“I wanna be in that band!” U2‘s Bono shouts with delight as he stares at the screen. The singer, gripping a beer and dancing to the music, is crammed with the rest of the group – guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. – into a tiny control room at NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios in New York. U2 are reviewing the mix and footage of their performance less than an hour ago on top of the building – 71 floors up, in below-freezing cold under a gorgeous winter-sunset sky – for Jimmy Fallon‘s February 17th debut as host of The Tonight Show.
“Guys, this is history!” Fallon raves to the small, lucky crowd before introducing the band, referring both to his big night and U2’s appearance. The electronica-driven blast of “Invisible” – from U2’s forthcoming album, recorded over the past two years with producer Brian Burton a.k.a Danger Mouse – is the band’s first, public performance of new material since the end of their in-the-round stadium tour in 2011. After a first take that Bono deems not quite perfect, U2 play “Invisible” again, flanked by members of the Rutgers University marching band. This is the keeper: Bono bounds on to the sliver of a stage like an eager boxer, punching the air as he sings, and The Edge’s chiming-guitar solo rings clear and hard through the frigid air.
The Story Behind “Invisible”
“It’s about having no barriers,” Bono says afterward of that song’s chorus – “There is no them” – as he hangs out in a hallway downstairs, outside the main studio, waiting for U2 to play their second song for Fallon, the Oscar-nominated “Ordinary Love.” “Invisible,” Bono goes on, is “about how there is no audience. There is only you and me – us – whenever we play. And how extraordinary is it,” he adds, “that I decided to do this without my father’s name” – referring to a line about his own willful reinvention as a teenager, from Dublin-born Paul Hewson.
“It started out as a straight-rock song,” The Edge says of “Invisible” during an interview in U2’s dressing room. “It was a demo I worked on in L.A., almost Ramones-like. When I brought it to the band to Dublin, we stripped it back. We tried various, different arrangements. They were all promising but not quite it. Then we hit on this arrangement with Brian, taking it toward the electronica aesthetic. From that point of view, Bono was able to own it as a singer and feel like this was fresh territory.”
Making “Love” with the Roots
In that control room, the band is also watches a playback of “Ordinary Love,” which starts out on the couch next to Fallon’s desk – Bono with a microphone, the Edge and Clayton pickling acoustic instruments and Mullen banging a tambourine. Bono winces when he hears the first note out of his mouth again – slightly flat. “I didn’t have any ear monitors,” he explains later. “I couldn’t hear myself.” But the song sounds warm and quietly intense, until Bono calls for Fallon’s house band, the Roots, to bring their funk.
“We heard all about American television from Bruce Springsteen,” Bono cracks. “He said, ‘Remember, they can turn you up, they can turn you down. They can hit pause. You have no control.’ For years, we avoided doing TV, because we didn’t feel like we could get across who we are, the way we want you to hear it.
“But when you do something like this,” he goes on, beaming, “you realize you can be yourself – do something special that serves the song.”
The Edge points out that U2 originally planned to play “Ordinary Love” unplugged all the way through. “But yesterday, I thought, ‘Maybe for the ending, we should let the Roots in for a little bit.’ And when Bono asked them to come in, I could feel this thing – ‘Woah!’ – and Bono started to take off.
“It was a nice reminder,” the guitarist says, “that there is nothing quite as rewarding as playing a great, new song to U2 fans.”
The New Album
“We’re in the studio still,” The Edge admits during that dressing-room interview when asked about U2’s progress on the new album. The record was expected to be out last December; it is now tentatively set for release this summer. But the Edge will only confirm that “we really want the songs to be right. That’s the only reason why we’re not on tour – because we’re so good at starting, not so good at finishing. That’s always the way it’s been.”
The guitarist says the band has around 30 songs “that we’re excited about, in various states of being finished.” Of those, “six or seven are mixed and ready to go.” There is “a common thread” too – “the period of music, in our lives and history, when we really came into being, turned on by music, the seeds that made us want to be in a band.
“The thing about U2 songs,” The Edge continues, “is there is no set way they come into being. A couple of songs on the album have literally been like, ‘We’re all together, here’s some chords, let’s see what happens.’ And suddenly, an hour later, there is a song, an arrangement and a recording. Other things, you know there is something great in there, how to make it really count.
“We’re dogged,” he says proudly. “Some people go, ‘We tried it. It didn’t work out. Next idea.’ We don’t abandon our songs if we really believe there is something there. We’re going to keep pushing. We just don’t give up.”
The Edge gets up to leave. The band is flying back to Dublin right away – they have an album to finish. When asked, as he is about to go out the door, if the album has a title, The Edge replies, “Not yet. We have a few.” He laughs “That’s the problem.”