Secret Machines’ Garza Talks New Album, Fickle Industry and Touring With U2

March 27, 2006


By Carrie Alison, Chief Editor
2006.03

Imagine going from a being a young man in Texas loving Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming skills, to opening for U2 in two of the biggest stadiums in the world years later, to talking shop with Mullen after shows and recording a cover of "I Am the Walrus" with Bono for Julie Taymor’s upcoming musical featuring Beatles songs, "Across the Universe."

Secret Machines drummer Josh Garza grew up a U2 fan. He loved "The Joshua Tree" and "Rattle and Hum." He was even at the show where BB King performed with the band, as shown in the feature film version of the latter album. When first asked what it was like to open for U2 in Monterrey and Mexico City, Mexico, Garza’s opening line was, "Man, are you kidding me?" He still considers himself “a U2 freak.”

One thing you should know about New York City-based Secret Machines is that the band’s in it for the long haul, even if that means it takes until the fourth album to get some regular radio play and a sizeable fan base. Interference.com spoke with Garza earlier this month about opening for U2, the new album, “10 Silver Drops,” the band’s second, and the problem with achieving longevity in the music industry today.


(Photo credit: Klaus Thymann)

You’ve just opened for U2 in Mexico. How did it go?

Man, are you kidding me? It was amazing.

It’s such a long story. I mean, it’s actually not a simple question because growing up I was a U2 freak. I kind of broke away because I started getting into rock music and playing rock music. I’m a drummer. [The band] kind of lost me in the ’90s because they started going all electronic, but playing with them and seeing them again, it was like, all is forgiven. I’m still a U2 freak. I think I couldn’t talk for at least three days after those shows because I was just yelling my ass off to every song.

Was that your first time seeing the band?

No, believe it or not, I saw them on the Joshua Tree Tour. You know in "Rattle and Hum" where they had B.B. King in Fort Worth? I was at that show.

It was really weird because I always felt that they betrayed … I grew up air-drumming to Larry Mullen and putting on the headphones and beating on pillows to Larry Mullen and then at some point they went "Achtung" and "Zooropa" where they went a little more electronic. They lost a bit of Larry that I loved…that sound that he had. But, it was more me than them because that’s the time I started getting into rock ‘n’ roll. That’s when I started really playing in bands and we were into rock and, in a weird way, U2 wasn’t cool then in the rock scene, especially my college rock scene.

They’ve always had a coolness problem. But in the ’90s when they got a little weird and experimental, they became a little more cool because they were more dialing into the music of that time. The darker edge of Nine Inch Nails really influenced "Achtung Baby" and the club scene in Europe really influenced the work of "Pop," but I can see the more classic rock-ish sound of "The Joshua Tree" was uncool back then even though "With or Without You" was such a major hit.

Yeah, exactly. I still love "Rattle and Hum," especially the studio songs and I still listen to that record.

It’s a wonderful record. I love the Dylan duet, "Love Rescue Me," and I think that they did that one night recently in Brazil. After all these years to pull that out of the hat.

Well that’s the funny thing about seeing them play is that you’ll see them play two-and-a-half hours and then it’s like, "Well they didn’t play this, this and this," and then, "Where could they have played that?" Unless it’s going to be a four-hour concert, they can’t play all the songs that people love. It’s ridiculous to be at that point in a band where you can actually not play a handful of hits because there’s not enough time.

Exactly, there’s not enough time. Fans like to discuss and pick apart the set list, saying, "Where’s ‘Electrical Storm’?" or "Why aren’t you doing more songs off of ‘Achtung Baby?’ or even "Bad" from "Unforgettable Fire" …

They played "Bad" in Monterrey. I was blown away because they do do the occasional deep album cut for the fans.

But playing with them and getting to hang out with Larry, like after the Mexico City shows, I got to really talk to him about drums. He’s a really cool cat, it wasn’t like he couldn’t be bothered, he really wanted to talk shop and we just talked about drums.

As a band, you always want … when you start playing gigs and start playing in front of your five friends, you always go, "Well just imagine if you’re playing the biggest stadium." And then the chance actually comes to play with U2 in Mexico City, which is one of the largest stadiums on the planet, just filled to capacity and it’s like, okay, what do I imagine now, you know? That I’m only playing to those five friends?

