The Edge interview: Memory Man
Things are never Swiss-timed in U2-land, especially on tour. Today’s activities are sandwiched between sold-out shows at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena and New York’s Madison Square Garden, which means every minute counts. The Edge’s entourage of handlers field calls and negotiate last-minute schedule changes. At one point, food is ordered, cancelled, then reordered. The one-hour photo session requires twice the scheduled time. But Curtis Mayfield is pumping on the stereo (“great choice,” the Edge remarks), and after exhausting his impressive array of cover boy faces, U2’s guitarist is feeling suddenly spry. He turns down an offer of green tea in favor of strong black coffee, then settles back to ponder and scrutinize his career. Belying his bookworm-like, taciturn reputation, the Edge holds forth and laughs easily, buzzing with an agile sense of humor and an instinct for punchy ripostes. Several times during our conversation, I’m tempted to check his coffee for traces of Guinness.
GUITAR WORLD There are hallmarks of your guitar sound—drone notes, piercing highpitched tones, lots of wide spaces—that are distinctly Irish. Although you’re Welsh, you grew up in Ireland. Did you listen to much Celtic music?
THE EDGE I hear where you’re going with that, and I think it’s valid. When I was a child, I’m sure my ears picked up sounds and stored them away, to be used at a later date. The biggest thing for me, though, has always been how I hear music—or how I want to hear it. I’ll do anything I can to avoid being cliché. So if I do stand out in any way as a guitarist, it’s because I steadfastly refuse to travel down a well-trodden path. I want to bring a new perspective to what I play. It’s hard to do, but that’s what gets me off.
GW At what point did you discover that you had some sweet skills with the echo pedal?
THE EDGE We were cutting some of our early demos when we got our first Memory Man echo unit. By then we’d been playing together for a couple of years and were looking for ways to colorize the sound, to bring something more than just the flat aesthetics of the band playing together. Within minutes, I was drawn not only to the textural qualities of the echo but also the rhythmic possibilities that it suggested. As we are essentially a three-piece outfit with a lead singer, it was very useful to be able to create multiple rhythms.
GW Traditionally, the bassist and drummer set the rhythm for the rest of the band to follow. Did you start to feel as if the echo unit was turning you into the band’s timekeeper?
THE EDGE Oh, yeah, but I think it was more that Larry and I became the rhythm section, which allowed Adam to be more creative. Up to that point we were pretty punk rock—a lot of straight 4/4 rhythms—and Adam would just barrel along. One cool result of playing with echo is that it makes you more precise in your timekeeping and rhythm playing. It’s like playing tennis against a brick wall: the ball’s going to fire back at you the same way every time; it isn’t going to waiver. You find ways to groove with it, to anticipate the way the sound is going to come back at you. Echo has made me a tighter player.
The creative aspect of it is exciting, too: echo takes a guitar part somewhere else. It’s like what Andy Warhol did to art with his silk-screened prints of soup cans and photos. He played with art; he turned it upside down. The conventions that were supposedly sacred about imagery are the ones he threw away. I draw on that aesthetic decision. Weirdly enough, if I’m having trouble with a guitar part—not the playing of it but the writing— I’ll mess around with echo and other effects, just turn everything up and make it as crazy as can be, and it winds up taking me somewhere. I’ve found so many guitar parts from echo. It’s limitless.
The biggest difference between me and other guitar players is that I don’t use effects to color my guitar parts. I create guitar parts using effects. They’re a crucial element of what I do. And I don’t consider effects a crutch. Using them doesn’t constitute “cheating,” as some people have said. They’re part of the art.
GW Onstage you use a short delay and a long delay together. What’s the story behind that combination?
THE EDGE They work together to become part of one delay sound. When I use two delays, I like to mess with the pitch modulation of the delay signal. It increases the depth of the sound and gives it a tremendous 3-D sensation. But straight slapback echo with no modulation isn’t very inspiring; the shape of the sound doesn’t change.
GW One or two tours ago, it looked as if Dallas [Schoo, the Edge’s guitar tech] was triggering most of your effects. When I saw you play the other night, however, you were tap dancing on your pedals like it was 1985 again.
THE EDGE Dallas has the same rig underneath the stage that I have onstage. As the tour progresses and he gets to know what I’m doing, I’ll have him take over on some things. It can be quite handy, depending on what I’m playing, and especially if I’m singing. And while it’s nice to have that option, I still feel assured knowing that I’ve got everything right where I need it. The set changes a lot, so there’s not a script to follow.