"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Q FEBRUARY 2009 - by Tom Doyle
Never mind the politics, here's the rock'n'roll.
Bono sweeps into the lounge of Olympic Studios in south-west London, in black denim shirt and matching jeans, orange-tinted Emporio Armani shades welded to his nose. "Can you give me ten minutes?" he says. "I've just written this lyric and I want to try it out."
Ushering us into the adjacent studio where U2's long-serving producer Steve Lillywhite waits for him, Bono flips open his Macbook Air and calls up a file. "I think I may have just managed to rhyme 'life' with 'life'," he notes, rolling his eyes. "Have you heard the one about the Irish lyricist?"
He picks up a mic as Lillywhite cues up the track, a meditative, slow-burning track called Every Breaking Wave that gradually builds to a climax brimming with passion and intensity. Bono begins to sing, rocking back and forward on his studio chair, his voice simultaneously coming out of the giant speakers and only inches away from my left ear, as he performs a near-note-perfect vocal that employs the movement of the ocean as a metaphor for the human struggle, before building to the plaintive line, "I don't know if I'm that strong." Two takes and ten minutes later, it's done.
U2 are currently running three different studios at Olympic, working at full-tilt, in the absolute final fortnight of recording activity if they're to hit the deadline that will allow their twelfth studio album, No Line On The Horizon, to be released in the first quarter of 2009. The success of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb steadied the U2 boat after the late-'90s wobble. Now the mood in the band's camp is that they can afford to push things a little bit further out there.
Lillywhite cheerfully informs me that the last two weeks of the making of any U2 album are "chaos". Everything is up for grabs: lyrics are still being written, some songs are being entirely retooled and others simply dumped. Upstairs in Studio 1, engineers are getting ready to record drum parts with Larry Mullen, Jr. Down in the basement, Brian Eno is working on an evocative string-enhanced acoustic track called Winter. Eno, Lillywhite and co-producer Daniel Lanois make up the studio team that have worked on every key U2 album from 1984's The Unforgettable Fire to All That You Can't Leave Behind.
Bono parks himself on a sofa in the lounge, sipping coffee and grazing at a plate of ham, chicken and carrots. No Line On The Horizon is shaping up as an expansive work, in places reminiscent of the panoramic U2 music of the '80s, but with shades of their '90s-style playfulness and sonic innovation elsewhere. Its creation has involved a typically epic journey for the band, one that began almost immediately after the closing Vertigo tour date in Honolulu in September 2006, with preliminary work with Rick Rubin, before moving on to experimental writing sessions with Eno and Lanois in Fez, Morocco, in summer 2007 and subsequent periods in Dublin, France, New York and finally London.
According to the singer, No Line On The Horizon - the title inspired by the view from his study window on the Irish coast at a certain time of day when the sea seems to melt into the sky - is divided into two parts, Dark and Daylight. "In my head, it all happens over twenty-four hours," he says. Rather than sing in the first person, Bono says this time around he's taking a more novelistic approach to his lyrics, which are inhabited by a cast of fictional personas.
So you're writing songs with characters in mind this time?
I've said this before, but I'm sick of me. I'm sick of Bono and I am him. That might be glib. But as an artist I felt it was a little limiting to be in the first person, so I allowed myself just to wear the clothes of characters that wandered into my imagination. So the guy in [new song] Cedars Of Lebanon is a war correspondent. I meet a lot of them of course in my other life. And I have a lot of empathy because I'd probably be one [laughs]. And then there's this [still unfinished] song that is called Tripoli at the moment, which is this guy on a motorcycle, a Moroccan French cop, who's going AWOL. He drives through France and Spain down to this village outside of Cadiz where you can actually see the fires of Africa burning.
Some of the lyrics sound a bit closer to home, though. In the track Stand Up, there's a line about "small men with big ideas".
That's me [laughs]. That's funny. "Stand up to rock stars / Napoleon is in high heels / Josephine be careful of small men with big ideas."
Your original plan was to make the album with Rick Rubin. What changed?
We learned a lot from him. Rick is not taken in by atmospheres or mood or an overwhelming thought. He;s head over heels in love with the concept of the song. But our feeling was you don't go to rock'n'roll just for the songs. There are times to know that rock'n'roll is about drama. Or even melodrama. So we wanted songs that would take us into a different world. And in order to do that we wanted to find people that we could trust to really experiment with.
So you assembled the classic U2 team - Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite...
