'Best Band in World' Keeps Fire Alive

14 May 2001
It's really hard to find a rock band. You can't make them. You have to grow them. Chicago Tribune interview with Edge and Bono

It's really hard to find a rock band," U2's lead singer, Bono, is saying. "You can't make them. You have to grow them."

The topic is not the difficulty of being in U2, once the biggest rock band in the world and now, yet again, in serious competition for the job, but of major groups who had broken up or drifted into lower-volume careers: Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, the Cure, even the newly low-key REM and Pearl Jam.

"I got sad and a bit cross when the Pumpkins broke up because they were a real group that really balanced each other, and now they're letting that go," Bono says. "When the news came in that Zach de LaRocha had left Rage Against the Machine, I turned to [bassist Adam Clayton] and said, `Too many meetings,' because I know what that's like -- it's hard to get four people to agree on anything. You want to make music, but first you have to have a meeting about something else. But you have to sit there and get through it, or else you can't go on."

For 20 years U2 has not only moved ahead, they've thrived with the same lineup intact: Bono, Clayton, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. Their current tour is selling out arenas across North America, including four shows at the United Center on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The band's latest album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind" (Interscope), released last October, has sold more than 2 million copies and has restored the luster to the band's reputation. It's the most intensely melodic U2 release since "The Joshua Tree" in 1987, and also the least experimental since then. In many ways it's a midcareer summation in the mold of the Rolling Stones' hits-laden "Some Girls" (1978), a reassertion of what U2 does best rather than a groundbreaking exploration of the future, a la the group's masterpiece, "Achtung Baby" (1991).

The Edge offers a different interpretation. If there is a sonic mastermind behind the group, it is the guitarist, whose array of electronic effects pedals turns him into a one-man orchestra in concert, backed by one of rock's sturdiest rhythm sections. In the studio, while making "All That You Can't Leave Behind," he pulled out a few variations on the echo-laden guitar riffs that were his trademark during the quartet's anthemic '80s period, most notably on the album's first single, "Beautiful Day."

"But even that song is quite innovative and fresh for us," he insists, citing the track's electronic rhythm bed, fashioned by co-producer and atmospherics guru Brian Eno. "When I first played Bono the guitar part, he went, `Ahh, hold on, that really sounds like U2.' But I was like, `Hello, I am the Edge. We are U2. No one has the right to sound like that as much as I do and we do.'

"The key to the record is that it doesn't have a problem making some references to things we've done in the past, if those things are truly great. That was the bottom line. Most groups I would imagine are very busy trying to stick to their own style, but we at all times have tried to avoid repeating our style or sound. Now we're open to using ideas from the past in a new context. We found the freedom to plunder the past, if it's the best thing for the song."

Once the members of U2 were four Dublin teenagers who formed a band despite one glaring deficiency: None of them could play their instruments, let alone write a song. Then the world changed when the Ramones came to Dublin in 1977.

"It was a pivotal moment for us as a group -- we suddenly saw the opportunity to actually do something with the music, as opposed to it just being something to do on a Wednesday afternoon," the guitarist says. "It became something that we were overtaken by, the potential of being a band, writing our own songs."

When Ramones singer Joey Ramone was dying of cancer in a New York hospital recently, Bono called him from the road. U2's "In a Little While," an aching soul ballad, was the last song Ramone heard when he died April 15. That night, and in subsequent concerts, U2 has been playing the Ramones' "I Remember You" and the gospel hymn "Amazing Grace" in tribute to the singer.

"We didn't sound like the Ramones, but what we got from the Ramones was more fundamental and central: They were the reason we became a band," the Edge says. "Having seen the Ramones play, and then the Clash soon after, it was like, Whoa! We can be part of this. These guys have done it their way, and we will find our way. There was a sense that the door of possibility had swung wide open."

U2 not only didn't sound like the Ramones, they never carried themselves like the down-to-earth punk rockers from New York. U2's ambition was immediately apparent: They wanted to sound as big as the world, and gave off the aura that they wanted to conquer it as well. Yet the group's lyrics and many outside charitable interests provided a subtext of Christian humility and humanity, and the music -- at its best -- incorporated both those extremes.

Read the rest of this interview at chicagotribune.com


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