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"Sometimes with U2 you can end up talking about U2 in the abstract but the music is very real." — Bono

Closer to the Edge

Irish Times
And you thought he was the quiet one. Once he gets going, though, there's no stopping him. The Edge talks to Brian Boyd about Bono, Dublin, Wales, celebrity, egos, fish farms, the press and, of course, music.

If Adam is Posh U2, Larry Baby U2 and Bono Scary U2, then obviously the Edge is Permanently-hatted, Zen-of-expression, Doesn't-say-that-much U2. Or so you'd think. The received wisdom is that he has taken up permanent residence in a place known as "Bono's shadow"; that he works in the U2 engine room noodling away on his guitar while referring any queries about rock 'n' roll superstardom to a different department.

He's just not a save-the-world, bed-a-supermodel type of guy. He does nothing to dispel the image when he arrives at U2's Dublin headquarters. Dressed in street casual, ringed of ear and clutching a bottle of mineral water, he smiles broadly as he escorts you into a boardroom-style room with shelves collapsing below the weight of so many music awards and trophies. "And they're just a few of them," he says, not quite knowing whether to be proud or embarrassed by these shiny spoils of victory.

"I don't find interviews easy," he says by way of an opener. "All the introspection involved isn't good for you. I'm sort of uncomfortable talking about what I do and who I am in that it's a very unnatural thing to do. Most normal people don't have to do it. It's a very odd situation. Even after all this time doing them, you're still wary, one bad interview at the start can send out the wrong message. But you soon get into the rhythm of it."

Which he does. He's certainly up for it about the new U2 album, their 10th, All That You Can't Leave Behind. "It's funny thinking about it -- most bands have an arc and build on each album they release, but I see us as being more consistent rather than expanding all the time. Sure, we've been through musical changes, particularly over the last 10 years, but we always been consistent in that we've always tried to make the same record as we did on our first, Boy. We still want to blow our own minds and produce music that is powerful on every level." Given its clean, unprocessed sound, the new work sounds like it could have been recorded just after The Joshua Tree (1987), steering mostly clear as it does of the dance-influenced trilogy of Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop. A bit like U2 first thing in the morning without their techno make-up on?

"Certainly, yes, this is the most band-centric album we've made in a long time," he replies. "It really has that four people playing together feel about it. We've stripped a lot out on this one, the dynamics are very different. There's not so many textures on this, the arrangements are simple and the guitar is to the forefront. I think on the last album, Pop, we had obliterated the band, it was a sort of trip-hoppy album and the most abstract we've ever got from the U2 sound. I mean, the songs on Pop sounded great live, but when I listen to them on the record, I just think there's something not there, as opposed to playing them live. On this one, we just decided: 'Here are the songs, here are the parts we play and here's the performance of them.' It is a simple album but the challenge was to make something simple mean a lot."

There seems to be more of a Bruce Springsteen song-based type sound going on as opposed to the squelchy techno bits of the last album. "When we're writing, we do tend to bump into a combination of sounds we were influenced by growing up. It's not a huge list: Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Leonard Cohen. Sometimes the influences are more obvious than other times. What really surprised me though about this album is that we were using sounds that we haven't used since the first album, Boy. That was quite a trip."

Readers will probably know the lead-off single, "Beautiful Day," but other highlights include the potential second single, "Wild Honey," "Walk On" and "In a Little While." The album also contains what the Edge says is "the most bitter song U2 has ever written" in "Peace on Earth." Written the day after the Omagh bombing, the lyric has Bono recounting how "they're reading out names on the radio" before a moving chorus of "Jesus can you take the time/To throw a drowning man a line/To tell the ones who hear no sound/Whose sons are living in the ground" and then closing with: "The words are sticking in my throat...hope and history won't rhyme." The song title in itself is ironic: " 'Peace on Earth' was written in the heat of the moment right after Omagh, I had some music and Bono wrote the lyric in one piece and they just combined to make something very direct and very strong."

Born David Evans, the 39-year-old Edge grew up in Malahide, the son of Welsh parents: "Although I feel completely Irish, my people are certainly Welsh. And yes, it did make you feel a bit different growing up, but I think any of that sense of Welshness has receded with time, it's not like I make annual pilgrimages back there or anything. I do have great memories of the place from childhood holidays." So have the Welsh ever tried to reclaim him the way the Irish are quick to do with the Smiths and Oasis?