It's kind of embarrassing. It really just seems pathetic to be returning to your very own dysfunctional family. But maybe it's like The Osbournes. They were all so secure in that environment that it allowed them to bite the heads off chickens or whatever. "Mishpacha" is another word for it, which is Yiddish for extended family. And it is an amazing thing to be in a place where you can take a lot of risks.And the only shame is not taking them. We owe Brian and Dan an enormous debt for their stewardship of our talent. You can see in this early film of our first album with them, The Unforgettable Fire, Dan is plugging in the instruments or bringing in timbales and working with Larry who's [pulls grumpy face and crosses arms] Mr Suspicious. And because they're experimental in their own niches, the opportunity to bring some experimentation into pop consciousness is so exciting to them. And to us. That's what we feel U2 is supposed to be. We want to make the radio more interesting.
Eno admitted to being "upset" about being left off some of the writing credits on All That You Can't Leave Behind. Was that part of the motivation behind involving him in the writing process this time?
No. Remember, [grins] even if Brian wasn't on the album, he thinks he wrote it. But what we thought was, "Well, if they really want to write, let's see if we can get somewhere." So in that sense, maybe. But listen, I've learnt so much from that man, both as a sort of fellow traveller and as a person of great catholic taste. I just think every day I'm in the studio with Brian Eno is a great day.
Take us to the sessions in Fez...
We took over this little hotel, that they call a riad, and set up the gear in the courtyard. So it was open, a square of sky over our heads. You can hear the call to prayer, birds flying around. Two swallows came back regularly to shit on Larry's drums. Not Happy.
Steve Lillywhite says the last two weeks of any U2 record are always chaos. And you've said before, "Right before we hit it, we're crap." You do hang around waiting for lightening to strike, don't you?
Which takes a while. If you're waiting for God to walk through the room... God is unreliable [laughs]. But being God, you can't even complain about it.
So you embrace the chaos, then?
Yeah. It helps being a dysfunctional band. Bruce Springsteen said the greatest line of all. He said, "Democracy is one thing for places like Iraq. But a band?"
You've been known to road-test-in-progress tracks on friends and fans. You even played tracks from your last album to the postman...
I'd rather get the bad news before I put it out. Wouldn't you? I'm playing it to the taxi driver, everyone.
If your postman had said it was crap, would you have listened to him?
No. It's what it does to my own ear, having them in the room. If you've got a little too heady and you're playing it to somebody who just listens to the radio, you can go, "Oh... right." Cos I want to communicate. It's like, "I thought that was obvious, but maybe it's not so obvious."
You managed to leak some of the album yourselves this time by loudly and drunkenly playing it at your beach villa in the south of France, where it was recorded by a passer-by...
[Grins and winces] Yeah. I think they call it the vino vérité.
How many tracks did you leak?
Oh, man, it might have been a few. Edge heard it and he said you can hear waves and a few chairs getting knocked over. And, y'know, me, I'm not so precious about stuff like that. [Whispers] But the others don't like it very much.
On a markedly less drunken occasion at home in the south of France last summer, Bono experienced a eureka moment. Staring at his huge plasma TV screen he was using to play music, he found himself suddenly frustrated by the virtually static nature of the iTunes control panel.
"I'm looking at this stationary iTunes, wondering why if we were listening to The Joshua Tree, you couldn't maybe see full-screen photographs moving?" he recalls. "If I was reshooting that cover now, I'd shoot it over forty minutes and have the heads moving. Even in working-class homes there's big, fuck-off plasma screens. And I thought, Look at that screen and then think about the gatefold vinyl album in its heyday... this is way better! This could waste it!"
As a result, U2 are currently working on releasing No Line On The Horizon as a downloadable widget - a piece of interactive software - complete with artwork and lyrics. "Then I thought, Gosh, you can't rob that," Bono points out, arching an eyebrow knowingly. "We might have thought of a new format."
Post-Radiohead, did U2 ever consider giving No Line On The Horizon away for free?
What I love about Radiohead is that they're always trying for a fresh canvas - with their music and the way their music is put about. That's really great. Personally I don't think music is overpriced. People pay fifty quid for a video game. And in our case, we've put two years of our lives into it and I think it's got real value. I'd like to make it better value by creating an experience that you can't have just by ripping it off. Make the music more interesting, make it better value and create the environment that it's in. That's what I'm into.
While we're talking business, you copped some flak in 2006 for moving your tax operations out of Ireland and into the Netherlands.
A little bit. If you wanted to attack me, the tax thing was a hook you could hang that attack on. We pay millions of dollars in tax, but we don't pay more than we have to. But, look, it is a handy one if the fucking singer looks like he needs a clap around the head.
