- 02 Feb 18
From our 2018 Annual, the full cover story by Olaf Tyaransen.
“You start at the end. You start with emptiness. You start with nothing. You start with the void.”
So writes Bono in his unusually revealing liner notes for U2’s long-awaited and seriously overdue fourteenth studio album, Songs of Experience. But we can’t start at the end here because the band’s journey still seems so very far from over. Nor can we start at the beginning, because that was more than 40 years ago in a progressive Dublin secondary school – and oh so much has happened since the then 15-year-old Laurence Joseph Mullen Jr. pinned a notice to the Mount Temple message board looking to form a band.
U2’s lengthy rock ‘n’ roll career has happened in quite distinct phases, and notwithstanding their forthcoming Experience + Innocence tour in 2018, the release of Songs of Experience is the definitive bookend of a particularly turbulent period. So let’s leapfrog the emptiness, the nothing and the void, and start proceedings where this particular phase began: in a stationary private Learjet parked on a quiet runway in Cologne Bonn Airport on a bitterly cold night in early October 2013.
Fuck The Begrudgers
A more innocent time? Perhaps. But not by much. U2 have just released their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, as a freebie to half a billion iTunes subscribers. The internet lights up. Controversy erupts. The reaction from their haters is venomous in the extreme.
Hot Press has just interviewed Edge, Larry and Adam during a bumpy flight from London. U2 are doing an intimate show in Dusseldorf tomorrow afternoon – playing to just a couple of hundred fans for a German radio broadcast – but we’ve missed our landing slot at that city’s airport and so have had to divert the jet to nearby Cologne.
Bono and I are still talking when the plane lands, and there’s plenty of red wine left, so we continue the interview as everybody else waits patiently outside. I don’t know the singer especially well on a personal level, but we’ve met numerous times in various countries over the past 25 years and I’ve always enjoyed his company. Charming, witty and self-deprecating, he’s one of the most talented mimics I’ve ever encountered.
The really unfortunate thing about the whole iTunes debacle is that it has seriously distracted from the album itself. Songs of Innocence sees the band looking back at their earliest formative days, and they’ve already announced that there’s a companion album called Songs of Experience on the way (both titles purloined from William Blake’s 1789 illustrated collection of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience). In a message on their website, Bono has already pledged, “It should be ready soon enough… although I know I’ve said that before.”
If we only knew then what we know now. Sitting on the plane, however, Bono seems in good form, glad to have a new album out after a five-year-hiatus, following 2009’s relatively poorly-received No Line on the Horizon. However, he’s definitely also feeling stung by the barrage of negative criticism. Much of this stems not from the quality of the band’s latest offering, but from U2’s decision, taken in 2006, to move their corporate tax base to the Netherlands. The fact that there is nothing illegal involved doesn’t come into it: his pitchfork-wielding critics are out in triumphant force.
As one of the world’s wealthiest rock stars, Bono is well used to accusations of hypocrisy. He laughs when I suggest he writes a song called ‘Fuck The Begrudgers’.
“Yeah, I have done – ‘Acrobat’,” he explains, before singing, “’Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ – Achtung Baby! – ‘Don’t believe what you hear/ don’t believe what you see/ If you just close your eyes/ You can feel the enemy’. I have an umbrella. I’ve had it with me for 30 years now. When the shit-storm comes, as it continually does, I just put it up. You know, the thing about [the song] ‘Cedarwood Road’: I realised that a lot of me still lives there. I’m still on that street. Still need an enemy. The worst ones, I can’t say.
“I almost like all this,” he continues. “I almost like it. I must just need a row to get up out of bed in the morning, because I keep finding myself in them. If you repeat behavior, then you must like it. It’s like a bad relationship: ‘I don’t know how that happened! I met that girl and she ran off with all my best friends… but it happened to me three times!’ You might have something to do with it. So I’ve just gotta accept that that’s who I am.”
When we finally wind up and disembark, we realise that the rest of the band have given up waiting and driven to Dusseldorf without us. The impatient bastards!
