- 25 Nov 15
In the run up to their Irish sojourn, The Edge spoke to Hot Press in an exclusive interview, in which the U2 guitarist gave an extraordinary insight into the band's meticulous approach to their Irish shows, talks openly about the state of the music industry, the bad luck that seemed to stalk the band at the start of the tour cycle and the benefits of that Apple deal - as well as the rise of Donald Trump and repealing the 8th amendment.
It’s 7.30pm on the evening of November 3 2015, and, backstage at the cavernous London O2, there’s a small rock ‘n’ roll party happening in a specially erected black marquee named the Cedarwood Lounge. In a little under an hour, U2 will be playing the last of six iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE shows in the UK capital and, given the night that’s in it, some stars have come out in their honour.
There’s no sign of Larry Mullen (he’s rumoured to be still on the Tube), but Bono, Edge and Adam Clayton are meeting and greeting the likes of Noel Gallagher, Paul Epworth, Guggi and assorted members of One Direction. Gallagher made a guest appearance onstage the other night, performing ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ with the band, but according to U2 manager Guy Oseary there won’t be any special guests this evening.
A youthful-looking 43-year-old Israeli-American, Oseary has been managing U2 for the past two years, taking the reins from the redoubtable Paul McGuinness in November 2013 in a reputed $30million deal. He tells Hot Press he’ll be returning to the US in the coming days to take care of some Madonna business (he has been a business associate of Ms Ciccone since his late teens and has managed her for a decade), but he’s hoping to make the last show in Dublin. “I somehow managed to get a ticket,” he explains. Surely he’s joking? “Believe you me, it was actually a lot harder than you’d think,” he sighs.
That final show in Dublin’s 3Arena takes place on Saturday November 28, and would have marked the the end of the first North American and European leg of iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE were it not for the tragic events in Paris. Having kicked off in Vancouver on May 14, by its close the tour – promoting U2’s thirteenth studio album, Songs of Innocence – will have seen the four Dubliners play a total of 76 shows in 22 cities in 11 countries to over 1,271,000 fans.
The original plan had been that Hot Press would talk to Edge backstage this evening, but even before delayed trains, planes and automobiles make that prospect impossible, the schedule shifts and the interview is postponed. Which at least takes the pressure off and allows me to enjoy the gig. They play a blinder – near two hours of highly choreographed old school rock ‘n’ roll blended with state of the art technology.There’s a reason this tour hasn’t yet had a negative review.
Edge calls me at home in Galway two days later…
OLAF TYARANSEN: I could be wrong about this, but someone told me that you took the Tube to the O2 gig the other night. Did you?
EDGE: Did I? No, I didn’t. I got a boat – a small boat. I think Larry might have taken the Tube.
OK. I thought it was a strange way for any member of U2 to travel to such a big show.
Yeah. Larry either came or went home on the Tube. The quickest way is probably the Tube, but the boat was actually pretty cool.
To backtrack to the first iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE show in Vancouver: what went through your mind when you fell off the stage at the very end of the night?
Well, how I managed to do it was by taking my eyes off the stage (laughs). 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.
It could have been a disaster…
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.
Whatever about being impaled – if you’d broken an arm, what would have happened to the tour?
Well, we probably would have had to cancel the tour. So, it was a hairy moment!
The tour was already delayed because of Bono’s bicycle accident in Central Park, then Larry’s father passed away in Dublin a couple of nights before the Canadian kick- off. Did the band feel cursed at any point?
No, but I was joking, asking the others if any of them had been in close proximity to Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus or any other part of his tomb (laughs). There’s no doubt that we had a string of unfortunate instances, but no. In fact the opposite. By the time I got to the end of that opening night, I was feeling like the luckiest guitar player in rock ‘n’ roll because the show was just, from beginning to end, absolutely a delight to play. We had put a lot of time and effort into the prep and I think we all realised at that point that the production was going to work – all the ideas, the themes, the songs we’d chosen were working and it had all come together brilliantly. So probably because of that I was in this moment of reverie, and wasn’t paying enough attention to the stage itself.
You’ve done nearly 60 gigs since.
And we haven’t had one show that we felt didn’t have the right kind of spirit. We haven’t had one lukewarm reaction. We haven’t had one bad review. It’s like the whole tour has been so blessed. Sold-out everywhere. We always hold back a few tickets as we’re not sure exactly where our seat-kills are going to be, because the production is such a novel approach that no-one actually knows ahead of time, until the production goes up, what are the seats that have to be killed because of sightline problems. We are always conservative on that. Once the production is locked in, in a venue, then we can release the tickets that don’t have a sightline problem. So there has been, from time to time, a few last minute releases but, basically, the whole tour has sold out. We’re feeling really lucky now at this point and really blessed and fortunate (laughs). The new songs are working great, which is a wonderful validation of the album.
