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U2 at the Crossroads: Inside the Band’s Ambitious Reinvention for 2023

The Edge discusses their new album of reimagined classics, their Las Vegas show, the guitar-based album they’re working on next, and Larry Mullen Jr.’s temporary replacement drummer

U2 The Edge

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Near the end of U2’s new album, Songs of Surrender, the band kicks into the familiar opening chords of their 1980 breakthrough single “I Will Follow.” But there are no drums, bass, or electric guitar, and Bono quickly begins singing new lyrics that better fit his perspective on life at age 62, rather than 22.

“I was on the outside when you said, you said you needed me,” he sings. “In the mirror a reflection of the boy I can never be/A boy tried hard to be a man/His mother lets go of his hand/A gift of grief will give a voice to life/If you walk away, walk away/I will follow.”

It’s one of 40 radically rearranged and stripped-down songs from U2’s back catalog on Songs of Surrender, featuring both mega-hits like “With or Without You” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and deep cuts like “Stories for Boys,” “Red Hill Mining Town,” and “If God Will Send His Angels.” Loosely paired with Bono’s memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, the album was the brainchild of U2 guitarist the Edge, who secretly worked on it throughout much of the pandemic with collaborators who included Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Bob Ezrin along with his bandmates.

We spoke to the Edge via Zoom from his house in Malibu, California, about the creation of Songs of Surrender, the band’s upcoming residency at the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas, soldiering forward with Dutch replacement drummer Bram van den Berg while Larry Mullen Jr. while recovers from a back injury, their upcoming album of guitar-based songs, their 2022 acoustic set in Kyiv, the thorny issue of concert ticket price points and access, and the possibility of a Pop box set and U2 biopic.

What sparked the idea for this Songs of Surrender project?
It’s been kind of knocking around for a while as an idea. But I guess it was also the opportunity presented by the lockdown, and knowing that Bono was going to be releasing a book with 40 chapters all featuring song titles. It seemed like, “This is the moment. Let’s go for it.” Also, with the caveat that if we didn’t like the results, we didn’t have to ever release it, because nobody was expecting it. The record label wasn’t banging on the door, asking for it. We were doing it for ourselves and our fans, really.

There was also the thought that some of our early songs were recorded when we were very young men. Bono as a singer had not really found his feet yet. We were operating at a level of intensity that would allow us to be noticed in a club where half the people weren’t there to see you anyway, or in a venue that might be a little bigger than you’re comfortable with. Often Bono’s vocals or the melodies he was trying to sing were at the top of his range, that very intense part of his range.

We just thought, “We’re a bit older. Bono’s voice has also matured, and his control and interpretive skills as a singer have really improved. Why don’t we look at these songs again?”

We had done it with a few of our songs over the years, and some of these stripped-down versions became iconic versions, like “Staring at the Sun” or maybe “Every Breaking Wave” more recently. “What would it be like?” we asked ourselves, “if we were to do this with a bigger collection, and maybe include some obscure songs and some of our better-known songs, and really do them in a different way?”

I took a little bit of time at the piano and with an acoustic guitar, and just started working up ideas to see what it would sound like. I have a similar range to Bono, so I would sing the first vocals normally myself, and play the idea to Bono. At the first session, when Bono was singing over some of these ideas, we felt, “OK, this is working. There’s something really happening here.”

Bono loved working, as we did, in a very casual way. He would come over to the house where we had a room set up to record. It wasn’t like a formal studio setting. We just started hitting on these vocal performances that were really convincing and fresh. It was like, “We’re onto something here.” And then as I got more into it, I ended up coming up with 50 new arrangements [laughs], so it became something where I did a bit of a deep dive.

When did this process start?
This would have been basically at the height of the lockdown, so in early 2021. It was basically on and off for that year.

Were you always with Bono when he did the vocals? Was it ever done remotely?
I think pretty much everything was done with us in the room together. Sometimes we took advantage of the fact that we were in France together, so we had our pal and long-term collaborator [engineer] Declan Gaffney come down, and used that moment to bring Stjepan Hauser, the cellist, in. We worked with the two of them for four or five days. That’s where “Vertigo” went from just me on acoustic guitar to this incredible duel between acoustic guitar and cello. And also “Dirty Day,” which I again started on acoustic guitar, we gave Hauser a chance to play over that, and I ended up dumping most of the acoustic guitar and made it about the cello.

