. I mean, so much has happened, but it also seemed to go by so fast. So, yeah, in some ways I don't feel that much has changed, for me and for the band. I'm sure I've forgotten some pearls of wisdom, but I think we've learned more along the way -- so I feel we're smarter and more expert at what we're trying to do. But, yeah, it's like the decade seemed to have just flicked by.

Was there any point where you might have said, "I've had enough of this, I want to try something completely different"?

Once in a while you might entertain a thought like that, but, to be honest, pretty quickly I would come to the conclusion that this is by far the most fun I am ever going to have doing anything in my life. And it is hard work, and it is a commitment, but, you know, I'm that sort of person anyway -- no matter what I'd be doing I'd be totally into it, so I've never had any serious thoughts about packing it in. I mean, we're also kind of unemployable at this point! [laughs]

Between Paul McGuinness and the band, you've pretty much been married to the same four guys for 33 years now. Do you never all just get sick of the sight of each other?

Well, we have changed over the years, there's no doubt about that. I'd say probably mostly for the better, certainly over the last 10 years. But, luckily enough, the guys I ended up in a band with are people I like to hang out with, and we see each other socially. And it's not like most groups where you're in a band but you don't want to see each other at all otherwise. We have a great time hanging out together. I think it's pretty unique.

Back when you signed your first record deal, U2 made the collective decision that you would all be equal partners in the band, financially, and would divide the royalties equally. Do you think that's part of the glue that has kept you together?

I think there's a lot of things -- that's probably part of it -- but also, we all probably know instinctively that we work best when we're working together. No matter what the work-load is, no matter what the level of contribution is, in the end it doesn't matter; what matters is that when the four of us get together to record an album or do a tour, there's something very unique that happens that wouldn't have happened if somebody wasn't there. So, we're aware of that. We don't have the instinct to go off and do the solo albums. And you look at all the great bands that split up, you look at the potential they had to keep going, from The Clash to Suede...you know, there's so many bands -- The Smiths, even: they could have gone a lot longer, and could have made a lot more records. And we were just lucky, I suppose, and blessed, that we figured out early on that this is something very special and to not allow what are ultimately petty, personal differences to become an issue. No one's ego is so out of whack, or fragile, that they're going to let anything insignificant derail this group.

Was there any point in the Noughties where the band felt like they were collectively under attack from various elements of the media?

I think we go through phases, and I think you could almost set your watch to the front-lash and the backlash and its cycle. So none of it surprises or phases me. Either the huge praise or the bile -- you have to just see it as that's the mood of the day. And we've had a fair share of both, so I don't think ultimately we're doing that badly.

Is there any particular U2 song that defines this decade for you?

I'd probably have to say "Beautiful Day," in that it's a tune that's still really vital, and it was a great thing for us because it suddenly became the biggest U2 song. And it was bigger than "With or Without You," bigger than "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and they were... well, whatever, 15 years before? So that was a real sense of achievement at that moment -- to show that we still were doing our best work.

 U2 played three major world tours in the Noughties. Was there a stand-out show?

Some of the gigs on this tour, actually, are probably the stand-out gigs for me. We did a show in New York, and the Croke Park show, the second show -- was it the Saturday night? -- was amazing. There's something coming into our playing on a good night. There's a level of swing and feel that we've never achieved before, so even on that level we're still progressing.

Will the 360° Tour change much in its 2010 leg?

It's going to change; "how much?" is the question. Every show is a bit different anyway, so we might retain some of the structure of the running order that we were using.

Will you still be opening the set with four songs off No Line...?

We haven't figured that out yet. But I think we were oscillating between three and four towards the end of the tour.

One of the stand-out U2 gigs of the Noughties for me was Slane in 2001 -- just after Bono's father died. Were those especially momentous shows for the band?

They were. Any show in Ireland is going to be a huge event for us. I think the uniqueness, the significance of it, actually snuck up on us in some ways. We filmed Slane, but it was very much a last minute thing. Ned O'Hanlon, our good friend, and often-times producer of live DVDs, said to us that we should film it. And we said, "Really?" Because we had already filmed, I think, an earlier show on that tour. So we said, "Okay, Ned. If you really think so." So we did, but we were a little bit uncertain as to whether it was going to be that big an event. And then -- wow! We were so happy we did, because it turned out to be probably the show. Those two shows were the high point of that tour.

A couple of weeks later, the 9/11 attacks happened in New York. Where were you when you heard the news?

I was actually in France. And, you know, it was one of those surreal moments. It was so hard at first, because no one really knew what was happening. So it wasn't like you got the news that Elvis died or something. It was like, "Something's happening in New York." And, at first, it was just somebody said, "Oh, there was an accident in New York," and then we turned on the TV and then we started to get a scope of what was going on. I didn't see any of the planes hitting the buildings live -- I saw that on repeat afterwards -- but it was just one of those monumental moments, which sort of got more and more intense. It didn't start off so intense but...wow!

And then we played New York not long after, because we had talked about doing more shows in America, and we hadn't committed, but New York was definitely one of the places that we had intended to go back to. And we had a very quick meeting, and said, "Do we do this leg of the tour?" And we all agreed that we would, and that we would go to New York, and that we would make a point of going to New York even though it was very soon afterwards.