It got a bit of an unfair kicking on its initial release…
When it was first released, the music wasn’t really the focus of the attention from the media. The method of the release (a controversial free iTunes download – OT) was what people were concentrating on. So, it’s great now, with all that shit forgotten, that people are discovering it’s a great record and that the songs are really strong. We’re just amazed by how well it’s going over.
Adam said to me in London the other night that there is a marked emotional difference in the European audience response to the American one.
I think it varies, literally, from city to city. For sure, there is a huge difference between, say, a Dublin crowd and an American crowd, or between a Spanish crowd or an Italian crowd, and an American crowd. The slightly more reserved European audiences are the same as America, you know? You can have a big night in New York or maybe Chicago where things can really go off in a very different way. The difference is that European audiences are used to stand-up gigs, that’s the norm in Europe, whereas in America it’s kind of a new phenomenon. They’re just not used to having that freedom to jump around, whereas in Europe we are. So it’s a different culture. What has been amazing, since we got to Europe, is that – despite the language barrier – all the fans have been singing along to the new album. In Italy and in Spain particularly, it was quite extraordinary to hear people singing along to ‘Raised By Wolves’, you know? And singing every lyric! It’s kind of wild, not what we were expecting.
Speaking of ‘Raised By Wolves’, Jim Rodgers, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast, has been critical of that song and what he calls its provocative onstage visuals (focusing on the 1974 Dublin/ Monaghan bombings – OT). Will you be playing it in Belfast?
Well, I think the answer is that we will, but we will be taking account of sensitivities, for sure, in the way that we stage the show. That is something we do wherever we are. The show is always presented with a sense of the audience we're going to be presenting to. Changes get made if things just don’t seem to be right or if we don’t know how things are going to work or play. People understand that the content varies a lot. We haven’t finalised that, so I don’t want to start saying how it will be different. We’re still working on it.
How much thought goes into these things on a city by city basis?
This is something I started talking to our designers about months ago. This is not in response to comments in the media; we always had this in mind, because we’re aware that sensitivities exist in Belfast. The reason it’s in the show, and will stay in the show, is that ‘Raised By Wolves’, like a lot of the songs on the album, is about personal experience, about an event that we ourselves felt, acutely at the time, the impact of. Larry lost a neighbour in the bombing on Talbot Street. That street is where my bus stop was. We’d have been in town often, trying to get the bus home, and Bono just saying, you know, “Literally, right there.” We really felt that… We’re not drawing from it as simply reflecting a moment in history: it’s part of our personal narrative.
Guggi’s brother was particularly affected by it…
Yeah. Our friend Andrew Rowen, who’s Guggi’s brother, was actually with his father and saw the aftermath of the explosion.
You co-wrote the song with Bono?
Yeah, Bono and I wrote it together. It’s written from Andrew’s perspective. We want to maintain the show and we don’t want to start taking out key things. What we want to do, is to be sensitive. We always are. It’s going to be very interesting, not only playing Belfast, but playing in Dublin because, of course, the album is very personal. It namechecks a lot of people and places in the city. It’s a very different thing to play ‘Cedarwood Road’ to American fans or Italian or Spanish or British fans, but when you’re playing it to people who probably lived there (laughs), or know it well, and know a lot of the references…
A whole different ballgame!
I wouldn’t want to say it’s daunting, but certainly there will be a lot of care and a sense that these shows are set apart from the rest of the tour. A little element of jeopardy, for sure, in how the songs go down, and how the shows go down in front of a Dublin audience, and I’m sure the Belfast audience, too.
You haven’t yet played a single song from POP on this tour, but are you likely to play ‘Please’ in Belfast?
I don’t think so. It’s a great tune, but the show is pretty tight in that we have a very clear narrative. So I can’t see us changing it much between now and Belfast. We’ve occasionally been able to throw in something relevant to a city, but I don’t know. We’ll see. It’s a good idea, though! We’ll put it on the list.
Your long-term tour manager, Dennis Sheehan, passed away suddenly in Los Angeles in May. Do you miss him?
