In 1985, shortly after U2 broke through in America, Rolling Stone named them the “band of the Eighties.” Over the course of 30 years and 16 cover stories, the magazine has forged a deep relationship with U2. The band’s new album, Songs of Experience, topped the charts in early December, meaning U2 now have a Number One album in each decade from the Eighties on.
I first interviewed Bono in 2005, when we talked for 10 hours over a long weekend in Cancún, Mexico, starting an intimate dialogue about rock & roll, social justice, faith and the purpose of art. This interview picks up where that one left off, although this time the stakes are much higher. The election of Donald Trump and a rising wave of fascism in Europe had rocked Bono, as had a near-death experience he suffered while making Songs of Experience. While he still finds it difficult to talk about his “extinction event,” as he calls it, Bono opened up about its profound effect on both his life and on the new album.
We conducted the interview over two sessions at the kitchen table of my New York apartment, around the corner from Bono’s own place in the city. In person, Bono is warm, engaging and thoughtful, even while discussing difficult subjects. What shines through as much as anything is his ambition, which burns as brightly as ever. U2 remain hungry – for new approaches to songwriting, for finding their place in the age of streaming, for a new tour planned for the spring. Bono continues to pour his energy into global causes, meeting with world leaders and working on behalf of his ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty. He is the rarest of rock stars – an artist and an activist in the same measure. As always, he remains an optimist – and one of rock’s greatest talkers, full of wit and candor and poetry.
You just finished the Joshua Tree tour. Nostalgia is something U2 like to avoid, so what was it like going out and playing an old album every night?
The stance that we took was [to act] as if we had just put out The Joshua Tree the week before. So there were no old Super 8 films or anything to give the sense of that time. We felt that its strength was that it had meaning, maybe even more meaning now than it did then. That was the conceit, and it got better and better. We ended with four nights in Sao Paulo, in front of, I think, nearly 300,000 people, and it was quite the crescendo.
But if I am honest – and I probably should be in this interview – I haven’t quite recovered from it. I gave myself to the singing in new ways, but there wasn’t a lot of going out and discovering the places we were playing, the cities that we were playing, which I really love to do. Stepping inside the songs was more of an ordeal than I thought it would be. They are very demanding in terms of their emotional – what word am I looking for . . . forthrightness. And then we were preparing for Songs of Experience. All that promotion takes a lot more work than I remember, but if you believe in the songs, you have to defend and present them.
Songs of Experience just debuted at Number One on the albums chart, which means you’ve had a chart-topping album in every decade from the Eighties on. Why do you still push so hard for hits?
I mean, it’s not for everybody – and it can’t be for us all the time. But it just felt right. These last two albums mix up the personal and the political so that you don’t know which one you’re talking to. That’s a kind of magic trick, and realizing that of course all the problems that we find in the exterior world are just manifestations of what we, you know, what we hold inside of us, in our interior worlds. The biggest fucker, the biggest asshole, the biggest, the most sexist we can be, the most selfish, mean, cunning, all those characters you are going to see them in the mirror. And that is where the job of transformation has to start first. Is that not what experience tells us?
How did you envision Songs of Experience in relation to Songs of Innocence, its companion album from 2014?
I had this idea of your younger self talking to your older self for quite a while. It is an interesting dramatic device. [Several years ago] I was at an exhibition of Anton Corbijn’s photographs in Amsterdam, and someone asked me what would I say to this photo; I think it was a shot of me at age 22. I thought about it, and then I said, “Stop second-guessing yourself. You’re right.”
And then the person asked what the younger me would say to the older me. I got a bit nervous. I wasn’t sure. I took that hesitation as a clue that maybe I wasn’t comfortable with where I am now. I was starting to realize that I had lost some of that fierceness. Some of that clarity, that black-and-white point of view.
But now it seems like you’re in another place entirely. It seems like you have more clarity, that you learned more.
I’m less unsure about taking political risks or social risks. When I became an activist, people were like, “Really?” But they eventually accepted that. Then I started to be interested in commerce and the machinery of what got people out of poverty and into prosperity. And then a few people said, “You can’t really go there, can you?”
I said, “But if you are an artist, you must go there.” You and I have had the conversation over the years: What can the artist do? What is the artist not allowed to do, and are there boundaries? Now, I would say to my younger self: “Experiment more and don’t let people box you in. There is nothing you can’t put on your canvas if it is part of your life.” We have this idea in the culture that came out of the Sixties and Seventies, that artists were somehow above the fray, or should be above the fray.
That they have an excuse not to participate.
I had an excuse not to participate. But I knew that some people who have regular jobs are just as valuable as the artists, maybe more valuable. And there are more assholes per square inch amongst us artists. I remember meeting Björk, and she said that in Iceland, making a chair is a big deal. Like, a song is not more important than a chair. And I went, “Well, depending on the chair, Irish people know that to be true.” So if that is true, then stop this nonsense that an artist is an elevated person.
One thing this record seems to be about is survival. The survival of the world, and of our political system. But let’s talk about your own survival. In the middle of recording, you had a near-death experience. Tell me what happened.