But it comes down to the question of how you square your poverty activism with your yacht-owning lifestyle...
I've tried not to walk into that caricature of the saint. I've always put my hand up as a sinner. People like me because they see me coming out of pubs and because I own to being a spoiled-rotten rock star. I don't think there's any conspicuous consumption. I live in a nice house and Edge and myself have got a special place down in France. But it's not in anyone's face. There's no bling. But it would be really wrong for me to try, as a result of my work, to pretend to be something that I'm not.
On some levels your behaviour isn't very rock star-ish, though. You surround yourself with people who're just as likely to say "no" as "yes".
That's the other thing. Y'know, you're supposed to join a rock band to get a load of lick-arses as an entourage and six or seven security people making sure you don't get melted in a club. I don't travel with security. I'm in a band with people who persecute me as a national sport. I'm thinking [laughs], "Where did it all go wrong?"
The last time we met, you were talking about the fact that you'd just got on a flight from Miami on your own. When you're out and alone, do you ever get paranoid?
[Nonchalantly] Um, no. What's the saying? "A paranoid is a person in full possession of the facts." I think freedom is such an intoxicating thing. I have more freedom than anyone I know in my situation.
And you never feel vulnerable when you're wandering around in public?
Never physically. Although it's costly, as it turns out, to defend yourself.
You've never lamped anyone, have you?.
None that you've read about. And I would absolutely not respond in that fashion these days. [Pauses and laughs] That's an absolute lie.
So it's too expensive for you to hit someone?
I can't actually even talk about it. But I'm able to to be out and around. And I know where to go and I know where not to go. I'm pretty street-wise And y'know, you're gonna bump into... it's gonna go wrong sometimes. But I'd rather take that risk because, y'know, I'm having more fun than should be allowed. Whereas of course years ago, I thought it was important, the way I approached the corner store [laughs]. You do! You become self-conscious. And self-conscious, as you know, makes even the prettiest face ugly.
You were trying to be overly normal?
That's right. You're just not being yourself. I'm way through that. And it's painful to look back on some of the over-thinking in earlier years.
What makes you cringe now?
I remember I wouldn't put my arm around [wife] Ali when we were walking. I'd think people were watching. They probably weren't. That sort of thing. Or you think the newsagent cares which newspaper you've asked for. He doesn't.
Four days later. It's just after 8PM and Eno, Bono and will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas are in Olympic Studio 1, writing a cello part for a song called Breathe that U2 - a touch ambitiously - are only beginning to record in this final fortnight, never mind mix. "That's just the way it is with us," Bono notes, calmly. "Zoo Station only came together in the last three days of Achtung Baby." The singer picks up a mic and belts out a rollicking vocal featuring door-to-door salesman, a cockatoo and a chorus that begins: "Step out into the street... sing your heart out."
He asks the engineer to call up a new mix of the title track, that in a matter of days has gone from being an atmospheric burbler to an ecstatic punk rocker. Bono turns to whisper to Q. "Watch Brian's face," he says impishly. "He doesn't like rock."
back downstairs in the lounge, the singer returns to the sofa, before indulging in two glasses of wine and "just one cigarette". Q had been promised a top-up phone interview, though in the end Bono has invited us back down to the studio, having sent us a text after our last encounter saying he wanted to "follow up on some loose ends". Talk quickly turns to politics.
In terms of the US election, you remained strangely quiet. You didn't endorse either Barrack Obama or John McCain...
Well, I couldn't. because that's the concept of the One campaign. We must not, on behalf of the poorest, more vulnerable people on earth, divide the country. I met with ten candidates, when there were ten, to ask them not to play politics with the world's poor. And even though Barrack Obama has promised to double aid by 2015, you never heard John McCain criticise him for that.
personally, were you pro-Obama?
I've learnt not to speak for myself. And at times it's been difficult for me. Like, around the war, obviously, it was very difficult. And though I made my feelings known privately to all concerned, whether it was Tony Blair or George Bush, I didn't go on about that because I felt I had become that most awful thing, a single-issue protagonist. I felt I'd given up my right to do that. But I've met McCain many times. I've met Obama many more times. But, y'know, if you've written a song about the slaying of Dr King, to see what's happened...
Now that George W. Bush is on his way out, can you say what you really think of him?
Well, no, no... I can tell you that [closes eyes and grips temple in concentration]... he may have bitten off more than the world can chew with Iraq. but many millions will owe their life to his AIDS initiative. many, many millions.
