Entertainment Music

Saturday 17 November 2018

U2: Exclusive interview as Brendan O'Connor enters the belly of the beast

 

U2 - Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jnr and Adam Clayton. Portrait by Anton Corbijn
U2 - Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jnr and Adam Clayton. Portrait by Anton Corbijn
U2 - Larry, Adam, Bono and The Edge. Photo by Olaf Heine
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

When the unthinkable happened at U2’s recent Berlin concert and Bono lost his voice, it could have been the end. Bono tells Brendan O’Connor about that emasculating moment, about the crisis of faith sparked by a near-death experience, the reliving of his mother’s death on stage every night, and the gift of an olive tree from the Pope

The Showman

In this moment in Madrid, Bono is like a small child. A small, vulnerable child. He seems fragile. You would wrap him up in cotton wool. His voice, which he just used to sing to tens of thousands of people, is tiny. "Performing reduces as it enlarges," he says later.

It feels wrong to talk to him right now in this intimate moment as he walks off the stage, but vulnerable little boys need approval, and show people, even if they're Bono, need it, so I tell him that I think it was the best U2 show I've ever seen. Funnily enough, in this moment, right now, there is no one else there to tell him that. Even the rest of the band are gone already, whisked off to the airport as soon as the last note is played, to get home to Dublin tonight.

U2 - Larry, Adam, Bono and The Edge. Photo by Olaf Heine
U2 - Larry, Adam, Bono and The Edge. Photo by Olaf Heine

Then someone wraps a towel around Bono, which seems appropriate, and someone hands him a bottle of water. He seems to struggle for a moment with how to grasp this object, maybe with what it is. He is, for now, hollowed out, empty. Because he left it all out there on the stage, for all those people. Because that is the U2 promise, what he calls the punk-rock promise. That you don't just do the gig. You have to actually go there yourself every night, to find what Bono bluntly calls The Thing.

For Bono, on this tour, that means reliving again and again the death of his mother when was he was a boy. And how he managed to reclaim her, and her memory, in a house where her name was barely mentioned for a long time after she died. It also means reliving an existential crisis, a crisis of faith that arose from coming as close to death as a person can come. And while some of the show is acting, it is method acting. He has to go there to some extent.

Even though you know on some level he does this every night, even though you saw him do it two years ago, the point in the show where he shows those videos - the only precious record he has of his mother - and when he segues from singing The Ocean into Iris, his song for her, it feels almost obscene to be portraying things this raw in a rock 'n' roll gig.

It is, perhaps, this need to do it for real every night that makes Bono anxious and antsy sometimes on a show day. Sometimes he wakes up feeling nauseous, thinking, "I don't know if I can do this." Not play the show, or sing the show, but find The Thing, the thing that "makes it New Year's Eve wherever you are in the world, on Tuesday night". So this whole juggernaut, this show, this band, is still a fragile thing.

Sometimes you can't make it on your own

A few weeks before, in Berlin, there was a stark reminder of just how fragile. When Bono's voice suddenly went, early in the gig, with no warning, The Edge kept playing. But in his head, as he stood there playing guitar, The Edge was running through options. Should he step up and sing? Then he wonders if they should get someone to go and find the taped guide vocals they sometimes use for rehearsal. And maybe Bono could mime. He's running through these options really quickly in his head as he keeps playing, but he realises they can't do that. It wouldn't be a U2 gig. The gig is halted while they figure out what to do.

It was feared Bono might not be able to sing for years, while wife Ali was unaware of what had happened. Photo: Kevin Winter
It was feared Bono might not be able to sing for years, while wife Ali was unaware of what had happened. Photo: Kevin Winter

When the band convenes beneath the stage, Bono feels not so much embarrassed as emasculated, like he's had his hair chopped off a la Samson: "The strong man … with no strength". The thing Bono finds most odd is that there was nothing wrong with his voice. He's done gigs with a sore voice before. They didn't finish an encore once about 30 years ago, but there has never been a show cancelled. But this time, he says, "It moved so quickly from singing well to not being able to sing at all - that was the shock."

