Music In Uncertain Times, Playback Magazine

30 Nov 2001
'The world has changed, but not U2's mission.' Bono talks to Erik Philbrook of Playback Magazine.

'It's wild, man," says U2 singer/songwriter Bono when asked about the photograph on the cover of the band's latest album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. It shows the band members, four dark figures, standing in an airport waiting to board a plane. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, the image holds chilling connotations. But if in art context is everything, then the symbolism of one of the world's greatest, most beloved rock bands preparing for flight is a welcome sight. Upon closer inspection of the album artwork, however, you can find an even more symbolic image: in one photo, behind the band on the flight announcement board, shines an icon of a heart in a suitcase.

U2 are Irish, but they are really citizens of the world. And for two decades, several albums, and umpteen world tours, they have given the world their all, both musically and spiritually. From creating soul-searching, inspirational rock best represented on their 1980's masterpiece, The Joshua Tree, to actively supporting a host of causes from Greenpeace, War Child and Jubilee 2000, the world debt reduction campaign, they have expanded the notion of what a rock band can be...and do.

After a decade of experimentation in which they purposefully and playfully messed with their image and their sound, last year they released All That You Can't Leave Behind, produced by the band's longtime producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno. A return of sorts to their classic "live" sound, featuring Bono, guitarist The Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, and bassist Adam Clayton playing passionately together, the album was released into a fickle marketplace, where teen pop and angry rock predominated. However, their first single, "Beautiful Day," got a foot in the door, rising up the charts and winning a Grammy. Unsure of the band's relevance in his new era, Bono jokingly announced at the 2000 Grammy Awards that U2 was applying for the job of Best Rock and Roll Band in the World.

After their highly successful Elevation 2000 tour, U2 got the job. But ticket and record sales, Grammys, and chart position aside, what was more important was that U2's well-crafted rock songs with a message mattered. Now, they matter more than ever. The album is the perfect collection of songs for this dark moment in our history. In songs of yearning, reflection, remorse and hope, U2 has unwittingly provided a musical salve for a world stricken by fear and uncertainty. From "Walk On," "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of" and "In a Little While" to "Kite," "When I Look At the World," and "Grace," the titles alone speak to our time. A Las Vegas radio station began playing another song from the album, "Peace on Earth," immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center, splicing in disaster news commentary. It quickly became one of the most requested songs on the station and on stations in other cities as well.

As U2 prepared to take to the skies again for another round of concert dates, Bono spoke to Playback's Erik Philbrook about music and the world now.

Playback: Often in times of crisis, people turn to the arts for different reasons. What do you think music is providing for people in the wake of these horrific acts?

Bono: The musical climate has immediately changed. Sugar-coated pop doesn't seem to matter much right now. Likewise the metallic fugue and breast-beating of the hormonal kind. That too has paled. Sex and violence, as an entertainment, is the first thing that suffers when lives are lost. After something like this, we see everything out of the moment. And pop music usually lives in the moment. So the music that we stray to tends to be more eternal.

For pop music, that is a contradiction a lot of the time. But great pop music is eternal. I like to hear the Supremes in church (laughs). I actually do turn to pop music. It is hard to define what is ephemeral, as we all know now, and what is not.

In the 70's and the 80's, the music that we were told was important and progressive, turned out to be the great lurgy. However, some of the stuff that we couldn't own up to in our record collections has turned out to be timeless. One of the things I love about music is that it is still magic. And part of that magic is its ability to turn into something else in a given moment.

- Like so many other people, I watched the performances on the Tribute to Heroes telethon on television and was tremendously moved by it. It was a very powerful two-hours. So many artists, like yourself, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder played songs with real depth and meaning. And it really showed the importance that songs have in our culture.

I wasn't around for it, but I have studied the pop charts around the time of the Vietnam War. And you see this incredible array of music, across all different genres. It does seem that in a time of a bull market, when people have their eyes on the pink pages, the pop music seems to suffer. It just reflects, in a prophetic way, the state of the culture. It's like the idea that, in a democracy, you get the government that you deserve. It might be true with pop music too. It is not there by accident. It is what people want to hear.

I know that people in New York and in the United States are asking themselves very hard questions. That is going to be reflected in the music. And they are hard questions. They are important questions.

