When U2 fans talk about their favorite band's music, the word "magic" is often part of the conversation. At the 2013 U2 Conference this past weekend, fans got a rare glimpse into how the magic happens as members of the longest-running U2 tribute band, Unforgettable Fire, explained some of the secrets behind the band's sound. Fans attending the morning session were treated to snippets of U2's catalog as deconstructed by band members Mick Normoyle (Edge), Tony Russo (Bono), George Levesanos (Larry) and Craig Kiell (Adam).
Mick talked about The Edge's most important effects: the infinite sustain (as heard on "With Or Without You") and the modulated delay (heard on "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "Bad"), which repeats notes and widens the sound. He uses a K fuzz tone device on the song "Elevation." Mick demonstrated the opening two notes before hitting the pedal on the device, then again after, which resulted in that trippy, familiar introduction to the song. Another trick Edge uses is a pick made in Germany that has a rough grip meant for holding, but he holds it upside down so that it scrapes the strings to roughen the sound. When asked how he was able to figure out The Edge's techniques, Mick laughed. "I learned by being a U2 freak and by worshipping The Edge."
While Mick has the help of fuzz boxes and pedals, Tony has only his voice and an echo effect that is always on, just like the real thing. He sang a few bars of "Beautiful Day" to highlight the differences with and without the echo. Still, he said, "Bono's vocal range is almost irreproducible, it's so wide." He surprised the crowd by his assertion that, "Even though it may look like a prop, Bono is actually a pretty good guitar player and plays about four chords." Tony also revealed that the harmonicas Bono uses are tuned to flat keys, which are not only rare but give a distinctively different tone than those tuned in sharp keys. He then demonstrated by playing snippets of "Trip Through Your Wires" and "Desire." It can't be easy playing the part of the frontman of the world's biggest band. Tony said, "It's a challenge to sound like the younger voice and then go into the older voice. I'm in awe that Bono can run around and perform like he does night after night."
Just like Larry, George is not only the drummer, but the founder of the band as well. He said, "Larry's playing isn't complicated but he is self-taught so he has a unique approach." Larry started as a marching band drummer, which is evident in his playing. "You have snare and high hat in most rock songs, but Larry's emphasis is on the militaristic feel of those elements. He's constantly filling his own drum line with snare." His use of syncopation (where the accent is on the offbeats) is readily apparent on songs like "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." "There's melody in his playing." The drumming follows Bono's voice but there's also a connection between Adam and Larry that helps solidify the tempo and momentum of the song.
Craig believes that Adam is the foundation for the band's sound. "His movement and choice of notes sets the tension. He plays higher on the neck of his bass, playing with octaves or only using one or two strings to lock in the bottom end. If you listen to 'Streets,' The Edge plays the same thing throughout the song. It's actually Adam driving the sound of the song."
An audience member asked the band members how U2 have changed over the years. Craig noticed that Adam's playing changed after he took bass lessons in the mid-nineties, making him more technically proficient. Larry has simplified his playing and has slowed down. "Their timing has improved. The early songs are all over the place in terms of timing," said George. The band now uses a click track when they play live and are accustomed to it. It helps them play at a consistent tempo but leaves little room for error, so a seemingly small mistake (like a mistimed snare hit) can end up being magnified. Mick was happy to report that the equipment has improved as well, allowing for better use of delays and other effects.
Another attendee asked if they thought the members of U2 were proficient musicians. Tony said, "Bono is lyrically a great songwriter, even if he isn't the greatest singer." Craig doesn't believe proficiency is the issue. "The song is the vehicle. Edge couldn't do what he does without Adam." Mick asked, "What is music? Is it a contest? Edge is a pioneer. The sound he makes is all his own."
For Unforgettable Fire, what are the hardest songs to play? "Wire," said Mick, "because it's fast and goes off tempo easily." Tony has a hard time hitting the highest note in "Bad," which he admitted he hits only about 50 percent of the time. George offered "Streets," which he said is "not hard but always makes me sweat." Craig said it's not about the songs being hard, but "it's about finding the feel, the pocket, the space inside the song."
Are they intimidated by playing U2? "Absolutely!" exclaimed Tony. Mick added, "It can be awkward. We're not U2. We're fans first and foremost."
(c) @U2/Maione, 2013.