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OUT ON HIS OWN
The Edge talks to Bill Graham about his soundtrack album "Captive" - and about the hidden reservoirs the band are charting in their search for the follow-up to "The Unforgettable Fire"
Bill Graham, 09 Oct 1986
IT'S HAPPENED so many times before. As a band gets big and frees itself from the early tour/album/tour treadmill, its members find time weighing on their hands. Sooner or later, somebody fills the vacuum with a solo album and fans get worried it's the beginning of the end, the first symptom of a split, the first sign of the end of a beautiful affair.
So, with The Edge now releasing a soundtrack album for Paul there's reason to have a twinge of doubt even about the much-vaunted solidarity of U2. We can easily forget the band is almost a decade old, a long life in this game when nearly all of their contemporaries have fallen off the vine.
Am I unduly nervous? Almost certainly. Four cars parked outside The Edge's new South Dublin residence contradict that fear. Inside I find all four members of the band, sipping cups of tea and quietly contemplating the day's labour on their new album.
Work may be a means of withdrawing from the world's distractions, of rediscovering the reasons why U2 started - yet I'm still uncertain.
It isn't so much that they're in peril to the usual hazards of the decadent rock'n'roll lifestyle (though there have been some hilarious, untrue rumours about Bono that would have the over-imaginative believe that just because he's been seen to take an occasional drink in public, he's suddenly started to lead a lifestyle more suited to a member of The Pogues).
Stuff and balderdash, of course, but there are other reasons to check the current creative health of U2. Prosperity and fame can have other more insidious effects. Does comfort cause a slackening of the will, killing the hunger and stifling the incentive that motivates a group in the first place? This evening The Edge will, of course, say no - but it's his eyes not his words that will tell the truth. Normally, the most equable, the least animated member, it's hard to crack the reserve of U2's most masked man.
Tiredness does the job instead. As always, the answers are measured and sensible but after a day's studio slog, the habitual veil seems to have slipped from his eyes, revealing an intensity in his gaze that's usually carefully camouflaged. Yes, the eyes always have it. The Edge still has his visions to express.
But the official reason for the interview right now is The Edge's wish to talk about his soundtrack for "Captive". He's always hankered to compose music for films and once the whole "Unforgettable Fire" campaign was over, he took himself to London to write material.
But these were sketches without any specific project in mind. He found it easier to write them than to sell his talents to Hollywood. By his account, that was a more arduous process than winning even the first elusive record contract.
He seems to have started in all innocent over-ambition: "I got a list of my favourite directors and then got the office to ring them up but I got disillusioned very quickly. Because I soon realised that the sort of people I was ringing up, Stanley Kubrick, Polanski, Scorsese - they're even more protected than Prince."
Rock's still a junior sibling to the movies. Even when your group's won the cover and compliments of Rolling Stone that doesn't mean inevitable access to Hollywood's most charmed circles, as Edge learned. All he encountered were agents' assistants, the most junior, forbidding doorkeepers at the pyramid's base.
Instead his link came through London. Enter English producer, David Puttnam, godfather to many Irish talents. "Suddenly the English industry opened up," Edge recalls, "and it seemed to have a much more downbeat attitude."
The elements then quickly gelled. On Puttnam's introduction, he made contact with Don Boyd who was producing "Captive". Impressed with The Edge's portfolio, he and director Paul Mayersberg flew him to Paris, where he saw the rushes before beginning work.
The Edge happily says that they made few demands on him. Mayersberg didn't even come to the studio to monitor the work-in-progress, though he agrees that Boyd was hopeful of a hit single to sell the movie. "I was saying I can't promise it," Edge reflects. "I have no history of success in that area at all. All I can provide you with is music to fit your movie. Originally I think there was a little bit of readjustment that they had to make. But once they got my music and saw what I was doing, I think they were happy to give me that trust."
Nonetheless, there is one song, the theme tune "Heroine" which features Sinead O'Connor, a talent of tremendous potential, on lead vocals. Like much U2 output, it isn't so much a "song" as a piece of music whose attractions become more obvious with increased play. Ultimately radio exposure and other commercial considerations will determine its destiny but in the meantime, it's an effective opening gambit.
The experience has strengthened Edge's already firm opinions about film music. The recent past has seen an increasing tendency towards tie-ins between American youth movies and song collections which often have the barest relation to the action of the movie. An example is "Sid And Nancy" where the majority of the songs have the briefest, most subliminal presence in the film itself.