Well, I mean, I don’t want to.
I understand. I had my own experience recently. People want to ask about my health, and I’m hesitant to talk about it. Why do I feel that way? Am I ashamed? Is it weakness I am trying to cover up?
It’s just a thing that . . . people have these extinction events in their lives; it could be psychological or it could be physical. And, yes, it was physical for me, but I think I have spared myself all that soap opera. Especially with this kind of celebrity obsession with the minutiae of peoples’ lives – I have got out of that. I want to speak about the issue in a way that lets people fill in the blanks of what they have been through, you know?
It’s one thing if you were talking about it in a place of record like Rolling Stone, but by the time it gets to your local tabloid it is just awful. It becomes the question that everyone is asking.
But let’s talk about it in an elliptical sense. I mean, it’s central to the album.
Yeah. This political apocalypse was going on in Europe and in America, and it found a perfect rhyme with what was going on in my own life. And I have had a hail of blows over the years. You get warning signs, and then you realize that you are not a tank, as [his wife] Ali says. Edge has this thing that he says about me, that I look upon my body as an inconvenience.
In 2000, you had a throat-cancer scare, right?
No, it was a check for it. One of the specialists wanted to biopsy, which would have risked my vocal cords – and it turned out OK.
A few years ago, I visited you in the hospital with your arm in some kind of George Washington Bridge structure.
After my bike accident, pretending it was a car crash.
It looked bad, and then the latest thing. That is a lot of brushes with death.
There is comic tragedy with a bike accident in Central Park – it is not exactly James Dean. But the thing that shook me was that I didn’t remember it. That was the amnesia; I have no idea how it happened. That left me a little uneasy, but the other stuff has just finally nailed me. It was like, “Can you take a hint?”
You are making the album and then all of a sudden you had to deal with your health issue. How did it affect the album and your vision of it?
Well, strangely enough, mortality was going to be a subject anyway just because it is a subject not often covered. And you can’t write Songs of Experience without writing about that. And I’ve had a couple of these shocks to the system, let’s call them, in my life. Like my bike accident or my back injury. So it was always going to be the subject. I just didn’t want to be such an expert in it.
I met this poet named Brendan Kennelly. I have known him for years; he is an unbelievable poet. And he said, “Bono, if you want to get to the place where the writing lives, imagine you’re dead.” There is no ego, there is no vanity, no worrying about who you will offend. That is great advice. I just didn’t want to have to find out outside of a mental excursion. I didn’t want to find out the hard way.
So how did the idea of mortality come into play?
Gavin Friday, one of my friends from Cedarwood Road [in Dublin], has written one of my favorite songs. It is called “The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing,” about this character in Dublin, back when we were growing up, called the Diceman, who died at 42, five years after he was diagnosed with HIV. I realized only recently that “Love Is All We Have Left” is my attempt to write that song.
Can you be more precise? Like, what songs do you think came directly out of your near-death moment?
It’s not so much songs as . . .
The mood of it.
I think . . . I mean, how about this: “The Showman” – that is a light song, a fun song, and it became a really important song. Not surrendering to melancholy is the most important thing if you are going to fight your way out of whatever corner you are in. Self-pity? The Irish, we are fucking world-beaters on that level; it’s our least-interesting national characteristic. And I never wanted to surrender to that, so punk rock, the tempo of some songs, suddenly became really important.
But the second verse is the key, and it has the best line in the album, which is this: “It is what it is, it is not what it seems/This screwed up stuff is the stuff of dreams/I got just enough low self-esteem to get me to where I want to go.“ I wish I could say it was mine, but it was Jimmy Iovine who said it. A friend of mine was slagging him off, and I said, “Oh, a little insecure there, Jimmy?” And Jimmy turned around and said, “I got just enough low self-esteem to get me where I want to go.”
That sounds like a realistic appraisal of you and your bullshit.
Performers are very insecure people. Gavin Friday, his line to me years and years ago was “Insecurity is your best security for a performer.” A performer needs to know what is going on in the room and feel the room, and you don’t feel the room if you are normal, if you’re whole. If you have any great sense of self, you wouldn’t be that vulnerable to either the opinions of others or the love and the applause and the approval of others.
The whole event enriched the album, though – talk about an experience.
But isn’t that great? I thought Experience would be more contemplative, and it has got that side, but the heart of the album is the spunk and the punk and the drive of it. There is a sort of youthfulness about it. A lot of the tempos are up. And it has some of the funniest lines, I think. “Dinosaur wonders why he still walks the Earth.” I mean, I started that line about myself.
Being a dinosaur?
Yeah, of course, but then I started to think about it in terms of what is going on around the world. And I thought, “Gosh, democracy, the thing that I have grown up with all my life . . . that’s what’s really facing an extinction event.”
In an interview that you and I did in 2005, you said this: “Our definition of art is breaking open the breastbone, for sure. Just open-heart surgery. I wish there were an easier way, but people want blood, and I am one of them.”
Life and death and art . . . all of them bloody businesses.
How did your faith get you through all of this?
