INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Rolling Stone MAY 2009 - by Brian Hiatt
U2: HYMNS FOR THE FUTURE
How the world's biggest band rebooted its soul.
It should have been enough, even for Bono. Lincoln behind him, Obama to his right, a crowd of four-hundred-thousand stretched to the Washington Monument. A chance to quote the "I have a dream" speech from the very spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered it. "Not a bad gig," U2's singer says with a grin, shaking his head afterwards in the band's cramped backstage trailer. Bono's eyes are hidden under orange shades; his close-cropped hair has a section shaved to the scalp on each side, like racing stripes for the brain. "That crowd! I suppose the fact that I thought I could bond with every single one of them is early - or later - signs of megalomania."
But Bono just can't help thinking about his original plan: King on the video screens, his 1963 speech ringing out on the National Mail - and when the crowd heard "Thank God almighty, we are free at last," U2 would have slammed into Pride (In The Name Of Love). Instead, the song got a muted intro from Samuel L. Jackson. "They pulled the speech last night," sighs Bono, still wearing a black scarf from his stage outfit, with a Rilke poem about God and nature printed on it. "We were out with [David] Axelrod and Rahm [Emanuel] and the Obama team, and they said it was a modesty thing. They thought it was presumptuous. Do you get that? I mean, it's great that they're being cautious - but it would have been great for the King family to see that."
The Edge, uncharacteristically giddy after the performance's adrenaline blast, chimes in. "I can see how they were thinking," he says. "I'm not sure I agree. Obama is a modest guy, and he's really careful about being presumptuous and self-lionising." The guitarist pauses and smiles, eyes gleaming beneath his black ski cap. "We don't suffer from these problems. We just go for it."
A few weeks earlier, U2 finished their eleventh studio album, No Line On The Horizon - which fuses the spiritual uplift of their '80s work with the future-shock sonics of their '90s albums. The result is some of the most moving, adventurous music of their career, from the churning polyrhythms of the title track to the ghostly minimalism of the closer, Cedars Of Lebanon. And despite living in a time where, as Bono puts it, "only teenage girls and very, very honest people" pay for music, they spared neither time nor expense in pursuit of their vision.
"It is now easier and more affordable to record a song than at any other time in the history of recorded music," says bassist Adam Clayton. "Unless you're U2." It was a superstar album-as-art project, with no deadlines on the horizon: During two years of scattered sessions, they recorded in France, London, New York, Dublin and Fez, Morocco. Long-time producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno were along for the ride, with the pair emerging as full songwriting partners for the first time - it was Lanois, for instance, who came up with the chorus melody for a key track, Moment Of Surrender.
On their first two albums this decade, U2 reclaimed their core sound and their mass audience - but along the way, they started to feel like they were playing it safe. So despite the successes of the past eight years, the band went into their sessions feeling like everything was on the line. "We were fighting for our relevance," says The Edge. "We felt like we really can't afford not to be innovative."
Adds Bono, "There is the defying-gravity aspect of it. There's this fear that this might be the one where the nose of the plane starts to dip down. It's very hard when you see talents and prolific imaginations that are so great, and wonder, 'Where did it go?' And then you think, 'That can happen to us! In fact, it's likely to. And what might stop it?'"
Bono rounds a corner onto a narrow Dublin street, boots crunching in old cobblestone, sleek, black double-breasted overcoat flapping in the January breeze. The street's only occupants, a flock of fat pigeons, wobble into the air to get out of his way. Bono stretches an arm to try to touch one of them as it flutters overhead. "One beak to another," he says with a laugh. His enthusiasm and charisma are such that it's hard not to laugh with him, even if you don't quite get the joke. "The Dublin Walk, by the way, is called 'the pigeon'," Bono says. "You probably haven't seen it yet." He demonstrates, breaking into a thuggish pimp strut, and laughs again.
He's running late for his next appointment, which is not unusual in what must be one of the most overstuffed lives on the planet: "part-time" rock stardom; global advocacy for Africa's poor that's won him nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, various multinational business and charitable ventures; an op-ed column for The New York Times; and four kids with Ali Hewson, his wife of twenty-six years. "I find it very hard to leave home," he says, "because my house is full of laughter and songs and kids."
