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"Like when you talk to him, he just makes you feel, like, awake." — Gwen Stefani, on Bono

The Superleague of Extraordinary Gentlemen

They sell out world stadiums, hang out with presidents, even save people's lives, but when NME was invited into U2's Dublin studio for three days two weeks ago, it was just four blokes making cups of tea and chatting.

"I've worked with The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney..." recalls Louisville, Kentucky-native Dallas Schoo. "And no one compares to this guy. He's something else..."

Dallas Schoo is The Edge's guitar tech. He has been for over two decades, leaving his Lynyrd Skynyrd gig to join the band on the second leg of The Joshua Tree tour. He knows more about The Edge's guitars than the guitarist does and -- to play Cilla for a second -- the two of them are blatantly a little bit in love with each other.

How many guitars do you normally use in one night, Edge?

"Oh, about 20..."

Dallas leans in. "It's 18 actually, Edge..."

The guitarist and tech giggle. They both blush.

If you ever find yourself in Dublin and want to visit U2's studio, take a walk from the city center to the northern banks of the Liffey River. When the U2-centric graffiti changes from a solitary scrawled logo outside Pizza Hut into a mass of murals, portraits and personal messages ("Hi, we are Zoe and Alice from Croatia. We wait till 2:30 am. Bono and Edge come and do photograph"), then you know you've found it. It's where NME and U2 are today, the band here to intro music for their opening slot at the 51st Grammy Awards. NME's here for the next three days to learn where the members' heads are at, whether their next promotional push will see the band's significance swell or not and...um...to have a little snoop around, to be honest.

While the Edge and Dallas coax spaceship noises from their guitars and ponder the future of the giant Lemon from 1997's PopMart tour (The Edge: "We actually tried to sell it to The Mighty Boosh. We thought it might be their kind of thing"), Bono listens to playbacks of the Grammys intro, a minute-and-a-half of hip-hop-cum-art-rock noise that the band intend to bolt on to the beginning of their new single, "Get On Your Boots." Studio technician Declan queues up a variety of mixes. Bono -- beads, denim shirt, omnipresent blue-tinted, very expensive-looking sunglasses -- gyrates his hips, bellowing, "This sounds f**king brilliant!" over the top of each one.

Bono: "There's about 16 different vocal parts on there!"

The Edge: "Really? It sounds like you."

Bono looks crestfallen. "Well, there is."

At the very end of the live room there's a storage space, housing wall-to-wall flight cases, Larry Mullen Jr.'s excess drum gear and yet more of The Edge's guitars. Beyond that there's a kitchen-cum-hangout; inside, one of U2's on-hand crew is cooking Cajun turkey, another is testing a newly purchased mixing desk the band have bought for their forthcoming world tour. On the wall hangs a wood-carved canoe (Bono: "We bought it for Adam [Clayton, bassist]'s birthday. He hasn't used it as much as we'd have liked"), a framed Elvis autograph (The Edge: "We bought that for Larry's birthday. The boy's a big fan") and in the dining room, a framed copy of the Northern Ireland peace agreement. While Bono talks about his DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) charity with assorted folk, on various surfaces we spy a New York snow-globe, the debut Longpigs album The Sun Is Often Out, a chord book for Nirvana's In Utero and a Sotheby's catalogue addressed to Adam Clayton.

Now around the dinner table, the band have convened to take a look at a new edit of their new single's promo video.

Bono: "It's too...obvious...there's nothing...y'know...special. It just seems a bit ZZ Top to have a song title with boots in it and then girls wearing boots in the video."

On a MacBook screen an ensemble of booted ladies crawl towards the band like a giant S&M tarantula. NME is thinking this video is awesome -- it could only be better if one of the women's boots turned into a rocket launcher.

"Oooh, I like that bit!" says Bono as one of the women's boots turns into a rocket launcher.

Next month the Dublin band release their new album, No Line on the Horizon, so nailing awards ceremony intros, approving video treatments and, "Oh, do you need us to green light those press shots?" are once again fixtures of the band's day-to-day existence. After aborted studio time with Rick Rubin in 2006 (those sessions capturing their collaboration with Green Day on a cover of The Skids' "The Saints Are Coming"), once again they've teamed up with longtime production cohorts Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to create their 12th studio album and their first since 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb -- the longest gap between studio albums in the entirety of the band's career.

It might surprise you to know that Bono's hair smells like rose petals (he gives NME a little cuddle later in our trip), or that his way of greeting NME is to boisterously grind his knuckles deep into the ruts of our spines. Or even to learn of his and The Edge's forthcoming Spider-Man: The Musical project (The Edge: "We're going to take it to Broadway, but it needs another couple of songs first"). Yet chances are, the sheer...subtlety of No Line... will prove to be the most shocking revelation surrounding U2 circa 2009.

