Guitar World's September 1997 interview with The Edge
As a loping rhythm fills Pittsburgh's Three Rivers stadium, many in the crowd of 30,000 exchange quizzical looks. The giant video screen flashes images of happy, loving people, and the guy with the guitar on stage sings something about "hands touching hands."
Slowly, the song works its way to the chorus which, as the audience recognizes the tune, is picked up with a roar. "Sweet Caroline/bah bah BAH/Good times have never felt so good..."
Is this how the guitar hero spends his time--leading Neil Diamond karaoke for a stadium full of people?
If you're The Edge and this is U2's PopMart Tour, the answer is "yes." The karaoke bit--he's also done The Monkees Daydream Believer--is his moment during the show. "I can go out and be totally crap and be loved for it," he says. It's one of many tongue-in-cheek moments in a show that features the world's biggest video screen, a giant olive skewered by a 100-foot toothpick and a 35-foot tall mirrorball lemon (a kind of citrus cousin to the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership), from which The Edge and his mates emerge during the encore.
Let's just say it's a far cry from the band's "three chords and the truth" slogan of yore.
But then again, so is everything U2 has done during the 90's, since the sincerely self conscious Rattle and Hum closed the door on the era of the Properly Earnest and Highly Concerned U2. 1991's Achtung Baby and its companion Zoo TV tour the following year brought with them a more playful U2, and nothing's been the same since.
Except, perhaps for The Edge's dedication to redefining the guitar's role in rock and roll. Along with REM's Peter Buck and Echo and the Bunnymen's Will Sergeant, The Edge (who was born David Evans, 35 years ago, in Dublin) brought a new sensibility to guitar herodom during the early 80's. When U2 roared out of Dublin with its populist, spiritually minded anthems, there was no question it was a guitar band. But what a guitar: The Edge offered a ringing, thoroughly original tone that sounded more like Gabriel's trumpet than Jimmy Page's power chords.
What The Edge brought to rock was ambiance with oomph, an uncanny knack for both setting and helping to define the mood of such U2 classics as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Gloria, and I Will Follow. Working with producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois at the close of the 80's, his approach became more nuanced and supple, whether he was spreading hazy blankets of sound over With or Without You and Bad, or deploying the raw rawk licks on Bullet the Blue Sky and Desire. More recently, on Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and this year's Pop, he's assimilated bits of industrial, ambient and techno, combining dense layers of effects with his patented sure-fire melodicism.
The Edge's devotion to his craft is perhaps illustrated by a brief, but telling, moment in August of 1993, when U2 was rehearsing for the North American stadium leg of the Zoo TV tour, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Bono sat with some journalists in a catering tent, having his dinner and talking about all things U2. On-stage, The Edge stood alone, rehearsing the stun-gun opening of Zoo Station over and over again. At one point, Bono halted his discourse in mid-sentence. "How long have we been talking? An hour?" he asked. "The whole time we've been in here, he's been up there playing that part."
The singer gazed towards the back of the stage as the two-chord lick seared the speakers again. "Amazing," he muttered, "Just amazing."
Guitar World: Now that you're into the tour, what's been your own reaction to PopMart?
The Edge: I think it's just exactly as I thought it would be. We've always been a band that's really reacted in a chemical way to the audience. So for us, the opening night in Las Vegas was the real critical test--how would it be, coming in cold with a whole bunch of new songs, playing them for the first time in front of an audience.
And then there was all the new technology. The first night was, "Wow, how is this all going to work?" I have to say I was really relieved because with all the things that we tried to pull together for that opening night, I think there was a chance it could all have been too much and too ambitious. But I feel we were able to make it all work, and I was really happy coming off stage from the first show, even knowing that there was a long way to go.
At this point, now that we've got a few shows under our belt, everyone is very comfortable on-stage and the shows are starting to get more, I suppose, confident. The communication with the crowd is there from beginning to end.
GW: How is PopMart different from ZooTV?
Edge:I think the only difference is that the first run of ZooTV shows were in smaller indoor arenas, which meant that there was a kind of a different chemistry to the event. There was built in intimacy and built in communication to those shows because of the size of the venues, whereas with a stadium, you really have to project and have a lot of confidence in what you're projecting.
GW: Is there a theme or a message that you want PopMart to convey?
