"We always encourage people interested in covering our songs, as long as they're not completely crap."
U Asked U2!
Band answers fan questions in an exclusive inteview
November 05, 2002
Bono called in from Rolling Stone's offices in New York City. Adam Clayton took a break from his trip in the Himalayas. Larry Mullen and the Edge dialed in from separate locations in New York.
In celebration of their new album, The Best of 1990-2000, U2 came together to answer questions from their fans all over the world as asked by the BBC's Jo Whiley. The band discussed politics, dreams, responsibility, their best concerts ever in the last 20 years, and the price of fame.
Bono even tried to imagine a life without music. "I wouldn't know what to do. It would be awful."
JO WHILEY: We have tens of thousands of questions coming in from all over the world. The first one says, Dear Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam, I absolutely love "Electrical Storm," and was wondering if you could tell me what inspired the lyrics to this song.
BONO: It's hard. When I'm writing the lyrics to songs, I try to put into words what the band are doing musically. You know, the lyric tends to grow out of the melody, and the melody grows out of the chords. The title "Electrical Storm" came to me as a sort of just a suggestion about the nervous times that we live in, and post 9/11, and all that, but actually it ended up being a song just about lovers trying to clear the air, really. And I just left it there.
JW: This is from Jamal. He says, Hi, U2, I'm an African living in the U.K., and I just want to let you know, I think you're the best band in the world. You have very big hearts for the underprivileged people around the world. My question is, what prompted you to start the fight against poverty? It's a bit of a big one, bit of a big question. Who wants to go with that one? Edge? EDGE: Well, Bono should probably be answering it. But I think you could say that the band over the years have had a kind of interest in taking advantage of our situation. And I suppose the reason why we have gotten involved with these different issues, and been part of movements, is really a sense within the band that with the great success that we've had comes a great responsibility to do something, to give back something.
JW: Do you think every band who happens to become a success should have that kind of responsibility? Do you think enough bands actually realize that, recognize that, and get on with the job?
EDGE: Well, I don't think it's just related to the bands. I think it's relating to people who, like we, live incredibly privileged lives. And I think that there's great examples of people who do have those kinds of epiphanies, and decide to do amazing things. Somebody like Bill Gates, who I know gets a lot of bad press, but I mean the work that he has done over the last three or four years is absolutely astonishing.
BONO: No single person has done more than Bill Gates.
BONO: Yes, for the people in Africa, and the developing world. It's kind of extraordinary.
JW: A lot of people would be quite ignorant of that.
BONO: Yes. He is spending fortunes, billions and billions, trying to research...supporting the research, and then putting into practice these programs to immunize kids from malaria, all kinds of things. Yes, it's amazing.
And then there's just people on the street, just regular people, mothers who got involved in the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, and it wasn't student activists, people got out on the street in large numbers, just regular Joes, and I think that, in a way, they're the ones that the politicians are afraid of. They're not afraid of me, or the regular student activists. When people get on the streets whom they don't expect, like mothers, and say look, it's not acceptable that an accident of longitude and latitude can decide whether you're going to die of AIDS. If you lived in London or New York, you can live because you can get access to the drugs. But if you're in Africa, you can die because you don't. I don't think that's acceptable anymore, and people are getting out on the streets to say it.
JW: Okay. Bono, another one for you, this is from Nicky Cotus. Nicky is curious if you constantly talk to yourself.
BONO: That is a great question. I mean, I'm too busy ranting to get time to listen to myself. I wake up in the morning, I must say, I wake up in the morning with questions that I try to answer over the day, and that's as close as I get.
JW: Okay. Do you dream very much?
BONO: Yes, I do. The most exciting dreams for me are the waking dreams, you know, the ones that you have when you're walking down the street, and you get a big idea in your head, and you figure out a way of trying to realize that idea. They're the best ones. Again, some of the political work we've done over the while had felt like waking dreams. And you have to then make this abstract idea you've got into concrete. I really like that. I don't believe in wishful thinking. You know, "Imagine," that John Lennon song, it's my least favorite of his songs. And he's the man for me, but it's like I don't believe that imagining is enough. First, you have to imagine, but then you have to build it, and with concrete, and scaffolding, and the sort of unromantic aspect is to me now more interesting than it was, say, when I was younger, and I thought just having the dream was enough.
