Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mark & Ravi's Epic U2 Chat

The last time I had an in-depth chat about U2 with my pal Ravi was July 2011, just after we'd both separately attended U2's rescheduled Rogers Centre date on the back end of the 360 Tour.  Ravi is, if anything, even crazier about U2 than I am, so since we're facing another epic lull in the never-ending wait for their new album, it was high-time for Ravi and I to team up to discuss everything surrounding U2's present and future.

Ravi: So, where to begin with our beloved Irish lads??

Mark: "Ordinary Love" comes out, it's Oscar-nominated. "Invisible" is released to big fanfare, including a Super Bowl commercial. The band performs on Jimmy Fallon's first Tonight Show and steals the show.  All systems are go towards the new album and then.....nothing

Ravi: Not to mention the Oscar performance went off well (though for those who watched Fallon, it perhaps lost some of its charm).  All interviews prior to the new year pointed to a winter/early spring release for a new album as well; I recall Adam discussing in an interview that the band were busy last fall getting things wrapped up prior to the holidays (then again, it was an interview with Adam)

Mark: I love that the band all sticks to their personas when discussing new album releases. Bono always talks things up, promising huge new sounds and "enough material for multiple releases." Larry never promises anything. Edge is a calmer version of Bono, so perhaps Adam is the one we can believe the most

Ravi: I dunno if the new material was truly awful and they decided to start again…or if they are hoping for some sort of 2014 version of the Joshua Tree.

Mark: That's just it. What are the chances the new music was "awful"? Less than five percent? U2 are notoriously hard on themselves, which is sometimes a great thing but often it seems like an albatross.

Ravi: Bono, at least, seems like a man whose reached a mid-life crisis (perhaps more).  He keeps talking about "relevance"/"being on the verge of irrelevance" ... perhaps a new album wouldn't garner them millions of new fans, but it'd at least keep them in good stead with their current fans
at some point you can't overthink the music, you just have to release it and see what the masses have to say

Mark: The relevance thing is a major point. U2 has always (openly) wanted to be 'the biggest band in the world,' as well as the best. In today's music scene, however, that "biggest band in the world" title doesn't even exist anymore. Rock music can't get there anymore. If a rock band did somehow manage to again be the world's most relevant and "best" musical act, it will be a younger band --- not four guys in their 50's.  I'm not sure what Bono considers to be "relevant," since if he thinks U2 can battle for a top 40 radio slot with the Kanyes, Beyonces and Gagas of the world, he's flat-out mistaken.

Ravi: Well I think U2's biggest fear is turning into the Rolling Stones, who have no shame essentially touring music from "Beggars Banquet" to "Tattoo You" decade after decade.  Even the 360 tour by the end only had 2-3 songs each show from NLOTH, but surely I think they have it in them to come up with something within five years that's new and appeals to their fanbase.  Prior to NLOTH, U2's biggest flop was Pop (sorry Mark) and they vowed if their next album didn't do well they'd call it a day.  All That You Can't Leave Behind propelled them back into stardom and it only took the lads 2-3 years to complete

Mark: Yeah, the "two crap albums and we're out" promise. If NLOTH is a crap album by their standards, then the pressure is really on for this one....but does it have to be? As you said, at some point you can't overthink the music.  You make a good point about ATYCLB being finished relatively quickly. From the end of the Popmart tour to ATYCLB's release date, I think it was 2.5 years. We're now going on that long since the end of the (already extended) 360 Tour and still no album in sight.

Sidebar question: do you think U2 ever plays a NLOTH song in concert again, or do they just pretend that one didn't exist, as they basically do for the POP songs?

Ravi: Just like Bono sometimes does "snippets" of Please & Discotheque ... perhaps he'll do a snippet of "Breathe" somewhere (at max a line or two). Other than that I can't see another tune from the album being referenced ever again.

I really think the band is focused on getting new fans, as evidenced by the people they are working with now (Danger Mouse, guy from One Direction).  It's a risky strategy as it may not only be a flop with the younger audiences, but also risk alienating their current fans who are used to the Lillywhite/Eno/Lanois sound.  I also wonder how much time they spend making music in a given week given the fact that they are often at various social events, conferences etc (particularly Bono & Edge, who have really at times become their own travelling act the last 5-6 years).

