Shirley Manson, sitting on a stool in a sound room at Capitol Studios, confessed something in front of the 200 or so people cross-legged on the floor and in rows of chairs behind them as she awaited for the four members of U2 to arrive. Four bar stools, each with a microphone placed on the seat, sat empty beside her.
"I've never done this before," she said, her notes shaking in her hands. "I'm shitting myself."
(imagine this scenario in a recording studio and you get a general sense of the vibe.)
The occasion was an interview she was conducting with the band for something called the U2 Radio Network, and the crowd was comprised primarily of radio industry professionals who no doubt the band was seeking to curry favor with in order to get better exposure for its new album. But the band has bussed in some real life fans, too, who you could spot because, well, they didn't look like radio professionals. This event has been billed as "an inside look at No Light on the Horizon," and Manson, of the band Garbage, has been shouldered with the responsibility of talking with the band.
We're promised by some lackey before the band comes out that tonight is going to be "filled with surprises," and considering we're in a recording studio waiting for a rock band to come out and talk about its new album, maybe we'll get a song or two. But there's no gear set up, just the empty stools and a pretty Scotswoman, so that's looking less and less likely.
The so-called U2 Radio Network counts down the seconds until the top of the hour. This is being broadcast live over the Internet to subscribers of the band's website ($50 a year), and since U2 is perhaps the most disciplined band in the world, of course everything's on time. Including the band, who, as the countdown hits blastoff and Manson introduces them, poke their heads from behind a door, and the small crowd erupts as Bono, the Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton walk out and take their seats. Missing is drummer Larry Mullins, who's not feeling well (though he ultimately arrived late and answered a few final questions.)
Like a lot of geeky shy white fellas growing up in the 1980s, U2 was my band (well, the Clash was my band, but U2 mattered a hell of a lot). I was discovering politics and rock simultaneously, and Bono and the boys taught me about outrage, right and wrong. I became pissed about Bloody Sunday before I knew what it meant, got to know the streets of Dublin through the band's words, and though they ultimately alienated me (it had to do with a humorless lawsuit they filed against SST and Negativland), U2 always been a band that I've admired (though at times begrudgingly so). Not that that matters; I'm just saying that after years of covering rock bands and realizing that they're way way way less interesting offstage than they are on it, U2 has managed to retain some of the respect and admiration that others have pissed away with dud albums, failed songs and shallow interviews.
So it was easy to appreciate Manson's feelings of "shitting herself" -- though that particular image isn't one I'd ever considered before -- and I was totally ready to listen to what the band had to say and then be disappointed by the mere fact of their humanness.
In fact, though, the band was pretty awesome; they were smart and funny and thoughful as they answered Manson's questions about songwriting, about using both Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as producers and songwriters on the record. We learned about the tour, about the songwriting process, about how the band has managed to stay together for 30 years. We listened to four or five songs from the record, and, like the attention whore that he is, Bono during the playback sat on his stool and earnestly sang along to the songs he and the band had created. It was endearing, actually, to watch one of the world's most famous men listening to his music and mouthing the words; it was like he was a 19-year-old kid singing along to his favorite songs.
Random things we learned about the band (and we learned a lot; Manson was an engaged, intelligent interviewer who steered, rather than dictated, the conversation): Bono is very much inspired by Jeff Buckley's voice, and what the late singer did with it. He talked about learning how to sing, about an instance early in the band's career when a friend confided to Edge and Bono that it might be a better idea if Edge were U2's singer. He relayed a great story about, quite literally, "finding his voice" as he hit a note that he'd never hit before, "and it rang."
Edge apparently has been spending time in Los Angeles of late. According to Bono: "Edge has a soft spot for LA, seeing as though he fell in love with a California girl."
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Bono gave a shout-out to both Interscope Records president Jimmy Iovine, who was leaning against a wall and no doubt wondering how this band managed to escape his grasp (they're affiliated with LiveNation now), and former LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn, whose support in the early years Bono says helped establish the band on the west coast.
The band confirmed (in a roundabout way) that they'll be following up No Line with a new album tentatively slated for the fall. Said Bono: "We're absolutely forbidden from telling you that we are doing that," he said to much laughter.
We learned that "Moment of Surrender" was the band's attempt at writing a song as powerful as Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale," and that Bono thinks that Adam Clayton's bass playing is hitting some sort of peak. (We also learned that Clayton is as shy and humble and kind as has been reported, and that he very much prefers his place behind Bono and the Edge.
We learned that Bono does a really good impression of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, and can self-deprecatingly assume the accent of a British literature professor when talking about intent and lyrics and writing. We learned that Bono, who never hides the fact that he's kind of a short fellow, considers the stage to be "one big platform shoe," which is a cool way to think about it.