Bono & The Edge: As Musicians, We Are Over-Rewarded and Over-Regarded
The legendary bandmates from U2 discuss existential questions, their India debut, and the future of music in the digital age
“Our creative ambition right now is to write the best song ever,” says Bono when I ask him what kind of goals an overachieving band like U2 might have today. Turns out, even after a glorious career of 43 years, there’s still a lot left to prove. “You will write a song and you’re trying to maintain a standard of creative poignancy, and that’s not an easy thing,” adds The Edge.
We are in Studio A at the legendary Electric Lady Studios in New York, and the musicians, sitting across from me in a vintage leather couch, are at home. The studio, which was built by Jimi Hendrix in 1970, is a familiar place for U2 — they’ve recorded and mixed their songs here in the past, and even famously performed on the rooftop in 2013.
Electric Lady’s cult significance in music history, not to mention its Sixties-style kaleidoscopic walls, serves as a great backdrop for our own vibrant, free-wheeling conversation. U2 are making their maiden visit to India this December to play the final date of their iconic Joshua Tree tour in Mumbai. It’s a big moment for the famous Irish rock band and their fans in India. When I ask them what took them so long, Bono jokes he wasn’t sure if there was a “large enough audience in India.” He says, “People kept saying, ‘No, no, you definitely have people all over the country respond to your music.’ But at this point, even if those people aren’t telling us the truth, we’re coming! It will be such a thrill!”
The U2 Joshua Tree tour is brought to India by BookMyShow and produced by the band’s long-time concert allies Livenation. The general tickets go on sale on October 1st and pre-sales start on September 24th.
In this exclusive interview, we pick Bono and The Edge’s brains on the changing face of the global music ecosystem and U2’s own successes and fears.
First off, how does it feel to be a band that has such an incredible effect on people around the world – the kind that I am probably feeling right now?
The Edge: Well, you know, it’s not something you think about too much!
Bono: What is it like being The Edge, Edge? (laughs). Come on, seriously you wake up, Edge!
The Edge: I try not to think about it. When we are doing the shows, it’s a great feeling. When you’re there, you yourself are lost in your songs and then you see everyone in the audience lost in that same song. You realize that everyone is there because of the music. Really, we feel such a sense of privilege of being the people that have, kind of, helped those songs come to life. But actually, we know we don’t own them anymore. They now belong to our fans. For us it’s a great thrill — to get on stage and perform those songs and see the reaction of the crowd. But we ourselves are kind of fans and somewhat bemused at times by where these songs came from. Where they come from is so mysterious to us.
“Every time you make an album, when you write a song, you’re trying to maintain a standard of creative potency for the work, and that’s not an easy thing to maintain.” – The Edge
Bono: Are you saying, The Edge — excuse me, I am doing Nirmika’s job — that The Edge is the least interesting part about being The Edge?
The Edge: Something like that.
Bono: I’m definitely saying that about myself and it’s a dirty little secret which is the roar of a crowd, those screams, those shouts, those wails are not actually for us, they are for people’s attachment to the songs. And you take a bow, you say thank you very much, but actually, what’s going on is much more private. People have had dated, they have had intimacies with your songs, they have got married to your songs, broken up to your songs, have lost their loved ones and those are the real things people are attached to… It’s just a funny thing, people don’t own up to that but it’s sort of true. The music is much more interesting than the musician.
In the past, there have been a lot of rumors of you coming to India. What took you so long to finally make it happen?
Bono: We love going to new places, and India’s been on our bucket list. But these tours get booked and it’s a complex series of decisions based on lots of logistics and financing. This is the first time there has been a serious and concerted, definite plans to come to India. Before this it was just an enquiry. But this time, it’s happening. Whatever the rumors were before, this is now going to happen.
The Edge: In the past, there have been so many logistical issues that have prevented it, but we were just so determined on this occasion to figure it out. So with the help of Livenation and Arthur [Fogel, founder], there was a bit of a campaign to make it happen.
Bono: All the people – they’ve been really helpful – Ashish [Hemrajani, CEO and founder, BookMyShow] and BookMyShow, all these people. We feel that a lot of people made this [happen]. Just so you understand, our shows have been quite technical over the years. In order to break down the distance between the band and the audience, we have developed technologies and transporting those technologies can end up in putting up the ticket price and we were very conscious of putting up the ticket price in India.
