U2’s guitarist and sonic scientist has just reanimated 40 of their classic songs: the latest experiment in six decades of tinkering, questioning, taking it all quite seriously. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview with Edge, he discussed the personal heartbreak behind Achtung Baby, the band’s political activism and what we can expect from the next U2 album. “I want to be part of the flow…” he tells MOJO.
Bono has said he wove the breakdown of your first marriage into the lyrical themes of Achtung Baby. Did you appreciate that exposure?
I definitely was paying attention. But I quickly came to the conclusion there were references to other friends who’d gone through similar things. So it was nicely obscure and great fuel for lyrics. So I was fine with it. And I think he would have naturally understood when to pull back if it was getting too personal. It was a really difficult time for me, but… (laughs) there’s one great anecdote and I think it explains the difference between music and emotional intensity. I was doing the guitar solo for Love Is Blindness, this cathartic moment to let it all happen through my guitar. I played what I thought was this crazy, emotionally driven solo. Afterwards, Danny [Lanois, co-producer] came on the intercom and said, “Yeah, Edge, that was good, but I think you could do it better. Could you try again?” The solo I ended up playing expressed way better what I was wanting to say. But it had to be done in a cold, dispassionate frame of mind. If you let your emotions absolutely take over, it’s not gonna work.
Have U2’s music and extra-curricular campaigning ever impeded each other?
That’s a hard question. Because they’re so intermingled, it’d be very hard to imagine one without the other. There’s obviously been challenging moments, particularly when Bono was making great strides in America and realised his superpower was being able to work both sides of the aisle and persuade politicians from different parts of the spectrum to work together. But that meant he was having meetings with people like [right-wing US Senator] Jesse Helms, who famously dismantled the National Endowment for the Arts because of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and made some terrible early comments about the AIDS pandemic. So, that was hard. But we understood the logic. And if you judge activism based on results, rather than it being some kind of attempted virtue signalling, then Bono was absolutely right. Bobby Shriver [Kennedy scion, co-founder of Bono’s AIDS charity] says – and I don’t remember, but I’m sure he’s right – that I said, “Look, if you get this thing through, I’ll meet Jesse Helms, I’ll shake his hand, backstage.” And that is exactly what happened. They got the bill through [US Congress], got this huge amount of money through for AIDS in Africa. And sure enough, Jesse Helms came to a U2 show and I shook him by the hand.
So it’s a question of being clear-eyed about the ends and the means?
Yeah. If you can persuade a politician that they’re not going to sacrifice their existing support but they will potentially add, that’s hard to turn down. And Bono became very good, I think, at advocating on that basis. “Look, this will mean political Brownie points for you.” But often that meant him being in the photograph (laughs). So that took a lot of courage on his behalf. Some people miss that – they just think he compromised his principles. He didn’t at all. What he did compromise was his PR profile and his standing with the sort of fundamentalists who would never be open to receiving help from people they didn’t agree with. In the end, I think facts bear out his approach.
So what’s the next U2 album? I like the sound of “the unreasonable guitar record” Bono recently aspired to make.
(Laughs) Well, I would love that to be the next U2 record! The lockdown was a very creative period for me, just in composing music. I don’t want to jinx ourselves… but there’s a lot of great material waiting. I think the guitar is coming back. I really feel it. And I would like
to be part of that.
Headline: “U2 guitarist would like to be the man holding the guitar”!
I’d like to be the vanguard of this resurgence of guitars! Don’t get me wrong – talking to people I know who work at Fender, they’re selling more guitars now than they’ve ever sold. But in terms of popular culture, there’s been a drift away from the instrument, it would be fair to say. And I think that pendulum is going to start swinging the other direction. Because it’s such an incredibly expressive instrument. The few bands that are using it well, it’s still fresh. Doesn’t necessarily have to feel like you’ve heard it all before.
Do U2 really have to care about the pendulum of popular culture? Can’t you just do whatever the hell you want?
We do that as well (laughs). I dunno… To not have any ear for what’s relevant within the culture is just being out of touch. You can do stuff that’s completely against the grain, but you still want to know where the grain is. I think about it in terms of the flow of a river – if you’re not in the flow, you’re part of an oxbow lake. And I want to be part of the flow...
“Being in a band, we didn’t want it to be a trivial thing…” Read MOJO’s exclusive interview with Edge in full, in which he discusses the early days of U2, their latest album, faith, post-punk, playing in the Sistine Chapel and more!
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