The Edge interview: Memory Man
As U2's innovative guitarist, The Edge is no stranger in taking risks. Here, he reflects on his 25 years with rock's most musically adventurous and life-affirming band.
It's hard to tell if the Edge is having a midday or midlife crisis. “Why am I here?” the U2 guitarist asks inscrutably, rubbing his salt-and-pepper chin stubble and staring at the tranquil vista of the Hudson River and, beyond it, the banks of New Jersey. We’re standing in the penthouse of Manhattan’s airy, swanky M Studio, taking in some ephemeral sun on an otherwise resolutely cloudy afternoon.
Just as I’m about to go for some high-minded response like, “Well, Edge, we’re doing a photo shoot, and then an interview,” he abruptly expands on his thoughts: “Starting a band is the easy part. Once you’ve formed the band you have to tell a story, and that story requires songs. And not just good songs, but great songs. After a while, great songs won’t do—they have to be the best. Success doesn’t make it any easier. Each time I start a new record, it’s a brand-new search.”
Occurring now at roughly four-year intervals, the U2 album/tour cycle is an important opportunity to convince past allies that it’s still the same band, with the same passion and beliefs, even if the music is totally different. The Edge considers this contention, chuckling with embarrassment. “That sounds like doublespeak, but the new album is proof enough.” He is referring, of course, to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the group’s latest album, released late last year. Its stripped-back arrangements and production recall the U2 of old, before dance beats, synthesizers and club music trappings engulfed their music in the late Nineties. In that respect, the album is nothing so much as an extension of the back-to-basics endeavors of its predecessor, 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
“Soundwise, it’s us completing a circle,” says the Edge, “but by no means are we talking about only one circle. By referencing our past, by allowing ourselves to sound like the ‘old U2’—the Eighties U2—we’re not in a box anymore. Now we’re free to sound any way we please. It’s very liberating.”
To many longtime fans, the very notion of confinement runs counter to everything they hold dear about “Eighties U2.” And there is much they hold dear: Bono’s towering vocals, matched with the raw, naïve immediacy of his lyrics; the rousing percussive force of the bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.; and, of course, the Edge’s guitar sound, among the most distinctive in rock music.
Chimerical and chiming, echoey and evocative, it came into existence with no evident beginning. Even on U2’s debut, 1980’s Boy, the Edge’s cascading guitar textures are in full bloom. Armed with just a Gibson Explorer and a Memory Man echo unit, the guitarist lashed out at parochial attitudes about what rock should sound like and what it could communicate. On a series of dizzyingly iconic albums throughout that decade, the Edge created an entirely new language for the instrument, one of harmonic squalls and ringing ostinatos, by turns space-age and rural. Nothing seemed beyond his reach. Even while jamming with the redoubtable B.B. King on “When Love Comes to Town,” from U2’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum, he was no apprentice, dispensing pure sound (and fewer notes than B.B.) with an exactitude and delight still unsurpassed by any other guitarist.
To acknowledge one’s heritage is not necessarily to approve of it, and during much of the Nineties, U2 set about fixing what many saw as not being broke. In the band’s view, the Edge’s sound had become part of its overblown image and sound, a pretension to be dispensed in small doses, if at all. As U2 entered the next phase of their career, ironic self parody ruled the day, and on such adventurous albums as Achtung Baby!, Zooropa and Pop, the guitar revelries so intrinsic to U2’s success were replaced by anything the band could think up. “Our M.O. at the time was simple,” recalls the Edge: “ ‘If it sounds like U2, it goes. If it sounds like anybody else, it stays.’ And yet, somehow we sounded like us all the same.“
In artistic terms, the albums were triumphs, but commercially U2 began to fall out of favor. Pop, a metaphysical potpourri of trance and dance electronica, veered further away from their classic sound than most fans cared to follow. So it was a no small relief when they issued All That You Can’t Leave Behind and threw their arms around themselves again, allowing the anthems—and the Edge’s guitar—to fly once again. “ ‘Beautiful Day’ got us to thinking it could work again,” says the Edge. Any doubts they had were certainly dispelled by the time U2 settled down to record How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Its singles “Vertigo” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” recall nothing as much as prime U2, with their “big” vocals and guitar sounds. Yet, for all the familiarity of the music, it’s evident in the new songs that U2 aren’t merely rehashing the past but rather exploring it with fresh senses.
“Just as a comedian doesn’t want to tell the same jokes over and over, we don’t want to play the same songs the same way,” says the Edge. “On the other hand, we’ve now come to a place where we’re comfortable admitting we have our own style and we can do what we want with it. It’s our sound. We made it, and we can break it if we want. Of course, we’re the only ones that know how to put it back together again, too. All it takes is lots of arguing.”