Bono: Larry [Mullen] is going to kill me for doing this. But I want this on the record. Are you going to turn this thing on? Your vision of what rock is, and mine, is 180 degrees apart. Some of what is going around as a result of your article is not just unhelpful to our group and our relationship to our audience, but just really problematic for what in the broad sense you might call rock music. The things you think are wrong with it, and the things that I think are wrong with rock music, are polar opposite. And that's why I need to talk to you.
Kot: I understand. Let me tell you how the article came about. I should say that you're an important band for my generation. A band that led by example: This is how to do it, how to be a successful band without compromising your principles. But when the ticket sale went wrong this year, I got hundreds of e-mails from fans who felt you'd let them down, that their loyalty was betrayed.
Bono: Everybody in this band knows about that debacle, and regrets it. I think most fans understand what happened. Our eyes were not on that ball the way they normally would be. Our eyes were on trying to determine whether we would be going on tour at all. Whether we would be pulling out, even with tickets on sale. There are things that we can't discuss in the interview that were going on within the band that just took precedence. Most U2 fans knew what that was [serious health problems in the family of a band member]. I thought it was really disingenuous of them and you not to recognize that this is not normal behavior from this band. Complain, yeah. Something did go wrong. That was a mistake, and we tried to put it right.
Kot: That's what started it. The first I heard about the internal problems in the band was when Larry apologized about it at the Grammys. I tried for three weeks to get information from the band, to interview you. Yes, this was not normal behavior from U2. Instead, you steer me to the record company president and the tour promoter. You let these business guys answer for you.
Bono: I'm really sorry about that. It's our fault that didn't happen.
Kot: The ticket sale to me was just the tip of a larger issue, which is: Is the band losing sight of what it once was? The I-Pod ad, the Super Bowl halftime appearance, the Grammy Awards appearances I didn't think U2 was about that sort of promotion.
Bono: That's not accurate. We did all the things that we would have done in promoting our first, or second or third albums. That's really an important point that I want to get across to you. There's this poverty of ambition, in terms of what rock people will do to promote their work. That's a critical issue to me. The excitement of punk rock, in the Irish and UK scene when we were coming up, was seeing our favorite band on "Top of the Pops," right next to the "enemy." That would be exciting. We did talk shows, TV shows, back then. It was proof that you believed enough in what you did that you would go out and do this stuff. It was the same with the Beatles. The great moments of rock 'n' roll were never off in some corner of the music world, in a self-constructed ghetto. I don't like that kind of thinking. I know some of it exists, and some of our best friends are part of it. It's not for me.
Progressive rock was the enemy in 1976. And it still is. And it has many, many faces. This beast is lurking everywhere. It can describe itself as indie rock. It's the same [blanking] thing. It's misery. I have seen so many great minds struck down by it. When you suggest we're betraying ourselves by doing TV shows and promotional stuff, to me the Super Bowl was our Ed Sullivan moment. It just came 25 years later. I didn't expect it. But it is one of the moments I'm most proud of in my life. It was amazing. I mean, we had to build the stage in six minutes. Just wild. And then you're on air. As usual we made it difficult for ourselves by wanting the crowd next to us, a security nightmare. As we're walking through the crowd, people are popping me on the head. I have a wire microphone, and one more slap and I'm off air. A very telling moment. I was terrified, but if you look at my face what do you see? A singer smirking. [Spreads arms, imitates smirk]. Which is what I always do in such moments.
We want that stuff. That's when it's exciting. Even Nirvana. I used to love Kurt Cobain, when he was telling people we're a pop band. People would laugh, they thought of it as good old ironic Kurt. But he wasn't being ironic. He was a songwriter, he understands that when a guitar solo is playing the melody of the song, that's pop. That's what the Buzzcocks taught him, who learned it from the Beatles. That's what makes him a pop star, that's what makes it pop music. He wanted to be on MTV, he wanted to be stirring things up. He surprised us all with where he did come out from.
Kot: Why is the idea of associating a song with a product a good idea?
Bono: I accept that that is alarming. I really do. Our being on TV, I don't have a problem with that we should be on TV. But OK, associating our music with a product. You've got to deal with the devil. Let's have a look. The devil here is a bunch of creative minds, more creative than a lot of people in rock bands. The lead singer is Steve Jobs. These men have helped design the most beautiful object art in music culture since the electric guitar. That's the iPod. The job of art is to chase ugliness away. Everywhere we look we see ugly cars, ugly buildings [he pauses, and looks out the window at the Chicago skyline] You're lucky here in Chicago on that front. But you see ugly objects in the work place. Everywhere. And these people are making beautiful objects.
