The Edge interview: Memory Man
GW Let’s talk about “phase one.” Did you originally set out to make a record only with Chris Thomas?
THE EDGE Yeah. We were on the final lap of finishing an album with him. I’d say we had two or three songs that we felt were done and ready to be mixed and five or six that were almost ready. At one point we were a couple of months away from finishing an album, but then it became apparent that we weren’t there. The record felt finished one day and then, suddenly, it wasn’t finished. So that’s when we asked Steve Lillywhite to come in and help us figure it all out. It’s such a hard process. I always think it’s going to get easier.
GW But Steve wasn’t the only producer to jump onboard. In fact, the new album resembles a who’s-who of every producer who’s worked with the band: Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Flood…
THE EDGE Our records get made over extended periods of time, and oftentimes we utilize different people for different periods of a record. On the Pop album we used Flood, Nellee Hooper, Howie B.—it’s not unusual for us to work that way. I think what’s different with this record is that, near what we thought was the end of the record, we had a substantial amount of rethinking to do—and rerecording. Going back to the drawing board in such an extreme way felt a little odd at first. You tell yourself, “Nothing like a fresh start.” You have internal pep talks and all that jazz. But it’s hard not to feel a little defeated, like you’re going around in circles.
GW Sounds like a musical Gordian knot.
THE EDGE It’s exactly that. A few of them at the same time, in fact. The biggest lesson I try to learn is to not be so rigid. Records are organic, fluid—the songs tell you where to go, and you have to keep your ears open to hear what they’re saying. Every song is a gift. That sounds cliché, but I really do believe that. And they can be brutal gifts, as well. Some songs come so fast you can’t believe it, and you start to think, Wait a minute. That came so quickly, it can’t be complete. Other songs—the majority of them—take a long, long time. Those are the brutal ones. But again, the guys in this band are very tough. Generally we’ll kick the hell out of a song—rewrite it, rethink it, throw it up and down, beat it to death. But beating a song into submission helps you figure out its essence, and to that end we attack every element—hook lines, riffs, tempos, lyrics, bridges, verses, chorus, outros… At least I think that’s everything. [laughs]
GW Can you give me an example of a brutal gift? What song that took an inordinate amount of time?
THE EDGE “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” was slow to come about. We began working on it during the All That You Can’t Leave Behind sessions—before Brian and Danny [Daniel Lanois] arrived, now that I recall. We did a demo—or should I say demos—of it. We really chased it around through different guises. The verses weren’t happening, so I reworked them. Then I reworked them again, and again. It was a very frustrating song, deceptively, maddeningly so. No matter what we tried, it kept sounding too traditional. And there’s a danger there because you don’t want to make some reverential pastiche, which is what we kept battling. Anyway, we ended up tabling it, but we brought it out of retirement while working on the new record. Some songs don’t want to die, and that’s one way of identifying the good ones.
GW What did you ultimately do differently to the song to make it work?
THE EDGE Bono changed a chord. [laughs] Something so minor! He changed a chord in the verse and the whole tune just blossomed. But the saga didn’t end there. We recorded it with Chris Thomas, and we made a very good recording, but it didn’t gel. Frustrating. So we tabled the song again, and then it wasn’t until Nellee and Steve Lillywhite came in that we got it to the point where we could all be happy with it.
GW The song definitely has a laidback Memphis soul vibe. Going back to The Unforgettable Fire, but particularly on Rattle & Hum, U2 has been fascinated by the American South and its music. Only now you’re not merely dabbling in genres—the music’s clearly absorbed into the band’s DNA. You can do a song like “In a Little While” [from All That You Can’t Leave Behind] without sounding as if you’re trying on somebody else’s clothes.
THE EDGE That’s a good way of putting it. I think we’re better versed in our influences than in our early days. Rattle & Hum is sort of this musical exposition of our exploration of American music. It was us going, “Here are the songs that resulted from our interests.” You have to remember, growing up in Dublin we weren’t exposed to American music beyond the punk groups that we loved. To us at that time, America was Lou Reed, it wasn’t, you know, Creedence Clearwater Revival.
But that’s more of a generational thing. It wasn’t a reflection on our view of the music— we just weren’t exposed. And I hope we do sound natural and authentic as we draw on other styles and influences. The worst thing would be for us to be this crappy parody of American music, trying on other people’s clothes, as you say. There’s a place for reverence, obviously, but not at the expense of new ideas.
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