Edge: I suppose the show is really trying to reinforce the point that commercialism is just part and parcel of the process of being in a big band. It's just part of it. You can't pretend it isn't. That doesn't necessarily mean it should affect the music or the intention of the band or artist involved. I suppose the Pop Art movement really touched on that, pointing out that commercialism is part of this era and that art and music shouldn't see it as the Big Bad Wolf, but to learn that it is possible to have a sense of the commercial world and still be true to your work.
I think the sentiment that has been prevalent for awhile, and which was strengthened by the grunge movement of the last five years, is that commercialism is death. Anybody who accepts the big record deal or uses a big studio or anything that takes you away from the most bare essentials of a rock and roll band is the enemy. I think that's a very ghetto mentality. When rock and roll started out, it was about freedom and refusal to accept the constraints of society. In a bizarre way, it's ended up creating it's own constraints and its own boundaries. I think they're very white, middle class boundaries. If you look at the corresponding artists in black music, they don't have that sense at all; they see that commercial viability is like another skill, another thing that should be learned about and that one should become good at. They don't see any conflict between selling lots of records and being authentic.
GW: Yeah, but they didn't come out shouting about "three chords and the truth" either.
Edge: I know...I'm not sure everyone is ready to hear this (laughs), but in some ways we're sticking out our necks with this tour. What we're really attempting to do is put over some really strong, very personal songs in an arena that attempts to acknowledge the scale of the band's success and the scale of these big shows. In some ways it is kind of a schizophrenic place to be in, where on one the one hand we're singing songs like Mofo, which is a deeply personal song that Bono wrote the words to, and on the other we've got this gigantic production that is like a piece of some fairground from outer space that's landed on planet earth. The show is all about being a show, but the band's songs and performance really come from a different place.
GW: So it's really about that dichotomy.
Edge: Maybe that's why we're drawn to it. There is something bogus about playing to people's expectations. Throughout our career, we've had opportunities to do the safe thing, and some would say that our reasons for not doing so boil down to simple perversity. I think--I know--it's because we're suspicious of doing what's expected of us. You must do what your led to do, and for us that's always been taking risks and looking to debunk notions that have grown up around the band and the work that we've done, and to really look for what's now and what's current, what speaks about this year, and not last year, not two years ago.
I suppose what people are struggling with is their conception of what the band is versus what the show seems to be about. The public's notion of what the band seems to stand for is quite one-dimensional. It denies our humor. It denies a lot of humanity that's there. I suppose we're hanging on to humor because it's important for us. When it really gets down to it, we don't write humorous songs very often. So our shows are our opportunity to fill out some of the gaps that might exist in the albums. It's a chance to have some fun and have a laugh. That's what the show is: as much as anything else, apart from giving us the opportunity to meet our audience and play new songs, it's fun.
GW: You raise an interesting point in that Pop, despite all the hullabaloo about the techno elements in some of the songs, has a lot in common with U2's 80's albums.
Edge: Absolutely! I think anyone who's spent time with the new album will notice that some of those songs could have been on our second record, October, or Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree, in terms of the intention and the idea behind them--the themes and the emotions behind the lyrics. Without it having been an intention at the outset, I see this album almost as being a compendium of musical slices culled from all the different phases of the band's career.
The broad range of songs on this record is consistent with the position we've always taken on certain issues and the kind of songs that we've always written. I think when the album really starts to sink in, fands will understand that, in the end, the show is about the music.
I don't think we would've called the tour PopMart of called the album Pop if it had been a kind of throwaway record of radio-friendly hits. I think it works as a tour concept and as a title for the album because, in fact, the asbum is anything but that. It's some of the most soul-searching music we've released in the last ten years. In some ways it's a very personal and intense record.
GW: So how did Pop develop? Early rumours had it that this would be a real rock and roll record. Later reports suggested that it was all techno.
Edge: First of all, most of the stories that circulated before the album's release were more idle speculation than based on anything we had led people to believe through press releases or interviews. The only thing we were sure of when we went into the studio is that we wanted to produce a vital record. We weren't clear about the kind of music it would be.
We were also interested in experimenting with new production and songwriting techniques. And we did experiment very broadly with a lot of the material. But it soon became evident to us that all our favorite recordings were the ones that we recorded pretty much as a band, with certain embellishments. But it became clear in the studio that the most interesting approach to almost all the songs was the band approach--the band chemistry.
GW: All that experimentation, and it still comes down to the four of you.