Selling out is doing something you don't really want to do for money. That's what selling out is. We asked to be in the ad. We could see where rock music is, fighting for relevance next to hip-hop. And I love hip-hop. It's the new black entrepreneur. It's about being out there, loud and proud about what you're doing. Selling it on the streetcorner if you have to. From penthouse to pavement. Advertising the new song in another song. Taking on the world. Meanwhile a bunch of white middle-class kids are practicing in daddy's garage saying [adopts fake Midwestern whine], "No, man, that is just so uncool." And, "Hey, Bert, get me a knife. I have to cut my ear off!" It's the bleeding ear brigade. They try to find some viruses, interesting neuroses, or bad habits, to make their round washed faces look grubby enough to be taken seriously by the indie press. Hip-hop looks at this, and says, "What is this [expletive]?" I got excited about hip hop production values, the extraordinary drama to their music. They're way ahead of anyone else in terms of working their way around the studio. Someone like Timbaland. They make pop music. As hard as it is, as ghetto as it is, hip-hop is pop music. It's the sound of music getting out of the ghetto, while rock is looking for a ghetto.
We never wanted to be a garage band. We wanted to get as quick as we could out of the garage. The people who say they like the garage usually have two or three cars parked outside. Rock music is niche. There was a survey that said 70 percent of youth culture listens to hip-hop. There are lessons to be learned from that. I don't like all the values that go with it sometimes. But I do think we need to take up the challenge. Wherever you go, you hear hip-hop. We want people who aren't in our niche listening to our music. If you pour your life into songs, you want them to be heard. It's a desire to communicate. A deep desire to communicate inspires songwriting. Rock music was most exciting when it was in the 45 [rpm single], when it was disciplined into a single. Whether it was the Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, Nirvana, the Beatles, the Stones. When the wind starts blowing in the hair, and it meanders off, you can get some great [stuff], but it doesn't interest me as much. The 45 is the pure rock to me. That is why I wanted to be in a band.
Kot: I understand that, but I've seen some of my favorite songs corrupted because of that attitude. [Iggy Pop's] "Lust for Life is now a Jamaican vacation commercial. I don't know if I want to listen to that song anymore.
Bono: Do you watch TV that much?
Kot: No, but that song has lost something for me because it's associated with a commercial. I see [the Who's Pete] Townshend doing that with his stuff now. Those songs are now associated with a product, not something in my imagination. "Vertigo" is an iPod commercial, not a single on an album.
Bono: You don't like MTV? Videos can do the same thing with your imagination.
Kot: Those are commercials too. Most rock videos aren't very interesting to me.
Bono: Don't watch them. Sometimes I've seen a great song ruined by a bad video. Rarely. It doesn't bother me. If I love the song, I love the song. We looked at the iPod commercial as a rock video. We chose the director. We thought how are we going to get our single off in the days when rock music is niche? When it's unlikely to get a three-minute punk-rock song on top of the radio? So we piggy-backed this phenomenon to get ourselves to a new younger audience, and we succeeded. And it's exciting. I'm proud of the commercial, I'm proud of the association. We have turned down enormous sums of money to put our songs in a commercial, where we felt, to your point, where it might change the way people appreciated the song. We were offered $23 million for just the music to "Where the Streets Have No Name."
Kot: I might have to consider that [laughs].
Bono: We almost did. We sat down. I know from my work in Africa what $23 million could buy. It was very hard to walk away from $23 million. So we thought, "We'll give the money away." But if we tell people we're giving the money away, it sounds pompous. So we'll just give it away, and take the hit. That's what we agreed. But if a show is a little off, and there's a hole, that's the one song we can guarantee that God will walk through the room as soon as we play it. So the idea that when we played it, people would go, "That's the 'such-and-such' commercial," we couldn't live with it. Had it been a cool thing, or didn't have a bad association, or it was a different song, we might've done it. But we have to start thinking about new ways of getting our songs across, of communicating in this new world, with so many channels, with rock music becoming a niche. I hear so many songwriters describe their songs as their children, that they have to look after them. [Nonsense!] They're your parents, they tell you what to do. They tell you how to dress, how to behave when you're playing them. They tell you what the video looks like. If you listen to them, they manage you. And if you get it right, they pay for your retirement [laughs]. Because songs demand to be heard. "Vertigo," which you didn't like, is deceptively simple. That riff, you can think, "Aw yeah, another rock song." It doesn't become great the first time you hear it. It becomes great the thousandth time you hear it. And that's true of a lot of rock riffs. So we have to get the density of exposure for that to be a hit. And we knew that.