Under the stage, the others are being very nice about it. The audience was nice about it, too. They sang the song - Red Flag Day - for Bono. They would have sung the rest of the gig for him, too. Because there is a special bond here. And, as The Edge says about U2 songs, "Once they're out, we feel in some ways they're no longer our songs; they belong to everyone who listens to a U2 album, so that spirit really roils us up and supports us."

Under the stage, they ring Bono's voice doctor, Stephen Zeitels. The Edge talks to him. Zeitels thinks, largely because Bono's voice went so quickly, that there's a 70pc chance it's a vocal haemorrhage. If that's the case, it's not good. If it's a bad vocal haemorrhage, you're talking years, if ever, to get back singing.

Bono can tell that people around him are contemplating that it could all be over. Not just the gig, but the whole thing. But Bono knows it isn't over. He knows he hasn't broken it. He could feel his voice was working. He knew he would have felt something if it had popped. But Zeitels was adamant the gig could not go ahead. Bono's throat needed to be checked.

Even now, a few weeks on, at the Madrid leg, no one you talk to seems to know exactly what the problem was. Bono says they're not sure, but it might have been a vocal spasm brought on by an allergic reaction to something. It might have been smoke; it might have been a blockage in the ventilation system.

Bono was listening to old tapes recently, of a young U2 performing in the Marquee in London, in 1981. The band sounded incredible, he says, "but what's not incredible is me". The other three have always been "good to great", he thinks. And while he can see that he was probably a good frontman back then, a good town crier, spirit, lightning rod, he doesn't think he was a great singer. Right now, though, he thinks he has finally caught up with them. Everyone is now on top form, and this is why he thinks this is the best time ever to see U2. He had this realisation in the middle of a concert in New York recently. The band were on the smaller E stage, where they play together at close proximity for a good chunk of the gig. They were playing Acrobat, Bono says. The Edge was performing alchemy on the guitar, Larry was playing like Ginger Baker, and Adam was on fire. And Bono had this realisation. That it's not about the 80s or the 90s; this moment is the best time ever to see this band. They are on fire, he thinks, and now he's matching their fire.

"I'm singing like a bird now," he will tell me the next day, when he is Bono again.

As we hop into a people carrier after the gig, he is slowly coming back to himself. He apologises again to his wife, Ali, for parading his devotion to her and their relationship on the stage. He had apologised to her already from the stage. As the air gradually comes back into him, he chats to his daughter, Jordan, and her boyfriend, who is from Madrid. And then he is back to being Bono, babbling a bit, talking passionately about everything from the Madrilenos' capacity for nightlife, to the need for artists to tell stories about the European dream, in the way Hollywood propagandised for the American Dream.

Spanish eyes

The Edge and Bono on stage at the O2 in London.
The Edge and Bono on stage at the O2 in London.

In 1987, U2 played in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the home of Real Madrid. It was wild. 90,000 tickets; Bono reckons about 120,000 people. They were crawling over the top of the stadium to get in. The pitch was destroyed. There were no screens back in those days of the original Joshua Tree tour. You were reliant on the music, mainly on Adam Clayton's bass, to fill the stadium and bring the whole situation together. Bono is proud that, 30 years on, this band are still on top form. How many guys, he asks, tongue in cheek, who played for Manchester United 30 years ago, still play now?

Actor Javier Bardem was at that gig 30 years ago. And he is at both Madrid gigs this time. On the second night, he is in a frenzy. He could be a metalhead from the midlands at an AC/DC gig in the 1980s. He roars along to every word from every song. There's air guitar, punching the air, pogoing, sweat pouring everywhere. He even knows every word of Spanish Eyes, a relatively obscure Joshua Tree B-side that U2 play tonight. They play it mainly because when The Edge was talking to fans earlier in the day, they had begged him to play it. And The Edge seems to like a challenge.

