Sunday Morning Fever

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Mojo magazine, March 1997

Sunday Morning Fever

by Mat Snow

U2's first album in MOJO's lifetime; produced by Flood, Howie B and Nellee Hooper. Among perhaps the discreetest samples ever committed to record are Don Cherry, The Byrds and Les Voix Bulgores.

U2 have a fine sense of event and how to tweak it. Preceded by advance publicity suggesting more than enough stylistic innovation to maintain the band's reputation for playing unsafe, a calling card single called Discotheque and, worse still for die-hard fans who prefer their U2 on the monumental side, bearing the worryingly lightweight title Pop, the new U2 is 1997's first must-hear album. Ten years after their commercial zenith, The Joshua Tree, and 17 since their first LP, it's still a case of No U2, No Comment.

As it turns out, Pop presents nothing like the leap into the relative unknown that The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby were in their time. If you liked the latter you will like Pop which, following the patchily excellent Zooropa, marks the third U2 album to whip up a little musical dissonance to conjure up that pre- millennial tension we're all supposed to be feeling. Even if you believe the '90s to be almost relaxed after the '80s, you can't but be impressed by U2's faith in the power of rock'n'roll to reflect, interrogate and challenge the times. And whether or not you give a monkey's nutsack where we're all heading spiritually as the year 2000 approaches, this is still a cracking record.

Following the casually par-boiled Zooropa, U2 stage-manage, light, direct and edit the elements of Pop with a cinematic flair that trumpets, Major Statement. Kicking off with three bursts of unsettling adrenalin - Discotheque, Do You Feel Loved, Mofo - you must either turn off or tune in. Your attention thus grabbed, the strobe-lit energy level relents to let us find our bearings in a far more subtly shaded, slow-burning musical world.

In the interview that follows, The Edge wonders how an album that set out to be a celebration of everything fast, modern and cosmopolitan could end up so wracked with spiritual longing. Why the mystery? Surely it's obvious by now that U2 could make an album of jazz-tinged dub-metal, duelling banjos, oompah hip hop or ambient reggae noseflute, and the whole shebang would still hosanna to the highest. Born of a non- denominational religious teenage gang in Dublin, Godliness is hard-wired into their system; angst'n'faith'n'rock'n'roll is what comes naturally. That it can work at all is a measure of pop's deepest paradox: that the endorphin-charged, chemically-zapped rush you get in the eye of the big beat's reckless abandon is the closest most of us will get to the transcendent moments of epiphany spoken of by those touched by the divine. In short, God is in the guitar solo, and always has been. U2 instinctively know it, and take the opportunity to broach the big ones while everyone's in the mood.

God aside - not that He can be extricated from anything U2 sing about-the big ones here are the brave new world of information overload and just-add-money fun (U2 have taken us here before), sex, and mother (both, I think, new). These are the themes raised respectively in the first three tracks, but are developed at a more leisurely pace in later and better songs on the album. Bono's mother died when he was 14, and two songs here touch upon that loss. Mofo is angry and yearning, lyrics spinning into free-association as if to express his complex of feelings; this technique is refined on the far more elliptically crafted but emotionally involving Miami, where his need for a mother's love surfaces within a rumination on the Florida resort simply through the accident of assonance - "Miami, my mammy."

Miami is among Bono's least histrionic, most convincing vocal performances. On Pop his voice explores a little more of the continent-wide turf that lies between his two familiar poles of heroic declamation and the numbed drowsiness of someone for whom it's all too much. For all the evident sincerity of his singing, Bono seldom quite seems to inhabit the song as does, say. Lennon in the gut-wrenching primal scream period of Mother (not an unfair comparison in this context); at worst, Bono acts it out with the self-consciousness of someone throwing shapes in his bedroom mirror. This credibility gap yawns unbridgeably for some, but it's a measure of the band's talent for the epic that the sheer momentum of their music sweeps us to our connection.