During that interview on the plane, Bono had struggled to remember the name of an Irish politician he’d had some dealings with. “Come on, you know him,” he said to me. “He has a brother in politics, too.”
Perhaps it was the wine, but neither of us could think of who it might be. Three days later, when I was back home in Galway, he sent me a text. It simply said: “It was Richard Bruton.”
A Quiet Cigarette
A couple of weeks after Dusseldorf, Hot Press is present at a Sunday lunch in Bono’s luxurious Killiney home, thrown in honour of recently retired Irish rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll. Bono and his wife Ali are magnificent hosts to about 30 guests, who include instantly recognisable musicians, artists, economists, broadcasters, models and actors. We’re all able to comfortably sit at their dining room table, overlooking Killiney Bay. It’s a pretty long table.
It’s a fun gathering and the conversations go on into the wee small hours. At some late stage, I share a quiet cigarette with the singer. I have a proposal of a very different kind of interview to the ones he’s generally used to. He listens with interest and, gentleman that he is, readily agrees.
Only one proviso: “We’re gonna be flat-out with the tour so it might have to happen after that – or maybe during one of the breaks. But we’ll definitely do it.”
Great stuff! What could possibly go wrong?
A week or so after that lunch in Killiney, U2’s world comes close to imploding dramatically. The band are to receive an award at the Bambi International Music Awards in Berlin on November 13. The band’s singer also has a meeting arranged with the German minister of economic cooperation and development, Gerd Mueller. With four friends in tow, he flies a day early to the city where Achtung Baby! was recorded. Adam, Edge and Larry are to join him the following day.
Just as the Learjet reaches the German coast, flying at about 8,000ft, the tailgate of the plane becomes detached and falls off. A source close to the singer describes the drama to the Irish Daily Mail. “He was extremely lucky,” was the sober assessment. “The plane could have gone down. About an hour into the journey they heard a big thud coming from the rear of the plane. They were startled for a bit, but they continued on and made the descent into Berlin airport. When they landed, they were horrified to learn that the compartment at the rear of the plane had completely detached.
“The entire door, along with Bono and his companions’ luggage, had fallen out mid-air. They don’t know if the door and the contents landed over water or land, but they were extremely lucky. They were at an altitude where anything could have happened and they are all feeling very lucky to be alive.”
Disaster has introduced itself. It is, it turns out, a portent of what is to come. The meeting with Mueller goes ahead an hour after the plane lands. Their lost luggage is never recovered.
Accidents Will Happen
Just days later, on November 16, the globetrotting singer is cycling anonymously through New York’s Central Park, sporting some very un-rock ‘n’ roll Lycra, when he suffers what the press later describe as a “high energy bicycle accident.”
It’s serious. The 54-year-old U2 frontman undergoes a gruelling five hours of reconstructive surgery at Weill Cornell Medical Centre’s Emergency Department to repair facial fractures, a shattered shoulder and a broken arm. Three metal plates and 18 screws are required to patch up the damage – the worst of which include a “facial fracture involving the orbit of his eye” and a bone “tearing through his skin.”
The injury forces U2 to cancel a headlining appearance at KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, as well as a week-long residency as the musical guests on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The planned tour in support of Songs of Innocence is postponed indefinitely. Eventually the word comes through: it’s doubtful if Bono will ever be able to play the guitar again.
The Innocence + Experience tour finally kicks off in Vancouver’s Rogers Arena on May 14th, 2015. The night beforehand, over dinner with Hot Press in a local restaurant, Edge, Adam and a seemingly fully recuperated Bono had enthused wildly about the amazing stage-show they were about to unveil.
Larry Mullen wasn’t present. He was back home in Dublin, preparing to rejoin the band in Canada, having just buried his father. At the funeral mass in Artane’s Our Lady of Mercy Church, the grieving drummer had quipped from the altar, “Nice one on the timing, Dad.”