The President of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, is somebody that I've had a lot of dealings with on Jubilee 2000, concerning debt cancellation. I like him, even if I've been across the table from him in the debate. A few days after September 11, he said the roots of this problem are in abject poverty. Of course, it isn't what people want to hear. It isn't what people want to hear in London, or in New York, or Madrid, or Berlin. Because globalization doesn't work for most of the people whose lives it impacts, and poverty fuels fanaticism. So those thinking people are left with nagging questions. And I hope that that will be reflected in the pop music of the day.

- Of course, this was a wake-up call, not just politically but culturally as well. Do you think there is an opportunity now, with the world so sharply focused on one thing, that some good can come out of this?

Yeah. America has always worked because of the notion of an expanding middle-class. More and more people have access to its prosperity. And it is the same in Europe. If only 4 percent of Americans had 40 percent of the wealth, there would be trouble. It is the same in Europe. We are sitting here asking ourselves, how can people loathe us so? But they see greed. They don't see that the United States had intervened in Kosovo on behalf of Muslim people. They don't see that. They see trade barriers, not a level playing field, a sort of bullish attitude to the environment, and to the world's resources. That's what they feel when they see us. My prayer is that, after the desire for justice, comes the desire to sort out our own house, because it needs some sorting.

- You support a lot of causes, and you travel so much in support of them. Do you feel that your own music is also a cause? By that I mean do you feel a sense of mission in spreading your music around the world, because it does carry a message, and it does mean something to so many people?

You have to avoid polemics. People have asked me why aren't I writing songs about the work that I'm doing for Africa regarding debt cancellation. I rather tritely reply, "statistics just don't rhyme." This is really dull and boring subject matter. When you are younger, man, you throw stones at the obvious targets. As I've gotten older, I've turned more on myself, and the hypocricy that I've found in my own heart. There is plenty of subject matter there. The artists that inspire me the most have all done the same thing: the Marvin Gayes, the Bob Marleys, the Bob Dylans, the Leonard Cohens; there's always enough to write about there. Your politics are forged by the way you see the world, and at a deeper level, the way you see yourself. That is what has inspired us over the while.

- How do you achieve writing lyrics that are personal and yet are also universal?

At times, it has been humbling for me as a lyricist. In the 80's, often there were no re-writes. The very first lines that were written to accompany the melody were the ones that went on record. And looking back, I see a lot of unfinished songs. It annoys me sometimes that I look back and see a sort of inane couplet. I have to live with it. But they can also be very deep and powerful. Like the opening of "Where the Streets Have No Name." It is an extraordinary throwdown to an audience. If you see us in front of 100,000 people, and you ask, do you want to go on a journey to somewhere that none of us have ever been before, to that place where you forget yourself, and who you are, and where you can imagine something better? It's a spine-chilling moment for you as a singer, and for anyone in the audience. It is a real challenge. But it comes out on The Joshua Tree, as "I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down these walls that hold me inside." That is so sophomoric (laughs). But that is the way it came out.

The lesson for me from the 80's was that sometimes the first words communicate the best. You realize, especially after the events of September 11, how unimportant it is to be smart. Or worse, smart-ass. To be true is all in pop music. Some of my favorite writers are clever with words. But the ones I go back to are the ones that are clever with ideas.

- In the past, your lyrics have reached for the sky in a grandiose way. On the new record, I find that your lyrics are much more organic and earthbound, and yet still hold that sense of spirituality that has always characterized your songs.

I just wanted them to be quite basic. It is interesting. I try to put into words what I felt from the music. We spend most of our time working on the arrangements and the melodies, and then at the last minute, I try to articulate the feeling we found while we were improvising.

With U2, it's songwriting by accident. That is really how we work. We find a mood. We find a moment. And then I've got to put it into words. If I'm singing, if I'm using my full vocal range, all I'm left with are vowel sounds to play with. And with vowel sounds, you don't get much information. That's where the airborne aspect of U2 comes in. The words that come to you are just the words in all the vowel sounds, like "love."

Then, in the Nineties, when I wanted to expand my vocabulary, I brought my voice down. I treated it. I sort of distorted it, and I got a whole new vocabulary. The natural distortion box of Bob Dylan's voice gives him access to a vocabulary that most people can't get to. In the 80's, corn flakes vox was never going to make it when you're singing up there with the B Flats, and all the other hot air balloons.