I know … where do you go from there?

Exactly. They’re really inspiring, and in a good healthy way. This is a band that, as big as they are, nobody gave a shit about them on their first two records. It took the third record just to be college cool and then it took the fifth record to be a household name and that is what we want to do. Because obviously we’re not cool. The Secret Machines aren’t the hip new band. Outside of the critics and journalists, other bands like us and that’s where we’ll start and I’m not worried about it because maybe it’ll take our fourth, fifth, sixth record before people are like, "Oh yeah, I was into them since day one." It’s like, yeah, whatever, it doesn’t matter.

I like the way U2 has … they’re just having a really good time with it. I can imagine them really being a bitch about, "Man, screw you guys, this is our X record and we’ve been doing it for years." And no, they’re actually really fun and they take what they could get.

They’re still hungry.

Yeah. And it’s still cool that they have us opening up because it shows me that they still keeping in touch with bands that are off the radar, that are bubbling up and they’re like, okay, this band is supposed to be kind of cool, let’s see if they are worth a shit. We’ll have them open up, see if they can hang, if they can play a show in front of this many people without losing their cool.

Exactly, and to give bands like the Secret Machines a shot at wider exposure …

Yeah and it just sucked that it was in Mexico because Mexico’s not really known for its influence on world music. If you’re big in the UK it means so much more, but it’s funny because people in Mexico were more fans of rock ‘n’ roll that I’ve seen in all of Europe. It was twofold. A., you have U2 and B., they haven’t been there in awhile, so it was a big party and like I said, the people in Mexico like rock ‘n’ roll. Especially Mexico City, that’s a rock n’ roll city and it was cool to get that experience because you never know when you go somewhere if [it] is or isn’t into rock. You go to Italy and it’s like, they’re not really into rock. They’re fans of rock ‘n’ roll and they’ll come see the Foo Fighters play, but there’s not the vibe of a rock ‘n’ roll city. In Mexico, they love rock ‘n’ roll and U2′s a rock ‘n’ roll band and it was really, really a big party.

That’s such a great environment to play in. To know the audience is right there with you and it’s just a big celebration, which I don’t think happens nearly often enough because rock concerts should be a celebration, it shouldn’t be so … We all live in New York City and so many shows are filled with hipsters who just cross their arms and roll their eyes or whatever, trying to be cool.

Yeah, there’s this level of here we are and I don’t mean to quote Kurt Cobain, but, here we are now, entertain us. And that isn’t really there … when we were in Mexico, it wouldn’t have really mattered who opened up for U2, they would have been into it because it was a celebration, it was a party, there’s some rock ‘n’ roll, we’re all here. I’m glad it was us and I think it went over well, but it just really helps when the crowd is ready and they don’t see it as like they paid money now they’ve got to be entertained. They paid money to be at a party. The whole place was dancing. I don’t know how Bono made the guy in the top-most row, the shittiest seat in the house, feel like dancing, but he was up there dancing and it was really amazing.

When you were on the road, did you receive the famous Bono talk?

Well it’s funny, we didn’t really get that one, but with the one we got, it did come up. We did a song with him. There’s a movie coming out, "Across the Universe." Julie Taymor’s making a movie, a musical, with The Beatles’ songs and we did "I Am the Walrus" and Bono sang it. We didn’t really get a chance to meet him. We recorded the music and then sent it to him as they were on tour in Canada and he did the vocals in Montreal. So he was already kind of familiar with us. He’s doing a movie, singing the song and you know it’s going to come up—"Who’s this band?" And doing The Beatles in general is pretty difficult, it’s almost like you don’t do that, you don’t cover Beatles because it’s The Beatles and, on top of that, it was "I Am the Walrus," which is a difficult psychedelic song that they already pretty much perfected.

So when it came up there, we just talked about that recording and there was talking about us maybe doing some more songs for the movie because Julie ended up liking the song, the way it sounded and Bono I think gave us some mad props. So we talked about that, we were like, hey, maybe we’ll do some more songs, telling him thanks for making us sound good and he was like, "Man …" He was thanking us for making him sound good. It was really cool. So I think we bonded like that on a weird musical level, like we were musicians as opposed to him being Bono and us being this band he doesn’t know from a hole in the ground.