That was in Madison Square Garden, wasn't it?

Yeah. And those Madison Square Garden shows, they were some of the most powerful live performances. It was a kind of cathartic occasion for everyone present -- for us as well. There were moments during the show when it was just kind of hard not to be overwhelmed by it. And at the end of the show, the New York firemen actually had been just down in the crowd, but we saw a few of them and asked them up and it was almost like a stage invasion -- there was like a dozen of them. They all just told their story, and it went on for probably a good half an hour after the show. But no one moved. Everyone was just sitting in their seats, riveted. And it was just so powerful. There was some kind of intense bond, I think, happened at those shows between the band and the City of New York.

The other great American disaster of the Noughties was probably New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. You got very involved in the Music Rising campaign to help the city's musicians.

Having been to New Orleans a few times, when you'd go there as a music fan you just become aware that this is one of the most unique musical cultures in the world, in terms of rock 'n' roll particularly. It's a living music academy of a city. There is so much music going on. There is so much music tuition happening just between relatives, you know, fathers to sons, grandfathers to grandchildren, uncles to nephews and nieces. The whole place is just jumping with music. And if you look into the history of it, it's not out of the realms of argument to say that New Orleans was probably the place where the great crossover occurred between African rhythm and European melody. Because of the way that African culture was permitted in Louisiana, because it was a French State and they had a more liberal attitude, so they had Congo Square in New Orleans where slaves would come and they could play their instruments and their drums. Then you got the traditional jazz funerals, which was total West African, and it's also permitted in Louisiana. At their big festival, Jazz Fest, which is once a year, you go and you see gospel music, the blues, Cajun music, Zydeco, hillbilly music, rock 'n' roll, and then their own kind of jazz funeral stuff. All of these different music forms are there.

They're all still alive, they're not like museum pieces, it's not like you go in, dust off the old records and have to listen to it in that way. This music is still being played down there, so, knowing a bit about it, I was suddenly struck by the possibility that, since the city was looking like it wasn't going to survive, that the music would probably be the first thing that would be a casualty. So myself and a few friends, Bob Ezrin, the producer, got in touch with the Gibson Foundation -- and we started a charity to try and throw a lifeline to the music, the musicians, and the culture. We've achieved a lot over the years with thousands of musicians looked after, to the extent of getting new instruments, or replacement equipment. We've replaced the music equipment in schools and churches down there, and now we're moving on to other things.

So it's an on-going thing?

The city definitely is different, and all my fears about what might happen have come true -- in that the Quarters, like the Lower 9th Ward and St Bernard Parish, and all these places where the music resided, are not being rebuilt. And people have ended up at Fort Worth, and God knows where else, and are so spread out that really that community music thing is no longer happening. But they do come back together for Jazz Fest and other occasions. There was a sort of remnant. But it is a Diaspora on a massive scale, and the hope, I suppose, is that the people bring the music with them and that it gets sort of spread around the country. But there's also the chance that because it just isn't the same, that the traditions stop, the culture just grinds to a halt. And that would be a terrible loss because it's the most unique part of America in terms of its culture: the music, in particular, but in other respects because the pure African influence is still so present.

The Noughties was the decade where vacuous celebrity culture really took over. What are your thoughts on that?

I don't really have much interest in it. I mean, we made a decision a long time ago that we were going to try and sidestep that aspect of our music as much as possible. We like to be well-known for our work; we like to be well-known for the shows we do and the records we make; the idea of becoming famous for being famous, it didn't really ever appeal to us. Bono has actually become really well known now because of his political work and advocacy, and that's a different thing. That's cool. But I don't think it has been good for music, really.

What do you make of TV shows like The X Factor and Pop Idol?

Yeah, I mean, it's fine. It's like Guitar Hero or Rock Band or whatever -- these are ideas that kind of are ancillary to music, or, you might say music is ancillary to them, but they wouldn't exist without music. But, at the same time, I'm not sure they're actually that good for it, because I think there's a tendency... some would say that it's a showcase for music, but I don't think that it necessarily shows music in its best light. It's not that I'm against it or anything, I just wouldn't be that interested. To me, there is still great music happening, but there's a hell of a lot of really average music! There's a lot more average music out there than there ever used to be.

Did you see Jedward at all?

No. Who's Jedward?

They're these twins from Lucan who kind of took over The X-Factor there for a while.

Yeah, I don't really go there...it's not really on my radar [laughs].

Thirst for celebrity news became unquenchable in the Noughties. Did U2 have any tabloid or paparazzi problems?

Again, we are kind of lucky because we never really played that game. No. I've a pretty good relationship, certainly, with the music business paparazzi photographers. Our attitude is give them a shot and then they're fine. It's when you start running away and putting a paper bag over your head that you drag the price up. Frankly, for us, not being Britney Spears or whatever, very rarely do we have a problem and generally it's easy to sort out.

This was also the decade where illegal downloading hugely damaged the music industry. Where do you see all that going?