There were little moments where we had a few days together, and Bono and I would get together and meet. We also worked a lot with Duncan Stewart, who is kind of a junior engineer, but also an artist in his own right…. We did a couple of proper, formal recording sessions. One was in London. Another was in Los Angeles. The first was to really get the ball rolling. Adam [Clayton] came in and played some great bass. Brian Eno came in to do some vocals.

In Los Angeles, Daniel Lanois came in and Abe Laboriel, who is more famous as Paul McCartney’s drummer. He did some great background vocals with Dan and myself on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But at that point, we had Bob Ezrin involved. These sessions helped us get the project over the line. We kind of broke the back of the recording and fleshed out the arrangement in those sessions.

Who is the producer for this album?
I’m the lead producer. Bob is a producer. Also, Duncan and Declan have production credits. I was leading the charge, but Bob was the calvary.

Sounds like most of the instrumentation was by you.
Yeah. Adam and Larry are both represented, not on every track, but on most of the tracks. Larry did some amazing percussion. He didn’t want to, or wasn’t ready to, play full kit. What I would do was I’d find some loops of stuff Larry had recorded previously. “Get Out of Your Own Way” is this amazing drum loop from Larry from a little while ago that he recorded just for the hell of it. It gave me something to work with. When I found that drum loop, I was like, “That’s the jumping-off point for that song.”

On “The Fly,” we had dueling basses. We had a straight guitar version, but it didn’t quite make it. It sounded too close to the original, and not that exciting, so we started again. I play a high bass part, and Adam plays a low bass part. That was fun. We’d never done that.

The album is divided into four sections, and each one is named after a member of the band. What is the significance of these sections?
Honestly, I think it’s more an instinctive thing. We just kind of felt, in a very non-analytical way, “Who sort of feels like the right figurehead for these 10 songs?” And we did it that way. It wasn’t particularly… We didn’t sweat it. I can’t remember how we came up with it. It was one e-mail. “Does this look good?” And everyone was like, “That’s cool. I’m happy with my collection.” [Laughs.]

I like how you tackle both some of your biggest hits, and some really obscure songs too.
In fact, we pointedly wanted to find some deep catalog tunes that maybe haven’t been celebrated as much as the other songs, so things like “Dirty Day” from Zooropa. That’s not a song most people would have chosen for that collection. But I love the potential of it, and then hearing the final result…I’m so happy we did it.

“If God Will Send His Angels” was a single from the Pop album, but it’s not really a song we’ve played live. To most people, it’s quite obscure. I always felt that was a song that never fully got realized, so it was fun to just sit down at the piano and … not start again, but have a chance to re-work the chord progressions and find a different way to support that melody. It’s quite a different song now, but it really stands together. That could be a standard that would work in any context, I think, on piano.

What’s cool is that nothing seemed sacred. You didn’t just rework the melodies and arrangements, but the lyrics were sometimes changed. Some songs had pretty radical revisions.
Yeah. One example would be “Stories for Boys,” which we ended up using my demo vocal on that. It’s a complete re-write. The original song, of course, was written leading up to the recording of our first album. We were 18, 19-year-old kids. We were actually boys writing a song called “Stories for Boys.”

But at this moment, we’re looking back with the distance of time and experience. It seemed those words didn’t quite work coming out of our mouths at this point, so we re-wrote the song … not completely, but largely from the perspective of us looking back at those boys, kind of sharing a different perspective of who we were and what was going on at that time. Suddenly the song has a new, modern, contemporary resonance. I think if we stuck with the original lyrics, it wouldn’t have had that.

It sort of becomes a conversation between you and your younger self, which is pretty novel.
Yeah. That was what struck us about this entire project. There are very few bands, really, who would be able to do what we just did, because there’s very few bands that have had this amount of time intact, and with this body of work to draw from. That felt like an interesting thing to do, and new territory, creatively.

You’ve played a song like “Where the Streets Have No Name” a million times. But you’ve really re-contextualized it and changed some of the lyrics, so it now goes “Now I need some shade or shelter in this waterless place/Where each desert rose is a prayer for rain.”
There’s also no guitar. That’s wonderful. It really reinforced what we hoped would be the case, that the songs themselves have such a strong core identity that they are flexible enough to be reinterpreted in such a profound way, and still be the song, and still present the same feelings and ideas that the original did.

With that song, there’s a lot of atmospheric cello from Hauser at the beginning. And then I come on electric piano halfway through. That was probably one of the most dramatic changes in texture and intensity. It was that and “City of Blinding Lights,” where it’s such a different proposition when expressed with these instruments in this way.

