“The first time I travelled to India was when I read Midnight’s Children,” reveals Bono, shedding light on an adventure that was purely literary. “You get the sense it’s a cauldron of ideas, an anarchical and entrepreneurial culture.” U2’s frontman, lyricist and do-gooder-in-chief is perched on a caramel leather sofa alongside lead guitarist The Edge, in New York City’s Electric Lady Studios, when the two announce their band’s upcoming, first-ever India performance.
The show, slated for 15 December 2019, will unfold at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Mumbai. It marks the final stop on U2’s Joshua Tree tour, featuring debut performances in other Asian locales such as Seoul, Manila and Singapore. “The concert will bring the curtains down on a 32-year-old album that has travelled the world,” says Ashish Hemrajani, founder and CEO of
BookMyShow, the entertainment platform responsible for ushering the act to India. “It will be nothing short of historic.” The setlist will pay homage to the eponymous Grammy Award-winning 1987 album, often credited for the Irish rock band’s stratospheric ascent.
“There’s a whole Irish-India connection,” Bono explains, underscoring a decades-long relationship that dates back to Mahatma Gandhi, who warned Sinn Féin, Ireland’s republican political party, about the by-products of violent protests. “And our current Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, as we call him, his father’s from Mumbai”.
“But the Irish people, you need to be careful with them, because they tend to exaggerate their own importance,” he adds, flashing a Cheshire cat grin. “The Edge will tell you we invented country music.”
In a psychedelic recording lair originally constructed for the late Jimi Hendrix, strewn with instruments used by greats like Stevie Wonder and Patti Smith, Bono and The Edge sounded off on their plans for India, the future of stadium tours, and the growing importance of high-calibre storytelling. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Why tour India now?
The Edge: India has been on our bucket list for a long time; we’ve looked towards Gandhi and his principles of non-violence as an important pillar of what our band stands for. We’re also fascinated by the country’s combination of the very ancient and the super modern. But it has an incredibly vibrant music scene of its own, so to come sing songs in English written from the Irish perspective and assume we had a big audience would be arrogant, I think. (For many years) we had to ask ourselves, who would our audience in India be?
Bono: Our shows have been quite technical over the years. It’s an effort to break down the distance between the band and the audience. Transporting those technologies to (locations like India) can end up driving up ticket prices. Ultimately, we weren’t sure there was a large enough audience (in India). But people insisted there was. At this point, even if those people aren’t telling us the truth, we’re coming!
What is it about ‘The Joshua Tree’, a collection of songs centered on the American Southwest, penned over 30 years ago, which can resonate with an urban Indian audience today?
Bono: The Joshua Tree was an album dedicated to the landscape of America, a mythological America. Because it’s not just a country, it’s an idea. Just like India is an idea—it’s the largest democracy on earth and it’s a stupendous, awe-inspiring achievement. You can see democracy shrinking as a force all over the world, but in India, no. It’s really important to us that (India) thrives and keeps moving forward. And not just as a place to tour but a place to visit, to invest, and a place to hold in high esteem. But India needs to be careful. Because democracy is something we should never take for granted. In the history of civilization, democracy is a blip.
The Edge: The Joshua Tree tour was born out of a sense that the songs had developed a new poignancy. The questions that we’re asking in the album are still important questions to answer now. The principles our band has kind of always believed in—human rights, justice issues, pluralism—are somewhat under threat.
Your albums are responses to the wider world, tackling subjects like the 2016 American elections, poverty in Africa, and the Troubles in Ireland. How do you prevent them from becoming didactic?
The Edge: For us, it has to be personal because we don’t ever just want to be people who are looking for something to complain about. We don’t like fundamentalism, so we’re against speaking in a black and white way.
Bono: Specificity is a good thing. For example, after witnessing what happens to people who don’t have access to antiretroviral drugs in Africa, I pledged my life to this idea that where you live shouldn’t decide whether you live. But it was the specificity of that battle with HIV/AIDS that stopped my efforts from just being grandiose posturing. We have to get better as artists and musicians and be careful of polemics. You see this in America—the political left has become its own enemy. And on the right, from the populists, you’ve got this storytelling, almost like Grimms’ Fairy Tales: there’s a monster at the border; the monster is China; the monster is coming to take your job. They’re offering simple solutions to complex problems, but at least they’re clear. We’ve just got to become better at our storytelling.
From the emerging crop of global artists, whom would you single out for presenting a different way of seeing the world?
Bono: For novelists or poets or filmmakers, being over 40 is never a problem but for musicians, it seems more difficult. We think of some of the greatest artists in the world—Prince, for example, you’re looking at the biggest Prince fan there is!—and you can’t remember the songs from the last 20 years of their life as much as the first 20. But some artists have disproven this: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. There was David Bowie, who meandered off for a bit, like we all do, but came back around. From the younger generation, there’s Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, who has developed a giant role in the United States without even being signed onto a label.
Are arena tours still the way forward for bands like yours?
The Edge: In rock ‘n’ roll, we’re waiting for a new wave of protest music. I think it’s there, but it’s having a hard time getting noticed. People aren’t earning a lot of money from recordings anymore, which I think will change as streaming becomes more pervasive. But concert income is really what it’s about. When we were a young band it was the other way around—you went on the road to promote the sales of your album. I don’t yet know what the digital world’s influence on recording artists will be, but it’s certainly changing music.
Bono: It’s opening access. Artists now have access to distribution models that are literally limitless. To get through the noise is another matter. You can either do that by stirring up controversy or by creating momentum. Live performers tend to make up the [latter group]. They tend to be the ones you go tell your sisters, brothers and mates all about, because of their authenticity.