The Edge on U2's 'Songs of Experience,' Bono's 'Brush With Mortality'

The guitarist explains how the political climate and a major scare in the singer's life caused the band to rethink their upcoming album

U2 guitarist the Edge explains how a major scare in Bono's life caused big changes to the band's new LP 'Songs of Experience.' Credit: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic

The past three years have tested U2 in different ways, from the fierce backlash they received for gifting 2014's Songs of Innocence to every iTunes user to Bono's devastating bicycle accident, which left him with several fractured bones and a shattered left arm. But those setbacks didn't compare to another crisis Bono faced last year. "He had a brush with mortality," says the Edge, choosing his words carefully (the band won't go into detail on the matter). "He definitely had a serious moment, which caused him to reflect on a lot of things."

The episode caused the band to rethink Songs of Experience, a companion to Songs of Innocence that they had already been working on for more than two years. The resulting LP features less of the slick production that defined Innocence, in favor of a more classic formula: propulsive guitar rockers and ballads that look inward. "I wanted the people around me that I loved to know exactly how I felt," says Bono. "So a lot of the songs are kind of letters – letters to [my wife] Ali, letters to my sons and daughters."

The day after U2 played a show at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Edge called up Rolling Stone to talk about the long road to Songs of Experience and look ahead to next year's arena tour in support of the album. (We also conducted an extensive email interview with Bono that will be going up shortly.)

I see you guys debuted "You're the Best Thing About Me" last night. How did that go?
I wouldn't say it was the best we'll ever play it, but it was good. We hadn't played there recently and the crowd was really into it. I think it was one of the better shows.

You started Songs of Experience in 2014, and some of the shows go back even before that. The world has changed so much since then. How did those external factors change the focus and scope of the album?
Mostly what we wanted to do was sit back and see how we felt about it coming out into a world that had taken a big lurch in a different direction. We weren't assuming we'd have to start again and, in fact, we didn't need to. The changes that occurred were predominantly lyrical, and in some cases they were quite subtle. A couple of songs subtly shifted to just sort of emphasize one aspect or better express what we were feeling and the ideas we wanted to put into it. But from a musical point of view, what happened with this delay, which was kind of amazing and great, is that we had all of the songs figured out and most of them recorded to the extent that they were releasable towards September of last year. But a year ago we were kind of feeling that we wanted to explore other production approaches and other ways the songs could be arranged and performed. We felt the band chemistry wasn't as represented as we thought it maybe ought to be.

So in the fall of last year we went back into a room as a band, initially without Bono and then he joined us for a couple of days at the end of the period, and we just played the songs. We played them with half an eye and ear to how they might be performed in a live concert setting. Part of the reason for doing that is that we always went through this kind of routine where we'd record our album, put it out and and then we'd start rearranging the songs live. Then our producers would show up halfway through the tour and they'd be like, "Oh, shit, man, that tune is sounding so cool now. I really wish we'd had that arrangement on the album." Steve Lillywhite used to say, "You guys should finish the album, go on tour with it, learn it, understand the songs fully, and then go back in the studio and re-record it in a week."

We didn't quite do that. We didn't get to perform in front of an audience, but by going back to the rehearsal space and then actually going back to the studio to re-record some of the songs we were able to find a synthesis of the raw band performances and some of the stuff we had created before. We'd sort of import keyboard performances and little ideas we liked from pervious versions and find a way to put them in. It became kind of the best of the band chemistry mixed in with the best of the 21st-century production technology. It's given it a more interesting aesthetic.

I spoke to Bono a couple of months ago and he said he felt that Songs of Innocence lacked a coherence to the production and should have been more raw.
There's this dichotomy to production standards these days where the music listener is used to really precise and simple, stripped-down arrangements so the inaccuracies of a band playing in a room where everything bleeds into everything else is not what's happening. It sounds, dare I say it, old-fashioned. We love when that works for us and we love that feel of people playing in a room, when it sounds fresh. But I think we're also wary of the fact that that sound is associated with 20, 30 years ago. We need to make sure, as we always have done, that we are part of a current conversation that's going in music culture in terms of production, songwriting, melodic structure, all the things that keep the culture moving forward.