Kot: You said the other day, "We've 'Kid A'd' ourselves to death." It was a funny line, but I'm disappointed to hear that. [A reference to Radiohead's 2001 progressive-rock album 'Kid A'].
Bono: Radiohead just looked at the pop machine and the machinations of pop and just said, we don't have it in us, we don't have the energy, to have our way with that. I don't hear [Radiohead's] Thom Yorke singing on the radio. I want to hear Radiohead, extraordinary band that they are, on MTV. I want them setting fire to the imaginations of 16, 15, 14 year old kids. I was 14 when John Lennon set fire to my imagination. At that age, you're just [angry], and your moods swing, and it's an incredible time to be hit with something like that. I don't blame them [for not wanting to be on MTV]. But I think, what would my life be like without the Beatles? If the Beatles had just kept going on experimenting after "Sgt. Pepper," I'd be interested to hear it, of course
Our last two albums are essentially about the combo. We used the limitations of the combo. We had 10 years of experimentation. We decided to rope it in, and tie ourselves to only one thing. And that's the only discipline. Is it a great song? Is it fresh? Experimenting in rock is at its best when you dream from the perimeters and bring it back to the center. All my favorite innovators disappear into the woods and bring something back, and you get to hear the songs distilled from those experiments. I used "Kid A" as an example, because I love the album. We did our "Zooropa," we did our "Passengers," even our "Pop" experiment. There were great ideas on that album. "Discotheque," we viewed it as our response to Peter Gabriel experimenting. We wanted it to be our "Sledgehammer." Imagine if "Discotheque" was a No. 1 pop song? Now that record makes sense. We didn't have the discipline to screw the thing down, and turn it into a magic pop song. We didn't have the discipline to make "Mo Fo" into a loud concoction of rock 'n' roll, trance crossover. We learned from that album. We'd become progressive rock! Ahhh! It's on us!
Kot: You're killing me now. I thought those '90s albums were great. I didn't understand "Achtung Baby" right away. But after seeing the tour, I realized it was your best album. I still feel that way. And I loved "Zooropa" in that way, and "Passengers." I even liked "Pop." To me, you guys were showing us how it should be done. You were [screwing] with our heads and making great music. You were doing those weird ballads from "Pop" as an encore at Soldier Field [in 1997]. I loved that you were so far out on a limb with saw in hand, and you were trying things, pushing things. And now you never play songs from those albums anymore. What happened?
Bono: There is still talk about the band going back in and fixing "Pop," actually going in because the bones [of a great album] are there. Just to talk a little bit about our tours. We have ideas that we want to communicate [in a concert], not just a bunch of songs. If we get it right, it feels like one song. Pop Mart in the U.S., through you and a few others championing it, it was well-received, especially in Chicago. We actually did a few good shows and it really came together. On this tour we have a particular ambition, it moves from punk rock, past Vegas to a gospel show, and we're trying to What band at our level would play 10 songs, seven from the new album and three from our first album? The reason we do that is because this album and our first album have very similar themes. The first is an ode to innocence, as it's being held onto. The latest is an ode to innocence, as it's been remembered, with the thought that you can get back to it. There's nothing in U2's catalogue that sounds remotely like "Vertigo." It's completely fresh. "Vertigo" is actually quite a gem, contrary to what you say, and it's very new. And there are beautiful little moments in there, but they're subtle. And then the amazing thing happens. we weren't going to play "Where the Streets Have No Name" on this tour. We want to be fresh. We're sitting with [U2 show designer] Willie Williams and constructing the show, and we still can't find a reason to play it.