The person who wrote best about love in the Christian era was Paul of Tarsus, who became Saint Paul. He was a tough fucker. He is a superintellectual guy, but he is fierce and he has, of course, the Damascene experience. He goes off and lives as a tentmaker. He starts to preach, and he writes this ode to love, which everybody knows from his letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. . . . Love bears all things, love believes all things” – you hear it at a lot of weddings. How do you write these things when you are at your lowest ebb? ‘Cause I didn’t. I didn’t. I didn’t deepen myself. I am looking to somebody like Paul, who was in prison and writing these love letters and thinking, “How does that happen? It is amazing.”
Now, it doesn’t cure him of all, of what he thinks of women or gay people or whatever else, but within his context he has an amazingly transcendent view of love. And I do believe that the darkness is where we learn to see. That is when we see ourselves clearer – when there is no light.
You asked me about my faith. I had a sense of suffocation. I am a singer, and everything I do comes from air. Stamina, it comes from air. And in this process, I felt I was suffocating. That was the most frightening thing that could happen to me because I am in pain. Ask Ali. She said I wouldn’t notice if I had a knife sticking out of my back. I would be like, “Huh, what is that?” But this time last year, I felt very alone and very frightened and not able to speak and not able to even explain my fear because I was kind of . . .
When you felt like you were suffocating?
Yeah. But, you know, people have had so much worse to deal with, so that is another reason not to talk about it. You demean all the people who, you know, never made it through that or couldn’t get health care!
Do you feel like you lucked out?
Lucked out? I am the fucking luckiest man on Earth. I didn’t think that I had a fear of a fast exit. I thought it would be inconvenient ’cause I have a few albums to make and kids to see grow up and this beautiful woman and my friends and all of that. But I was not that guy. And then suddenly you are that guy. And you think, “I don’t want to leave here. There’s so much more to do.” And I’m blessed. Grace and some really clever people got me through, and my faith is strong.
I read the Psalms of David all the time. They are amazing. He is the first bluesman, shouting at God, “Why did this happen to me?” But there’s honesty in that too. . . . And, of course, he looked like Elvis. If you look at Michelangelo’s sculpture, don’t you think David looks like Elvis?
He’s a great beauty.
It is also annoying that he is the most famous Jew in the world and they gave him an uncircumcised . . . that’s just crazy. But, anyway, he is a very attractive character. Dances naked in front of the troops. His wife is pissed off with him for doing so. You sense you might like him, but he does some terrible things as he wanders through four phases – servant, poet, warrior, king. Terrible things. He is quite a modern figure in terms of his contradictions. . . . Is this boring?
But if you go back to his early days, David is anointed by Samuel, the prophet Samuel, and, above all, his older brothers, a sheepherder presumably smelling of sheep shite, he is told, “Yeah, you are going to be the king of Israel.” And everyone is laughing, like, “You got to be kidding – this kid?” But only a few years later, Saul, the king, is reported as having a demon and the only thing that will quiet the demon is music. . . . Makes sense to me. David can play the harp. As he is walking up to the palace, he must be thinking, “This is it! This is how it is going to happen.” Even better, when he meets the king and gets to be friends with the king’s son Jonathan. It’s like, “Whoa, this is definitely going to happen! The old prophet Samuel was right.” And then what happens? In a moment of demonic rage, Saul turns against him, tries to kill him with a spear, and he is, in fact, exiled. He is chased, and he hides out in a cave. And in the darkness of that cave, in the silence and the fear and probably the stink, he writes the first psalm.
And I wish that weren’t true. I wish I didn’t know enough about art to know that that is true. That sometimes you just have to be in that cave of despair. And if you’re still awake . . . there is this very funny bit that comes next. So David, our hero, is hiding out in the cave, and Saul’s army comes looking for him. Indeed, King Saul comes into the cave where David is hiding to . . . ah . . . use the facilities. I am not making this up – this is in the Holy Scriptures. David is sitting there, hiding. He could just kill the king, but he goes, “No, he is the anointed. I cannot touch him.” He just clips off a piece of Saul’s robe, and then Saul gets on his horse as they go off. They’re down in the valley, and then David comes out and he goes, “Your king-ness, your Saul-ness, I was that close.”
It is a beautiful story. I have thought about that all my life, because I knew that’s where the blues were born.
On “Lights of Home,” you write, “I shouldn’t be here because I should be dead. I can see the lights in front of me. I believe my best days are ahead, I can see lights in front of me. Oh, Jesus, if I’m still your friend, what the hell, what the hell you got for me?”
There is a Bob Dylan reference in that song; I’ll just tell you ’cause I know you love Bob. It goes, “Hey, now, do you know my name? Where I’m going? If I can’t get an answer in your eyes, I see it, the lights of home.” At least in my head, the reference is to one of my favorite Dylan songs, “Señor Señor.” In that song, he meets an angel and he, like, goes on this ride with him. I have always imagined it is the angel of death.
The full name of the song is “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).” Does that help explain?
No, I think that is Bob putting you off the trail.
Your song asks, “Jesus, what have you got for me?” Well, what do you think he has got for you?