Well, I know where I'd like to see it going; I'd like to see it becoming the exception rather than the rule. You're never going to stamp it out totally, and in some ways I don't think anyone cares as long as the majority of transactions on the internet involve some sort of a fair payment to the people who have put their life into the work, and the companies that support them. So, I think it would be a case of just hoping that legitimate online activity starts to take over. I mean, I think there are murmurs that the industry and the internet service providers might be coming to some agreement, which would be wonderful. No one knows what shape that'll be in. It's not even that important, relatively, for us, but for bands that are coming up, you know, for young groups that are coming through.

There aren't going to be any record labels in a few years if things carry on they way they are, because CDs -- that industry is pretty much all over. And because there's no replacement right now that's viable, it just means no one's going to invest in music, which just means no-one is going to get tour support, record deals, publishing deals, all the rest, which is how every band since The Beatles have managed to get going initially. So that doesn't feel good. That feels like that this sort of parasitical medium will basically kill the host, which would not be good.

Someone described the telecom's facilitation of illegal downloading as "the biggest land-grab since the colonisation of Africa." Would you agree that the telecoms have gotten away with murder?

I think they have. I think that they are distanced enough that they can hold up their hands and say, "It's not us. We're not doing anything." But in the end, people are buying broadband access in order to get "stuff," content of some sort. It's not to send email! So when you take that into account, I think that the people who have been making it their life's work to create that content have got a reason to be upset. Again, I don't think we're the people -- U2 -- to be fighting that battle, because in many ways we're in the enviable position of having a large following, and even though I'm sure -- I don't know what the percentage is, but a huge percentage of the copies of our record that are swapped online are done without the record company or any of us getting anything out of it -- that's a given, but still, we sell enough records that we're fine. But for young groups, it's important that this gets resolved.

Did you spend much time in Ireland this year?

Not much, really, because we were touring a lot. And I'm spending a bit of time in New York at the moment.

Are you aware of the Murphy Report?

I heard about it. I didn't read it but, from what I can gather, it's pretty devastating.

Sinéad O Connor has just written an open letter to Hot Press, on behalf of all Irish artists, calling on the Pope to step down. Would you agree with that?

Eh, no. I don't think that would... [pauses] I don't know why there haven't been criminal prosecutions, but I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that the Pope should resign. I don't really feel like I'm fully up to speed to comment, but that would be my instinct.

Has your own personal faith strengthened or weakened over the course of the Noughties?

Do you know, I think it's pretty stable. It's a very personal kind of faith. I don't have a particular set of theological beliefs. It's very simple. So it hasn't really changed. I'm still like everyone, just trying to figure it out. That's the way I would look at it.

What keeps you awake at night?

Songs! [laughs] The middle eight for that one, you know... Where should this one go? I wake up with songs in my head, which is great. As I say, it's a kind of therapy for me.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned the possibility of a new U2 album coming out before the end of the year. That's obviously not going to happen, but when can fans expect a new record?

We would like it to be sooner rather then later. We are working on some stuff that sounds amazing, but it's hard to say when it'll actually be done. Well, certainly I don't, and I know Bono doesn't want to leave too long of a gap between the last record and the next one.

What's the feel of the songs you're working on at the moment?

It's too early to say, but because the last record was an experiment writing with Brian [Eno] and Danny [Lanois] in that kind of free-flowing workshop, Bono and I -- we're really kind of songwriting in a much more formal way at the moment. We've got some stuff, more abstract stuff that we could put together as a release, but right now what's really intriguing me is plain, old-fashioned songwriting, and we have some amazing stuff.

How about the Spiderman musical? It's been reported that, thanks to the recession, it's run into problems. Is it still going ahead?

Well, it's all ready to go. We're just waiting for the word that we can...we've pretty much done our job. We're waiting for the word that our director, Julie Taymor, can get back and get into the theatre and start putting the show together. We're told it could be any day. We've got new producers involved: Michael Cohl is coming in, to become an additional producer. So they're busy working on raising finance and getting all that stuff in order. I'm really happy with the music and the script, and the cast that we have are fantastic, so I don't have any concerns, ultimately, but it's kind of frustrating that it's taking so long.

There's a rumour that U2 will be returning to play some extra Irish shows on the 2010 leg of 360°. Can you confirm or deny?

We're keeping an open mind, but we're conscious of the fact that the last shows were so special that we really don't want to take the risk of coming back again and it being an anti-climax. So I wouldn't say it's a given, by any means.

What are your thoughts on what's happening economically in Ireland at the moment?

I feel so one-step-removed. I'm dying to get back to get a sense of it, myself. A lot of friends I talk to and meet, I get a mixed message; some say it's pretty down, there's not a great deal of positivity around. But at the same time, I hear about great ideas for moving forward, and, you know, I think the mood is something that can easily change. I wouldn't be too worried about that. I just believe in the resilience of the country and the people, and I think as soon as we get a chance to get back in the saddle, we'll be fine.

Do you have a resolution for the coming decade?

I'm not a great man for the New Year's resolutions. I don't have one...and I probably won't.

© Hot Press, 2009.

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