As he and his bandmates prepare to release an album of reworked classics on St Patrick’s Day, the legendary guitarist insists this is not the beginning of the end
In May last year, the U2 guitarist known as The Edge found himself in the bomb-damaged Kyiv suburb of Borodyanka. Above him stood a bronze monument to Taras Shevchenko, a poet sometimes referred to as the father of Ukrainian literature.
A journalist at the scene asked a question that U2 have faced throughout their long career as one of the most successful bands in pop history: is there a role for musicians and writers in the real world of global politics? “Well,” Edge replied, looking up at the statue, “the Russian empire seems to think so. Isn’t that a bullet hole in the poet’s head?”
While in Kyiv, Edge and bandmate Bono performed a short gig in an underground station that doubled as a bomb shelter and met the president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“What struck us was that the man who is right out in the forefront, fighting to preserve democratic representation in the face of autocracy, was a stand-up comedian. And his chief of staff was his film producer,” says Edge. “He’s one of us, in that sense – a creative and a performer.”
Later, Bono and Edge were escorted to the towns of Irpin and Bucha. “It was inspiring and horrifying, because we saw not only the courage and intelligence of the Ukrainian people,” he says, “but also the net result of the Russian occupation – multiple civilian murders, mass graves. It was an absolutely unforgettable trip, for both really good and really bad reasons.”
It was also one of many moments when the 61-year-old guitarist has been struck by the strangeness of his rock-star life. He tells me that such moments can occur when he’s performing onstage in front of tens of thousands of people – “I’ll look up in the middle of playing Where the Streets Have No Name and... Whoa! It’s phenomenal, you just have to try and take it in” – or when becoming a prestigious Kennedy Centre Honoree and winning praise from President Joe Biden at a White House reception, as happened to U2 in December last year.
“When I find myself in crazy places,” says Edge, “I try and make a point of acknowledging that this is where music has brought me.”
Wearing his signature black beanie hat over his baldpate, Edge peers at me through a computer screen from the sunlit home in Malibu, California, that he shares with his second wife, American choreographer and dancer Morleigh Steinberg.
The couple have two adult children, and Edge has three more from his first marriage, to teenage sweetheart Aislinn O’Sullivan. He also owns properties in Ireland and on the French Riviera, and is said to be worth €370million. This is the life that has been granted him by the phenomenal success of U2, with whom he has been guitarist since he was a 15-year-old.
Over a 47-year career, his inventive playing has driven the band to unprecedented heights, helping turn them into stadium superstars with more than 150 million album sales and billions of streams.
I have known him for all that time, since we were classmates together at Mount Temple School on Dublin’s northside. He was plain David Evans back then, born in Barking, Essex, to Welsh parents, but raised in Ireland since infancy.
He was anointed The Edge by our fellow schoolmate, Paul Hewson aka Bono, allegedly on account of the shape of his head, and the name has stuck. These days, he says, the only people who use his given name are “immigration officers”. Even his wife calls him Edge.
This month, on St Patrick’s Day, U2 will release their 15th studio album, Songs of Surrender. Featuring 40 stripped-back, radically reimagined versions of some of their finest songs, it amounts to a kind of unplugged career retrospective and serves as a fitting celebration of the extraordinary (and almost unheard of) resilience of a band that still comprises the same four individuals who first played together as teenagers in the school gym in 1976: Bono, Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.
“The fact that bands can stay together at all is a kind of miracle,” says Edge. “I think we’ve been bound by common goals: the sense that you are here to serve, and make the world a better place.”
That is not to say it has been an easy journey. Although all four members of U2 share equal credit, Edge and Bono have been the creative hub of the band since the beginning, working very closely as the principal songwriters.
For decades, this has meant the cerebral, mild-mannered guitarist thrashing things out, eyeball-to-eyeball, with a singer of volcanic passions, often characterised as the ego of U2. With his proselytising charity work and rock ’n’ roll swagger, Bono is a figure who (fairly or unfairly) a lot of people clearly find quite annoying.
