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-- Bono

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The Constant Quest for Magic

The Telegraph, November 11, 2004
By: Neil McCormick


U2's new album was two years in the making -- and will go to number one around the world. Neil McCormick joined them in the studio to watch their pursuit of perfection

For much of the past two years, the world's most successful rock band have been gathering in a squat, unimposing building on a desolate street by the canal dockside in Dublin, recording their 11th studio album. They put in a five-day week, although, by June this year, with deadlines approaching, this has been stretching into long nights and weekends. "I wouldn't say it is fun," says U2's imperturbable bassist Adam Clayton. "It is work."

On a board in the lobby, schedules are scrawled in marker. Under July 4 it states: "Album finished." On November 22, it states: "Album released." A week later, on November 29, according to the board, it will be number one in all major territories.

For U2, what might seem like presumption is just forward planning. Since The Joshua Tree in 1987, all U2's albums have sold in the multi-millions. "The secret to getting a 10-million-selling album," says singer Bono, "is making it last across two Christmases."

Actually, there is a bit more to it than that. Commercial considerations aside, two years in the studio suggests a certain dedication to their art. "At this stage of our careers, it would be easy for us to make something quirky," says Bono. "The challenge is to be bigger and bolder and better -- to make records the whole world will listen to. Because we recognise that we are in a privileged position. The least we can do is not be crap."

Bono has a pervading enthusiasm that is contagious partly because it is so inclusive. In the boardroom, beneath a large Basquiat canvas, playing back new mixes of tracks completed the night before, he gives a beguiling performance, dancing, approaching to sing a line in your ear, explaining lyrics as he goes, asking what you think. Asking everyone. And paying attention to what they say.

"Most lead vocalists are very protective," says drummer Larry Mullen. "Bono's not at all precious. He's just interested in what's the best idea. So we all get involved."

This is the nature of U2's highly unconventional working process and perhaps explains why recording takes so long. Everyone is involved in everyone else's business. "It is a very instinctive process," says guitarist the Edge. "A piece of music will show promise and everyone will agree it is worth working on. We then start trying to find the essence of the piece. Songs take very strange twists and turns in arrangement and style, with wildly different structures, tempos, lyrics, melodies. But there is always some core element that is common from the beginning to the end, which is the thing we're trying to retain in its most pure form."

There are two studios at U2's HQ. Mullen is working in the main studio with producer Steve Lillywhite, adding drum overdubs. Edge is upstairs with another producer, Flood, seated at a portable recording set-up in the corner of a vast rehearsal room, laying down keyboard lines. Clayton sits to one side, in the role of sounding board.

"U2 have commitment issues," he says. "Larry can't commit to a drum part unless he has some idea what the vocal is going to be. Bono doesn't want to commit to the vocal until he feels the music is more developed. So everything moves around itself, like musical chairs. For the game to end, everyone has to sit on something."

"I have been working with the band for the best part of 30 years," says Lillywhite. "The U2 working process is unique to them and quite frustrating for everyone else. It involves working tracks over and over and over again, dismissing every possible thing they don't like and ending with the thing they like."

Later Bono will drift between the two studios, adding vocals. U.S. rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers are in town, and Bono has been indulging in his principal vices: smoking and drinking. Manager Paul McGuinness once asked him if he was worried about the effect of such indulgences on his voice. "That's the problem," Bono replied. "I like it!" "With U2, it's sort of songwriting by accident," is Bono's theory. "We don't really know what we're doing. And when we do, it doesn't seem to help. The better we've gotten at our craft, the harder it has been for us to make magic. Years ago, we weren't good musicians, so we were just dependent on magic. But, as you get older, you start to understand songwriting and the result, if you're not careful, is less original."

The new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, began with Edge sitting in his house in Malibu just thinking about rock and roll. "It is an interesting form because it's particular to this period of history. There is no precedent, because it is about electricity and the guitar. So I was interested in whether we could come up with something new."

He concocted the dramatic riff to their new single "Vertigo," which, he says "is like an eternal riff. It sounds as if it has always been there, waiting to be discovered."

Edge and Bono came up with blueprints for half a dozen songs, which were then kicked around in jam sessions with their bandmates that spun off into another half-dozen blueprints. Those were added to and subtracted from for a year, until by last October they had an album almost ready for release. At which point they decided it lacked indefinable magic and embarked on another year of working over the material. "It's like cell division,"says Bono. "Our songs keep shedding their skin and a new song emerges."

Eight producers were involved, including long-time collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. "There is a real difference between a great song and a great record," says Bono. "The studio itself is a very strong personality: it can change everything. So you want to have great people working with you."

So how do they know when the album is finished? "A U2 record is finished when Bono sings it," says Lillywhite. "Bono is a very primal performer, and, if the music isn't right, he doesn't give his best performance. So he does a vocal against the music and then you mix it and get it sounding like a record, and then he'll say 'OK, give me the microphone,' and he'll sing it again. And then sometimes he'll say, 'Edge, it needs a bit more music.' And then we'll do some more guitar. But then the chords will change, so we have to redo the bass. And now the drums don't work. Three weeks later, it's turned into another song."

Clayton is stoical. "It's finished when it's in the shops," he says.

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is released on Nov 22.

© The Telegraph, 2004.

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