Kyle Meredith flew to Chicago recently for the very rare chance to get to talk with one of the biggest bands of all time, U2. Below is both the audio and transcript of his interview with The Edge and Adam Clayton.
Kyle Meredith: I’m here on the front line of rock and roll with The Edge and Adam Clayton from U2.
Adam Clayton: If this is the front line, we’re pretty comfortable, I guess.
Kyle Meredith: I don’t know if that’s true. It seems throughout your entire career, no matter how good the record is or what’s going on, you’ve always had to defend yourself. Like there’s always been some defense with what’s going on with you guys. It must be exhausting to be in U2.
Clayton: I guess it means we must be irritating someone somewhere. Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s good to be an irritant.
The Edge: The worst thing to be is unobjectionable.
Edge: It’s just part of what we seem to generate in the audience, a type of extreme response in a positive or negative direction. Thankfully, still a lot of people really love what we do, but even from the very beginning there were always people who just couldn’t take it. Weren’t open to it. Our music is very up front. It’s not a detached music. It’s passionate. It’s kind of in your face and if you’re open to it and you want to accept it then I think it’s an amazing thing. But some people are just not ready for that. My attitude is that if you don’t like U2 you’re just not trying hard enough.
Meredith: You guys have made it pretty easy for a lot of people like you. There have been so many diffrent sounds through the years anyway. With this new album, Songs of Innocence, I know a lot of the theme is about looking back or celebrating your youth. When you’re doing that, and maybe it’s more lyrical with what Bono is doing, do you find that there is any kind of closure when you have to relive your teenage years over and over every night on tour? It would seem to me like there would be a point where you could close that door.
Edge: I think the songs take on a different meaning the longer you live with them. It’s funny how a song like I Will Follow started out as a quite an abstract lyric. No one really knew quite how it had come from or what it was about. Looking back now you can see exactly, that was the moment Bono lost his mother and became as he’s now saying during the show, became an artist. Certainly it was probably the spur that gave him the ambition he has and the sense of having to use music as a way to make sense of the world and define himself. That song kind of grew in depth and our understanding of it over the years. I think this album is no different. There’s a lot of songs that are very personal, but there’s nuances and lyrics that we’re still figuring out. The songs are really taking on a life of their own live in a way that always happens, but they are becoming really powerful in the live context. The show is very weighted towards the new songs and it’s holding up. That’s what’s really kind of exciting. These are new songs, but they’re standing alongside our best work. We’ve created with this show really new, unique live moments where the songs really start to come through in a very powerful evocative way.
Clayton: I think in some ways being in U2 is like having a living diary, because every time you look at those early songs, you are reminded exactly what your experience was, what you were thinking at the time, and what you were doing. And now, when you go back to those songs and you play those songs with a different perspective, it’s like, “Ah, ok. Now I know why I’m here. Now I know what it’s about.” And in some ways we play those songs better now than when we first wrote them. Certainly with a different energy.
Meredith: It unfolds like a play on the live show, and it looks like it was meant to do that. With that in mind, musically, if you’re going into the album thinking this may be what we’re going to be doing thematically, I look at a song like Every Breaking Wave that kind of harkens back to older sounds of U2. A little bit of Joshua Tree in there. I know it doesn’t have to be like that because there’s the acoustic version which sounds nothing like that. Is that part of it? Do you say lets’ do those fun little tricks?
Edge: I think we actually quite mostly do the opposite. We try and avoid direct references. But it is the same four guys and the music that turned us on, and so formative for us means that we’re always going to move in a particular direction in songwriting and production. We like to try and keep things as fresh as possible. If things start to sound like previous albums, it’s almost against the grain of what we’re trying to achieve mostly.
Meredith: It seems like it’d be so hard. You’re known for innovation. By the technology, by the style of music. I had an argument with a friend talking about U2 as arguably the greatest band of all time, in the sense that if we’re going to put you up against another band, it’s gotta be The Beatles who changed the world twice, with their first record and Sgt. Pepper. But you guys did it with Joshua Tree, with Achtung Baby, and then with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. To have that on your shoulders, to constantly try to innovate forward musically, and there are so many new sounds on here like the song you do with Lykke Li, and the castoffs Lucifer’s Hands and Crystal Ballroom. How do you do it? How do you go into that and go “Alright, we’ve got to come up with something new. We’ve gotta be U2.”
Edge: First of all, to compare us to the Beatles is an unbelievable idea and I don’t think anyone could ever be a comparable band to The Beatles. They, for me, they stand in a different sort of a universe to anything else, but to even be in the same sentence is like just amazing to me. But in terms of the drive within our group, we always sort of seek out that feel new and fresh. It’s almost the only time we really start to get very excited in the studio or live is when we feel like we’re doing something unique and different. That’s just, we’ve had that from the very beginning I suppose because we came through in that era of punk music where everything was being reinvented. We’ve never relied on a knowledge of traditional forms within rock and roll. We’ve actually tried to avoid them most of the time at all costs. Few exceptions like on the Joshua Tree, we definitely were playing around with some blues ideas and Rattle and Hum, but it’s most of our work is dedicated to trying a new point of view that hasn’t been explored before and that goes through to our live productions and a lot of other things that we do.
Meredith: It seems with the idea that there are only so many notes, it becomes more about what new sound can we put on those notes. It’s just mind blowing that you’d have 30 some odd years in that you’re going, “Alright, no we can still do this different. This can be done different.”
Clayton: I think we’re very lucky because we can get very excited about the potential of those notes and that we think we can find another note in there amongst all of them.
Edge: And I think we can. I really genuinely think we can. Rock and roll as a form is pretty simple. When I listen back to our early records, Boy album particularly, hearing these nuances and compositions, I think “Where did that come from? That’s so out of the box of rock and roll.” I can’t think of a reference for it. I remember at the time a lot of it was we would just be in the room trying out some ideas. We knew so little about music composition that we would try a lot of experiments. It was through that playfulness, trial and error, that we would hit on these new compositional ideas that were coming from some complete different world and yet they sit on that album quite easily. I think it was that moment where music was really, everything was up for grabs. The rulebook had been torn up, so it was like just see what you can do.
Meredith: With all that’s been said about Songs of Innocence, reviews, great, bad, all of it, do you think now that it’s directing or re-directing how you’re looking at Songs of Experience as you go into that?
Clayton: I don’t think so. We’re very happy with what this record is and what these songs are. Songs of Experience will obviously be from a different perspective. We’re trying to make it a little rawer as a sound, the production a little rawer. But until it’s done, it’s really hard to comment on.