What’s left to learn about U2 in 2014? Plenty, as it turns out – especially if you get a few days worth of intimate access to the band in three different countries. Here’s the best of what didn’t fit into the cover story, from the making of the new album to the secrets of Adam Clayton’s jewelry.
It’s not unimaginable that U2 could still be around when the band members are in their 70s.
“I don’t know – if we’re writing songs as good as these ones,” says Bono. “I mean, I saw Leonard Cohen play Dublin, and he said, “The last time I was out on the road, I was 60. Just a kid with a crazy dream!'” Adds Adam Clayton, “When you’re working up to 50, you think, ‘Oh, maybe there will be some time where we can kick back and it can be slower, and we can enjoy life a bit.’ And then when you kind of cross over the 50 mark, your thinking kind of goes, ‘Oh, why would you want to stop? This is actually the best bit. We’re really enjoying this, let’s keep going.’ And that’s kind of odd, but I guess there’s a reason why people like Paul McCartney and Elton John are still playing shows and making records.”
After spending years on Songs of Innocence, they recorded the acoustic version that’s on the deluxe edition in about a week.
For the band, it was a test of whether they’d met their goal for the album: writing songs that would work in the barest arrangements. “We had to go in and test the theory,” says Bono. “I saw the Edge with his head in his hands, and he said, ‘It’s taken us three years to finish this album, and you’re saying we have to do another album in a week?’ I said, ‘Edge, all the work over the last three years is going to mean that we can do it.” He just went ‘Ah!'” And he said, ‘We can do it in a week. Will we put it out? We don’t have to. Let’s just try.’ It got pretty frenetic at the end.”
The Edge doesn’t think rock is dead.
“I think it goes in cycles, honestly, and I think that we’ve just been through a particularly low cycle point for guitar-based music, and electronic dance music has been kind of the focus. But I think it’s about doing something fresh and novel, and the problem is that with a lot of guitar-based music, the songwriting has not been great, and it’s not particularly fresh, you know? I think the songwriting has been better in electronic dance music, weirdly enough. So inevitably I think people have drifted that direction. So I don’t fear for guitar-based music long-term, I just think we need some better songs out there. And I like my music to be a little bit more defiant. There’s not a lot of defiance right now. It’s gone very mild and meek. It’s nice to shake things up a little bit. Punk rock was not mild and meek, it was pretty in-your-face defiant.”
Songs of Innocence had some very different potential running orders.
Says Bono, “It used to start with ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me,’ which was always supposed to be the first song, and then ‘Raised By Wolves.’ And the reason we changed … we put the songs first, is we thought, “Well, if we’re going to have 5,000,000 people perhaps check us out, a really long intro is probably not a good idea. Let’s put the songs first, like on The Joshua Tree.”
Bono loves the band Future Islands.
“Have you seen them?” he asks. “That song, ‘Seasons?’ A miracle, that is.”
The car-bombing referred to in the song “Raised by Wolves” was a pivotal event in Bono’s political awakening.
“I asked myself, ‘Why am I always writing about political violence? What’s that all about?’ OK, I live in Ireland. And then I thought back to 1974, to my near-miss with this car bombing, and the odds of that, and thought, “Is that part of the reason?” Through happenstance, I took my bike to school that day and I wasn’t there. Any other Friday I would have been there. Is that why I’m interested? Maybe. And, you know, people like me should probably spend some time in a psychiatrist’s couch, but I don’t.”
Until the last two months of recording, “Raised by Wolves” was radically different.
“It was quite a pop song,” says Declan Gaffney, who co-produced it. “You know, Bono, when he writes melodies, he sings in a language called Bongolese, things that aren’t really words right up until about a month or two before the record is finished. And then Bono came in with these dark lyrics, and we kind of felt that the music didn’t really match the lyrics. So we tried to turn the music on its head, to match the lyrics.
The band’s biggest fear was seeing their new album ignored – which explains their controversial iTunes deal.
“That’s the hardest thing right now in music, is to get people to notice,” says the Edge. “I’m just watching all of these albums coming out and realizing, ‘Wow, they just came and went, and no one noticed.’ We’re not maybe as vulnerable as a lot of other artists to that phenomenon, because we do have a big, loyal fan base. But we’re also always interested in finding new fans. And in this era, it just gets more and more difficult to sort of go beyond your fan base, because there’s so many things in competition. When I was 18, music was the clear winner in terms of the kind of youth culture focus. Now you’re competing against the whole world of gaming, technology, social networking. So I think music has to fight for its position and has to fight for attention. And I think this helps us for sure, but I think it also helps keep music in the conversation, on sort of the front page rather than page three, four, five, six, seven of the conversation.”
There are lines in “Volcano” where Bono’s younger self is talking to his current self.
