"The vocal glides gracefully between recognizable language and fluent Bongolese -- semilinguistic scat forming temporary bridges over lyrical gaps."
-- Brian Eno
The Full Willie, Pt. 2
An exclusive interview with Willie Williams about 20 years with U2
June 12, 2002
There was an MTV special on last year that chronicled U2's touring history. I remember Bono saying that PopMart was the most difficult tour they've done -- the biggest struggle. Do you feel the same way?
PopMart was always going to be difficult for the opposite of all the reasons that made Zoo TV seem easy; the band were coming from a position of success, so the critics' knives were out; the "new" persona of U2 was established so surprise was no longer on our side; it was the second big U2 spectacle so the mood of the detractors was very much "come on impress us"; it was the first time ever that U2 started a tour in stadiums without some smaller shows first; delay in the recording schedule meant tour tickets were put on sale before the album was released and most of all -- in the U.S. at least -- the album contained no huge hits. None of this eased the ride into the tour and the band found themselves facing what appeared to be an uphill struggle.
Conversely, PopMart was difficult for me only because it was difficult for the band. Purely on a design level I felt -- and still feel -- it was U2's high point to date. Whereas Zoo TV was a fantastic, incredible sprawling mass of energy and ideas, the design of PopMart was an ultra simple, complete concept embracing every element -- clothes, video, staging, sound -- and it was extraordinarily well executed. In some ways U2 had finally answered the conundrum of the Joshua Tree, which was how to remain true to a minimal design aesthetic when working on such a massive scale.
We received unheard of support from the usually highly exclusive New York art world which resulted in the extraordinary animated visual material. Meeting and collaborating with Roy Lichtenstein, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Howard Finster and the estates of Andy Warhol & Keith Haring was an unprecedented coup. From the beginning I felt sure that the artistic achievement of PopMart would be greater than any U2 tour but it would probably never receive the recognition it deserved because it was simply too far ahead of its time.
Technologically PopMart outstrips Zoo TV too, incidentally. All the Zoo technology was on display, but under the covers the PopMart video screen was a far greater achievement. It was the first large scale video screen using L.E.D. technology and remains to this day the largest video screen of any kind ever created by the human race. Not bad considering we used to erect & tear it down every day -- oh, and we also drove it over the Andes.
Don't misunderstand me, I do believe both shows were quite extraordinary in their own ways but I remain convinced that history will vindicate PopMart. Already, with the distance of just a few years, if you sit down and watch some of each video my point becomes really obvious -- it's PopMart that stands the test of time to a much greater degree than Zoo TV.
So given all this praise for PopMart, would you say it's the piece of work you're most proud of so far in 20 years with U2?
It's like having different children which you love for different reasons. Overall PopMart wasn't "better" than Zoo TV or even War for that matter. There are so many other factors involved regarding the time in which a show is performed -- politics, fashion, zeitgeist -- all these things affect a tour so it's important to remember each one in context.
One more PopMart question: Did you panic the first time Bono yelled "Turn out the lights, Willie!"??
Ah...after doing this for long enough a man is prepared for anything!
And most recently there was Elevation. After the big outdoor extravaganzas of Zoo TV and PopMart, did you look forward to designing for a U2 show indoors again?
Absolutely. The thought of combining the power of the Joshua Tree indoor shows with the technological smarts we've acquired since then was a very exciting prospect.
I think this tour will always be tied to September 11th in the mind of many fans, maybe most fans. There were some serious and legitimate concerns about going on with the tour. But they did and now we look back and see how magical it was for everyone involved. But...this was the one leg you missed! Any sense of regret about not being there and experiencing it firsthand? Did you manage to catch any of the 3rd leg??
I thought I would feel very weird knowing U2 were out there doing shows without me for the first time in living memory. When it came to it though, it was a day like any other -- I can't even remember where I was, though I did fax through a set list suggestion as a joke. I don't feel any residual trauma, though I think being able to rejoin them for the Super Bowl show put a nice final seal on the whole Elevation run.
A couple general tour-related questions...
Which do you prefer (#1): Designing an indoor show or a stadium show? You've also done a few permanent exhibitions -- at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, etc. Which do you prefer (#2): permanent installations or touring shows?
It really depends on what the show or installation is, as each kind of application has its pros and cons. It also depends on what I've done recently -- prior to Elevation I hadn't designed an arena show in a while so was really looking forward to it. Since then I've done about six in a row so I wouldn't mind something larger next. I'm a big fan of the artist Christo who has said some wonderfully wise things about the nature of permanence versus temporary work. There's something magical about designing a show which you can only truly experience firsthand. If you weren't physically there you'll never know what it was like -- DVD or no DVD!
On the other hand though, it is quite nice to know that there are at least a couple of pieces of work of mine which will last longer than a year, so variety is what I look for.