I’ve heard a lot about Secret Machines’ live shows. You’re very passionate and very into connecting with your audience like U2 was when they were starting out and how they are now. Why do you feel all of that is important?

Well, I think it’s only because sometimes I don’t see it happening as often as it should be. One of the main reasons people start a band is because they went to see a show and were so blown away and so inspired, that you want to do that yourself. The "Wow I want to do that when I grow up" kind of attitude. And then you start playing music and then, you know, we moved to New York and, even from Texas days we would go see a band and a lot of times it’s like, you know what, I think the songs are great but there’s no intensity, there’s no … I don’t believe the band.

It doesn’t ring true.

Right. You’re going, "Man, do I need to be here?" That was one of our missions with the band. Let’s make everybody feel like they’re a part of this. Being intense, being loud, or having your shit together and just putting on a good show. I think one of the biggest compliments I ever got was about four years ago. We were playing in Brooklyn and there was only a handful of people there and we played and went to the bar and had a drink. And this guy was like, "Hey, you’re in the band, right? You know what? It’s not really my type of music and I’m not really into that kind of thing and it’s not my style, but I couldn’t leave because I had to see how it ended." And I was like, wow, you know? That’s all you want. You want people to feel …

You want them to feel something.

Right. And even if they’re not into it, you want them to get sucked in. And you can only do that by just really going up there and doing your thing and not trying to be cool and not trying to be hip. It just seems like a lot of bands these days have great albums, but you go see them live and it’s like, man, this is a recital.

It’s like you’re watching robots and they’re just going through the motions. You don’t believe it. Their heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. You wonder where their intentions are. Is it just for the money or the girls or the fame, or is it to truly connect with an audience.

Yeah, it’s different for every band. There used to be a time when it was live and die for it on stage and I think that’s not the case anymore. A band will become really, really popular and successful before they even set a foot onstage. And I think that’s not really helping music out, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care too much. It’s like, well, I have my band and we have our agenda and we’re just going to do our thing and let everybody else do theirs and I think the audience will be the final judge.

Your conscience is clear because you’re in it for the right reasons.

The only reasons. But we’ll see if that rings true for the rest of rock ‘n’ roll and its legacy that it’s making right now.

You mentioned that you had moved to New York. What do you think it is with New York that that makes musicians and artists want to live here?

We were living in Dallas and that part of the country, basically the whole middle part, it’s just really difficult to be any type of artist. You know, a band, a photographer or a writer. There’s just not really the infrastructure, so to speak, to support it. We were really into music and we really wanted to feel like the day we die that we gave it our all. And we couldn’t say that living in Dallas. We felt that if we stayed in Dallas we would get nowhere fast. We would just be stuck there and at the time, one of the main things that all people have in common on this whole planet is that they want to see this world. People call it vacationing, or trips, so whatever you want to call it, people want to go see the whole world. And we were like, let’s move.

We moved to New York because we felt like it got us that much closer to Europe and we’re really interested in going to the UK, going to the Germany and just seeing Europe in general. And we moved here and hit the streets hard and we really tried to make something happen here. It was a little bit harder and easier. Harder in a sense that it’s harder to get your foot in the door in New York because with some bands, if you’re not cool, you’re not cool. If you’re cool, then you’re set. And we were never really cool because when we moved to town in the fall of 2000, we moved just in time to have it be the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture and that whole scene was exploding. I think one of the first gigs we saw was the Strokes at Mercury Lounge when they had their month-long residency there. And we were looking at each other going, damn, this sucks because we’re coming to town with our thing and our thing is not cool right now. It’s not in, it’s not happening. Everybody’s looking at us going, man, what are you doing? If you do four songs in 40 minutes, it’s like, what are you doing? And we just stuck with it and it just seems like, here we are, years later, we have our second record coming out. And people have kind of taken to it. I feel like music should be like restaurants, you know? You don’t always want to eat Indian food every day. Sometimes you want Chinese or vegetarian. Some nights you want to cook at home.

Right now it’s so, there’s only this type of band. And this type of band only does one type of song. And it’s like, Jesus, what happened to the good ole days with like U2, where every album has its ups and downs, they have the slow songs, they have the rock songs. It feels like that’s being lost these days. You get one band, you get a good song and it’s like, damn, the whole record is that one song over and over again.