There's a section of the show where we talk about civil rights, because it's what's happening now. It's a great moment in American history when that sort of injustice was stopped in its tracks. This journey of equality is an interesting one. It started with Jewish farmers standing before the pharaoh with sheep [dung] on their shoes, and the pharaoh is laughing at them. "You people think you're equal to me? Get them out of here." There is the great line that everyone is equal under God for 15 minutes. We had this struggle for equality and it moves along, and it's annoying to people. The Jews become equal, but not black people or women. Finally we've accepted Jews and black and Catholics as equal, but only in these borders, not over there. Because if we really believed that all people are equal, we couldn't allow the hemorrhaging of life that is happening in Africa. The tsunami kills 120,000 people, and the world stops. But 120,000 people die every month in Africa from AIDS and malaria. Death by mosquito bite. A billion dollars could save a million lives. So why wouldn't we do that? Because really we don't care.
The One campaign, I didn't want it named after one of our songs, and so Andre Harrell, a really creative man, came up with this idea of calling it Same As Us. I'm not a fan of testing, but it didn't test well, and you know why? Because people don't think they are. People don't think they are the same as us. They'll give them money, they don't want them to die. "But, hey, they aren't the same as us." So we took this notion, the journey of equality, and we start talking about it. This is our generation's challenge. So we thought about using flags as a backdrop during "Where the Streets Have no Name." I remember singing it the first night, it's not a very good lyric, though really great ideas are suggested in the lyric, the idea that you could go on a journey to that other place. It's like Jim Morrison's "Break on Through (to the Other Side)." Do you want to go to that other place? It puts the hair up on the back of my neck. Because we want to go to that other place. That lyric was written in a dusty field in northern Ethiopia. And I can finally make sense of it. And then we go into "One," and we could do a new arrangement of "One" as you might want us to, but you see, I'm only one member of this band, and Edge is three. And if he thinks an arrangement is perfect, why mess with it? He says, "I'm not jamming here. That's a guitar melody. I've written it. I can't improve on it." Adam and I are the jazz men in the band. But the Teutonic Larry Mullen and the Presbyterian Edge always demand, "No fat. Back to the original arrangement. We're not going to change the bass line just because we feel like it."
Kot: It helped when you put "Original of the Species" in the set last night. It made me want to hear what I missed on the record. That's what was lacking in the first show [at the United Center].
Bono: It's a classic, especially on the album. But we have to remix it for a single. We have to figure out how are we going to get that song on MTV? Those songs do not come around easy. The melodies of most songs are A-B, A-B, and this is A-B-C-D. The construction of it is unique. And I want you to want us to have that song out on the radio. Because it's about other bands [who value songwriting] coming though. It's not just us. Rap-metal nearly put the white race in jeopardy [as a creative force]. It's a travesty. Those [rap-metal] people should just take suicide pills and go away. What we have to offer, if we're lucky, are lyrics, some interesting arrangements, and beautiful melody. That's what rock music can do right now. To be relevant, to set the imagination off on a new generation coming up. Songs that up the ante. That's your chorus? Make it your verse, then write a better chorus. That's what it's going to take. Basic songwriting. I think what happened in the UK music scene is instructive. Oasis came around and they weeded out progressive rock-itis, and brought ambition back to songwriting, and got a band to promote itself. Radiohead proved how elastic a band could be with melody and guitar. They write extraordinary melodies. "OK Computer" is full of beautiful pop songs. I just want rock music to expand, and challenge people. If I know of an innovative way of putting those songs across when you write them, I'm going to do it. That's really why we are a rock band.
Kot: It sounds like "Pop" didn't work for you because it didn't sell. To my mind, it worked because it was a good, daring album. There's no shame in not selling.
Bono: It didn't communicate the way it was intended to. It's my daughter's favorite U2 album, and people are warming up to it now. But it was supposed to change the mood of that summer . An album changes the mood of a summer when you walk out of a pub and you have those songs in your head. And you hear them coming from a car, an open window. It changes the mood of the season. Instead it became a niche record. And I know you're a man who appreciates the niche. And I'm glad you appreciate that one, but that's not what it was intended to be. It's not about sales, we don't need the cash. It's about your ambition for the song. We don't have to make albums at all.