“The music is much more interesting than the musician.” – Bono
At this point in your career where you have scaled every possible height and earned every possible accolade, what remain your biggest creative goals?
The Edge: Every time you make an album, when you write a song, you’re trying to maintain a standard of creative potency for the work, and that’s not an easy thing to maintain. So it’s an ever-present constant plumb line that we established for ourselves, first and foremost. It’s not an external criticism, it’s our internal criticism and I think music and culture are continually moving forward, so for us as a band it’s always been a focus of ours — trying to remain somehow connected with that conversation and the culture. So those two things: our own standards and somehow connecting with what’s happening — that’s a lot. We still have ambition to do other things but that I think is the core focus, certainly for me, creatively.
Bono: It’s interesting for novelists or poets or filmmakers, being over 40 is never a problem. But for musicians, it seems more difficult. We listen to one of the greatest artists in the world, Prince for example. I’m trying to remember a lot of songs in the last 20 years of his life and can’t remember as many. You’re look at the biggest Prince fan that there is. But some artists have disproven this — artists like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, you know…
The Edge: Leonard Cohen
Bono: Leonard Cohen, my goodness! And David Bowie came back around, he meandered there off for a moment, but we all do. I should know that (laughs). So I think the creative ambition, to answer your question, is to write the best song ever. With “Every Breaking Wave” on Songs Of Innocence, we hit our top five songs. And “Ordinary Love” – I am trying to think of from the last album — and “Love is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” certainly have the reaction of “Pride (In The Name of Love)” years and years later.
“The top 10 memories people will have in their life often include a concert.” – Bono
Bono, here’s an existential question. You’ve spoken in the past about how you feel the compulsive desire to write songs. Tell me more about it – why do you feel the need to create?
Bono: I think that’s true, I’ve been writing about that recently, that there is people who sing for living and there’s people who live to sing, and you know, you’re holding on tightly to this thing which steadies your ship and allows you to impersonate a normal person. Well, there’s no such thing as a normal person. But artists are generally lacking something. There’s a void in the artist’s life that the artist is trying to fill and that’s where the music comes from. So yeah, that’s a very existential answer to your question. Is that okay?
Oh yes, and speaking of the artist filling a need gap, you have also in the past addressed how you want to be useful as an artist, which is an interesting thing because most artists care more about creating art than being useful. They might also have a sense of entitlement that their art must also be celebrated…
Bono: Having a feeling, it must be important, kind of thing?
Bono: Yeah, we have to be careful of that.
Not a lot is spoken about the usefulness of art.
The Edge: That’s purpose, isn’t it? What is the purpose of the work? A purpose could be straight-forward, you know, to earn a living for your family — there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think for us, from the very early phase as a band we looked beyond that straight-forward thing of having a career, having fans and putting food on the table to something a bit more ambitious.
And I think it was partly due to the acts we were listening to… Bands like The Clash that came out of that [political] movement, they were trying to rail against the far right movement that was happening in England at that time and which was at rise of the national front which was a fascist movement in the Britain’s youth… So for us, I suppose there were those influences and some of our own spiritual beliefs and I don’t know something about the Irish experience — we just wanted to push our music further and we wanted it to mean something.
Bono: I heard Sinead O’Connor singing an Irish hymn, a prayer, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” (sighs) and it just literally brought me to my knees. First of all, she’s one of the greatest singers there ever was but that is our prayer — to be useful. You know, think about peace and love, which came in the Sixties and rock & roll music and Western, were heavily influenced by the Indian. It got a little conceptual, and turns out that love and peace are not lofty thoughts. They are things you have to go back to in your daily toil, your daily discipline, your daily practice — the way you honor someone, the way your treat your partner, the way you treat your next-door neighbour, the way you treat people who you disagree with is probably the most defining principle, not having the people we do agree with.
You know, bands today, in the digital age, will probably never have the kind of journey you guys had – of developing your sound over time. Today, artists have shorter development spans and are required to be their best versions overnight otherwise they’re out of the race. And because of that there is also a problem of discoverability. Would U2…
Bono: Would we even be discovered in these times?