Edge: I can't say that that was a surprise, but it's reassuring that after pushing things so far in the other direction, we discover that the most interesting approach is really the four individuals playing together. We always knew that was what was special about anything we would release, but we went on quite a roundabout journey to come back to some essential U2 arrangements and productions.
GW:Was this a gradual realisation, or did you have some kind of collective epiphany?
Edge: More gradual. We actually were working on a lot of the songs simultaneously, including some that never made the final cut and have been put aside for another day. A lot of the songs on the record had different incarnations and arrangements. "Mofo," ironically, started out as quite a traditional sounding four-piece arrangement, and then went in a much more techno direction. But the final version was brought back somewhat by removing any loops, anything electronic in the percussion department and anchoring the song with a single drum performance by Larry layered on top of some of the elements of a more techno arrangement.
That's kind of an interesting metaphor for the way the album was made. There was no clear direction in terms of developing the songs, which often happened via the combination of sometimes seemingly conflicting sounds and approaches that created the most interesting final arrangements. Larry would sometimes play against a keyboard or percussion loop, so you get that combination of the nineties mechanincal techno aspect with this very human performance aspect. None of the songs were very pure in their approach; there were always a few different directions taken.
GW: What was the lure of the loops on those elements?
Edge: We were listening to a lot of music that was built around loops and sampling; hip-hop music, a lot of trip-hop coming out of the UK, and then dance culture, techno and house. It has a feel, it has a sound. Some of it I really like. We just wanted to see if the aesthetics of this music would be an interesting addition to what we do. We've taken on board new ideas and allowed them to filter through the band. We absorb them and they become a natural part of our sound. I suppose what was radical about some of the starting points on the record was that we'd start with a loop and then take it on from there, often with Larry replacing loops and working on drum performances.
GW: So what adjustments did you have to make as a guitar player?
Edge: Again, that was something that just started to come through as the songs were getting finished. We would get to a stage where we had a final vocal or close-to-final vocal, and then we'd attempt some rough mixes to see what we had. At that point, I would start to experiment with different guitar sounds, to try to push the songs into a kind of newer feeling. I suppose that's something we've inherited from the trip-hop dance culture, where sound itself is kind of the motif, where the notes and how memorable the parts are have as much to do with their sound and their texture as with the actual melody being played.
The sounds I used for Mofo and Gone were very dance culture approaches, but because the parts are played on electric guitars as opposed to keyboards, they have a different feeling.
I've always liked trying to take the guitar in a different direction. There are a lot of guitarists out there who play in a conventional way and do extremely well, so I don't really feel the need to tread that ground too. I'm always looking for territory that is more unique to me.
For me it was liberating to see that sound and texture could really make a big statement in our new songs. I'm still fascinated by melodies, and I'm certainly not leaving that behind, but I think that for some of these songs it was a good twist to not do a conventional guitar hook kind of melody but to try to find some extraordinary sound that could create the same effect.
GW: How did you get those sounds?
Edge: I actually did a lot of experimentation, chaining up a lot of different simple pedals and finding a way where the pedals themselves would start to interact and create almost an unstable chain of effects. You know, where a single note could take off and set the whole system into sort of spontaneous and continuous sonic development. It was like a lot of compression and distortion mixed with a lot of regeneration on echo machines.
My approach was to experiment a lot with guitars and effects, and when I'd hit on something wild, just roll the tape improvise within the sound I'd created. A lot of it comes out of a spirit of experimentation in the studio and, sometimes, the rehearsal room. A couple of times I found a chain of effects that was particularly amazing, and I'd take note of what it was and what the settings were, and at different times I'd try to re-use the same chain.
The 747 sound is one of those particular chains where I use a Digitech Whammy pedal, an old Fuzzface and one of my old echo units. It was really and extraordinary signal chain--all the effects fed off each other. It's hard to explain it, but it's my thing. I love to just play around with sounds in the studio, more than experimenting with parts or styles or anything. That's what I do.
GW: Is there ever a temptation to create a song as a vehicle for some great sound?
Edge: Yeah. That does happen, less so now than in the early days of the band, when a lot of songs were initiated in rehearsal or at soundcheck based on somebody just coming up with a part and everyone else just playing along. A lot of my parts would come out of sounds I'd been working on. Sounds from the guitar would inspire a whole kind of approach to a piece of music. In the old days, almost at the end of that process it was Bono's job to try to figure out some kind of a vocal contribution to something that was just music.