Earlier, he had also been late for lunch. "My wife is out of town with her clothing line, and I had to get the kids off to school," he apologised. Of his multitasking, he says, "I wanna squeeze every drop out of the day. But it's also the tyranny of good ideas, y'know, because if you spot one, or if you have one, then you think you have to follow through on it. And that might be a psychosis - I may have to get that fixed."
Psychotic or not, he's in an ebullient mood. This is his town; these are his streets. And with the Obama inauguration looming, he's hopeful about the future - though he is as worried as anyone about the world financial crisis, which is hitting Ireland very hard. "Very serious matter," he says. "I get really nervous when some of the smartest people I know - some of the smartest people in the world - don't know what's about to happen. I believe, in the end, creativity thrives in difficult conditions. I think we'll see some amazing things come out of this, though my heart goes out to people losing their jobs. And in my work as an activist, we were finding out how hard it is to get people to keep their promises to the world's poor in good times. You can imagine how difficult it's going to be now."
Interviewing Bono is like walking an Alaskan husky - you can only suggest a general direction, and then hold on for dear life. Over an eighty-minute lunch at a favourite Dublin restaurant, Eden, he repeatedly goes off on wild, entertaining tangents, which tend to include names such as Bill Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, genomic researcher Craig Venter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Bono calls him "the Arch"). He tosses out one killer sound-bite after another, blue eyes moving like tropical fish behind today's pinkish-purple shades. "I was never much good at throwing a television out a window of a hotel," he says, musing on his failings as a rock star. "Now, I look at a television, and I want to buy the company."
He eats his chicken breast in big bites, avoiding the potatoes, talking with his mouth full - and when the chicken is gone, he dips his finger into the sauce and licks it off, more than once. "We began this decade well - I think we'll end it better," he says, sitting on a white chair at a white table in a restaurant that's otherwise empty - apparently because management has cleared it out for him. "Wouldn't it be great if, after all these years, U2 has their heyday? That could be true of a painter or a film-maker at this stage."
Early on, Bono was both blunt and bold about his intentions for No Line On The Horizon: he wanted it to be far more than just another hit album. "The initial conversation was about future hymns," Lanois says. "He thought that we should go to Morocco and write a body of work that would qualify as hymns for the future - songs that you can sing that will last forever." In fez, they rented a riad and jammed in its open courtyard, with Larry Mullen Jr. playing an electronic drum kit and Eno and Lanois joining in on synth and guitar. The North African sun was blazing, and they could barely hear each other without proper monitors, but they managed to improvise the beginnings of several songs that ended up on the album, including Magnificent, Fez - Being Born and Unknown Caller - on the album you can hear birds chirping in the courtyard. The trip coincided with fez's annual Festival Of World Sacred Music, and the band spent time taking it all in. "They've got Hindu music and Jewish music and this incredible Sufi singing and these joujouka drums," Bono says. Even before arriving in Fez, the band had tapped into those sounds. "We knew by the time we were heading to Fez that that we had found a new sound that was legitimate," says Clayton. "It had a primitivism - it had a rock'n'roll element to it, but there was an otherworldy feel.
The tracks they were recording were lengthy, ecstatic, vibe-heavy - not the stuff of stadium tours and hit singles. "We needed to get back to something that was gonna inspire us to take more risks and not to be afraid," says Mullen. "The last two records reinforced the idea that U2 is a rock band, and by doing that you give yourself a license to tear it all down again. But at a certain stage, reality hits, and you go, 'What are we gonna do with this stuff?' Are we going to release this sort of meandering experimentation, or are we gonna knock some songs out of this?"
So U2 spent months tearing tunes apart, then reassembling them bit by bit. The band's third long-time producer, Steve Lillywhite (who goes back to their first album, Boy), joined the process, and other sounds emerged - the giddy pop of I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go crazy Tonight, the electro-riff rock of the first single, Get On Your Boots. "We went so far out on the Sufi singing and the sort of ecstatic-music front," says Bono, "that we had to ground it, find a counterpoint."