The Edge: That’s an interesting question.
Bono: Could we have existed in this age?
The Edge: We really became U2 not so much through our records but through our concerts and shows. And I think that’s where to look these days. For the artists that have real longevity and mean something — Chance the Rapper, who I love, you know he doesn’t have a record deal. He started out playing shows and built his reputation and his following from that. I think that’s a much better form as you say music in a lot of people’s life is a commodity. It’s like tap water. You want some, you turn the tap and there it is, and when you turn it off, you don’t listen. This convenience factor has, I think, been great at a certain level.
But also, on another level, it has made the relationship with the artist less deep, and it’s more about convenience and it’s a bit more trivial. But if you spend the time to go to a show, to see the band play live, that’s a commitment. And you’re there for two hours of their show, and that connection gives the artist and the audience the opportunity to build some kind of real understanding and depth. So I think, probably that’s the future of developing new young artists, it’s in the live context.
Bono: Live is where we live. That’s where U2 exists — in that medium more than any.
The Edge: It’s funny how you find out about your songs when you’re playing them in front of a live audience. The song that you like in a room like this, you’re hearing the music in a perfect situation and sometimes you can feel really great about a piece of music and then you take it from this room and you put it on to a stage in front of a live audience, then you find out what you really have. Sometimes it’s humbling and sometimes you get a really good surprise — you understand how a song has a resonance for the audience that you didn’t first understand or imagine.
“Hierarchical societies are not going to win in the 21st century. And though India may have started out that way, one of the most miraculous shifts is into this kind of anarchic entrepreneurial culture.” – Bono
Are you ever fearful about the fact that some of the songs you will write will never be heard, that they will be lost in the clutter of the Internet?
The Edge: I won’t say it’s a fear but it’s certainly an anxiety that it’s just that much more difficult to capture people’s attention. And I know, we were talking about our good friend, Bruce Springsteen, and he’s got a song…
Bono: “There Goes My Miracle”
The Edge: It’s a great song!
Bono: It’s in the Top 10…
The Edge: But it certainly will be that much more difficult thing for him to get that across [to fans] than songs from his earlier albums where the pipeline or the channels for people to hear new albums and new songs were much more clearly defined and artists like Bruce had a gravitas that his music would find its audience. Now it’s more difficult.
While you say that live is where you live, for a lot of bands today also have a chance to break out without having played a single live show.
Bono: They come out their bedroom, they’re just on their computer…
Yeah, and they will still find audiences…
Bono: Good for them! I mean some of them are incredible. When you think about Billie Eilish and what she’s done with her brother Finneas [O’Connel] and they are just working at home and next thing you know, it’s world class. But she’s cleverly, ouch, trying to figure out live… She knows what she’s doing.
Because you’re right, you can’t just be a creature of recording and I think to be real like Chance The Rapper or Billie, you have to get out there. You see if people really have the thing, whatever the thing is, and that’s where we find out live. You can’t hide… And the other thing is the top 10 memories people will have in their life often include a concert. Because I think there’s something about a communal experience, above a movie. Movies don’t turn up in people’s top 10 memories. I don’t know why. Because I think it’s the way the brain receives it. This is going to be our last show in Mumbai. We have no plans to do any more shows after that. So you know, it’s going to be a big moment.
Do you see this new relationship with India inspiring your work?
The Edge: Well, I’m fascinated by the idea that India is this combination of the very ancient and the super modern. That it being the largest democracy, dealing with so many issues that other democracies have to. Also, but India is times x 100 (sic). So I’m interested to see how it functions, and the struggles and challenges that exist there. And just learn. I think that’s something I am most excited about — learning about this amazing subcontinent. Subcontinent – it’s not even a country, it’s a subcontinent!
Bono: Me too – ancient and modern, I like that. Hierarchical societies are not going to win in the 21st century. And though India may have started out that way, one of the most miraculous shifts is into this kind of anarchic entrepreneurial culture — to solve software problems, you have to think differently. It takes a certain spunkiness, and I think that’s why Irish people are good at cracking problems of code and software – we have that. Societies that are very stratified, you can name them, it’s harder for them to enter the 21st century. In societies where you have to know your place… You know, England is famously stratified, France.
