Just the 2 of U
Bono and The Edge discuss their posh bass guitarist, insecurity and megalomania in U2, “dealing with” skinheads, why their music makes Bono wince, how the recession has affected them – and that controversial tax arrangement. BRIAN BOYDtakes their confession
FROM THE study of Bono’s home in Killiney, you search in vain for a line on the horizon. “That’s where the album title comes from,” says Bono as he does a quick tidy-up behind me and frets over seating arrangements. “This study is where I do all my work – in the morning it’s the band stuff, in the afternoon it’s all the other stuff.”
He thinks he has a seating plan. “Ok, me and Edge will sit over here and you can sit over there. Wait, no, maybe it should be the other way around. What do you think?”
The other night he had been to a very late Christmas party. “Aren’t they weird? Almost Freudian. All this repressed stuff gets released. This guy, who I thought sort of liked me, came over to me and starting telling me what a fucker I was and how much he hated me, and how he had always hated me right from the very start.” The Edge arrives and says: “That’s no way for U2’s drummer to be talking to you.” The yin and yang of U2 look at each other and dissolve into laughter.
It’s a lived-in home, but with the kind of order that comes from having an employee or two on the premises. The study itself is small, an old-style library busy with books and magazines, not a mess but clearly a working space.It’s an environment where its owner and his mate are at ease discussing their early years.
ON BEING BROKE (NOT RECENTLY): “ADAM CLIMBED UP THE RAILINGS AND STARTING KNOCKING ON THE WINDOW OF THE BANK”
“When we were young and broke and didn’t even have our bus fare, Adam used to ride the buses for free,” says Bono. “When the conductor would ask him for his fare, he’d just say in his west Brit accent [adopts accent]: ‘Can I sign you a cheque?’.” They laugh like a drain. But Edge thinks he has a better Adam story.
“I swear this is true,” says the guitarist. “I was 16, Adam was 17. We were stuck out in Malahide without any bus fare. Adam says: ‘I know, let’s get a bank loan. That’s what banks are for.’ We went down to the Northern Bank in Malahide, but it was lunch hour and it was closed. Adam climbed up the railings and starting knocking on the window of the bank. The manager came to the window with a sandwich in his mouth. I saw the door opening and Adam going in. A few minutes later, he re-emerged and had managed to get a bank loan of £2.”
They both fizz with laughter. Pushed up against each other on a couch, Paul Hewson and Dave Evans are all belly laughs and“Do you remember the time when ...?”
The young, broke U2 who managed to get a few gigs in dingy Dublin venues regularly had their shows broken up by a skinhead gang of the time called The Black Catholics. “There was this gang called The Black Catholics in (late 1970s) Dublin,” says Bono. “They would try to break up our gigs. But I dealt with it. I knew which bus stop one of them got off at on his way home. I waited for him. It ended after that, that’s all I’ll say.”
The study goes quite for a moment. Until Bono adds “I remember one of them chasing after Adam once. Adam turned to the guy and in his posh voice offered him 50 pence if he would go away,” and they crack up again.
ON THE NEW ALBUM: “I’VE NEVER SUNG LIKE THAT BEFORE”
One-hundred-and-forty million album sales later, U2 still guard their position vigilantly. Once they worried about belligerent skinheads; now The Killers snipe at their heels. “U2 are still a point that need proving,” says Bono. They still worry, they say. New album, new danger.
It wasn’t looking good at first for No Line on the Horizon. The first sessions with noted producer Rick Rubin were scrapped. Then Bono had a rush of blood to the head: “Let’s all move to Morocco.”
“At this stage we didn’t even know if we working on the new U2 album,” he says. “We were just playing about with forms. We just played and played in Morocco.”
“We don’t get excited until we hear something we’ve never heard before,” says Edge. “If things sound too regular or normal or predictable we just can’t operate as a band. We needed a shake-up, so we had Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois [two of the album’s producers] contributing to the songwriting – the first time it’s gone outside the band. We’ve had a long, creative relationship with them both, but this gave that relationship a new lease of life ... We found those new sounds.”