We do. It’s funny, Dennis not being around is one of those things that sort of catches you at the oddest of moments. On a couple of occasions, I know I’ve wanted to pick up the phone to him to talk about something, and that’s when it hits you. Just his presence, you know, at the venues and kind of overseeing the team. It was always so reassuring and steady. He’s hugely missed.
Your Stockholm show was cancelled in September because – apparently – here was a gunman on the loose. What happened exactly?
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. In this instance, from what we can gather, some person went into the gig and had a firearm. It was disassembled, and he put it in his girlfriend’s bag, but, of course, every bag is searched going in. This was seen – and he was allowed in! That’s the weird thing; we don’t know quite how that happened. But he was allowed in, and it was only after he was allowed in that somebody explained what had happened to the head of security and he obviously told the promoters and talked to the police, and then it just sort of kicked off. They were searching the venue and couldn’t find the couple. They searched to see if anybody was hiding in any part of the venue. But they weren’t able to find the people, and they weren’t able to find the gun. So they said, “You guys can’t play. We’re going to have to postpone this.” We were lucky enough that we had a couple of days off after the Stockholm gig, so we were able to replace the show a couple of days after. Otherwise we’d be heading back there at the end of the tour.
How was the mood backstage?
It didn’t feel very good backstage because we didn’t really know. But when someone says, “Someone has brought a gun into the venue. He’s been let into the venue and now we can’t find him.” That’s... bloody hell like! That’s not a very reassuring thing to hear!
Would that be a worry generally, when you’re at the level of celebrity that U2 are at? Just some random nutter…
Look, it’s something you don’t dwell on. We have people who are in charge of security. All I can say is... I mean, there are nutcases out there, but we see very few of them at our shows, with our audiences. We generally have a great crowd. We’re very lucky on that front. There’s more nutcases in the band! (laughs)
What’s happening with Songs of Experience?
We’re working away, here and there, as we go around. 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?
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.
Would you release it the same way as Songs of Innocence?
We are looking at all options. It’s the same problem, sort of; I can see so many great albums get released and they just disappear. It’s so hard now to capture people’s attention. There are exceptions obviously. Adele’s new song created a huge sensation and I think it’s a great tune. She’s such a phenomenon – so you have the exceptions. But for a lot of acts, anything with a guitar these days, it seems goes through the same kind of trial, which is ‘How do we generate interest for our work?’ We have seen the benefit of the Apple release on the tour. So it’s kind of a crazy thing.
There seem to be a lot of young fans coming to the show, knowing the new album better than they know a lot of our classic songs. So, there’s kind of a definite benefit accrued from having the album out to so many people. So I would not rule out doing something similar with the next record. But honestly, what we were trying to do at that moment was something new and different and, of course, things in this climate are new and different for like a split second, and then they are old and predictable.
So what are the implications for Songs of Experience?
When we’re coming out with the next release, we’ll try to think of something that is a new thing, and a fresh way of getting music out there. I know you know this as well as anyone, but the whole music business is in such turmoil. We’re in the midst of this sea change, and no one really knows where it’s headed or what’s going on with the streaming services coming up, iTunes still selling downloads, CD sales plummeting in a lot of countries in the world. You can’t even find a CD now in the United States. So, like we’re doing with everything, we’re just trying to be innovative and find cool ways to get around these problems.
Has Bono’s inability to play guitar – I mean physically, not talent-wise – hanged the way you would have performed any songs?
(Laughs) Well, I’ll tell you what it really means. When I go and take a solo, Bono’s guitar playing was really crucial to keep the momentum of the song going, so I miss that. But because we had a lot of time to prepare before the tour, we were coming up with new arrangement ideas that got around those problems. So, we’re in pretty good shape on that front.
I want to move away from music for a moment. Given U2’s strong association with various recent US presidents, Clinton, Bush and Obama, I’m wondering what’s your take on Donald Trump’s campaign to win the Republican nomination?
Well... (pauses). I think it’s great entertainment value, but I can’t see it sustaining, to be honest. As much as I would love the idea that Donald Trump would be running against whoever the Democratic nominee is, I just can’t see it happening.
U2 have always been busy outside of rock ‘n’ roll. When Charlie Watts was asked about the 25th anniversary of the Rolling Stones, he commented, “Yeah, five years playing, 20 years hanging around.”
U2 don’t really have a lot of downtime, do you?
