Saint-Bruno, Quebec -- Bono confides that he isn't feeling particularly spry as he settles down at a table in a small French restaurant in the countryside outside Montreal, where U2 has just completed a four-night, sold-out run of arena concerts.
He's only had a few hours sleep and "woke up this morning like someone took a blowtorch to my throat." In November, he was seriously injured in a biking accident in New York's Central Park, and is still recovering. Nerve damage has left part of his left arm feeling numb and two fingers on his left hand have limited movement, preventing him from playing the guitar.
"Feeling returns (to his arm) a millimeter a week, and I won't know for months how much of it will come back," he says, peering from behind gold-rimmed shades. "I may need more surgery to finally fret" the guitar.
But he remains an energetic figure both on and off stage. In this quiet Canadian suburb, he doesn't exactly melt into the scenery with his leather garb and golden earrings. On the current U2 tour, which arrives Wednesday for a five-night residency at the United Center, he serves as a narrator/tour guide/singer on the band's virtual journey from its deepest roots in northern Dublin into the present.
In between dates at the Bell Centre in Montreal, he found time to visit Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, and members of Parliament in Ottawa to lobby for AIDS relief in Africa. Though he has become a lightning rod for naysayers who accuse the band of losing touch with its ideals to cut deals with mega corporations such as Apple and Live Nation, the singer remains an effective advocate for Third World countries. His ONE and (RED) organizations have been credited with spearheading debt relief and job creation for poor countries, and securing funding to combat AIDS and malaria, and enhance education in Africa and other impoverished areas.
The current "Innocence + Experience" tour with his U2 bandmates since childhood – guitarist The Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. – is where all those personal and public threads and contradictions coalesce. The show centers on the band's 2014 album, "Songs of Innocence," and expands on it by tracing the band's growth from teenage Dublin upstarts in the '70s to conflicted citizens in a violent world. It's a personal journey that morphs into a political and social commentary on the power of community.
If nothing else, the tour finds U2 again exploring multimedia in way that expands the possibilities and potential of the arena show, comparable to the way the quartet's 1992-93 "Zoo TV" tour revolutionized the art of live performance. In an interview, Bono broke down some of the tour's and the band's inner workings:
You have to be bold enough to be emotionally direct. That's what I learned from John Lennon.
Q: The first half of the show is really dark. Was there any discussion within the band that it might not work in an arena show?
A: Yeah, there was. But people (the fans) allow us to have that level of intensity. What I was surprised by, they seem to be able to follow a narrative that was so personal and specific, the north side of Dublin, a country immersed in a war. My tragedies are minor in comparison with so many. Edge questioned me about the lyrics – he helped me write them – he says, 'We don't do nostalgia.' 'We don't do sentimental.' But we allow ourselves to do melancholy. That would be Ireland. It's in the rain (laughs). I thought if I could be really truthful about a situation of what brought me to here and now, of what brought us, the band, to here and now, through my lens, maybe other people could relate. First love, first fight, first tragedy — the album is about those first experiences. Maybe people could relate. Edge is still, 'Ehh.' 'It's arrogant to think people can relate.' It's an extremely arrogant idea from the beginning to think that any feeling you have is important or relevant to anyone else. So should we write off every novel ever written, every poem? That's how we do this, to write and make it hurt. Something like 'Iris' (a song about his mother, who died when Bono was 14), I did myself regret it at the last minute. A few days before the album launched I tried to take the song off the record. We're doing this homage to all these punk bands we loved, and here's this song about missing my mother. How punk rock is that? I panicked, 'Let's take it off.' She died when I was 14, it was September 40 years ago. But I couldn't remember what day. I texted my brother, he couldn't remember. Texted my uncle Jack, and he made me realize that the day I was trying to pull it off the album was the same day 40 years ago that she slipped away while standing by her father's graveside. She had an aneurysm and I never saw her again or was able to speak with her again. That sort of cosmic coincidence gave me encouragement to trust my instincts. You have to be bold enough to be emotionally direct. That's what I learned from John Lennon.