Mark: In the words of Chris Rock, you never want to be the old guy at the club. If U2 pushes too hard to be trendy, it will backfire badly....ironically, nothing makes you seem less relevant than trying too hard to be relevant.  The Danger Mouse thing is especially disappointing. I wonder how he feels about spending the better part of three years producing "the new U2 record" only to have it all seemingly be tossed aside.

U2 probably haven't been a "full-time" band in years given their other obligations (family, political stuff, etc.) and that can't help but have an impact on the songwriting/recording process

Ravi: What makes the postponement of their album so bad for them is I actually think they did get some attention from "non-fans" based on their SB & Fallon exposure after years of generating headlines for Spiderman stumbles & their tax arrangements (the story that'll always be with them, rightly or wrongly), they started getting some positive press from even their harsher critics.  I just can't see them getting a better PR campaign generated ... and the longer the wait for the new album, the greater the expectations will be.  I'll likely be nervous to hit play, knowing I could be listening to the beginning of the end

Mark: See, I'm somewhat the opposite. I can virtually guarantee I'll like their new album just because I'm such a fan of the U2 sound and style. If they released the scrapped Danger Mouse stuff tomorrow, I'm sure I'd like it overall and surely love a lot of it.  But, if I pressed play and suddenly heard "U2 featuring Pitbull" or some other sad attempt at the top 40, I'd throw up in my mouth.

Ravi: That's what I fear, though. Guys like you and I, we'd be very happy with an album of songs sounding like Invisible.  I think a tune like that satisfies their fan base, may pick up a few extra fans
but they are expecting some sort of "Streets Have No Name" type response - which is simply a bit unrealistic.

Mark: They did it with Beautiful Day.....they did it with Vertigo (with a big assist from Apple's iPod campaign)....but they can't generate that kind of impact now simply because of how much music has changed in a decade.

Ravi: Yeah, and on some level they just released the music and "let it fly" so to speak then ... they were confident in themselves.  They seem so damn worried now about f**king up ... I wonder if Spiderman had a lingering effect on Bono & Edge as well.

Mark: To this day, I believe that damn Spidey musical cost us an album. If Bono/Edge aren't working overtime on that thing, U2 probably put out a Zooropa-esque EP to kick off that 2011 leg of the 360 tour.  It would've had the likes of Mercy, North Star, Every Breaking Wave, Soon, maybe a few others we didn't know about.

It's weird, U2 are in kind of a unique position stature-wise in the musical world, yet other "legend" acts don't at all seem to feel the same pressure as U2 does. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, couldn't give a damn how his new records sell, but he just releases them because he wants to.  Being a "legend" gave Bruce and other artists freedom to do whatever they want, whereas being "legends" seems to make U2 feel like they have to keep cranking out megahits.  Bono is always talking about "defending the belt" whereas Bruce was happy to just retire as champ

Ravi: Charlie Rose asked Bono about his "Messianic complex" in an interview a fear years back.  It goes to that.  I think U2 surprised themselves with their run from 2000-2006 ... if you look at it, they were seemingly dead in the water as a relevant act post Pop; their following two albums generated them millions of new fans, record sales, Grammys etc.  The disappointment of NLOTH and Spiderman I think really shook their egos

Mark: Even with NLOTH, they kind of wimped out with the infamous "middle three" generic pop/rock songs (Crazy Tonight, Boots, Stand Up Comedy) that they felt compelled to add, despite them not fitting into the rest of the album. A braver band would've been confident enough to just tour on a quieter, more overall introspective disc....but it seemed they were like, "oh crap, we're playing stadiums with this huge claw set, we'll need a few rockers and hit singles."

Ravi: Yeah I think overall it's just sad to see a band with all the success they've had just become so damn insecure.

