"[M]usic has lost the personality of human beings and musicians. It's got so shiny that it's as if there's a surface of Formica over it. And it's something that doesn't let you in."
-- Edge, 2003
Joe O'Herlihy - Sound Man
U2 Magazine, No. 16,
October 01, 1985
Gentleman Joe the Hurley, that most bearded man from Cork and U2's front of house sound engineer and crew boss since 1900 and frozen to death, talks to Neil Storey about the various passions in his life: Manchester United, bacon sandwiches, the Lark on the Lee and, of course, U2.
Neil: As the Chief of the Cork Mafia what is the reasoning behind moving from Cork up to Dublin?
Joe: Being involved in the whole thing is the answer in a nutshell. It's just that so many things happen in any one day concerning the band and the entire organisation that you seem separated from it by living in Cork. It's also a personal thing with me, there's nothing worse than hearing things fifteenth hand!
Is it a wrench, leaving Cork having lived there all your life?
It is for sure, my major problem was moving with my kids -- with myself and Marion there was no problem because although we have lived in Cork, the last 10 or 15 years have been spent on the move, for me anyway.
I assume that being in Dublin will mean better chances of getting to see Manchester United play?
My team -- poetic justice y'know, this is the first year that we've had a period of time off and of course there's no football on the TV. And my team are top of the league, thank you very much! RTE did have a match on last week and I sat there with my tin of Heineken singing, "C'mon, you Reds," firing my plastic tin at the TV set. I must get a TV brick -- you see them advertised all over America.
What were involved in before U2?
Well, the whole thing sort of started back in school -- I was the bass player in the school band, then started playing around with various different bands -- Chapter Five, Sleepy Hollow, Gaslight -- and there was one particular character, Johnny Rice, who pushed me. Anyway, the school band -- the Heat -- there's one for you now!, broke up and there was not room for me as a musician in Chapter Five, so I got involved in it from a technical point of view. As in I was one of the few lads who picked up all the gear and went round to the garage for rehearsals, and when they had finished I'd put all the gear away. Anyway, I had this brainwave and decided to make a lighting system out of these little tin boxes and it developed from there.
Sleepy Hollow was the top sort of Irish band at that time. We supported Rory Gallagher on his Irish tours and one or two college tours in Europe and the U.K., and Rory saw me doing my little trick for the boys and one day asked me if I'd be interested in working for him. So the situation opened up from there doing backline, monitors and, eventually, to sound. I was with Rory for the best part of five years, up until September '78.
That presumably took you to America as well.
America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand -- basically the world tour as it is known. One very good thing about that relationship with Rory, it was an incredible apprenticeship.
In what way?
In every way because Rory is a real 100% performer and you have to be on top of your case all the time to maintain that consistency. Because other people growing up, they fall in love with the girl of their dreams but with Rory it's his guitar that is the girl of his dreams. He'd work eight days a week, 48 hours a day if he could. When you're working under those conditions you grow up very quickly. Rory's from Cork as well, so it meant I walked into an ideal working situation.
Presumably this meant you had to learn everything very quickly?
Oh yeah, you had to. The thing about the technical side of things was that it's so vast in every aspect. You've got to take it all in, you can't spit it out again.
And yet when you left Gallagher and went...
Basically what happened there was I had my own little sound company working at home with Tim Buckley running it for me. So I came back saying, "Well, I'm married, I've got two young kids and I've missed out on the last five years, so I've come home to start a proper sound company." 'Cos it was definitely needed in Ireland 'cos there just wasn't anything available at all.
And at that time there was the rise and rise of little bands, from the woodwork...
You've said it there. Out of that '76 thing -- it all exploded in Ireland through '77 and '78. Like everything in Ireland, it always takes an extra year for things to happen. U2 were a prime example of that.
When did you first become aware of U2?
I used to do a gig in Cork, the Arcadia Ballroom, and U2 came down as a support band. And I supplied the sound system, engineers and myself to run that gig every Saturday. We really gave them the same as you would for any support band. Support bands always get trod upon, but with people who have a sound company it's a different situation. 'cos you've got to be diplomatic. After all, major bands all start somewhere -- as support bands.
Did you feel -- as they say -- in the presence of greatness?
It took a long time for it to sink in. The first impressions were of a band that didn't have a lot going for it musically, 'cos basically they couldn't play other people's songs so they concocted their own, and so you had a situation that was a mixture of visuals. They were a band that definitely knew what they wanted to do. They really had this communication with the audience -- it was second to none at the time. Bono would command interest by stopping things in mid-song and say, "Well, look. We're here. If you're not interested, why did you bother to come here?"
True, but 'twas something that had to be done. Their communication with the audience was incredible.
So when did you become involved with them?
Sporadically, I suppose in '77 and '78. Little Irish tours of ballrooms and bars in '78 and '79. They obviously need a sound system and lighting system so...
Yet at the time what they could afford was significantly less than you were used to using with Rory Gallagher.
Well, the whole thing was like starting all over again. Where you might arrive at a gig and there would be no humpers and no crew.