There's a certain percentage of fans who complain about the setlist, and how it hardly changes from night to night. They point to Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews Band, and others on that level who mix up the live shows regularly. What's your response to that criticism?
It's quite touching that in the 21st century there's still a belief that a rock show is (or should be) an entirely spontaneous event even on its 100th show. For me, a flexible set list is a mixed blessing. Much as it brings variety and keeps up interest for those of us who see the show more than once, lack of familiar structure places a limit on how technologically complex a show can be. The ideal for me is a situation where parts of a show -- say beginning, middle & end -- are set in stone, then, in between times, it's an improvisational free for all. Even this, though, is easier said than done and you'd be amazed how much any show pulls and pulls towards settling down and wants to get into a routine.
The other downside to a more improvised show is, of course, that -- visually at least -- the quality of the result varies dramatically from night to night. R.E.M. is a good example - on their 1995 tour I was using nine cinema-sized film projectors overlaying film sequences chosen from a group of about 50 clips we had with us on tour. The set list was a real movable feast and due to the mechanical limitations of using film, this necessitated my using different films for different songs on different nights. On a good night this would throw up new ideas, new combinations & wonderful surprises which showed R.E.M. at their random, glorious, untethered, experimental best but it wasn't something you could expect to work 100% night after night.
When you add to this the advent of the Internet you have to accept that as soon as you've done one show everyone in the world knows what you're up to. To seriously try to maintain a level of surprise on a nightly basis would drive you insane and probably result in some highly unsatisfactory experiments. I've come to accept that a known structure which includes some room for nightly manoeuvre allows U2 to create a show which is not only at the very top of its league but also ensures an unparalleled level of consistency from night to night. Given that most people will only see one show, it's important to guarantee that every single one is absolutely as good as it can possibly be.
Doing multiple nights helps U2 shake it up a bit. There was generally an "A" and a "B" set on Elevation. In towns where we did three shows, the third night got pretty loose and in the few places where we did a fourth night all bets were off. I think it was Boston show 4 where we opened with "Elevation" followed by the first seven songs from the Zoo TV show!
You mentioned what I think is the key element that most fans overlook when they complain about the lack of variety in the setlists: U2 is not a jam-session band; a U2 concert has a well-defined beginning, middle and end. It's almost like theater in a way. That seems to be what U2 wants in its live shows. Would you agree?
Yes, though allowing some room for improvisation is very important.
We've been talking exclusively about the touring side of your work with U2, but you've done a lot more than that over the past 20 years. Propaganda is an obvious one. Did you get corralled into doing Propaganda because of that crew-only newsletter you were doing? Was it called "Da Voibe" or something like that?
"De Voibe Loike" is hardly a newsletter -- more a license to be rude to everybody -- but in a way it was that which displayed to U2 my penchant for writing. It must have been 1984-ish when Edge asked me if I'd think about what could be done to provide a more adult alternative to having a fan club. The result was Propaganda, conceived by me and christened by the Edge. I really enjoyed it, though ultimately I found it to be too much of a conflict of interest trying to write objectively about people I knew so well. There were only so many times that I could interview Bono before it became absurdly self conscious. I was happy to hand over to the very brave Martin Wroe and still enjoy my occasional contributions without having to be involved in the nuts and bolts of it.
And "De Voibe Loike" translates to? From what language?
It's how the language of County Cork sounded to my ears many years ago...I'll leave your readers to figure out the rest.
I guess the other thing you're most well-known for is the long-running tour diary. How odd is it that thousands of fans know some pretty intimate details of your everyday existence on the road???
A very practical demonstration of the massive increase in Internet use between 1997 and 2001 was how public the tour diary suddenly became. Admittedly U2.com is a lot more high profile than the MSN PopMart site but even so, the change in visibility was astonishing. The Zoo TV diary only appeared in Propaganda so remained suitably underground and as I've said the PopMart diary was relatively obscure, then suddenly on Elevation it seemed like half the world knew what I'd had for breakfast. The saving grace was that most people on earth have no idea what I look like so I was hardly being mobbed in the streets, but at every show I'd get (mostly cheery) comments from audience members about something I'd done that week.
I didn't mind -- after 20 years of standing in audiences you get to be ready for pretty much anything -- but I noticed it did affect the way I wrote. Adam had said to me previously that it would be farcical for me to "review" each gig so he encouraged me to find other aspects of the tour to write about. Consequently the diary zeroed in on my own experience of the tour to the point where I seem to barely mention the band at all. I cannot imagine why readers find it interesting as it mostly seems to revolve around attempts to get laundry done. Unless perhaps it's precisely that -- this fabulously ludicrous mixture of (apparent) high glamour and mundane practicalities.
Adam offered comments on the tour diary?? I'm impressed. They really do take a very hands-on approach, don't they?
Adam has a lot more input to most areas of U2 life than you'd imagine. His opinions are very considered and most often highly insightful. He's full of good ideas.