Larry flies back from Dublin under pressure. The opening show, in front of 19,000 fans, is absolutely fantastic, beginning with the four Dubliners standing under a giant swinging light-bulb, before morphing into an awe-inspiring spectacle of technology, sound and vision. They’re rightly renowned for their live shows, but this, creatively designed by longterm collaborator Willie Williams, with artistic input from the legendary Gavin Friday, is possibly their greatest yet.
After the gig, Hot Press rushes straight back to the hotel to file a review. I put the TV news on in my room before I hit send. The U2 show is the main story on the local station, but unfortunately not for a good reason. At the very end of the show, as he played out on ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, Edge had fallen off the walkway connecting the main stage and the B-stage. It is enough for anyone to ask: is there a hex on this band? And if so, who put it on them?
The next day, the guitarist posts an image of his grazed and cut right arm, with the message: “Didn’t see the edge, I’m OK!!”
The newspaper headlines and social media memes are predictably hilarious.
A Man Shaped Hole
With Vancouver vanquished, Innocence + Experience is out of the traps. The tour comprises a total of 76 arena shows – 34 in North America and 40 in Europe. Ultimately, it grosses $152.2 million from 1.29 million attendees. Not a bad return on a few months work.
It’s a huge success, but there are further tragedies to wrestle with. On May 27, 68-year-old Dennis Sheehan – the band’s tour manager since 1982 – dies of a heart attack in the Sunset Marquis Hotel in west Hollywood. Onstage at the Los Angeles Forum the following night, Bono says that the Dungarvan native was part of U2’s extended family. “It takes a lot to put on a show like this,” the singer explains. “Last night we lost a member of our family. Many U2 songs over the years were written to fill a void, an absence, a hole in a heart left by a loved one. With the loss of Dennis Sheehan, U2 now has such a wound.”
During the same show, the singer reveals that it was Dennis who got the crowd to so memorably sing the refrain at the end of ‘40’, on 1983’s Under A Blood Red Sky: U2 Live at Red Rocks, the mini-album which firmly cemented their reputation as a truly stunning live act.
The last time Hot Press saw Dennis was in a Dusseldorf hotel the previous October. He came down for breakfast and noticed that I was having a pint of beer. “Hmmm… someone’s starting early,” he said, disapprovingly. He always struck me as a lovely man. Now he is gone.
Paris In Turmoil
It is a tour on which trouble seems to follow U2, like a spectre. Mishaps, calamities and deaths are never far away. U2’s September 20 show in Stockholm is postponed until later the same week, when a gunman disguised as a policeman is spotted entering The Ericsson Globe Arena. Panic ensues and the police are forced to evacuate the venue.
They’ve cancelled gigs before, but this is still a first for U2. As Edge later tells me, “Stockholm was the first time ever in our career that we haven’t gone onstage when we were in the building and there was an audience in the building. It’s never happened before.”
Less than two months later, coordinated terrorist attacks by Islamic State in Paris on November 13 force the postponement of U2’s shows over the following two nights. The band had been rehearsing in the AccorHotels Arena just a couple of miles up the road from the Bataclan theatre, where 89 Eagles of Death Metal fans were butchered. The Paris shows are rescheduled for December 6 and 7, making them the final dates on the European leg of the tour.
The December 7 gig is filmed for the live DVD Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris and also broadcast on American TV network HBO. At the end of the show, as U2 are joined on-stage by Eagles of Death Metal, Bono introduces the American band. “They were robbed of their stage,” he says, “so we would like to offer them ours.”
The two bands perform a cover of Patti Smith’s ‘People Have The Power’ before Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam depart, leaving EODM to conclude the show with their own song ‘I Love You All The Time’. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.
That Gallagher Fella
On November 3, the band play the last of six nights in the London O2. Before the show, Hot Press is backstage in a specially erected black marquee named the Cedarwood Lounge, in the company of Bono, Edge and Adam, and various guests – including Noel Gallagher, Paul Epworth, Guy Oseary, Guggi and some members of One Direction.