There are folk stylings ( White As Snow), chanting ( Unknown Caller) and spoken word ( Cedars Of Lebanon) on the new album, as well as what some critics have called Bono’s best ever vocal on the stand-out Moment Of Surrender– a seven-minute slow-burner that could be this album’s Bador One. He registers a cracked and quavering delivery far removed from his usual declamatory ways.
“I’ve never sung like that before,” he says of the song. “This voice just came out in Morocco and it was a shock to me. Not so much the tonality of it, but the character of it. We’ve literally only got one take of that ... It must have been an afternoon after the night before vocal. I’m not smoking now, but on occasion, you know ... that’s a real wine and cigarettes voice.”
“Bono’s been very dedicated to getting that wine and cigarettes effect on his vocal,” says Edge. “He’s selfless like that. He does it for the band and at a great personal cost!”
ON THE UPCOMING TOUR: “WE WANT TO HAVE A SIGNIFICANT PERCENTAGE OF CHEAP TICKETS”
After the album, a two-to-three year Horizonworld tour will follow, and this is now a huge part of the band’s creative work and business. If you had gone to see the band play on their Joshua Treetour, the ticket price would have been less than the price of the album. In a radically restructured music industry, the ticket prices for the Horizontour will be between 10 to 15 times the price of an album.
Recognising the importance of live performance in the modern music industry, two years ago U2 signed a reported £100 million 12-year deal with the world’s biggest concert promoter, Live Nation. This will be the first tour under that arrangement.
The nature of the Horizontour remains a closely guarded secret. “We haven’t announced any of this yet, so I’m not sure you can use this, but I’ve been working on this engineering idea for the last seven to eight years,” says the singer.
“It’s all to do with how you can play outdoors without using a proscenium stage with a big bank of speakers on the left and right. Every outdoor show you’ve ever seen has that. So at the moment we’re just trying to get the design architecture right – and the financial architecture. If we can get away with what we want to do, it will mean more people in the venue, better sightlines and everyone will be closer to the action. We want to have a significant percentage of cheap tickets. In this climate you have to give better value.”
ON SONGWRITING: “WHEN I HEAR A U2 SONG I WINCE”
“When I hear a U2 song I wince,” says Bono. “I wince because of what I think is an unfinished lyric or a vocal moment I don’t like.
“Do you want to know what my most humiliating U2 moment is?” he asks. “It’s Where The Streets Have No Name. Edge had come up with this amazing 120-beats-per-minute music for it. I had some ideas for the lyrics. I was sleeping in a tent in northern Ethiopia at the time  and I scratched down some thoughts and they were: ‘I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside’.
“I thought they were fairly inane, but in the studio Eno and Lanois thought they were perfect. I told them they were only sketches and I could do much better. But Eno is all about capturing the moment, so those words stayed. Now I have to sing them for the rest of my life. And it’s our most successful live song. That’s the U2 contradiction.”
ON THEIR TAX AFFAIRS: “WE PAY TAXES ALL OVER THE WORLD. WE ARE TOTALLY TAX COMPLIANT”
In 2006, U2 moved part of their business from Ireland to The Netherlands where the tax rate on royalty earnings is far lower than in this country. This followed an Irish Government decision to limit tax-free earnings for artists. Prior to this, all artistic earnings had been tax-free. Now artists would have to pay tax on earnings over €250,000.
Criticism rained down on the band, and on Bono in particular, from politicians, journalists and lobby groups.
“We haven’t commented on it,” says Bono.
“And we don’t comment on it for a very good reason,” adds The Edge, “and that’s because it’s our own private thing. We do business all over the world, we pay taxes all over the world and we are totally tax compliant.”
“We pay millions and millions of dollars in tax,” says Bono. “The thing that stung us was the accusation of hypocrisy for my work as an activist.
“I can understand how people outside the country wouldn’t understand how Ireland got to its prosperity, but everybody in Ireland knows that there are some very clever people in the Government and in the Revenue who created a financial architecture that prospered the entire nation – it was a way of attracting people to this country who wouldn’t normally do business here. And the financial services brought billions of dollars every year directly to the Exchequer.
