There are very few career milestones left to tick off on U2‘s bucket list. But come Wednesday (July 1), the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers will add another important first to their hefty warchest of accomplishments: satellite radio channel bosses.
After broadcasting their hearts, souls and social justice pleas to millions across the globe for decades, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton will bring their talents to SiriusXM with the launch of the U2 X-Radio Channel (32 on your dial).
And in typical U2 fashion, what’s on tap goes well beyond the expected. Among the shows slated for the channel are “Plays U2,” in which fellow artists and friends — including first-up pal Matthew McConaughey — will talk about and play their favorite U2 songs, as well as “Desire,” hosted by the band’s most fervent fans, who will tell their personal stories about the group and playing their U2 highlights. There will also be the weekend kickstarter “Discothèque,” a dance show of U2 remixes and club mixes along with electronic music from other artists and friends hosted by their old friend, DJ Paul Oakenfold.
Singer Bono will get behind the microphone for “Bono Calling,” described as an exploration of “seven questions about life, work, hope and the future with guests from every discipline, from world leaders to local activists to movie stars.” The first episode will find Bono dialing up Chris Rock. “Elevation” is a weekly show “celebrating good news and ideas from the worlds of science, medicine, faith and the arts,” hosted by Irish broadcaster/writer John Kelly. The series promises to feature music and poetry, as well as interview with artists, activists, thinkers, scholars and the occasional U2 member; the first guest is civil rights attorney and author Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy).
Guitarist The Edge also gets his own show, “Close to The Edge,” on which he’ll commune with fellow musicians, artists and thinkers for a series of deep-dive conversations about the creative process. And the whole thing will kick off with a two-hour mixtape of songs personally chosen by the band.
Prior to launch, Billboard spoke to The Edge from his quarantine location at home in Dublin about his radio dreams as a teenager, the bonus of launching during a lockdown and why it was so important to get fans in the mix on U2 X-Radio.
I feel like someone once said being in a band is like being in a gang, and here you are bringing your gang along with you on this trip. You’ve got old friends such as Gavin Friday, Paul Oakenfold, Bill Flanagan, John Kelly. It sounds like you’ve built the ultimate clubhouse.
[Laughs.] It feels a bit like that, in a great way. The common thread being a love of music.
Some kids dream of being stand-up comedians, maybe rock stars. As a kid were you obsessed with radio? Did you ever dream of being a DJ and having your own radio show?
Yeah, radio was huge for me — and it’s a generational thing I guess, but Dublin was pretty much insulated from global culture except for the broadcasts that came into the country. There was a couple of UK TV channels we could pick, which was great because we had Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. So once a week we got a kind of download of what going on in the music culture in UK at least. But the other source was pirate radio, and as a kid myself an my brother would be hiding under bed late into the night listening to Radio Caroline or Radio Luxembourg that were beaming in from outside or Irish territory.
The music that they were playing was heavily influenced by the U.K., but American acts [as well]. From that beginning I’ve always had this real affection for radio. When U2 kicked off, it was the way we were really first able to engage with a wider fanbase through college radio. We would spend quite a considerable amount of our time when we first came to tour in America going to radio stations and taking over shows, being guest DJs.
And what was the thrill was to discover was that we has so much in common with all the people that worked in radio. Because of course radio was predominantly a music-based format. So everyone we came across, like ourselves, had been turned on at a certain point by music. They hadn’t formed a band, but they’d done the next best thing — which was to become a radio DJ, or programmer or a journalist. So already 80 percent of the getting-to-know-you has been achieved if you’re meeting someone who is a radio DJ or involved in radio.
Tell me about your show and where you want to take the listeners with it? Who will you be talking to and what are you excited to dive into?
It’s about interesting characters and what they are expert in. Obviously, as I’m a musician and songwriter principally, mostly it will be musicians and songwriters and producers, but I don’t want to limit it to that, because I have a lot of other interests that I think might be fascinating to our audience. Without wanting to get too far away from the core idea of music and U2, I would hope to involve people from all kinds of walk of life: scientists, philosophers, filmmakers, environmentalists and people who I think are asking the same sort of questions we find ourselves asking through music they may be asking though some other media.
Any names you can give me of anyone you’ve already lined up?
I interviewed David Byrne yesterday and [guitarist] Carlos Alomar, from that crucial phase of [working with] Bowie and Iggy Pop and quite an incredible period of three years when I would say six or seven of the most influential albums made during that period… Carlos was at the center of that creative process. And Noel Gallagher I’ve had a chat with. There are a few others lined up, so it’s currently mostly music, but I’m really excited to see where else I can take it.
What music are you most excited to play for fans? These channels often have live cuts, rarities, but what’s the non-U2 music that is most dear to your heart and influenced you?
Stuff that reaches me and has influenced me and that’s quite a broad spectrum of music. It’s not from one particular era and in terms of genre and style it kind of cross over. But the thread is music that has that power to engage in an emotional and deep way. It can be Kraftwerk or a Bruce Springsteen cut, or something from the ’60s or from this era. It’s hard to define other than it’s the stuff that we find fascinating and turns us on.
Tell me about some of the rare U2 tracks fans might hear on the channel? You’ve put out a number of albums with bonus cuts, will there be other surprises in the mix?