The evil spirit seems to be in hiding. The mood is convivial and there is no unnecessary drama. It might have been different. The following day, a Noel Gallagher interview is published in Esquire in which the former Oasis star totally blasts One Direction. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” he says. “Fame’s wasted on these cunts today. Harry Styles has got nothing to say for himself – nothing. ‘You alright, mate?’ ‘Uhhh’. That’s it. The gig will never die because you can’t download it. You can’t download spirit.
“And so, for the likes of me who persevered from an early age to play the fucking guitar and write songs and practice and practice and practice, I’ll be fine. God help fucking Zayn Malik.”
Greetings From The Edge
I’d been supposed to interview Edge for a Hot Press cover story in London, but time winds up being too tight. The following week the guitarist rings me at home in Galway instead. The first item on the agenda is his fall from the stage in Vancouver.
“Well, how I managed to do it was by taking my eyes off the stage,” he recalls, laughing. “I was looking up as I was literally saying goodbye to the top rows and about to walk off. It happened so fast! It was more like… the aftermath, finding myself on the deck on my back. I got up and my first thought was, ‘What have I broken?’
“In fact, I couldn’t really feel anything. I tried to get back on stage, is what I tried to do, and then I realised there was no steps, so I just continued walking around. I was still waving at the crowd and then wandered off. Later, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I really had a lucky escape!’
“In the middle of a gig, you’re not thinking about your particular physical well-being… you’re lost in the show. The day after, I looked down, saw where I fell, and realised there were all these metal uprights that were supporting the film track, because we had a camera on a track. If I had landed on one I would have been impaled, so it was incredibly lucky where, and how, I fell. If I’d broken my arm, we probably would have had to cancel the tour. So, it was a hairy moment!”
We enjoy a wide-ranging conversation. The subject of Songs of Experience is on the agenda. “We’re working away, here and there, as we go around,” he explained. “It’s hard to really say how long it will take to finish it off, but we’re really determined to get it finished early in the New Year. That would be our plan: try to finish it as quickly as possible in the New Year and get it out when it seems like the right moment.”
“Which would be?” I ask, hopefully.
“No dates. We haven’t figured it out yet, but our intention would be to get it out sometime in the back end of next year.”
If I’ve learnt anything from 20 years of interviewing U2, it’s this: you can’t believe a word they say when it comes to album release dates.
You Go Your Way
Hot Press is also in attendance for what was originally supposed to be the final date of Innocence + Experience in Dublin’s 3Arena on November 28. U2 shows are often emotional rollercoasters, but this one leaves me in more abject disrepair than usual.
My very first trip abroad for this magazine was a 1992 jaunt to New York, accompanying the then-young Dublin foursome Blink to the CMJ Music Seminar. It was an eventful weekend, made all the more memorable by the discovery that I shared a birthday with the band’s manager Aiden Lambert (brother of frontman Dermot). We became lifelong friends.
Several hours before U2 take to the 3Arena stage, I visit Aiden at his sister’s house in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. He is in the final stages of terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live. Our final conversation is manly: Aidan is putting on a brave face. As we hug goodbye, he tells me to enjoy the gig.
Dermot gives me a lift back into the city. “How did it go?” he asks. I am actually far more upset than I let on. A fortnight earlier, I’d done a public interview with Mr. Nice author Howard Marks at the inaugural Metropolis Festival at the RDS. He also was suffering from terminal cancer and when we said goodbye in the green room afterwards – the sky dark and full of foreboding outside – we both knew we’d never meet again. Both men are very much on my mind throughout U2’s performance. I am teary during the show, but have a total meltdown when they play ‘Every Breaking Wave’. “Like every falling leaf/ On the breeze,” Bono sings, “Winter wouldn’t leave it alone/ Alone...” Wipe those tears away? Not tonight, I can’t.
2016 passes without any sign of Songs of Experience, although the band – who are reported to be working with up to five producers, including the original of the species, Steve Lilywhite – keep claiming that its release is imminent. “The gift of [my 2014 cycling accident] was that I had time to write while in the mentality that you get to at the end of an album,” Bono tells Q. “There is a reason why all the great groups made their best albums while in and around touring, because the ideas have to come out of your head.”