But you just get this sense that in India it’s just a cauldron of ideas. Now, getting people equal access to follow those ideas through is a monumental task. And I understand you are all frustrated about that. But you have made incredible progress. I’m just beginning the journey to try and get to know you, to get to know this place, this ancient and modern place.
Are there any Indian artists that you have been checking out lately?
The Edge: I am so looking forward to doing a deep dive, because to be honest, it’s not something I am well-versed in. So for me, part of the thrill of going will be to do that.
Bono: AR Rahman, everyone knows. And that’s on a whole other level. But there’s interesting things going on in hip-hop, there’s interesting female artists that are very inspiring. I think the first time I travelled to India was Midnight’s Children (laughs).
“I think that the questions that we’re asking in Joshua Tree are still important.” – The Edge
The Joshua Tree tour is special for many reasons and the songs continue to be relevant even today…
The Edge: The show was really born out of the sense that the songs had developed a new poignancy. And the world politics had come full circle almost, and so those songs had any relevance. I think that the questions that we’re asking in that album are still important questions to answer now and the principles that our band always believed in are somewhat under threat, you know — human rights, justice issues, and so we think it’s an important album, certainly for us and for our fans.
Bono: It was mostly dedicated to the landscape of America and somewhat eroticized the landscape of America. Not just that, a sort of mythological America — because it is not just a country, it’s an idea, particularly for Irish people, that idea was a lifeline and so we have this relationship with America. What goes on in America, we feel we have a stake in, and so we were both fans and critics, and we seem to get away with it in America because we are Irish.
And yeah, India is the largest democracy on Earth. It’s a stupendous achievement, it’s awe-inspiring. And I think you have a functional democracy. Even if you might disagree with the electorate, no one feels that it is not the wishes of the electorate in a world of dysfunctional democracy, and that’s all over the world. Democracy is shrinking all over the world but in India, no. It’s really important to us that you thrive, that you keep moving forward as you are, you know a place to not just tour but a place to visit, to invest in and a place to hold in high esteem. But be very careful because democracy is not something we should ever take for granted. In the history of civilization, it’s a blip and it’s not a given. So treat it carefully.
You have seen all levels of fame. What would you like to tell today’s artists about fame – especially those artists who become popular overnight and gain millions of followers?
The Edge: I can’t really speak to them directly but what I would say about my own experience was the importance of when it comes to your old friends, your family, is to leave all that at the door. It’s a terrible tendency for people who struggle to become well-known that it actually starts to change them, and we grew up in Ireland and Ireland is a very small community, so fame doesn’t really operate in Ireland as such. You can only be so famous in Ireland, because everyone knows everyone else. So it kind of helped us keep our feet on the ground. But in the end, it’s like — can you keep all your original friends? You and your family turn out to be crucial anchors, you know. Those relationships are so important to prevent you from changing and becoming somebody you might regret becoming later on.
Bono: My only advice to my son, who has set out on a path to make music, is: don’t listen to your dad. And he’s taking that advice! (laughs) He is mildly asthmatic and he’s called his band ‘Inhaler.’ Need I say more (laughs)!
I think the only thing, on a serious level, is to understand that fame is currency and how you spend it will define you. You could spend it on yourself, you could spend it on others. Just be aware it’s currency and I think there’s an obscenity – oops, big word! [There’s] something about fame that is somewhat noxious.
And I think what it is that it sort of upends God’s order of things, which is, you know, nurses or I don’t know, emergency services or mothers – these people are heroes, real heroes. Actors, musicians – you know, we are over-rewarded and we’re over-regarded and we do what we love when nobody else gets to do what they love. That doesn’t qualify us as heroes. I just feel fame and celebrity culture can make you interesting because you are good-looking. You know, these things are just inherited wealth. Talent even – that’s just inherited wealth. It has nothing to do with you — it came through your DNA. It should make you very humble. But it hasn’t in my case (laughs).
You mentioned about AR Rahman, and how you’ve been checking his music out. And when a lot of global artists come to India, a lot of collaborations do materialize…
Bono: Oh, I would love to collaborate with him!