This is how Spanish Eyes happens: it's five minutes before the band go on stage, and they have come together in a room. Somebody is searching for a version of Spanish Eyes the band played on tour recently. They don't play it much. They haven't played it in a while. But The Edge is adamant. They dig out a version from San Diego, but that's not the one they want. Someone remembers it is Mexico City they want. So they dig out the Mexico City version from last year. Adam is sitting on a couch, quietly playing along on an acoustic bass. Bono sings snatches of it, pointing to The Edge for his bits of vocal. Bono wants the lyrics written down, just in case.

Larry Mullen saunters into the room. Larry gets a bit of physiotherapy before a gig. There's a certain amount of wear and tear that comes with Larry Mullen's full-on style of drumming. Someone gives Larry a cup of coffee. With just minutes to the show, he makes small talk with me about going to see Real Madrid a few nights before (Everybody in U2 and in the U2 organisation is impeccably polite, whatever the situation). Then someone says to Bono and The Edge that they should perhaps appraise Larry of the last-minute addition to the set list. Larry doesn't seem bothered by it. Would he like to hear it? Just the start, for a moment, so he knows when to come in. They play him the start of it. All good to go.

It was worth the last-minute effort. The crowd, and especially Javier, are ecstatic when it kicks in at the end of the show. And it doesn't sound like they're just busking it.

Bono will say of tonight's show that it felt effortless. The songs, he says, were singing him, rather than the other way around. And what was most extraordinary, and what the band are clearly delighted about, is that they aren't really playing a lot of their biggest hits. There is nothing tonight from The Joshua Tree, but it still works. The show is heavy on material from the two most recent albums (though Songs of Innocence numbers will tend to be dropped in favour of Achtung Baby numbers as the tour moves through Europe) and the crowd greet the new stuff like old friends. And relevance, you can tell, is very important to U2 right now.

It felt a bit wrong to be standing there with them just before they went on stage, in what is presumably a very intimate moment. But then, Bono used to be able to meet hundreds of people before he went on stage. He says if they were in, say, Washington, he could meet 150 people; congressmen and women, whoever. He wouldn't say it was easy, but he could do it. "I cannot do that now," he says, "I don't know if it's where I'm at in my own life, or whether it's the particular nature of this show."

The next morning, he will talk about where he's at in his own life.

The little things that give you away

He bounces out of his bedroom, marvelling that he woke up this morning and there was a beautiful woman in the bed next to him. And it was so much better, he says, than waking up alone. Bono has always appreciated his wife. We know that, because he has always talked about it.

But Bono had to change everything recently. He had to change how he approaches his whole life. He had to learn to leave behind all the things that made him suwhole process has been to appreciate everything more, but especially his family.

Bono has undergone, not so much a midlife crisis, more a crisis of faith. Coming as close to dying as you can come, which he felt should have strengthened his faith, saw him losing his faith.

This is the story then, or as close as we will get to it for now, of what happened Bono these last few years, and how he learnt to live again, to live anew, like the man who walked away from the air crash.

There's a monk in the desert in New Mexico. Breaking Bad country. A 'free radical' Bono calls him. And the reason why Bono went to the desert to see this monk is detailed in one of the core songs on Songs of Experience.

The songs on this album were largely written as letters to various people in Bono's life. When he was writing The Little Things That Give You Away, Bono initially thought it was a letter to someone. But then he realised it was actually about him. This can happen, he says. Sometimes you think you're writing about one thing, but it's actually about something else.

Sometimes I wake at four in the morning

When all the darkness is swarming

And it covers me in fear…

Sometimes I'm full of anger and grieving

So far away from believing

That any song will reappear

Hear those lyrics with this new information and it almost sounds like he was begging for a sign from God.

For Bono to be losing his faith was no small thing. It was shocking to him. His faith is what gives him his freedom, which he calls "the most intoxicating thing in the whole world".

"You can sort of do anything when you have the faith," he says, "Nothing can take you out… It's like rope-a-dope. It's just, 'give it to me'." He acts out a boxer taking the hits.

I was surprised that, on this tour, during the song, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Bono has been referencing the Holy Spirit. "What takes us higher?" he asks, "The Holy Spirit? I hope so."