With “Walk On,” the original song in 2000 was inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, who didn’t quite live up to her initial promise, let’s say. You’ve recast so it’s now about what’s happening in Ukraine.
That was a case, I suppose, of events surrounding the sessions invading our consciousness. Bono and I were working on a couple of tunes, and “Walk On” was one of them,” just as the war in Ukraine kicked off. Clearly, if you’re trying to choose a subject for this song and this moment, there’s nothing better than what’s happening in Ukraine.

It struck us so strongly that President Zelensky, this person who has rallied his entire country to stand up to the bully of Vladimir Putin, was, in his previous life, an actor and stand-up comic. That was our entry point for the new words.

It’s a funny thing, how things turn out, since it was a little while later that we got the word from his chief of staff that they would like to invite us to come and play in Kyiv. About a week after that request came through — since there was a very short window where it was possible — myself and Bono were on a train, which we climbed on in Poland. We were traveling at night through Ukraine to get to Kyiv. The following morning, we arrived just as the air raid sirens were going off, which was a little disconcerting. We went almost directly to this subway station where they set up a little stage area for us to perform. We did about seven or eight songs.

We had thought to ourselves to involve a local musician. Through a friend, we found the number for this Ukrainian singer, Taras [Topolia], who is a very well-known Ukrainian singer. Bono cold-calls him the day before we leave. He gets on the phone, and we hear him running breathlessly. He goes, “Taras, it’s Bono.” “OK, hold on one second.” It turns out that Taras, like so many young Ukrainians, had volunteered for the armed forces and was actually on the front line in Ukraine when we called him.

We made the call very brief, and basically communicated to him that we were coming to Kyiv to perform and would he come sing with us? We weren’t sure if he was going to be able to. He said that if his commanding officer was up for it, that he would. Sure enough, we got word that he was on his way.

He came and climbed onstage with us to perform “Stand By Me” at the end of our little set in the subway station. He was still in his uniform. He literally came straight from the front line.

That was quite a trip. To see the devastation in some of the districts of Kyiv that had been occupied by the Russians was extremely distressing. To talk to some of the local people that survived and see the mass graves of those that didn’t survive…. It was a lot to take in, and very, very affecting. And again, this bizarre collision of art and reality. But it just shows you again how songs, to some extent, have a life of their own if you’re so prone to serve them.

In grand U2 tradition, you end the album on “40.”
Yeah. It struck us that part of the opportunism of the whole project was the lockdown, obviously. It struck me that this was a musical opportunity to see what we had left if we stripped everything away, stripping the band away, really bringing it back down to basics, which was kind of what we were all going through in the lockdown. Our lives were like that.

Bono’s book was in the works. He just made the decision to call each chapter by a song title, and there would be 40 song titles. There were so many things that contrived to guide us to this format. And not only that, but we have a song called “One” and a song called “40.”

What was it like to sit in the audience a few months back and essentially see a Bono solo concert on his book tour? That’s something that had never really existed in any form until that point.
I was there on opening night. I was there the day before, that last rehearsal, which I’ve been at so many times with U2. It’s always a kind of white-knuckle ride to get to opening night. In this case, I could be completely detached from responsibility, and just be a friend, an objective set of eyes and ears. I was just so impressed with the final rehearsal. I just thought he was really onto something. And then the opening performance really went off in a great way.

I was probably the most confident person at dress rehearsal. [Laughs.] Having seen what he was up to, I just thought, “He’s nailed it. This is going to be great.” So many times, I’m a details person. I fixate on really small things. In this case, I had no points of reference whatsoever. I arrived completely, objectively into it, so that felt good.

Your upcoming residency at the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas is billed as “Achtung Baby Live. Are you playing the album straight through?
Too early to say, but I don’t think we need, or would want to feel, that we have to. I think we’re going to give ourselves the freedom to play the songs in whatever order feels right. Obviously, the great thing about this venue is the ability to marry stunning visuals with the audio. There’s a lot to contend with. I’d say we won’t make the final decision until much closer to the shows.

But it’s going to be centered around Achtung Baby, right?
Oh yeah. That’s going to be the centerpiece. We will play them all.

Will the visuals be Zoo TV-ish?
Again, too early to say. We were, at one point, thinking it was unlikely any of that content would make sense in this new context because it’s so different. We had relatively small screens back then. We now have more leeway, more freedom. There’s a chance we’ll refer to Zoo TV, but it won’t be a Zoo TV revival.

