U2's Leading Edge

Musician, circa 1986, page 33
By John Hutchinson, photos by Aaron Rapaport

I don't really see myself as a guitar player," says U2's Edge. "I'm more of a songwriter or composer. In looking for a new way to say things with a guitar. I've developed my own style, but it was just something I was led to instinctively, out of frustration at the rubbish most people were putting out at the time."
No, the Edge- a nickname Bono stuck on his friend Dave Evans- is not a hot guitarist in the sense that Eddie Van Halen or Larry Coryell or even Richard Thompson are. But Edge's approach to his instrument has already had an enormous influence of its own, a style founded on simplicity and service to the song- and devoid of any cheap-seat grandstanding.
With U2 he will often set a rhythm with a pronounced, folk-like formality, and then, once that rhythm is established, blend back into the bass and drum, emerging again with tonal colors-sounds like bells, foghorns or banshees- to enhance or alter the mood of the song. He's the linch pin of U2's sound, but it is typical of the band's philosophy that the guitarist, bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen often lock together until it becomes difficult to make distinctions between them. At their best, Edge, Clayton, and Mullen sound less like three musicians playing together than like one musician with six hands.
This interview was done in Ireland, where U2 are working on their next album at a house in the Dublin hills. Edge entered the room wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, a black leather jacket, and a navy blue sailor's cap. His face was covered with a few days growth of beard. Quiet but self-assured, he warmed immediately to the conversation. Playing in the background was a demo. of Edge's soundtrack for a new film called Captive. It was sort of a cross between Vangelis and Eno's Ambient music, quiet and vaguely mystical- a bit like Edge himself.

MUSICIAN: Some of the music press would have it that U2 is a "guitar band," in the manner of Simple Minds or Big Country. What function to you think the guitar plays in U2?
EDGE:: Well, you have to remember that U2 is fundamentally a live group. When you perform live certain things work and others don't- certain things get lost. But there's something really powerful about the live combination of guitar, bass, and drums, and in the early days we disciplined ourselves to use only those primary colors of rock 'n' roll. We avoided keyboards not because we were prejudiced against them, but because we wanted to see what we could do with the medium of rock 'n' roll in its basic form.

MUSICIAN: How would you characterize your own way of playing?
EDGE:: Style is a very complex thing. There are various guitar sounds that interest me, and one of them is a melodic, linear way of playing, that has a kind of cutting clarity. I realized quite early on that a harmonic, let's say, can be so pure and finely-focused that it has the incredible ability to pierce through its environment of sound, just like lightning. I've always wanted to be able to do that. But I would pick out many different aspects of my playing. Perhaps most important of all is the Irish influence on my use of drone strings, which was something I started to do quite instinctively, before I could afford a bank of expensive effects. In the early years I used quite clean sounds, generally playing higher strings, and plucking them with a pick, but playing the melody against a drone.

MUSICIAN: How do you do that?
EDGE:: It sounds very complex, but really it's just a rhythmic device. The idea of playing over a drone is very Irish, and as far as I know has no roots at all in rock 'n' roll. Another of my traits, which is similar, is the use of echo in a rhythmic way.

MUSICIAN: So that guitar echo on Boy wasn't Steve Lillywhite's contribution?
EDGE:: No, that was me. In fact, I became the timekeeper with the band for a while, and Larry would play to me, because everything had to sync with my echo- you can hear that is "Pride," for example. Eventually we made a decision to leave out the echo on War, and the guitar became much more dry and forceful. That sound reappeared, in a sense, on Unforgettable Fire, because of the Hawaiian guitar, but in any case, the guitar treatments almost always came out of things that I was doing.

MUSICIAN: On Unforgettable Fire, what did Eno do to your treatments?
EDGE:: He treated them again! I always treat my guitars at source: I don't use outboard equipment, because I like to react to, and play against, my own treatments. On Unforgettable Fire I played with the echo, which really pissed people off, because if it was too much, you couldn't take it off. I fine-tuned it very precisely when I was playing, and it would have been totally unsatisfactory to have split it into a "dry" and "wet" signal. Brian sometimes added other treatments, but more on the keyboards than on the guitar. On "Fourth Of July," for in-stance, the treatment was a combination of what I was doing while playing, and something Brian added in the studio, and the fact that it sounds as if there are more than two instruments is due solely to the treatments. That track is only alit-tie vignette, not to be taken too seriously, but I think it is quite beautiful.

