"What [Bono] said was very interesting about debt relief. It's an important cause. But I really wish I had a ticket to his concert tonight."
-- a fan, 2001
U2 Album Still Not Finished
But Edge confident as deadline looms, learns MOJO's Danny Eccleston.
November 24, 2008
With the release of U2's 12th studio album delayed until February, and the band still mixing furiously in a London studio MOJO are unable to name for fear of an instant fan-siege, guitarist the Edge has called the MOJO office with a progress report.
In line with U2's late preference for enigmatic titles, the album seems certain to be called No Line on the Horizon -- although Edge insists that anything can still change (U2 have even been known to record backing vocals in the mastering suite).
He goes on to reveal that they've shelved the songs recorded with Rick Rubin in 2006 and that much of the material dates from sessions with stalwarts Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who co-write.
Confirmed track titles include "Moment of Surrender" and "Unknown Caller."
There follows the director's cut of the interview reported in the issue of MOJO magazine that's on the shelves right now...
MOJO: Well, my first question has to be, have you finished yet? Edge: [Coolly] Not quite. That's why we're here.
So, why finish up in London? Well, it's good to get out of familiar surroundings when you're looking for a different perspective. Get out of the comfort zone.
If you'd stayed in Dublin, would you have just carried on producing material rather than bringing everything to a conclusion? Maybe. Also, a good mix room is always important. Our studio in Dublin is more like a glorified rehearsal room really. It doesn't have proper acoustic treatments for mixing and whatever. So we always mix in a studio that's properly set up for that process.
Is the album still going to be called No Line on the Horizon, or is that a red herring? It's not totally firmed up but it's still the working title.
So, what the hell does it mean? It's an image. It's an image, Bono tells me [laughs]. It's like when you're moving forward, but you're not exactly sure what you're heading towards -- that moment where the sea and the sky blend into one. It's an image of infinity, I suppose -- a kind of Zen image.
Is it a metaphor for how U2 make their records? No deadline on the horizon? [Laughs] Guilty your honour! We were talking about this. Our work process is all about allowing inspiration to arrive at any time during the process. So there's no finality, there's no formality, until it's in the shops. U2 albums never get finished; they just get released.
So do you think that helps the record? You can use material you started months ago, but as long as you're re-examining it right at the last it can still sound contemporary? Yes, I think that's true. Song titles, lyrics, melody lines can change right up until the last minute. I think our records are always...it's the last few weeks when things really come into focus. It might take us a long time to establish the basis of the record musically, but then a lot of stuff will change.
Famously, Chris Blackwood came down when we were doing Achtung Baby and with a week to go he said, "There's just no chance you're gonna finish this album; I'll come back in a month's time and check on your progress." So he left town, and sure enough we finished at the end of that week! It's like this ground rush. You seem to be going nowhere and then suddenly you hit the last period and then everything starts to move and everything clicks into place. It's just the way we do it because I suppose inspiration is the ultimate thing for us. It's not craft. So when things start to really get close, it's a really inspiring time and everyone just gets onto a whole other level of creativity and we go into overdrive and all these ideas start coming through.
Has anything survived from the first bout of sessions [from September 2006], the Rick Rubin material? We actually laid all that stuff to one side. Really out of deference to Rick and that set of songs we just said, Ok, that's that, and we drew a line. So none of the Rick material went into this project. Everything has been written subsequently.
Is that because you weren't that keen on it in retrospect? I think there are some fantastic ideas there and they will, I'm sure, be finished off and see the light of day. We just felt like we wanted to put off the decision about what kind of record we wanted to make. And then we went in with Brian [Eno] and Danny [Daniel Lanois], literally just as an experiment to see what would happen. And suddenly there was this excess of stuff, ideas...and we just thought, OK, this is clearly where we are at our most potent at this moment, working with Brain and Danny, so let's follow that idea down the road and we'll get back to the material we started with Rick at some point.
What were the Rubin tracks like? Were they unusual for U2? He's quite hands-off isn't he, as a production "entity"? Rick's just an amazing intelligence and a guy with a huge love of music and an instinct for it. He gave us great advice as much as anything. His whole thing is, Don't go near the studio until you know exactly what you want to do...which of course is the opposite of how we usually work.
But we were following Rick's approach with Rick and we were working on songs and working on ideas and they're still there. So I'm still excited by the possibility of trying that approach. It reminds me of what happened on our first album [Boy, 1980]. We went in, we had all the tunes -- although even then we didn't have all the lyrics -- we had all the arrangements down to the point where we could just go in and record the album. We could have done it in a day, and of course the backing tracks had a great completeness, because we knew exactly what the tunes were.
The way we do things now, there are drawbacks. I feel for Larry [Mullen, drums] sometimes. He'll be playing drums to Song A and then somewhere along the line the whole song gets thrown out, but we keep the drums, and then something else happens over those drums. Then sometimes we'll replace those drums at the very end because he plays differently depending on what the vocal is. So even if it's the same tempo, the same backbeat, the same chords, if the vocal's different, the drums don't feel quite right. So, there is something to Rick's approach and it just means you make all your decisions early...for better or for worse. Ultimately, I feel, for us, it is those last couple of weeks when you get those amazing new ideas.
How would you describe the overall personality of the new album? It's a record of two halves. One half is songs that came virtually fully-formed out of sessions we did with Brian and Danny -- stuff we've only played once or maybe twice and that's it: just the raw moment of creation. Then the other half is material we've kicked around a while and went through the usual cycle of versions and incarnations. It sounds like a U2 album but it doesn't sound like anything we've done before and it doesn't really sound like anything that's happening at the moment.