Mark: As I said, U2's drive for relevance was what made them so great in their earlier days. Now, it just seems like a crutch. The game has changed around them and they seem unable to adapt

Ravi: Sidebar question, let's say the band continues to stagger; do you ever see someone like The Edge releasing his own record?  Something the band has avoided up until this point in their careers

Mark: I think they'd have to officially break up before we saw any solo records. They're too loyal to each other (and to the U2 name) to do solo material now.  That said, I won't lie, I'd be pretty fascinated to see an Edge solo disc. (Or a Bono album, or a Larry album, or an Adam album.)

Ravi: Of all the guys Edge is the one I think who has kept up with the technology, has a great voice and easily the most musical talent; Bono has a wonderful voice but I'm not sure I could separate his material from U2 material.  Larry wouldn't be bothered to do an album on his own (I think he'd continue exploring his acting); and Adam ... well, I'm not anyone would care to listen to anything he had on his own.

Mark: That's just it, though. I think it's generally accepted that Edge/Bono write most of U2's music, but because all four of them are credited songwriters for every track, we don't really know who's making the most contribution. For all we know, an Adam Clayton solo album could be mind-blowing.

Re: band dynamics. This is one of those cases where I'd love to know how each of the four feel about these delays. I wonder if this "quest for relevance" is something all four share, or if it's mostly a Bono thing (and, say, Adam or Edge would've preferred to have the music out already)

Ravi: I get the sense Bono & Edge are on the same page.  It used to be Bono would be the one you'd see doing his own thing away from U2 but recently it's been way more "Bono & Edge" news clips.  Adam I feel is that quiet man who knows his role in the band and stays silent.  I feel Larry is always madder than hell and ready to blow but holds it together for the sake of the band.  This clip epitomizes Larry for me ... he really has no interest in doing this schtick but was likely talked into it.

Mark: That said, Larry is always the one cited as 'the leader' since he's the most level-headed one. It's such an interesting dynamic.

Ravi: It's the biggest feather in the cap to the band in my mind; with all their success, still the same four guys.

Mark: Yeah, that's extraordinary. Nobody ever left, nobody ever's still the same four, for almost 40 years now.  Which, getting back to the release process, makes things more difficult. If, say, Springsteen wants to release a record, he can do it since he's his own Boss (pun intended). Or in a band where there's only one principle songwriter, they call the shots. With U2, all four have to be on the same page.

Ravi: Overall, if anything, that may carry them to one last hurrah.  They rebounded from Rattle & Hum (which frankly, I don't mind at all) with Achtung Baby ... they rebounded from Pop with ATYCLB ... I believe they can do it more one time ... they just have to stop overthinking and make it happen in the studio.

Mark: And I love both R&H and Pop....they're only "failures" by U2's high standards. Most bands would kill to "fail" like that.

Ravi: I guess besides grabbing that Oscar this year, there's really not much more a band like U2 could achieve.  To backtrack a tad, why they are so focused on "staying relevant"

Mark: There is one more thing for them to do....the 'Second Comeback.' Lots of bands can rebound once (as they did in 2000) but to rebound again, 14 years later? And to actually make both themselves and rock music relevant again, while in their early 50's? That would be incredible.

Relevance has always been U2's aim. They've always wanted to be a huge act while still staying true to themselves. The problem is that in 2014, their old-school method of releasing a single/promoting it on talk shows/releasing an album is too quaint. I'd love it if U2 just pulled a Radiohead/Beyonce and announced "hey, that new album? We're releasing it online tomorrow. Boom."

Ravi: Yeah. Having a self indulgent week in New York isn't going to cut it anymore.

Mark: Even the idea of releasing an actual album seems old-fashioned.

Ravi: I give them credit for trying something new with Invisible. But as you alluded to ... the amount they spent on making the commercial, the hype prior to the release etc ... just seemed like they were trying too hard

Mark: At the end of the day, it was a good song, which excuses a lot of marketing ills. But the song wasn't good enough (or enough of a hit) for the band, so I guess they felt they had to go back to the drawing board. In fairness, while I liked Invisible, I would've been a bit let down had it been the best song on the new album

Ravi: It's a fine U2 song. It's just not this earth shattering tune that I've been hyped to believe for years they're going to release - which makes every month that goes by without a new album more detrimental for them

Mark: True. The delays are only adding to the pressure, in this respect.  My hope is they only delayed it to September/October so they can sell records during the Xmas rush. If we hit 2015 and this new album still isn't out, I have to wonder what the hell is going on.