But in the Nineties, I went after more bass. At that time, I was lifting stones. I was exploring the creepy crawlies, psychologically speaking, and it was all about what I was discovering in the dark recesses of my mind as someone who has high ideals. And I knew I wanted a bottom to match the top.

So going into this record, I asked myself, can we have both on the same album? Can we have both in the same song? In fact, can we have both in the same line? Can we reach that high and admit to being that low in the same bar?

- When you say that you write by accident, where does it start? Does it start with a chord progression that the Edge has provided?

Usually myself or Edge provides the chord progression. But it can be Adam. And it can also start from a rhythm, or a groove. And we start improvising as a band. Our producers will tell you that's where we do our most magic work.

- Are [U2 producers] Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois usually there at that early stage in the process?

That's right. One of their great gifts, actually, as producers, is their ability to be a catalyst for these things. Brian will sometimes come up with an atmosphere for us to jump off of. Because, as a three-piece, you can run out of colors. So having someone like Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno to provide you with something to jump off of, is really valuable.

Brian or Dan would say that the best work comes from improvisation. I think also some of the best work comes from preparing in the old-fashioned way, where Edge and myself work in a traditional fashion. Edge will come up with a chord sequence and I'll come up with a vocal melody for it. And then I'll get to a lyric. Now, Edge has become a great contributor on that front, and is more than an editor. In the way that I would always be on the lookout for the hook and the melodic opportunities, he's also there for me with a backup lyric or a title.

- You have collaborated for so long as a band, do you instinctively know when you've stumbled across something interesting, inspired, or have discovered a new color?

The new color is a good analogy, because if you think of painters, there are painters who you think own certain colors. Like, Van Gogh owns the color yellow, that kind of suicide yellow, and those flowers. You are very lucky if you get to own a couple of colors. I think that in U2, there are moods or feelings that no one else has done before. And I think that finally, that is the most important thing, which is to find something that's your own color, and unique.

A criticism of our recent work is that, in a way, we have learned the craft, and it nearly ruined us. Because, in the end it is magic. The magician pulls a rabbit from the hat, and he is as surprised as the audience (laughs). And God has to walk through the room, as I think Quincy Jones describes it. All your best work you can't claim, but all the average work you can.

No one is as smart as the best pop song. To go to back to the Supremes, "Baby, I Love You," is the best song you could have heard on September 11th. And the pop versus rock debate just disappears. You look for a moment of truth. That would be a strong point of ours. It is our ability to find those moments.

I remember as a child, growing up in Ireland. We were taught the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I must have been ten years old. The teacher said, "and then Yeats went through his dry period. He had a writing block and he couldn't write about anything." I remember putting up my hand, and saying "Well, why didn't he write about that?" And the teacher just looked at me and said, "Oh, be quiet." But that is exactly the answer to the writing block. You write about your own emptiness, and we've done that for years now.

- In a way, the success of this record is due to the fact that it is a return to the "classic" U2 sound and themes. A lot of passion, a lot of Edge's guitar. People really love those familiar elements. Do you still get a charge out of it yourself?

Well, you've got to keep it fresh for yourself. As it happens, returning to the sound of a three-piece and a singer was very fresh for us, because we hadn't done it for so long. We also returned to a more live arrangement of the songs. It was a thrill, actually. Suddenly, the drummer goes from the high hat to the ride cymbal and it sounds like an orchestra. Now, you hear a sound of a band playing on the radio, and it sounds futuristic. It is an odd thing. Suddenly, the machines sound old-fashioned.

We will always work with technology, and technology has driven rock and roll from the start, from overloading the circuits in a fuzz-box through to the drum machine. You should never be purist about what you use. But, right now, in a digital age, hearing musicians thinking for each other, sounds radical.

- I remember in an interview once, someone asked you what you thought the music of the future would sound like. And you said it would be the sound of a guy sitting by himself singing and playing a guitar, which I thought was a great response.

In our densely populated airwaves, space is the most valuable real-estate. The final mark of greatness, I think, is emptiness. The least you need. That is true of music, painting, of anything. The less you can do it with, the more powerful you are. It is true of combat.

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