Q: There's a lot of new material in the show and there aren't any hits on the album. Were there concerns that it might not connect?
A: We went out on that first night (May 14 in Vancouver) not knowing. It turned out to be an ecstatic experience. On 'Zoo TV' (the 1992-93 tour that also emphasized new material) people were wrapped in the headlights, but this was more direct. My friend Gavin (Friday) who grew up on Cedarwood Road with me, said you have to explain the narrative. Explain to people as you get up on the divider, 'Come with me down Cedarwood Road.' 'What, really, like a kid's play?' (laughs) He says, 'Explain what's going on in the songs, and it'll cohere.' It worked.
Q: In the show, your younger self has a conversation with the rock star Bono, and calls you out. He's accusing you of losing sight of what you once believed, as if he's standing in place of some of your fans. What's that about?
A: Eventually, through trial and error, you learn compromise is not a dirty word. I say to the younger me, 'I try to tell a young man that ideas deserve a plan, I try to make a better world for every woman and man … I feel like a fraud, but I know that I'm not, I try to do the very best with everything I got, which is not a lot except to not get caught with my pants down and my hands up.' I like to think I win the argument (laughs). The younger self is still shaking his head. It's not 'us and them' anymore, now it's only about 'us.'
Q: When you refer to recent racially tinged shootings by saying, 'I can't breathe' and 'I've got my hands up' – you seem to be calling out America, questioning its values. What are you getting at there?
A: It's the younger self railing against the militaristic America. It comes out of 'Bullet the Blue Sky,' which was originally about the U.S. meddling in Central America. The discovery for me several years ago was that America wasn't a country, but an idea. It's meant to be completed. Historically it's French, which I loved saying here. It's not finished, it's still being shaped, and I feel a part of that, and want to be part of it. We all have a stake in American being what it set out to be.
Q: By personalizing it, are you trying to encourage people who might feel they're powerless to play a more activist role?
A: Somebody should probably survey our audience. A lot of them are involved in some way in their local community. It's not de rigueur for being a U2 fan, you can come and slash around, you don't have to get into the deep water to be a U2 fan. But a lot of them want the world to be better, they want to be part of a solution, and are getting involved. As John Lennon said, you don't have to take it. The world doesn't have to be the shape that it is. You can kick it, cajole it, you can help give it a better shape. When you're younger there is a great clarity. I miss it. But as you get older, you realize one of the biggest obstacles you will come across in your life is yourself. That started in our music with (1991 album) 'Achtung Baby,' that's when we got into the hypocrisy of the human heart.
Q: The show makes the case for the songs, but the production on 'Songs of Innocence' is bland, it depersonalizes them. Do you feel the album accomplished what you wanted?
A: If I'm honest, there is something about the sound of the record that is a little too organized. That's what happens when you're too long in the studio. But it's called 'Songs of Innocence' for a reason. That's the challenge with this band after all these years – songwriting — not sonic fireworks or experimentation. Can we write songs that truly hold up? Talking to our friends Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, the troubadours, they just have a guitar, so their songs and words better hold up. With a band, you can hide it — a few cool non sequiturs here, sketch out a terrain, you can hide the fact that the songs aren't there. But on this album I feel we can play 10 of them (in the show). As performers, we have this second sense of when a song is getting across. We know what's going on in a room. It either works or it doesn't. We have some extra help in the storytelling department with this (multimedia) apparatus. But I know I can sing these songs in this restaurant with a guitar and they would work.
Q: The concert visuals do enhance the storytelling aspect of the new songs, and the multimedia aspect of the arena show has always been one of U2's strengths. What are the roots of that?
