U2 Producer Andy Barlow On 'Songs Of Experience': 'The Album Changed Massively After Trump Got Elected'

Andy Barlow
Gavin Wallace

Andy Barlow

Barlow talks Bono's lyrical approach ("We call it Bongolese"), how the U.S. election spurred a prolific stage and what it was like sharing his "children" with other producers.

By his own admission, Andy Barlow has been a "huge" U2 fan for as long as he can remember. "Achtung Baby was probably the album that made me want to be a record producer," says the British artist and in-demand producer, taking a well-earned rest between tour dates with Lamb, the pioneering electronic band he formed in the mid-1990s alongside singer Lou Rhodes and reformed in 2014.

What Barlow didn't know until recently was that U2's Bono was also a big fan of Lamb, leading to an invitation to work with the veteran group on their recently-released 14th studio album Songs Of Experience. Beginning with a two-week tryout in Monaco, the producer -- whose credits include records by David Gray, Snow Patrol, The Ramona Flowers and his own solo project LOWB -- would go on to spend the next two years traveling around the world with U2, acting as creative consultant for their tour and producing five songs on the band's latest and, in Barlow's opinion, "best record for 20 years."

"It seemed like every day something amazing would happen," the producer tells Billboard, as he reflects on the unique challenges of co-producing U2, how President Trump's election radically changed the record and why the rest of the band thought Bono was "off his head."

Billboard: How did you first come to be involved with U2?

Andy Barlow: Lamb was playing Russia and my manager called me just as we were to go onstage, so I knew it must be something important. He said, "I'm going to tell you something and you can't tell anyone." I was like, "I can tell Lou, right?" And he goes, "No. You can't tell anyone. You've got to promise. I've signed a non-disclosure. I've just spoken to U2's manager and they wondered if you would like to go to Monaco and do a two-week tryout?" The weird thing is, when I was 19 I had a premonition that I was going to one day produce a U2 album. And then the even weirder thing is, 24 hours before I got the call my best friend said to me, "What do you want to do next?" And I said, "I'd love to do a U2 album. Wouldn't that be something?" Literally 24 hours later my manager called with the offer.

In a break with tradition, much of Songs Of Experience was written and recorded in impromptu studio spaces while the band was rehearsing for live shows or on tour. What was the thinking behind that process?

They've never really done anything like this before. Bono's feeling is [usually] that when a tour is finished and all the fun and buzz of the tour is over, then it's down to the serious part of writing music. His take on it [this time] was, if we get someone in while we're on the road and we do bits of writing, by the time we come to do the record we'll have already got the shape and feel of it and won't have the same sort of pressure. So that's what we did.

After Monaco, they asked me to come to Vancouver for six weeks for another trial and at the end of that I was given the job. From there, I went to around 10 different countries over the next two years, sometimes for months at a time with hardly any of it [spent] in real studios -- maybe 10 percent. The rest was [working] in dressing rooms or hotels or mansions where Bono and the band were staying. We'd just set up a fairly comprehensive, but still smallish, rig of equipment and just do whatever came up.

Courtesy of Andy Barlow
Barlow (left) and Bono

What was the initial plan for the record and how did that develop over time?

Initially I was working mostly with Bono. The rest of the band was like, "Bono, you're off your head. We're already really busy. We've got loads of press to do. We're trying to rehearse and you've got this guy who you're writing and recording with. What the fuck? This is crazy." So for the first few weeks it was pretty much exclusively Bono and myself throwing ideas about. When Bono writes he doesn't write lyrics per se. We call it Bongolese. He'll basically make up words about the view or the cup of coffee he's drinking -- just pure channeling -- and from that we would find what feels good and piece it together. The next day he would listen to the vocal shape that we came up with, write a narrative and, when he was excited by something, take it to The Edge. From there, it would be like table tennis between the two of them -- like Lennon and McCartney bouncing ideas off each other.

The band has discussed how political events changed the direction of the album midway through the recording process. What was that like from a producer's perspective?

