Until U2 kicked off their Joshua Tree 2017 Tour at Vancouver’s BC Place stadium on May 12th, they honestly weren’t sure they had a concept that would work. Here was a show built around an album that came out during the final years of the Ronald Reagan administration by a band that had spent their whole career refusing to cash in on their past. “It’s so not us to throw ourselves a birthday party,” says Bono. “We didn’t know if we could pull off a tour that honors The Joshua Tree without it being nostalgic. That’s an oxymoron.”
But by the time Bono called into Rolling Stone three shows into the tour he had no doubt the group had a winning formula, one that took The Joshua Tree out of 1987 and firmly planted it in 2017. We spoke to the U2 frontman about how the band got to that place, and where he hopes they go from here.
Where are you calling from?
I’m in sunny Los Angeles, which for an Irish fellow is always a bit of a thrill.
How were the first three shows for you?
Oh, my goodness. … I would say that we didn’t know until Vancouver that the concept, or the script, would connect. That was a relief. Personally, I had some technical difficulties with my in-ear monitors. I was finding it hard to pitch. I’ve listened back and I did a pretty good job in pitch terms, but it was hard for me to enjoy the show since I had to concentrate so hard. So I was really relieved when I walked out and the rest of the band and everyone else was like, “Wow, that was great.”
So I really enjoyed Seattle. I knew it wasn’t just a concept. There was some connection with the audience, that’s the difference. I just felt I had to give myself to this. It’s all very well going back to where you started in terms of not using IMAG [screens]. That’s the way we became the band that wrote The Joshua Tree. It’s great to play like that, but it’s hard for some people since they’re used to IMAG. I just felt, “Can’t we just concentrate on the music?” People weren’t taking out their phones, which was amazing. I was just listening, so I really have to make the singing be the connective tissue, from my point of view. There’s no images available, so it’s like Shea Stadium; you’re just these four dots at the start of the show. Then, presto, just add water and you become giants.
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It’s nice being ants for a few songs since you’ve just got to focus on the music since there’s nowhere else to look. So I’m really enjoying that and also getting the crowd to be this choral response. That happened in Seattle. I was very grateful for that.
Tell me why you wanted to do this tour.
At first, it was just to honor this album that meant so much to us. It wasn’t any grand concept. It was, “Shouldn’t we do something? What can we do that would be special?” Then we came up with some of the idea and the thing just ran away with itself and the more relevant we realized it was. I know from reading reviews and hearing from people we’ve done it without being nostalgic. It’s like the album has just come out. Nobody is talking about it as an historical thing. People are talking about its relevance now.
When you were brainstorming the tour, what ways did you come up with to fight the nostalgia?
The high-tech aspect, finding this high-def 8[K]; it’s like a three-dimensional image. I can’t believe the Joshua tree is not there. You can touch it. We wanted to be very, very high tech. Then we commissioned Anton [Corbijn] to do that. We felt, “Can we just, again, play the songs without [images of us on the] IMAG?” We were calling it “punk floyd” for a while. Then the punk in us felt, “No, no, we need to see the band at some point.” We entered at “Bullet the Blue Sky,” that was very exciting.
Then we got very excited about the third act, as we call it. The first act is songs that got us to The Joshua Tree. The third act was, “Can we go into the future and what would the future sound like and feel like?” Then somebody said, and it might have been me, the future is about women. I really believe that, so let’s make it an ode to women. As you know, feminine spirit is crucial at times when the male hegemony is causing mayhem. After the Second World War, people like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, whoever … Marvin Gaye, say – that’s a feminine spirit. The 1960s was a feminine spirit, and the 1960s was born in the rubble of the Second World War.
Great leaps forward of consciousness have a feminine spirit. Men start to look like [women], they grow their hair long. It’s a funny thing, the Renaissance. … Whenever you see the feminine spirit there’s usually a jump in consciousness. In the One Campaign we’re leading with, “Poverty is sexist.” It’s a campaign run by women. And I’m just watching, stepping back, to be the kind of town crier that I used to be. I’m still banging on drums, but I’m in the background. The singers are women. I’m amazed by it.
We had this idea as an ode to women. Then we got this idea of, “What if we got to know a woman, a girl, in a refugee camp?” The sort of women that aren’t welcome, that President Trump doesn’t want in America, in the country that brought us the great lines of Emma Lazarus at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Let’s meet one such immigrant who he wants to turn away from the shore. I commissioned french artist J.R. He didn’t have much time to do it. Where are we going to find this girl?