MUSICIAN: Unforgettable Fire was a radical change in many ways. Was that the band's decision?
EDGE:: Yes. All the material was written by the time Eno arrived, with the exception of "Bad," "Fourth Of July," and "Elvis Presley In America." "Unforgettable Fire," to give you an example, wasn't written with guitars in mind. I'd actually written it for a soundtrack- at least, I'd decided that it wasn't suitable for U2, so I'd put it on one side. Then Bono and I messed around with it, Bono on bass, and myself on keyboards, and we worked it out without any guitars. Subsequently I put on a few "ambient" guitars on top, but it was always a keyboard song. And if you think about it, there is very little traditional guitar on that record.

MUSICIAN: Do you remember when you first picked up guitar?
EDGE:: I was given a Spanish guitar when I was about twelve, which I learned to tune, and that was as far as I got Then, when I was about fourteen, I took up piano, worked on that for about two years, by which time I could play a lot of rudimentary classical pieces. But I gave it up when I realized that I'd never be able to handle the sight-reading, and that I didn't much like the pieces I was given to learn.
Some time later my brother, who is two years older than me, also got a guitar, and we plonked around together, playing Beatles songs. When I was just sixteen, we formed the first group that contained the present members of U2, with my brother and another guitar player. At that stage Bono wanted to play guitar, so we had four guitar players, and no one who was prepared to sing. Adam had a bass, which I think he bought because it had four strings rather than six, and because it guaranteed him a place in the band!
We played cover versions for a while- mainly songs that were easy for us to play without keyboards. My brother then left the group because it just didn't seem to be working with five members, the other guitar player left after a week, and suddenly there was a new simplicity that came with the change to a four-piece band. This led to a creative period which resulted in our first demos, which we sent out to record companies. That would have been in 1977.
We played a lot, rehearsed a lot, and became totally immersed in the music that was happening around us. Suddenly we became aware of people like Patti Smith, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, and Television. And in England there were the Banshees, the Skids, Magazine, the Pistols, the Clash and all of them. It was a great period. The American groups really caught our interest, because even at that stage we sensed an English overemphasis on image, at the expense of the music and lyrical content.

MUSICIAN: And who were the influences on you as a guitarist?
EDGE:: I was very influenced by Tom Verlaine- not stylistically, but in terms of general approach and tearing up the rule-book. I also loved Patti Smith: her guitar-playing was competent and not particularly exceptional, but it was perfect for her band. These influences never became very evident; they were always more of an inspiration, catalysts in the formation of my own style.

MUSICIAN: How much of U2's success do you attribute to the band's idealism?
EDGE:: That's a difficult question to answer- I suppose it's part of everything we do to some extent. In terms of personal achievement, it's what I most value. We've never been a band of exceptional musicians, so it may be another quality that has brought about our success, and it may have something to do with our ideals. But what is fascinating I feel about a lot of modem art is that it draws no conclusions, provides no solutions, and doesn't point you in any new directions, and I think that the reason why Western culture is so bankrupt is because it lacks spiritual values. I think that art can be a light at the end of the tunnel, not just a mirror of society.

MUSICIAN: U2 has become so involved with good works of one sort or another- Live Aid, Sun City, the Amnesty concerts- that there could be a risk of the band appearing a bit self-righteous.
EDGE:: We've always been aware of that, and we've always taken pains to make it clear that we're not preaching. A lot of our lyrics are about "us" collectively, not "you." I think that apathy and cynicism are hard to shake off- I see that in myself- and I do believe that it's very corrupting when you start giving in to them.

MUSICIAN: But don't you think there's a danger in identifying the band so closely with a set of moral values?
EDGE:: Whether or not art should raise itself above social or political values is an open question, but as far as I'm concerned, art can't raise itself above I spirituality. Spirituality needn't be bland or simplistic- it can be very mystical and personal. Expressing it is very hard, but when it is expressed, I think it gives art a depth which you can't get otherwise.