A: (Edge and Bono's songs for the 2011 Broadway musical) 'Spider-Man' got us interested in theater, not only to do something different, but also talking to (Paul) McCartney, who told us the Beatles were influenced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those chords the Beatles wrote, that's Gershwin in there. (In Dublin during the '70s) we're all at the Clash, and the Clash are talking about their audience like the 'we.' There is no division, it's we. And we believed them. We've learned, there are performers who quite like the distance the stage gives them, and there are bands that don't. We went to see 'Jerusalem' on Broadway, with Mark Rylance, it was very influential. (Bono rises and acts out the opening of the play) … There is a sense right away that he (Rylance) is going to be in your life, in your face, certainly in your emotional life. Iggy Pop, Patti Smith are like that. Iggy was a very important influence, not just as an extraordinary lyricist and artist and musician, but performer. He's always trying to break down the fourth wall. That starts with a punk band, and my revelation about stadium rock was that it has nothing to do with physical proximity, but emotional proximity. You could be in a club right up close, and the band gets up there like 'get a load of me, here's another thought which I had that you probably can't understand.' All of these people saying (to rock bands) don't go to the arenas — that's all a bunch of bull. It starts with emotional proximity, and you can use technology to create physical proximity. It goes back to (U2) being in the clubs, wading into the audience with a white flag, and getting into a fist fight because of it.
Q: The visuals also work because at its core, these are stripped-down performances reminiscent of your early days in the punk era. To me a potentially sentimental song like "Iris (Hold Me Close)" fits in with that. Despite your earlier misgivings about it, do you feel it works as part of that?
A: I think it works in that framework because it's emotionally so raw. The story behind that piece of film (that accompanies the song in concert), is that a friend of a friend of a friend meets my brother in an airport, and says he knows someone who has film of your family. We have no visual images of them, and only a few photographs, which we tend not to look at in that classic Irish male way. And we put it on, and to see my mother moving ... She's young, 23 years old, playing (the bat-and-ball game) rounders. Everyone has these family memories, but we were good at suppressing them. When we were writing the songs, I was trying to write down these memories to remember them. I got to that line, "Iris says that I will be the death of her/It was not me," it just stopped me. I wasn't sure what it meant. I realized that every kid who loses his mother thinks his mother abandoned him. Even if their mother is knocked over by car, it's, 'She left me.' And grief turns into rage. That is the story of rock 'n' roll — abandoned mothers. It goes right back to the blues: 'Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' It's Paul McCartney, Johnny Lydon, a lot of us. With hip-hop it's the abandoned father that is the central catalyst. With rock 'n' roll, it's mothers. So going there, you try to turn that wound into an opening, into something fantastic, like music. That's why the song 'Volcano' follows 'Iris' (in the set list), you can feel this star lifting. "You hurt yourself trying to hold on to what you used to be." … You get to these bluesier chords, (sings): 'You were alone, but now you're not alone, you were alone, now you are rock 'n' roll.' And you hear the crowd singing, and you're in the crowd at a punk gig. You're not alone. That's not just my story, but that's the story of a lot of people. We hold tightly onto rock 'n' roll for a reason.
Q: You got a lot of flak for the iTunes auto-download. But beyond the controversy, it speaks to the wider issue of bands experimenting with new delivery methods for their albums. What do you think U2 will do when it releases its next album?
A: We're working on a new format. We haven't tied it down. The great thing about working with Apple is that it's a very creative company. With (the late Apple Inc. cofounder) Steve Jobs, he was very kindly to us, because U2's iPod commercial was extremely successful for them. I said to Steve, 'Why is looking at iTunes, for a very aesthetic man like yourself, like looking at a spread sheet? Why can't this image (of a record cover) be the whole screen, and why can't it be moving? … Why can't I, if I'm listening to (Miles Davis') "In a Silent Way," why can't I see all those Herman Leonard photos of Miles, this whole other world? If I'm listening to Leonard Cohen, why can't I see the lyrics? To get some answers, it's going to take some time. I feel I owe Steve now, I feel I owe my fellow musicians a chance for music to become more immersive in some way. To have this on your iPad or at home on a flat screen TV, it would dwarf even the gatefold (vinyl album sleeve), which was important. You weren't just walking down the road with a piece of vinyl in your hands, it was the cover that said who you were. CDs, MP3s — c'mon, they're so unsatisfying. There's a better way. We're working on it. Whether it'll be there in time for the next album, we'll see. Everyone knows the model is broken. We have to experiment. That's what Apple is doing.