“What’s actually hypocritical is the idea that then you couldn’t use a financial services centre in Holland. The real question people need to ask about Ireland’s tax policy is: ‘Was the nation a net gain benefactor?’ and of course it was – hugely so. So there was no hypocrisy for me – we’re just part of a system that has benefited the nation greatly and that’s a system that will be closed down in time. Ireland will have to find other ways of being competitive and attractive.”
In a 2007 report entitled Death and Taxes: The True Toll of Tax Dodging, the development agency Christian Aid examined the impact of tax avoidance on the developing world and mentioned Bono as one of the people responsible. When a group such as Christian Aid (with whom Bono would have some common cause) criticise the move, that must hurt?
“It hurts when the criticism comes in internationally,” says Bono. “But I can’t speak up without betraying my relationship with the band – so you take the shit. People who don’t know our music – it’s very easy for them to take a position on us – they run with the stereotypes and caricature of us. People who know the music know that the music reveals the people, not the edifice around it. That’s why we’ve decided to draw a ring around our audience and ourselves. Outside that there’s no point trying to explain ourselves. Without the musical part it’s all irrelevant.”
ON DIGITAL MUSIC: “THE CD IS DYING. WHAT’S REPLACED IS IT THE DOWNLOAD AND THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME”
U2 are releasing this album on five different physical formats. There will be a standard CD edition, a vinyl edition, a “digi-pack”, “magazine” and box set, each one with different “extra content”. Not all the added content will be available online, and in this way they aim to push people back in the direction of the much-battered record shop.
“The experience of buying an album used to be part of the pleasure of the listening experience,” says Bono. “When I lived in Ballymun, I used to have to take two buses to school. One into town and another one out to Mount Temple in Clontarf. The first bus would leave me off on Marlborough Street and I remember the Golden Discs shop there and then going over to Pat Egan’s Sound Cellar.
“The CD is dying and what’s replaced it is the pure download and that’s not good enough for me. We’re hoping to change that.
“When people get hooked up digitally, we want to have a whole new bunch of material that you can play on your TV as the album plays. We have it a bit on this album with an Anton Corbjin film that plays on your screen as a visual accompaniment to the music. I got that idea when I was playing my iPod through my TV one day. The screen was blank and I thought there must be a way of filling it with content that relates to the music.”
The interview has lasted longer than expected, and some salad and salmon magically appear.
The pair know they’ll be praised, pilloried and parsed in unequal measures over the coming weeks. “The thing about U2 that nobody seems to get,” says Bono, “is that the very things people think about us, which is the megalomania and the immodesty, they’re so far from the truth. People don’t see that. We had will.i.am doing some work on the new album and he was shocked by the absence of ego. He said: ‘Your fans have bigger egos than you do.’
“Yes, the guy out front, the performer, has the ego. But people don’t see the other guy – it’s like a Wizard of Oz thing. And I know why people don’t see that. I know it’s because of my mouth.”
Bono on ...
HIS FAVOURITE U2 SONG
THE BEST EVER U2 TOUR
Pop is our finest hour. It’s better than Zoo TV aesthetically, and as an art project it is a clearer thought.
“There were huge tactical errors made by the music industry. I wasn’t going to get involved in the argument because I’m on enough soap boxes as it is. It was for younger bands to take on the fight but they were fooled into thinking it wasn’t hip, as they marched like lemmings off the cliff.
“What they did with the release of In Rainbows was a really noble gesture. It was a new way of building a relationship between a band and their audience.”
Edge on ...
“It’s like someone let off a stink bomb at a party. People didn’t want to deal with it while the party was going full swing, but now the music has stopped.”
“We’ve lost a fortune, but it’s all on paper ... We still have our jobs.”
“As for the U2 Tower and the Clarence refurbishment, we’ve had to look at all these things with a different eye, a much colder eye.”
“Brian Eno is our version of going to art school. From Unforgettable Fire onwards we have been using the studio as an instrument in itself and a lot of that comes from working with him.”
THE NEW ALBUM
“I wanted to stop people in the street and ask them what they thought of the new songs, because you’ve just no idea. What I do know is that you make your worst albums when you are over-confident.”
- No Line on the Horizonis released today