It’s like they’re a one-trick pony. And then you have all these other bands that get signed because they sound just like that other band. We’re going to have Killers clones all over the place next year.

Yeah and the Killers are just basically what was going on before them—the dance electronic pop. And that’s totally cool and I have nothing against it, but it doesn’t help a lot of the smaller scenes. It definitely doesn’t help TV on the Radio, doesn’t help Secret Machines. But at the end of the day, we’re gonna be the best band that is still putting records out. That’s the problem with getting to the masses too quick. They’ll drop you.

Exactly. You become the flavor of the week and people get sick of you because of the media saturation around you. Slow and steady wins the race.

Hell yeah. We’re not going to have a problem with that! [laughs]

A great thing to strive for is longevity.

Exactly. You have to put the extra effort in. You have to stay on the road and keep putting records out and I think eventually if you are good and you have a good team put together, then you can sustain and hopefully you get to the point one day when you’re playing bigger and bigger places, but even then it’s not always about that. I mean, Townes Van Zandt wrote some of the greatest songs and to this day nobody even knows who he is. I’m glad he kept putting records out. And there’s actually a thousand examples of bands like that. Occasionally one of them breaks into the mainstream and the mainstream goes to them, but I think that’s what U2 really inspired in us. They kind of reminded us of that fact. It’s like, hey, do your thing and if you do it well and you do it right and you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded.

If you build it, they will come …

Yeah. I think that’s the old school way. They don’t really let that happen too much anymore. But I think we’re really going to try and change that and after every record we’re going to try and get a few more crowds, a few more people.

Speaking of which, I understand you are playing SXSW and the Langerado festivals. Do you enjoy playing those types of shows?

Actually I do. They’re kind of fun. For awhile there, it seemed like festivals in the US were kind of … they weren’t too fun. Even Lollapalooza in the mid ’90s, it just seemed like they were trying too hard. And in a weird way, in the last five to six years there’s been a resurgence with Bonnaroo, Coachella and all these festivals. SXSW has always been around and it’s doing really well. It’s a good chance to go play somewhere where there’s this crowd that wants to hear music. They want to check out something good, something new and a little more experimental. The festivals are fun, but you almost lose track because it’s not your show. So you can just show up, play and leave it at that. And it’s always fun. We hope to do festivals in Europe this summer.

Those are great. They have amazing bills.

Yeah, they do. They always have a ton of festivals everywhere.

You wonder what the US is doing wrong, why New York can’t manage to put one together. I mean, Across the Narrows last year bombed for whatever reason and, then, Field Day hasn’t worked out, but you wonder why the New York area can’t pull it together and have our own Coachella.

I know, I’ve thought about that. I just think it’s too ambitious. You look at these festivals … I remember the last one where it was like, they were on the same day. I’m not much of a rock scientist, but, you can’t particularly split your crowd in half. And then on top of that, they have to choose between two locations that are not near each other. I just thought it was a bit ridiculous. I think they really need to think about making a festival in New York and have it actually be in Manhattan. I think the Manhattan crowd is very particular to Manhattan. I live in New York City, Manhattan and I don’t care who’s playing in Jersey, it’s just over a bridge. I don’t go over there. And that’s just how it is, but if you put a show in Manhattan, one that you could take a cab or a train to, I’ll go to it. I think they’re underestimating people’s willingness to not leave Manhattan, to not leave Brooklyn.

We’re so insular … we don’t get off the island very much.

I know, and I think they have to cater to that. It’s like, the crowd at Bonnaroo, that’s a different crowd of people. It’s further out, people can camp; it’s that kind of crowd, it’s that kind of scene, it’s that kind of people who probably do camp more often. I know people in New York that like to camp, but not at a show. It’s just a different crowd and I think that’s why it usually doesn’t work here. I think it’s a little too ambitious, a little too greedy and then the next thing you know, it’s just a bunch of crap.

Tell me about "10 Silver Drops."

It’s the new record … it’s the classic second album. We feel like we didn’t have much of a sophomore slump on this one. We produced it ourselves; we mixed it with Alan Moulder [Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins]. We’ve wanted to work with him for awhile, since the first album, but the scheduling didn’t really work out. So when this next album came up, he was still at the top of the list. I think this time around it was easier for us to mix it with him because we were able to pick and choose where we mixed.