In the past, he has sometimes seemed reluctant to talk too much about his faith. He says he is more comfortable talking about it now. But, equally, he doesn't like to present himself as some exemplar of faith, because he is still, very much, a worldly person. He thinks that when people see him out running amok with his mates, they might look askance at this so-called man of faith. Though he says he is still the same man of faith in those situations.

He seems pleased that it has "turned out" that all six members of his family - he, his wife, his two girls, and his two boys - have faith. He says it was never pushed on the kids. Sure, they went to service now and then, and they might read scripture together at home, or out walking on the beach. They have big beds in both their houses, and sometimes they might all be on the bed together, and they might pray. And you know what they pray for? A very simple thing. They pray to be useful. And they mean it. "And it's not all wafty either," he says, "Because we are trying to follow the example of Christ, but," he laughs, "some of us have a poorer record than others."

So it is a muscular, practical faith; an action faith.

Bono is less a churchman than a man of faith. He thinks religion, with its doctrine and dogma, can take away that precious freedom that faith offers.

But he was impressed by the Pope when he met him earlier in the week. He believes the Pope's anger. Ask Bono what his faith is, and he says that's too big a question. But he tries to demonstrate it with a story about the Pope and an olive tree.

So, the Pope gave Bono an olive tree. The olive tree is regarded as a symbol of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And the Pope said, "I'd like you to plant that. Where are you going next? Maybe the next stop." And Bono said, "I'm going to Spain." And the Pope said, "That would be great."

So Bono decided that he would plant the olive tree in the Alhambra in Granada, where the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca roamed since he was a child. Lorca, we think, was killed by a firing squad in Granada on the orders of Franco's people, and buried, there and then, in a mass grave, in a ravine - or "a ditch" as Bono more bluntly puts it. Lorca has no grave, as such. So Bono has got permission to plant this olive tree quietly in the Alhambra as a memorial to Lorca. Clearly, Bono feels it squares some circle that this olive tree from The Pope should mark the grave of Lorca, who was killed by the allies of the Catholic Church. And that he is planting it in a centre of Islam, in a place that Lorca, through one of his characters, called "a jasmine of grief".

But that's not the point. He brings me from the balcony and into the room to show me. So there is the olive tree from the Pope. And then Bono turns me around, and there, in his posh hotel suite, encased in glass, there is another, much bigger, olive tree growing. And for him, that rhymes in some way. And that is how he answers my question about what is his faith.

He describes this poetic journey to demonstrate that "you can't approach the subject of God without metaphor". When you understand that, he says, "the scriptures open up, so you start to see. You have the fabulism and the creation myth - beautiful, the poetry of it. Or some of the Old Testament books, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. You see the power of John, John's Gospel. You see Paul, a proper fucking prick; he held Stephen's coat when he was being stoned… And this is the guy, [who] falls off his horse, etc… [has his] Damascene experience, writes this ode to love… and some of the most beautiful writing of exhortation we have, some of it while he's in prison." Even in prison, total freedom. And that, for Bono, is what faith gives you.

So it was scary when he thought he was losing it. Bono had seen his own dad, who was so encouraging of Bono's faith, lose his, right when he needed it, on his deathbed. And he felt it happening to him now, after his own near-deathbed experience.

God, part two

Bono says he's not being precious or anything in not detailing what happened him when he nearly died, he just doesn't want to get into the soap opera of it. "Lots of people have had these, so I think it's OK to continue without explanation. Just fill in your own crisis…your own health emergency."

In terms of his faith going, he felt the air going out of him, literally and metaphorically. And he realised, "even that requires watering, tending to. You can spiritually run yourself out."

And he wrote that song, which turned out to be a letter to himself, and he realised, he says, that, "You are not well with yourself, and you need to really… reboot. You need to refresh, you need to re-imagine your life going forward."

So Bono and the band went to see this Franciscan friar, this free radical in the desert, at his Centre for Action and Contemplation, which describes itself as "a centre for experiential education, rooted in the Gospels, encouraging the transformation of human consciousness through contemplation, and equipping people to be instruments of peaceful change in the world".

