Reeve Carney reacted pretty much the way anyone, musician or not, responds to first meeting two musical superstars: "I thought, 'Oh my God, it's Bono and The Edge,'" he recalled.
But after the initial bedazzlement, right away Carney figured out that Bono and Edge weren't merely half of a super-successful band called U2.
"I could sense from the outset that they were really great guys, really down to earth, and you can sense a spirituality in them that you don't sense in a lot of people," Carney said. "It's none of my business to talk about the specifics of whatever spirituality they are invested in, but you can sense it and it's real from them, which I really appreciate, because it's something that I think makes music much more powerful."
At the time, Carney didn't yet know that he would be playing a science-loving high school teen with a web-slinging superhero alter-ego in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the Broadway show with music by Bono and The Edge. (The musical finally opened June 14 after a record-breaking 180-plus previews, numerous injuries to flying Spidey stuntmen, some critical scorn and a retooling of the plot and music.)
Carney met the U2 duo a few years ago at a rehearsal studio in New York City, where the show's director and co-creator, Julie Taymor — who had previously discovered Reeve with his band Carney at the Mercury Lounge in New York and invited him to act in her movie The Tempest — asked Reeve to help her out by singing a few songs from the musical for a group of potential investors.
Bono and Edge liked Carney's voice, and they invited him to try out for the part of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. After three months of auditions, he landed the role.
Although he's enjoying his stint singing and swinging around the rafters of the Foxwoods Theatre, Carney's real calling and training are not in drama and musical theater, but in just plain music.
Carney, 28, who started playing guitar at age 12, and as a kid sang commercial jingles and in the children's chorus on Michael Jackson's album HIStory, is the frontman for a band that also features his younger brother, Zane, on guitar, with Aiden Moore on bass and Jon Epcar on drums. They all graduated from the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, a magnet school for the arts, where they formed their own band. Reeve and Zane attended the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, where they studied studio jazz guitar. In 2007, they left school to be "Carney the band" full time.
They're all living in New York now to fulfill Spider-Man duties: Zane, Moore and Epcar all play in the pit band.
U2 invited the band, which has a sort of rock-blues-jazz sound influenced by Queen, the Beatles and many others, to be one of the opening acts, along with Arcade Fire, during their concert on July 30 at the Magnetic Hill Music Festival in Moncton, Canada. (photo above: Reeve Carney on stage in Moncton, by @U2's Aaron J. Sams)
It was a big deal for a band that has so far mostly done a Rock 'n' Roll 101 tour of duty — traveling around to play at clubs and festivals and open for other acts, even selling out a few headline shows at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, including one on July 25 — but has never played at a stadium.
Carney's debut album, Mr. Green Vol. 1 (and no, that's not a reference to Bono, Edge or any other Irishman, although the Carneys indeed have Irish roots), came out in 2010 on Interscope Records, which is U2's label as well.
"Green" is good, really good. You can listen to excerpts of the album on the band's website. Also worth checking out is out a video of the band singing a live acoustic version of the first single on the album, "Love Me Chase Me," at the 2010 SXSW music festival.
During a recent phone interview, Reeve Carney talked to @U2 about working with and learning from Bono and Edge, his swinging time as Spider-Man, and what his aspirations are for both Carney the band and Reeve Carney the musician-actor-songwriter.
@U2: In previous interviews you've listed a lot of different influences on Carney's sound — the Beatles, Queen, Edgar Winter, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Jackson Browne, Leonard Bernstein, Debussy, Wes Montgomery, to name a few. Are there any U2 influences in there?
Reeve Carney: Totally. I grew up listening to U2, mainly just on the radio, but their stuff was brilliant.
I think it just seeped in. I remember actually the first time I bought a pedal, it was because of The Edge. I wanted to get that sound they use on "With Or Without You." My dad's like, "Oh, that's a delay pedal." That's a very simple way to describe it. Edge developed such a distinctive method of using range and a lot of other things.