If there’s no sign of the U2 album, the world isn’t hanging around. In June 2016, in an astonishing act of latent self-harm, the UK votes to leave the EU. In November, to widespread shock and bewilderment, reality TV star Donald Trump wins the US presidential election. The cracks are showing.
U2 will later claim that both of these events caused them to pause the Experience recording sessions and take stock of what was going on. It was the truth, but not the whole truth, so help me lord. Behind the scenes, Bono is seriously ill. Only his family and closest friends know just how bad it is. Later, however, it becomes clear that this is the grim reaper taking an even closer look. I imagine a pain in the chest. Blocked arteries. Stents. Or a burst appendix and a frantic ride to the hospital; an aortic rupture; a pulmonary embolism; or, most dramatically, a cerebral aneurism, of the kind that caused the horribly premature death of Bono’s mother, Iris, in September 1974. Begone, foul spirit, begone! Stop. Refresh. Every day is a new beginning.
You’re The Best
Seattle. May 14, 2017. There’s still no sign of Songs of Experience, but U2 have just embarked on a major stadium tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal 1987 album The Joshua Tree. The opening show had been in Vancouver the previous night but, given the lyrical content of that album, the band want the Irish media to see the show in the good ole US of A.
Backstage in the CenturyLink Field stadium, home to the Seattle Seahawks, Bono explains that Songs of Experience is pretty much done. “If it was up to me, I’d be playing it,” he says. “It’s a very special piece of work. I think it might have benefited from the pause that we took. Because I would’ve put it out a year ago. Things have changed now, it just had to happen.
“Our songs come out as stories, breaking news as well as what’s going on in our own lives, what’s going on in the community. U2 always came out of that, and the whole world changed… and you just didn’t want to be singing about the Millennium Bug!”
He also explains that one of their new songs was inspired by a comment by Ireland’s most controversial soccer pundit (and one-time U2 biographer). “Eamon Dunphy had a very big influence on our new single. He said, when speaking of my missus, that Ali was the best thing about Bono. So we’ve written a song called ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’.”
The Complaints Department
July 22 morphs into 23. Hours after U2 slay Croke Park on the only Irish date of The Joshua Tree Tour, the aftershow party in Roberta’s restaurant, on the edge of Temple Bar, is jumping. Colin Farrell is deep in conversation. Amy Huberman is starting to dance. David Holmes gives a huge hug to Hot Press editor Nial Stokes. The Web Summit’s Paddy Cosgrave trades stories with the Edge. Bono is at a table with Noel Gallagher, Irish international footballer Robbie Keane, film director Jim Sheridan and Shane MaGowan. Gavin Friday is roaming. Laura Whitmore and Boyzone’s Keith Duffy shoot the breeze. Hot Press bumps into the redoubtable Mrs. Hewson looking as radiant as ever. She asks me did I enjoy the gig. My response is less polite than I intend.
“Yeah, I did enjoy the show,” I reply, “but… what the HELL were they thinking about, finishing their set with ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’? It’s their only Irish show on this tour, at least half of that crowd was there 30 years ago, and they end with a brand new BALLAD?!!! I mean, not telling the band their business, but… seriously? How can you send a crowd home singing when they don’t know the song?”
Ali shoots me a look that immediately shuts me down. “The complaints department opens at 9am, Olaf,” she says. Nobody likes a party-pooper and I probably should have bitten my tongue. But it is clear that she has been here before.
Several weeks later, Bono sends me an email. “We played ‘Little Things’ for ourselves really, just to prove we could write some new songs that can go the distance with the best of our old songs. Rough spot to put one in, though, that’s for sure… Ali is the complaints department, believe me… she was talking about it herself… smart critics like yourself are particularly welcome around our house. See you down the road.”
Trouble In Paradise
Years in gestation, Songs of Experience is finally given an official release date of December 1, 2017. Almost immediately there’s trouble in paradise. More specifically, in leaked financial documents called the ‘Paradise Papers’ which name the U2 singer as a one-time investor in a Maltese company called Nude Estates Ltd, which purchased a Lithuanian shopping centre in 2007.