There is an unbelievable release in letting go. I thought I already had, but this was the next installment in trust. You know, people of faith can be very annoying. Like when people on the Grammys thank God for a song and you think, “God, that is a shite song. Don’t give God credit for that one – you should take it yourself!” I am sure I have done that myself. And someone’s like, “I got this directly from the mouth of God!” And you’re thinking, “Wow, God has no taste!”
He can’t write a fucking tune!
Like, “That is a bad rhyme, God!” So you have got to be very careful of this, but if you’re asking me what I learned, I’ve learned to try and put time aside to meditate on the day ahead. I don’t want to get all religious on your ass, so do forgive me, but if you’re interested, this is today’s meditation. I will share this with you because it is beautiful and because it might make you smile. Here it comes. This is Psalm 18, and it is one of those psalms of David that has been translated into a modern idiom by this man called Eugene Peterson – great writer. It goes: “God made my life complete when I placed all the pieces before him. When I got my act together, he gave me a fresh start. Now, I’m alert to God’s ways. I don’t take God for granted. Every day I review the ways he works. I try not to miss a trick. I feel put back together, and I’m watching my step. God rewrote the text of my life when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.” Isn’t that beautiful?
That is beautiful. Tell me about the theme of love on this album. You start the record with “Love Is All We Have Left.”
It will take me a while to answer your questions, but I will answer them eventually. I was imagining a science-fiction Frank Sinatra. [Sings torchily] “Love and love is all we have left.” It’s almost comic in one sense, except it rips your heart out. Tragic comedy. I thought it would be interesting to write a song from the point of view of a person who maybe wouldn’t sing another song. One of the things I ask myself on this album is, “If you have one thing to say, what is it? If this is all we are left with, I am content with it – love.”
What I wanted to do on this album is to occasionally have a dialectical conversation where younger me assails the older me. And so you have that voice in “Love Is All We Have Left”: [Sings] “Now, you’re at the other side 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 is the innocent you speaking to the experienced you and saying it is OK. I have come to some peace with that younger zealot that I used to be. And I think that that younger zealot wouldn’t disapprove of where I have ended up. Maybe the process of getting there he might not have liked.
You’re not just singing love songs; these are deep meditations about the power of love.
It is probably our big subject as a band. When we sang “Pride (In the Name of Love),” that was an excruciating thing for a young male to sing, if you think about it. But if you are asking what side of love this is, you know, the English language is so rich, but it is limited in this word “love.” There are many other words. . . .
What about the song “Ordinary Love”?
That’s nonromanticized love. The love that people make, the deals that people make to stay together. What Yeats calls “cold passion.” I love the idea that great relationships have a lower temperature.
Not a transactional love, but a day-to-day willingness to tolerate and accept, which requires more patience and less passion.
Yes. Ali and I are probably more in love now than when we got together in the first place. I don’t think it is given much credit, but when people work through their problems and stay together – “Ordinary Love” is that. I hope it’s interesting to write love songs. Not the hundreds of thousands of songs about passion and losing your mind to love. Isn’t it interesting to write cold, measured, how-we-got-here songs?
“Landlady” is an extraordinarily pretty love song about you and Ali and thanking her for so much.
Getting home – that is the big key for me. I can’t believe it because I grew up sleeping on people’s couches, sleeping on their floor, running away to the circus and joining a rock & roll band. It has taken me a long time to figure out where home is. I left home probably the week my mother died [when Bono was 14]. I mean, I stayed there on [childhood home] 10 Cedarwood Road for the next few years, but I wasn’t really there. On Songs of Innocence, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” explains the realization that I had, while sitting there, moved address. I was with the band. The band was where I live. They were another family.
It has taken me a long time, but I think I finally came home. But the only way I could say that is with some humor. And so on “Landlady,” there is a little faux Bob Dylan line, which is “I’ll never know what starving poets meant ’cause when I was broke it was you that always paid the rent.” I have learned a lot from Bob Dylan over the years, and one thing I’ve learned is that at your most serious moment you need humor. You need fucking humor. That is why I am so proud of the album. You have all this feisty stuff, but you also have, on “Blackout,” “The dinosaur wonders why it’s still on the Earth. A meteor promises it is not going to hurt.” That is funny, but so is “Landlady,” and that is why “Landlady” works. It hopefully has just enough humor and humility for it not to be fucking excruciating.
Let me ask you about “Summer of Love,” which is about Syria and the refugees. Where did that song come from, musically?
There is a guy working with Ryan Tedder, who wrote a beautiful little guitar part. And this was Edge going through his little excitement, saying, “Oh, if you want something, you just ask for it. Like hip-hop, sample it. Sample it, or replay it.” It was a great freedom for him. So that was part of the spirit of this record too. It was like, “Let’s look in places you don’t normally look.” And so we got this beautiful mood, and we have this beautiful melodic sort of almost ode to the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, and then found the twist. And the twist is the west coast of Syria. And not the west coast of Ireland or California, as a lot of people have reviewed it as.
The charts these days are dominated by younger acts. Most everything on the Top 40 is hip-hop or pop. Rock is no longer at the center of our culture. Where does U2 fit into this new world?