JW: Question here from Nevid, we'll go with this one. I was wondering which of your many concerts that you've done over the past 22 years has been your favorite, for each of you then. Larry, do you want to go with your favorite gig ever?
LARRY MULLEN: I think that there have been a few moments that are really outstanding. The first time playing in Slane Castle, the first time playing in Croke Park with U2, and the first stadium in the U.S., and then it goes on. But, the one that probably stands out more than any other one is Sarajevo, we played there on the Pop tour. There's no doubt that that is an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life. And if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show, and have done that, I think it would have been worthwhile.
JW: Is that the same for the other two, Edge?
EDGE: Yes, Sarajevo, I have to say, is hard to beat. We did the show at a time when most of the people who lived in Sarajevo were really trying to persuade themselves that the war was really over, and so for a long time afterwards we were told in Sarajevo they would refer to before and after the U2 concert, like it had become some kind of weird milestone, some sign that the war was really over. And even people who didn't really know what the band was about, or didn't know music, or had never heard of U2, there was something resonant about the fact that a concert had gone on at that moment in time. And every person we spoke to, all the U.N. troops, all the locals, everybody was just so delighted that this was possible. And it was only possible because of all the hundreds of people, both on our crew and people that work in the city itself, that really some of them put their lives on the line to make it happen.
BONO: They ran trains into Serbia and into Croatia, they put on a special train. The railroad lines had been down, and they were reopened for that, to get the three main [ethnic] groups.
JW: Bono, is there another gig that means an awful lot to you, or meant an awful lot to you in your career?
BONO: Maybe Belfast, the Waterfront hall, and to try and help the campaign to pass the Good Friday Peace Agreement. I think that was a great moment for us, again. It looked like it was a potential prat fall, and we're from the South of Ireland, not from the North of Ireland, and I think people in Belfast, that they were very generous to let a southern band be on stage. We were on with Ash, who are an extraordinary band. They're from that part of the country, and they had a real reason to stand there. We had a reason, too, because everyone would benefit or suffer if the peace agreement was to pass or not. But, it was a very, very emotional moment. We brought the leaders of the Catholic community, and the leaders of the Protestant out, and I asked the two politicians to do something that would be almost impossible for a politician to agree to. I said, I'm going ask you to walk out on the stage and not say anything. This is about a photograph. We're going to ask you to shake hands, in public, because they'd never done that before. It was really a great moment.
JW: What will be the theme of the next album?
EDGE: Well, we don't really know ahead of time. You don't sit down and say, I'm going to write one about Thursday afternoons. When you're writing a song you sort of, as John Lennon put it, you sit down with your guitar and open a vein, and whatever comes out comes out.
JW: Okay. So when do you think you'll be sitting down to record it?
EDGE: Well, we're actually -- we're working on it at the moment, I'm putting some music together on my Macintosh. I know Bono is working on lyrics. BONO: I have to tell you this, because Larry and Adam haven't heard it. Edge brought around a CD of a new tune. It's just a provision title, "Full Metal Jacket." It's the roughest, it's the mother of all rock and roll tunes. I don't know where it came from, but it's a remarkable guitar thing. You want to hear it. It's a reason to make a record. This song is that good.
BONO: Unfortunately, Edge is singing on it.
EDGE: We're at the great early phase where it's all about possibilities and nothing has to be -- it doesn't have to be finished right now, we can just try out all sorts of things and see where it takes us.
JW: It must be one of the most exciting times?
BONO: Yes. It's the best thing to be in a band, to wake up in the morning with a melody in your head, or to be in the studio when the band stumbles onto a great song, and it forms in front of your eyes. It is the most exciting thing about being in U2.
JW: Are there people that you still want to work with, be them vocalists or producers, have you kind of got a wish list at the moment?
EDGE: We've been very lucky, we have worked with some of the greats, we think. But, Ralph Harris would definitely be high on my list.
BONO: Well, Steve Lillywhite, who produced our first few albums, and then has always come in at the end, from The Joshua Tree to All That You Can't Leave Behind, he said one of the most innovative people he's ever worked with in the studio was Ralph Harris. And Ralph Harris was famous for the song -- "Two Little Boys." In fact, on occasions Edge and myself are known -- with some drink taken -- to sing it. But, apart from that he's Australian, he used to play the didjeridoo, and he had a wobbly board. And Steve Lillywhite said in the studio, he was just one of the most innovative people, he was always looking for ways of making new sounds and everything.