He finds her in Zaatari in a camp in Jordan, which I visited with my daughter and [my wife] Ali a year ago. He finds this incredible spirit, Omaima. She talks about America as a dreamland. She closes her eyes and J.R. asks her in another segment of the film we don’t broadcast, “What do you see when you think of America?” She goes, “Oh, it is a civilized country and they are a good people.” It was just heartbreaking. We’ve put some of that in that show, just for a kick in the balls. Just when you think things are lighting up, we do the ode to women. The next thing you know this woman gives you a kick in the balls, but in the most velvet way. She says everything. Sometimes when we’re playing it I have to turn away from the film. I can’t sing when we’re looking at it. It’s very touching. She’s so dignified and so authoritative. There’s something of a future leader in her.
I spoke to the Edge for a second after the show. He told me the set list was changing a lot in the final days before the first show. What was moving around?
Not the middle of it, since we can’t move that around – the denouement at the end of it. I don’t know if you think it’s too long; I think in the shows you saw, it goes from “One” into “Miss Sarajevo” into “The Little Things Give You Away.” Normally we wouldn’t allow such a denouement. It’s a long thing to do, but we felt because it’s so musical that we could get away with it. That was moving around before we made the set list. I may still move it around. We’re looking at that now.
You dropped “MLK” and brought in “Bad.”
Yeah, because “MLK” was using up some of the space that “Streets” occupies. It was nice and elegiac, and we don’t need to be at that point. I still wonder if there’s too many songs at the start for people on the floor that can’t see us. I know it’s great for people up high that can see us. [Note: The band has since cut “A Sort of Homecoming” and moved “Bad” to the third act.]
I imagine you’re purposely playing the songs in the sequence they came out, right?
That was intentional, yeah. We felt we’ve done Boy on [the 2015] Innocence and Experience [tour] and October. We did “Gloria.” We did “October.” Actually the theme of Innocence and Experience has a line from a song called “Rejoice” which is “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” I wrote that at 22. That’s the spirit of Innocence. But the spirit of Experience is actually I can change the world, I can’t change the world in me. That is the actual, dare I say it, dialectic of Innocence and Experience. And when we come back to that tour as the Experience and Innocence tour, that’s the theme. I felt we’ve done that. That was just to say that October, we covered.
I’m very pleased with the opening act. There hasn’t been any complaints with the lack of IMAG, which is very nice since it means people are listening.
The Joshua Tree portion of the show, did you ever think about not playing it completely in sequence?
I was a bit worried about that. I thought the density could play a role in us getting bogged down in the second half, but I felt the new arrangement of “Red Hill Mining Town,” which is just magic, gives it space and “Running to Stand Still” gives it space. We wouldn’t have done it if it didn’t work.
Prior to this tour, did you see Roger Waters play The Wall? Did you see Springsteen play The River? Have you gone to any of these album shows?
I saw Roger Waters doing The Wall, missed Bruce, and mourned the missing of Patti Smith doing Horses, which was such a formative album for us. It’s not an original idea. I saw Bowie do Low.
How did it feel to play “Exit” again?
I had a lot of self-harm over the years playing that song. I was very glad not to play it for many years. I broke my shoulder. I got into some very dark places on the stage. I’d rather not step back into that song, but I found a way by thinking of where it came from and going back to the books I was reading at the time. I realized the real influence was probably Flannery O’Connor, so I developed this character called the Shadow Man and I’m managing to step into the shoes of the Shadow Man without any self-harm. It’s quite a character. I’m actually using some lines from [the O’Connor book] Wise Blood. I also do “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” which we grew up with in Europe, a totally racist thing. The bit from Wise Blood is, “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going is never there. Where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” It’s Southern Gothic, which is what I guess you’d call it.
In “New Year’s Day” you sang the “Gold is the reason for the wars we wage” line for the first time. There weren’t a lot of snippets of cover songs. You seem to be sticking to the album versions of the songs.
I put “oil” in, actually. I said, “So we’re told this is the golden age/But oil is the reason for the wars we wage.” By the way, part of the fun of doing these shows is I’m changing the lyrics when I want to and I’m sticking to, as you point out, the arrangements on the albums. But I was in a band early on in the 1980s where the lyrics where not really the priority, strangely. It was, “What’s the song about? What’s the tune? What’s the beat?” And you had people like Brian Eno who was, like, sort of anti the concept of the old-school lyric. He was saying, “Just look at these beautiful sonic paintings you’re doing with your voice. Why do you need words? Just sing like that.”