Q: You gave away "Songs of Innocence" on iTunes before it went on sale. Does this mean you feel free music is the future?
A: The album was a gift. Apple paid us, but not the ridiculous sum ($100 million) that was reported. 'Free' affects our friends who are songwriters. I'm not talking about us, we're fine. People say, 'Play live, make money on T-shirts.' (Expletive) off! These streaming services like Spotify are good alternatives to free. But to become an alternative for paying music, the model has to change. If they turned off free now, people would just go back to BitTorrent. I think the music industry needs to get better organized and experiment with different approaches. We're still trying.
Q: I need to ask you about your long-term partnership with Live Nation (the corporation that effectively monopolizes the touring and ticketing industry). You're an idealist …
A: I'm a pragmatist.
Q: OK, I stand corrected. But this is a band with ideals that is still looking to change the world in a positive way with your activism and lobbying on behalf of some worthy causes. You've done a lot out in the world. But the music industry is in trouble, and you are partnering with a monopoly. Why did you think this was a good idea for U2 to join forces with an entity like that? You had the leverage to dictate terms on how the industry would change. So why are you still playing by the old rules?
A: I understand the line of questioning. And it's an interesting question. I don't see the ugly man in big or small, big band, small band, big corporation, small corporation. How you treat your employees is important. Same thing with a punk band that treats its road crew like (garbage). I like how they (Live Nation executives) treat their employees, how they treat us — on all of the above Live Nation came out great. On the ticket question: Monopolies are generally not good, not good for innovation, not good for competition. Some years back we looked back into taking charge of ticketing. But this is maybe a weak answer for you. I've lost grip of that question. I wasn't aware it was a nagging issue. This is probably due to the multi-personality disorder issue that I have. I do a lot of things, I try to be on top of things, but I'm not aware of this being a problem. I should make more time to look into this, because it does affect us and our audience. I would be very upset if they weren't being treated well. We have a history of trying to get these things right. But these things can get by you. People say why aren't you campaigning against free music? You want me to do that? Really? You really want me as your poster child saying give me more money? I'm not sure that would be credible. I leave some of these things to people who might be better at it than me. I try to do the things that I have on my plate. Yes, some people say you're an artist and then you do all these other things. But I see those other things as part of what it is to be an artist. That's the zeitgeist — the fancy German word for it — the forces in the world, you need to find out about the theology, the technology, culture, politics. That's all in the music too. I don't see my life in compartments. I see it as one thing, with my family integral. So you say when it comes to picking problems to solve, isn't music the source of all your energy, isn't it worth spending time on fixing those problems? I got out of the music business in one sense, and into the art side of it. I wandered away to look at some other areas. But one area in music that I am concentrating on, I am trying to find a new format, which if it's right, will be a rising tide that lifts all boats. The other thing, I'll check into more. It wasn't on my radar screen.
Q: It just seems there was an opportunity to affect positive change, because the Internet opened up all these possibilities for how bands could relate to their fans without corporations getting in between. I don't expect the Rolling Stones to lead this charge because they're very up front about who they are and what they represent. Maybe it's unfair to expect you to know better and lead the way?
A: With U2, you hold us to a different standard, and you're saying apply that idealism to solve some problems closer to home. That's a fair thing to say. Except when deciding what to take off my desk, in order to put something else on it. It hits closer to home and it's a fair question. … This may be the most humble you'll get from me, but I thought maybe this is a fight that I can't win without giving up those other fights, where I know how to get the issue across the line. My entire physical being hates saying that, because I always think I can do it. … That's a really fair question, and I wish I had a better answer. Now (expletive) off (laughs).