Yes, but what I'm getting at is there must have been a great degree of faith and commitment on your part.
Oh yeah, from that point of view, definitely. I realised at a very early stage that they had something to offer. Something more than meets the eye. It was infectious, y'know. Spellbound is the wrong word to use, but a lot of the audience were at that time. The commitment was there, but there were serious arguments between myself and Paul McGuinness concerning monies. I mean if a microphone died, and when you're dealing with a young fella like Bono you could very easily lose a mic or two in the course of an evening! That could mean the profit -- if you could call it that -- was gone out of the window.
What about the gradual move upwards, in the band getting bigger with new equipment, new technology and so forth?
It was a gradual thing, yes. There was no time when one day we were doing tiny gigs and the next day we needed 10 times as much gear.
Comparing the War tour to the Fire tour -- that's quite a jump.
It is for sure.
And it's the size of the venue that now dictates the equipment...
That's quite true. On the War tour we had a specific ground to cover and that meant that you had to do theatres up to a maximum capacity of say 5,000 to 6,000 with the odd arena so we could whet the appetite for future reference. But the band's personal equipment doesn't change that much. It's the production that changes, the sound system, the lighting system, the monitoring system, the trucking, stage set. You have to build as according to those venues like Meadowlands -- that's 22,000 so that's the jump from the War tour. There was a serious amount of production involved in the Unforgettable Fire tour, extra personnel.
How much pre-production goes into a tour like the last one -- before the Australian leg you and Steve Iredale and some of the other crew went out early...
It's one thing what you hear over the phone and see in the glossy mags. It's another thing to hear it coming out of the black boxes. We went out there to make sure it would all work the way we wanted it to and we then knew it was the right system for our particular tour. The main problem in dealing with Australia and New Zealand is that it's not cost effective for them to have vast 72k systems like they do in the U.S.
Gradually playing bigger and bigger shows throughout the tour, you then started to play "in the round" in America.
Well, technically speaking, there's a serious difference 'cos you're playing to an audience that surrounds the group. Everyone can see the stage -- people out front, rear, and overhead at times even! The difficulties with that are down to the PA trim. The PA system is usually flown -- in that it is above the stage in a circle. The difficulties involved are really having the same "flying points" every night and having them in the right position 'cos no two theatres are the same.
So you have to work out all the angles as well each day...
Yes, but it's really only minor adjustments. But my main concern is the sight lines. If a person up in the nosebleed seats pays his $10 he's just as entitled to see the band as the guy who's paid twice as much for the third row from the front. It's my responsibility if I put up a sound system that everyone can hear and see as well.
So, an apt time to go on a guided tour of a day in the life of Joe...
Well, of late I've got very lazy! When you're traveling from A to B you usually get out of the previous night's venue at 3 a.m. and you just sleep on the bus where you fall!
So then you'd get in at 7 a.m.?
Yes. Steve and Tim are introduced to the local crew, the trucks roll up to the door and start the unloading process. The riggers get their chain hoists in position...
You at this point are overseeing all of this?
At this particular time I'm digging into my breakfast, listening to my walkie-talkie for someone to say, "Joe, we can't get this point in position -- come and help!" So Joe leaves his breakfast, has a look, makes minor adjustments and returns to cold breakfast. So the next thing for me is deciding if we have to scale the sound system down at all, dependent on the size of the hall. After that I go and take a look at my mixing position, which usually in arenas in the States is the left or the right...
You prefer that to mixing from dead centre...?
Yes, 'cos in arenas dead centre is one of an ambient sound, and I like the punch that comes from the system. So then I set up the mixing console, that's two mixing desks and five effects racks, and then there's the support band's facilities that we also supply. So then the PA system is in place courtesy Joe Ravitch from Clair Brothers, my senior PA advisor, and then it's trimming the sound system. That means I get up onto the balcony of the arena, start at one end and work my way right around to the other side, sitting down in various seats so that, me being the punter, I can see everything, so that the sound system doesn't block anyone's view.
Which goes back to the point you were making earlier.
Yes, I could get someone to do it -- from the sound company.
But you prefer to do it yourself.
Yes, indeed...I take a lot of pride in someone coming up to Bono after the show and saying, "This is the best show that I've ever been at and I could see and hear the band" and he says, "Where were you?" and the guy says, "Up in the attic!" When someone says that it makes our work so much more worthwhile. Then it's a break for lunch.
So now it's getting close to soundcheck.
Very close. The lights are up, drum kit, backline, piano are in position. After lunch we usually run a tape of last night's show through the system. Then the crew band soundcheck. Each member of the band has his own man and they start playing. We fine-tune the instruments in the mix so that when the band themselves arrive it's just a question of doing a very fine tune from an EQ point of view. Then the band are in soundcheck, and of course all soundchecks are recorded because they come in and start playing anything and everything and before you know it, like we did in Hawaii with "Pride," you can have a hit single on your hands! Soundchecks usually consist of about 75 minutes -- if I've got a particular difficulty in a building which might show up on the Spectrum Analyser or if there was a particular frequency that resonates in the theatre -- there may be a sound that contains that frequency so I usually tear into that and get the band to play that.