Ravi: Their own hype machine is killing them. Let's say last year they released a record with Invisible (sans huge promo) and OL type songs ... it wouldn't blow anyone away but I think most U2 fans like us would still give it the odd listen, be happy to hear it live (where U2 songs really come to life). The longer they keep promising a "great record" the more they are setting us up to be let down ... for better or for worse they have a certain "sound" to them by now which to some extent they have to embrace.

Mark: Maybe that was the issue with Danger Mouse. They went in a new direction by hiring a completely fresh producer, only to find that they still had the same 'U2 sound.' Maybe this is what happened during those short-lived sessions with Rick Rubin years back.  I'd like to think that U2 aren't so set in their ways that only the usual crew of Lanois/Eno/Lillywhite/sometimes Flood can get anything out of them.

U2's insistence on touring every album is also an issue. As you said, it only adds to the hype that every disc needs to be strong enough to support a year-long worldwide tour.  If they just released music for the hell of it, it would keep them sharp, win them a bit of critical praise and keep their names in the game, so to speak.

Ravi: The other issue we haven't discussed but which goes to your point is that by signing with Live Nation, you can forget about that happening.  They're going to be expected to tour, and tour BIG.

Mark: Very good point. I wonder if this next tour will again be in stadiums. On the one hand, how do you top the 360 Tour, but LiveNation probably expects U2 to bring in those big stadium bucks since they're one of the few acts who can do it.

Ravi: I suspect they'll do a Vertigo style tour ... start off playing arenas but for certain venues go outdoor stadium or even if they stick to "small 20,000 seat venues" they'll be doing at least 100+ shows, so they'll aspire to have "big" material to tour with

Mark: True.  One of the biggest issues with NLOTH is that so few of the songs translated well to a live setting.  Since they've openly said they don't want to be the Stones, they'll never do the "live show with all the hits and one or two token new tracks" gimmick. 

Ravi: Well, that pretty much was the back half of 360

Mark:   Yeah, the back half of 360 was the post-Bono injury "let's just get this over with" tour.

Ravi: Therein lies an issue; they want a "new sound" but the sound they know how to make is suited well for stadium rock, which they are expected to do.

Mark: Ideally they'd come up with a new kind of stadium rock (i.e. going from the Joshua Tree sound to the Achtung Baby sound) but that's a very tall order.  You alluded to this earlier, but by this point, U2 would almost need a Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby-level album to make the long wait worth it to the majority of fans

Ravi: Yeah, they've hyped it too much by this point.

Mark: So we're kind of tap-dancing around this question but it has to be you think this is U2's final album and tour?

Ravi: For awhile, yes. I think they'll have an album that guys like you and I will like/go to see, but won't be generating the new fans/winning the Grammys they aspire for.

Mark: Ah, being irrelevant has never stopped anyone from winning a Grammy. :)

If they can't find that audience beyond hardcore fans like us, is that it? Another NLOTH-level album, followed by essentially a farewell tour, and...done?  My theory is they'd stretch the tour to September 25 2016 just so they could say they lasted a full 40 years.

Ravi: That makes sense. Assuming they are all healthy, perhaps in 2026 Larry could be talked into doing a Stones' style 50 and counting tour (despite it being totally against everything the band has stood for).  I hope I'm wrong, but I see this being the end ... for awhile.

Mark: Heh, "for awhile" as if they already aren't taking huge half-decade gaps between new releases.

Ravi: Well when I say "for awhile" - that would also include staying out of the musical spotlight for awhile; no appearances at shows; no singles; no talk of a new album etc ... officially being on hiatus

Mark: So basically, U2 would go into a hiatus like David Bowie did for basically the entire last decade, only to surprise everyone with a new record last year.

