17 December 2001
Joy Will Find A Way
Bono talks to Robert Hilburn of the LA Times on the renewed hunger for rock'n roll and U2's response to September 11.
The '90s were rough on great rock 'n' roll bands. In the U.S. alone, most of the decade's premier groups self-destructed (Nirvana), split apart in frustration (Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine) or lost so much commercial impact that they were relegated to the sidelines (Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails).
This left the field so barren by the end of the decade that there were renewed choruses of "rock is dead." Lots of rock groups, from the relentlessly dark Korn to the dumbed-down and smirking Limp Bizkit, still sold millions of albums, but these bands seemed to be simply living off the energy and imagination of earlier generations.
The death knell for outstanding '90s bands was so steady that you wondered, at the start of 2000, whether even a veteran group as respected as U2 could compete in the marketplace.
The Irish quartet not only answered the concerns with a knockout of an album in "All That You Can't Leave Behind," but its success--10 million in worldwide sales plus three Grammys for "Beautiful Day," one of the album's tracks--also helped restore confidence in the future of rock 'n' roll.
Before joining the band in a Monte Carlo studio this month to test some musical ideas for a new album, singer Bono, 41, reflected in Los Angeles on the public's renewed hunger for uplifting rock 'n' roll as well as the band's response to the Sept. 11 tragedy.
Question: How concerned were you about being able to still compete in the pop and rock worlds of 2000? It has been disheartening in recent years to see so many great bands fall out of favor.
Answer: We knew the tunes were there and we felt there was a hunger again for something joyful, something that lifts your spirits in a real way, and I think rock 'n' roll is best able to do that. I would say hip-hop is making more adventurous records than rock bands, but when you are working off machines or a digital base, it's hard to take people to a transcendent place live the way rock 'n' roll can do on some nights.
Q: Do you think the age of anger in rock and rap is beginning to wear out?
A: Anger is simple. Any artist knows he can do it with a black brush. That's what rock is at the moment. It's an easy thing to do: painting in black. Joy is something else. It's much harder to create because you are dealing with something much deeper and much more emotional. It's a connection with the audience that borders on faith, believing in something together.
I think people were looking for that spirit before Sept. 11, but it has been intensified since then. People don't just want attitude in music anymore. They want something more genuine because something in the world has changed. I think young people want that as much as anyone else. On the first leg of the tour, I noticed that the audience was mostly our regular fans. But on the second leg, the audience has been a lot younger.
Q: Why do you think Sept. 11 has intensified the desire for something new in music?
A: Real violence now is just a blunder away for everybody. A whole core of a city can be taken out by a suitcase filled with some dirty nuclear bomb. That makes the sort of suburban angst that has been such a big part of rock lately seem like something pretty small--the guy who is saying, "I'm so angry with the world that I'm going to hurt myself." It's enough to make you laugh. The stakes are much higher now.
Q: Weren't you worried that you might look out of place when you took the new music to the TV shows that cater to the Britney Spears and 'N Sync and Limp Bizkit audiences? You could be seen as desperate.
A: That wasn't the only thing. We don't have a great history of doing well on TV shows, which is why we didn't do it for years. We were so bad at it that our records would go down the charts in England when we went on "Top of the Pops" in the early days of the band. But we worked at it because we had faith in the music.
I think a lot of rock bands lost track of the importance of selling the music. Hip-hop on many levels pulled the rug from under rock because they were willing to promote their records. They were willing to go on TV and "TRL." Rock groups were too cool to do that. If you believe in what you've just written, you ought to be willing to take it door-to-door, if that's what it takes.
Q: What is the price of devoting a year or more to a tour? We're seeing a lot of veteran acts, including Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M., start to slow down for various reasons. Isn't it hard being away from your family for so long?
A: My family is really elastic about these things. They come on the road when they are missing me. Ali [his wife] brings the kids out and she teaches them. I don't think adventure is ever the enemy of relationships. The bigger threat is boredom and routine.
Q: But do you see a time when you simply lose the hunger for making music? You guys have been so successful for so long, isn't there a period when you have enough sales and enough money and you walk away--like Garth Brooks is doing now.
A: It depends on your motivation and your goals. If the pursuit of cash or of some sort of success was all you were about, we would have given up 10 years ago. To be honest, we don't have a choice. I wake up with a melody in my head in the morning and I have to write it down. I don't have to write it down because I think we need another song for a record. I write it down because I'm excited by the idea of making music.