MUSICIAN: When it expresses "soul"?
EDGE:: Yes, "soul" is probably a good word for it, as it has few negative connotations. And I'm not talking about religion, I'm talking about a sense of something beyond yourself, of something that extends beyond the here and now. It's a feeling of timelessness, really.

MUSICIAN: Where do you look for that kind of inspiration? In church?
EDGE:: No, I haven't been to church for years. It's an attitude of mind, a sense of the existence of God. It's like looking at a landscape from a mountaintop, a kind of overview that you get when you start to think of yourself in relation to something much greater.... Does all of this sound like bull shit? I can't really express it, but I know it when I see it, because it's in art. Definitely all my favorite art and music have that quality, and to me that spiritual aspect is very important.

MUSICIAN: Do the other members of the band feel the same way?
EDGE:: Yes, I think there is an unconscious understanding between us. But it's also more complicated than that- there are times when we're working or performing, and we know that there's something good happening. Of course there are times when it doesn't happen, when it seems as if we're just going through the motions. That's why, say, "The Drowning Man" is one of my favorite pieces, and why "Surrender" isn't.

MUSICIAN: Are there any ways you can encourage and sustain the "highs"?
EDGE:: I think so. For instance, there are times when we run ourselves dry, when probably the best course of action is to acknowledge the fact that we're not being productive, but we tend to push on doggedly. During the Unforgettable Fire sessions Brian was very quick to spot when we were in that mode, and he would suggest that we take a walk, or listen to some Seamus Ennis! In that mundane sort of way you can encourage creative moods, but basically it depends on your psyche, on your state of mind.

MUSICIAN: How did your new project, the soundtrack, come into the picture?
EDGE:: I rented an apartment in London for six weeks last summer when we were off the road, wrote it then, and had an idea that it would be good as a soundtrack. I had a particular guitar set-up with me, a Washburn put through a [Scholz] Rockman and a few delays, the only equipment I could bring over from Dublin. When I got home I spent a couple of days in the studio recording it in a more conventional way, and I was left with about five pieces, of which two were used in the movie.
At first I thought of all my favorite American directors, and tried to call them on the phone, but most movie directors seem to be even more protected than rock 'n' roll stars. Then I decided to try some English ones, and with a stroke of luck I got through to David Puttnam, who put me in touch with a producer, Don Boyd, and a director, Paul Mayer-berg, who were working on a movie called Captive. I went over to see it in Paris, and I thought the general appearance of the film was of an incredibly high standard, given its comparatively low budget. It seemed right for the direction the music was taking, so I committed myself on that basis. I then realized that working on my own might be a little unsatisfactory, so I decided to invite a friend, Michael Brook, to collaborate with me. As far as the soundtrack is concerned, most of the writing was mine, but the rest was collaborative.

MUSICIAN: The soundtrack isn't your first extra-curricular activity, is it? You recorded an album with Holger Czukay and Jah Wobble.
EDGE:: Yes- Snake Charmer. The man who produced that record was Francois Kavorkian, who did some work for us on "Two Hearts Beat As One" and "New Year's Day." Then I heard that Jah Wobble was doing a record, and that Frank was going to do the production. The rhythm section was Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit from Can. I was asked in, to add a new flavor on guitar: It happened that I had a couple of weeks to spare- it literally was a couple of weeks- so I went over to London, rehearsed for about three days, and recorded for about the same time.
Jaki and Holger were a bit like rock 'n' roll philosophers. Brian Eno is too, but he's more easygoing about it. His arguments can be complex, but when you actually get down to what he does, it's quite straightforward. I think Holger and Jaki are more ideas-oriented, like Talking Heads. They have a conceptual basis for what they do, whereas Brian, on the other hand, develops axioms for what he's just done. Brian makes shifts in a more fundamental way- when he makes a change, it's a change in everything, and he goes along that path for a considerable time, until another shift takes place. For instance, during Unforgettable Fire he'd just come out of his African period, and he'd developed a huge interest in gospel music and in traditional Irish music- he was fascinated by Seamus Ennis, the uillean pipes player.

