Since their formation in 1976, U2 have aggressively avoided any move that even hints at nostalgia. But this year they’re going to finally look back by taking their 1987 masterpiece The Joshua Tree on tour in stadiums across America and Europe in honor of the album’s 30th anniversary. It’s a chance for the band to re-connect with fans after the rather disappointing reception to their 2014 LP Songs of Innocence, and it gives them a chance to hit the road while continuing to put the finishing touches on their upcoming album Songs of Experience. A couple of weeks before the shows were formally announced, U2 guitarist the Edge phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the tour, reviving rare songs onstage, their next album, Donald Trump and much more.
Can you give me some background on how this tour came together?
Well, when we came off the last tour, the Innocence and Experience indoor tour, we headed straight into finishing the second album of that set, Songs of Experience, which we were pretty much complete with after a couple of weeks of the final touches leading up to the end of the year. And then the election [happened] and suddenly the world changed. We just went, “Hold on a second – we’ve got to give ourselves a moment to think about this record and about how it relates to what’s going on in the world.” That’s because it was written mostly, I mean, 80 percent of it was started before 2016, but most of it was written in the early part of 2016, and now, as I think you’d agree, the world is a different place.
You’re talking about Trump and Brexit?
The Trump election. It’s like a pendulum has suddenly just taken a huge swing in the other direction. So, anyway, we then were looking at the anniversary of The Joshua Tree, and another thing started to dawn on us, which is that weirdly enough, things have kind of come full circle, if you want. That record was written in the mid-Eighties, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and U.S. politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners’ strike; there was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America. It feels like we’re right back there in a way. I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent. It just felt like, “Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn’t have three years ago, four years ago.” And so it was kind of serendipitous, really, just the realization that we needed to put the album on ice for a minute just to really think about it one more time before putting it out, just to make sure that it really was what we wanted to say.
So we said look, “Look, let’s do both. We can really celebrate this album, which is really born again in this context, and we can also really get a chance to think about these songs and make sure they’re really what we want to put out.” So the two sort of coincided and we decided we were gonna do some shows. And we’ve never given ourselves the opportunity to celebrate our past because we’ve always as a band looked forward, but I think we felt that this was a special moment, and this was a very special record. So we’re happy to take this moment to regroup and think about an album that’s so many years old, but still seems relevant.
Are you going to play the album in sequence at the shows?
I believe we will, and I say “believe we will” because that is certainly the working assumption right now. The show might not necessarily start with Track One, Side One, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” because we feel like maybe we need to build up to that moment, so we’re still in the middle of figuring out exactly how the running order will go, so yes. We will be playing the album in sequence.
The fans are going to be thrilled. There’s many songs you haven’t played in decades. Then there’s “Red Hill Mining Town,” which you’ve never played.
That’s true. I had a couple of days at the end of a studio session where I was listening to that song and working on guitar parts for it, which I hadn’t thought about for so many years. That tune in itself is just right slap-bang in some ways what’s going on with the U.K. It’s not quite as intense, but there’s industrial action breaking out all over the U.K. for the first time in generations. It’s not exactly a repeat of the Winter of Discontent, but it’s wild those issues are coming back. It does seem like politics is polarized in so many parts of the developing world to an extent that I find worrying. I’m sure most people do. Those days were difficult, dark times, and personally we really would hate to see it go back there.
Why do you think that’s the only song on the album you never bothered to play live? Is it difficult to play or difficult for Bono to sing?
I think it was probably one of those songs that due to tempo and arrangement never found a place within the live set. It’s funny, sometimes great songs … Think of a live show as an ecosystem. You’ve got niches to fill. There are uptempo, fast, dramatic songs and those are crucial. Then there are sort of more medium-tempo songs and no matter how great they are, sometimes you just can’t find a place for them. So I don’t think it was anything more complicated than that. But listening back to it I was like, “Wow, this is, I’m really …”
You may not know this, but within a few days of finishing the album, “Red Hill Mining Town” was our leading contender for the first single. We went ahead and made a video for it with Neil Jordan and we were very pretty confident about it. Then as the weeks went by and we sort of got back our objectivity, views started to change and it became “With or Without You,” and I think we were correct.