Ravi: One side note, what exactly is the point of the Golden Globes?

Mark: Well, they're like a less-prestigious Oscars and everyone's drunk.

Ravi: I ask since U2 won a GG this year but it seems irrelevant since they lost the Oscar

Mark: I dunno, winning an Oscar is kind of a longshot goal for any rock/pop band. If it happens, great, but I find it hard to believe that U2 were really counting on that win this year. "Let It Go" had it in the bag.

Though just imagine....U2 lends 10-11 of their unreleased songs to a good director to serve as the soundtrack to his/her next hit movie. That'd be a good way to both remain relevant and get a crack at an Oscar, if that's something the band really desires.  It'd release U2 from the pressure of those songs being 'the next album' since it'd be "only" a soundtrack album. Like how the Passengers disc didn't really count as a U2 project.

Ravi: Well allegedly they have about 50 songs kicking around so they could.  That'd be something - put all of them up online and get fans to vote on the 10 songs to tour.

Mark: Given all of these stopped-started U2 recording sessions over the years, there have to be literally hundreds of unreleased gems in the vaults. The next U2 box set will be incredible.

Ravi: Who knows, maybe Live Nation will surprise us and help em come up with something innovative AND big (which they want).

Mark: Yeah, the tour is the thing I'm least concerned with. U2 always deliver big on live shows...even if the next record isn't a classic, the tour will be as amazing as ever

Ravi: I meant moreso on the side of how to release music/think outside the box for promo
perhaps that's where some new ideas will help them out (assuming they ever release some damn music).

Mark: Agreed. Bono always sounds like a guy who is very much aware of how music trends are changing and how ways to deliver music are changing, and yet his own band seems behind in the times in this sense. And it was only a decade ago that U2 had the shrewd move of tying themselves to the iPod.

Ravi: Yip, and in that sense, the way Paul "left" (or was booted?) was done in a pretty classy way
no mud slinging, just a quiet departure and nice statement from the band.

Mark: We haven't touched on McGuinness' departure, which is an under-the-radar huge moment in U2 history given that he's been there since virtually day one. There could be a reason why he left....or maybe he just legitimately wanted to retire since he's in his late 60's.

That's the other factor in the "end of U2" talk. Maybe the album delays are happening in part because these guys are all 50+ now and the spark isn't quite there anymore.

Ravi: Paul is a bit older than the other guys. I think there's more to the story than was reported, but it was kept under wraps which was a classy move on all parties I think.

I think writing "great songs" is harder the older/more famous one gets ... but I do see a desire on the part of the guys to get out there and do a worldwide megatour again.  It would be funny if they signed with Live Nation and never toured haha

Mark: Yeah, U2 aren't the type to quietly fade away. They'll do a farewell tour, at the very least.

Prediction time: name the release date of U2's next studio album

Ravi: November 2014.  Though there is likely pressure to release in the summer so a tour can get underway  I just don't see them doing what they did in Pop and planning a tour prior to being done with their album.

Mark: I'll say October, just so it'll be a nice birthday present for me. In either case, it's out in the fall and the tour begins in April/May of 2015. Same model as ATYCLB and Atomic Bomb.  You're right that they won't dare schedule any tour dates until the record is finished and they have substantial rehearsal time

Ravi: Totally unlikely event that would be cool for only U2 nerds on tour: they'll finally play Staring at the Sun live & plugged in.

Mark: Hey, they played Zooropa and Scarlet on the last tour, so never say never

Ravi: Sidebar, will they tour with other bigger bands (like Muse last time) or with smaller opening acts?

Mark: Probably the same mix of slightly larger bands in some venues and others who are bigger in the UK but are just breaking in North America (like Snow Patrol or Florence & The Machine on the last tour).  Florence, btw, is one of my favourite newer acts. She and U2 on a double bill is essentially a dream concert for me.

Ravi: Certainly better than Lars Ulrich's idea of a Green Day/Metallica/U2 tour ...

Mark: Lars has lots of silly ideas.

No comments: