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U2 Interviews

Interview with The Edge
© Bill Ellis, The Commercial Appeal, 5.11.97

Pop Art. Pop Mart. Pop Smart. Construct it however you like, rock's biggest band, U2, is back with a Vegas gambler's vengeance and all bets are on.

U2's first record in almost four years, ''Pop,'' borrows the latest dance sound, electronica, while its PopMart tour - one of the largest ever staged - looks to be the summer's cash cow. A beefed-up disco stage will feature a 150-by-50 foot video screen, 5,000 feet of disco lighting, plus several gigantic objects including a golden arch, an olive on a toothpick and a lemon-shaped mirrorball.

Disco ducks or fin de siecle philosophers? U2 - Bono (vocals), the Edge (guitar), Adam Clayton (bass) and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums) - have become a bit of both and seem pleased with the contradictions (Hold me, thrill me, kiss me, twirl me).

The Edge (David Evans) talked between band rehearsals in San Francisco about the
tour, the album, and why U2 feel they've changed for the better.

Q - Your new approach is steeped in irony and satire: You announced your tour from a Kmart, the first concert was in Las Vegas. In today's talk show/Hard Copy world, is satire even a possibility? That's to say, do you think people will get it?

A - Irony is essential. Some of it is there because that's how we can enjoy what we do. On a tour, it's inevitable. When you think about stadium situations, they deserve, on one level, to be taken seriously because they are so big and it's a major undertaking. But on another level, if you take them too seriously, you're already history. Because they are in some ways ridiculous and the sheer scale is crazy. So we were determined when planning this tour that there was humor involved, that we had a laugh.

We learned how important humor was during the '80s when we suddenly realized that, although we were having a lot of fun within the group, very little was being transferred into our music and our performance. We felt looking back on those days that (we had) created a slightly warped picture of what we were like as people. And it contributed to a caricature of what we were about.

When it comes to the new album, it's less humorous than we intended. I was surprised, having listened to the record a few weeks after we had mastered it, to realize it's one of our most intense and spiritual records. It wasn't really a plan. Our major intention was to have a tossed-off, carefree feeling about it. We did have songs that had that personality, but in the end they just didn't shine.

Q - The contradictions on the new record are what make it interesting. The music is glitzy in a way, yet the lyrics contain more soul-searching than even ''The Joshua Tree.'' Had the music been as heavy as the lyrics, maybe it wouldn't have worked.

A - Yeah. The music is much more of a feel record. The emphasis was on finding our hips. Larry and Adam took up that challenge. Some of their playing on this record is the most rhythmically advanced they've ever achieved.

Q - Adam's using some surprisingly deep tones, even subtones.

A - Adam loves to move air (laughs). His side of the stage is amazing sonically. If you're on my side of the stage. you hear the songs, the vocal, some guitar. If you go over to Adam's side, suddenly all you're aware of are frequencies that are all kick drum and bass. That's his thing. He likes setting off seismic detection equipment if possible.

Q - All your records have been atypical guitar records. How do approach your guitar sound?

A - There is only one rule: Is it blowing your mind? Is it a great, unusual sound? I find it very hard to get excited about guitar sounds that are conventional. They just don't interest me very much. I've always found myself more taken with guitar eccentrics from Tom Verlaine to the sounds on Captain Beefheart records.

We're playing with (opening act) Rage Against the Machine, and (guitarist) Tom Morello is doing some amazing things. What he's created is almost like a DJ scratching. It's really rhythmic and expressive in a different way. And that's what I try to search out - ways of making the guitar speak but in a way that hasn't been heard before. (On) every record, that means something different. I find that sounds get used up after a while.

That's what was interesting about making the new record. We set out to explore what was going on in dance culture. What we discovered was we didn't want to embrace their techniques, we just wanted to embrace their feel and esthetic. In the end, most of the tunes are actually performed by the band and not created in the way dance records are created using loops and samples. Even the drums are (mostly) live.

When we went too far into the dance world, we were losing the band identity. And that's why these songs make sense live because that's really how they were created in the studio. It's not four men trying to imitate a machine.

Q - You have also taken on the esthetics of pop art. The album cover suggests Andy Warhol and you've consulted Roy Lichtenstein for the tour.

A - We called the album ''Pop'' because for the first time ever we felt we had made a contemporary record, a record that was saturated in the music of the moment. When it came to elaborating on that theme for the tour, connections within the visual pop art movement seemed like it could be fun. We've been lucky that some of these pop artists also thought it was an interesting possibility.

We've had Roy Lichtenstein give us permission to animate some of his images. And Keith Haring's estate also allowed us to animate some of his images. Andy Warhol as well.

I don't think we're making a pop art statement. Obviously, it's somebody else's work so it would only be a secondhand statement anyway.

Q - But they might say their work was secondhand as well.

A - Yeah, in most cases. What we recognized is that what they're trying to do in their field was not dissimilar to what we're trying to do. There was a connection we thought could be elaborated on.

Q - Does that tie into Bono's statement on the ABC special U2: A Year in Pop that people don't like things because they are great but because they remind people of something that was great?

A - That is true, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot of music out there that is a parody of past styles. I don't mind as long as it's great. What bothers me is (the attitude) we'll make do with this because it resembles something with real spirit, adventure and quality. But there are bands out there writing songs in a traditional way and they happen to be writing great songs. To take an example, Oasis transcends their influences. In the end, it doesn't matter if they borrowed some chord sequences from the Beatles. If it was a poor imitation, I'd be the first to say, ''Offside, ref. '' But because they end up writing great songs, I don't care.

''Pop'' is working with things that are commonplace and everyday and trying to find something magical. I don't think it's pop in being instantly digestible and instantly discardable.

Q - So are matters of the spirit still a concern with the band?

A - I think so. I don't think we've changed much in that respect. We've changed our mind about how to allow those ideas to come through our music. In our early days, things were very much on our sleeves worn like a badge. For that time, it was OK and understandable. But, at this point, we're interested in being a little more circumspect and not quite so forthright in the way we express those ideas. Because they're the hardest things to be clear about. The record is very open and honest. There's a certain amount of confusion and uncertainty as I'm sure everyone experiences.

Q - Thinking back, how do you feel about the whole Memphis experience when you made ''Rattle and Hum''?

A - Memphis is one of those magical cities. I remember vividly working in Sun Studio and going down to the river afterwards and hanging out. You could feel the spirit of the place and the music in the air. It's really a musical intersection, and that's what has historically contributed to the great variety and hybrids of music that has come out of it.

It was amazing being in Sun Studio and hauling out this old microphone. And Jack Clement, who had worked with Elvis in the same place, he was saying, ''You know, that was the exact mike we used to record Elvis. We used to put a little bit of slapback echo and that was the vocal sound.'' So we set up the same treatment and it was amazing. Bono sang a few lines and there was that sound!

Q - After this tour, what direction do you see the band headed?

A - It's too early for us to think about it. One of the reasons why we decided to take this tour as far as we could and go for a big event was that maybe we wouldn't want to do this again. It isn't the kind of thing we're going to be doing for the rest of our lives. It is an incredible amount of energy, time and commitment. We've never been a band that's gone the easy route but I can see in a few years time it might suit us to scale things down a bit.

Q - Just don't go and make a skiffle record.

A - (Laughs) I don't think we'll scale back that far.