U2 finally turned the album in to their label just before christmas and then pulled it back at the last minute to rejig the track order. They had planned to start off with its most experimental moment, Fez - Being Born, but decided to switch to the catchier title song. "I worked out the math - there's something like forty million possible running orders," says The Edge (he's almost exactly right). "It was a conscious thing for us, to make a collection that was a whole. It's part of why it all took so long: We were fighting to hold up the idea that an album can still be a sacred art form."
A month before the album's release, U2 are onstage at the Grammys, hurtling toward the end of their first-ever live version of Get On Your Boots, when Bono does something weird: he pulls off his shades. And underneath - hey, is that eyeliner? "I thought I looked very sexy in eye makeup," he half-jokes afterward. The look, he explains, was meant to be more Elvis than emo. It turns out to be the beginning of a new character that he's trying out, in the spirit of the Zoo TV Tour's leathered-up Fly and devil-horned MacPhisto: "I was calling him Elvis' dead brother, Jesse - which maybe is in poor taste. It's still in development! I started just messing with."
Judging by online chatter, the only thing that confounded the public more than the sight of a glam Bono was the song he was singing. Few seemed to know what to make of a U2 song that combines a Zeppelin-y fuzz riff with electronic beats and lyrics about sexy boots. The single was not an instant smash, and Bono acknowledges some doubts. "I was going off the song myself for a minute," he says. "And then the Grammys really put me back on it. I really enjoyed performing it. It's gonna take a little longer to stick. It was never an obvious first single because it's not straight-ahead anything. But it is sly and charming and sexy and playful... and serious. It's an earnest love song. That's what's beautiful about it."
If Get On Your Boots feels lightweight for U2, it's only because it's meant to ease listeners into one of the band's deepest albums. "if we're going to bleed all over everyone on the album, we always try to distract people from that," Bono says, citing the Mel Brooks-inspired title of Achtung Baby as an example. "I thought, 'What could be useful for U2 at this point?' And I think I had probably two words in my head: 'reverie' and 'revelry'."
Bono worked as hard as he ever has on this album's lyrics, typing out draft after draft. When they're not packed with epigrammatic punch lines ("Stand up to rock stars / Napoleon in high heels / Josephine be careful / Of small men with big ideas"), they're laced with allusions: to James Joyce, to the documentary Man On Wire and especially to the Bible. Unknown Caller references Jeremiah 33:3 - "Call unto me, and I will answer"; Breathe is set on June 16th, the same day as Joyce's Ulysses; and Magnificent was inspired by the Magnificat, a passage from the Gospel of Luke (in the voice of the Virgin Mary) that was previously set to music by Bach. "There's this theme running through the album of surrender and devotion and all the things I find really difficult," Bono says. "All music for me is worship of one kind or another."
That idea will come to the forefront on U2's next album - a sister release to No Line On The Horizon, a Zooropa to its Achtung Baby, which the band plans to put out in the next year. Bono already knows the title - Songs Of Ascent - and the first single, a surging anthem called Every Breaking Wave that was left off No Line On The Horizon. Songs Of Ascent will be quieter than No Line On The Horizon; in many ways, it's the ghost album of hymns and Sufi singing. "We're making a kind of heartbreaker, a meditative, reflective piece of work, but not indulgent," Bono says. "It will have a clear mood, like Kind Of Blue. Or A Love Supreme would be a point of reference, for the space it occupies in people's lives, which is to say, with that album, I almost take my shoes off to listen to it."
In the basement of London's Olympic Studios, armed only with a MacBook and a Nord keyboard, Brian Eno is leading a doomed, one-man insurgency. It's early December and U2 are wrapping up their sessions for No Line On The Horizon, the track listing almost finalised, but Eno is still pushing for prayerful, moody songs that were long ago abandoned. He's most passionate about Winter, which sounds like no other U2 song. It begins with finger-picked, chiming acoustic guitar and falsetto backing vocals, and once Bono hits his key line - "Summer sings in me no more" - Eno's dramatic strings kick in. "Listening to the silence, the deaf and dumb roar of white noise / Your voice," Bono sings at one point, followed by a choral chant. "Beautiful, isn't it? They're bonkers leaving it off," Eno says with real sadness, as the tune winds up with soaring, dissonant strings - they're synthesised, played on his little keyboard down here in the basement.