And then from there on, once there was some kind of a vocal idea we'd develop it further into more of a song. Bad, for instance, was an improvisation. We were all in the rehearsal room, playing together. There were a couple of minutes of just improvising with the music, and then Bono started improvising melodies. We kicked that idea around for an hour or half an hour, then had another go where we were a bit more conscious about what we were doing. Then, after awhile, we discovered places where this piece of music could go and put it all together in a cohesive structure to form what became the completed song.
That's a technique that we used a lot, and worked really well for us because none of us were really schooled musicians. So it was the spontaneous bouncing of ideas off of each other that created a lot of the things. Our playing was a lot better than our understanding.
GW: So much of modern dance music is by nature guitarless, which makes it seem like an odd source of inspiration for you.
Edge: Yeah, but they've got such great sounds. I think they're using sound in a way that's very, very, exciting, very unique. It started with sampling and manipulation of samples, but now it's gone onto a whole other end of things--like Daft Punk, this French duo, who produced and extraordinary sounding record (Homework, Virgin).
A lot of things I'm excited about seem to be in this area right now. That's not to say we're going to become a techno act. We're still the same band. But I do believe there's a lot of exciting work going on in dance music, and a lot of rock and roll sounds like karaoke to me. It sounds like it's just "in the style of..." That's something we've always had a problem with, we've always wanted to find new ground rather than trading on old ideas, whether it was ours or someone else's.
GW: There were a lot of extra-band projects before Pop--the film music (Batman Forever, Goldeneye, Mission: Impossible), the Passengers (a collaboration with Brian Eno). What brought those on, and what effect did they have on the band?
Edge: I think what you see there is the result of boredom. We all agreed that we were going to take a year out. We couldn't help ourselves; some offers came along and we were feeling a little bit at loose ends. So we decided to do some stuff. The first thing we did was the Batman song ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me"). Then we did the Passengers record.
That was kind of a long standing proposition between ourselves and Brian Eno, to work on an album where Brian was the producer but also a musical collaborator--where it wasn't a U2 record, per se, but we would all work together.
It seemed that it was the ideal opportunity to do that. We felt it would probably be a lot of fun, and working with Brian is always great. Also, we felt it would be better to start being in the studio again and working together with something like that rather than steaming straight into a full-fledged U2 record and having to deal with the process of re-acclimating ourselves and dealing with each other under a high-pressure situation. So we decided that would be a nice, fun project to warm up with.
GW: And Mission: Impossible?
Edge: I think the Mission: Impossible single was, again, something that came along. Bono and I didn't feel that it was right to do a U2 song, since we had just started to make our own record. But Adam felt that he and Larry could could do something interesting, so they went off and did the Mission: Impossible song. Because it was Adam and Larry, I think people were really interested in it. If it had been U2, I think it would have been one soundtrack project too many. As it happened, it became a much bigger movie than Adam and Larry had imagined it would be. It actually became a high profile release, which I think they were delighted about but hadn't really anticipated.
GW: Why do you have more lyric-writing credits on Pop than you've had in the past?
Edge: There was more input this time. Bono and I have developed an effective partnership in developing the lyrics. In most instances, my role was more like an editor's or as a sounding board for him. And then in some cases, I contributed a lot of lines and ideas for lyrics. It works well. The daunting responsibility of coming up with 12 new lyrics at the very end of an album, when we've all been working so hard on the music, is a shared thing now. I think Bono finds it easier. It speeds things up as well.
GW: Does he ever just tell you to shut up and play yer guitar?
Edge: I know him well enough to know when to suggest some changes and when to leave him alone.
GW: What accounts for the very searching and, in several cases, spiritual nature of the lyrics on Pop?
Edge: I think it took me a little by surprise. Certain songs were put on the record at the last minute. Some songs that we felt were going to be finished and make the record didn't. It was only when we finished and sequenced the album, put the whole thing to bed, that I realized it was quite a spiritual and intense record.
It's really hard to say why; obviously that represents where we are as a band, Bono and I particularly as the lyricists. In the end, these are the issues we find interesting. It's the usual love and faith in crisis; that's what it's about. They're the crucial issues. There are a lot of great bands out there writing great songs about beer and girls. I just don't think we're ever gonna do that (laughs).
GW: Do you ever have any sense of why you're drawn in that direction?
Edge: There is a sort of spiritual crisis going on as old concepts and institutions--religious, spiritual institutions--are being left behind without anything to replace them. It's like people are adrift, struggling to find some kind of clarity. At the moment, they're just left with a lot of questions and uncertainties.
