The Joshua Tree National Park would make a grand place for a wild party. A good location, it has plenty of wide-open space and is far away from anyone who would complain about the noise of a few hundred sound-systems blasting out any variety or amount of dance music. But when U2 posed for Anton Corbijn's cameras under the Joshua Tree back in 1987, they hadn't come to party. No siree, U2 had come to pout. The thought of these four individuals on the cover of The Joshua Tree, sporting standard-issue rock-star clobber and expressions, one day embracing the groove would have been amusing, unlikely.
Fast-forward 12 years and much has changed. The dance bugs which seemed mildly contagious in the late 1980s have become full-blown phenomena, changing everything from the way you dance to the way you dress. And U2? Yes, they've changed too.
Sitting in the study of the Clarence Hotel, Bono and The Edge are about to launch their second label, with manager Reggie Manuel. Unlike Mother, the label set up to release singles in the 1980s by the likes of Cactus World News, The Subterraneans, Roger Doyle's Operating Theatre and The Word, Kitchen Recordings is a dance label. The first release is from prolific Dublin producer Rob Rowland, an artist who specialises in spatial, minimal techno which is more Detroit than Detroit itself. The second release will be from Belfast duo Basic, an act who stretch the break-beat blueprint in new and fascinating ways.
U2 and dance music? It's a good story which begins when they snogged the groove with the help of Paul Oakenfold and discovered a new lease of life. From that eye-opening remix of Even Better Than The Real Thing, they have toured with DJs, recruited Howie B, opened The Kitchen club in Dublin and now launched a new label.
Kitchen Recordings will be run by Reggie Manuel, long-time pal and the person who persuaded the duo to take on the Rowland release. "It's Reggie's show," Bono explains. "We are the bouncers but he has to open and close the doors and get the show on road. We've known him for years and years. He has no experience really of how to deal with the music business but he brought us Rob Rowland and he knows his turf. Some people will be very confused by it all!"
Of course, some people will ask whether it's merely some ploy for credibility. "What would you do if you were in a big band with loads of money?" asks Edge. "You have to stay alive, you have to stay tuned in to what's happening and this is the perfect way for us to do that. It's our way of keeping on top of everything that is happening. It's not just going off buying loads of 12-inches but having our own label to release stuff which catches our attention."
U2 and the groove first clicked in 1982 when they worked with legendary New York house DJ and producer, Francois Kervokian. "We did three re-mixes with him around the time of Sunday Bloody Sunday," Edge recalls. "I hung out with him in New York and he turned me on to some fantastic stuff. We were lucky because we were signed to Island Records and they were very interested in sub-culture stuff so they introduced us to this scene and these people like Francois."
So you weren't checking out the discotheques and clubs in the Dublin of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Bono smiles: "In the 1970s, club culture was the enemy. It was girls' music and we were boys. I did buy Love Machine. Was it by The Stylistics? There was an instrumental on the B-side which had a serious groove. I bought that record but I don't think I told anyone because it was just at the time punk rock was breaking and punk rock was about as male, white, hormonal music as you could find. "It's funny - as you get older, the music you loved as a boy now just sounds so wrong and especially so long! And the music that was supposed to be so trivial and throwaway has lasted the test of time. Pop music and dance music from then sound so cool now, whereas progressive rock and the like, well . . ." He laughs. "Rock and roll critics used to shit all over the Bee Gees. Fair enough, the hair-dos were appalling but to think they were dismissed in favour of" - his voice rises - "prog rock!"
U2 discovered rhythm in the strangest of places. "We didn't get rhythm until we went on the road with B.B. King," Bono remembers. "R'n'B was where we discovered rhythm and that wasn't until the late 1980s. While everyone was doing drugs in the summer of love in London, we were in Memphis hanging out with the Muscle Shoals brass section, getting into rhythm that way."
It came as a surprise to Bono that they had a connection with the then-burgeoning rave scene. "I remember Paul Oakenfold saying to me: `Do you know what people are playing at the end of these huge raves in the middle of nowhere outside the cities? They're playing With Or Without You. And they were! But that was our connection with that scene because our music was ecstatic. In the 1980s, U2 made ecstatic music. Whether you want to call it a religious thing or not, the music was big and universal and it was open in such a way that people who were off their nuts and who were not in raincoats any more and getting into all these drugs were completely thrown by it."
