"We objected to being portrayed as stony-faced and ultra-serious and Quaker-like," said U2 guitarist the Edge. "It just wasn't true. We were kind of into the idea of balancing out the picture."
The Edge is talking by phone about the new, lighter U2 _ not a frivolous lot, by any means, but a band capable of tapping into, and projecting, the fun side of rock 'n' roll. This is no longer the dour quartet whose front man preached to the converted, muttering, "Am I buggin' ya? I don't mean to bug ya."
U2's attitude overhaul has culminated in its Zoo TV Outdoor Broadcast tour, a mammoth stadium trek. With an enormous bank of video monitors that spew fleeting messages and other visual debris, the band is both using and mocking technology, and having a go at this beast known as rock stardom as well. On stage, lead singer Bono grabs a small videocam and takes a crotch shot that projects out to the nosebleed seats. "We're not laughing at rock 'n' roll as much as some of its more ridiculous aspects, some of the more absurd trappings," the Edge said in a phone interview this week with little more than a hint of Irish brogue.
Bono, in particular, has worked overtime to subvert his image as a messianic, save-the-world figure. He's romping about, clad in smarmy black leather, hiding his eyes behind bulbous sunglasses. "Rock 'n' roll is ridiculous," he told Rolling Stone magazine. "It's absurd. In the past, U2 was trying to duck that. Now we're wrapping our arms around it and giving it a great big kiss." In the late '80s, U2 was sagging under the weight of its own importance. And it wasn't so much self-importance _ although that surely played into it _ as it was the lofty expectations of their fans and the rock press. The four Irish lads, who adjourned to a Dublin garage in the wake of the punk movement and worked their way to stardom, were suddenly viewed as the source of answers to everything from spiritual concerns to ring around the collar.
The Edge insists that the new U2 did not result from a board meeting in which the band's image was purposely recast.
"First of all, the implication that in some way we sat down and decided that we were unhappy with past and had to change ourselves, that's probably an inaccurate assumption," he said. "We quite naturally became interested in other things, developed new directions and interests. It was both a musical thing and a lyrical thing."
The Edge became enamored with the clattering industrial sounds of such bands as Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM. "The thing that started the change was the music we were listening to," he continued. "It caused us to start writing in a different way. We became more interested in dealing with some of the dirt under our nails _ dealing with the ground rather than surfing high above it, something that could describe our earlier work. We were interested sonically in more extreme sounds _ more distorted, aggressive, industrial. That went with my personal interest in turning my guitar into something more abrasive and aggressive-sounding.
"The next thing was the lyrical shift. That started with the lyrics to The Fly (from the band's latest album, Achtung Baby), which had more of an ironic stance. Bono sort of developed this alter ego, this character the Fly, which he began writing for, so to speak. Then out of it all came the Zoo TV tour, which came about as a result of our new direction musically and lyrically. It made sense in light of our use of technology and more mechanical, industrial sounds."
U2 chose Berlin to record Achtung Baby and hit town right as the heady aroma of reunification was beginning to set in. The early tracks were marked with more industrial clatter, the kind of thing heard on the album's opening track, Zoo Station. In time, songs like One, Mysterious Ways and Even Better Than the Real Thing, while retaining their newly introduced edginess, became more U2-ized.
"That's the way we normally work: We start by carving out the rough terrain, the rough area we want to head for," the Edge said. "When a song comes out initially, it's generally much more out-there than the eventual result. We start with an extreme and make it our own. Start way out in left field and pull it back. Initially, we used a lot of drum loops and drum machines on some of the tracks. Then as Adam (Clayton) and Larry (Mullen), and Bono and I started playing the songs more, they became ours.
"I supposed that's the process. We borrow a lot from other music and ideas, but the bottom line is that in the end it has to stand on its own, to sound and feel like it's our own, before we'll allow it out. If it sounds like something else, even something else we may in fact like, that's when we hold it back. And then sometimes we'll reject a song 'cause it sounds like U2, sounds like something we've done before."
Achtung Baby displayed the band's new-found sense of irony, along with touch of cynicism and humor. But, the Edge insisted, "It's not a light album. We're not interested in shallow music. We are still asking ourselves the big questions, I don't think that has changed, but we're approaching things in a different way."
The latest disc, although it hasn't racked up the blockbuster sales of 1987's The Joshua Tree, has kept the band in rock's superstar echelon. Zoo TV, a staggeringly expensive undertaking, has kept the momentum going. "You have two choices, really, when it comes to stadium shows," Edge said. "You can get up on a basic stage and play songs or you can try and make use of the size of the event. The problem with stadium shows is that the people in front get a different show. We sat down and thought long and hard. We think the tour has managed to make the seats at the back of the stadium as good as ones in the front. It's a different show, but just as interesting visually."
The four members of U2 are some of the most visible entertainers in the world. By and large, they seem to handle it well, turning up in public, occasionally spending a little quality time with diehard fans. Bono is reportedly fond of unveiling his Fly persona in hotel lobbies and nightclubs.
"The stardom really is silly, the celebrity aspect," Edge said. "We just decided to laugh at it a bit. We didn't start the band to become mega rock stars. We wanted to do something interesting in the medium. But part and parcel of being a successful band is the limos and hotel suites and big stadiums if you're going to try to play to the number of people who want to see you. You just have to learn how to deal with it, and have fun with it."
U2 at Tampa Stadium at 8 p.m. Saturday. Public Enemy and Big Audio Dynamite open. Tickets are $28.50 (plus service charge), available through Ticketmaster.