U2 Interview: Oscar Hopes, That Unfinished Album, Anxiety About Staying Relevant
The world's biggest band tackles politics, technology and now, with an Oscar-nominated song, Hollywood: "We don't want to ever be a heritage act. It might happen, but we'll go kicking and screaming into that mode."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Just after Finnegan's pub opens at noon on a blustery, rainy, intermittently sunny winter day in Dalkey, a seaside suburb south of Dublin, Bono slides in the door and settles into a corner booth with his back to the wall and a wide-angle view of the establishment, like a wary gunfighter who wants to see what's coming. In a hoarse whisper, he orders tea and a plate of smoked salmon. His unimmaculate red-tinged quiff and tired eyes seem to be telling me this is a man who recently rolled out of bed.
The 53-year-old lead singer of the perennially biggest rock band in the world is quick-witted and preternaturally eloquent, but he also is one of the most interviewed humans on the planet, and he has a stash of well-rehearsed riffs that, understandably, tend to play on repeat. Once his throat is soothed by the tea and he's fully awake, however, I'm pleased to discover that the man loves to talk movies and has fresh things to say about them, ranging from Scorsese and Hitchcock to Wenders and Tarantino.
Unlike your average cinephile, of course, Bono is, along with his band U2, an Academy Award nominee for best original song -- "Ordinary Love," a bittersweet anthem that plays as the coda to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It's the group's second nomination, after "The Hands That Built America" from Gangs of New York in 2003, and they'll be at the Oscars on March 2 to perform the song.
The gift of a nomination arrives as U2's latest reinvention is just ramping up, with a new album and tour looming. This time around, the challenges facing a band that won't settle for anything less than owning the future might be more dire than at any time since the early 1990s, when Achtung Baby and the avant-techno Zoo TV tour saved U2 from irrelevance and cemented its world domination as a cultural force. Not unlike a hungry startup, U2 is pursuing business alliances as well as brainstorming music packaging and distribution innovation like its life depends on it.
Figuring out a new identity also is a theme that emerges in our conversation, as we range from Mandela and the marathon work on U2's next album, still ongoing with a tentative release date of this summer, to the early influences on the band's identity and worldview.
"I've been thinking a lot about this because of the new album," says Bono. "I was drawn in by movies that fashion you and make you who you are." He also has been revisiting music that fired U2's first visions of new possibilities (Joy Division, Kraftwerk, the Ramones) and the DIY fan enthusiasm that made them pick up instruments and launch Feedback, as U2 briefly called itself in the very beginning.
"I don't want to grow out of that," says Bono (real name: Paul David Hewson). "We consider ourselves to have been the people who stepped out of the audience at those early punk rock shows onto the stage. There was no 'them'; it was only 'us.' We actually took it out of the audience and onto the stage before we could quite play."
"There is no them / There's only us" -- it's a talismanic phrase that not only reflects U2's founding ethic but the implications of the band's name and its decades-long engagement with conflict and injustice, from Ireland and Nicaragua to Ethiopia, Somalia and South Africa. (It also happens to be the final chorus of the single "Invisible," U2's follow-up to "Ordinary Love" and the first hint of where the forthcoming album is heading.) Given U2's close relationship with the first black leader of South Africa, which evolved from the political to the warmly personal, you sense that winning this particular Oscar would be a vindication far beyond a career accolade.
When I bring up the Academy Awards, Bono enthuses about the other category nominees and the stiff competition, saying he's been urging the band to lower any expectations of winning. But "if the song gets to shake the hand of the little gopher," he says, "it would give a whole other imprimatur to our audience, which would be great. I would love if it had a life outside of the film. Because we poured so much of our life into the song and, I hope, his life, the life of Mandela."
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U2 being U2, and Bono being Bono, these awards-season interludes must be reckoned alongside a blurred succession of fast-moving, high-profile activities in recent months. In June, for example, the singer and his wife took Michelle Obama and her daughters to lunch at this very pub while President Obama was attending the G8 summit in Belfast. In November, Bono presided at his collaboration with Apple designer Jony Ive and Ive's design colleague Marc Newson in a Sotheby's New York auction of one-off, bespoke consumer objects that raised $26 million for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In December, Bono attended the memorial for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. In early January, U2 was in California shooting a Super Bowl spot and music video for "Invisible" that raised another $3 million (from Bank of America) for Bono's (RED) campaign and playing a benefit at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills for Sean Penn's Help Haiti Home fundraiser before attending the Golden Globes, where U2 won best song.