Lacking the pomp of any of the band's records made post-1991 (Achtung Baby), yet with a soaked-in-the-barrel wisdom unlike any of their fledgling works (Boy, October, War) or their stadium-sized breakthroughs (The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum), it's got more in common with the soupy jams of The Edge's favorite modern group The Secret Machines (his favorite new band? Secret Machines spin-off School of Seven Bells) than anything the Irish band has ever made before.

"I'm pleased you said that," says the guitarist. "We actually went into this record just to make music with each other, just to have fun, and not sure whether we were even going to release anything at the end of it all. I think because of that freedom we've found a sound that isn't what you might expect from us. This is definitely the first U2 record where we're not trying to prove anything to anyone. And -- time will tell on this, obviously -- I think it might just be our best record."

Dallas is eating a banana. The Edge flicks through a copy of Time magazine on the table. Bono stands by the coffee-maker, stirring a cup of tea and gyrating his hips, despite there not being any music being played in the room.

"Want anything from me?" he asks.

NME, thinking the singer is merely offering us a cup of tea, politely declines.

It's only when the band's press person Frances digs us in the ribs that we realise that we've just passed on our interview time with Bono.

"He was asking if you wanted to do an interview," says Frances, "not if you wanted a tea! You might be the first person in 25 years to say 'no' to Bono..."


"Still," says Frances. "At least you can talk more to The Edge tomorrow."

For a man who owns several homes across the globe, Dublin' Clarence Hotel -- the very establishment in which journalist and guitarist are both currently sitting, scoffing cheese and ham sandwiches, chips and Pepsi (NME) and Guinness (The Edge) -- and a 140-foot yacht named the Cyan, the U2 man is one of the most humble people you might ever wish to meet. He may list his six-string influences as virtuoso Irishmen Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy, but his musical philosophy is closer to that of the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker. "Moe once said that she didn't really play drums," the guitarist says, "but she played Velvet Underground songs. I like to think the same of me, my playing and U2 songs."

He also loves the Bee Gees, prefers disco to rock, owns 375 black skull caps, enjoys making animated movies with his son at home, is described by Bono as "a Zen, sci-fi punk" and thinks Rolling Stone listing him as the 24th best guitarist of all time in a 2003 feature was "silly." He also drives an Audi TT (very sensibly it transpires, as he gives NME a lift to the studio later), has no problem with letting us make a horrendous racket on his collection of guitars in the studio and has a laugh that sounds like a cartoon mouse with a heavy cold. Band insiders say that to understand U2, you first have to understand its driving force, The Edge. And there's few people who understand the man we just blew interview time with more than him too...

NME: Bono comes in for a lot of stick -- as his friend, does that hurt you?

The Edge: "I think he's well up for it and he could avoid some of it if it really bothered him. But I think he genuinely thinks that a lot of the criticism of him is sort of ill-founded and a bit trivial and that he's got more important things to worry about. I think he's gone through different phases of being sensitive to it; at this point I think he kind of enjoys getting up people's noses because, you know. He thought it through so much more clearly than any of his critics."

Why does he get so much hate?

"I think people hate it when others get above their station. So the idea that a lowly singer in a band would be walking through the corridors of power, talking to world leaders, people go, 'How come he's doing that?' And you know he wears his heart on his sleeve, he speaks his mind. So, hanging out with George W. Bush -- which he knew was uncool, deeply unpopular in certain quarters -- he knew for his own reasons that it would get the results. And he was right. The amount of extra American investment in African development that occurred during that administration, compared to even the Clinton administration, was huge. A large part of why that happened was because Bono was willing to be in photographs, take the meetings and make it a popular issue."

Does Bono mixing in those kind of circles make the band uncomfortable sometimes?

"Well, as his mates, you don't like to see him take the custard pies of journalists around the world. I mean, I tried to talk him out of meeting George W. Bush when he told me he was going to do a photograph with him. And he said, 'Well, I think it's the right thing to do.' So, in the end, I kind of just said my piece and let him get on with it. You have to understand that the man actually wants to save people's lives! But anyway, he was right. He proved me wrong...again!"

A day later we're invited back to the studio to see the band perform three songs for us, the crew and still-the-best-reason-to-watch-BBC2: Lauren Laverne. The purpose of this short live run-through is to provide The Culture Show with live content, but it also provides a fascinating opportunity to watch the world's biggest band, um, f**k up.

While Dallas and the crew run through the band's allotted three songs, playing them better than the band themselves with do in 30 minutes' time, playboy bassist Adam Clayton fiddles with his belt ("It does appear that you can see my schlong!" he says in a voice pitched somewhere between Kenneth Williams and James Bond), while drummer Larry Mullen Jr. vigorously (and in NME's case, painfully) shakes the hands of all assembled. Bono sits in a sealed-off room, watching yet another edit of the "Get On Your Boots" video.