Can you talk about a couple of specific tracks? There's a song called "Moment of Surrender," which is seven and a half minutes long. Brian got the ball rolling with a suggestion for some chords and then we made a few adjustments and got to this set of changes that we really liked and then just kicked it off and we immediately realised there was something powerful going on. And when that happens, it's like you don't have to say anything in the room; people know it's going off. Then Adam came up with this incredible bass part and Bono had a couple of melody ideas on the spot, so it was really quick. There's something really thrilling about a piece that comes together like that, because you really don't have time to think. There's something great about that. It's the purest moment, often, when you don't have an opportunity to step back and consider anything; you're just in it.
So it's a trance-y thing? It's hard to describe really. It's very 21st Century. It's a beautiful song, amazing rhythms, great lyrics and [laughs] fantastic guitar playing!
And then there's another one from Fez [Morocco, where U2 recorded in May/June '07]. Similar kind of situation, in a session where we're just trying out ideas and this piece of music just came through and we all knew at the time that it was good. It seems to be everyone's favourite or second favourite tune on the album. It's called "Unknown Caller."
Can you hear the influence of Fez? To some degree. A couple of the tunes were recorded there. We had some local percussionists come down one day -- but I'm not sure that the tune they did has made the record. With "Unknown Caller" the sound of Fez is there because we were recording in this riad [town house]. The way they are constructed, they have this big atrium and that's where we were set up. So the roof was open and the swallows were flying into the atrium and nesting, so at the beginning of the tune you can hear these swallows. So it really has this very tangible atmosphere of the space that we recorded it in. So Fez is there in that sense. But we're not into musical tourism. It's the same with Achtung Baby, there was something in there but it wasn't overtly German, you know, and this isn't overtly Moroccan...It's just a flavour.
Lanois has been quoted a couple of times recently in the Canadian press and the word he seems to be favouring with regard to this record is "innovative." After all these years with the same team can U2 still be breaking boundaries? Well, that's what we get off on -- hearing something that we've never heard before. It's so great to work with Brian; he's always doing things that are completely fresh, and we as a band don't really come alive unless we feel like we're exploring some uncharted territory. So, it's not easy to get something that you're really excited about, but once you do, you know, and that's everything for us. We wouldn't want to be working with anyone else on that front. Both Brian and Danny are hugely inspiring to work with, breaking us out of our comfort zone in our writing or playing.
Your relationship has endured longer than almost any other band/producer match-up, but it's more than that this time. Did I read that Brian and Danny were writing with you? We decided at the beginning of the project that we would make that offer to Brian and Danny to see what it might lead us to and I think it was really great. I think they were both flattered and I think it gave them a great boost of affirmation and confidence. So those sessions had this great atmosphere; everyone was in a great mood and we got some great shit out of it. That doesn't mean that we didn't have to go off and write as U2. Bono and I did a lot of work on material on our own as well, but it was those sessions that set the tone for the album and they wouldn't have panned out as they did if we hadn't asked Brian and Danny to co-write with us.
After a couple of straight-ish rock records in All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was it time for U2 to stretch out again? Does knowing you're in a position of strength mean you can do something wilder? I think for us it's really about keeping it fresh. Making All That You Can Leave Behind and How to Dismantle... inspired us at the time. This time we wanted to try something different and we didn't really know what it was. We just knew that we wanted to fall in love with the process of making music and see where it led us. So, initially, we didn't really think about where the music was going to go; we were just playing together and seeing what happened. And, by not concentrating at all on making an album I think an album started to emerge. So, it's really us following our creative instincts. In some ways it's very uncontrived. People tend to think of our music as being a manifesto of a kind but this is really organic; it's just what is interesting to us right now in music and going for that.
What's Bono banging on about this time? I think there are some interesting third person characters in the songs. It's giving Bono an opportunity to change his perspective in the lyric writing. I think the last two albums were really personal and first-person. But I think this one has a more panoramic scope lyrically, so it's still personal and it's still ultimately written from experience and Bono's perspective, but he just has more freedom.
Did his piano lessons come in handy? Yeah! He's been working a lot on material on his own and that's fed into various different projects that we're working on. It's cool. We're all still in a phase where we can learn, develop and change. I don't think we've actually stopped that process of being born, so to speak. And it's very inspiring for me to see Bono coming up with very strong musical ideas. That's what being in a band is all about.
You always manage to find -- in every record -- a piece of technology that you engage with immediately, and that throws up a song. "Where the Streets Have No Name" came out of your dabblings with the Infinite Guitar box, and this time you mentioned your Death By Audio pedal... It's this particular kind of 21st Century distortion. Guitar is such a versatile instrument, but it's very easy to get in a cul-de-sac in terms of how it sounds. I love anything that just gives it a different personality and this particular set of distortion pedals I think, are a different colour. It's like a different personality and that, for me, is a great jumping-off point. I used Death By Audio's Supersonic Fuzz Gun on the song "No Line on the Horizon," and a couple of others I think. It was Ben Curtis who turned me onto them. He's one of the Curtis Brothers from Secret Machine -- he's got a new band now called School of Seven Bells, who are pretty interesting.
So how much work is left to do? Way too much, as usual, but we will get there. We're not f**king around this time. This is personal!
© MOJO, 2008.