There is an awful lot going on at all times. I guess I must love it, because I keep doing it – and Bono particularly so. But we all do, to different extents. I think taking the easy way out, the soft option, is not how we – any of us – are built. I’m a very curious person, and whenever I get fascinated with something, I just want to dive into it and learn about it and understand it. There’s a lot of that, not just in terms of music, but in terms of other stuff as well. I do find that I get into things in a major way... and I’m gone.
You’ve had to totally reconfigure the iNNOCENCE & eXPERIENCE stage for the Dublin 3Arena shows. Is there a danger it’ll lose any of its impact?
I think it’s actually going to increase the impact, it’s so small. What we haven’t figured out yet is how it’s going to impact on our approach to performing the songs, and where we’re going to be able to be. We won’t know until we’re on stage. There’s another element of jeopardy there, literally: you walk onto a space you’ve never worked in before, really because it has to be compromised... and the location of the audience is going to be very different relative to the stage, so it’s gonna throw up some interesting and new challenges. I think it’s going to be a very exciting few shows, because – the songs, the production, they’re jammed-in there. We’re putting on a production designed for a much bigger house than the 3Arena. You know, I’m sure it’s gonna lift the roof off with the energy and concentration.
Where do you stand on the Repeal the Eighth Amendment issue?
Remind me of what you’re talking about again?
That’s the ongoing Irish abortion debate that will possibly result in a referendum next year.
Well, I always – as in a general rule – am pro-choice. I’m not pro-abortion. I don’t think you have to be, to be pro- choice. I just don’t feel comfortable with the idea that you take that monumental position away from a woman. I think it should be their decision. So, that’s my take.
When was the last time you cried?
Ha! (laughs) Onstage probably. That’s the thing about these songs, they’re so personal, and we as a band... I think a lot of our fans are very moved at our shows – but what they might not realise is that the band are, too.
Does that always happen? When you’re playing so many shows, is there ever a time when you’re onstage just kind of going through the motions: ‘Oh I wonder what’s for lunch tomorrow?’
Very occasionally you get distracted. I learnt over the years, that that’s the only time I would ever drop a note, make a mistake, or lose connection with what I’m doing. So I immediately just get my head back into it. So, the answer is, really rarely. When it happens, you probably see or hear it very fast. I think it’s true for everybody in the band. I inhabit the song, and Bono’s the same, and I’m sure Adam and Larry are the same: that’s the only way that we can do what we do, tone totally in it. It doesn’t work otherwise.
My personal favourite U2 song of all time is actually ‘Every Breaking Wave’. But the version of it that blows me away is the acoustic one you did on Jools Holland. Would you ever consider doing a live unplugged album?
Yeah, I could see that happening. It’s never been on the table as an idea, but I think it would work great. In fact, Bono and myself did a couple of shows over the years, special guest kind of things. We did one for the Hollywood Bowl, just the two of us, we did like 45 minutes or an hour, I can’t remember, but it actually worked really well. Just a guitar or piano and voice. I think I played electric for a couple of things. So, real stripped-down arrangements of our songs do work. That’s the version that we’re playing of ‘Every Breaking Wave’, the one that you like. One of these days, I would not be surprised if we did some kind of an unplugged thing.
Any special guests lined up for the Dublin shows?
All our aunties and uncles – they’re very special guests (laughs). The Dublin shows are in many ways the most work offstage. Onstage is great, but offstage there’s always so many people to say hello to. And it’s wonderful, but it’s also... it can be quite a lot.
The Dublin shows are essentially charity shows, because you’re donating the €2million profits to Music Generation. Do you do that anywhere else for any other cause?
No, it’s an Irish thing. We’ve done it for years. Once we started touring and doing big shows, I think we’ve always done it. We want to make those Dublin shows very special. There’s always been something we want to help support. We’re just so proud of the Music Generation initiative. It’s going so well. It’s hugely successful and making a big difference, so we’re very proud to be part of it.
You have houses in Dublin, the south of France and in Malibu. Where do you call home?
The place I feel like is home is Dublin. That’s the centre of all my activities, where all my stuff is, and all my people. My sister lives there, so definitely Dublin. There is a bit of a gypsy in me. I do love travel as well as finding new places, exploring places. So I love Dublin, and yet I also love to be in California, New York and London, where we are at the moment.
Where are you off to next?
Glasgow. We’re actually running out the door in a minute to get on the plane. The Glasgow audience are great. They and the Dublin audience, I think, are the two that are the most energetic of all our audiences in this part of the world. I can’t think of an audience that is more fun to play for because of that. South America is great. But Dublin and Glasgow, the audiences are just amazing.