“The second verse is, the younger guy goes, ‘Your eyes were like the landing lights/They used to be the clearest blue/Now you don’t see so well/And the future’s going to land on you.'” It’s this young guy going, “The fuck happened to you?” And on Songs of Experience, there will be a little bit more of that cross-talk, and I think that’s going to get very interesting. So for a live show you can imagine Quadrophenia where Pete Townshend could walk in any minute and have an argument with his younger self. You know?”
Bono initially imagined “Every Breaking Wave” as somewhat in the vein of Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”
“‘Every Grain of Sand’ was Steve Jobs’ favorite song,” says Bono, “and he said, ‘Do you have one like that?’ And I said, ‘I think so. At least we started one.’ I might have even sent him the lyrics way back, like as soon as I started. And I wouldn’t dare compare the two songs now, I’m just saying the idea was, could you just do a song that simple? Like you and piano? It was a song about how hard it is to give yourself completely to another person. And the two characters in it are addicted to failure and rebirth. I like the idea that they say to each other, ‘Are we ready? Are we ready to be swept off our feet?” Adam [Clayton] was more like one of the characters in that song than I am. And then he went and got married! It took him to be 52 or whatever he was to be swept off his feet. And he got there.”
Larry Mullen might be too good a drummer.
“My timing is pretty good for an old man,” Mullen says with a smile. During the making of Songs of Innocence, one of the producers wanted to alter Mullen’s performance to make it less perfect. “They basically said, ‘We have to make it sound like it’s live.’ It’s like, it is live! The idea is making it sound slightly out of time just in case somebody would think it’s a machine. That gave me a lot of belly laughs, and also some restless nights. “
Mullen doesn’t mind being a dissenting voice in the band from time to time.
“Some decisions are not welcomed, or aren’t popular, but I’m not in a popularity contest. I’m in a band.”
The band is weighing a two-night structure for their 2015 tour.
“There is talk of doing two different kinds of shows,” says Clayton. “One night would be a kind of loud, explosive rock & roll kind of event and then the other night’s show take the acoustic arrangements of some of the songs, and kind of present those songs in a much more intimate way. But we don’t really know how that’s going to sound and look.” One thing the band hasn’t figured out: how to make sure audiences understand in advance which show they’re getting.
The Edge went to Coachella this year.
“The band that I liked at Coachella was Cage the Elephant. Their commitment to the performance really blew so much of the other stuff away. They really did own it in a way that few other artists did. Broken Bells were great, and Skrillex’s thing was pretty cool. Pixies were on, that was good to see them. And I love Outkast. Some of the more strange hippie stuff wasn’t that great. Neutral Milk Hotel, you know them? If you were sort of one of the faithful, you could sort of get excited about it. It didn’t really have a universal appeal at all. And that might be its appeal.”
The band found the recording and songwriting process humbling this time.
“We probably had 50 songs,” says Bono. “Some would come and go in favor, and some you could get them halfway up the hill, three-quarters of the way up the hill. A lot of times, we just couldn’t get them up to the top of the hill. And that was the humbling element. And there’s some humiliation in realizing that your talent is just not up to the task. And then you realize, after that, no one’s talent is. People who are smarter and more creative, more prolific than U2, stopped being able to get songs across after, 20 years, 30 years, and you don’t know why. And I think the muse is a jealous lover, and you really have to serve and wait on her.”
Bono feels that the lyrics on Songs of Innocence are more accessible than anything he’s written in years.
“Edge was really worried about getting so personal, that it would appear nostalgic. But strangely, by being this intimate, it’s much more relatable, because the last album’s quite esoteric. There are esoteric themes – like in ‘Moment of Surrender,’ the guy falls to his knees in a busy street beside an ATM machine. People are saying, ‘I haven’t been able to understand you for years, but this I get.'”
“‘Esoteric’ would be a good way to describe No Line on the Horizon,” says the Edge. “It had a certain introspective darkness to it and I’m always going to be interested in the sort of darker, more melancholy musical mood. But we might have slid a little bit too strongly in that direction, and we wanted this record to be accessible to a wider range of music fans. I think the last record was very much a sort of U2 fan base record. I don’t think we made a hell of a lot of new fans on that record. And with this album, I believe we can. And I fee; much more confident, for instance, that we’ve done this whole Apple thing with this album than I think I would have felt if it was No Line on the Horizon.”
Bono never liked it when people tried to compliment him by saying, “You haven’t changed.”
“Things must change,” he says. “I remember people would say, ‘You haven’t changed’ — like it was a good thing. I was thinking like, ‘What do you mean I haven’t changed? I have changed!’ And I want to continue to change — I want to continue to peel off the layers and if there’s anything in this onion, I want to know what it is.”
Adam Clayton has had a jade bracelet stuck on his wrist since he was 21 years old.
“I was given it when I was 21,” Clayton says with a laugh. “And it’s a women’s size, and I can’t get it off. My hand was a little smaller. And I actually really forced it on at the time. Because I was 21, and I was having a good time.”