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U2 History: Interviews
Monday, September 18, 2017
The Edge on U2's 'Songs of Experience,' Bono's 'Brush With Mortality'
U2 guitarist the Edge explains how a major scare in Bono's life caused big changes to the band's new LP 'Songs of Experience.' Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
By Andy Green
The past three years have tested U2 in different ways, from the fierce backlash they received for gifting 2014's Songs of Innocence to every iTunes user to Bono's devastating bicycle accident, which left him with several fractured bones and a shattered left arm. But those setbacks didn't compare to another crisis Bono faced last year. "He had a brush with mortality," says the Edge, choosing his words carefully (the band won't go into detail on the matter). "He definitely had a serious moment, which caused him to reflect on a lot of things."
The episode caused the band to rethink Songs of Experience, a companion to Songs of Innocence that they had already been working on for more than two years. The resulting LP features less of the slick production that defined Innocence, in favor of a more classic formula: propulsive guitar rockers and ballads that look inward. "I wanted the people around me that I loved to know exactly how I felt," says Bono. "So a lot of the songs are kind of letters – letters to [my wife] Ali, letters to my sons and daughters."
The day after U2 played a show at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Edge called up Rolling Stone to talk about the long road to Songs of Experience and look ahead to next year's arena tour in support of the album. (We also conducted an extensive email interview with Bono that will be going up shortly.)
I see you guys debuted "You're the Best Thing About Me" last night. How did that go?
I wouldn't say it was the best we'll ever play it, but it was good. We hadn't played there recently and the crowd was really into it. I think it was one of the better shows.
You started Songs of Experience in 2014, and some of the shows go back even before that. The world has changed so much since then. How did those external factors change the focus and scope of the album?Mostly what we wanted to do was sit back and see how we felt about it coming out into a world that had taken a big lurch in a different direction. We weren't assuming we'd have to start again and, in fact, we didn't need to. The changes that occurred were predominantly lyrical, and in some cases they were quite subtle. A couple of songs subtly shifted to just sort of emphasize one aspect or better express what we were feeling and the ideas we wanted to put into it. But from a musical point of view, what happened with this delay, which was kind of amazing and great, is that we had all of the songs figured out and most of them recorded to the extent that they were releasable towards September of last year. But a year ago we were kind of feeling that we wanted to explore other production approaches and other ways the songs could be arranged and performed. We felt the band chemistry wasn't as represented as we thought it maybe ought to be.
So in the fall of last year we went back into a room as a band, initially without Bono and then he joined us for a couple of days at the end of the period, and we just played the songs. We played them with half an eye and ear to how they might be performed in a live concert setting. Part of the reason for doing that is that we always went through this kind of routine where we'd record own album, put it out and and then we'd start rearranging the songs live. Then our producers would show up halfway through the tour and they'd be like, "Oh, shit, man, that tune is sounding so cool now. I really wish we'd had that arrangement on the album." Steve Lillywhite used to say, "You guys should finish the album, go on tour with it, learn it, understand the songs fully, and then go back in the studio and re-record it in a week."
We didn't quite do that. We didn't get to perform in front of an audience, but by going back to the rehearsal space and then actually going back to the studio to re-record some of the songs we were able to find a synthesis of the raw band performances and some of the stuff we had created before. We'd sort of import keyboard performances and little ideas we liked from pervious versions and find a way to put them in. It became kind of the best of the band chemistry mixed in with the best of the 21st-century production technology. It's given it a more interesting aesthetic.
I spoke to Bono a couple of months ago and he said he felt thatSongs of Innocence lacked a coherence to the production and should have been more raw.There's this dichotomy to production standards these days where the music listener is used to really precise and simple, stripped-down arrangements so the inaccuracies of a band playing in a room where everything bleeds into everything else is not what's happening. It sounds, dare I say it, old-fashioned. We love when that works for us and we love that feel of people playing in a room, when it sounds fresh. But I think we're also wary of the fact that that sound is associated with 20, 30 years ago. We need to make sure, as we always have done, that we are part of a current conversation that's going in music culture in terms of production, songwriting, melodic structure, all the things that keep the culture moving forward.