What we don't want to be is caught in what I describe as a cultural oxbow lake where others are moving forward and you're still faithfully doing what you've always done, but now you're anachronistic and part of a historical form rather than what's actually pushing the boundaries forward, the flow of where it's going. We'll usually try to have our cake and eat it. We want it both: the hallmarks of the classic band, which is becoming more and more rare, but we also don't want to be perceived, and we don't want to be, a veteran act out of touch with the culture. It's a dance. It's a balance. If we allowed the album to be one extreme or another it would be wrong. It's finding that balance between what we do as a band naturally and then what we can still do in the studio. And the studio is still a songwriting tool for us and the production process is still a songwriting process as well as a production process.

I guess that balance is why you brought in so many different producers for this album.
Yeah. I mean, they don't necessarily all work on every song. We ending up bringing in Steve Lillywhite, who we just had this wonderful relationship with in terms of getting in the room and working out arrangements and the minutiae of drum parts and guitar parts. Steve is just a wonderful facilitator for all of us go kind of get into ideas and refine our thing. We've also got Jacknife Lee, who we have worked with for many years. He's got this fascination with hip-hop production and he also works with guitar bands, so he has a foot in a couple of different camps.

Then you have Andy Barlow. He's a full on electronica and synthesizer producer that's not really used to bands or guitars, but he's amazing in other ways. Ryan Tedder is an amazing collaborator and his melodic sense is just so strong. When we're around Ryan these songs get better and better. The choruses get better. The hooks get better. The arrangements get more lean and more focused. And then Jolyon Thomas is a great state-of-the-art rock & roll producer in that he gets and loves bands. He gets and loves guitars, but at the same time what is the right guitar sound so you don't come across like you aren't right up to the minute. There are subtle things sometimes, just the difference between a White Stripes guitar sound and a Led Zeppelin guitar sound. In some ways it's a subtle thing, but in other ways they are worlds apart.

Is Steve your closer? Do you bring him in at the end to see it all out?
Hmmm ... Yes and no. I think in this instance, it was more for the organic side of the record. He came in to work on that. At times, we had almost rival versions. We'd have a song like "The Blackout" where we almost had two versions of it. There would be a more organic version and then in a studio upstairs we had another version that was slightly more 21st century, slight more stripped down. We put the album together on a case-by-case basis. "Well, this one can be a little more organic because that one is a bit more processed and disciplined sonically." You probably noticed that the version of "You're the Best Thing About Me" that we released is quite different than the one we are playing live, and the final mix is like six weeks away.

How do you guys pick between songs? What is the process?
The process is that we slowly sort of start to put the cornerstone songs in place and then we fill in around them and get clues about the overall identity of the record. For me, one of the breakthrough tune was "The Lights in Front of Me," which is now called "The Lights of Home." We had very rock & roll verses in it that sounded really great, but it was a little retro. We kind of knew it was in the running because we just loved it so much, and then Jacknife did a more stripped-down arrangement. The drums were sort of an open question, so Larry went in and played drums, so it had the discipline of a very contemporary production, but then with this amazing, very beautifully played human drum part on top of it. I think because it was recorded on its own it can kind of occupy the sound spectrum that it does. It still sounds really modern, but it almost sounds like it has a hip-hop influence or rather an R&B influence than a rock one. Anyway, those small little clues sometimes make you go, "OK, wow, that's the synthesis we're trying to achieve here."

In the case of "You're the Best Thing About Me," we were really excited about the mix we had six weeks ago. Then we started talking about how we were going to play it live and I went back to some early demos and found this one that had done at a point when we were experimenting with different arrangement ideas. It was an experiment we hadn't pursued and I thought, "This would be a good approach if we play it live," which we did on the Jimmy Fallon show. It's a fleshed-out approach with some new guitars.