No laws have been broken, but – on the surface at least – the optics aren’t good for one of the world’s most vocal campaigners for debt relief and ending poverty. As ever, the haters are howling with delight. Bono releases a statement saying he would be “extremely distressed if even as a passive minority investor… anything less than exemplary was done with my name anywhere near it.” He adds: “I take this stuff very seriously. I have campaigned for the beneficial ownership of offshore companies to be made transparent. Indeed this is why my name is on documents rather than in a trust.”
A Time For Healing
It’s the afternoon of November 11, 2017, and Hot Press is one of a 15-strong contingent of Irish journalists and radio DJs assembled in the basement of the Trafalgar Hotel for a preview of Songs of Experience. I’ve already had the album for a few days now, and am blown away by it (see accompanying review – Ed).
Later this evening U2 are to play a special show in Trafalgar Square, highlights of which will be broadcast on MTV tomorrow night, when the four Dubliners receive a long overdue Global Icon Award at the EMAs in London. The band are expected to be dropping in for a chat but, just before the playback begins, their publicist Lindsey Holmes announces that Edge and Adam will be joining us. Larry rarely does these things anyway, but we are told that Bono “needs to rest his voice before the gig.”
This is true: it is what singers usually want to do before a big show, especially when there are TV cameras present. Add to that the fact that a roomful of headline-hungry Irish journalists is hardly the most appetising thought and you can see the appeal of an afternoon’s silence.
“Is there a time for keeping your distance,” Bono asks on Miss Sarajevo. “A time to turn your eyes away/ Is there a time for keeping your head down/ For getting on with your day?” Clearly there is.
Talking The Talk
Edge and Adam seem in cheerful form. The guitarist and bassist politely shake hands with everyone in the room before seating themselves on a lengthy couch.
Edge – who’s wearing an Armistice Day poppy badge on his lapel – apologises in advance for any lax answers he might give. “My head is a bit kind of spinning,” he says, “because we’ve been doing so many different things. Travelling so much. I mean, all good stuff. We just left South America. Back to LA for a while. Now we’re here and it’s going from The Joshua Tree Tour, which was an amazing experience, to the new album, so it’s kinda full-on.”
Press conferences – even mini ones – are never easy, with so many different agendas being pursued, but the pair are graceful throughout. Adam laughs when congratulated on the recent birth of his second child. “Well, I came to it late,” the 57-year-old explains, “but I’m sure you’ve all been through it. I can thoroughly recommend it. Not too many sleepless nights.
“It’s not too bad,” he smiles. “We have help.”
For the most part, Edge does the talking. The cover of Songs of Innocence featured a striking shot of Larry and his son Elvis. Keeping with the family theme, the sleeve of Songs of Experience has an Anton Corbjin photograph of Edge’s teenage daughter Sian and Bono’s teenage son Eli, holding hands.
“Covers are hard,” Edge muses. “You can kind of stick the band on the cover and that sometimes will do it, but this album is a complicated record. Thematically, it’s both extremely personal and quite political and both very internal and also very universal. And it’s very difficult to find an image or an idea.
“So we felt, let’s take it away from us as a band. Let’s just try and find some kind of simple, iconic, symbolic cover that tried to bring it into a very succinct way. Through our career, we’ve always used friends, or others, to take on that iconic, symbolic role. And it seemed like on the last cover we had Larry and Elvis. So it made sense that we kind of continued that theme into this cover. And to (communicate), you know, the sense of, life just beginning. Two teenagers.”
The Experience + Innocence Tour will kick off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 2, 2018.
“We’re very excited about playing live,” says Edge. “Obviously, we’re starting to gear up to play them, and on first outing, I think they sound really strong. Something about a great song, you know, it’s very durable: it doesn’t rely on very specific arrangements. If you get it, so that it really holds together, it gives you a lot more leeway. Sometimes, the tunes that are production-reliant, you almost have to recreate the recorded version to make it work. In this case, I think these songs are going to just be fun to play.”