Well before Barrack Obama thought of it, U2 embraced Abraham Lincoln's idea of a team of rivals. "Brian's job is basically to take everything and destroy it," says Lillywhite. "And I suppose I come in after he's destroyed it, and I listen to what he's done, and to what was there before, and I sort of get some middle ground, and try to bring it back to a place where art and commerce live side by side." Adds Edge, "That tension is important to the process. But I think we're pretty much always right."
Eno, whose fearlessly arty vision has shaped some of the best rock of the last thirty years - from Roxy Music to his experimental solo albums to Bowie in Berlin to Coldplay's Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends - is bald, professorial and unexpectedly genial, with Prada glasses hanging on a cord around his neck. "It's too long, it needs a bit of work," he says of Winter. "But, you know, they won't spend time on it. They've spent months on the ones that are supposed to be the radio singles. Months! This: played, put aside."
Eno ducks the question of whether U2 have an artistic as well as commercial justification for focusing on potential hits. "You should ask the band that," he replies. And it turns out Bono has strong feelings on the subject. "We grew up on rock'n'roll 45," he says. "It is, in an evolutionary way that Brian should, but doesn't, appreciate, the Darwinian peak of the species. It is by far the most difficult thing to pull off, and it is the very life force of rock'n'roll: vitality, succinctness and catchiness. And when rock music forgets about the 45, it tends towards progressive rock, which is like a mould that grows on old, burned-out artists who've run out of ideas. We have a soundtrack/Pink Floyd side of our band, and it has to be balanced bu fine song-writing. And it's an infuriating thing for me to see indie rock'n'roll give up the single to R&B and hip-hop. And that's why I love the Kings Of Leon album or The Killers album: These are people who have such belief in their musical power that they refuse to ghettoize it."
Bono pauses, and returns to the subject of his friend Eno. "What he's listening for is a unique feeling, a unique mood and a unique palate. And he doesn't get hits - I bet he told Coldplay to leave Viva La Vida off their album. Brian would listen to (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction and say, 'I love that song, but can we get rid of the guitar bits? You know, the part that goes duhnt-duhnt-dunna dun?'"
As Bono gives me a lift to U2's headquarters in his gleaming, ethanol-burning Maserati Quattroparte, he declares a "world exclusive" and pops a burned CD into the stereo. Over the past few years, The Edge and Bono have written twenty songs for a musical called Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark - which will hit Broadway in January 2010 - with Julie Taymor, who worked with Bono on her Beatles movie musical, Across The Universe, directing and Rachel Wood playing Mary Jane Watson. Though Edge and Bono are far from comic-book geeks, the super-hero association may not be as crazy as it seems. If Stan Lee hadn't written the line "With great power comes great responsibility," Bono would have stuck it somewhere on The Unforgettable Fire. "Peter Parker is the nerdy kid who gets bullied and finds a way to reinvent himself," says The Edge. "That's the story of every rock star."
The first song Bono plays on the Maserati's more-than-adequate sound system is called Boy Falls From The Sky, with Across The Universe star Jim Sturgess singing as Peter Parker. It sounds a lot like a U2 hit, especially when Bono sings along in the car with the line "I used to use a single thread to cross the sky." "Killer!" he shouts as the song wraps up, and then he plays a choral, operatic segue. When Bono's assistant calls on his cell, he cuts the conversation short: "We're in the middle of an opera here!"
Mullen and the silver-haired Clayton - who has a gentlemanly air, as if he's permanently carrying a nice cup of tea - have pushed for a larger role in the band's song-writing and often end up on the same side of the disagreements within the group. But the harder-edged Mullen is the one most likely to say, "No." "I don't give up easy on any level," Mullen says. "People think we've all got beepers on, and it's like, 'Bono's had a thought! Oh, fuck! Get out your beeper!" Mullen laughs. "I think if Bono had his way, we'd probably be recording and playing for Africa, and that's how he thinks. Just take everything and give it all. It doesn't work like that. We spend a lot of time trying to hold Bono back from doing the maddest things possible. I don't understand where he gets the energy."