The table has been gamed a little bit. Right now, streaming is on the ad-based model. And that is very, very young, and it’s very, very pop. It’s dominated by frequency of plays, but that is not actually a measure of the weight of an artist. When you move from an ad-based model to a subscription model, a funny thing happens. Then, the artist who will make you sign up is actually more valuable.
The one you pay for?
The one you pay for. If you are a teenager and you are listening to whatever the pop act is, you’re probably listening to them 100 times a day. It’s a teenage crush, but in a year’s time you won’t care about that. But artists that have a connection with you and your life, you pay for the subscription service. In fact, we are going to witness a revolution in the way artists and their fans interact. Chance the Rapper, who has a beautiful soul and a mind to match it, has no record label. He is doing it himself, and he is successful to the point where he can give a million dollars to the Chicago school system.
But if your music is on Apple or on Spotify, you can speak straight to people. What you need from record labels is advice and, you know, help with how you manage your band or brand or the artwork and the videos and all of that. This is really a transition period. It has been very unfriendly to a lot of artists. I knew Spotify would come through for people, but a lot of my friends were angry for believing me because they said, “We are just getting micropayments.” I said things were going to change once this gets to scale, and it is going to take a while. It is going to be unpleasant; not a good time to be Cole Porter right now.
Is Spotify starting to pay off?
As it gets to scale . . . if the record labels don’t share out what they’re receiving from Spotify, artists will bypass the record labels and go straight to Spotify or Apple.
And so in the ecology of this, where do you fit?
We gave away our last album; or rather, Apple gave it away. And very generously, I believe. But the album before that, No Line on the Horizon, was very adult, not of the demographic that are interested in streaming. So we are just going into this now. We haven’t really started yet.
So you think that the music you are doing now is more streaming-friendly?
Yeah. It’s so, so interesting, though. We’re back to the Fifties now, where the focus is on songs rather than albums. U2 make albums, so how do we survive? By making the songs better. And having, I hope, the humility to accept that we need to rediscover songwriting, which is one reason Edge and I took on Turn Off the Dark, the Spider-Man musical, to get into musical theater, the Rodgers and Hammerstein aspect of songwriting – a lot of the American Songbook came from musicals. We started to get into what you might call formal songwriting.
We asked Paul McCartney, “Where did you get all those incredible chords in those Beatles songs?” And he said, “Well, you know, we were a rock & roll band, but to get good gigs we had to do weddings. Like posh weddings. We had to learn Gershwin, all that stuff.” And I went, “No, I didn’t know.” And Paul says, “Oh, yeah, we got better-paying gigs.” And I went, “Ah!” It was like, “Note to self and Edge: Let’s get into musical theater. Let’s think about that.”
I would say halfway through Songs of Innocence, we really started thinking differently about songwriting, being more formal about it. And now these new songs have melodies you can hear across the street, around the corner. When they’re good, you can hear them through the walls.
How do you discover new music?
The band is always listening to music, and I have got my kids. Jordan is a music snob, an indie snob. Eve is hip-hop. Elijah is in a band, and he has got very strong feelings about music, but he doesn’t make any distinction between, let’s say, the Who and the Killers. Or, you know, Nirvana and Royal Blood. It is not generational for him. It is the sound and what he is experiencing. He believes that a rock & roll revolution is around the corner.
Do you believe it?
I think music has gotten very girly. And there are some good things about that, but hip-hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment – and that’s not good. When I was 16, I had a lot of anger in me. You need to find a place for it and for guitars, whether it is with a drum machine – I don’t care. The moment something becomes preserved, it is fucking over. You might as well put it in formaldehyde. In the end, what is rock & roll? Rage is at the heart of it. Some great rock & roll tends to have that, which is why the Who were such a great band. Or Pearl Jam. Eddie has that rage.
And therefore you think that there is space still available. . . .
It will return.
You agree with Eli?
His angle was, if the rock & roll revolution isn’t happening, we are going to start it.
Who do you think U2’s audience is? A couple of years ago, you were saying you had to go out and get a younger, newer audience, had to go on a small college tour, had to reinvent.
The Apple experiment really helped in that way. Larry [Mullen Jr.] had been very skeptical about that. But, later, he was saying, “Look, I am up on my [drum] perch [at concerts]. I can see what you can’t see, and I can see that the audience is younger.” I asked him how did he know it was related to the Apple experiment. He said, “Well, because they don’t know the words of ‘Beautiful Day,’ but they do know the words of ‘Every Breaking Wave.’ ” And as we go ahead with this album, we are on the radio – it’s amazing. I can’t think of another artist in their fifties who is on the radio. On mainstream radio. Can you think of any?
Nope. Not Bruce, not the Stones . . .
You know that song Bruce wrote, [2007’s] “Girls in Their Summer Clothes“? I heard that song and said, “This song should be on the radio, why is that not all over the radio?” I spoke to somebody recently, a Bruce fan, and I said, “Do you know this song? It is the most insightful song about aging. It is a song of experience, actually.” And they said, “No, I don’t know that.” So these songs, they can slip through the cracks of culture. That’s why U2 go after selling our wares the same way we did for our first album.
