The Edge interview: Memory Man
GW When it comes to playing, you’ve always been a “less is more” kind of guy. But have you ever felt that more is more? “Three chords and the truth” has long been U2’s slogan. But why not 10 chords and the truth, or 25 chords, for that matter?
THE EDGE [laughs] It’s got a ring to it, I think. I’ve never been one to bash around the guitar for the hell of it; I’m always looking for a more economical way to get a point across. Great songs, riffs, ideas—these are the things that get me off. Running my hands really fast up and down the fretboard…I mean, anybody can do that. It’s the Guitar Olympics, and I can’t think of anything more pointless.
GW However, on Achtung Baby! you were jamming the hell out of songs like “The Fly.” It was a total blast to hear you wail away on that crazy wah-wah solo.
THE EDGE [smiles, nods] That was fun, sure. What can I say? It felt right there, but not everywhere. Again, I was after a sound, and I’ll do anything it takes to get the sound I want. But it’s never about showboating my impressive skills. Chops don’t interest me. “Look what I can do” never enters my mind.
GW Sonically, however, you were going after “more is more” on Achtung Baby! The guitars are blurred; they weave in and out of the mix and move in and out of focus. It’s clutter, but in the nicest way possible. “Waiting for the End of the World” is a whirlpool of guitar.
THE EDGE That’s fair to say. The material demanded that. I keep going back to the search for maximum effect with minimum… effort. [laughs]
GW So, now it comes out: you’re lazy.
THE EDGE Could be. No, look, I realize that sometimes you have to give the guitar a good whirly, and I’m totally cool with that. But choose your moment, you know what I mean? So many guitar players don’t know when to apply the brakes.
GW What about songwriting? A lot of your well-known songs—“Bad,” “One,” “I Will Follow”— are based around one or two chords. Three, tops.
THE EDGE That has tremendous appeal to me. Powerful ideas are usually the simplest. “One” is a two-chord progression with only the slightest variation. It’s an inarguable piece of work. If we put anything more into it, it would suffer; it wouldn’t get better. The same thing with “Bad”: I remember working with Brian Eno, and the idea was to keep this two-chord mantra going, keep it going, keep it going, as long as we could stand it, and then bam! We made this chord change, and it was dramatic. Songs like that fascinate me.
GW Starting with the last tour, U2 have been dialing down the irony.
THE EDGE Oh, yeah. We pushed that just about as far as it could go with Popmart [U2’s 1997 tour].
GW And in addition to getting back to more heartfelt rocking, the band has gone back to a more politically aggressive stance. The other night in New Jersey, Bono was as in-your-face as he was in 1983.
THE EDGE Yeah, he’s… It’s very hard to boil it down to any one thing. The biggest thing for Bono, and for all of us, is that this tour should be about something. When you look at our history, it’s what we’ve always done: ZooTV was this grand concept. We were drawing on a very general idea of what was happening in the world of media and digital technology, and God knows what else, and we put the whole thing in a blender. Popmart, similarly, was a high-concept concoction. When we started talking about this tour, the first thing we asked was: What’s the point? What’s the thread? A tour should be about something. It’s probably safe to say we are in some ways continuing to present ourselves and our songs the way we did on the All That You Can’t Leave Behind tour, where the emphasis is on just us and our songs.
The work that Bono’s been doing outside of the band is his thing, but it draws on what we’re doing, and have always been doing, as a band. The issues of the moment are folded into our work. The biggest difference is that, now, instead of standing outside a meeting with a placard, Bono is actually inside the meeting, beating everybody up with his statistics and knowledge of the issues. As a person, he’s in a much different place than he was years ago, and what we do is we draw that back into the band and give it a rock and roll context.
Musically, however, our show is informed by the songs, always. The songs direct the show. That said, I think it would’ve been weird, given what’s going on in the world since our last tour, if there hadn’t been any references to politics. Our music reflects what’s going on around us and what’s happening on a personal level. Politics, spirituality, sexuality, fashion—it’s all in the mix.
GW It was cool to see you change some of the more familiar songs around onstage. On “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Bono turned the last half of the song over to you for a straight-ahead blues solo.
THE EDGE We don’t want to repeat ourselves, even with the songs people know really well. The songs get worn out if you play them the same way night after night. I realize that people want to hear a song a certain way, but I think they get off on seeing us attack a tune and have some fun with it.