After this discussion, I developa new theory about Bono's activism: He does it because convincing George W. Bush to give fifteen billion dollars to Africa is easier than getting Larry Mullen Jr. to do anything. Bono explodes with laughter. "I love him so, but that's an understatement," he says.
Back in Olympic, The Edge and Bono are alone behind closed doors in a dark control room. They're in deep discussion over a couple of lyric sheets, deciding together between two entirely different sets of words for an exhilerating song called Breathe. One version is about Nelson Mandela; the other is far more surreal and personal. (In the end, Mandela loses out.) "With the lyrics, I act as a sort of critic, editor, sounding board," Edge says. "It helps Bono to be more productive to have somebody to bounce ideas off." (Bono is quick to point out that it was The Edge who wrote a line on Magnificent that some critics are already finding a trifle too messianic: "I was born to sing for you / I didn't have a choice / But to lift you up.")
After the lyric discussion, Bono and The Edge start discussing the greatness of Jimmy Page, who recently played with Edge in the documentary It Might Get Loud - and recorded here at Olympic with Led Zeppelin. After comparing Page to Wagner, Bono looks over at Edge, making the case for his band's own guitar god. "I'd argue that there are colours in the spectrum that you own, that weren't there before you painted them, and that your lack of dependence on blues scales sets you apart," Bono says. Edge is concentrating so hard on what Bono is saying that the moment starts to feel uncomfortably intimate - like they don;t have this kind of discussion often.
"In Edge, we have a proper guitar genius and a monumental talent, and the only reason that the world isn't as celebratory of the fact as it should be is his own modesty," says Bono. "And it takes some strength of character to bring such a level of sophistication into the studio and have the rest of us, you know, trample all over it."
In his own way, The Edge is as intense as Bono - his gaze is warm but so penetrating that it feels like he should be the one who wears sunglasses indoors. You can talk to him for a long time - we have an almost two-hour lunch - without ever feeling he's let you in very far. He hints that if you really want to understand him, you should just listen to him play: "The guitar is so expressive, and so eloquent, in being able to deal with things you couldn't possibly put into words."
Bono, on the other hand, is all words. Even other rock stars find Bono's energy superhuman - "He can walk in space without a helmet," Eddie Vedder once told me. But the truth is, it all does wear Bono down. "I can get bent out of shape, you know, just by busyness," he says one night in mid-February. Case in point: He's calling from his car, which is parked outside his daughter Eve's high school in Dublin. Our initial appointment was to speak almost twelve hours earlier. "I thought this would be over at eight," he apologises, sounding comically frantic. "My daughter's in a school play, but it's not just that - it's a face-off between all the plays in the region. There's judges and there's speeches."
Bono worries about losing track of himself in the chaos of his life and the lyrics of No Line On The Horizon are full of characters who have lost track of themselves. "You could have called this album The Pilgrim And His Lack Of Progress," Bono says, "because all the characters are struggling to stay true to their values or want to realise their potential. And without getting all self-help on your arse, I do think that the problems we face in the world start and end with the human spirit. And our music, I would like to think, reminds people what the human spirit is capable of."
One track, Moment Of Surrender, includes a phrase that's close to sacred for Bono: "vision over visibility." Until now, he never found a home for it in a song, but used it as a title for a self-portrait in the '80s, placed it in poems and essays, and even squeezed it into a live version of Rockin' In The Free World. "It's an idea that I've held on to tightly over the years," he says. "It's like Martin Luther King's speech - the moment when you see the place, but you can't see yet how to get there." The slogan stands for insistence on looking past what you can see in favour of what could be. For Bono, the world as it is will never be enough. "I'm not the tattooing kind, but if I had a tattoo, that would be it," he says. "Elvis had 'taking care of business.' I've got 'vision over visibility.'"