A week later, it was announced that U2 would be the musical guest on Jimmy Fallon's first Tonight Show broadcast in New York on Feb. 17, and then Bono was in Davos, Switzerland, tackling progress on extreme poverty with British Prime Minister David Cameron and warning the Masters of the Universe that "there's an avalanche of cynicism about us just by being here, and capitalism is in the dock, and the jury is going to decide based on how we deal with these issues, not in the abstract but in the concrete."
Clearly, any close observation of U2, whose members incessantly zag around the planet like quarks, is a complex physics problem. Nabbing Bono at his local watering hole had been a near-run thing, and by the time I track down the whole band, it's several days later and I'm crashing a photo shoot in West London at a converted studio in an old Sunbeam auto factory.
Sitting down with the members of U2 between photo setups, it soon emerges that writing and recording "Ordinary Love" was a major disruption in the U2 flow and still is having fateful repercussions. Intensive work on the band's 13th studio album, the first since 2009's No Line on the Horizon, was underway in the summer, with a target release date of December 2013 when Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Co. and a longtime friend of Bono and the band, called on behalf of Mandela's South African producer, Anant Singh, and director Justin Chadwick to solicit a song for the nearly completed film.
"When we got the call from Harvey to say, 'It's happening, are you in?,' it was like, 'Oh man, really? Now?' " says The Edge, the U2 guitarist whose passport reads David Howell Evans. "But we just had to do it, with the history that we have with the man and the cause."
"It was hard to stop what we were doing," says drummer Larry Mullen Jr. "We were on a roll -- it was clear where we were going. And a decision was made to abandon ship, more or less, to focus on this."
Despite the angst, all four members express zero regret about doing the song (the Oscar nomination helps), and they're eager to detail U2's long-running involvement in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and '80s, from the band's early days through Mandela's release in 1990 and the emergence of a free South Africa. Together with Amnesty International, it was U2's earliest international political commitment. "This was the one project you just couldn't say no to," says Adam Clayton, U2's bassist. "For our generation, South Africa was a real illustration of how music could affect change in the world, and it was a rite of passage in terms of our political awareness."
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To create "Ordinary Love," U2 characteristically obsessed and tinkered and faltered. "We had three or four goes at it to get it right," says Bono. "The lyrics changed course for me after reading his love letters to Winnie. Maybe the reason they asked us was to do a kind of 'Pride (In the Name of Love)' moment, but it just did not seem correct. The only place in his life he felt that he was the loser in the conflict, that his enemies had prevailed, was in his marriage. He just couldn't make that work, and the most important part of that film is the love story."
Says Weinstein: "Edge is as tough on the music as anybody I've ever seen. We didn't have the song in time for the Toronto Film Festival screening [in September]. They will perfect the song, and deadlines be damned. And it's not because they're being difficult about it -- it's just that they really want to make things right."
The question of how badly the "Ordinary Love" detour slowed forward momentum on the still-unnamed and now long-overdue next album is not easy to answer from outside U2's opaque inner circle, but the distractions were compounded by promotion duties for the film, the pause to mourn Mandela's death and the nominations hoopla. The band's track record in the studio is replete with evidence that U2 is perfectly capable of languishing there without needing outside help. (Bono has been joking that the working title of the album-in-progress is Insecurity.) As always with U2, reports and rumors swirl about producers and collaborators coming and going: Danger Mouse (the stage name of Brian Burton), Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder ...
"We've always needed collaborators to challenge us," says Mullen. "We're slow learners. We need to be creative, on the cutting edge, challenged, and it's really hard going, it's relentless, and we're relentless, and we have a history of breaking engineers, producers. I mean, people come out of working with U2 and just go, 'I just don't know what's happened; it feels like a lifetime has passed by.' And that's just the way we work."
Adds Bono: "The album won't be ready till it's ready. But right now, people are walking a little differently -- well, they're not walking, they're running as if to a finish line. There's a couple of songs that are part of the story we haven't quite finished. We know we have to spend a couple of years taking these songs around the world, so they'd better be good."
