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U2 Interviews

'Muse' Interview
© taken from www.muse.ie 1998/1999

U2 are The Biggest Rock & Roll Band In The World. They are probably the main reason why there's an Irish pop scene in the first place. But what do they know about club culture and dance music? Bono and The Edge go dancing with Jim Carroll.

What do U2 mean to you? If Fatboy Slim is 'the band of the Nineties, man', U2 were the Band Of The Eighties, the ones who sounded out that decade to such a degree that one listen to "The Best Of U2, 1980-1990" is certain to throw you back to more earnest times. Forget the likes of Culture Club and the Human League for a moment and remember the decade in the sound of U2's bites.

"Sunday Bloody Sunday". That Red Rocks outdoor show. Playing the Phoenix Park in '83. The "New Gold Dream" rush of "Pride". Going moodily epic with "The Unforgettable Fire". Live-Aid. Conquering America. Playing Croke Park. Standing around in a desert looking moody for Anton Corbijn's Instamatic. Cowboy hats. Lots of cowboy hats. Discovering the blues. Hanging with BB King. "Rattle & Hum". More cowboy hats. The Love-Town tour. Bringing in the Nineties in the Point in Dublin after an almighty kerfuffle about ticket prices. And cowboy hats.

U2 in the Nineties have been a very different phenomenon. Somewhere along the way, they looked around and found irony and kitsch and a sense of humour. You could not imagine the Bono of today waving the white flag and rocking the sleeveless t-shirt of "War". And you certainly couldn't imagine the Edge of today without a bleedin' hat on.

He's wearing one this evening too in the study of the Clarence Hotel and it's a whopper. You could easily stick ten gallons of bourbon into it and still have room to add water. Bono, on the other side of the table facing the door in a Mafia style, is rocking what is best described as the Elvis Costello suited and booted look. He is chowing down on an enormous lump of red meat and passing the chips round the table. We're about an hour into an interview that was only supposed to last five minutes and neither side shows any sign of slowing down.

The reason why we are here is not so much to talk about that compilation album (old hat, har-har), but rather Kitchen Records, the new dance label the boyos are backing for their mate Reggie Manuel. The first release is from Dublin's techno frontiersman Rob Rowland (whose sparse and minimal lines have attracted much attention thanks to releases on the D1 label) and the next release will come from Belfast duo Basic. "We're the instigators," explains Edge. "We don't have the time or whatever to throw ourselves into the culture enough to be like the man or men making all the decisions on a daily basis. Reggie is in the driving seat, so we'll be getting tapes from him and listening to what he's coming up with. We're hoping that the label will keep us up to speed."

"It's Reggie's show and we are the bouncers," Bono adds. "He has to open and close the doors and get the show on the road. We've known him for years and years. He has no experience really of how to deal with the music business but he brought us Rob Rowland and it all adds up. Reggie knows his turf. I'd like to see the sounds on the label be a bit broader but that will happen. Some people will be confused by it all!"

Perhaps. After all, dance music and U2 have always confused people any time they have taken a spin around a dancefloor. We may think that U2's French kissing of the groove began with Paul Oakenfold and "Better Than The Real Thing" but not so. "Before Paul Oakenfold, we actually worked with Francois Kervokian (legendary DJ and producer) in 1982 in New York," Edge recalls. "We did three remixes with him around the time of "Sunday Bloody Sunday". I hung out with him in New York and he turned me on to some fantastic stuff. That was the same year that "Atomic Dog" was out and that was all over every club in New York. That was the first taste we had of what was happening on the dance side of things. We also realised it wasn't like everyone had been saying that disco was the enemy."

Bono takes up the theme. "In the Seventies, club culture was the enemy. It was girl's music and we were boys. I did buy "Love Machine". Was it by the Stylistics? (Proceeds to sing the track complete with credible falsetto.) There was an instrumental on the B-side that had a serious groove. I bought that record but I don't think I told anyone because it was just at the time punk rock was breaking and punk rock was about as male, white and hormonal a form of music as you could find. It's funny as you get older that the music you loved as a boy now just sounds so wrong and so long (laughs). And the music that was supposed to be so trivial and throwaway at the time has lasted the test of time. Pop music and dance music from then sound so cool now whereas progressive rock and the like? (laughs). Critics in rock & roll used to sh*t all over the Bee Gees. Fair enough, the hair-dos were appalling, but they were dismissed in favour of (loud voice) prog rock!"