Then Bono came into the studio to listen to it and was like, "OK, something is happening here. It's a better song now. I can't explain why, but I'm feeling something off this." So we kind of went off in a panic with us working furiously with two days to go before we had to turn the single in and get it to everybody for their consideration. We ended up agreeing that the simplicity, the rawness of it offers a counterbalance to the lyric and melody, which is very classic. It's a love song and it kind of takes it in a more convincing way. Somehow the song seems better - and it was totally last minute.

Are you guys now done with the album?
To the extent that we have a running order, title, mixes agreed on with tiny, little nuances where we want to make tiny changes. So yeah, it's absolutely ready to go beside the last polish. We are very happy with it.

What are the last polishes?
Just a polish, not substantial. Nothing that anyone other than the band would be able to tell because we have the mixes done and we are trying to find our favorites. We might like the mix, but maybe there's a lyric change that hasn't been put into the mix. ... It's really just final little tweaks.

You told me about Bono's "brush with mortality." Can you elaborate a little?
We were well into the process of making the album and it kind of influenced the lyric direction and where he ended up. It was sort of taken from a Brendan Kennelly quote. He's an Irish poet and he once said to us as a piece of advice that he always found it useful to write as if you were dead. The inference is that it frees you of having to justify later or be delicate or be anything other than a pure expression of your essence and what's crucial to you.

Bono held onto that quote, that idea, and he wrote a lot of these lyrics as letters to certain people that are very important people in his life, the U2 fans being some and his family being others, friends, whoever. These became like a series of letters in the back of his mind. He was thinking, "If I'm not around, what would I like to leave behind?" And these lyrics have a certain power to them. I think it clearly brought him to a place where he wanted to write about the essential things. Of course, by the time we finished the record the political aspect started to be brought back into it more, so it became a synthesis of very personal lyrics with political references about what's going on.

I heard "Summer of Love," which was clearly about refugees.
There was a lot that went into that, but one of the jumping-off points was a CNN story about the gardener of Aleppo. It's about this guy who ran a garden in Aleppo that he kept going through the entire war. It was a political statement to the entire world that he kept this garden going. He was this deeply philosophical character and to him it was an act of defiance to grow flowers in the middle of Aleppo. He actually wound up getting killed in an air raid, so it was a very sad ending, but Bono was really inspired by his defiance. When were looking at that song, we decided that should be the focus geographically.

The first lines of "The Blackout" are "A dinosaur wonders why it still walks the earth." Are you singing about being a rock band in 2017?
I think it's that, but he's also talking about where we go from here and I think there's more of a political aspect and there's also a Donald Trump reference. What's fun about some of these songs is that there are two songs happening almost in parallel.

Are going to to release this album in a normal fashion?
I think at this point I'm pretty much committed to releasing it in cooperation with all the stakeholders in the business of releasing music rather than trying to, as we did on the last record, find a single outlet and get behind that. Part of why I think that seems appropriate for this moment is that although the music industry is so fragmented and it's getting harder and harder to get noticed at all because there are so many different outlets and so much noise and activity and so many albums coming out, it's a moment for us to find a coalition of partners that are excited by this work.

We've done a lot of connecting with radio because radio, even though you could argue it's been superseded by Internet outlets and streaming and digital, social networks and all that, the truth is that radio is still a dedicated format for music. We're really inspired by the potential of reaching out on a human level to a community of people who run and work in radio stations. They're all people like us that fell in love with music and ended up finding a way to work in a world that's dedicated to music, so we've just been meeting a lot of people. It's been a lot of fun. I think it will be interesting to see how the album release goes. I think it's developing word of mouth in a comity of people who really care about music.

So on Day One it will be available on Spotify, Apple, Tidal ...
Yeah, we're working with everybody. That's our mantra right now. We're prepared to work with everybody.

I know you're going back to arenas on the tour next year. Are you thinking about the set list yet? In addition to the new songs, are you going to play different old ones than the ones you're doing on the Joshua Tree tour?
What we have right now are strong working assumptions rather than a plan we're signed off on. So yes, the strong working assumption is that we are doing arenas next year and promoting the album. We're going to play North America and Europe and probably further afield. We're in the planning stages now and talking about the production and all that, so I would expect that's what we'll do. But of course, until its a fully figured-out plan, I don't know.