Upon moving to the live room, the band play three and a half versions of the new album's title track, two of its second track, "Magnificent," and four of the new single; Bono proudly requesting the addition of the intro music recorded for the Grammys. It's a ropey yet enjoyable performance. Afterwards Bono tells us, "You will never, ever see us play that badly again..." A few awkward exchanges about tea later, a brief solo run-through of Jose Feliciano's version of The Doors' "Light My Fire" on acoustic guitar and we finally get the chance to talk.

NME: The Edge told me yesterday that No Line on the Horizon was the first U2 record that wasn't trying to prove anything to anybody...

Bono: "Well, we certainly disappeared into each other and it did become about making music for the four of us. When we wrote 'Moment of Surrender' we only played it once and it was a spell and we were in it. There was no thought about its usefulness. One of us said, 'Shall we put a record out?' and it was Larry, I think, who said, 'Why? Why don't we just play it?' That way of thinking did affect the way we made it, because we weren't thinking, 'Oh s**t, we might need to play this song at the Brits'."

So, when did you start thinking you might actually put the music out?

"About a year ago, and we decided we wanted to put it out in November. Strangely, we kind of lost the plot then; as soon as there was the pressure to get it done and out, we found it really difficult to finish. It was only going to Olympic Studios in London that sorted us out. We were going to release two EP sets, Daylight and Darkness; we had all these ideas, but in the end we just took the best songs and made the one record."

Thirty-three years into your career, it'd be easy to dismiss U2 as dinosaurs clinging on to being relevant...

"We honestly don't think like that -- the thing with U2 is that we genuinely think of ourselves as contemporaries of bands like The Killers, Interpol and Kings of Leon. All of those bands went on the road with us and, at first, they were looking at us like we had 10 heads. Then, after a short while, they stopped looking at us like these ancient artifacts and just like we were other musicians.

Is that what stops you going out and doing the Stones thing, just belting through the hits?

"Well, the Stones still make some extraordinary music despite what folks say. The thing is, relationships get strained in bands and it's clear that Mick and Keith's relationship isn't what it was. I'm always grateful that U2 has managed to keep those kind of relationships ticking over."

You all seem so close still. How have you managed that?

"By having a band ego. There's some big egos in U2, but none of them is bigger than the band one. For example, it means the idea is more important than whose it was. We dropped that back when we were 20. Our circumstance trained us into thinking differently. You have to remember there was all this punk rock bulls**t going on which was nasty..."

What do you mean by that?

"Well, punk rock was a real...(pauses). The NME was a great cultural beacon in promoting this new way of seeing music and it really was akin to year zero; the idea was that imagination was the only thing that could hold you back. The problem was, most of the punk bands were horrible bastards who didn't believe in any of that stuff! Whereas the four of us, we were the kids in the audience and we believed in it all 100 percent and actually tried to become those ideals..."

Did it hurt not being allowed into "the club"?

"Yeah, because we were Irish and uncool and we didn't realize how powerful it was to be uncool then. We just thought, 'We'd better get cool,' but thank God we didn't, because it meant we could actually say things! Cool people don't have the same power to say things. That 'you have to be cool' thing confined punk rock, it crippled talents. I'm always grateful we got through all that while managing to remain relatively uncynical. And it made us get tough; it made us tough enough to be uncynical."

And here's the thing; maybe Bono just found the word for us. Maybe we should have used the word "uncynical" rather than "subtle" when we were describing No Line on the Horizon earlier...

U2 aren't as cool as Nirvana, Oasis, The Clash, the Pistols, The Beatles, the Stones, the Velvets, the Roses, The Smiths, The Strokes, The Libertines and all those other big names of greatness. But there's a reason half of Dublin has been daubed in U2 graffit; there's one thing they do better than all those bands. It's why they still matter.

It's that feeling of smiling in the face of scorn, of making a noise that sounds bigger and stronger than you ever thought it was possible for four mortals to make; that they're a band who back up their bumbling, awkward moments with rock 'n' roll that wants to save lives, no matter how many times they bruise their knees in the process. And that their singer -- despite committing the cardinal sin of wearing sunglasses inside all the time -- has actually saved people's lives. And what have you done lately?

Aw, f**k it. It's that feeling of conjuring up passion. And whatever those mean old guys said back in the late '70s, we can't think of anything more punk rock than passion.

As Bono makes NME a cup of tea for real this time, Adam flirts with every woman in the room and Larry continues to smash the knuckles of any-and-every extended palm he sees, we witness a scene of a band at peace, at home.

And look at Dallas! His face lighting up as The Edge squeezes another space-alien guitar lick out of his Gretsch Country Gentleman in the live room. Now there's a dude who understands what we're trying to get at here...

© NME, 2009.