GW: Clearly there are no answers offered in the songs.
Edge: It's dangerous to try and answer. I don't really feel it is our job. Our job, if anything, is to connect in a way, to express something that's personal to us that other people can relate to, that they might be feeling, that crystallizes something that's out there anyway. It's much more to do with the moment and what others are going through than it has to do with you. You can write 100 songs that never mean a thing, and then you might write a song that means everything. There's a certain humbling realization that it sort of happens to you; it's not something that you can really turn on and off.
GW: Where do the "lighter" songs on Pop come from--Miami or Playboy Mansion?
Edge: There's a lot of irony in those songs, but also sort of a genuine appreciation of things that are talked about. Miami is like a little postcard, a few nights out in a very mad town. There are characters involved that are fictitious, but the general picture it paints is of a very fascinating and very crazy place we spent a couple of weeks in the midst of making the album. Everything we set out to do during that visit we failed to do, but what we came away with was a song. It's the accidents that are often the most valuable things.
As for Playboy Mansion, it's a pop anthem, I suppose. It's kind of ironic. I hope it's not cynical. It's definitely tongue in cheek; it's really just a celebration of some of the sillier, lighter things and at the same time maybe pointing out or at least shedding some light on where we're at, sort of the contradictions and funny aspects of life in 1997.
GW: Are you planning to take Hugh Hefner up on his offer to visit the mansion?
Edge: I don't know. There have been a couple of invitations for us, Bono particularly, to do the Playboy interview. I have a problem on some levels with that kind of mentality, the Playboy ideal. I feel that anything that simplifies and reduces people must be, in the end, suspect. I think sexuality is such an amazing and mysterious thing. To turn it into a kind of cartoon, to almost dehumanize it, is something that must not be good.
GW: So what did you have to do to this stuff in shape to play live?
Edge: The live situation is a bit different. I've got the technology to recreate almost every sound on the record. That's the starting point, to get to the point where I can do what I did on the record. But I've found that simplifying is often a very important part of creating a succesful live arrangement. Some things have been really stripped down, and we're developing new arrangements. If God Will Send His Angels, is very different, for instance. There are limits to the fidelity of the big PA system in a stadium, so I think you really have to hone things down to their real essence, because that's what's going to carry.
In some ways it's quite illuminating when you get to play a song in front of an audience. You really understand its strengths and its weaknesses. I feel good about the material on the new record. It's turning out to be very strong material, which is good.
GW: How did you decide which songs you'd play for the tour?
Edge: There's a certain kind of place that we're in at the moment as a band; certain songs seemed to fit in and others didn't. Also, we wanted to give some material a rest. We decided we wouldn't play Bad on this tour; I think we could, and I think it would probably fit in well, but we've played that song on every tour since The Unforgettable Fire, so it was time to leave it for awhile. We hadn't played I Will Follow for a long time, so it seemed like a fine idea to bring that one back.
We definitely wanted to play a lot of the new album, but we didn't want to play the new songs just because they're the new songs. We routined them all and rehearsed them up, and basically whatever sounded like it was going to work live, we put into the set. It's a very organic process. It's really an instictive thing.
GW:Are there any songs in U2's repertoire, such as Pride, that feel just have to be played every night?
Edge: I don't think so. It's nice to have a few songs that people really remember, hits from the radio, in your set. But I don't think that there are any songs that are essential. We're lucky we have a lot of material to draw from. I'd like to think we could do a lot of different shows and not necessarily feel we have to do certain songs.
GW: What are you enjoying most about the show?
Edge: The lemon. We're having a lot of fun with that, the whole kind of discotheque lemon vibe, the Mothership. It's just such a blast. I'm delighted that it's finally happened. It's one of those mad ideas that came up in one of our meetings early on. We were in the middle of making the record and slightly out of our minds anyway. It was first put forward as an idea, and to actually see it there onstage and working and the steps...I mean, the number of engineering meetings and creative meetings that had to happen before it became reality was astonishing. And it is so ridiculous (laughs). It's the most ridiculous thing I've seen in a rock and roll show for years.
GW: And you have no problem doing something a little ridiculous?
Edge: Not at all. I think rock and roll has to be a bit tongue in cheek and a bit crazy like that. Otherwise it starts to take itself too seriously. When it loses its humour, rock and roll can become very boring. And the cardinal sin for rock and roll bands is to be dull and boring. That's something you must avoid at all cost.