The rest of the band didn't think it was a good idea for you to be hanging out with Dubya...
It was embarrassing for the band. Edge always tells me, "You're an artist, remember that. You're not a politician." But if you've looked into the face of a mother whose daughter or son has died in their arms for no good reason, they don't know or care who's President of America. It's something that once you're a witness to, you can't get it out of your head and so you don't take shit on their behalf.
So you've been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times now...
I don't know. I think you only know if you get it. [Whispers] But I will never get that. I think in general they give it to people whose names are not known. Or if they give it to somebody who's very well known, it's because they're making a particular point that year. I think they've made the Africa point a couple of times, the inequality point.
Surely part of you must think, "Bastards"?
Well, no. I tell you what - it really helps that they've nominated me. That really helps me when I'm getting meetings with people who don't want to give me meetings. I can tell you something that I'm proud of. This year the Nobel Peace prize laureates have voted for me to be given a special award. but I think some of the things we've talked about make it impossible for me [to win the Nobel]. I'm too inconsistent. I can't make the case that I've given up my life to serve the world's poor.
It didn't stop you getting an honorary knighthood in 2007. Was that surprising?
it was more like, "Phew, got away with it." I've had the most easy ride for an Irish person dealing with the British government. Like, Tony Blair said, "Do you want to come round one evening and not have an argument about development and just talk?" So I went round and we were just sitting there, the two of us, talking about everything - religion, music. And, of course, I'm drinking. he doesn't drink very much. So I may not have noticed exactly but time did move on and after a few hours, he's like, [uncanny Blair impersonation] "Um... ah... OK, it's midnight, I've got to make a phone call, would you let yourself out?" This is up the top floor in their apartment. So I'm like, [pissed swagger] wandering on my own through Number 10. You think to yourself, "Wow, how far have things come that you can have an Irish rock star wandering trough Number 10 after a few drinks?" Years ago that was unthinkable, just preposterous.
On a personal level, can you ever relax? Do you find it hard to switch your head off?
Um. I think I'm having a great time. I like to hang out with my kids. And Ali, I still find her company as beguiling as I always did. And I think they're largely the reason that I find myself just really more at home when I'm at home than I ever have. I think I've a little less static around me now.
What does Bono do in his downtime?
I like to box. I like swimming, so in the summer I swim in the sea. And to chill out I've got all my mates. Our house on the weekends is just one big party. We play music, people stay over. It's more like a train station than perhaps Ali would like it [grins], but there's a lot of laughter in the house.
At one point when Jay-Z and Beyoncé were staying with you, your daughter worried about you "boring the arses" off them about Africa. Are you still the embarrassing dad?
That's just the way it is. I have two little boys, seven and nine, so they're amazing. The other night, Ali was away and I was minding the house and they were jet-lagged because we'd been in America. And I thought I was doing the right thing by putting the dogs in with the boys. And at three-thirty in the morning, john comes in and goes, "Da! The dogs are trying to jump out the window!" And then I had the whole house up and I'm saying, like, [on the phone, slightly panicked] "What do I do?" And Ali says, [calmly, with a sigh] "You give them carbohydrate, make them some porridge."
What about drinking and smoking? Do you try to keep a lid on it these days?
What I have to do is get fit, I can't drink so much. I don't think I'm personally vain because if I was, I'd be a very bad ad for vanity. But I want to look good for the band. I'm a bit of a slob. When I'm writing the songs, I tend to spend a lot of time in France. I drink some wine, I put on some weight and I jump in and out of the sea... as a fat bastard. But for these songs, we're gonna have to be a lean, mean fighting machine. You're getting back in the ring.
Do you see any contenders for U2's golden belt coming up?
Who wants it? The Killers want it. And wow, there's melody for you. Kings Of leon - his voice on the new album... I would love to see more people try to knock us out. [Glances down at belly and smiles] Y'know, we're trying to get down into the middleweight. [Mischievous grin] Because that's the only place where there's company.
How have U2 avoided becoming a heritage rock act like The Rolling Stones, just trotting out the old hits?
Fear of being crap. Which of course is your deepest suspicion. The difference between The Rolling Stones and U2 is down to one very simple thing and that's that Mick and Keith's relationship has not endured. You can imagine the kind of stuff that they could write if it had. Because chemistry's a very peculiar thing. As you get older, males want to be lords of their own domain and they rid the room of argument and miss out on the friction that caused the spark of their genius. The really sad and pathetic thing is me and Edge have two sons around the same age whose names rhyme and we didn't really didn't seem to notice at the time - Eli and Levi. What's worse is when you're in France in the summer, they get up in the middle of the night and they're on Garageband.