Richard Rohr is essentially a Christian mystic, who supports a new reformation, from inside, and who encourages and helps believers to get in touch with their inner spiritual intuitions. He is also a Jungian, and takes in a bit from Buddhism and Hinduism and Gandhi, too.

Rohr's book, Falling Upwards, is about finding, in the second half of life, a new journey, or a new way of doing the journey. Rohr says that the ego is hugely resistant to this change. Often he says, a job, a fortune, a reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured, to force us out of the laziness that makes us resist changing our path. So Bono, then, after his near-extinction event, was ripe for Rohr's message.

To explain what Rohr did for him, Bono references this quote from Jung that Rohr uses: "One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true, will, at evening, become a lie."

Bono interprets it this way: "Not only are the things that brought you everything you have, that brought you to where you are, not useful in the second half of your life, they positively work against you."

Bono says that Richard Rohr says the hardest people he has to deal with are successful people, because, Bono explains, "it's their dysfunction that has made them successful. I mean, think about it. What's another word for somebody who is up in their bedroom practising guitar all day? Got OCD. You repeat actions and you become very good at it."

So what was the hitherto successful dysfunction that Bono had to leave behind?

The thing is, he is clearly someone who is constantly reassessing himself, both as a person and as an artist. When everything you do at work is so expansive and public, and when you do it with such an open heart and with such an almost naive belief in, and commitment to, the current moment, it must, indeed, be hard not to look back and cringe sometimes. And he does. He talks about losing the run of himself and his ego at various points. He had reason recently to watch himself giving Frank Sinatra a Grammy legend award in 1994. His summing up of it is: "I walk on, sheets of paper, smoking a cigar at the Grammys…and it's just 'an obnoxious fuck'."

He recalls another broadcast, "something about Phil Collins" and all he can say about himself on that occasion is "Shut up! Shut up!"

It's fun, he says, playing with the cliches of being a rock star, but it might have got a little out of hand at times. So there you have it. Even Bono wishes Bono would shut up sometimes.

But the major dysfunction he had to give up, to embrace the second half of life, was outgrowing his 'shoulder to the door' approach to life. Sometimes you should just open the door, he says, because it isn't actually locked. Another way he puts it is that, "It really helped for somebody like myself, who is so aggressive - sorry, so aggressively involved with the world - [to realise] that I have to be more peaceful." As simple and as complicated as that.

And some of it is about the simple things. For example, Bono has always been up early, meditating and reading and writing. He likes to be working by 6am. Traditionally, he has managed on five hours' sleep. He's getting better now. He tries to get more. Seven hours is amazing for him. Five hours' sleep is that "other version of myself that I have to outgrow".

The blackout

"What I need, or I needed," he says, "was to understand that I, I mean we, are not going on forever, and that we are, you know, just inhabiting our bodies and our moments in time, and try to be useful… and, you know, don't think force can always move an immoveable object. I think probably at the heart of my stupidity is… I'm attracted to Everests, and I'm attracted to the impossible. That's my thing, and it's kind of at a certain point… just be careful… and what I'm learning now with imposed humility is, say, in terms of my activism and other things: How many big punches do you have left to throw in your life? Because you don't want to be wasting it in the wrong fights."

So is he coming to a point now where he has realised, for real, 'my time is limited here, actually'?

"Yeah."

Is that scary when you realise that? Upsetting?

"Not any more, but I'm the last… I'm the idiot. This happens to me and I'm like, I'm like in the Monty Python film, I'm the body-less knight … I'm a head on the ground," he says, referring to the Black Knight, a character who appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight refuses to give up, even when his four limbs are cut off and his attackers move on: "Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to ya! I'll bite your legs off!"

The Edge says Bono views his body as an inconvenience. Bono's wife tells him that if he had a knife in his back, he'd be walking around saying, "Something's itchy".

So you'll keep on raging?

"Did you say raging? Correct, that's the right word, getting to a place where my rage is becoming more controlled, and where I am trying to be more strategic in my struggle and the fight. And the street-fighting that I grew up with, literally and metaphorically, has to be replaced with boxing and, eventually, jiu-jitsu. You have to stop using your own strength, and I think I'm getting more to that place, but I'm a slow learner, really."