JW: Where is [music] going in terms of the landscape...new bands that are genuinely exciting? Do you think it's a good scene at the moment?
EDGE: Well, I do actually. I think like always, like for as long as I can remember, there's a lot of really impressive music out there. But in amongst the dross, there is, I think, a lot of very exciting things going on. And I have to say, there's a lot of vitality and a lot of life in the rock 'n' roll band kind of scene right now.
BONO: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is a great example.
JW: Queens of the Stone Age, have you seen them?
EDGE: Yes. You know, it's just great to see bands coming through.
BONO: Mooney Suzuki, have you checked them?
EDGE: Yeah, they're great too.
JW: And these are kind of biting at your ankle.
EDGE: Yes. Things go in cycles. I think we've had as many really awful, disposable records as we've had over the last five or six years, it's time for rock and roll to come back and just blow it all out, and that seems to be what's happening.
JW: You haven't made contacts with the Neptunes at all, have you?
EDGE: I'd love to work with the Neptunes. And they've done some very, very innovative work, usually in R&B and they've worked with Lauryn Hill, I think, on a couple of things. But their name keeps cropping up whenever you hear something that feels fresh on the radio. They're really something. I like some of the new country as well that's coming through. And even in the U.K., Richard Ashcroft, that album has some really powerful songs and a kind of Glen Campbell vibe. I'm really into that.
JW: Charlene says, are there any songs that you've worked on that now make you cringe?
LARRY MULLEN: The U2 songs that make me cringe don't make me cringe because I think they're not very good, thankfully. I cringe sometimes -- I mean, I hear them, "Who's Going to Ride Your Wild Horses"...I happened to be in a drinking establishment, and they were just all playing some U2 music, and this came on. I thought, what a brilliant song, and how we -- how, well certainly from my point of view, how I screwed it up, how it could have been so much better, potentially so much better. I cringe because we weren't smart enough, or proficient enough at our job to actually bring that to its conclusion. So, there are several songs that I feel like that about.
JW: Are you generally the most critical in the band with what you're doing?
LARRY MULLEN: No, not by a long shot. No, we're all as critical as each other, and that's the beauty of being in U2, is that everybody has got very deep roots in the best things, and the consensus in the band is only if it's great. If it's great, you know, that's the consensus, everybody moves ahead. And if it's not great, there's going to be fighting. Someone is going to get a dig.
EDGE: There were a few early on, I think, that have not stood the test of time. And I would quite happily never hear a song called "Jerusalem" from the October album again. It's not that it isn't without any merit, it's just so over the top, which was one of our great talents early on was to be over the top, but it's more over the top than even we were normally capable of.
JW: Bono, what about your favorite song?
BONO: I heard the other week "Miss Sarajevo," and it just kind of blew in like a breeze, you know, the way it rolls in, and then this volcano erupts in the middle, having Luciano Pavarotti sing: Dici che il fiume. Just the most extraordinary thing, and that's my favorite.
JW: And the opposite?
BONO: I think...if a song doesn't make you cringe, it can't be that good. I think the great songs do kind of make you a little nervous, and certainly the more emotional songs should always make you feel embarrassed. And I can remember being at a stoplight in Dublin when they played "MLK" on the national radio, which is the tiny sort of song in the middle of The Unforgettable Fire album, and I thought I just sounded like a girl singing that. Actually, I got embarrassed. And it was at a stoplight, and there's people looking at me, and I was purple. But the truth of it is, when you sing, you have to open your...you have to open yourself up, you have to be raw. And you have to reveal yourself, and sometimes it's very difficult for me to listen to that back, because it might not be as macho as you see yourself.
JW: Bono, what kind of stuff do you do in your free time? You have no peculiar habits, or obsessions?
BONO: I have a load of peculiar habits and obsessions.