If you're a fan (writer raises hand), getting the chance to watch U2 going through the paces of a cover shoot, to study their interaction and body language, to sniff the psychic air surrounding them and then chat them up is a sort of rock dream-fulfillment, with intimations of Fab Fours, Glimmer Twins, Zimmermans, The Boss and The Clash. Given that these now are four men in their 50s who've been playing rock stars for 37-some years, it's an impressive display. They're fit, and they manifestly thrive in one another's company. "At this point, it's like some sort of ESP," Weinstein later tells me when I ask about U2's chemistry. "I don't think they need to talk. A look says it all."
Bono with his three bandmates is a completely different beast than Bono solo -- lighter, looser, infused with jollification. As Spotify's T. Rex station pulses in the hangarlike space, and the mostly female and black-clad U2 entourage flits hither and yon, creative consultant/wardrobe stylist Sharon Blankson, a friend of the band members since they were all kids, stands back and bounces and peers from side to side to monitor how her boys are faring as the camera flash strobes.
Hovering over all this fabulousness and alpha-pop puissance are some nagging questions that the members of U2 will be the first to worry out loud about. For starters, the whole notion of being a chart-dominating superstar rock band is in grave danger of becoming an obsolete concept. Having sold 150 million albums and won 22 Grammys is all well and good, but it's getting lonely at the top for U2, surrounded as it is by pop confectioners, hip-hop monarchs, the odd cowboy hat, Taylor and Adele, and the empty places where lots of other rock 'n' roll bands used to be. The winners of two of the three big rock awards at this year's Grammys were a one-shot mashup of Paul McCartney and members of Nirvana, and a 2007 reunion concert album by Led Zeppelin. However deserving -- yikes.
U2's last big moment revolved around the launch of No Line on the Horizon in February 2009, followed by the two-year, three-leg, completely sold-out 360° tour. By the time it was over, in July 2011, 7.1 million tickets had been purchased totaling $737 million, making U2 360° the highest-grossing tour in history.
It was a massive, gargantuan success (and the shows were transcendent), but No Line on the Horizon, a highly acclaimed album that ranks among U2's very best, sold 5 million copies -- a disappointment only in the context of U2's huge sales before the music-business implosion. One of the many self-frightening things Bono has said to make his job more difficult is that "to be relevant is a lot harder than to be successful." And U2 still craves relevance and shudders at the thought of "turning into a jukebox," as Mullen once said.
"We don't want to ever be a heritage act," says Edge. "It might happen, but we'll go kicking and screaming into that mode. We feel the place for us to be is part of the conversation of contemporary culture and music and film and everything else, and we don't see the reason why we can't, because it's been possible for various artists in different forms. Frank Lloyd Wright, to the day he died, was designing the most incredible things -- we want to be part of that rather than grow old gracefully."
Looking at U2 in terms of discography and ticket and album sales is, in some ways, to look in the wrong direction as the band gears up to reconquer itself and the world one more time. One of pop music's great business stories is how U2 never let itself get screwed by the record industry, retained ownership of its publishing and master tapes, mounted one technologically unprecedented tour spectacular after another, built a global fan base and now negotiates with the biggest companies in entertainment and technology as a peer, not a supplicant.
(U2's most bruising and traumatic endeavors tend to be audacious side projects, like Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the chaos-plagued 2011 Broadway show with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge; it closed in January after reported losses of as much as $60 million and an embarrassing legal contretemps involving fired director Julie Taymor. There also is the saga of Elevation Partners, a private equity firm Bono co-founded in 2004 that stumbled badly early on, though its major stake in Facebook now is soaring in value.)
All of this was accomplished with one man, Paul McGuinness, in the job of band manager from the birth of U2 until November, when Principle Management Ltd., the company he founded in 1984, was acquired by Live Nation in a reported $30 million deal that also brought Maverick, headed by Madonna manager Guy Oseary, into Live Nation's artists division. With the deal, McGuinness, 64, assumed an emeritus role in the U2 organization, and Oseary was named U2's new manager.