So it's basically ensuring that when the band walk on the stage it's as perfect as humanly possible.
The main thing about that is that you can work really hard on a soundcheck and get it perfect but as soon as the audience comes in it's entirely different. They create an atmosphere of their own, they absorb things. You usually find that where you finished with an excellent soundcheck, all you have to do is get the cobwebs out and adjust for what the audience have done to the actual characteristics of the sound.
Then it's presumably time to eat again.
Immediately after the soundcheck we have dinner, which everyone partakes of, including the band. Then I relax for five minutes, which is usually spent on the couch watching some video or other.
So then it's the show, and then afterwards there's the breaking down. It's probably more 24 hours a day than most people realise.
Yeah, I would consider that 48 hours a day wouldn't be joking!
One of the things that cropped up recently was the Cork gig. How did that come about?
The picture was painted as a last-minute gig, but the actual work and detail that went into it started as far back as January with the initial thought and "How can we do this?" The significance was in Cork itself celebrating its 800th anniversary this year and it seemed like a nice thing to do, as a gesture to Cork. The band themselves liked the idea and it made a wonderful gesture to the people from Cork that work for the band by actually doing it. It's something I shall never forget.
We started seriously working on it on April 1st, at Madison Square Gardens, where myself, Dave Fanning and Ian Wilson had a discussion about the Lark in the Park that Radio 2 present every year. For the first time Radio 2 decided to have a Lark outside of Dublin, and they picked Cork and they christened it the Lark by the Lee, as in the River Lee that flows through Cork. I suggested to the band that Radio 2 were thinking of doing this gig and they said, "Oh, wouldn't it be really nice to play there. Yes, we must do this gig." I was quite surprised to see that the band were that interested in doing it. So we followed it up. The logistics of the whole thing became almost insurmountable at one stage and there was no way that we could tell anyone, for obvious reasons. So the gig was set up as such for 4 or 5 local bands that played during the course of the day with the big surprise being U2 at the end.
When do you think the punters became aware of the fact that U2 were going to play?
Not until they actually hit the stage.
Presumably it was mass hysteria at that stage?
'Twas hysteria like it's never been known before! The feeling for me was that I was in tears at the mixing desk, I was shivering all over, goose pimples coming out on every part of my anatomy, and I just felt incredible. We had a 10,000 audience and there were wild rumours flying around -- "Will they, won't they?" Cork is such a small town that any involvement of myself with any sort of event just leads to rumours. It developed from there but there were a lot of people involved -- a special thank you to Tom Mullally and Tim Buckley -- the Cork Mafia, as we're affectionately known.
In London street markets there are stalls everywhere selling bootleg U2 cassettes. As the guy in charge of the live sound for U2, what attitude do you have to the bootleggers?
I feel that basically it's hopping on the bandwagon again and I feel sorry for the punters who are definitely being cheated, because the quality of bootlegs like that cannot be good. It's sad to see but unfortunately it's part of our society. If you look at Under a Blood Red Sky and you put the quality against any of the "top class" bootlegs, as I call them, there's no difference at all, really. I mean there's no difference as such in quality.
Going on from there, what about the scalpers, or touts as they're better known in Britain. It's something that seems to be rife at the moment.
It seems crazy that there's no legislation that can deal with things like that. It's like taking bread and butter out of people's mouths, it's the same effect. You can buy a ticket for $12 and someone ends up buying the thing on the night for $200 because the show's sold out...I mean, these people are cashing in on the popularity of bands. I think it's legislation that is the problem here. There's a situation where people are making a living out of it, which is one thing -- but people are making a killing out of it, which is another thing altogether. It's right down the line -- it's everything from merchandising to programmes, tickets. It seems to be of epidemic proportions in America.
I think that all the way through their life so far U2 have actually taken a tremendous amount of care over the fans, growing with them and talking with them before and after shows, and being available a tremendous amount of the time -- and then the scalpers kind of ruin it.
They do for sure. The humanity in the band is incredible all together, and we are human beings -- when it boils down to it we've all got to go to the loo every now and again. The thing about the band is they have a space in time and in their hearts for the people they hold dear.
What is your favourite U2 show? I would imagine it would be the Cork show on a purely emotional level.
Definitely at this stage of the game on pure emotion -- but Madison Square Gardens was an incredible feeling, you know.
Yeah, that was the big one.
Yes, definitely, that brought tears to my eyes as well. I think a lot of people would have said Croke Park would be the big one, but for me it was a bit of an anti-climax. I wanted it to be too right, you know.
But Cork, and being a Cork man as well, obviously means a tremendous amount.
Yes, for sure. Because we were involved in the whole thing from the word go -- it was incredible, really.
Well, I think that sums it all up -- thanks very much, Joe.
© U2 Magazine, 1985. All rights reserved.