Inside U2's 'Innocence' Spectacle: A Backstage Q&A With Bono and Edge

Memories and megascreens: the band breaks down their arena takeover from the ceiling to the set lists

The Edge and Bono reveal what went into planning the 'Innocence + Experience' tour. Credit: Chelsea Lauren/Getty

It's about 25 hours before U2 kick off their Innocence + Experience tour at Vancouver's Rogers Arena and Bono is sitting on a plush couch in a backstage lounge near the Edge. He's fiddling with a laptop and looking at a CDR recorded at a recent tour rehearsal. Right outside the door, walkie talkie-wielding tour personnel frantically run about as they prepare for the big night, but Bono seems completely relaxed. Adam Clayton walks in, hands him a cup of tea and then vanishes. We're instructed to sit between Bono and the Edge, knowing their schedule is insanely tight and they only have 20 minutes to chat.

We have 21 questions prepared, but since Bono isn't a man known for his brevity, we only manage to ask about eight. But the band manages to cover a lot of ground – even if we don't get to discuss the status of Songs of Experience or see if they're finally willing to cave and perform super rarities "Acrobat" and "Drowning Man" at some point on the tour.

When you first started sketching out ideas this tour, what were your goals? What did you want to accomplish?
The Edge: I guess we decided pretty early on that we wanted to start indoors and see how that felt. Then it was really just a question of, "If we're gonna be indoors and do something in contrast to that last outdoor tour, what is that going to be like?" The venue was the first consideration. What can we do that's unique for that indoor venue?

Bono, how about you?
Bono: As a kind of challenge to us, to ourselves, we had this idea that we should play the first few songs only under one lightbulb. That was a discipline since the beginning. We're not being literal about it now, but it's symbolic. We've taken it as a symbol through the show. The lightbulb is a symbol of everybody's intimate lives. The lives of their bedroom. The lives of their kitchen. The lives away from the spotlight. Ten Cedarwood Road and the box room in Cedarwood Road had a lightbulb with no cover on it because I thought that was cool at the time. That place is that the incubator of ideas, the incubator of early songs, the incubator of early ambitions to follow women home from school and plot to see them on the weekend.

Everybody is formed in those spaces. I've been telling people for years that megalomania wasn't necessarily innate with me. It was whispered into my ear by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, later Joe Strummer. The idea that your ideas may have some value for others, at its core, is an arrogant one. That's where it started for me, under that lightbulb.

"It can be tough being a U2 fan because we've been around a long time. People either love us or loathe us."–Bono

I guess the challenge when creating a tour like this is to do something different. It must have been hard to think of something new and fresh.
The Edge: New, fresh and affordable was the thing we wanted to try and do. At some early meetings we really were pushing the envelope of what was possible. We had all kinds of inflatable rooms floating around the arena, some crazy ideas. It's funny how it always seems to work for us that we allow ourselves to think without any constraints, and slowly in the process of trying to get more practical, more tight with everything, you end up with some of the same ideas. For instance, the bedroom is still there. It's not a floating bedroom. It's now part of the divider screen that we use.

The first thing was to allow the imagination to run wild and then start reigning it back in. Then practical things start to apply like, "How much weight can the roof of a venue take?" We're flying all the PA, we're flying this big screen. We're going to the absolute nth degree of what's possible.

By hanging the speakers evenly throughout the venue, you get a much better sound than anything I've ever heard.
The Edge: We're sort of scratching our head wondering why it's never been done. It's a great way to deal with sound in a venue. Everyone up to this point, us included, has always put all the speakers at one end, by the stage, and blasted all the sound the fell length of the venue. What we're doing with this show is following the contour of the circumference of the building and putting the speakers above the people. So you sit no further than maybe 50 feet from a set of speakers. Everything is delivering sound at the same time, so you don't have any of the time alignment issues of other speakers.

Bono: Are there not some sound algorithms involved?