As Adam Clayton suggests, the role of Howie B and Nellee Hooper was less to provide happening new sounds for U2 to bolt onto their guitar-rock chassis, but to acquaint them with fresh ways of listening to and so making music. Another of Pop's highlights, If You Wear That Velvet Dress, will be characterised as U2- go-trip hop, stroking an intensely romantic eroticism out of little more than an ambient ripple of guitar and a mentholated soft-shoe shuffle from the rhythm boys. File it alongside the Stones' Moonlight Mile and R.E.M.'s Nightswimming as the kind of intimate gem to be found way off the band's usual path. Indeed, like Automatic For The People, Pop is inspired to an exhilarating pitch of energetic invention despite the mood of troubled, unresolved quest that runs throughout. Or perhaps because of it. Maybe for U2 it's still not the finding but the looking for.


Q. Through what musical stages and directions did you move while recording ?

Bono: We wanted to make a record that sounded like our record collections, all the music we've been listening to. And we listen to such different things, all of us. On one night in my house we were playing records from the Sex Pistols to Chic, to Tricky, to Donna Summer, '70s disco, to some speed metal band. I think nowadays music is less tribal and the notion of being only one thing seems quite old-fashioned. On Pop we've got this science fiction gospel song, psychedelic pop, some trance stuff and trip-hop feels on Playboy Mansion.

Adam Clayton: We had to learn a lot of new techniques in the studio. We had a new production team, Howie B and Nellee Hooper, helping us out. We were learning how to programme, how to use samples, and how they work with what we were doing. For every song we almost had to learn a different genre of music in order to make it come alive.

The Edge: A lot of the time we spent in the studio was trying to find new things to say with our guitars, and Bono with his singing, and Larry with his drumming, allowing no restriction on that exploration, just going as far out there as we could and then trying to be disciplined about making these ideas into songs. Obviously trance, techno and trip-hop has been something we were enjoying a lot and allowing into our music. You can hear that on the first three tracks particularly. Last Night On Earth is typical for a U2 song. The verse part was written on acoustic guitar in France before we even started recording, but the chorus was written on the last day of the recording. The whole thing was mixed in about four hours. Our methods are so unique. We have this kind of pathological fear of making decisions on songs too early. So if something isn't really blowing us away we won't finish it and we wait. And sometimes it takes to the very end of the project before something will click. So often the last two weeks of an album are so frantic because all these things are just coming together. Most of the mixes are hands-on old-style mixing, so a lot of them are really rough. It doesn't sound overworked as an album because it really came together quickly.

Why weren't you working with Brian Eno this time ?

Adam: He is more analogue than you would think. He thinks computers waste a lot of time, and he may be right. But we wanted that sound and he didn't really like that sound any more. Also he didn't want to get into a year-long project because he wanted to work on his own music.

What have you learned from Howie B ?

Adam: How to listen. When he's DJing in front of an audience, he knows what turns them on and what works. And for us as a live band it was very, very interesting to have someone in the studio who knows the club scene, very refreshing compared to the MTV approach to music that you can hear everywhere else. That is why we got into a lot of club music and got excited by Underworld, Leftfield and Prodigy, people like that.

Edge: Howie was spinning records as we were playing, and introducing really strong loops. The arrangement styles were definitely inspired by music that Howie was bringing in. He was really fantastic to have in the studio because he was full of surprises.

Bono: It seems like we need a little bit of chaos to work. It's hard to explain why it would take us eight months or whatever to make a record. But six months were just messing, playing around, songwriting in the studio. There was a lot of fun just playing with Howie B. And then we had some weeks where we just played, the three of us...

The three ?

Bono: The others don't count me as a musician. In fact the only way to get Edge to play the guitar is when I start playing it. Edge thinks that the guitar is a bit of a stupid instrument. Well, it's not the instrument that he thinks is stupid, he thinks most guitar players are, because they all sound the same or like someone else. He is almost embarrassed about being a guitar player because he wants to sound fresh, so he kind of avoids it. So I will pick up the guitar and start to play then he goes, "Maybe I'll just play it..." Hahaha. Just to defend myself for one second, Flood is a fan of my guitar playing; he thinks I'm the only punk in the band, because I don't want to know everything about the instrument that I'm playing. Nellee Hooper was there when we started the record, but Flood is the overall producer; he was the man. We bought him a spiky helmet for the studio because it got very mad in the last few months and he really needed to get strict. We love to start things but find it hard to finish them. We get bored, get excited about something else and want to move on. Flood was the grown-up who came in and said, "Look, I think this is a more interesting direction than that."