MUSICIAN: Did all this whet your appetite for independence? There was a rumor a while ago that you were going to leave U2.
EDGE:: No! You see, the band is the reason why I'm a musician. I find music amazing, but I don't see anything as rewarding as being in a group that functions as a group. If U2 ever became a kind of convenience for us, then I probably would leave, but at the moment the four members of the band are working with each other all the time, and I don't think that will ever get boring. It really boils down to whether the relationships are robust enough to stand the test of time. I'm convinced they are.

MUSICIAN: Your answer to that question reminds me of the reasons why Brian Eno agreed to produce the last album. He told me that he was impressed by the band's attitude to the group as a unit, and by your commitment to each other as individuals.
EDGE:: Actually, Brian was one of the people we had short listed for the first album. I remember him being discussed, but I don't think we ever tried to get in touch with him because we decided that he was probably very busy with Talking Heads, and that he was unlikely to want to come to Dublin, which is where we wanted to record.
And at that point we had developed a rapport with Martin Hannett; unfortunately when Ian Curtis died, Martin left for the States, and became involved with New Order. He felt that was where his duty lay, and he didn't want to get into anything new. Steve Lillywhite then came in, recorded a single with us, and that turned out very well, so he produced Boy- very successfully. We weren't going to do October with Steve, but we did eventually, because of scheduling problems. That turned out well, too. When War came along, we had a couple of people in mind, but again they couldn't fit into our schedule, and Steve kindly agreed to do it at the last minute. In short, Unforgettable Fire was the first time we really felt that Brian might be able to take on the album, and that he would definitely be the right choice.

MUSICIAN: To what extent is he involved in the forthcoming album?
EDGE:: Daniel Lanois will be the overall producer, and Brian will be the executive, "flying" producer. Danny is a very solid character, probably better suited temperamentally to a long stint in the studio. He did a great job on Peter Gabriel's record, so we've no real worries about Brian not being there all the time. I hope we'll get the best of them both.

MUSICIAN: Will there be any significant changes? Does the band's recent interest in Bob Dylan songs like "Maggie's Farm" and "Knocking On Heaven's Door" indicate a shift in direction?
EDGE:: We did "Knocking On Heaven's Door" at the end of the show during the last tour, taking a member of the audience onstage, showing him how the song is played, getting him to play it, and then leaving the stage while he played it. It was a symbolic action, and that song, I think, is a typical three-chord trick that shows just how simple and rich a basic song can be. It coincides with a growing interest in rootsy music, but it's not significant in itself.

MUSICIAN: What about Bono's collaboration with the Stones on the Sun City LP?
EDGE:: That's an amazing song. It's one of my favorite pieces of Bono's singing- he sounds just like a Delta bluesman!

MUSICIAN: Will U2 keep on going until it disintegrates, or might you decide to call it a day while you're still on tap?
EDGE:: Let me think... I imagine the latter. But there's so much energy in the group at the moment that I can't see it coming to an end for some time to come. The new record will be very different from the last, and although all the U2 hallmarks will be in there, I'm sure that it will expand the boundaries of what people expect from us. "


The Edge has a 1971 Fender Strat with a graphite nut, brass bridge saddles, modified Seymour Duncan quarter-pound stack pickup and Strat Tremelo. He also has a 1971 Gibson Explorer, an early 60s Les Paul Deluxe (used only on "Indian Summer Sky") and 1961 Telecaster. Then there's a new Washburn acoustic, and a 1959 Gretsch Falcon, with stereo pickups he rewired to mono, not to mention an Epiphone Elektra lap steel (1939 or '40) which he picked up real cheap in the U.S., and a Yamaha Jazz. His amps are an old Vox AC30 and Mesa Boogie MK-II C. Strings are Superwound by Rotosound.
He selects effects with a Boss SCC 700. These include two Korg SDD 3000 digital delays, a Yamaha R-1000 digital reverb, an MXR pitch transposer, a Yamaha D-15 digital delay, SPX-90 and Rev 7. There are also two Electro-Harmonic Memory Man analog delays: one side is used for the CP70, the other for the lap steel on "Surrender." He uses an MXR compressor and Boss TU-12 Tuner. For keyboards Edge uses a Yamaha DX7 and CP70, and Oberheim OB-8 and DSX. His lap steel and Yamaha CP70 piano, though, go through a Roland JC-120 amp.