The album changed massively when Trump got elected. We pretty much had it in the bag and then the band came in the next day and went, "We've got to change it. It's not relevant anymore." So we spent another year on it. Some of the songs went by the wayside. We got some new songs in and a lot of the lyrics changed. Bono is pretty famous for leaving lyrics to the last possible minute before he commits to them, and even right up until mastering the lyrics were still changing. The band was just prolific. At one point, we had 60 songs -- some with complete lyrics, some half complete -- that we had to narrow it down from.

The Edge has also talked about how an unspecified "brush with mortality" that Bono experienced led to many of the album's lyrics being reworked. What can you say about that?

It wasn't made [into] a big deal deliberately. It was almost like business as usual within the studio. I knew something was going on, but it felt very much like the music was helping, so we all got on with the music. For a very outward-going person, Bono can actually be quite private.

How do you feel those events influenced the final record?

I think they made it more human and cracked open the album. If I think back to what the album would have been before Trump getting in, it didn't have the same humility that it has now. I think it's really brought more human aspects of the band to the surface. I think it's their best album in 20 years. [Their last album] Songs of Innocence was five years in the making and I think may have got overcooked.

After around a year of working on the album, the band went into the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite to re-record some of the song arrangements prior to setting out on their Joshua Tree anniversary tour. How did that change things?

Up until that point, a lot of the parts -- especially Larry [Mullen Jr.]'s drums and Adam [Clayton]'s bass parts -- were put down separately. Then the band went, "Actually, we need to go away and play these songs as a band. Then we need to re-record those performances with that energy." It brought them back to being four lads in a studio playing together, which goes back to the original spirit of the earlier albums.

You're one of several producers who worked on Songs Of Experience, alongside Jacknife Lee, Ryan Tedder, Steve Lillywhite, Paul Epworth and Jolyon Thomas, and have credits on five tracks, including "Love Is All We Have Left," "Landlady" and "Red Flag Day." How did you find the experience of working alongside some of the most successful producers in the world?

I've got to say, it was quite unnerving. I've never done a multi-producer record before. And for 21 years I've been an artist where you get very attached to ideas and songs are like your children. So when other producers got involved and began chopping up my children, I had to swiftly learn to be less precious about my ideas. The good thing about it is that we were all pitching ideas for the band and from that they could then piece together how the whole arrangement was going to flow.

Right back at the beginning, [then-day-to-day manager Brian Celler] took me out for dinner and said, "There's this track called 'The Little Things That Give You Away,'" and he basically just read a list of the world's top producers -- Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite, Paul Epworth, Danger Mouse -- who have had a go at it. He said, "The band knows there is a great song in there and if you can get this off the ideas table, then you've done something that none of these other producers could." So that became my personal mission. Although quite a few of us worked on it, Jolyon and myself really shaped that track. It's got that Lamb kind of shape to it. The way it goes up the gears and explodes at the end.

How does working with U2 compare with other production jobs?

If you ask any producer who has ever worked with U2 how it compares to anything else, I think they would say the same as me, which is nothing will ever prepare you for working with U2. They are completely different from any other band. For months, you just keep meeting new people who you have never met before. It's such a huge family of people and everyone they have is the best at what they do, from their video director to their lighting designer, they're all the best [in the business]. Another thing is, quite often they are only in the studio for only a couple of hours per day, as they are so busy doing other stuff. It was completely out of my comfort zone from pretty much day one. But, at the same time, they are very down to earth, very patient, respectful, kind, courteous and really open to taking direction. Quite often it can take months before an artist starts to open up and trust you and with Bono it was pretty much the second minute. We just clicked really quickly.

What impact has working with U2 had on your own music with Lamb?

When you work with inspiring people there's no way that you can't soak that up. Just seeing how Bono finds the shape of songs before he writes lyrics. We have been doing that with Lamb on our new record, which we have never done before and, so far, the results are really good.

We're doing a track at the moment where every eight bars there's 10 tempo changes and it changes time signature in the middle as well. It's really awkward and angular, but somehow seems to flow at the same time. After producing things that have to have some sort of commercial sense, like David Gray or U2, we're allowing ourselves to experiment even more on this new record.