Did you ever get the urge to swap it all for a life as a DJ? Ever fancied becoming DJ Edge, Edge? "I stood next to David Morales for his whole set in a club in Toyko one night. Seeing the relationship between a DJ and his audience up close for the first time and the whole vibe to what he was doing - it was the only time I felt I'd love to do this."
So what has dance music done for U2? "It made us jealous," Edge says, quietly. "It's wonderful to be in a rock 'n' roll band but it is limiting in so many ways. There are so many more possibilities with dance music as a form."
Bono, though, has other thoughts. "We have something that dance music will never have because what we do is not off the shelf. That's one of the things we realised when we were making Pop. We could be like archaeologists digging for some really rare sticky groove but why should we do that when we have Larry Mullen? Larry can do beats like no one else. And we have a bass player called Adam Clayton who is the only bass player you would miss if he wasn't there. What I learned from dance music is the value of what we do. At first, there was jealousy but then we realised what we had ourselves. We're a rock 'n' roll band at the end of the day."
You seem very certain about that. "Yeah, because at the end of the day, what we're about is a much different thing than club culture. Sure, we're going to work with beats and we're going to work with beat-masters like Howie B and sure we have a club with a beautiful sewer running through in the bottom of this posh hotel! But you're not going to walk in there and hear a lyric!" He laughs. "That's not going to happen and I don't want it to.
`Up to recently, I thought one of the most exciting things was going to be when rock 'n' roll hit club culture. Right at that point, that was where it was going to be for the future. Now, I'm not so sure. Now, I'm actually enjoying the difference. Speeding up and slowing down is quite cool, we're digging the friction."
Bono sees other lessons besides musical ones to be learned from the dance world. "Club culture is much more democratic than rock 'n' roll ever was," he enthuses. "It is much more about a community. Rappers have a network and they want to big up everyone in that network. So you have Snoop Dogg or whoever and he's bringing the next Snoop Dogg into the system and into the chain . . .
"That's what we have to do, we've got to co-operate. We've been tagged as white niggers so let's wear it well, let's be black in that sense. We've got to start to break each other as well as ourselves. It has to be a community in all senses of the word. It's against our nature but it might just happen and that's where dance music comes in. Like Donal Scannell has his Quadraphonic drum 'n' bass label and he's been on to Reggie saying whatever help he can need, he'll give it. And Nick at Pussyfoot has said he'll do whatever he can. That's a start."
So what shades of dance music are you listening to and liking at present?
Edge: "I like techno, I'm not big into drum 'n' bass, I like hip-hop. I like the fact that the Fugees clan are coming out with some unbelievable stuff." Bono: "Lauryn Hill is just amazing, that album, man, is just one of the defining records of the last few years. Really, she's head and shoulders above the pack. Autchere, I dig them. Squarepusher, those beats are mad. I'll also go for Dave Angel and for Surgeon."
And what clubs have turned the pair of you on? "Toyko!" Bono exclaims with some enthusiasm. "In Toyko, I learned about one really important innovation - girls' music. Girls always play the best party music, always. They know what to put on, they're intuitive, they know what's going on in the room, they know where people need to go and they have no rules about particular tracks or styles. They play what works and they play what inspires.
"There was this club in Toyko and the people were just joyful because the music was so up, so melodic, so right. You were just lifted by these beautiful melodies, these amazing soulful strings, soulful singing, hard-on grooves. Yeah, it was a sexual experience. All this mixing and matching, it was post-modernism running amok. That was something else."
"In New York on Puerto Rican day," Edge recalls, "there was this club and I had never been in a club like it. Everybody was dressed in the most incredible, exotic clothing but what was really cool was that people were dancing sexily to Puerto Rican beats. The whole place was just charged. I was thinking could I ever imagine this on St Patrick's Day in a Dublin club? The vibe was just something else."
This sets Bono off. "The thing with clubs like that one Edge is talking about is that you'll find three generations there. It's people hanging out, from the mamas to the kids. Funnily enough, I used to see that with the Pogues. What I loved about Shane McGowan was that he brought three generations together. You'd have some old geezer holding on to these young kids who were at their first gig in some GAA hall or other."
For now, they will be trying their hand at overseeing a cutting-edge dance label, while continuing the search for the sounds and sources for the follow-up to Pop.