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McGuinness is an exceptional figure who inspires awe in a profession where continuity exceedingly is rare, hardball tactics are common and wisdom is not what practitioners are renowned for bringing to the table. He was, as the saying goes, "the fifth member of U2," and made himself and the band very rich (good luck finding out how rich -- but The Sunday Times estimates U2's net worth at $852 million). Noting how often bands split over unequal division of songwriting revenue, he persuaded U2 to embrace an even four-way split from the start. The philosophy and values he devised in collaboration with U2 systematically subtracted the pressures that tend to break up acts and impede emotionally intelligent growth.
"We are designed to survive success," said Edge in a recent tribute to McGuinness, a statement that is startling when you consider what an unusual strength it is in the music industry. "We've never had the attitude that a lot of bands did around our era," Edge told me, "which was that the record business was the great Babylon and to be a collaborator was to compromise your values. We've always wanted to know the people in the label, the people representing what we do."
McGuinness also seems to have accomplished a final rare feat in the management racket: a peaceful transfer of power. As dramatic as the headlines were, the substance is a mild and seamless shift. McGuinness and Bono have known Oseary, 41, for two decades, and Oseary talks about the two men as mentors and friends, calling the transition "a loving passing of the baton."
"I'm really humbled to be invited into the U2 family," says Oseary. "It's really a family business, a family-owned brotherhood."
If Oseary, who's based in Los Angeles, represents a significant change, it might be a shift in the center of gravity to the West Coast. "That coast is becoming the place where everything starts and happens," says Edge. "All the new tech companies, Guy is very immersed in that. We're well-placed to start integrating new opportunities to meet our fans and to do cool things."
Says Oseary: "L.A. is a lot closer to Silicon Valley than New York, Dublin or London. We launched the Mandela music through our Facebook relationship. We're working with YouTube on the next video. We're working with a lot of companies on functionality and innovation. That being said, there's innovation in other places. SoundCloud's in Berlin and Spotify's from Stockholm."
Back at Finnegan's pub, Bono had his sights on the same targets, both for the band's purposes and for his ONE campaign and its (RED) division, which has raised more than $215 million to fight AIDS in Africa. "We've been talking to Bob Iger" -- the chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. -- "and we haven't yet found a way, but that would be the ultimate company for me to get in with us in the (RED) boat. He's like the president of California, isn't he?"
Bono also has been brooding for several years on the challenge of rejuvenating his chosen art form, the album, and locates much of the problem in the loss of the marriage of "listening and looking" that the vinyl LP once provided. He talked with tech companies, including BlackBerry, and worked with U2's photographer (and now feature film director) Anton Corbijn to produce Linear, a dialogue-free, black-and-white road movie whose soundtrack was an alternative, prerelease version of No Line on the Horizon.
The secret, he believes, is to put display technology at the service of the musical experience. "It's album artwork. Not videos, because videos demand your attention. You need to think it's supposed to be on in the background when you listen to the music -- a much more ambient experience. People could watch while listening -- the way we used to when you'd open up, say, The Clash's Sandinista! and get lost in the lyrics. 'Where are they? Where's Nicaragua?'
"This format is coming -- the relaunching of album artwork. A plasma screen, poof! Your phone, boom! While you're listening. Because music used to be an immersive medium, not just sonically, it was always the visuals, too. Elvis is an audiovisual phenomenon. The Beatles were audiovisual. It's harder and harder to get people to pay for an MP3 file, but it will be easier when you're getting something much more interactive."
I asked about U2's popularity in Los Angeles, the first place in the States where the band broke big as a major rock act.
He nodded yes. "When punks and slackers from around these waters would roll their eyes and say, 'Hollywood?' " he says, "I used to remind them that more people live off their imaginations in that city than anywhere else in the world and that I find people there to be incredibly optimistic about the possibilities of creative life. Even when they're being darkly cynical -- which to me is a relief -- I never feel like I'm having my pocket picked. I respect the fact that U2 has not had the garroting that other capable artists have had at the hands of the music business, so I might be a little bit rose-tinted. It's a community that I feel has been an ally, not an enemy, for years and years."
With that, Bono is running late, he says, to drive to the Dublin airport and pick up director Richard Curtis, one of his co-conspirators in art and activism. And then, hatching new plots and scheming his schemes, he's gone.