Dating U2's love affair with the groove is easy. "To be perfectly honest," says Bono, "it was about the mid-Eighties before I got all funky and into dance stuff. We didn't get rhythm until we went on the road with BB King. R&B was where we discovered rhythm and that wasn't until the late Eighties. While everyone was doing drugs during the summer of love in London, we were in Memphis hanging out with the Muscle Shoals brass section and getting into rhythm that way. I guess, it came together for us with "Achtung Baby".

"Our first connection with a European groove came in Berlin. Our orientation towards the groove came via America. New York, then LA, then Chicago, then Detroit. It did not come for us through London. It was Berlin. What was that band you were into for a while, Edge? The ones who used to live in the holes in the ground? Spiral Tribe! They were mad. They used to have bits of military aircraft with them that they obtained from this site outside the studio in Berlin that we used. This was the original centre of Berlin, the O'Connell Street or Trafalgar Square if you like, before it was bombed to bits during the war. Then, there was all these, what do you call them, crustations? You know, the people who lived in the ground?" Both The Edge and journalist look blankly at the lead singer. Crustations? Er, do you mean crusties, Bono?

Bono grins and keeps going. "Crusties! Yeah! There was a huge scene like that just outside the studio. Loads of them and gypsies and chickens running everywhere and bits of fighter planes. That was quite a scene."

Another scene that U2 were tapping unconsciously into was the UK rave scene. "I remember Paul Oakenfold saying to me 'do you know what people are playing at the end of these huge raves in the middle of nowhere outside the cities? They're playing "With Or Without You"!' We were like 'no way, you're off your trolley'. But that was the connection because our music was ecstatic. In the Eighties, U2 made ecstatic music. Whether you call it religious or not, the music was big and universal and it was open in a way that people off their nuts who are not in raincoats any more and getting into all these drugs were completely thrown by it. I think in the UK, you needed something like the rave scene to loosen people up and get them showing out in this dramatic way. Irish people may not quite have the groove but they are far more soulful."

What sounds are turning your heads at the moment, chaps?

The Edge: "I like techno, I'm not big into drum & bass, I like hip-hop. I like the fact that the Fugees clan is coming out with some unbelievable stuff."

Bono: "Lauryn Hill is just amazing. That album, man, is just one of the defining records of the last few years. Really, she's head and shoulders above the pack. Autchere, I dig them. Squarepusher, those beats are mad. I'll also go for Dave Angel and for Surgeon. Edge, it's strange to hear you say that about techno because it is so white and your music tastes are usually so black. I'm just curious to hear you come out with that one'

The Edge: "Well, it's just the sound as a whole, I think techno is the sound of Europe. I was always interested in industrial music and, in a sense, this is where it's gone to. I'm a minimalist at heart so I love the stripped-down sense of it all."

Sounds to me like you can do without lyrics, Edge. How do you feel about that one, Bono?

"You can live with or without hectoring, depending on the point of view that is been expressed (smiles). I remember being out in Dun Laoghaire in a club full of people off their faces and I remember being asked if I was a lyricist (laughs). I said 'I don't know'. And the guy said 'well (thick Dublin accent) we don't want any of them and we don't want you telling us what to do because we know too much already. Lyrics aren't worth a f**k, we just want the groove. Do you get that man?' And I said 'I get that, man'. And that's fine. With U2, I always try to put into words the feelings I have at any one time. But often, it's just vowel sounds filling my mouth which build into words or I might find a title or an idea to hold the music around. I don't have to have the testimony or the story when I listen to dance music."

What turns Bono on about dance music in general and hip-hop in particular is the community vibe. "Hip-hop artists are just geniuses at self-promotion. It's so different to the indie mindset which castrated the UK scene for so long. Black music wants to communicate, it wants to shout, it wants to be loud and be large. Sometimes, this can be crass when you had the whole gold chains and bragging about the size of their dicks. But, by and large, they have a sense of their own value and they try to communicate this in their music. They're advertising themselves and their work. And their mates. They have a network and they want to big up everyone in that network. So you have Snoop Dogg or whoever and he's bringing in the next Snoop Dogg into the system and into the chain."

