Jim Derogatis, pop music critic of The Chicago sun-Times, talks to Edge ahead of the band's Chicago dates later this week.
Q. When you guys set out some 20 years ago, did you ever imagine that the band would still be in business at this point in time?
A. No, not really, to be honest. I feel that we're very fortunate to still be around, because no one who gets in a band at age 18 imagines that they're still going to be in the same band 20 years later. It's just great luck, I suppose, and also maybe because we were friends almost before we were a band, I guess there's a certain amount of respect and genuine friendship among all the members of the band. Maybe that's why we're still together. But bands are like street gangs--you really don't expect it to last all that long. If you're in a really good one, you try and make it last as long as possible. For us, the thing that we're always trying to preserve is just the creative relationship between the four members. I can't imagine ever getting into any kind of creative relationship that would match it. We're four quite different people, and therein lies the strength of it: There's always a good counter-argument to any argument proffered.
Q. I've always wondered why more bands don't take the sort of approach that Brian Eno advocated in his ''Oblique Strategies'': If we have these limitations, how much can we accomplish while working with the limitations?
A. That's one of the philosophies that we've used over the years: seeing limitations as some kind of a strength and a governing influence over what you do. In the end, I think if you're trying to get anywhere creatively, options can be your enemy, simply because they create too much opportunity to really get confused or run off down a side street and not really focus on the important thing. We've always used the limitations of the band as a creative tool almost. Particularly when we went into the making of the ''Pop'' album, where we were suddenly given a new kind of set of creative tools through the use of technology, we really missed the sound and the sense of being a band. Almost halfway through that project, we started slowly bringing the songs away from a trip-hop aesthetic back to being a rock 'n' roll performance aesthetic. So even when given the possibility of other options and freedoms, we found ourselves gravitating back to the band itself, that chemistry. In the end I suppose that's really what we have to offer that no one else could ever imitate.
Q. The new album is being perceived as a regrouping and a return to older sounds. Your quote during the making of the album was ''Let's not be afraid to sound like U2.'' But this seems like the sort of move you can only do once.
A. Well, I wouldn't overstress the looking back thing. As we were making this record, we were not looking back at all. All we did is give ourselves the added freedom of reusing earlier ideas that were appropriate in the song. The case in point that people keep referring to is ''Beautiful Day.'' That song itself is a very unusual brew: It's not at all classic rock 'n' roll in its structure. There's this kind of weird, Kraftwerk, almost-beat-box sub-tune with this little string loop, which Brian put in there, which is extremely machine age. I suppose because it had that electronica element, it gave me the license to do something that was a sort of a counterbalance to that, which was more of a classic U2 sound. Had the whole arrangement been classic U2 from earlier, I don't think I would have gone there--I think I would have taken my guitar in a far different direction. This kind of balancing of opposing sensibilities and feelings is something that we do a lot within U2. I think this record is just as innovative as ''Pop,'' it's just that the thing we're pushing to the forefront is the chemistry of the band playing together, and I think that is why people are referring back to earlier projects. Maybe it's been a few years since we sounded so much like a band playing tunes.
Q. I always return to something that Eno told me about working with U2: He said his role was basically to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2; that's how he pushed you in new directions.
A. [Laughs.] There were some occasions where Brian was practically physically restrained from erasing! But I can't credit Brian and [fellow producer] Danny [Lanois] enough for their help in making this record, although it is very much of a U2 record and a band record. We've worked with them on more collaborative things in the past, like the Passengers record, but we really made it clear early on this time that we wanted to make a U2 record. Their influence over the work has been enormous, and their encouragement and their ability to stick with us through thick and thin and to encourage at the right time and critique at the right time was very, very crucial to how the record turned out.
With Brian and Danny, you get some extraordinary talents, apart from the sheer intellectual strengths of both individuals. They really have a huge breadth of musical experience and knowledge which covers areas that we aren't particularly expert or knowledgeable in. The combination of the two of them gives us so much greater reach and ability to kind of blast the things that we're trying to get through.
Q. You still feel as if you're learning things from them and being inspired by them after all this time?
A. Oh, absolutely, yeah. They're very different, again, and that's also what's interesting about them. Brian is a classic English art school product who discovered rock 'n' roll and glam-rock and was very important during the early days of Roxy Music, and then went on to have an incredible career of collaborations.