Why did you title the album Pop ?

Larry Mullen Jr: It looks great on T-shirts.

Edge: It's music that is dedicated to what's going on. It's not really about being designed for AM radio around the world. It's just music that celebrates the moment. We wanted to strip it down and be quite simple, we didn't want to be too abstract.

Why record in Miami ?

Adam: Because it's hot.

Bono: Daylight was the reason, just literally to see the light. We'd been in the studio in Dublin for quite a while and spent all our time in the rehearsing room. Miami has some interesting things going on. It feels a bit like the next century. It's like a cross-roads: South America, Cuba, Caribbean, North America. It was like being in Berlin in a weird way, but very different. Miami is also a kind of a capital of glamour and kitsch. The Latin Americans have the sexy end of Catholicism. They have carnival which we don't have in Northern Europe. We have all of the denial but none of the celebration - that never came to Dublin or even England. Miami does have a Hispanic influence and people are more at home with their faith. I also wanted to explore the big hair and the villains smoking cigars. We recorded the song Miami there and a couple of other things, but in the end the fun we had was as important as the work. We did want to make a record that had some joy and some sunlight. I want my work to be both trashy and precious at the same time.

Edge: Miami as a city gave us encouragement not to take it all too seriously. You can call it creative tourism. We went, we saw what's happening, we took what we could and then went back. It is not overly angst- ridden, it's kind of allowing ideas to come out without second-guessing yourself too much. As the songs were written we were not really thinking of themes. But ironically it's probably one of our most spiritual records. Even though it's dedicated to the moment, in a weird way it became a spiritual record. I don't quite know how that has happened. It wasn't really our intention. Maybe when you pare things down to their most essential, you are almost at a very religious spiritual level.

During the recording for Achtung Baby, Bono developed The Fly. Did you develop any alter ego this time ?

Bono: I tried not to, but l might have failed. I actually wanted to make quite a personal record. I tried to avoid any persona on the record. The song Mofo was first called The Return Of The Fly, like a B-movie, and then it became the heaviest song maybe we've ever written. I feel like my whole life is in that one tune.

After Zoo TV, will the next tour be another extravaganza ?

Bono: Our last tour cost $125,000 a day. We risked bankruptcy. This time we thought we've got to be careful. So we've got a better deal now, a worldwide promoter, and I think we've got a way of making the numbers out of the T-shirts and all that stuff. In white music, particularly white rock in America and even indie music in England, there is a real embarrassment about talking about cash. You have these guys who are very shy and they are like, "I don't really want to be in a band, I don't know how this happened to me; here I am, I'm successful, I'm signed to a major label, I got heavy management, but it's all a bit too much... You don't see that in hip hop. It's so much freer because those guys are saying, "The music is the music, but I'm also taking care of business." They are very honest about it, and they always come off like they are greedy, like it's all about money, but it's not. A mistake that we made in the '80s was trying to explain ourselves. Our way of dealing with this success was trying to be pure. There was a sort of righteousness and that can be very dangerous for an artist. So we dealt with it in saying, "We are not righteous." We found a great liberation actually in not just listening to black music but also in the philosophies. In white rock music there are some very bogus ideas of authenticity: "Here I am with my torn jeans, I just play the guitar, I don't wanna deal with any of this new technology, I'm a purist..." On the other hand there are the 16- year-old kids coming out of Harlem or places like that and creating the sound of the next century. They are not afraid of the new technology. And also as angry as some of the hip hop people get, their music always has hips. Punk's got no hips: it's very Northern European.

With each new tour, isn't it hard to surprise the audience with something new ?

Bono: It's a chance to do something extraordinary. That's the job; the job is not to be dull. I don't want to talk too much about the tour because we are still working it out. But I say one thing: the last time we took a TV station on the road - this time we are taking a supermarket.

Copyright © 1997 Mojo magazine. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 26, 1997 8:32 PM.

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