The Edge distrusts that policy. A follower of such classical soundtrack composers as Entice, Morricone, he fears such quality work is out of vogue. His own understanding of film-making has also changed. He isn't complimentary about the bureaucracies and power- structures involved.
"It's a nightmare of authorities. Ultimate control rests with - who? There is no control because there are so many people in there. First of all, the stakes are so much higher. A movie can make a fortune but it also costs a fortune. The number of people involved and the intricacy of the production itself is obviously hugely more complex than making the album - the cinematographers, the actors, the lights and sound people. And that's just on the creative side. Then you've got to bow down to the financiers and if you're a director you'll often fight with your producer. But the financial people are really the people who have the last word.
"So for me, I was on the far extreme of that sort of boardroom situation. You find that it has an influence on you, that sort of mentality. As soon as you're in the film world, you get this sort of feeling that there's a hell of a lot going on behind the scenes. It's like being on the tip of this great commercial iceberg where all you can see is the small tip around you - but you know it goes on and on, that it's a much larger thing."
He better understands directors' insecurities after the experience: "Having just seen that particular tip of the iceberg, I realise what an obstacle course it is. Also having met directors, I find that they survive on their wits and their ability to talk people with money into believing they can provide them with a good film. In other words, most of it is just the gift of the gab. And the rest of it is a do-or-die thing."
With Michael Brook on hand, the album reflects the non-rock elements in his musical personality. But will it satisfy the casual listener?
"That's a difficult question, " he admits. "I would say 'yes' but it's definitely for a certain mood. The thing about soundtrack albums is that they fulfill your wish and provide what you're looking for only at certain times. Eno's ambient music is like that but this has more of a range than that."
Bono once described The Edge as the European of U2 and he doesn't deny that characterisation: "It's not conscious. It's just a taste thing. My ear as a musician has never found a great deal of solace in the blues scale. I've never been drawn to it. Instead I' been drawn to sparse, melancholy feels that tend to be European.
"There are certain groups that span both - think of Velvet Underground. They have a European-ness, John Cale, and an American-ness, Lou Reed. For myself, I don't know where it comes from but I'm always drawn to certain harmonies, feels and sounds and they tend not to be American. It doesn't mean I don't like the blues but there's a difference between loving and appreciating something and then bringing it into your own work. "
Meanwhile, back at the band: U2's prominence meant hat they were the leading recipients of flak, some personalised and rather hurtful, about their involvement in Self Aid. And yet their position was curiously ambivalent as should have been clear from their performance which, if it never claimed to be a politically perfect statement, on the day got closer to the bitterness and anger unemployment causes than any other act. For though U2 had placed their organisation at the service of Self Aid, they weren't full believers in every aspect of the event.
The Edge explains they were involved not because they necessarily endorsed "all practicalities or finer details of it but because we concurred with the sentiment behind it. And we just knew we couldn't turn our backs on it. It was a gestural thing that was all about hopes and aspirations and very little about real answers.
A similar continuing ambivalence runs through his reflections now: "If somebody asked us tomorrow to do it and we were in the same position, we'd do it - but that doesn't change the fact that we had deep reservations about the practical side. Like, what happens to the funds, did anyone really benefit in a job sense?
"Some positive energy came from it but there were also a lot of flaky aspects. But I think we decided we can't let those things get in the way of this day and what it will mean, not just in Ireland but elsewhere. And we thought - so what if it doesn't achieve that much? It's an important gesture."
Did their reservations affect the tone of the set, in particular the choice of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm"?
"I think we had to be honest and the set was maybe in response to some of the negative press the event was getting. Also we didn't want to go on there and say nothing. We wanted to comment. We were thinking of loads of covers - Patti Smith's "Free Money" was one. "Working Class Hero" was another we toyed with... In the end "Maggie's Farm" was right on the day because emigration is the most difficult underground problem in this society.
"I've a day-job as well," Edge had joked earlier when I enquired about the possibility of future soundtrack projects. And indeed he has! Right now, U2 are dab in the middle of work on their new album and still lack a full sense of its direction – but I'd be lacking in responsibility to Hot Press readers if I didn't quiz him on it.
Word around town is that it's a partial extension of "The Unforgettable Fire". Daniel Lanois is back at the controls while Brian Eno has been darting in to add treatments. Equally it's been recorded both in and outside Windmill - thus today's gathering at Edge's house.
"What I can say about it is that it's a complicated bitch to finish," The Edge laughs. "it's got more variation than anything we've ever done. It's an album of songs, an album of creating moods, an album of aggression... It's too early. We have all these hopes and fears for it but it's taken so much out of us. Ideally, it will be everything we have to offer: there's nothing to limit us in our situation."