On the first record, I think the label really wanted us to mix it in LA because it’s closer to the label, since it was our first record. They weren’t really worried, they just wanted to keep a good eye on us, have us nearby. Moulder doesn’t really work outside of London, he likes to work near home. So this time around, we were able to go and mix in London, for about three-and-a-half weeks and it was great. I just think it’s the next step. We tried not to make the same record again and we tried to do things differently and, also, we were somewhere else. When we made the first record, we hadn’t been on the road, we’ve always played shows here and there and for this album we’d been on the road. There’s a different feel, a different vibe, a little more confidence that the first album didn’t have. I think that it sounds different, but yet it’s still us.

What are your touring plans behind it?

After we do SXSW, we go to the UK for a proper UK tour and that’ll be a good month. In April we do some US dates, in May I think we do Europe and then after that I think we do a US tour. Basically it’s just staying busy. The record will come out and I think most of our fans will get it and these initial tours will be catering to them, playing smaller venues.

We told the label to kind of ease off of it. We told them, look, let’s not come out of the gate swinging because I think our fans will be turned off by that because, in a weird way, it’s like ignoring your fan base and trying to have a radio hit single. And so we told them, just ease up a bit; let the record come out, let us tour, let it bubble up, let the press come out because we really feel like we’ve been fortunate enough with the press that they like us, every review’s been positive, it’s like four-out-of-five stars and it’s always been really good, so we’re like, let’s do it that kind of way, let it be gradual and, if by chance, somebody somewhere wants to play it on the radio, okay, then maybe we’ll start saying let’s go for it. Let’s maybe take it to that next level.

I think the mistake we made on the first album … the mistake the label made is thinking that they would try too much too soon. And then what happens is, after two years touring, they’re already over it. The label is like, okay, the record didn’t do anything, so they’re over it. And it’s like, how about we do it gradually? We come out slowly but surely and just let it happen and maybe near the second half of the touring, near the end of the record, that’s when they can come in and be like, if there’s anything happening we’ll help out. We want to do it more natural because everyone knows when a band is forced and nobody likes that, especially your fans. We have a really small fan base and we don’t want to alienate them. People are smart enough to recognize that. You can’t pull a fast one on anybody these days.

"10 Silver Drops" will be released April 25th on Warner Brothers Records. For more information on the Secret Machines, visit the band’s official website or MySpace page.

U2: A History in Gigs No. 2—PopMart Leeds, Aug. 28, 1997*

March 20, 2006

By Kenneth Maclellan
2006.03

The second in a continuing series of articles using specific concerts to show where U2 was at key times during in its career.

For such a criticized period in U2 history, it’s surprising how many key shows the band played during the PopMart Tour. There was Sarajevo with U2 keeping its promise to perform for those who had endured the horrors of the Bosnian conflict, a people the band had championed and given voice to during Zooropa four years earlier. There was Belfast, closer to home, another city afflicted by political and religious division, U2′s gig the first major concert to be held there since the ceasefire began. There was Buenos Aires and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. South Africa, Chile and Israel were added to the tour itinerary for the first time. The 1998 concerts in Australia and Japan would be the band’s last on Australasian soil for almost a decade.

While these concerts may be Polaroid photos of a changing world, or historic moments in U2 history, they give a skewed indication of the band’s standing in 1997. By the time U2 played Belfast, the earliest of the gigs listed above, the common perception of "Pop" and PopMart had set in the mind of the public and it was not universally favorable. For a time it looked as though U2′s place as rock’s No. 1 creative, populist force was coming to a close.

The day after the Belfast show, a rare, new George Harrison interview was published in a French newspaper. According to the Irish Mirror, after dismissing U2 and lumping the band in with Oasis and the Spice Girls as "disposable pop," the ex-Beatle said the following: "Will we remember U2 in 30 years time? I doubt it. One thing irritates me about current music—everything is based on ego. Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric. It’s horrible. The more you shout, the higher you jump, the bigger your hat, the more people listen to your music. It’s nothing to do with talent."