Then there’s “Exit” and “Trip Through Your Wires,” which you haven’t done since the 1980s. And there’s “In God’s Country,” which has only been done acoustically a handful of times. It’ll be great hearing those again.
Yeah. They’re all so diverse. That’s the thing about The Joshua Tree. It’s a very broad, CinemaScope kind of record. At the time we were thinking about it in cinematic terms. I mean, so much of the photographs that goes with the album, the scope was cinematic. We were thinking about songs from that standpoint. And also the literary inspirations and references. In fact, the original working title of “Exit” was “Executioner’s Song” because we were using a lot of literature as our jumping off point for the songs in terms of just taking our work in a slightly different direction.
We definitely were falling into the arms of America in the sense that, as a band, punk rock was so much about establishing a unique form of music not inspired or influenced by American music. If you listen to our early records, you can hear the influence of a lot of German contemporary music at the time. A lot of U.K. bands were listening to the same music. The Joshua Tree was the first album where we consciously went, “OK, we spent like four albums thinking about Europe, Ireland, but let’s take a look at the roots of this form that we are inevitably a part of.” And those were all American.
So we looked at American [music]. We looked at the blues. We looked at the New Journalism. I remember that myself and Bono were reading Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writers. It was a conscious effort to look across the Atlantic and to start to explore America. I mean, for someone from Ireland, it is a vast source of ideas and aspirations and inspirations and generations, America being the Promised Land. We’re looking at it in that regard, but also at what America really was. I read about the Soledad Brothers. I read about the Black Panthers. We were exploring America from all kinds of angles. And this time was a Reagan moment where, in some ways, the vision of what America would be seemed under threat. The America of Thomas Jefferson, the America of John F. Kennedy, these were visionaries talking about the ideals of what America can be. We were grappling with those big ideas and now here we are again. It’s crazy.
What songs are going to feature in the non–Joshua Tree parts of the show?
Obviously whenever we go to do something live, we are looking to establish a through line, a cinematic core that we can hold to. And we’re kind of spoiled and lucky that in the canon there’s a lot to draw from. Being kind of early in the process, it’s kind of hard for me to say exactly what we’ll be looking to do. But I will say that all the old songs are going to be considered and what we finally end up playing will cohere to what the core theme is. You know, we’re doing shows in America. We’re doing shows in Europe. But certainly the American shows, I have no doubt that a lot of it will be focused on that mythic America that we were writing about during the Joshua Tree.
Do you think it’s possible you’ll do any B sides from the album like “Wave of Sorrow” or “Luminous Times”?
We’ve done a few B sides in our shows prior to now, and it’s hard in some ways for a song to make the set because it’s not about the quality of the song. It’s about what you have to leave out to make space for it. We’re ambitious to the extent that we always want to cater to what we call our uber-fans who have seen multiple shows. They want to see something novel that they’ve never seen before, something obscure and unique. And we know that. We try as much as we can to make that possible. But we are also aware that the great majority of the people only have seen us that once, or a couple of times before. There’s a very long list of classic songs that they want to hear. It’s that balance.
It’s often really fun to take something from the past that we haven’t played often and reinterpret it, so no doubt we’ll be looking into that. But I don’t think we’re going to put a huge emphasis on obscure and little-heard U2 songs. I think there will be a few for sure. We mentioned “Exit,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” I mean, those are four songs. “Red Hill Mining Town” has never been played and the other three are extremely seldom heard. So, there you go. I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule out B sides.
I think the two songs the fans are most dying to hear are “Acrobat” and “Drowning Man.” They’ve never been done live. Is there a chance they’ll finally be done?
That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that fans were interested in “Drowning Man.” I mean “Acrobat,” for sure, I guess. It was one of those kind of more dramatic pieces from Achtung Baby. But that’s interesting. I’ll take note of that. We always want to listen to our fans because in our experience, music fans are seldom wrong. There’s something to what they say, so I’ll take note of that. I’m not saying we’ll definitely do it, but we’re at this wonderful situation where we’ve got a blank canvas.
I think the fans also miss the moments in the show where you took lead on a song, like “Numb” and “Van Dieman’s Land.” There used to always be an Edge moment where you did one.
Yeah. You know, I do sing a lot as you know, pretty much always backing. But Bono is actually the one who is often pushing me to take a vocal. I’m fine singing lead, but also the fact is we have a really great singer in the band. I guess the opportunity just hasn’t seemed right the last few tours. But I wouldn’t rule it out either.
