Bono on How U2's 'Songs of Experience' Evolved, Taking on Donald Trump

"I've always believed in working across the aisle ... but there's a bully on the bully pulpit and silence is not an option," says the U2 frontman

Bono explains why U2 took so long to release 'Songs of Experience' and why he's decided to speak out against Donald Trump. Credit: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

Shortly before the Edge got on the phone with Rolling Stone to talk about U2's upcoming LP Songs of Experience, Bono's "brush with mortality" that sent the album into a different lyrical direction and his thoughts about the band's upcoming arena tour, we sent the singer a bunch of questions via email. It was a day off between between shows and he didn't want to blow out his voice chatting on the phone. Here is our complete exchange with Bono. 

You started this album three years ago when the world was a very different place. How did the chaos of Brexit, Trump and everything else shape the eventual course of the album? Would it have been a very different album had those things not happened?
On the latter part of the question, it's hard to quantify but I would say the emotional temperature is up about 25 percent.

You've spent the past few months playing The Joshua Tree on tour as you put the finishing touches on the album. Has the tour impacted how you thought about Songs of Experience? How?
In truth, there's a couple of reasons why we delayed Songs of Experience. One personal, one political. The world around us was certainly changing out of all recognition, we nearly lost the European Union, something that has helped keep the peace in our region for nearly 70 years. Globalization replaced with localization is somewhat understandable, but the return of hard right views is not to be tolerated. If Marie La Pen had been elected president of France, the whole idea of a European Union would have been vulnerable.

You've had the same sort of disaffection in the United States with the rise of a new kind of constituency, people on the both left and right who have lost faith in political process, the body politic, in political institutions. These sentiments are easily played and manipulated by the likes of Donald Trump. In a world where people feel bullied by their circumstance, sometimes people fall prey to a bully of their own. Lots of people around me, both conservative and liberal, feel that this is one of those defining moments in their life and in the storied life of their country. After the election, some people on the left were almost grieving I'd say and when I try to understand this, I realized there was a kind of mourning, a mourning for innocence that was lost.

For the first time in many years, maybe in our lifetime, the moral arc of the universe, as Dr. King used to call it, was not bending in the direction of fairness, equality and justice for all. The baseness of political debate, the jingoism, the atavistic fervor of Trump's verbiage reminded us that we were dreaming if we thought evolution applied to consciousness. Democracy is a blip in history and it requires a lot of focus and concentration to keep it intact.

"The Blackout," which started off its life about a more personal apocalypse, some events in my life that more than reminded me of my mortality but then segued into the political dystopia that we're heading towards now. "Dinosaur, wonders why it still walks the earth. A meteor promises it's not going to hurt" would have been a funny line about an aging rock star. It's a little less funny if we're talking about democracy and old certainties – like truth. The second verse "Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack. We had it all and what we had is not coming back, Zac. A big mouth says the people they don't want to be free for free. The blackout, is this an extinction event we see?" goes straight to the bigger picture of what's at stake in the world right now.

There's a song called "Get Out of Your Own Way" where I've tried to use some biting irony to reflect the anger out on the streets "Fight back, don't take it lying down you've got to bite back. The face of liberty is starting to crack, she had a plan until she got a smack in the mouth and it all went south like freedom. The slaves are looking for someone to lead 'em, the master's looking for someone to need him. The promised land is there for those who need it most and Lincoln's ghost says get out of your own way."

Many of your albums were made with either a single producer or the team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Why have you moved towards working with so many different producers on single albums?
Since The Joshua Tree, I don't think we've done an album with less than four producers. Though Flood is not credited as a producer on The Joshua Tree, his input was extraordinary. Achtung Baby, he was credited as a producer along with Eno, Lanois and [Steve] Lillywhite. Four producers seems to be the way for us, one for each member of the band. By the way, that's a joke. I think actually there's five on this one.

