Months before they went into rehearsals for their 2018 Experience + Innocence Tour, U2 made a bold decision: Their new show wouldn’t feature a single song from The Joshua Tree, the 1987 classic that has been backbone of their live show for three decades. The band had spent the previous year playing the album – which includes “Where the Streets Have No Name and” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – straight through in stadiums. “We drew a line in the sand,” says bassist Adam Clayton. “If you really wanted those songs, we did it. It’s done. We’re moving on here.”
During a day off before beginning a two-night run at Chicago’s United Center, Clayton called up Rolling Stone to explain the band’s thought process behind the new set list, the possibility of the tour continuing into next year and what fans can expect from their SiriusXM show at New York’s Apollo Theater.
What were the challenges you faced when putting together this new tour?
I think what was challenging for us was that the Innocence tour had been such an extraordinary success in terms of how it connected with people and how it changed the environment. The sound was really great, that screen was a real innovation and the stage running the length of the arena was an innovation. There were so many things that showed people there was a different way of doing things that all added up and reinforced the emotion of the journey. I think the audience had a very personalized, emotional response to it. It was a bit of a challenge figuring how where this one was going to land. We’re in a very different era now and people are looking at the jeopardy and the risk in a different way.
You always planned this as a sequel to the Innocence tour, but when you didn’t realize there would be a Joshua Tree tour when this all started. How did that tour change how you approach this one?
We knew we were going to leave those [Joshua Tree] songs to rest for a while. We’re pretty much going to hold that line. We might waiver at some point if we feel that we’re missing a color in the show, but at the moment we’re holding the line. It’s part of the difficulty with what this show is sort of becoming. We’re 10 dates into it and we’re trying to include as many as possible from the new record. There’s still a couple of them we haven’t really dug into, but we’d like to perform. “The Showman” is something we rehearsed up early on. We just managed to get “Red Flag Day” in, but we’d like to get “Landlady” in too. There’s some other colors that we’d like to add, but we aren’t there yet.
The show is kind of telling us what the resolve is and the resolve in many ways is that for us Experience is quite a simple thing and it’s about acceptance of who you are and what you are and your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s an internal discussion and an internal resolve, where Innocence is an exterior resolve in some ways.
That “line in the sand” about not doing Joshua Tree songs. Was that unanimous or was there debate about that?
I think we were all excited about the idea of not delving back to Joshua Tree. That’s because Joshua Tree has cast such a big shadow over everything we’ve done. We felt that by doing that tour that we, to an extent, had laid that to rest for the moment. There will be another time to come back to that material, but I think we had always said when were doing those shows, “This material seems relevant to the time we are living in now. We’re prepared to re-present it in a similar fashion, but with some production and let those songs speak and let the intent behind some of those songs play out.”
I just don’t know if you can do “Bullet the Blue Sky” in this new show. I think that ground is kind of already covered. I’m not sure about “With or Without You.” You’re the Best Thing About Me” is the current version of that sentiment.
I’ve heard Bono say a lot that he knows if a show isn’t going well, “Where the Streets Have No Name” will always elevate the whole show. What’s it like to walk onstage and know you don’t have that big moment to fall back on?
You have to look at your strengths and your weaknesses. “Streets” is an amazing song to have in the canon, but if you threw that into this context I think the narrative would shift. Again, I think it would be such a big statement that it would reduce everything else. What we’re doing in this show is we’re trying to end on “City of Blinding Lights” and to make that a finale because that feels like a wholesome sentiment in this context. It’s a song of innocence, to an extent. Bono always says, “That started out as an innocence song, but it has some gravitas.” There’s almost in terms of narrative within the song; there’s a contemporary sort of “My Way” thread within that.
Talk about the decision to finally play “Acrobat.” Did you do that in response to the fans that have been asking for so long?
There’s this really annoying journalist who works at Rolling Stone … [laughs] He’s been saying “you’ve got to play ‘Acrobat'” for years now. [Editor’s note: Whoever might that be?] [laughs] “Acrobat” is a song that over the years felt somewhat midtempo in a show and we never really felt it was going to fit into any of the other contexts of shows that we’ve done. It was always the odd one out. This time around, it felt like a rarity and there has been a movement within the hardcore fan club for it. We’ve never shied away from doing particular songs unless it doesn’t particularly contextualize what we’re trying to do. I guess it has an emotional resonance to it and it has a lyrical through-line that works as well. I’m very happy to perform it. It’s actually great fun. I would never have guessed that the right way to perform that is in a kind of dressed-down situation on the E stage.