I see you’re playing Bonnaroo. That should be fun. It’s a very different sort of gig for you guys.
Yeah. We haven’t played festivals for a number of years, but we did a lot of festivals early on, and I always remember them very fondly for various reasons. There’s a kind of gladiatorial aspect to a festival which always keeps you on your toes in a good way. There’s also the opportunity to rub shoulders with your peers and be in a background situation with other artists and other bands. One of the disadvantages of doing your own shows is you tend to just not have those opportunities as often. We formed a lot of friendships early on playing shows with Simple Minds and Eurythmics and various other bands. That’s an important part of it to me, so I’m looking forward to that.
What’s the stage going to be like at these Joshua Tree shows? Will it be like the original one in 1987 at all?
I don’t think we want to be too slavish, but at the same time we want to acknowledge sort of the aesthetic ideas that went with the record. I don’t think we’re going to go overboard in reinventing the wheel, but we’ll definitely take those aesthetic ideas and kind of update them somewhat. This is The Joshua Tree 2017. It’s not The Joshua Tree 1986.
Still, I’m sure the word “nostalgia” is going to get tossed around in connection to this tour. How do you feel about that?
Well, as I said, I think what’s important for us is that it’s not really about nostalgia. There’s an element of nostalgia that we can’t avoid, but it’s not motivated by a desire to look backwards. It’s almost like this album has come full circle and we’re back there again. It’s kind of got a relevance again that we’re certainly aware of.
Will the next record be Songs of Experience or is it possible it will be something else entirely?
No, I think it’s Songs of Experience. When I say it’s almost done, we definitely want to take this opportunity to think about it, make sure it’s really what we want to put out given the changes that have occurred in the world. And maybe a little will change, but we absolutely wanted to take that chance just to reconsider everything. And who knows? We may even write a couple of new songs because that’s the very position we’re in. We’ve given ourselves a little bit of breathing space for creativity.
Do you think that when the Joshua Tree tour ends, the Innocence and Experience tour will get revved up again with the same staging and everything as last time?
We feel like that tour wasn’t finished. So right now, we’d love to finish that tour. I would imagine it’s gonna be with very similar production components. But I would hate to attempt to see too far in to the future. That’s the working assumption at the moment, but things can change and nothing’s written in stone as of yet. But we like that tour and that project wasn’t completed. It is still alive in our minds creatively.
Do you have any idea how the next album will be distributed? There was so much attention paid to the distribution of the last one.
My plan is that Bono and I would sneak into everyone’s house and put a CD under their pillow [laughs]. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be getting much support from the rest of the band. But, no, again, it’s quite interesting the way music distribution and promotion and marketing has sort of been thrown into turmoil over the last number of years. What seemed like the most cutting-edge and innovative ideas six months ago no longer seem novel or groundbreaking. Also, I’m aware that sales of vinyl records are going through the roof. It’s just crazy to see that. That speaks about so many things about what the artifact, the object of a vinyl record signifies to people versus a digital download, a file. People, in the end, have an emotional connection with a great record and with the artist.
A digital file is … Look, convenience is wonderful. If I’m being honest, I still have my vinyl collection, but I use digital files 90 percent of the time. But I would never give up my vinyl. And so there’s a need for both, and I find that kind of reassuring that in the midst of convenience being king, there’s still this deep, emotional connection that people have with the body of work that is an album. So who knows? We’re still trying to figure it out like everyone else.
What I find heartwarming is that music culture and music is still at the forefront. People are enjoying it and reveling in it and turning to it for all kinds of reasons. I’m interested to see if in this new post-truth world, music sort of reconnects with the activist-protest thread that it had for so many years and seems to have lost recently. I think that aspect of music has always been, to my mind, an important, crucial part of what drew me to it, and why I think a lot of people are drawn to it. So I feel that this is a moment where music might go through a kind of renaissance of a kind and I’m very excited to see what young kids in their garages across North America and Europe are going to be writing about and releasing over the next number of years. I think it’s time to get back to some of that.
OK final question: Do you think there will be an Achtung Baby 30th anniversary tour in 2021?
[Laughs] No plans, but never say never.
Find out five things you didn’t know about U2. Watch here.