JW: Do you want to share them? BONO: Unfortunately, I don't have time to enjoy them. I really enjoy actually hanging out with my kids. I'm doing some painting with them, Jordan and Eve, my two girls, we're doing Peter and the Wolf, we're painting for the new edition of that book Peter and the Wolf, which is about teaching. It's about waking kids up to what musical instruments are, and what they're capable of. It's an old fable, and Prokofiev did the music originally, and now my friend Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer have done the music, and the book aspects myself and my two girls are going to do the painting for. I like that sort of stuff. I like hanging out with my kids.
JW: A question from Cath, who says, do you ever wish you weren't famous?
LARRY MULLEN: I don't have the profile that Bono and Edge particularly have, because I'm not out front. I mean, I was in a bar the other night, and sure, some people came over to say hello, but I know if Bono walked into that place he wouldn't have been able to sit down and enjoy a pint, Edge probably the same. Maybe Adam would have. I enjoy a large amount of anonymity, and I really enjoy that. My first priority is to protect my family, and I do that vigorously. So I don't really have a lot of the problems of fame, I mean, the discomfort is sometimes you might be there sticking your fork into your vegetarian risotto, and somebody comes over and asks if they can take a photograph of you, and before you actually get your head out of the plate someone is taking a photograph. There are some uncomfortable moments, but in general, the rest of the guys, I think, take much more flack for the fame thing than I do. And I didn't join a band to be famous. And for a celebrity I think there are certain things that are cast upon you. I joined a band to hit things.
BONO: It's fair to say Larry has hit a few autographs. The fork went from the risotto into the eye...
LARRY MULLEN: I'm a little intolerant of the fan, and when I say fan I mean the fanatic, like hanging outside studios, or hanging outside people's houses. I just think that's a waste of time.
JW: And do you tell them?
LARRY MULLEN: I just try to just avoid, I really do avoid, because what happens, I think people become a little...it becomes more of an infatuation than somebody who is interested in music. People become too interested in you. And I often think of Bono in these situations, when I see these people hanging outside, and I think I wish those guys would go and spend the afternoon writing letters to different presidents and let Bono back into the studio, and do what he really wants to do.
BONO: I have to say the other side of that, though, is that when I first went to America, when I was 19 and we arrived in Los Angeles, I wanted to go and see where Bob Dylan lived and Brian Wilson. And I went to where Brian Wilson lived. Brian Wilson was the genius songwriter from the Beach Boys, and I wanted to just pay respect. So I often see it as that, I see it as people just wanting to pay respect to music that has meant something to them. And I was like that. Now, that's a different thing from climbing your wall and kind of breaking and entering your private life. And I think that's different.
JW: Are there occasions when you really wish that you were completely anonymous, and you despise the fame that you have?
BONO: Yes, and I have -- of course, in Africa, where I've spent a fair amount of time now, people don't know that I'm in a band...And so you find yourself walking in some -- you know, sort of the north of Ghana, and these rice fields, or what used to be rice fields, and you just completely forget that you're in a band. I enjoy that a lot. And in Dublin I forget that I'm in a band, believe it or not, because I just hang out with the same people, and go to the same places, and they're nicely bored with me there. But, I love in New York, it's an amazing thing, because I'm walking down the street and people always say hello to me, they beep their horn as I'm walking down. They don't stop you, they just nod.
JW: So that's good, you actually enjoy being recognized.
BONO: If people don't get in your face it's a nice feeling of people saying, we're with you, we're with you. And, in fact, I've just had a lot of that just today, in New York City, and that is an amazing feeling, that the city has taken you to heart...When cops start nodding at you, usually just from where I come from it usually makes you nervous. But, in New York, because of 9/11, and because a lot of them were from Irish families, American Irish families, it's just an amazing thing. The NYPD are just so good to you if you're in U2, and I mean, I haven't tried -- I haven't tried their patience in any extraordinary ways, but it's just nice to get that nod as you're crossing the street.
JW: What would you be doing if you weren't involved in music?
BONO: You know, outside of my family and friends, I can't think of anything more that I want to do with my life than writing music, and singing for this band. The political work that I do, I do because there's no one else that's doing it. It's not that I want to do it, there's just not enough people doing it. I think there should be people who are better qualified, and I do get an incredible satisfaction out of, you know, getting money out of governments, but it's not like writing a song, and not like being in U2. I wouldn't know what to do. It would be awful. But, you know, two crap records and you're out.
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