Adam isn’t forcing Edge to do all of the heavy lifting. “Because the album got pushed out to this end of the year,” he says, “it gave us the license to do The Joshua Tree shows, so we kind of had this moment where we went, ‘Oh! We could celebrate The Joshua Tree’. Originally we thought we’d do maybe ten shows as a commemoration of it, but it just grew and grew. And that’s how we ended up going through the summer with The Joshua Tree Tour.”
Walking The Walk
While most of the songs on Songs of Experience are quite personal, love letters addressed to Bono’s family and friends, there are a couple of political tracks. ‘American Soul’, in particular, takes a potshot at Trump’s version of the United States.
“I think we felt that, to ignore it would just be weird,” Edge explains. “Knowing that these are the things that we care deeply about, I think people would expect us to step forward to a degree. Obviously democracy sometimes throws up surprise results and you gotta respect the result when it goes for you as well, as when it goes against you. But in terms of values and ideals, we’re different, so fundamentally, from what President Trump is putting forward. And the sentiments that he’s putting out there, and who he’s looking to get support from, you know –it’s fear politics. Of the most cynical type.
“We don’t necessarily want to get wrapped up in ‘the resistance’ to his Presidency, at all,” he continues. “What we want to do is keep moving forward with the issues that we care about. And keep the agenda that we believe we will all be getting back to. And I think, being inspired by what some of the governors and mayors in the USA did in response to him.
They just don’t care what the President says or thinks. So they’re moving forward, and I think that’s positive. We feel OK to take him on, on certain levels, but we’re really just gonna keep on ploughing forward with what we really believe in.”
Given the album’s title, what’s been the hardest experience U2 have collectively gone through over the years?
“Well, I think challenges are a big part of anything that you really care about,” he says. “And I think that the relationships within the band are something that’s sustained us. But, they are, at times, quite hard to maintain. So the band itself, is in some ways, our greatest work. And our most challenging work.”
Does it get heavier being in U2, the longer you’re still creating music?
“I think it does,” the guitarist admits. “And that’s understandable. If you think about bands like they’re street gangs– you get together at 18 years old and you kind of decide to go off and do this thing. It involves a complete commitment from everyone and total unity and regard for one another, and a lot of humility on an individual basis as you go forward. That’s, dare I say, quite an unnatural thing to be involved with when you’re getting into your 40s and your 50s. We’ve been able to pull it off. But, even we understand how extraordinary it is.”
Neither man is willing to go into detail about Bono’s health scare last year, except to comment on how it affected his lyrics.
“Well, Bono has spoken about his brush with mortality which he is not going into too many details about,” says Edge. “It was a fairly serious scare and it did affect the way he was viewing his writing for this record and where he ended up was taking Brendan Kennelly’s advice [to write as if he was already dead]. A lot of these songs turned into letters to the people he cares most about. Some were his and our children. Some were the U2 fans. Ali, obviously features. And a lot directed to America and the current political situation globally. He found himself thinking, ‘If this is the last song I’m gonna write, what do I want to say?’”
U2 worked with a number of different producers on the album.
“We understood that for us to do a very straightforward band record would’ve pleased some people hugely – but unfortunately at this moment in time, it probably would’ve sounded a little old-fashioned and out of touch on a music and cultural level,” Edge explains. “So, we were prepared to experiment a lot with the production and the sonics. Listen to pop music on radio; I think you’re listening to a lot of great songs but also some very generic production sounds. We’re greedy – we want 21st century production with the chemistry that only a band can produce and we really, really went after the songs on this record.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves and our audience with the sonics, but really the bottom line was: if we don’t create songs that we will listen to in a bar played by some piano player or in elevators around the world, we won’t have delivered to our own standards. So that’s really what we did. We kept pushing to make sure that each song was as good as it could be.”
How did the collaboration with Kendrick Lamar come about?