Is this a midlife crisis? He's not sure about that. "It was nearly an end-life crisis," he says. But he now knows for real that he is going to die. He says it's like the title of the Damien Hirst work, 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living'. Even though we are sure we will die, it's an abstraction. "We know, but we don't really."

So does he really know now?

"Yeah, and I've had a few of them, moments where I've gone. 'Oh, oh. Wow. OK'."

So is he like the guy who walked away from the aeroplane crash now?

"Yes, I am that guy."

So is he grateful for everything now?

Yes, every single day. I'm really grateful for my family. You know, Ali had to go through a lot. You know, it's funny… be careful of what you, not wish for, but meditate on. You know, as an artist, I'm interested in death. The Dalai Lama says we begin our meditations on life with death. The advantage I had as an artist is I'm 14 years old, just coming into proper consciousness, being a male, all of that, and... bang!", he says, referencing his mother Iris's death. "That can be a terrible thing, but it turns out that my mother gave me this great gift, and so now it might have knocked me a bit, but it shoots you forward as an artist, because now you're dealing with that subject, and you may not have any intelligent insights into it, but you're certainly dealing with it. And mortality is the only game in town, because - and this is what I love about U2 - it's defiance, because the essence of romance is defiance."

The sweetest thing

Part of this new version of Bono is appreciating his family more. Did they miss out? As kids? "I tell you," he says, "It's the loaves and fishes. We seem to have managed to have been an extremely close family without having a traditional route to that." He says he feels a little bit more for the girls, the two eldest. But then the girls had the 1990s, and that was great fun, and they enjoyed all of that. And he doesn't think they missed out too much. And he doesn't give his wife all the credit for that. Just most of it. He takes some credit, too. And he gives huge credit also to the Dalkey School Project NS, "a brilliant school", and St Andrews College, "amazing; really good to these kids", and to people in Dublin, for the fact that his kids grew up in a reasonably normal way. He thinks his children have "a sense of duty. They know they've been privileged, and they know they have to give back and work at that".

Bono's son, Eli, is in a band now. Inhaler. Famous dad aside, Eli - who Bono says gives no thought to the fact that his father is Bono - is a good frontman, at just 18. If you watch videos of Inhaler playing on YouTube, sometimes you will see something familiar in the confident, but still slightly apprehensive and suspicious way that Eli approaches the mic. It must be odd for Bono watching Eli set out on this path. It must be hard not to want to stick his oar in. But he tries not to. Eli did ask him did he think they should get a manager, and Bono told him they probably should. You can see that right now he is resisting being a proud dad.

Funny thing. The night Bono lost his voice in Berlin, Inhaler played at Electric Picnic, probably their most high-profile gig to date. Eli's mother was down at the Picnic to see him play. Later on, Ali went on to see B*witched play, so she couldn't hear her phone ringing as Gavin Friday frantically tried to contact her from Berlin to tell her what had happened to Bono.

Eli has been accepted into art college in London, but wants to defer and give this band a year to see what happens. This is exactly what Bono did, and Bob, his dad, supported him back then: rent-free for a year while they gave the band a go. He even supported them to the tune of giving the band £1,000 when they were ripped off by a publisher in London.

Bono looks up to the five people in his family, and "with Johnny [his youngest] at six foot, I've no choice". But his wife tells him she doesn't want him to look up to her or down on her, just look across at her, "I'm here".

The appreciation extends to the fans. Someone who works with the band says to me at one point, just casually, "as Bono always says, we must appreciate them because they give us this life".

At the hotel that U2 are staying in, as with all the hotels they stay in, fans have gathered. One thing you understand when you dip into into the world of U2 on tour is that nothing is left to chance. Everything is organised and managed. Even the fans outside the hotel. Bono's right-hand man, Brian, and his colleagues, get the hotel's cooperation to allow the fans to wait in a particular area out the front. They are minded and given water. They are told if the band will not be able to come out to meet them. But usually the band do, and people are told when to expect them and who is coming. Adam comes out to them first to a big cheer, and he walks amiably among them, taking time for everyone to get their picture or autograph. The Edge is next, and he seems to get even more involved with everyone, clearly listening to their entreaties, for example, to play Spanish Eyes.