When we spoke a few months ago, you were critical of the production on 'Songs of Innocence,' saying it lacked "coherence," "should have been more raw" and that some of the songs worked better live. What did you do this time to make sure that didn't happen again?
Thomas Friedman in his book Thank You For Being Late speaks of how machines when they're put on pause cease productivity, but humans when they're put on pause begin a different kind of productivity. The pause on our album gave us a chance to play our songs live in the studio, strip them down to their bare essentials without any studio trickery to see what we really had. That was a great gift to the album even though in some cases we didn't want to run with the live feel, we learnt so much about the songs and that helped with cohesiveness.

On The Tonight Show you added lyrics to "Bullet the Blue Sky" that were unambiguously about Trump. Is that a sign you're going to become (even more) vocal about the dangers he poses to the world?
It is a little bit of a departure as I've always believed in working across the aisle as an anti-poverty activist but this isn't a matter of right or left. There's a bully on the bully pulpit and silence is not an option.

You've talked about how you want U2 to create joy in these insane times. Can you elaborate on that?
Unlike happiness, joy is one of the hardest human emotions to contrive for an artist but it is the mark of my favorite artists whether that be the Beatles, Prince, Beethoven, Oasis. It is life force itself. And I think something to do with the spilling over of gratitude for just being alive. Indeed as I think of it, Beethoven has his "Ode to Joy." The Supremes singing "Stop in the Name of Love" to me is one of the great anti-war songs. Although think it's about a lover's betrayal, the highness of the melody, the simplicity of the statement could be Ramones, could be Coldplay but I don't think there's anything more defiant than joy in difficult times. And the essence of romance is defiance. This is where rock & roll came in, this is what makes us useful. We must resist surrendering to melancholy for only the most special moments. That's a long way to say check our new single out, "You're the Best Thing About Me," it's kind of like punk Supremes.

What are the common themes that tie the songs on Songs of Experience together?
I try not to talk about William Blake too much because it sounds pretentious quoting such a literary giant but it was his great idea I pinched to compare the person we become through experience to the person who set out on the journey. If you're talking about innocence, you've probably already lost it but I do believe at the far end of experience, it's possible to recover it with wisdom. I'm not saying I have much of that but what little I have, I wanted to cram into these songs. I know U2 go into every album like it's their last one but even more this time I wanted the people around me that I loved to know exactly how I felt. So a lot of the songs are kind of letters, letters to Ali, letters to my sons and daughters, actually our sons and daughters.

There's a song called "The Showman" which is a letter to our audience, it's kind of about performers and how you shouldn't trust them too much. It's about me, haha. There's a funny line, well, I think it's funny anyway, "I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.?

It's like a Fifties Beatles-in-Hamburg type tune. There's a letter to America called "American Soul," Kendrick Lamar used a bit of this for "XXX" on his new album. And one that I didn't realize until too late that I was writing to myself, "It's the Little Things Give You Away." In all of these advice type songs, you are of course preaching what you need to hear. In that sense, they're all written to the singer. One other piece on Blake, I don't know if I'm explaining too much here but the best songs for me are often arguments with yourself or arguments with some other version of yourself. Even singing our song "One," which was half fiction, I've had this ongoing fight. In "Little Things," innocence challenges experience: "I saw you on the stairs, you didn't notice I was there, that's cause you were busy talking at me, not to me. You were high above the storm, a hurricane being born but this freedom just might cost you your liberty."

At the end of the song, experience breaks down and admits his deepest fears, having been called out on it by his younger, braver, bolder self. That same conversation also opens the album with a song called" Love Is All We Have Left." My favorite opening line to a U2 album: "There's nothing to stop this being the best day ever." In the second verse, innocence admonishes experience: "Now you're at the other end of the telescope, seven billion stars in her eyes, so many stars so many ways of seeing, hey, this is no time not to be alive." It's a chilling moment – in the chorus I was pretending to be Frank Sinatra singing on the moon, a sci-fi torch song "love, love is all we have left, a baby cries on the doorstep, love is all we have left."