How will you measure success for Songs of Experience?
I would like it to have famous songs, so that when we play them in our live show people don’t go, “What is that? Should we go to the bathroom now?”
Which songs do you think will become famous?
I know that “You’re the Best Thing About Me” is going to be one of them. I think “Get Out of Your Own Way” is going to be one of them. The biggest one of all could be “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way,” but it might be that that is what the radio people are telling us. It could be something like “The Showman,” something unexpected or, you know, “Red Flag Day,” “Summer of Love” . . . you know, I don’t know.
What is the hardest part about being in U2 right now, in 2017?
Some people, in a very sane way, are thinking, “Why do you want to do this? Why do you want our songs on the radio?” And I say that, if we believe in our songs, we have to use any medium we can find to reach people. We don’t need to do it for money. We don’t need to do it for anything. And, of course, our band could tour for the rest of its life just on what we’ve got. I am asking them to put a lot of energy into recording these new songs and then selling our wares, laying it all on the table, like we did when we were kids. Except we’re not kids.
So there is a bit of an existential divide as to your ambition, which runs as white-hot as ever.
I feel a compulsion to the songs. If you are going to go this far, you have to go all the way. And I don’t know if that can last forever. But, wow, do we have the songs now. Coming down here in the car, on one station we heard “You’re the Best Thing About Me.” On another station, called the Wave, I heard “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Quite a ride . . . through about 30 years.
How does the rest of the band feel about the new songs?
I would say that Edge seems like someone who wants to be in the band more than ever. Certainly more focused on it as a whole. I think the past two albums have reminded him that U2’s strengths – above atmospherics and innovation and all that stuff that he loves – are big melodies and clear thoughts. That’s where we came in. The verse melody in “The Best Thing” was a return to form from him. I was calling it punk Motown, but I was the punk and he was definitely the Motown.
Adam [Clayton] is sampling older eras and dropping them into new eras like a postmodern artist. He’s our postmodern postman. Warhol started that sampling thing; he would see it like that. Certain songs have a feel he’s copped from someone else. Adam sees us all as artworks. It’s like he’s walking through the art market and always looking for something interesting. I am not sure Larry knows what to make of the album. He loved the tour, but he and I are probably the hardest on every U2 recording. After we finished Joshua Tree, I remember going to Chris Blackwell’s place in Jamaica. The two of us held up the bar each night, commiserating over what a mess we’ve made of it. He has that sort of Irish [thing of being] down on all things new. I have had that myself at times, but not with this album. But, you know, we are just like that. It is hard to explain.
You once said that you were in the business of applying for the job of best band in the world. Are you still in that business?
I mean, look, the singer is a crowd-stirrer and a carny barker. We have to get attention for our band, and the firework I will throw into the towns is something outrageous like, “We are reapplying to be the best band in the world.” It is just to get people annoyed or talking about it.
But also to get yourself stirred up a little.
That is true. We just lived with this idea, even in the first 10 years of the band’s life, “What if we didn’t screw it up like everyone does? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we stuck together for 30 years?” I mean, that was crazy. We are at 40 years now, and I think the only way we can conceive of that is to imagine what if the Clash were around? We would have been very interested to see what work they would have done. And, you know, the fact that the Rolling Stones are around is a kind of a miracle and some grace.
You’re writing about humility on the album. How do you stay humble in your position, especially in an age of over-the-top self-promotion?
There’s a difference between humility and insecurity. I have the insecurity of the performer, as I said earlier. As a performer, you can feel the room. Even if it’s some sort of get-together, a dinner party or an opening, I can feel the room – that is insecurity. Humility is different. Humility is a genuine sense of your place in the universe and understanding that it is OK to play a quiet, supportive role in the lives of others. . . . I’m not there yet. Greatness as a person comes from not pursuing it. Pretty dull if you’re a performer – the fireworks display is why people are at the show.
I used to think that my insecurity was humility because I don’t throw my weight around, because I try to treat whomever I meet with respect. But I am not sure if it actually was humility. I think that might have been just good manners.
I still have that thing, that “hellhound on my trail,” whatever that Robert Johnson image is. When I am onstage, I still meet that other self, that sort of shadow self. I still have some work to do on myself to get to a place that you might recognize as humility.
But it is a struggle you constantly undertake.
I think so. I hope you haven’t seen me behave in a very arrogant way.
Nothing I can recall [accidentally spills coffee].
And I have tried not to be, I have tried not to pour coffee all over people. . . .
What do you make of the refugee crisis that’s going on in Europe?
Can I step back and try to give a more macro picture before we get into that? In the Western world, in our lifetime, there has never been a moment, until very recently, when fairness and equality was not improving. There were setbacks, but it was as if the world was on a trajectory toward fairness and justice and equality for all.
There is the famous Martin Luther King quote.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” You and I grew up in a world where things were getting better, despite all the setbacks. This was not in the wider world, not in the whole world, but in the world that we grew up in. And the reason for that was largely because after the Second World War, it became very clear for the first time that in the history of the human race we had the ability to extinguish all life.