Have you thought much about the set list or that's too far away?
We're not at that stage, but we'll start thinking about it pretty soon. What's interesting is that we've got these two albums are are companion releases: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. I mean, we could do a tour of just those two albums. That would an interesting proposition. It's probably not what we're going to do, but there are very interesting options to explore. Are we just going to play this new album and some classic U2 songs or are we going to do songs from Songs of Innocence too? In some ways, I'd like to perform Songs of Innocence again because we didn't do as many shows last time as we could have and I think as a show it really worked. I'd love to do some more. At this point, we have the freedom to do what we want.

Might you do no songs from The Joshua Tree just to counterbalance this year's tour?
I think it's pretty clear that having played those songs for the summer and actually most of the year if you really think about it, it would be a good idea to take a break from it.

It would be unheard of to do a show without at least "Where the Streets Have No Name."
Yeah. I think that maybe we've done one tour without "Where the Streets Have No Name" in the set. I wouldn't say it would be unheard of, but it would be unusual. But I wouldn't rule it out. We have a lot of songs and we like to rest them from time to time because sometimes they get to a place where it starts to lose its deeper resonance. The emotional aspect of any U2 song is the jumping-off point. You never want to be in a situation where you're playing a song that feel like you're doing it by rote.

To start wrapping up here, this year is the 20th anniversary of Pop. Are you aware of the cult that's grown around it in the U2 fan community?
Well, it's something I've only recently became aware of. I love the record and I think there are some great things on it. But at the time we released it was the one that sort of got away slightly because it was rushed. We'd committed to the tour and if we had more time I think we all feel it would have been more fully realized. We started out trying to make a dance-culture record and then realized at the end there are things we can do that no EDM producer or artist can do, so let's try and have it both ways. In that case, we probably went too far in the other direction. We probably needed to allow a bit more of the electronica to survive.

I think songs like "Please" and "Gone" have aged very well.
I love both those songs. I even like "Wake Up Dead Man." I love that tune. One of the tunes I was trying to persuade everyone to play on the last tour was "Playboy Mansion." But I think Pop is a great record. I was very proud of it by the end of the tour. We finally figured it out by the time we made the DVD. It was an amazing show that I'm really proud of.

Totally random question, but is there any chance you'd ever play "Lady With the Spinning Head" live? I love that song and the fans would just go insane.
[Laughs] Could, yeah [sounding very unenthused] ... I mean, it's funny. That tune was the first we worked on when we were doing very, very, very early demos [for Achtung Baby]. I was very inspired by what was coming out of Manchester then. There was this new rhythmic sensibility that was absolutely a synthesis of rock & roll and the club culture from the Hacienda with bands like Happy Mondays and Charlatans and New Order. It was such an incredible era of music, so when we went into the studio I was using drum machines and I was trying to find a way into a more rhythmic approach. "Lady With the Spinning Head" was a prototype song and as we went through the process of what we call cell division. It became "The Fly," it became "Zoo Station" and it became "Light My Way." It ended up being three songs on Achtung Baby.

We're still playing "Light My Way" on this tour. But yeah, I like that tune. It's the raw version with all the textures we ended up putting into other songs that became monsters, but it's the DNA for a lot of that album.

Finally, I see that you're doing a snippet of "Drowning Man" during "One" at some shows. That's getting closer to my dream of getting the whole song live.
We had taken a stab at "Drowning Man" [for the 360° Tour ]. I think it's about finding the right setting for some songs. Although we got close to doing it live, it was something that just didn't fit the moment and the production. I think we will definitely get to that that song live one day, but I think it maybe will have to be in a more intimate setting, maybe with additional instruments. But I'd love to do that. It's one of my favorites. I remember even thinking at the time, "Oh, maybe that's a single." I just love it and have a real soft spot for that kind of thing.