If the band gave its blessing, would you ever consider compiling your diary into book form? It'd make for great reading, and a completely unique history of U2's touring history!
I think we'd all be arrested...
Just a couple more questions, I promise. You've also had the pleasure of working with other artists. A personal favorite for me was the lighting for R.E.M.'s Up tour -- way too cool! Can you compare working for U2 with working for the likes of R.E.M., Bowie, Travis, etc.? Is it accurate to say that U2 takes a more active role in the visual aspect of a tour than most other bands?
Having put together so many shows is a bit like having had lots of children which you love for different reasons. All the people you mention are very involved in the creation of their own shows, though perhaps what's different about U2 is that we tend to explore a lot more alternative options than with any other group. I've been very privileged to work with such an array of creative geniuses and I usually come away having learned as much as I've contributed.
Thanks for the kind words about that R.E.M. Up show. It remains one of my absolute favourites, being so simple, so different and so perfect for them. Again it was one of those ideas that kept getting better of its own accord.
Over your 20 years with U2, have there been any ideas you wanted to build, things you wanted to design or create, that just slipped away for one reason or another? Anything you can tell us about?
There have been loads of cracking ideas which never saw the light of day.
As described in Bill Flanagan's book -- which is, incidentally, the most true to life description of life on the road I've ever read -- I loved the idea to have the stadium part of Zoo TV sponsored by as many multinational corporations as possible. The whole stage, the crew clothes, the trucks, everything would have been covered in neon signs, trademarks, advertising and corporate logos. The minimal essence of this idea became PopMart, of course, but for U2 to do the full version in 1992 would have been outrageous -- though they probably would have been murdered for it.
Another idea I had for a stadium show didn't have a stage as such but utilised the whole of the stadium floor with moving vehicles. There would have been audience all over the field and of course 360 degrees all around in the grandstands. I had this fantasy vision of opening the show with "Always Forever Now" and driving in a cavalcade of motorbikes, monster trucks and custom vehicles carrying lighting, video screens and a blaring sound system. Can't imagine why the band didn't go for it.
You've seen hundreds of U2 shows. Do you have a favorite?
Some high points which spring to mind are: Bono crowd-surfing at the Seattle Paramount in 1983; filming Red Rocks; the first show of the Joshua Tree tour in Tempe, Arizona; the Dalton Brothers support slots in 1987; B.B. King's birthday in Sydney in 1989; U2 and the guys from Abba performing "Dancing Queen" on stage in Stockholm being broadcast live via satellite to one house in Nottingham in England (Zoo TV, of course); a guy popping out his glass eye on camera in the Zoo TV video confessional in 1993; the depth of emotion in the crowd's visceral roar when we put Lech Walesa on the PopMart screen in Warsaw; having the Mothers of the Disappeared on stage in Buenos Aires in 1998, each one taking the microphone and screaming the name of their loved one; the London Astoria club gig in 2000; the out of control energy high in the building at the insanely trippy second night in San Jose in 2001. Oh, and Super Bowl in 2002, though only because the rest of the event was like being at the 1936 Olympics.
If forced to name a favourite gig -- not that I'd never do anything so rash -- it would probably be when we took the entire PopMart production to Sarajevo in 1997, though that would extend to the whole experience of being there for the three days rather than just for the show in isolation.
What's been the best thing about working with U2 for twenty years? What's been the worst?
Can't live with 'em...can't live without 'em...
Paul McGuinness is always referred to as the 5th member of the band, and rightly so. But when you think about others who have had an immeasurable impact on U2's success, I'd say you are just a step below McGuinness on that ladder. I mean -- this is known as one of the world's top live acts, and you're responsible for that "live" image we all have. You're responsible for bringing Propaganda to life, too. So how comfortable would you be if I referred to you as the 6th member of the band? Does that fit well?
It would be flattering but absolutely untrue. Not least because U2's gift to the world is their music, their songs and -- with the exception of the intro noises of "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" -- I am yet to contribute to any U2 album. My input to their live performance has been considerable, of course, but there is a long list of people who could be proposed as "Nth members" -- [Brian] Eno, Danny Lanois, Joe O.['Herlihy], Anton [Corbijn], etc. -- all of whom have been enormously influential in the way U2 is perceived by the public. The reality is that there will only ever be four members of U2 and all of us collaborators are more than happy with the arrangement.
Let's end it with a look to the future: Do you see yourself doing this in 20 year's time? If so, can I have the 40th Anniversary interview, too?
I was about to close with some sarcastic comment, but it's faintly bizarre to realise that in 20 year's time U2 will only be the age the Rolling Stones are now. So I guess I'll see you in 2022.
I'll be 53/54 by then, so as long as I don't have to sit my arse in another General Admission line at 6:30 in the morning, I'll see you there.
(c) @U2, 2002.