The band's appearances on both TV Ga Ga and Self Aid set up strange expectations. On each occasion, U2 seemed to be cutting themselves adrift from their previous transcendental reputation and turning into some mutant blues band, almost treading on the turf of The Fall and The Birthday Party. Edge counsels caution in our interpretation of those forays. "Some of that was mischief," he reflects. "We were just fooling around a bit. There was a lot of experiment on the Amnesty tour where we were doing a lot of strange cover versions. Some of it was just seeing what we could do but some of it will be going to the album."
He's becoming more talkative: "This album is just going to be so wide. The influences on display are just so diverse. There's no sort of geographical location to it. But I don't want it to sound like a liquorice all-sorts. There is going to be a continuity to it."
Even in his more restrained tones, there's an undertow of passion to his explanations. More than anything else, artistic ambition can be the spur and The Edge still has sounds in his head he wants to express in the context of U2.
But those television performances also suggest the band were tired of being portrayed as rock's token goodie-goodies. Early in the year, Bono has talked of wanting to be " unreasonable". Has there been a shift of mood?
"I think what Bono meant," he interprets, "is that we want to be a little less easy to follow and predict. I think as a band we've suffered from a certain sound and because we've always been very open about our convictions in certain areas, people thought they knew U2 and could imagine what our next step would be. I think there's a great deal of anger in the group which has never previously been expressed in musical terms. I think it used to come through in performance but now it may be there in the material."
Interestingly, Edge mentions the author Kathy Acker. He may be more curious about her cut-up method than her sexual message but these are references that aren't normally associated with the U2 camp. But then the fascination about U2 has always been about the tension between their polarities: between their initially unfashionable religious beliefs and rock decadence, between their professional business ethic and an increasingly deviant artistic ambition. It's also telling that, just as rock has become more monotonously conformist, U2 are raising their own increasingly individually subversive colours.
This isn't the band whose singer once worried about brazen underwear ads on the London Underground escalators. How does The Edge see the development of their beliefs?
"I would say that none of my fundamental beliefs have changed but they've broadened and matured and been tempered with a wider experience of (a) what's good about the rest of the world and (b) what's bad about religion everywhere. We have come to realise it's such a corruptible thing, that basically religion only works on an individual basis. That organised religion is so fragile and easily corrupted that you really can't trust it.
"I basically assume that every single group, or religious community, has a problem, is in some way screwed up. I don't believe that there is one single, perfect spiritual way and, in realising that, obviously you become a lot more open and that's generally what's changed."
The band's American experience of Moral Majority moguls like Jerry Falwell certainly forced one early re-examination of conscience. The Edge betrays anger when he says that Falwell preaches that "God dresses in a three-piece polyester suit, is white, speaks in a Southern accent, is from an Anglo-Saxon background and has a wife and children. And then you say, how does that relate to a Chinese peasant and you realise it doesn't relate at all.
"The principles must be universal to be understood and appreciated and if that's not the case, it's not worth a shit. And that's where I am," he finished - slightly laughing as if abashed by his audacity.
Did he ever worry they might be tempted into using their position, into issuing creeds and manifestos, become rock Jerry Falwells?
"God forbid," he answers, smiling again. "It's too complicated for one man to set himself up as knowing all the answers and we don't attempt to. There's certain very obvious things we're shouting our mouth about and that's as far as we're prepared to go.
He quotes Brian Eno's adage that "possessions are a way of turning money into problems." I'm asking about money and success. The Edge remains unruffled.
Will-success-spoil-U2 questions are inevitable, particularly in Ireland where their profile and significance is in highly visible contrast to the fortunes of their generation, all the school-leavers who got dumped on the dole or emigrated. Indeed the danger of U2 has never resided in the more publicised style of selfdestruction, as per Boy George. Rather they must beware of a gradual and almost imperceptible dimming of artistic vision, the slowly-hardening arteries that the victim hardly recognises. U2's rebel streak in '86 may be a direct result of their conscious effort to ward off such an insidious condition.
On money, Edge comments that U2 have always "valued its potential but never it." He'll admit there could have been problems "if we had had an enormous first album." But of one thing he seems utterly convinced. "We never dropped the ball," he says. "We still have the same determination to create." And he adds, "all U2's goals are artistic ones."
Honestly, only the album will finally answer the questions. But in the meantime, the eyes inspire confidence. The windows to his soul don't need springcleaning.
OUT ON HIS OWN