What we don't want to be is caught in what I describe as a cultural oxbow lake where others are moving forward and you're still faithfully doing what you've always done, but now you're anachronistic and part of a historical form rather than what's actually pushing the boundaries forward, the flow of where it's going. We'll usually try to have our cake and eat it. We want it both: the hallmarks of the classic band, which is becoming more and more rare, but we also don't want to be perceived, and we don't want to be, a veteran act out of touch with the culture. It's a dance. It's a balance. If we allowed the album to be one extreme or another it would be wrong. It's finding that balance between what we do as a band naturally and then what we can still do in the studio. And the studio is still a songwriting tool for us and the production process is still a songwriting process as well as a production process.
I guess that balance is why you brought in so many different producers for this album.Yeah. I mean, they don't necessarily all work on every song. We ending up bringing in Steve Lillywhite, who we just had this wonderful relationship with in terms of getting in the room and working out arrangements and the minutiae of drum parts and guitar parts. Steve is just a wonderful facilitator for all of us go kind of get into ideas and refine our thing. We've also got Jacknife Lee, who we have worked with for many years. He's got this fascination with hip-hop production and he also works with guitar bands, so he has a foot in a couple of different camps.
Then you have Andy Barlow. He's a full on electronica and synthesizer producer that's not really used to bands or guitars, but he's amazing in other ways. Ryan Tedder is an amazing collaborator and his melodic sense is just so strong. When we're around Ryan these songs get better and better. The choruses get better. The hooks get better. The arrangements get more lean and more focused. And then Jolyon Thomas is a great state-of-the-art rock & roll producer in that he gets and loves bands. He gets and loves guitars, but at the same time what is the right guitar sound so you don't come across like you aren't right up to the minute. There are subtle things sometimes, just the difference between a White Stripes guitar sound and a Led Zeppelin guitar sound. In some ways it's a subtle thing, but in other ways they are worlds apart.
Is Steve your closer? Do you bring him in at the end to see it all out?Hmmm ... Yes and no. I think in this instance, it was more for the organic side of the record. He came in to work on that. At times, we had almost rival versions. We'd have a song like "The Blackout" where we almost had two versions of it. There would be a more organic version and then in a studio upstairs we had another version that was slightly more 21st century, slight more stripped down. We put the album together on a case-by-case basis. "Well, this one can be a little more organic because that one is a bit more processed and disciplined sonically." You probably noticed that the version of "You're the Best Thing About Me" that we released is quite different than the one we are playing live, and the final mix is like six weeks away.
How do you guys pick between songs? What is the process?The process is that we slowly sort of start to put the cornerstone songs in place and then we fill in around them and get clues about the overall identity of the record. For me, one of the breakthrough tune was "The Lights in Front of Me," which is now called "The Lights of Home." We had very rock & roll verses in it that sounded really great, but it was a little retro. We kind of knew it was in the running because we just loved it so much, and then Jacknife did a more stripped-down arrangement. The drums were sort of an open question, so Larry went in and played drums, so it had the discipline of a very contemporary production, but then with this amazing, very beautifully played human drum part on top of it. I think because it was recorded on its own it can kind of occupy the sound spectrum that it does. It still sounds really modern, but it almost sounds like it has a hip-hop influence or rather an R&B influence than a rock one. Anyway, those small little clues sometimes make you go, "OK, wow, that's the synthesis we're trying to achieve here."
In the case of "You're the Best Thing About Me," we were really excited about the mix we had six weeks ago. Then we started talking about how we were going to play it live and I went back to some early demos and found this one that had done at a point when we were experimenting with different arrangement ideas. It was an experiment we hadn't pursued and I thought, "This would be a good approach if we play it live," which we did on the Jimmy Fallon show. It's a fleshed-out approach with some new guitars.
Then Bono came into the studio to listen to it and was like, "OK, something is happening here. It's a better song now. I can't explain why, but I'm feeling something off this." So we kind of went off in a panic with us working furiously with two days to go before we had to turn the single in and get it to everybody for their consideration. We ended up agreeing that the simplicity, the rawness of it offers a counterbalance to the lyric and melody, which is very classic. It's a love song and it kind of takes it in a more convincing way. Somehow the song seems better - and it was totally last minute
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