On Dec. 7, U2 took the stage at Paris’ Accorhotels Arena to make good for the second of its two shows originally postponed in the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in the city that left 130 dead, including 89 at the Bataclan concert venue where Eagles of Death Metal were playing.
The concert, U2: Innocence + Experience Live in Paris, captured live for HBO by director Hamish Hamilton, was a breathing testament to the healing power of music, not only for the audience, but for U2 as well. “It sort of felt like it was part of a process of reclaiming live rock and roll in the city of Paris,” says U2 guitarist The Edge in an exclusive interview. “We were by no means the first event post the Paris attacks, but for us it was very symbolic and very significant. We tried to get back as quickly as we could.”
U2 invited the Eagles of Death Metal to join them on stage, marking the first time the California band had played since the attacks. “They were robbed of their stage, so we would like to offer them ours,” U2 frontman Bono told the audience.
Calling from the studio where U2 is working on the follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence, The Edge talked to Billboard about that Paris night, increasing security following recent events such as the Christina Grimmie murder and the Orlando club massacre, as well as the new album and a possible new tour.
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What is your best memory of that night in Paris?
That moment when the Eagles of Death Metal came on stage and we handed to them one of our guitars, [bassist] Adam [Clayton] and myself, and Larry [Mullen Jr.] handed them drumsticks. We then grabbed guitars ourselves and we joined in with them. There was that moment of handing over our stage and our instruments that was just really moving after everything that they’d been through.
You played “People Have The Power” together and then you left the stage as they performed show closer, “I Love You All the Time.” That has to be the first time you’ve let someone else close a U2 show.
Yeah! There’s probably a fan out there who would say “Well, in 1981…” but in my memory, yes, it was the first time and it just felt so right. It was very spontaneous. We knew we wanted them to come on and do “People Have the Power,” but everything else was pretty much just made up on the spot. They just ran with it and [EODM singer] Jesse Hughes, particularly, I think once his feet hit the stage and he heard the crowd responding, I think it galvanized him. They clearly were still coming to terms with the trauma and processing it so there was a little element of the unknown about how that was going to work for them.
During “City of Blinding Lights,” the names of the victims of the Paris attacks scrolled on a large screen. You did the same thing when you played Madison Square Garden in 2001 after Sept. 11. How did the band decide to do that again?
We realized immediately that our return show would have to reflect what had occurred, so then it’s really a case of how can you do so in an artful way that doesn’t feel exploitive or jingoistic or anything trite. [Creative director] Willie Williams and the guys in the video team started to figure this thing out. I think because we’d used this device before, we knew it would be dignified and honored the victims without appearing to be overly done. For us, it’s an honor to be able to use our stage for that purpose.
What is the conversation the band and director Hamish Hamilton have as you try to strike the balance between meeting the needs of the live audience and the people watching on TV? Is that a tap dance?
Yes, it is. We talk at length about where that line is. Should there be cameramen on stage or not? We ended up not having them on stage. If anyone else is up on stage, they end up not just interrupting the live audience, but they end up in a lot of wide shots that you really don’t want them in. It’s a complex formula. The other quite challenging thing is with a production of this scale, finding within this amazing visual spectacle the things that would be appreciated when watched on a television screen. The show was actually quite difficult to film for that reason. If you can give people a sense of what it’s like to be there, that’s the ultimate aim of any concert film, and I think Hamish came closest as possible to pulling that off.
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During “Elevation,” Bono brought several ardent fans on stage. In light of recent events, does an act have to rethink letting fans that close?
We never really sat down and had that conversation because I think it will be a really difficult one for us to even think about. Our relationship with our fans is so special to us and there is a huge amount of trust that goes both ways, so I would hate to ever imagine the need to roll back on that kind of freedom. So far I feel like we’re fine, but we had this very strange incident in Sweden [last September] where someone ended up in the venue with a [dismantled] firearm. We actually had to pull the show. We managed to reinstate the show within a couple of days and, in that instance, it was the most innocent of situations, someone just misjudging. Obviously security is paramount at a U2 show and we take it incredibly seriously, as any artist does these days, so we could not take a chance. But that is the only time ever that there’s been a sort of credible, serious threat or potential threat at a U2 show. We’re probably lucky, and we don’t take it for granted by any means, but we very much rue the day that we may have to change any of the ways that our shows are operated because it does mean a lot to us, the connection between the fans and ourselves.
In March you said that the band hoped to get back on the road sooner rather than later. When is sooner?
That statement still holds true. Short of announcing the plan, which I can’t right now, we’re still on target to get out there sooner rather than later.
You’re calling from the studio. What is the time table for the new album?
We are still busting our ass to try to get it out this year. That’s our plan right now and exactly when, we’re not sure. Now a U2 album plan has been known to be revised (laughs). This is the working assumption. This is our ambition. It could change, but we’re really doing our best to get it out this year.
U2 were among the many artists, along with Taylor Swift, who signed a letter to congress about amending the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Why did you feel the need be part of that?
Our inspiration was for artists, and mostly young and up-and-coming artists, who don’t have any of the benefits of a live concert stream of income like U2. We’re fine, but there is no doubt that for songwriters and performers who are relying on releasing their music on whatever services they get paid by, it’s been a challenging shift from an industry that was paying artists well to a scenario that it’s increasingly difficult to earn a living from your music. So we’re very concerned about the impact that would have on music culture going forward. There’s no doubt that so many other industries have incredibly sophisticated lobbying organizations to look after their interests. We felt it was important for us to stand up and be counted as artists who have done well over the years and just want to make sure that up-and-coming artists enjoy the chance to continue to get to make music as we have. I guess we all feel like that’s under threat.