There are lessons here for Ireland, Bono feels. "Over here, it's kind of the opposite. In Dublin, we can't go that route, we've got to co-operate. We've been tagged as white niggers, lets wear it well, let's be black in that sense. We've got to start to break each other as well as ourselves. It has to be a community in all senses of the word. It's against our nature but it might just happen and that's where dance music comes in. Club culture is much more democratic than rock & roll ever was. Like Donal Scannell has his Quadraphonic drum & bass label and he's been onto Reggie saying whatever help you need, he'll give it. And Nick at Pussyfoot has said he'll do whatever he can."

It seems that U2 have a good grasp on the politics of dancing. What do you reckon dance music did for U2? "It made us jealous," Edge says quietly. "It's wonderful to be in a rock & roll band but it is limiting in so many ways. There are so many more possibilities with dance music as a form. That and the rhythm. It's also hard for a rock & roll band to match just the sheer excitement of being in a club and hearing really good dance music.

Bono, naturally, disagrees and disagrees passionately. "But what we do is not off the shelf, that's something that dance music will never have. That's one of the things we realised when we were making "Pop". We could be like archeologists digging for some really rare sticky groove but why should we do that when we have Larry Mullen? Larry can do beats like no one else. And we have a bass player called Adam Clayton who is the only bass player you would miss if he wasn't there. What I learnt from dance music is the value of what we do. At first, yeah, there was jealousy but then we realised what we had ourselves. At the end of the day, what we're about is a much different thing than club culture. Sure, we're going to work with beats and we're going to work with beatmasters like Howie B and sure we have a club with a beautiful sewer running through in the bottom of this posh hotel, but you're not going to walk in there and hear a lyric (laughs)! That's not going to happen!

"Up to recently, I thought one of the most exciting things was when rock & roll hit club culture. Right at that point, that was where it was going to be for the future. Now, I'm not so sure. Now, I'm actually enjoying the difference. Speeding up and slowing down is quite cool. We're digging the friction."

It's time to resume dancing and trancing and chancing our arms again. Bono wants to go dancing in Tokyo. "In Tokyo, I learned about one really important innovation - girl's music. Girls always play the best party music, always. They know what to put on, they're intuitive. They knowwhat's going on in the room, they know where people need to go and they have no rules about particular tracks or styles. They play what works and they play what inspires. There was this club in Tokyo and the people were just joyful because the music was so up, so melodic, so right. You were just lifted by these beautiful melodies, these amazing soulful strings, soulful singing, hard-on grooves - it was a sexual experience. All this mixing and matching, it was post-modernism running amok. That was something else."

Edge prefers to remember a hot Puerto Rican day in New York. "It was Puerto Rican day in New York and I had never been in a club like it. Everybody was dressed in the most incredible exotic clothing. What was really cool was that people were dancing sexily to Puerto Rican beats. The whole place was just charged. I was thinking, could I ever imagine this in Dublin on St Patrick's Day? In a Dublin club? The vibe was just something else."

"The other thing is," Bono interrupts, "with clubs in other countries like that one Edge is talking about is that you'll find three generations there. It's people hanging out, from the mamas to the kids. Funnily enough, I used to see that with the Pogues. What I loved about Shane McGowan was that he brought three generations together. You'd have some old geezer holding onto these young kids who were at their first gig in some GAA hall or other. That's our difference, that's what separates us from everyone else, that's our identity. We're not really north Europeans. The roots of our music are Celtic, Middle-Eastern, that's where it all comes from. We are not Europeans so we shouldn't try to be. Let's not be intimidated by it".

Edge smiles at this flow of thought. "I love Bono's theories about the idea that it came from North Africa. Bob Quinn had similar theories about where art and music came from to get to this country. It's a very compelling argument but it's still a mystery. Black music is a bit easier to trace because the journey is pretty well documented. Like it or not, we're playing black music. Rock & roll is black music and sometimes I feel we're not that good at it."

Maybe you should stick to dance music? The man they call The Edge and the man they call Bono look at each other and laugh. And why not? Two dudes in their late thirties running around talking loud about dance music and cool clubs in Tokyo and New York and eating big lumps of red meat and wearing big cowboy hats. A couple of hours later they will be spotted downstairs in their plush club with its sewer, dancing and prancing and trancing and chancing it again. It will not be an early night...


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