That was a shock to the system that we haven’t properly calibrated. It changed the way Giacometti made art. It changed the way Picasso painted human figures; everything changed both consciously and unconsciously. Rock & roll erupted. All that love and peace stuff came from people born out of the rubble of the Second World War.
When the  election happened and people intuited that something awful and something unprecedented was happening, there was a sense of grief. We had Brexit, so people in Europe are feeling this as well. And I thought, “This is melodrama.” Why are people, rational people I know, feeling like they are grieving like someone just died? It is an election, and it will correct itself, whatever.
But then I realized that something had died. People’s innocence had died. And a generation that had grown up thinking that the human spirit had a natural evolution toward fairness and justice was learning this might not be the case. My attitude was, “OK, good. Now it is time we wake up and realize we can’t take any of this for granted.” Big primates have been around a lot longer than democracy, and this dude who shall not be named – he is just a new manifestation of that big primate. We got shook. Even in Europe, people have forgotten what fascism did to them. Whether it was fascism described as Stalin or Mao in the state communism, whatever you want to call it. It is forgotten.
We are actually going back to the way we used to be. The new normal is the old normal. That is terrifying. The demonizing of “the other” has returned.
But to get back to your question. In Europe, people are afraid for their lives and their lifestyles and their livelihoods and their cultural homogeneity, and have started to put up walls around their definition of Europe. It’s becoming fortress Europe, and there’s an up-drawbridge mentality probably stoked by outside forces. The shame of it is, at the start of the refugee crisis, you had those incredible photographs of families arriving from Syria on trains in Germany, in Munich, and the wonderful reception they received. People bringing shoes and clothes for the kids – spontaneously, not organized. Just the genuine goodness of the German people. And [Angela] Merkel all of a sudden becomes not only the head of Europe, but the heart of Europe. And what happens?
Those to the right of her start to crowd in, and people start to carp. And there was a moment in France where if Le Pen had won the election, not Macron, the unification of Europe would have been under threat. Think about that. One of the great positives that came out of the negativity of the Second World War could have been lost.
What happened here in the United States is that Le Pen won.
There is this long history where we have seen the country split apart over great moral issues, and survived it, more or less. What might happen here? Are you talking about democracy being a dinosaur?
As I said, big primates have always ruled the environments, and democracy is not the natural habitat of homo sapiens.
Democracy is a remarkable conceit that depends on an effective news media. So “fake news” is not a fake threat. You have a post-truth president leading a post-trust country. The chilling bit is not that the big primate is quite smart, which he clearly is, but what if he was very smart and less easy to read. What also should be easy to read are the lessons the left and right need to learn from how this absurdity came about. It shouldn’t take a reality-TV star to read the boos and hisses of discontent people ready to roll the dice on business not as usual. We all need to do a better job of understanding where that anger and sense of displacement comes from.
As an activist, you have a history of working with politicians. How do you work with anyone in Washington, D.C., right now?
I realized I couldn’t work with this president whether he wanted to or not, because you can’t believe what he says. So I took a meeting with Mike Pence. He had been a defender of PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. Thirteen million people owe their lives to PEPFAR, and Pence stood up and fought for it in Congress when I was there. So I went, “Great, I can work with him,” but that was in the early days. Cuts [to -PEPFAR] were promised with the overall slashing of foreign aid. The vice president told us in our meeting that he was supportive of PEPFAR, but I have to say it’s Congress that deserves credit for stopping the cuts from going through. That makes you ask harder questions about the administration.
You visited George W. Bush in Texas recently. Tell me about that.
I think that on his exit from the Oval Office he was a much humbler man. When I visited him at his ranch, I found him living very quietly. He hasn’t done a lot of speechifying but does do a lot of painting. I am sure he’s pained by seeing casualties of recent wars that returned home, and he paints those very people.
Laura and his two daughters are very proud of the work America has done in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We worked closely together on that. Condoleezza Rice and Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, also deserve a lot of credit. It is the largest health intervention in the history of medicine. There’s now roughly 20 million lives saved in a war that had previously cost 35 million lives. If you want to think about it this way, as many as half the people who died in the Second World War were lost to a tiny little virus. It still hasn’t sunk in. There’s a lot of us who worked on this, but I’m not sure we even now fully appreciate the scale of what was accomplished in the face of such horror, but it should remind people of what’s possible if we can put aside partisanship.
What do you say to people discouraged by this moment? Is there hope after this?
There is. There is. I think the moment just has to be reclaimed. This is surely the bleakest era since Nixon. It surely undermines the very idea of America, what is going on now. And Republicans know it, Democrats know it – no one’s coming off well here. We know some who should know better have tried to piggyback the man’s celebrity to get stuff done. They will live to regret it. Before I went out against him in the primaries, I called a lot of Republican friends that I have and said, “I can’t in all conscience be quiet as this hostile takeover of your party and perhaps the country happens.” And I made the quote, and I still stand by it, “America is the greatest idea the world has ever had, and this is potentially the worst idea that has ever happened to it.”
In “American Soul,” you said America “is a dream the whole world owns.”