The next day PopMart called at Roundhay Park in Leeds. It was August but someone forgot to tell the elements. The rain lashed down, drenching the support act Cast. Shortly before 9 pm, U2 took the stage. Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton and Edge walked along the catwalk and took up their positions, and as he had throughout the tour, Bono appeared in robes of a boxer. Within three songs, the gloves of rock’s most celebrated diplomat would come off and he’d regress back to the Grafton St. punk of the mid–’70s.

Over the intro to "Even Better Than the Real Thing," Bono told the audience, "Good people of Yorkshire, you’ve made a terrible mistake. George Harrison says you shouldn’t be here. It’s all about big f–king hats and lemons and ego. This one’s for you, George. Pump it up!" As the crowd jeered the ex-Beatle, Bono gave him a one-fingered salute.

The band also seemed fired up, playing as if it had something to prove. As anyone who was there, or who has heard the bootleg of the show will testify, Leeds saw outstanding versions of oldies like the aforementioned "Real Thing," as well as "New Year’s Day," and proved—if proof was needed—that the likes of "Please" and "Gone" could stand proudly alongside the classics.

But given the criticism and derision that U2 had encountered in 1997, why should Harrison’s opinion get to Bono and Co. so much?

Perhaps it was the culmination of the criticism. While "Pop" was far from flawless, it initially received applause from sections of the music press for its bravery and scope. Even the NME gave it a very credible 8/10 review. Unusually for a U2 album though, it was the public rather than the critics who were disappointed, who were more reluctant to put their hands together, or in their pockets. Many older fans, who loved U2 in the ’80s, simply did not enjoy the album’s electronica surface. And while a new generation of fans had found the band via "One" or "Mysterious Ways" earlier in the decade, singles like "Discotheque" and "Staring at the Sun" did little to convince many fans of The Prodigy or The Verve that "Pop" should be their next purchase.

However, U2 had a trump card—its live show. The K-Mart launch of the PopMart Tour was cheeky and kooky, fuelling the excitement held by many at the prospect of U2 taking to the road again. The last tour had been the ZooTV/Zooropa extravaganza, a concert experience so fresh and daring and technologically advanced that no band in the intervening years had dared to equal it, let alone better it. That challenge, then, fell to the members of U2 themselves. On paper, the giant video wall, the arches, the 40-foot lemon certainly looked capable of matching the Trabants and buzzwords of ZooTV.

Back then, of course, U2 had chopped down its "Joshua Tree" image in the early ’90s with trash and irreverence, seeing Bono employing characters such as The Fly and MacPhisto. Through these alter-egos, U2 underlined its ironic intent. However, on PopMart the irony wasn’t so pronounced or as in-your-face as the earlier tour was. The band was looking around, asking if there was still heart and spirituality in a world where individuality was becoming repressed by the corporate homogenous. It used satire to do so, and the upshot was irony aplenty: U2 was satirizing globalization while touting the world plugging a product as standardised as an album; the song selection was virtually identical in every city, a McSetlist if you will; and, by not using characters, by playing it straight, using less theatrical set pieces and screen messages than ZooTV, U2 were everything you would expect from the U2 brand: a passionate and engaging rock n’ roll band. In order to make an effective comment on consumer culture, branding and logos, PopMart required the band to be itself. On PopMart its charisma and values and, more importantly, its music, were the heart amid the technology and the satirising of brands. In a way, answering the fundamental question that the show asked. U2 may have looked like The Village People, but it was very much itself. However, by blurring the distinction between person and persona, the band invited confusion from the public.

Crucially, damagingly, the first PopMart show, performance-wise, wasn’t what people had come to expect from U2. The reason for "FlopMart"—as NME dubbed it—was that the stadium dates had been booked before the album had been completed, the extended album sessions required to finish "Pop" ate up the band’s rehearsal time, and so the resultant, rusty opening performance in Las Vegas, in front of the world’s media, lead to the wrong kind of headline. Expectation, the band may have thought reading the reviews, can be a pest. Soon U2 media coverage became a game of finding new uses for the word lemon.

So when the band did get into its stride, there were many still unable or unwilling to square the men in oxygen masks and camp cowboy garb singing "Miami" with those in black and white on the cover of "The Joshua Tree." There were even those who accused U2 of selling out, missing the point of the golden arches et al completely. Ironically enough, the tour was not one of the band’s most lucrative ventures commercially.