The Edge: No. There doesn't have to be.

Bono: Are you sure?

The Edge: Yeah!

Bono: Some people think it sounds 20 percent better than any sound system in an arena. If we're playing shit, that's not going to matter. You'll just hear the shit more clearly.

The Edge: It's really because the speakers are so close to you that there's no time alignment required. It basically gives everybody the sound at the same time. 

Can you talk a bit about dividing the arena in two with the LED screens and the philosophy behind that?
Bono: That's an experiment that we're really only going to see tomorrow for the first time. But look, we're a very divisive band I'm told, although one of the great music critics, Robert Hilburn, said, "The great thing about a Rolling Stones show is that you get to feel great about who you are. The great thing about a U2 show is you get to feel good about who is standing next to you." 

We do have a unifying thing within our audience, but outside of Madison Square Garden it can be tough being a U2 fan because we've been around a long time. We elicit very strong feelings from people. People either love us or loathe us. On the last album, No Line on the Horizon, a song called "Cedars of Lebanon," there's a line that says, "Pick your enemies carefully because they'll define you. Make them interesting." That's because they're going to be with you all your life. The core idea behind the Innocence + Experience tour is this movement from "them and us" to "there is no them, only us."

When we were younger our enemies were clearly drawn, very visible to us. They were very real, they weren't imagined. And we organized against them, whether that's with Amnesty International or anti-apartheid groups. As you get older, you start to discover that the greatest enemy you will encounter in your life is often yourself. You are the biggest obstacle in your own way. Suddenly then the landscape changes. I don't know who wrote the line, "I have met my enemy and it's partly right," but it's a great line. It's a book title. When there's no clearly defined "us" and "them," the world changes shape. It's harder to negotiate. It's really your own hypocrisy in the crosshairs. We started that journey with Achtung Baby and Zoo TV. It continues today, but what's happened recently is that I've personally been revisiting the black-and-white monochrome days, because I miss that person.

"The breaking down of the fourth wall has been the theme of all of U2's live shows."–Bono

I'll give you a lyric from [the upcoming U2 album] Songs of Experience. "I was living a lie. I was calling it a compromise. I was making bad deals in front of everyone's eyes. Deals now everyone denies. I was giving evidence in the court of the hearts desire, falsifying documents, virtue thrown in the fire. Sometimes I wish that I was stupid and you were not so smart. Overcome the head will always overcome the heart." The chorus goes, "Lead me in the way I should go. I'm running out of chances to blow. That's what you told me and you should know. Lead me in the way I should be. Unravel the mystery of the heart and its defense. The morning after innocence." The song is called "The Morning After Innocence."

Then it goes, "Is that your fountain pen? Navy with a nib of gold. Could you write your name again and do anything you were told in 10 Cedarwood Road. I'm your older self, the song of experience. I've come to ask for help from your song of innocence. Lead me in the way I should go. I'm running out of chances to blow. That's what you told me and you should know."

So, the older self is coming and asking the younger one for hope. It's interesting. It's a reverse. That happens in this show. What happens in this show is the younger self harangues, harasses, the older self. That's what we were just practicing out there trying to figure out in "Bullet the Blue Sky." The guy who used to be on the barricades in black and white comes up to the guy who is on the other side of the barricades and says, "What are you doing here?" He says, "It takes everybody. It takes the blues, the greens, the me's, the you." He goes into this rant. That's the dialectic at the heart of the tour from a lyrical perspective.

Then from a visual perspective, you have analog vs. visual. Some of the artwork is handmade, drawn printed, vs. distressed, treated. Musically, you have the simplicity of the three piece, the rock band, and then you get to a more electronic thing in Experience. Sorry. You probably regret asking that question.