And I guess people sometimes told me that I sometimes sound like Bono, which is a good compliment; I guess it comes from listening to him as a kid.
@U2: You and the rest of the band went to the Hamilton Academy of Music in Los Angeles?
RC: Yeah, it's really fantastic. . . . When we were there it was a top-class performing arts academy. We did everything from playing guitar in the jazz ensemble and orchestra pit to singing in the vocal jazz ensemble and taking musical theater class. I did pretty much everything you could do at that school.
@U2: And you went to USC's Thornton School of Music?
RC: Exactly. I majored in studio jazz guitar.
@U2: Did you graduate from there?
RC: I didn't. I only went for one year and then I got a management contract and left school, because I figured I could either pay $$40,000 again (or three more times), or I could get on the path to start making some money. In my field it makes more sense to do it that way. I do think I might go back to school one day and study history though, just to have an education, because I love history.
@U2: When you're doing "Spider-Man," how do you make the music that Bono and Edge wrote your own, or Peter Parker's?
RC: The thing is to focus on the acting. When I'm with my band . . . there's not really much preconception; it's kind of like I go out there and do what I feel. But when you're part of a show you have to approach it the way a character would, and that involves an element of acting. So when I'm doing the "Spider-Man" stuff I approach it as an actor more than as a singer. That helps to get into the right space for it. You just have to think about the aspects of yourself that are going through the same struggles that Peter Parker is going through, and that kind of gets me there.
@U2: Do you ever find yourself trying to incorporate any of Bono's mannerisms into your singing during "Spider-Man," since you've probably seen him perform the songs so many time?
RC: I don't intentionally do that, but it's very possible that some of it has slipped in. I mean, he's one of the most dynamic performers around.
@U2: What have Bono and Edge given you in the "Spider-Man" songs that really challenges you as a performer?
RC: Probably the fact that I have to fly around while singing (laughs). That's probably the hardest part. In terms of . . . as a singer, do you think any of your readers are interested in vocal technique?
@U2: Oh, definitely.
RC: Well, for instance, the "Spider-Man" music does not use my entire range as a vocalist. In fact, I use more of my range with my band than I do in "Spider-Man." I'm technically more of a high baritone than a tenor, but Bono is probably a high baritone as well or he might be a pure tenor, I'm not really sure. My point is, a lot of the stuff is written in the territory of the voice called a passagio, which is sort of the bridge, the transitional ... portion of the voice, where it's a delicate area. Bono really loves singing in that territory and it's definitely a very challenging place to stay. I mean, you can hit the notes there, but to stay there . . . A lot of this music is written to stay between an F and a C. It can wear out your voice if you don't know how to maneuver it properly, so definitely proper vocal technique has saved me in this show.
@U2: If you could tweak any of the lyrics from "Spider-Man," is there any one that you'd like to change, and if so, why?
RC: Well, there's some lyrics in the show where, without the show, it sounds a little silly. Like, there's a part (in the song "No More") where I say "going nuts, hate my guts . . . / Why do I need these stupid glasses?" Outside the context of the show that's kind of silly. Bono and Edge would never have that in a U2 song, obviously, and I would never have that in a Carney song, but when you're thinking about the character, the fact that it's Peter Parker, it makes total sense. And that's why I have to approach all this stuff as an actor, because there are things that maybe I wouldn't sing as Reeve, but I'm not playing Reeve, I'm playing Peter Parker. So I don't really think about changing (the lyrics). I just think about approaching them from a different angle.
@U2: How do you keep Carney going and thriving while you're devoting so much time to the Broadway show?
RC: It was really hard for a while. For about 11 months it was nearly impossible because we were in tech, which is when you're rehearsing on stage with lights and things. We were doing that for like three or four times longer than most shows. So it was crazy, and I didn't really have any time to myself for my band. But now that the show's opened, it's like a dream job. I work here five hours a night on the show and then I have the rest of the day to do other things. During the day we have band rehearsal for three hours whenever we have time. So it's great. We have time to keep it together now. The only thing we can't really do is tour while we're in the show.