Initially, the band’s response to the criticism veered between the self-depreciative and the defiant, illustrated by Bono’s comments in the Irish Times in the lead up to the Belfast show: "It was a little dodgy . . . We were a bit crap. But . . . we can be crap if we want to. It’s not Broadway. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll show."

Despite the annoyance and defiance, typified by the "Pump it up!" outburst, U2 became almost apologetic for "Pop" and PopMart as time wore on. Even over the course of the Leeds show, Bono’s attitude shifted markedly, remarking before "I Still Haven’t Found," "We brought the 40-foot lemon, of course. I hope you like this sh-t because you paid for it." Then he paused and said, "Thanks for sticking with us."

If ZooTV was the "Sgt. Pepper" of rock tours, then PopMart was U2′s "Magical Mystery Tour" and maybe that’s what stung Bono about Harrison’s comments, his lack of empathy for U2′s predicament. The biggest band in the world bewildering fans shortly after its greatest innovation? This was as true of The Beatles in late ’67 as it was of U2 in ’97.

Then again, it may be something more fundamental, more personal that caused Bono to publicly lash out at Harrison. Perhaps it was that Bono simply felt hurt that Harrison didn’t see or appreciate that U2 was the modern equivalent of The Beatles in terms of a band using its music and position to unite and inform its audience, raising questions along the way, employing modern means to do so. The fact that Harrison was contemptuous of U2 would have been hard to take especially as The Beatles were heroes of U2 and had had an impact on the fledgling Bono, a point acknowledged by the singer in Hot Press in 2001:

"We were great fans of his [Harrison] and I do think that he brought a dimension to [The Beatles] that gave depth to the consummate pop writing that it couldn’t have had without him. His taking on the taboo of religion also made an impression on me as a teenager. I used to think if rock ‘n’ roll means anything, it means liberation. It means freedom to express yourself sexually, politically, and of course, spiritually. But very few people do. And he was one of the first before Dylan, before Marvin Gaye and Marley."

Underlining this, snippets of Harrison songs found their way into the Leeds set. The nod to "Here Comes the Sun" in "Last Night on Earth" was more pronounced and lines from "Something" and "My Sweet Lord" were slotted into "Mysterious Ways." At first, it’s difficult to know how to take this referencing. Initially it may seem a kind of passive-aggressive retort, but it was more likely a kind of mirroring: reflecting how relevant the spiritual concerns from 30 years before were in 1997, at the same time showing that though the style and packaging may be different, what U2 were exploring through rock n’ roll was in a similar vein to that of "The Quiet Beatle." Indeed, it almost goes without saying that spirituality has always been a key factor in the music of U2.

The band may have closed the Leeds show with a defiant cover of The Beatles’ "Rain," the last lyric of the gig being, "Rain, I don’t mind." In terms of the rain of criticism that poured down on them throughout the "Pop" era, U2 did mind.

But while "Pop" may have not have resonated with people as well as other eras of the band, it didn’t negate the validity of the point U2 were making at the time about the lack of soul in an increasingly materialistic society. Conceptually it had moved on, switching style and subject, ditching the surrealism of ZooTV for pop art, information overload for consumerism. They were looking around them and seeing a "god shaped hole," a generation defining itself with consumer durables and designer labels, measuring itself against advertising’s ideals. The only problem was that it was three years ahead of its time. If PopMart had come along in 2000, when "No Logo" and "Kid A" were in vogue, it would have certainly been more celebrated.

By then, Bono was deeply involved with Jubilee/Drop the Debt campaign, making the step up from rock ‘n’ roll activist to rock n’ roll ambassador, going a step further than The Beatles, engaging world leaders directly and persuasively. Of course, without an electorate, Bono’s political power was only as good as the band’s popularity and relevance. It was crucial then that the band maintained this and so U2 had to find a new direction that would not only connect with the fans they had, but those lost through "Pop," and also the next generation of music enthusiasts and so U2 produced, "All That You Can’t Leave Behind," 11 slants on the disposable pop song. This was a very astute move given the sales and acclaim the album received, as well as the Elevation Tour’s status as 2001′s hot ticket. U2 had put itself forward as candidates for biggest band in the world again, and been given the vote by both the public and the music press, ensuring that it will be remembered in 30 years time. Given Bono’s reaction to Harrison’s comments a few years earlier, however, that U2 should do so by pursuing this musical route is as ironic as anything it did during its luminous and experimental ’90s.