"You do get the odd request to do an interview with BBC Wales, but in a way my experience is directly opposite to that of Oasis. Whereas they grew up in an Irish household but developed into an almost quintessentially Manchester group, I grew up in a Welsh household but assimilated very easily to Irish life."

What happened to Edge between growing up and now is fairly well documented elsewhere, so here is the micro version: Lypton Village, Shalom peace group, Mount Temple School, Dandelion Market, Baggot Inn, Island Records, Boy, October, War, Red Rocks stadium, The Unforgettable Fire, Live Aid, The Joshua Tree, enormodomes, cover of Time magazine, superstardom, Berlin, Achtung Baby, Zoo TV, PopMart, Freeman of Dublin.

On a personal level, he is separated from his wife, Aishlinn, with whom he has two daughters, and he now has another son and daughter with his current partner, an American dancer.

Close on 100 million albums having been sold since they formed in 1976, U2 remain the biggest rock band in the world. For most of their tenure, with a few exceptions, they have matched commercial success with critical acclaim. It's been a funny old rock 'n' roll world for the Edge, who was given a year by his parents on leaving school to "make it" before getting a "real" job. The man who was going to be a civil engineer is now part of one of the music world's best-known song writing teams, and his guitar style is distinctive enough to warrant its own adjective in guitar textbooks.

So as for fortune and as for fame? "The really great thing about this country," he says, "is that no matter how well-known you are, you can't be more famous than Gay Byrne. I can walk around pretty much and not be hassled, there's just certain places and certain times of the day you have to avoid. To be honest, though, the most you'd get is people waving at you or saying hello, and that's very welcome. There's a limit to the impact of celebrity in Ireland; people just can't be bothered. What we all find is that it's much worse abroad -- Italy's a bit mad and so is the U.S."

Many people thought that he would have been driven out by now: "Not at all, it's never got that bad. The temptation may have been there years ago to move to the U.S. because over there they have such a love of success, so that would have meant piles of money and piles of love just for being successful. But since we can all remember, we've always treated Ireland and Dublin as a haven away from the rock 'n' roll madness that happens elsewhere. This is our land of reality but also in a very significant way, this place is so important for our work, for our songs. We have a connection here, with the streets, with friends. What you have to remember also is that U2 were first inspired by punk rock and that meant having a great distrust of dinosaur rock groups -- you know the whole thing of going off and buying your own fish farm. We've carried that distrust with us and what stops us going down the 'fish farm' route is a fear of losing our connection with our culture, losing those vital points of reference.

"We're also lucky in that all of this didn't happen overnight to us, the way it has happened with other bands. And when you're in a four-person group, no one ego can run riot because the three others will be very quick, very quick indeed, to point out the error of someone's ways."

Does he think he gets off lightly in terms of media/celebrity scrutiny because Bono just seems to attract/absorb most of the attention? "First of all, I would hope that we are seen as being successful because of the work we do and not just famous for being famous. You've got to be careful how you walk that line. Quite seriously, I didn't join a band in order to become a celebrity; I really did do it for the music. As for living in Bono's shadow, I don't think so. You know, some people are more extrovert than others and more comfortable in the limelight -- it's as simple as that really. We never sat down in this band and planned that there would be one member who everyone reads about in the paper and another one who is quiet and just works away on the music. With press reports, yes, I do get pissed off sometimes when people take pot-shots at you or intrude into personal matters. It's hard to know how to react sometimes. You do come to the realisation that the media is a business, there to sell papers. To be fair, though, we've never cultivated any cult of personality. I mean we wouldn't do Hello! or anything like that."

Coming back into a pop-dominated music world, will U2 really be the saviours of rock music, as one recent headline had it? "Guitar rock music is not in great shape at the moment -- the last band to really do it for me in that regard was Oasis. I just don't think it's enough these days to have a jangly guitar sound, a few good tunes. Don't get me wrong -- I'm really into pure melodic music, all that early Beatles stuff I love, but I wouldn't be such a huge fan of, say, Travis. A band like Coldplay are a bit more interesting, but still I think all the imagination and innovative energy out there is going into pop music. Rock music needs a lot more creative ambition. Radiohead's Kid A? -- I really like it."

And on that bombshell, we let the Edge get on with his packing for that afternoon's promo trip to Paris. He's got all that he can't leave behind: "That's right, a washbag and an extra pair of socks."

U2's All That You Can Leave Behind album is released on the Island/Universal label on October 30th.

  © 2000 Irish Times. All rights reserved.