Can you tell me the process of putting together the set list and how you order the songs?
The Edge: That's a very complicated question, particularly for what we're doing here. There's a lot of consideration. He wanted to have a lightbulb over the stage for the first few numbers, which presented itself as U2 stripped back in the innocence moment of the band, referring to those early years where we formed and influenced by the music of the late 1970 and early 1980s, post-punk and punk music. That was our starting out point, where we were going to open the show. Then it was like, "OK, where do we go from there?" It's been a process of trying to move forward beyond that first phase of the show and bring it to a conclusion that felt like we could sign up to it and believe in it. We have a lot of songs from the different eras. It's funny how you take an old song, but it in a different part of the set, and it suddenly has a new meaning.

The fans somehow got their hands on some rehearsal set lists and you're doing "I Will Follow" and "Out of Control" early. I take it that's you beginning of the show with the beginning of the band.
The Edge: That's the thinking. It works. It's a great place to begin, like at some of our earliest shows at clubs in Dublin. One that we played in was called McGonagle's, so we say this is the McGonagle's moment of the show. Of course, that couldn't be more simple to stage. Then we take advantage of these amazing pieces of hardware we've built for the show. It gets pretty cool and pretty psychedelic and surreal, and then we take it to somewhere else again. There's really four different phases within the show of quite different feelings. Then we're tying it together. Making the emotional arc of it work is the real challenge. 

Bono: When looking at the hardware, what's great about it is that it isn't all that intrusive when unlit. You can see through it. You can be forgiven for thinking, "This is a long way from punk rock." But what was at the heart of punk rock for us was the desire to communicate on an equal basis with your audience, meaning there's no division between you and the people that come to see you. Indeed, we ended up in our audience a lot of the time. We ended up sleeping in people's homes and they in our bedrooms. There was that democracy.

Iggy Pop was always the ultimate performer for me. That guy was not satisfied, at all, with just being on the stage. The breaking down of the fourth wall has been the theme of all of U2's live shows. That goes back to running into that audience in Los Angeles with a white flag and, rather bizarrely, ending up in a fistfight, in our own audience, with the flag of non-violence. I ended up losing my head. It was pathetic. But to developing the B stage, the satellite stage, we were the first to do that once in-ear monitors were invented and it was possible. Then instead of just looking at video reinforcement, which again we were were early on with, we turned it into a new canvas with Zoo TV, and then with Popmart onto the next level. All of those innovations came out of thinking, back in 1979, "There's no them, only us." Make the back seat of the hall the best seat is your duty as a performer.

Does your inability to play guitar does that change anything? Is it hard to play "One" now because you always played on that?
Bono: You know, I always thought I took away from it when I played on it. I know we're laughing that the band doesn't seem to miss my guitar playing very much, but I don't miss it that much onstage. I miss it offstage. I miss it now. I miss it in the dressing room. I miss it when you want to write something and you can't hear what's in your head. We've got Terry World also. Terry [Lawless] is down there playing keyboards or he'll do something to cover, or else, we'll just strip it down. Yesterday we stripped "Mysterious Ways" down to just an acoustic guitar. It's great fun. It works.

I've seen a list of 43 songs that you've rehearsed. How much is the show going to change from the first to a second night in a city?
The Edge: We have to get one show we're happy with and then we'll figure it out.

How different do you think the show will be a few weeks or months from now?
Bono: I was thinking today at soundcheck that we don't have much of an acoustic section. I would love on a second night to consider doing 30 minutes acoustic, why not? So, we can play it. How many songs did you say we've rehearsed?

I saw a list of 43.
Bono: Edge, would you say that's true?

The Edge: I've gone through 60 songs for the tour. I haven't played all of them with the band. I've got 60. I counted. On the note of him playing guitar, I do miss it. I particularly miss it when I have to go into a solo and there's no Bono there to back me up. I'm like, "Oh shit. This is quite a different thing."

Bono: If you listen to a lot of the groups in the 1970s, Edge, they don't have a lot of backing. Even the Who. It puts more emphasis on the bass, but thank you for saying that. It's much appreciated.