@U2: Say something about what each of the Carney band members brings to the group.
RC: Well, Zane (far left above) is so much like Edge. They are very much kindred spirits. And Bono and I are kind of similar. And I'm only talking about in the way we approach the art form. I don't mean in terms of ability because I'm not even going to compare myself to Bono (laughs), but just in terms of our roles in the band. I'm more the abstract conceptualizer, which is kind of what Bono does, at least from what I've seen. He's good at unifying and getting a large concept introduced into the band, and that's kind of what my role is. And Zane, just like Edge, is like the mad scientist guy who is very into the detail. He can take my big concept and turn it into something that is functional, and that's what I see as Edge's role in U2, from what I've experienced.
Jon (2nd from right) and Aiden (far right) are the classic rhythm section, which every band needs. If you don't have that, you don't have a band. They've been playing together since they were 13 years old, and you can definitely hear it.
It's also checks and balances. Emotionally, there's always at least one level-headed person when we all go off on some tangent. Aiden, our bass player, is really good at that.
@U2: That relates to another question: I'm wondering what you learned from Bono and Edge about working together as a foursome rather than as a group of individual artists?
RC: I haven't seem them operate with U2 in its full outfit yet because I haven't seen them with Larry and Adam. But I kind of have an idea how they run things. There are some questions I haven't had a chance to ask because we're always focusing on "Spider-Man." I would like to figure out how they've kept it together for so long, because that's definitely something I could see being challenging, especially when so much money gets involved. Money can be such a tricky thing among friends, so I wonder how they have figured that out. We don't have that problem because we don't have any money (laughs) with our band yet.
@U2: What were your expectations before meeting Bono and Edge, and how did those expectations compare with the reality?
RC: I didn't expect them to necessarily be as nice as they are. . . . I just knew that they were extremely talented guys who've had a lot of success, but I didn't expect that they were also going to be really great guys. That was probably the biggest surprise. They are so generous with the time that they have; they've really taken me and my band under their wing. Obviously, I'm not saying they're passing on a mantle to us or anything like that because there are a lot of bands they do that with, but they give back to the community of music, which is really, really something awesome to see.
@U2: What's next for the band? Are you working on a new album, or do you think at some point you're going to tour again?
RC: Oh yeah, that what we'll definitely be doing. That's what I plan to do for the rest of my life. I love being involved in "Spider-Man," but I have a feeling I'm going to clock more hours touring around the country than I will doing anything else in my life. I think that's going to be the bulk of my existence. I don't know when, exactly, because I'm really enjoying this job here and so is my band. But we're using this time to write new material and record it. I don't know when it will be released.
@U2: Do you think you'll end up back in the L.A. area or will you stay in New York?
RC: Oh, I think I'll ultimately live in L.A. I'm from New York but I've lived in L.A. so long now that it's kind of become my home, so I think that'll be my home base.
@U2: What have you learned about songwriting from Bono and Edge?
RC: Bono is the king of dealing with huge corporations and things. He told me, "I'm not saying you don't have a hit, but if the label doesn't think you have a hit, you don't have a hit, if you catch my drift." The point was, you need to have something that no one can deny, because they need to get behind it, and if they don't believe in it then there's no way they're going to get behind it, even if it is maybe a hit. Edge taught me that you need to have at least one or two bulletproof songs on your album that no one is going to deny, and that's the way you're going to make it happen. He told me — and I don't know what songs he's talking about — that "even with U2 we've had times where we didn't quite have that song and had to do a lot more work because of it."
And they said, "You also have to remember that the entire world doesn't care about your personal feelings on things, necessarily. So you have to find ways to involve anyone." And U2 do that better than anyone. With their lyrics they're very far-reaching; they give a global perspective but are also very personal at the same time. That's something that I would like to incorporate into some of my songs.
(c) @U2/Lindell, 2011.