Bram van den Berg is filling in for Larry at the shows. How did you come across him?
We met Bram through our pal Martin Garrix. We were just very taken by his playing, and the kind of person he is. He’s a real powerhouse, but he’s also just a great hang. [Laughs.] He’s a sweet person to spend time with, which of course is crucial for us since U2 runs on those deep friendships and connections. That was the criteria. We’ve since done a little more work together to see how it might work. I think it’s going to be great.

Of course, we’ll be missing our pal Larry desperately. We’re so disappointed that he won’t be able to be there occupying the drum stool. Everyone has the right to call in sick. Forty years of working together, this is the first time it’s happened. I think it’s kind of amazing that we haven’t ever hit this in the past.

Is September the likely start month?
The timetable exactly is TBD because the building is still being constructed. It’s definitely in the fall, and definitely no earlier than September. But it could be later. We’re waiting to hear exactly when we will get the building.

Do you know how many shows you’re going to do at the Sphere, or roughly how long the residency will last?
We don’t know precisely. What we’re hoping is that the run will end before Christmas. That’s the important thing. But it’s a large venue. Bear that in mind. It has a capacity of close to 20,000 people, depending on the configuration. Don’t think about it as a traditional Vegas residency. It’s not like that. It’s a short run. I don’t know. We’ll have to … there’s still a debate about the extent of the room. We will be making an announcement pretty soon, I hope.

It’ll be cool to hear “Love Is Blindness” again. It’s been a long time.
Yeah. That’s one of my favorites.

There’s been a lot of controversies in recent months surrounding ticketing, especially when it comes to high prices, high service fees, dynamic pricing, and bots getting all the best seats. What’s your take on all this?
We want to serve our fans. That’s the bottom line. U2’s relationship with our fans is paramount to us. Whatever way we try and deal with that issue, which is multifaceted … It’s a complicated thing. Our aim will be to put our fans first.

Bono recently said you guys are making a “noisy, uncompromising, unreasonable guitar album.” What’s the status of that?
We’ve been busy. In parallel to the work I did on Songs of Surrender, we’ve been working on a lot of new music. Even leading up to the lockdown, we had a lot of interesting stuff, some of which is almost finished. We’re kind of spoiled for choice. There’s an embarrassment of riches of new material. We’re focusing on Songs of Surrender and the Sphere for the moment, but we have been busy.

When Bono says it’s a “guitar album,” how should fans interpret that?
Personally, I feel like the guitar as an instrument … not in terms of being loved and played by so many musicians around the world, both professional and amateur, but in terms of its presence in the streaming music charts, it’s been in the wilderness for a little while. I feel myself that there’s a resurgence of interest in guitar. I sort of feel it instinctually. It’s starting to percolate up. I feel the timing is right. I think it would be wonderful and very welcome for us to make some music that is more driven by guitar. That is the intention. That isn’t to say we are turning into AC/DC, but we will find a way to use the instrument in a fresh way as much as possible. It’s still my first love for me as an instrument.

Do you have any idea when fans might hear these new songs? Maybe next year?
As soon as possible. But, of course, that’s just who I am. I think Bono is of the same ilk. We’re anxious and would love to get them out, but there will be a lot of options and other advice we’ll be taking about when to drop some new material. But just to say, we’ve been busy and very inspired creating new stuff.

Are you hopeful that Larry will be back onstage next year?
As soon as he is ready to rejoin us, we would love to see him on the drum stool. We’re just being guided by what he lets us know about. We’re waiting eagerly to hear about his progress and how things are.

You did box sets for The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. There’s a large segment of the U2 fan base with a real interest in Pop. Might there be a box set one day that revisits that era?
There are albums that seem to have a resurgence when people come to them again fresh. That album Pop is an album that, at the time … I think in the context in which it was released and the big, huge tour we did, there was a lot of focus and stress on it at the time. But now with a little bit of distance, the album is actually holding up very well. I would love to see something happen to celebrate it. That’s the fun of working on a U2 project. If there’s a repackaging or re-release, there’s so much material that never saw the light of day. So yeah. At the right time, I can see that happening.

I’ll wrap in a second, but do you ever think about doing your own memoir now that Bono has done his?
I still think of myself as far too young a man to be considering memoirs. Maybe when I’m older. I still feel like I’m not even sure what I’m going to do when I grow up.

Finally, are you able to imagine a U2 biopic on the big screen one day?
I definitely could see that coming at some point. Why not? There’s been some great ones recently. It will have to be the right moment, the right team. But I wouldn’t rule it out.

From Rolling Stone US