On the Innocence tour, we had a very simple drum setup on the second stage. This time around, we have a full Larry drum kit, so we’re able to perform to a different level of quality. “Acrobat” really fits into that. It’s like being at a club gig.
It’s in a strange time signature. Is it a difficult song to play?
It is a difficult song to play. It’s an even more difficult song to move to. I think it’s a 6/8 time. There’s a couple of different options for how you count it. I think that sort of, intuitively, we’ve switched between those time signatures a bit, but because we’re not schooled musicians we manage to get away with that. It is unusual, but it really, really works and there’s some great guitar playing by Edge.
What drew you back to “Staring at the Sun?”
“Staring at the Sun” was always a bit of a personal favorite. It fits into this somewhat dark cloud that is sitting over the world at the moment. Again, in that context it’s less of a hopeful pop song and more of a commentary on where we are.
When you show the KKK marching, it really reflects on this moment in time.
Yeah. I sort of think it’s a little “Lord of the Rings” in Middle Earth. The forces of darkness are gathering around that. Staring at the sun and not waning to be involved and not wanting to take a position doesn’t seem like a good option.
Then you go into “Pride” and show the footage of MLK and it’s a more more hopeful moment.
I think that’s around the corner. There’s always an equal and opposite swing in any political time. How that will manifest itself is hard to see or predict at this point, but I think it will. The children’s movement against the gun lobby and against these extraordinarily harmful school shootings that just seem insane, and yet the powers that be and the political will and the lobbyists seem to keep saying that the solution is more guns. In any situation, that’s just not plausible. That movement at the moment seems hugely radical and fragile. Perhaps it’ll play out over the next five or 10 years into something that really has some teeth and changes things.
Did you feel any anxiety before opening night because a certain percent of the audience might walk out upset they didn’t hear their favorite hit?
I think if we hadn’t done Joshua Tree we’d have felt like we needed to observe that for people, but I think having played Joshua Tree so successfully across the country our attitude was quite hard-lined. We would like people to pay attention to the last couple of albums because we feel they are very eloquent. We worked really hard for those songs. Bono’s lyrics are, I think, among the best he’s ever done. The melodies are really worked on. We put a lot of effort into those records and we think people should focus on them.
Will the tour keep going into 2019?
It’s really hard to call that at this moment in time. It’s always nice to have a successful tour and keep it going until you feel like you’ve gotten to everyone that wants to see it. I think nowadays with everything so compartmentalized it feels like we’ve got to get to our people. But I don’t know. It is a short tour. We made that decision because we’ve done a lot of shows over the last four years in total. There are parts of the world we just haven’t been to in the past for years as well. We haven’t been to Australia, Japan, Southeast Asia. We really haven’t spent that long in Europe, so perhaps we’ll lengthen the tour, but in reality maybe we need to find a way of being in bigger places again. If there was a way of taking the essence of this period and being in stadiums, maybe that’s worth thinking about. But I don’t know. I’m just speculating here with you.
How is the app working from your perspective?
I’m kind of happy to say that actually people, although they’re doing it, I think they’re losing interest in it. Rather than having an experience through a phone, people are willing to be part of the real-world experience that’s happening there and now. That’s a good sign. I think what’s really challenging is that you know in the past you knew when you were losing the audience because there would be a shift. Now you know you’re losing the audience if people are checking their emails. It’s really hard to compete with digital culture.
At my show, most people seemed to put their phones away after the first song.
That’s really what you want. Going to a concert has to be an immersive experience. If you’re in it for a couple of songs and then something happens and you go off and check your emails and you hear the babysitter has a problem or whatever, you’re not in that “we’re switching off, we’re going to a concert” mood.
What’s the Apollo Theater show going to be like?
That’s going to be real old school. We’re trying to look at songs we can do in a stripped-down production and musical setting. I think that’ll be a real proper old-school theater show and I’m looking forward to it.
So the set list will be very different than what you’re doing now?
Edge has got some radical ideas. We haven’t resolved all of them, but yeah it will be. It’ll be a different set.