Gavin Friday talks on Lady Gaga, covering a U2 song and dining with Courtney Love
Gavin Friday was a bit taken aback to hear Lady Gaga wanted to be involved in a celeb-studded concert celebrating his life and work at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2009. Why, he wondered, would a platinum-haired pop star wish to hang out with a bunch of besuited rock worthies, many old enough to be her father?
No matter how you dress it up, Friday's dense cinematic avant-pop and songs such as Poker Face inhabit completely different musical universes. Then it clicked. She wasn't there for him. She was there for Gaga.
"I was surprised she was up for it," he says. "But think about it -- she's a businesswoman. There was a stellar cast: Courtney Love, U2, Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed. She isn't stupid. She thought, 'oh I'll hang out with these people, this is good for my cred'.
"And you know what? She went on stage and played piano and sang live. And she was f**king great. She had a voice. She is musical. I was amazed she did it. You look at the political side and it makes sense."
Carnegie Hall was a rare opportunity for Friday to overshadow his friends in U2. He and Bono have been pals since forever (the frontman is probably closer to Friday than to any of his bandmates). They grew up around the corner from one another in north Dublin and came of age musically at the same time, Friday fronting the draggy, messily experimental Virgin Prunes while U2 were busy turning into the world's biggest band.
Ever since, Friday, who is nothing if not immaculate in his tastes, has served as unofficial image consultant to the group (you can't help suspect their shift towards critic-disarming irony in the '90s had something to do with him).
Friday, who will shortly perform a rare live date promoting his latest album catholic, has never played down the U2 connection. That said, he'd never acknowledged his relationship with U2 on record until he was asked to cover The Fly off Achtung Baby for a CD marking the record's 20th anniversary. Did he take a lot of convincing?
"It's weird," he says, "Wearing me neighbour's clothes. I attempted to make it my own, which is what you should do with a cover. I got rid of the guitars, made it a little funky and contemporary -- it's 2011, not 1991. I turned the falsetto backing vocal into a lead vocal."
When approached about the Achtung Baby covers project -- other contributors include Jack White and Nine Inch Nail Trent Reznor -- U2 were stumped as to who should have a crack at The Fly. Most of the musicians involved were wary of interpreting what is, once you get past Edge's grinding riff, a weird, woozy track. Suddenly it dawned on Bono: Gav was the man.
"They'd be quite hands-on about things like that. They requested me, saying 'nobody will do The Fly. We decided you were the only one to try it'. And they love it."
Was he nervous as to whether they'd approve of his treatment of the material? Friday literally doubles over laughing. "I didn't play it back to them!" he says. "It was a case of 'like it or leave it -- f**k you!' You know, it's nerve-wracking when you are doing anything you care about.
"You get nervous, you go around the block and back again to get it the way you want. In the end, though, it's my version. It's what you think the song deserves."
In person, Friday comes across as a bit of a salty rogue. He's also one of the best-connected men in pop. At Carnegie Hall, he shared a spotlight with genuine luminaries such as Scarlett Johansson, Laurie Anderson and Antony Hegarty (the concert marked his 50th birthday). A few weeks ago, meanwhile, he was chaperone to Courtney Love when she was in town to speak at Trinity College. Afterwards, they went for a drink. You have to ask: is drink ever just a drink where the first lady of grunge is involved?
"She is actually very well-behaved nowadays," he says. "We had a very nice dinner. Courtney is well over the hell-raising days. A lot of people don't realise how smart and funny she is. She spoke for well over an hour and a half [at Trinity]. She was entertaining and quite articulate. She tends to have four sentences in her mind at once and they come in every door. People don't give her credit for being the smart girl she is."
At the risk of turning the entire interview into an extended chinwag about U2, it seems only fair to canvas Friday for his opinion on speculation the band are considering calling it quits. In a recent magazine piece, Bono mused that, after the floundering snooze-athon that was No Line On The Horizon, they now stare irrelevance in the face.
"I think Bono said something like that 20 years ago, just before they made Achtung Baby. He said, 'we'll break up if we don't make [a good record]'. If the new album isn't up there, we won't put it out. That has consistently been Bono's stance. He's always spoken like that."
What Bono was getting at, he feels, is that U2 have never assumed they are going to remain a property anyone cares about. Which is why they've lasted when some -- make that all -- their contemporaries have fallen away. "You take nothing for granted, you always challenge yourself. They've demanded of themselves that they be better. A lot of people, when they become successful, become lazy."
This isn't something Friday has ever had to worry about. Though critics regard the Virgin Prunes as an important new-wave band, they never really broke out of the underground. Friday's solo career did appear set to take off in the mid-'90s, with the album Shag Tobacco, overseen by the then super-hot producer Tim Simenon.
But he felt it failed to receive adequate record company support and while the single Angel featured on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (along with, how surreal it now seems, Mundy) the song failed to take him to the next level.
He's not one to blame people, but if pushed Friday might venture that Blur and Oasis were at fault. "I've always done things out of kilter. I don't run with the pack. Shag Tobacco came out in '95, '96, when the whole Britpop thing was mega. I was a sore thumb. The response was, 'what the f**k is this?' I don't make music with a sell-by date."
Friday insists he isn't bitter. Still, does he ever gaze across Killiney at Bono's sprawling mansion and feel a quiver of envy? He smiles. "I'm more of a lunatic than U2. If I'd sold a couple of million records you wouldn't know where I'd be at the moment. Maybe it's good that I'm the struggling aesthete. Maybe it's good for my health. Otherwise, I might be dead. You never know."
catholic is out now. Gavin Friday plays The Olympia, Dublin, on Tuesday
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