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On the Outside with the Edge

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Have you gone through any other rough periods, when you've questioned what you're doing?
No. For a while, I wanted to be this sort of Renaissance man in the group, doing soundtracks and producing other people and that kind of thing. But I tell you, being a great rock & roll band is not easy, and I've realized that if we want to be a great rock & roll group, there's little time for anything else, really.

What's the hardest thing about it?
Being brilliant. [Laughs] That's a bitch! No, seriously, though, there are very few brilliant rock & roll bands around. There have been a handful since rock & roll was invented. There are a lot of really average groups out there who get away with it. But that never would be good enough for us.

So you consider U2 to be a brilliant rock band?
Well, I think The Joshua Tree is a brilliant album. But it's not brilliant enough for me. I'm very proud of that record, though. It's the closest we've come to what we wanted to do. The Unforgettable Fire was a very mixed record, a lot of experiments. But with The Joshua Tree we really set out to write songs and work with the song as a sort of limitation. And now I don't feel nearly as much need to innovate as I would have earlier on. I feel more at home with the idea of working within classic areas.

But doesn't the magnitude of your success pose a problem for the band creatively? Now people expect a certain "U2 sound" or a specific "Edge sound."
That makes us immediately want to change it. Instantly. When we recorded the War album, even at that stage we were trying to kill this idea of the U2 sound. I don't mind having a characteristic style of playing, but the idea that this is a band with a sort of formula sound really appalls me. So The Joshua Tree had a lot of songs that were really very untypical, and that will continue, probably more so, on the next few records.

What about your guitar playing? There certainly seem to be a lot of Edge imitators out there these days.
Well, you're always going to get that, and it's flattering in a way. But I think anyone who tries to sound like me has already missed the point, really. What I'm interested in is what new guitar players sound like. It's great to hear somebody coming out with something new. Like Johnny Marr — I thought that was an interesting thing he was doing with the Smiths. That high-life-y quality was something I hadn't heard before. I always thought the guy with Magazine [John McGeoch] was good. Again, it was something different.

I'm not a fan of the million-miles-per-second guitar player. That's more a form of athletics than anything else. It's not really about music . . . . Peter Buck from R.E.M. is also good. Good in that nothing he ever does really bowls you over – until you've heard it about twenty times. I think that's a sign of music that really has longevity, when it grows on you like that. I like R.E.M. Maybe it needs a few more records to be brilliant, but it's great now.

What guitarists did you listen to as a kid? Did you like people like Eric Clapton?
I was probably a bit young for him. My brother had a couple of Cream albums, but I really missed Clapton. I missed most of those guys. I mean, I would have been eight when Woodstock happened. So it kind of went by me. But I've been playing guitar for some time now. I got my first guitar when I was about nine years old. It took me five years to learn how to tune it. [Laughs] But it was easy from there on.

Was that the guitar your mother bought you?
It was the one before that. The one my mother bought me I learnt how to tune. The one I had before that was like this little Spanish guitar. It looked good. That was part of it. I mean, I liked guitars at that stage. I stopped looking at them for a while. But I've started to notice how amazing they look again.

That's one of the things that attracted me to rock & roll. Initially, there's that feeling of potential, of power, when you strap on an electric guitar. And then you learn that what it's really about is controlling that power. I mean, the guitar has been a big part of rock & roll. I just can't imagine Elvis holding a violin!

How did you develop your style of playing?
I can't really pick out influences. It's very hard. I used to mention Tom Verlaine a lot. I like him — I mean, Marquee Moon was a great album – but I think what I took from Verlaine was not really his style but the fact that he did something no one else had done. And I liked that; I thought that was valuable. I mean, I knew more what I didn't want to sound like than what I wanted to sound like early on, when we first formed the group.

In some ways that's why my playing is so minimal. Play as few notes as you can, but find those notes that do the most work. It became a whole way of working. If I could play one note for a whole song, I would. "I Will Follow" is almost that.

How did you start using the different effects, like echo?
Oh, yeah — the discovery of the echo unit. When we first started writing songs, I started working with what I later found out to be very Irish musical ideas, like using open strings, alternating those with fretted strings to produce drone type of things. And then when we went in to do some demos, I thought it might be neat if I got hold of an echo unit. Actually, it was Bono's idea for me to go and get it.

So I borrowed some money from a friend and got this really cheap Memory Man echo unit. We wrote "11 O'Clock Tick Tock" and then "A Day Without Me," and it just became an integral part of my guitar parts. It was really an enhancement originally, but I quite naturally got into using it as part of the guitar itself.

I tend to use effects that don't change the tone of the guitar. I don't like phasing or flanging or anything like that. I like echo. I like reverb. And Eno's been a big help in adding new sorts of treatments to my repertoire. I really think that the use of treatments and effects is one reason why U2 works so well outdoors and in these big arenas. The sound just seems to resonate through these big arenas. We've never had any problem making our music work in a big space. In fact, I think I feel more at home in a big space than I do in a small club or theater now.

U2 played quite a few stadiums on the last leg of its U.S. tour. How did you feel about that?
It was a difficult decision for us, because we've always tried to create a feeling of intimacy in any show. People said we couldn't do it in arenas, and I really believe we did. When it came to stadiums, we really had to make the move, because if we didn't, it meant playing twenty nights in an arena, which we just couldn't face. Bruce Springsteen seems to be able to do that and retain his sanity, but any more than about six shows in one town and we start going totally wacky. It becomes like a job.

There were times when I felt that we really succeeded spectacularly at the stadiums and times when I really felt disappointed. I remember one great show, in Olympic Stadium in Montreal. It was great. That's when I thought, "Hey, this can work."

But what about the fans? Do you really think someone at the back of a 60,000-seat stadium is feeling "intimate"?
With U2, it's the music that makes the atmosphere. There's no laser show, no special effects. And we always make sure that the sound is as good at the back end as it is right down in front. If we succeed or fail, it's definitely down to our own ability to communicate the music. All I can say is that some of those shows have worked really well, so it's not impossible, just kind of difficult.

Mark Knopfler recently said that any decision to play stadiums really comes down to money. You can make X million dollars by playing stadiums as opposed to only y million by playing arenas — that in the end it really has little to do with how many fans will be able to see you.
There's no doubt that if you do exclusively stadium shows, you make a lot of money if they sell out. But what we did was a mixture of stadium shows and arena shows, which is the most uneconomic thing you can do. We didn't feel confident enough to play only stadiums, but we also didn't feel that we wanted to spend six or seven months just touring the United States. I don't know what we'll do next tour. I think we could take on the stadiums. But I also feel that we've proven that we can do it, and we don't have to go any further.

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