Q. I wish you could use your influence to convince him to sing again and make another pop record.
A. Brian might surprise you; I feel that might be where he's going. Having gone through a phase where he really was not particularly interested in the song as a form, I think he might be getting back there. And Danny also, having made this record with us, seems to be very inspired to make some of his own music. I'd be very interested to see what they do on their own.
Q. Back to the longevity of U2, it seems as if the only peer remaining from the time you started is R.E.M. Do you listen to them much? Do you see parallels between your career and theirs?
A. I think there are parallels, but I think also that we couldn't be more different in certain respects. I'm really very fond of them, both personally and I'm a huge fan of their music. But they are so laid back and relaxed by comparison with our band. Their attitude to success and ambition and where they want to take their band and their records couldn't be more different, but at the same time they have in their own uniquely Southern approach achieved some incredible work over the years, and I love what they do. I guess coming out of Ireland, we don't suffer at all from that sense that to really remain true to your origins and your roots, you really should try to stay clear of any heavy emphasis on success in any respect, commercially or critically. Our attitude from day one was we wanted to be the biggest band in the world and we wanted to be the best band in the world.
Q. But you have the burden of being known as moral people, people who stand up for the right thing, while working in a business, the music business, which is universally regarded as the biggest weasel pit going. How do you walk that line?
A. It's a very hard thing to balance out. In a weird way, the constant sort of checking and balancing act that we do within the band, I suppose fundamentally we believe it is possible to remain true on every level and still be in the commercial world--that they're not completely mutually exclusive. It's really about being true to your own conscience and what you feel comfortable with and what you don't feel comfortable with. Our whole thing is that in the end we don't want to do anything that is ever going to embarrass our fans. That's why over the years we've turned down so many offers from companies who want us to endorse their products. It's not necessarily that we have any moral problem with all that, it's just that we would find it very embarrassing to do that to our fans. In the end there's an unwritten deal there--they come to our shows, they buy our records, they buy our T-shirts, they support the band. But only because they think what we're doing is special, and there are certain sacred qualities to the work that we feel ourselves.
Q. The argument that bands who do those endorsements miss is that by pairing their songs with commercial images, they deprive me as the listener of the images that were running through my head. What ''One'' means to me is so much more important to me than what some commercial might suggest that it means.
A. That's really basically our attitude. And we've had arguments with all kinds of people over the years about this. I remember talking to Lou Reed about when some of his best songs ended up in commercials. Lou typically has a very practical, hard-nosed attitude, which is, ''[Crap], man, I put my studio and the house together with that money! Why should I care?'' But we do very well--our fans really have given us a great life--and we just don't want to do anything that would in the end embarrass them and make them wince in whatever regard with the things that we do or the things we put our music to.
Q. I recently got an e-mail from a guy who was part of the Major Activities Board at the University of Chicago, which booked you to perform there during your first tour. The cover charge that night was $1, including all the beer you could drink. Now the top price ticket price in Chicago is $144.75, with the Ticketmaster service charges. I could buy every U2 album on CD for that price. Does that seem fair?
A. It's a lot, I know, but you have to judge it in relation to everything else that's going on and the changes that have been made in prices since those days. We played a college at that time, and I think that also would have dictated the ticket price. Now, we make sure that there are a large proportion of the tickets that are affordable; there's a lot at $45 plus service charge. The top ticket price is there because of two aspects: First of all, a lot of U2 fans now can afford that and are quite happy to pay that. I know that there are some fans who can't, and in the end they either shell out more than they really should on an expensive ticket, or they don't go. That I don't like, but again, this is a balance. If you compare those prices to basketball tickets or other exclusive events and the price changes in the same period, I think you find that rock 'n' roll is still ultimately pretty good value compared to a lot of things.
Q. A lot of people see a revolution coming as far as business as usual in the music industry. U2 is in a position where it could affect fundamental change, and it seemed as if the band was going in that direction circa the Zoo TV tour. When your longtime label Island Records suddenly disappeared, wasn't there a moment when you thought, ''Why do we need another label? Why do we need Interscope? Why do we need this expensive concert industry? Why can't we just do it all our own way?''