One of the reasons I respect these men I've been in a band with for 25 years is that on a regular basis they turn down enormous sums of money for obstinate reasons, sometimes we don't even have a reason. In this band, oftentimes I want a certain thing, I get another one. Even last night [at the concert], I went out and misfired. I didn't have the fire in my belly, and I thought well, I'll push it, and I'll get it. And I couldn't. And then something else happened, and it became very special. Something really happened. You have to accept what you're given, and make the most of it. With "Pop," I always think if we'd just had another month, we could have finished it. But we did a really bad thing. We let the manager book the tour, known in this camp as the worst decision U2 ever made, and we had to wrap up the album sooner than we wanted. You don't need an album to communicate for you to enjoy it, you don't need it to be trimmed of fat to enjoy it, because you're enjoying the ideas, the textures. But for me to enjoy it, I need it to do that [communicate on a wider level].
Kot: The last two albums look back. With "All That You Can't Leave Behind," I thought you made your retro record, you'd made your [version of the Stones' 1978 album] "Some Girls," an album that sums up all your best moves in a concise way. You're allowed to make that album, once. Now you've made "All That You Can't Leave Behind," and you're looking back and I think, Whoops, you really are turning into the Stones. I expected more, I expected you to break out of that box.
Bono: Hey, there are some amazing songs on [the Stones 1994 album] "Voodoo Lounge." But what you're missing is that each time [in history] has a mood. You think it's looking backward, I think it's looking forward. I think to be in a studio, tied to the four piece band set-up right now is a very modern thing to do. And to use that mystery and power to write songs, we did two records like that. This one goes even further than the last one in that direction. "Beautiful Day" returns to the garage, but it's got a drum machine on it! You get beauty like "Original of the Species" that you can play on a piano. Just put piano and voice on that song, and it's special. That's not retreat. That is progressive. That is progress.
Kot: The strength of your band has always been that you build a case for your new music on the road. And it's my job to say when you don't.
Bono: As a writer who cares deeply about music, you're right to give rock bands a kicking when they deserve it. And we have deserved it at times. But you also need to explain to us how rock can progress. The value of writing is enormous. The new school of rock writing in the UK has been Q magazine, in which they take the music seriously but not the people who make it. I think that's an important distinction. With your writing, you can direct traffic. We need from writers some rage, and we need spleen, but we also need the pursuit of truth. And what I would like to leave you with, is that it's important to rock music to do that. I see it fighting for relevance. And I would like it if writers would step back and look at what we've done like you would hip hop, or you've come from Zanzibar, because there are loads of codified rules and regulations that are suffocating rock music right now.
Great groups were broken up, like the Clash, because of ridiculous concepts like not selling out. The bass player in Hole took her own life. And when they asked her Dad what happened, he said, "She was under a great deal of stress, because she'd just signed to a major." It breaks my heart. It's the cultural revolution in China all over again: Let's rid rock music of thinkers, let's rid rock music of big ideas. I saw it destroy great groups like Echo and the Bunnymen, extraordinary talents who crashed and burned on these things. You tell me about the hundreds of e-mails you got, well I got them with every single turn this band has made. I got them when we made the "War" album. I got them when we made "Joshua Tree." I got them when we made "Achtung Baby." Of course we're gonna lose fans along the way who don't like what we're doing. But you need to understand what we're actually trying to do, and that's why we had to have this talk.
Did you see the Kings of Leon? Great hooks, great tunes, melodies, savvy and smart. They're pop stars. They make sexy Southern music. There's a chance that things could happen in the next couple of years. There are young bands, great songwriters, and they should be pushed and encouraged [by the music press]. Jimi Hendrix was the trickster guitar player until [music writers] said, "No, that's Picasso!" And he said, "Picasso"? And he grew into the role [of the great guitarist]. The new breed are going to take over the world. But how are they going to get out of the ghetto? Answer: They make pop music, they make pop records.
Kot: I had to laugh, because at last night's show you said that "some really annoying people are standing up" for what they believe in, "and God bless them." That reminds me of you, including the annoying part.
Bono: [laughs] Yes, you're right.
Kot: But you do have the courage of your convictions. You don't care what people think of you for having those convictions. You sparked a week-long debate in this town about music, and what kind of social role it should play, and why people care about it, and why they should care about it.
Bono: Yeah, we love this city. We've always annoyed people. Around the time of "Zoo TV," we were in danger of being cool, but we fixed that [laughs]. Now there are loads of people who would love to murder me on a daily basis. Stirring it up, it's good. Our definition of art is putting your head above the parapet, and be ready for the custard pie. I happen to love the taste of it.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times