Adam Clayton: The Coolest Guy in the Room*

March 13, 2006


By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor
2006.03

An old friend of mine just wasn’t that in to Adam Clayton. She thought the bassist was somewhat smug, more than slightly cocky. His offhand remarks just weren’t her thing. She prefers Bono because of his warmth. While I’m a total Edge girl, I still dig Adam because he’s cool.

One of my favorite Adam moments comes from a MuchMusic special from the Elevation Tour called "U2 Does Much" and hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos. Adam had sat quietly through most of the interview, as he so often does, letting Bono and Edge do most of the speaking.

A few segments in, Stroumboulopoulos asked Adam about any inspiration he’s had from fans. Seated, as everyone else was, on a backless stool, Adam slowly brought the mic to his face and said, "Do you have a chair with a straight back? These are really uncomfortable. But what were you saying? It sounded very interesting."


(Image: U2.com)

Disarmed, Stroumboulopoulos tried to get his footing back, re-asking the question. Adam looked at him and said, "I’m a bass player, I don’t worry about stuff like that."

That’s the moment that truly made me an Adam fan. Of course he doesn’t worry about stuff like that because, it seems, Adam doesn’t worry about much. Watching Adam on stage and in interviews, he knows who he is and is perfectly happy off to the side, doing his thing.

If I could learn anything from Adam, it would be to live that effortlessly, to not be so wound up in saying or doing the right thing. Bono refers to Edge as being the Zen master but I believe it’s Adam who’s the closest to that blissful state as he circles the Vertigo stage, does fashion spreads for Rolling Stone or floats in the Ganges on holiday. Adam’s found his niche, his place in the world, and seems to be perfectly content.

On his 46th birthday, wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, I’m sure Adam’s found bliss.

Introspect: Arcade Fire’s "Wake Up"*

March 6, 2006


By Devlin Smith, Contributing Editor
2006.03

It’s completely anthemic in the way it starts out—a slightly distorted guitar leads the way for an innumerable chorus of voices to call out a succession of "ohs." The song is timeless and familiar, a slight throwback to Bowie and something altogether new.

According to Mark Ellen, writer for The Word, it’s a trigger for The Edge. "… in fact he can’t hear Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ without the blind panic that he should be onstage in three minutes." It probably elicits the same response from the rest of the band. I know it brings up something similar in me.

The last time I heard it was the last time I saw U2 live, at New York’s Madison Square Garden two days before Thanksgiving. I remembered the nudge I gave my friend as the song churned into action, letting her (a U2 virgin) know that the real show was about to begin.

After nearly a year of inescapability, "Wake Up" has disappeared from the airwaves. But this weekend it came back and so did all those pre-concert feelings I’d nearly forgotten. Even though I was at work, I wanted to jump and holler, throw my arms into the air and yell out the "ohs" at full volume. I managed to hold back but it was so hard.

Like Edge, I can no longer separate "Wake Up" from the Vertigo Tour. I can’t hear the song without thinking Bono’s "everyone" chant is coming and then the band will follow. Just hearing those "ohs" puts me right back in a packed arena with thousands of other fans singing and jumping and yelling, "Oh my God, it’s them!"

Everything about "Wake Up" made it the perfect song to usher U2 onstage. Its melding of the old and new, its pessimistic yet hopeful lyrics fit so well with what U2 endeavored and accomplished with "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" and the Vertigo Tour. For me, this was the album where U2 really grew up, where the band took the best and worst parts of being an adult and made it come out just right—not too sad, not too sickly sweet.

On "Wake Up," the members of Arcade Fire seemed to be doing the same thing. Unlike the members of U2, though, the musicians in Arcade Fire have just walked through the grown-up door, like the guys in U2 did with "Boy."

It all tied up beautifully and U2 found a song that not only announced that the party was getting started but let everyone know exactly what kind of party it was. And now I can’t hear one without thinking of the other, without yearning for it and wanting to be back in the crowd screaming and begging for more. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away but maybe I don’t want it to.