Without wanting to turn into a kind of U2 archive of forgotten songs and oddities, I don’t think we want to go too far away from the values we bring to making an album, which is, “What are we very proud of and what do we want to showcase?” I think there’s a lot of U2 songs that didn’t really get as much attention as they might, so they’re not necessarily on the compilations or songs that would have been given a lot of radio play.
And also I’ve been making some experimental, tiny little pieces of music I hope we’ll end up using on the station. So it’s an opportunity for these short-form composition ideas I haven’t done in the past, but I’m kind of enjoying making. I think we’ll be doing custom compositions and ideas for the channel.
I’m sure you didn’t expect to launch during a global pandemic, but is there some way you’ve had to adjust the programing to account for the fact that we’re all stuck at home, or at least might be again given what’s going on in our country?
Obviously it’s a great medium to engage people and connect with people, so to that extent it should be welcome and it should be helpful. In that sense I think the timing is great. But the flip side of that is that the network’s very denominated toward being in cars and car journeys — which are obviously down because people have not been at work or commuting.
But the app is pretty great and, personally, that’s how I use it every day.
Yeah. So the app will probably end up being more important in the short term, because people will not be commuting as much. I think what’s key here is that it’s a curated offering and curated mostly by the band, with some help from Sirius and our team — so in that sense it’s really bespoke and not AI-generated. It’s real people with ears and brains and sensitivities that are behind it.
It’s distinct from a lot of streaming services in that regard and I think there’s room for that. Not that I’m down on streaming at all — any place where music is enjoyed is a good thing as far as I am concerned, but I think there is a place for this more curated, personal connection with the artist.
What was important to you about giving fans their own show?
I think engagement should go both ways, and it seemed like a kind of obvious thing. What’s fun will be to see where that show goes. We’re hoping that it throws up some interesting surprises to us and who will engage with it? We’re a band that have been around for quite a few years and we have fans at varying levels of commitment and some are super… to the point of obsessed with with U2. And then there’s a lot of people who might be tuning in occasionally because they like a couple of our tunes. So that range will probably end up being expressed in that “Desire” show and I’m excited to see where that takes us.
It’s almost like our live concerts — the challenge is always for us to balance the need to deliver a great show for general music fans, but to also be aware of the fact that we might have member of the audience that have been to 10 shows, and so we really don’t want it to be that predictable. We want to break rhyme and do things that surprise the people who are even the biggest, most dedicated U2 fans so it doesn’t feel rote or dialed in.
Have you been more involved in this than you might have been because of COVID? Do you have more time to spend tweaking it?
I think that is one of the things about lockdown, the opportunity to put time into things you would otherwise put into travel or whatever. There are some silver linings and I think U2 X-Radio has benefitted from probably more attention as a result of the lockdown than it might have gotten otherwise.
Is there something about all of you having your own creative outlet like this that is good for the band? Is it a unifying thing, or does it spark some other level of creativity?
I think it does have real positives. I, for instance, have been doing quite a few recordings with Adam where we’re interviewing each other. So to actually spend time together talking about music and the past, but the future also is great. And they are crucial opportunities because back in the day when we were just stuffed into the back of some coach or van heading up and down motorways, that time never needed to be set aside because we were just in each other’s company all the time. But now it’s a little more of a rarity and I think it’s really great that we’ve come together to contribute to the channel and it is, again, a silver lining of this lockdown.
How did you decided on which guests to invite for the “Plays U2” segments? Who threw McConaughey’s hat into the ring?
There’s a team of people coming up with ideas and I guess we’re all putting in our opinions. Matthew is a friend and there’s a fairly long list of people we’re excited to reach out to. We can’t really confirm anyone now — it’s just the last week that we’ve started to make those calls — but we’re excited that Matthew jumped right in there and will be our first official guest DJ.
The ZooTV era was always my favorite U2 incarnation, but why was it important to you to include “Discothèque” in the mix? Why shine a light on that side of the band?
We thought that coming into the weekend that energy, that club culture sensibility would be welcome — and we have such a depth of material in that direction that it felt like a great opportunity. And Paul Oakenfold is a great friend, so we’re excited to delve into our archive or remixes and draw from the great club music of the ’90s and up until today. It’s still a form I’m excited about.
I have to be honest, it’s not necessarily what I would listen to at home all the time, but when I’m out… that’s the music. You’ve got people over and you want to have a bit of a party, that’s what I would be playing.
Another SiriusXM channel boss, Bruce Springsteen, has really turned his personal show into a beacon during these turbulent times about what’s on his mind. Your band has been known to speak out about important topics from time to time. Is this a good time to be launching a channel with an always-on mic to speak into?
I think that’s one of the positives of radio is that it is that opportunity to speak. One of our early guests will be Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, and I’ll be talking to Bryan and John Kelly will be hosting a Sunday morning segment called “Elevation.” That is one of the aspect of the channel I think we’re excited about, the opportunity to offer a platform to people who, like Bryan, are doing incredibly important work and to help bring some attention to what he’s doing, and others like him.
Some might say giving Bono an always-open mic is a dangerous thing…
[Laughs.] I know what you’re saying. I’m sure there will be a lot of care going into what we’ll be putting out. I think we’ll be fine.