So, it's Bono and Edge, the next generation, coming up?
God forbid they should ever form a band. Eli and Levi. It's like a bad joke.
So now the album's nearly in the bag, has U2's fear of being crap dissipated once again?
It's funny. You were talking about Jay-Z and the Queen B. They were over at the studio a few months ago and I said to them, "If this isn't our best album we're irrelevant." And he gave an interview to one of the Sunday newspapers here and said something like, "Those guys are so smart they know that if it's not their best album, they're irrelevant." [Eyes widen] And I read it. [Laughs] And I knew I'd said it. But I was thinking, "Oh."
What are the plans for the tour? How do you plan on topping Vertigo?
Well, I can't say too much because [promoters] the Live Nation people would die. But I think it's fair to say that what we've planned for outdoors has never been done before and that we've been working on it for a long time. It's a feat of engineering genius.
Why does the world need U2 in 2009?
[Pauses for thought before grinning widely] Well... we have joy. We have rage. We're unreasonable. We can take a punch. But we can throw one.
Rising from the sofa, Bono, leads Q back into the adjacent studio where Edge and Steve Lillywhite are listening to a rough mix of Every Breaking Wave, now sounding gloriously epic and near-complete. It's skirting 11PM, so we leave them as we found them, patiently tinkering with their music, even as their deadline looms
But we'll bid farewell, rather than say goodbye, as it's highly that we'll all be seeing a lot more of U2 this year. "If we get this right," Bono says, gesturing in the direction of the studio speakers, "2009 will be ours."
"REBOOT YOURSELF": HOW THE NEW U2 ALBUM IS SHAPING UP SO FAR
Stand Up - Rousing, groove-based rocker with shades of Led Zeppelin and Cream. The Stand Up And Take Action Against Poverty movement inspired the title, though the lyric is more playful than that suggests. "Be careful of small men with big ideas," warns Bono.
Magnificent - Slow-building anthem with the ambience of The Unforgettable Fire and laced with the wide-eyed wonder of U2's earlier albums. Edge here is at his most dynamic. Features the line: "Only love can reset your mind".
Get On Your Boots - Formerly titled Sexy Boots, this demented electro-grunge track employs a proto-rock'n'roll riff, but propelled into the future, before taking a sudden hip-hop twist midway through. Features Bono in flirtatious, self-deprecating mood: "I don't wanna talk about wars between nations."
Moment Of Surrender - Gorgeously melodic seven-minute song that already has the air of the U2 classic about it, with lyrics about dark stars and existential crises: "I did not notice the passers-by / And they did not notice me". Recorded in one take. This album's One.
Unknown Caller - Opens with the sound of birdsong recorded live in Fez. A Middle-Eastern-flavoured percussion loop drives this tale about a man "at the end of his rope" whose phone bizarrely begins texting him random instructions" "Reboot yourself", "Password, enter here", "You're free to go".
No Line On The Horizon - Began life as a slow-paced Eno-esque ambient treatment, before being dramatically reworked in the Olympic sessions into an abrasive punk-rock tine akin to Vertigo, with its "No! Line!" chorus chant. "It's The Buzzcocks meets Bow Wow Wow," reckons Bono.
Crazy Tonight - Upbeat pop track with distinct echoes of '60s-era Phil Spector, particularly the moment when its chorus disappears into a wash of reverb. Centres around the line: "I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight". "Which sounds like a T-shirt slogan to me," notes the singer.
Every Breaking Wave - With Or Without You-style pulser that builds layers of guitar over electronically enhanced verses before opening up into an expansive drop chorus and then, ultimately exploding into an ecstatic coda. Key line: "Every sailor knows that the sea / Is a friend made enemy".
Breathe - Ranting verse over rolling tom-tom rhythm and Arabic cello gives way to a joyful chorus that finds the singer stepping out of the darkness and into the light. Surely set to be a highlight of U2's upcoming shows. "Brian [Eno] says it's our best song ever," Edge points out.
Winter - Echoes of Simon & Garfunkel in this poignant, acoustic string-laden ballad about a soldier in the snow of Afghanistan. Due to feature in the new Jim Sheridan film, Brothers, starring Tobey Maguire, about the emotional fall-out of the war.
Cedars Of Lebanon - Daniel Lanois-instigated closer that finds Bono imagining himself as a weary, lovelorn war correspondent "squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline". Ends with the possibly telling line: "Choose your enemies carefully cos they will define you".