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U2: Trying To Throw Their Arms Around The World

They’re the biggest band left on Earth, but for U2, that’s not nearly enough. Inside their impossible quest

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Brian Hiatt Nov 14, 2014
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U2 | Photo Credit: Mark Seliger

U2 | Photo Credit: Mark Seliger

 

He rattles a basement rehearsal space with three monster chords from a vintage Epiph­one Casino guitar, dunked in distortion so ferocious that his black baseball cap seems in danger of flying off. Bono is right beside him, listening hard, squinting at the fret­work through pale-blue aviator shades. The singer is wearing a hat of his own, a jaunty, black-banded Panama-style number that makes it look like he’s in disguise, on vaca­tion, or both.

No matter how huge a noise they make, U2 are, for once, playing in a lit­tle room. They’ve hauled an unreasonable amount of equipment and a half-dozen-plus crew members into a purple-carpeted, wood-walled studio at a TV station on the French Riviera, where Bono is lead­ing them through rehearsals for radio and talk-show performances.

On this October evening, Larry Mullen Jr. is at his drum kit, in head-to-toe black, run­ning through a clickety-clacking song intro with uninterrupted intensity. Adam Clay­ton, in a sparkly purple shirt, bass guitar hanging at his waist, is flicking at his iPhone. He’s probably checking his e-mail rather than, say, looking for his free U2 album (or trying to delete it).

They’re working up a live arrangement of their current single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).” The Edge’s jagged “big sound” isn’t quite working, even though it’s exactly what he used on the version from their new album, Songs of Innocence. “Songs are never finished,” Bono says. Like almost all of their music, “Miracle” crawled out from a relent­less process of forced, hot-house evolution ”“ in this case, over four years, with three different producers. It started as a drum-loop-and-acoustic-guitar-based tune called “Drummer Boy,” from 2010 sessions with the producer Danger Mouse. Then it turned into a rock-ier larval-stage thing called “Siren” (one line compared the Ramones’ music to a siren song) with heavy input from One- Republic frontman Ryan Tedder and Adele producer Paul Epworth, before develop­ing its definitive melody and lyric over two months of sessions with Epworth. But even now, it hasn’t quite settled into a final shape.

“You’ve got a digital-sounding distor­tion,” Bono tells the Edge. “It’s not a sound that can lift. In the pre-cho­rus, is there a mezzanine level? You got a little brown sauce, so we need it more funky, more like ”˜Mysterious Ways.’ Try it with the ”˜Myste­rious’ sound; see if it works.” The Edge, stoic Spock to Bo­no’s voluble Kirk, duly dials up that Achtung Baby track’s wah-wah soup.

“A ll right, once more,” Bono says, and “Miracle” shape-shifts once again, into something slinkier and more brash than the album version: Mullen overdeliv­ers on Bono’s request for “more cymbals, more dy­n a mic s ”; Clayton nails what Bono describes as “a bass part so great you could build a house on it,” with an occasional glance at a chord chart; Bono emotes at full concert volume into a hand-held mic, shaking his hips a bit, sounding implausibly youthful. “That was some numskull fuckin’ business,” says Bono. “Really good!”

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As the Edge fiddles with his gear, Bono wanders over to offer some director’s com­mentary. “We just need another color,” he says. “Because we’re using a swing beat. Making this album, we went back and lis­tened to all the music that had brought us into ourselves, then we said, Now let’s misremember it. The Ramones never used a swing beat in their lives ”“ but the New York Dolls, they were glam: They did. People say, ”˜That song doesn’t sound like the Ramones!’ But that would not be a compli­ment, to pastiche them ”“ we’re trying to do something more interesting.”

The Edge will stay here on his own for hours tonight, working out a new secondary sound and modified guitar part for the song, in hopes of “not going numskull all the way through.” “The ”˜Mysterious Ways’ thing was the wrong idea,” he’ll say over breakfast the next morning, “but it led to the right idea.”

U2 aren’t touring until next year, but the concerts somehow seem to exist, fully formed, in the mind of Bono. The band tries one of the new album’s most exciting tracks, “Volcano,” which kicks off with a bass hook composed by the Edge. (“He’s one of these guys that stays up all night thinking about ways of making you look good,” says Clayton.) Right before they reach the breakdown ”“ a shout of “You were alone/Now you’re not alone” evoking the moment 16-year-old Paul Hew-son found his band ”“ Bono dashes over and yells in my ear: “That’s the key moment of the show,” he says. It’s a crowd-pleasing climax that begs for dramatic arena treatment: flashing lights, a mass singalong. “But it’s going to be hard on TV.” To make up for the lack of staging, they rework the moment, turning it into a stop-start duel b e t we en B ono’s voic e , Edge’s power chords and some impressively reckless thrashing from Mullen.

 

Clayton, Mullen, Bono and Edge (from left) in 1983 | Photo Credit: Trinity Mirror/MirrorPix/Alamy

Clayton, Mullen, Bono and Edge (from left) in 1983 | Photo Credit: Trinity Mirror/MirrorPix/Alamy

In a break room, Bono discusses the weekend he spent with his fam­ily at home in Dublin, where he watched one of his young son’s rugby games, played some gui­tar with the other, hosted a family viewing of Edge of Tomorrow (“Stupid name, but not a stupid idea ”“ Emily Blunt was brilliant in it, and Tom Cruise is a very fine actor, you forget. He did all the Tom Cruise things; he did all the running”), listened to a bunch of old Pixies albums (“It still sounds like fresh paint 20 years later”), and celebrated his friend Gavin Friday’s 55th birthday (“I gave him a Mick Rock picture of David Bowie, Igg y Pop and Lou Reed ”“ he kind of choked up”).

Bono circa the early 1970s with mother Iris, who died when he was 14, and father Bob | Photo courtesy of the Hewson family

Bono circa the early 1970s with mother Iris, who died when he was 14, and father Bob | Photo courtesy of the Hewson family

He’s excited about playing the new songs for audiences, less so about prac­ticing them. “Rehearsing is boring,” Bono says, biting into an apple. “I’m bored with the sound of my own voice. And that shouldn’t be! Something must be gravely wrong with a singer who feels like that.”

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He just landed on the Riviera, and on the way to the studio, he happened to catch “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” on the Parisian pop-radio station NRJ. Four decades into his career, it’s an experience he still relishes. “It’s the greatest feeling you could experience in your life,” he says. “It sounded so great! Then the signal start­ed going. We entered a tunnel. It was like, ”˜Move the tunnel!’ ”

“We were ready to drive straight into the ocean to keep hearing it,” adds his per­sonal assistant, a cheerful young woman named Eabha.

“NRJ is like Radio 1,” says Bono, refer­ring to the BBC’s pop station. “Everything is at a hyperventilating kind of pace: ”˜We’re having zee most exciting time in zee world!’ I just love them, because they’ll risk for­mat juxtapositions. This is the dream, to be where you’re not expected. It’s just the big­gest thrill ever. Once you’re in your ghetto, once you’re in your niche ”“ a niche sounds like some sort of place in a country where you retire and grow vegetables. We don’t want to be in a niche!”

Two weeks earlier, bono is sitting in the back seat of his Maserati sedan, headed to a favor­ite Dublin pub for a pint or three of Guinness. He’s wearing a hesher’s dream of a custom-made jacket, half-denim and half-leather, and what looks like a military-grade platinum version of his shades. He’s hatless, revealing an almost Morrissey-like quiff ”“ after dyeing his hair black for years, he’s re­turned it to a reddish brown.

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