“Of course Bono gets too much for me sometimes!” says Edge, laughing. “I’m sure I drive him mad, as well. If that wasn’t the case, I think we would be doing a disservice to each other, because it’s in the realm where we push each other, challenge each other, annoy the hell out of each other, that you know there’s something going on. If you never get to that place, dude, you don’t really have a proper creative relationship.”
The people who are going to miss Larry the most, I think, will be Bono, Adam and myself
Despite the new album and an upcoming run of live concerts, U2 fan sites have been rife with rumours that this is the beginning of the end for the band. When they embark on a residency in Las Vegas later this year (for which dates are still to be announced), they will be without one of their founding members, Larry Mullen, who will be undergoing surgery, then taking time off to recover.
“I have lots of bits falling off, elbows, knees, neck,” he told The Washington Post in December, explaining the physical toll that a life of drumming has taken. “There’s [been] some damage along the way.”
Edge insists that “no one is more disappointed than us that Larry won’t be joining us in Vegas”. The dates were originally scheduled for 2021, to inaugurate a purpose-built venue – the $1.7billion MSG Sphere – and mark the 30th anniversary of U2’s album Achtung Baby, before everything was thrown into disarray by the Covid pandemic.
Postponing again was out of the question. “We made a commitment,” says Edge. “In the history of U2, you can count the shows we’ve missed on the fingers of one hand.”
Mullen’s temporary replacement for Vegas will be Bram van den Berg, of Dutch band Krezip. “We’re lucky to have him. He’s a powerhouse,” says Edge. “The people who are going to miss Larry the most, I think, will be Bono, Adam and myself. It’ll be strange to turn around and not see him behind us after all these years. But the shows will be amazing.”
Although Mullen will be missing from the live gigs, it’s his drums you can hear on the new album, albeit with a much lighter touch than U2 fans might be used to. The idea had been around for a while “to see if our songs could be reimagined in a more intimate style, as if Bono was singing in your ear”.
The pandemic gave Edge time to focus on this project, trying out new arrangements “in my bedroom studio, or on the living-room piano”, experimenting with different keys, chords and rhythmic shifts. There were formal band sessions in London and LA, but most of the work was done long-distance, while Bono was in Dublin, writing his autobiography, Surrender, with chapters based around U2 songs.
“It was a very joyful process,” says Edge. “We gave ourselves permission to disregard any sense of reverence for the originals. What I learnt was that the best songs are kind of indestructible.”
He is scornful of any suggestion that the new album’s lowered keys and slower tempos hint at some kind of surrender to old age. “You serve the song by serving the singer. Bono’s voice has a deeper resonance, he has access to tones he never had before,” he says. “He has also lost any self-consciousness. He still has the big notes, but we’ve learnt to use them less often. He knows better how to use his voice as an interpretive tool, which comes with experience.”
From a band who have always had their sights firmly set on the future, Songs of Surrender is noticeably retrospective. But when I remind Edge of a lyric from U2’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum – “You glorify the past when the future dries up” – he laughs.
These days the only people who use his given name are immigration officers – even his wife calls him Edge
“I don’t think there’s any chance of the future drying up!” he says. “I’ve been working on [other] new stuff in parallel that’s much more vital and requires a U2 band sound to fulfil it.”
The next album, he promises, will be full of big electric guitars. “I’m not sure U2 are going to turn into AC/DC exactly. I’ll still be trying to find ways to use the instrument that are new and unfamiliar. But I’m absolutely convinced that the guitar is going to be front and centre within mainstream music culture in a year or two, and I want to be part of that revival.”
And he’s adamant that he wants his lifetime bandmates to be part of it, too. “Occasionally, when I get really dejected, I say to myself, ‘OK, I’m out of here. I’m going to do something much less taxing and more fun. So, what is it?’ Then I’d think, ‘Well, I love music, but do I want to be a solo artist? Nah. So I’d have to find a really good singer. OK, so I’ll work with Bono. But we absolutely need a completely unique rhythm section that don’t sound like every other rock band. I guess that would be Adam and Larry.
“So every time I think of quitting, I kind of reinvent U2. We all know that we shine brighter by being in proximity to each other,” he continues. “That’s why it’s going to be very difficult to break up U2 – simply because it works so well for us all.”
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