Yeah, that is on this album. Ireland is a very nice country. France is a great country. Great Britain is a great country, but it is not an idea. America is an idea, and it’s a great idea. And the world feels a stake in that idea. We want you, it, to succeed, which is why we become fucking obnoxious and shoot our mouths off about it. The world needs America to succeed, now more than ever.
Tell me about the ONE Campaign, which fights against extreme poverty. Where are you now with it, and how involved are you?
We have nearly 9 million members now, just over 3 million members in Africa. I am hoping that the voices south of the equator will drown out the voices north of the equator. I hope eventually to be put out of a job. And it is becoming a more and more independent organization. Women are stepping to the forefront. Our lead campaign at the moment is called Poverty Is Sexist. And there is another one called Girls Count. About 130 million girls can’t go to school who want to go to school. And I am working more in the background. And that is OK.
So I am trying to make my own leadership more strategic, more behind the scenes. If I am called on for meetings, I will go. We campaign for transparency in the mining sector and the extractives industry. I am proud of all that work. It is not much written about, but it’s as important as fighting HIV/AIDS. Biggest killer in the developing world is not a disease – it is corruption.
How are you fighting corruption?
ONE campaigned for a rule demanding every mining company registered on the New York Stock Exchange declares how much it pays for mining contracts. Because if those arrangements are not transparent, then it is easy for local governments to fiddle with those numbers, and they are very big numbers. There is a new African proverb, I kid you not: Pray that we do not discover oil. Because it brings all the wrong people to town. If there is an antidote to corruption, if there is a vaccine, it is transparency. Just bring it out in the open.
How involved are you with it? You’re trying to withdraw from it?
I’m not withdrawing at all. I am still heavily involved, but I think it’s healthy that the organization doesn’t have to rely on me. We’ve some brilliant people. Our new boss, Gayle Smith, ran development for President Obama and is a real force – Gayle Force, we call her. You’d think during touring it would get quieter, but actually we’re meeting leaders in every single place we’re in. When U2 played Paris, I went to see Macron and [his wife] Brigitte.
What was he like?
Macron was very kind to see me; he had just been elected to one of the most powerful offices in the world. I was really taken by his humility in letting me enter it so jovially. He has a quick and inspiring mind, and a secret weapon of a wife who was superaware of ONE’s push on girls education in the developing world. . . . Education is not easy, it’s expensive. We talked about his commitment to get France to allocating 0.7 percent of GNI [gross national income] to development assistance, ODA.
And he agreed to 0.55 percent by 2022, something he had not been public about until that meeting. It was a great meeting. But what was impressive about him was that he wasn’t focused on the numbers. He was focused on it being effective. He said, “You are making us keep our promise. We are happy to keep our promise. You have to make sure that the French people get value from money. Because we want to support the fight against extreme poverty.”
Now, would I have gotten that meeting if the tour wasn’t coming to a stadium near you? Maybe, because he is more curious and interested than most, but for other leaders, no. The hoopla and razzmatazz of arriving into town with the circus makes people anxious to have a meeting. In America, we have had as many Republicans as Democrats visit us on this last tour. This is no joke. Senators, congressional people, even though we have a moment in the show where we stick it to the man who shall not be mentioned.
You’ve been associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar, whose release you advocated for when she was a political prisoner. Now, she seems to be, at best, standing idly by as her country perpetrates what appears to be an ethnic cleansing. What is your take on what is going on there?
That is very hard, and I’m – I feel kind of nauseous about that. I have genuinely felt ill, because I can’t quite believe what the evidence all points to. But there is ethnic cleansing. It really is happening, and she has to step down because she knows it’s happening. I am sure she has many great reasons in her head why she is not stepping down. Maybe it’s that she doesn’t want to lose the country back to the military. But she already has, if the pictures are what we go by, anyway. The human rights that are being torched, the lives that are being burned out in Rakhine State are more important than a unity without them.
You think she should resign?
She should, at the very least, be speaking out more. And if people don’t listen, then resign. This is all just really troubling. I am still confounded by it, actually.
It is startlingly brutal.
Is it that we project onto people who we want them to be? We find somebody we like, and we tell ourselves that a person exists that is better than us. More able than us. A truer moral compass than us. We imbue them with all these qualities. We do that with people. I think I have had it done to me. People have their version of you, they project what they want to see on you. Maybe she was always a politician. She was not a saint. She was not some sort of savior. Maybe we were always wrong, and we just have to accept we were wrong. Or maybe something terrible has happened to her that we just don’t know.
You have done the Joshua Tree tour, you’ve gotten the new record out, and now you are getting ready to come back for another tour in the spring. What are your thoughts now that the year is over? Any last words of wisdom?
I am holding on to the idea that through wisdom,
through experience, you might in some important ways recover innocence. I want
to be playful. I want to be experimental. I want to keep the discipline of
songwriting going forward that I think we had let go for a while. I want to be
useful. That is our family prayer, as you know. It is not the most grandiose
prayer. It is just, we are available for work. That is U2’s prayer. We want to
be useful, but we want to change the world. And we want to have fun at the same
time. What is wrong with that?