A. I think things will be going more and more in that direction over the next decade or so--not just for us, but generally for bands. But at this moment, we have a very good record company, and a record company we've been able to infiltrate and kind of work with. We don't feel in the least bit like we've been taken over by the terrible machine of the rock 'n' roll business. Of course, you have to fight your corner, and you have to protect your work from the more kind of crass elements of commercialism which exist within the record business. But in the end, I believe that most people who work in record companies do so because they started out loving music. It's amazing how if you approach a record company on that basis as we do, how much they respond. If you give somebody in a record company something to work on that they really believe in, it makes a huge difference, and their attitude toward what they're working on changes dramatically.
We are very fortunate we have very strong and effective management, and our record deals have always protected our ultimate control over things, so we can't really turn around and say, ''They've done this to us.'' If we've made mistakes, they've been our mistakes, and we have made a few over the years. [Laughs]
Q. But I wonder if a new band coming up would be able to fashion the kind of organization that U2 or R.E.M. has. It's getting harder and harder.
A. It is. The only thing I would say to bands is that when we first signed, we got so little money that we were really in a position to do it our way. The record company could see that it was working and they realized that they didn't have a huge amount of money at stake that they could lose if we messed up. That really changes the whole picture. If you go in as a very young band and you negotiate this massive deal and you take a load of money off the record label, they start to think in a very different way: They're looking for a return and success on a commercial level from the get-go. I've seen this happen within the dance world as well. The artists or the bands that seem to survive creatively are the ones that sort of operate under the radar. They don't have this huge commercial expectation, and it really saves them so much grief. Any advice I would give to a young group would be to try to avoid getting into debt, because that's what turns a record company into a slave master, and it doesn't have to be that way.
Q. The story of U2 coming together is that Bono couldn't sing very well but you wanted him in the band because he had a certain charisma. Over 20 years, your relationship must have changed in myriad ways. Is he still this sort of charismatic figure for you? Is there something special about him? Does he still surprise you?
A. There's always a surprise in working with U2 for all of us. I suppose when we come to play live it's that sense of spontaneity and jeopardy that is so much a part of Bono as a performer. You really sometimes don't know where he's going or what he's going to do. Occasionally he will paint himself into such a corner, and you're just there wondering how the hell he's going to get out of it. So often he just pulls something out of the hat and blows you away. Sometimes he'll fall flat on his face [laughs], and you just think, ''Oh my god; poor guy!'' But that is what's great about him: He flies without a parachute. He's that way by nature, and he's consistently that way in almost everything he does.
Creatively as well, in the studio when we're working together, Bono creates in a very spontaneous way. He doesn't slave for weeks on the nuances of a lyric or a melody. He comes in and kind of leaps, and that can be an incredibly inspiring thing to see. Sometimes you just don't know where on earth it's coming from. I'm much more a methodical person when it comes to writing. I develop things and I really kind of work around. I circle things for a long time before finally moving in and finishing them off. Again, we're very different in that respect. And it's true of Adam [Clayton] and Larry [Mullen Jr.]; their strengths creatively and as performers really are the thing that make U2 what it is. Without them it would not be the same.
Q. Are they still able to surprise you as well?
A. Absolutely. Adam's always been kind of the most avant-garde and unorthodox as a musician. He's exceptional; I don't think that there's any other bass player I can think of past or present who has the personality as a player and a performer. He always comes up with a part that you just never in your wildest dreams would have thought of. He's a constant mindblower. Sometimes it doesn't work, but so many times it's just the most genius thing. If you talk to any of our producers, Adam is the random element and the true sort of jazz element. He will throw something into a jam session that will always surprise.
With Larry, he's just so strong. He's incredibly direct, incredibly black and white, but he's so professional and so honest. He's a one-take wonder. Say you have a tune that is just not quite right, maybe dynamically it doesn't flow right, occasionally you'll just say, ''OK, Larry, let's try some new drums. You just play on top of this.'' And so often he'll just play something that in one take will sew the whole thing together. It's like he's got this incredible way of seeing clearly what is required. Occasionally when the rest of us are talking ourselves through all the kind of philosophical and the musical possibilities, Larry will just sort of cut to the chase, like, ''Come on guys,'' and nail it right on the head.
Read the complete interview at www.suntimes.com