“Well, I think we share a lot of values with Kendrick,” Edge observes. “We are fans of his, we reached out and initially asked him to guest on our album, and then we sent him a tune. He got back in touch with us asking if he can put it on his record. We were like, okay, yeah that’s great! So one of the tracks from our album kinda debuted in part on his record. And then we got towards the end of our recording and Bono had demoed this psychedelic preacher vocal in that link between ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ and ‘American Soul’, and we thought, ‘Wow, Kendrick could do that!’ It was really last minute – we’re talking like the last couple of weeks before the record was done – and he said he would do it. He phoned it in, literally on his phone. For him to be on our record was great.”
What is it that happens when you guys go, ‘Yes this is it – this is a hit!’? Edge laughs.
“We ask ourselves the same question! We grew up in a particular moment in music where things were being reinvented, and we therefore developed a very specific approach to playing and writing which has not really changed that much. We keep trying to update and stay conversant with what’s going on culturally, but essentially we are still the same guys who started in the early ‘80s. We seem to have this ability to experiment as much as we want, but by the time we have all done our thing it always seems to sound like us.”
Front Page News
There’s an elephant in the room that nobody is addressing. In some ways, it might seem unfair to ask Edge and Adam about Bono’s personal finances. On the other hand, not to ask would be derelict. After all, these things affect the band and their collective relationship with audiences.
When we’re told our time is almost up, Hot Press throws out a final question: “Bono has been getting a lot of flak in the press recently. Do you think he’s being unfairly treated?”
Edge winces slightly. “Well, I think it’s a complicated thing,” he says. “We are wealthy people so you could say it comes with the territory, and we are high profile. Sometimes you can feel a little put upon, and sometimes you feel like you don’t get nearly enough stick. We do understand why people are angry with the system as it is. It definitely needs an overhaul, but it’s a complex thing. It needs an international overhaul; it’s not straightforward, like one nation can’t do it on their own. Unfortunately, I think there was a lot of inaccuracies reported initially and at this point there are lawyers involved so we will see how that works out.”
The following morning, Edge’s comments are the main story on the front page of The Irish Sun.
The Trafalgar Square gig is fine. But for me, despite the iconic location, U2 are far from their barnstorming best. This is mostly down to the fact that the 7,000-strong audience is composed mainly of MTV competition winners rather than fans of the band. Some of my press colleagues dispute my verdict, but I know that I’ve seen far better U2 shows.
It’s a short set anyway, comprising eight songs. They play two tracks from the new album – ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’ and ‘You’re The Best Thing About Me’ – and a selection of their greatest hits (‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, ‘Pride’, Beautiful Day’, ‘One’, etc.).
It looks amazing on MTV.
Facing A Wall
Back in Ireland, there’s a cover story to be written. I send Bono an email wondering if he can spare some time on the phone. He responds that he has a lot of commitments (a BBC TV special to record, World AIDS Day, Jimmy Kimmel). If anything he needs more time with his family. It is a theme that is in keeping with the new album. He also comments, “Loved Trafalgar Square. My father scratched my mother’s name into Nelson’s Column on O’Connell Street before it was blown up.”
He sends me a sneak preview of the strictly embargoed Songs of Experience liner notes. They’re a deeply personal explanation of the album and his reasons for writing these songs.
Of his health scare, he writes: “Last winter I was on the receiving end of a shock to the system myself, a shock that left me clinging to my own life like a raft. Now lots of us have a brush with mortality at some stage, whether it’s our own or someone dear to us. It’s an arresting experience. I was arrested. Facing a wall with my hands up over my head… the force screaming at me not to move. I won’t dwell in it or on it. I don’t want to name it. In a reality TV world of minor major melodrama I can spare everyone that. Whether it’s physical or mental or emotional, so many of us hit a wall at some point in our life. I feel fantastic now, stronger than ever, but these songs have that impetus behind them and it would feel dishonest not to admit the turbulence I was feeling at the time of writing.”
But let’s not end this piece dwelling on the void. On the song ‘Lights of Home’, on Songs of Experience, Bono sings, “I shouldn’t be here cause I should be dead/ I can see the lights in front of me/ I believe my best days are ahead.” Here’s hoping that they are. If the new album is anything to go by, they will be. World without end. Amen.
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