On Unforgettable Fire we left “Elvis Presley and America” like that, but some of the other songs were not finished, so “Bad” or whatever is not finished. Even “Where the Streets Have No Name” isn’t finished, but why would you touch it? As a lyric it’s a sketch. And so I’m really enjoying changing the odd lyric. “I first saw her face high on a desert plane.” That’s a beautiful change. In “New Year’s Day” I sing, “It’s true, it’s true, the people break through.” Little tiny little things that keep me close to the songs.
During “Bullet the Blue Sky” the fans were expecting a similar speech to the one you made at the Dreamforce show last year, but you didn’t really go there.
I think the peace film is the way to speak about Trump. I also think it’s very, very important that people who voted for Donald Trump feel welcome at our show. I think they have been hoodwinked, but I understand and I would not dismiss the reasons why some people voted for him. I think people on the left really need to put their ear closer to the ground. I do this thing where I say, “The party of Lincoln, the party of Kennedy and those in between holding on, those letting go of the American Dream are welcome.” This is the most important line: “We’ll find common ground by reaching for higher ground.”
I think that’s important that people feel that. And then, because a lot of my friends, and maybe yours, after the election and Brexit there’s this grieving, this melodramatic word, but the people feel like they are grieving. I was like, “What is it that people are grieving for?” I started to think it’s their innocence. There’s a loss of innocence. We’re activists, but ever since I was born, and you’re younger than me, the world was getting better every day. When you woke up, even if you did nothing, the world got better. Those of us who worked in the One Campaign we could point to people on AIDS drugs or people getting vaccinated, infant mortality rates coming down.
There were reasons to be optimistic. When I was in my twenties the Berlin Wall came down, Mandela gets free. You just think that this world is somehow just moving in the right direction, like almost it’s evolution, the human spirit is evolving. It turns out that’s not true. These things have to be brought into being. There are white papers going around the White House with 47 percent cuts to aid programs that keep babies alive, vaccinations. It’s shocking, but it’s real.
My thing in the middle of the show is to say, “OK, the dream, maybe it’s time to wake up into it.” Maybe the dream is telling us to wake up and Dr. King’s dream is telling us to wake up. It’s OK to realize it’s going to be difficult, but we can do things. We are full of ingenuity. The world can be a much better place, but don’t think it will be on its own. That’s the thing.
To switch gears, are you still unable to play guitar?
Yeah. I can play sitting down if the neck is pointing up in the air, and I can play with three fingers standing up. Dallas Schoo, Edge’s guitar tech, is encouraging me to pick up slide guitar.
Do you miss playing it during the show?
The band certainly doesn’t miss it. They don’t have much time for my guitar playing. I can play at home, but it just looks awkward. I don’t think it’s a necessity.
Can you talk a bit about the choice to end the show with a brand-new song?
The only way we could do this tour was to play a new song. Times were right to do this tour. It was the right album and we did it, but in the end I couldn’t go all the way without playing a new song. I wanted to start playing more new songs, is what I want.
What’s the status of Songs of Experience?
The band will tell you not to listen to me on those kind of matters since I thought it was done last year. But I think the pause has made it better. I will give them that. But if you left it to Edge he’d still be remixing it next year. But we have these songs. The problem is we have 15 songs and to get them down to 12. We don’t like long players. The actual track listing is not set yet, but we have some proper, proper fuck-off songs. “Little Things That Give You Away” is one of them.
Steve Lillywhite was brought back to finish it off?
We wanted to play live to really get it to cohere. Songs of Innocence, the songs are very special, I’m very proud of the songs, but if there’s one thing I would criticize it for, it’s the coherence in production. A friend of mine said to me, “Songs of Innocence? It doesn’t sound innocent enough. It should have been more raw.” So we didn’t want to go in and make that mistake again, so we went in and played the songs again. Steve is the best guy for recording us in the studio with the band playing live, so that’s what happened.
You’re thinking early 2018 if you had to guess?
I’d like it before then, but don’t listen to me.
Then the plan is to do the Songs of Experience tour with the same staging?
Yeah, the Experience and Innocence tour. It’ll invert a lot of things, but it’s got the same basics. We’ve got some incredible staging ideas, but it’s basically the same language as the last tour.
Do you see any chance of an Achtung Baby tour in 2021?
[Laughs] I haven’t thought about it, but then again if you’d asked me five years ago about a Joshua Tree one I would have laughed at you. It would have to be called Zoo.Com.