And then there's Bono. It's extraordinary to watch him. It's not just that you see him deep in conversation with people, it's that he listens to them. He stands there, actually listening thoughtfully, taking it all in. He draws an elaborate doodle for one woman, like some street artist down the road in the Plaza Mayor.

The wanderer

After the informal meet-and-greet, I hop in a car with The Edge to go to the venue. The Edge says he enjoys meeting the fans. You even get to know some of them, he says. Some of them there have been to every gig on the tour - America, and now Europe. You can sense The Edge is feeling good about being in U2 right now.

He remembers back to the time of the 360 Tour, when he says there was a danger that U2, while continuing to be a very successful live band, weren't enough of a part of "the cultural conversation", that their new material was not being played enough on the radio. So with the last two albums, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, there was what he says was, "a concerted effort to be, for want of a better term, back in competition… rather than making work that might be fun for us" but that might not connect to the wider audience. Connecting to the wider audience has always been U2's ambition.

"You know, the world is full of bad poetry written by people who are just expressing themselves," he says with a smirk. "We don't want to be part of that."

Part of him feeling good about it is that he still likes the road after all these years. There's a bit of the gypsy in him, he says, and he still gets that buzz of excitement heading to the airport, as does his wife, Morleigh. Having Morleigh along - she is their resident director for some of the tour, acting as a kind of quality-control manager, the band's "eyes and ears in the crowd" - is fun, too.

Once he dons a baseball hat instead of his usual beanie, he can even maybe get to see some of the city they are in. He admits that when he went to see the Russian Dada 1914-1924 exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, they did get chased at a certain point by U2 fans, but, he says, it's manageable.

Has Bono's loss of voice, and other events over the last few years, meant he has contemplated at times the possibility of this band not existing any more? He has, and he is confident he would be fine. He has enough interests outside of U2 to keep him going. But it's a hell of a lot more fun, and a lot more challenging, being in U2, he says. He concedes though that he's looking forward to some breathing space when this tour ends, to enjoy music "without feeling like there's a time clock or some intention". While he's been living back and forth between Ireland and the US over the last few years, this year, it'll be a lot of Ireland. "A great leveller. It's sanity. It's kind of that everything makes sense there for me, and I think it's holding on to that connection with not just the country, but with our community of friends and family that date back to when we were going to Clash gigs."

But all the time, he is working away on music. He has a little studio that he brings on the road, and he finds that playing in front of audiences every night is a great proving ground for songs, and you keep some sense of that about you while writing new stuff on the road. Right now, his passion is proving again the possibilities of guitar music. You look at the charts and you listen to the radio, he says, and it's practically all electronic music. So this is the Edge's current challenge. To keep guitar music alive.

Lights of home

After Dublin this week, U2 return to Berlin to play for the people who were there the night Bono lost his voice. Bono says proudly that even though thousands of those people came from overseas for that gig, only 220 people looked for a refund. They are all coming back again. Both Bono and The Edge are looking forward to Dublin, obviously. The Edge feels there's a lot of pressure playing Dublin, not least because there are so many friends and so many guests there. But the energy from the crowd, he says, is second to none.

Bono is a bit more philosophical, and maybe even slightly apprehensive about the reception the band get in Dublin. He says it's humbling to have been given the position they have been given in Irish life, and he's sure it must be annoying for Irish people at times, being expected to have a position on U2, the way you have to have a position on the Irish soccer team. But, he says, "Forgetting all that bollocks, there's a mighty fine rock 'n' roll band coming home for Christmas. I know it's a little early, but for us, Christmas starts on November 5."

U2 play the Three Arena tomorrow night, Monday, November 5, Tuesday 6, Friday 9, and Saturday 10. All concerts are sold out.U2's 'Songs of Experience' is out now.

Portrait by Anton Corbijn

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