By Ray Waddell
NASHVILLE (Billboard) - The caller ID reads "unknown caller" -- not only the title of the fourth track from U2's new album but a sign that the Edge is on the phone.
"It's all go in Berlin," U2's guitarist says. He and the band are in Germany to play the ECHO Awards, the third in a string of performances that included the Grammy Awards and the BRITs.
The band is making the rounds to set up "No Line on the Horizon," its 12th studio album and its first in five years. The album may represent a creative peak of sonic texture and musical detail, but it's not nearly so ambitious as the two-year world tour of stadiums the band will launch June 30 in Barcelona. Billed as the Kiss the Future tour, it will feature 360-degree in-the-round staging that's never been seen before in venues of this size. (Further tour details will be announced March 9.)
"We're very excited about the idea of going on the road with this album," the Edge says. "I think it's going to translate so well to the live context. The songs we've tried in rehearsal are sounding fantastic, so that's got everyone really fired up."
At a time when singles are emerging as the dominant way of consuming music, "No Line on the Horizon" is a fully realized album, one that could even revive the format, according to Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine -- or at least send the current incarnation into history with a bang.
"We have to change the form of the album in order to satisfy the consumer and to get their attention on it again," says Iovine, who first worked with U2 decades ago. "I believe that's happening as we speak with this U2 record, and I believe this will be remembered as one of the last great albums in this form."
For "No Line on the Horizon," the band turned to producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite, who were also part of the songwriting process. "We went to Fez in Morocco for two weeks to just work on music," the Edge says. "It was like a sort of musical composition workshop, and we all sat in a room together. Most of the ideas would have been generated there and then."
Two songs on the album that came from that woodshedding emerged as two of the album's biggest: "Unknown Caller" and the epic "Moment of Surrender."
"Those were songs that pretty much came together in the space of a couple of hours, and therefore probably were played in the final incarnation maybe once or twice," the Edge says. "The biggest difference this time I suppose was the starting-out point for this record. We really didn't have a clear agenda as far as a release date or a particular feel for what this album would be."
U2 doesn't have a formula for making albums, the Edge says. "We can go for a while not really seeming to make much progress, then suddenly a song will really take a huge leap forward for one reason or another, particularly toward the end of the album. I use the analogy of the Tibetan monks who do the calligraphy; it's all about mixing the paints first, and that process takes a long time."
Even the album's promotional campaign is ambitious. U2 appeared on "Late Show With David Letterman" for five consecutive nights beginning March 2, a rarity for the band and a first for the show.
"Very early on we did a residency in our hometown of Dublin. We played at the Baggot Inn on Baggot Street on a regular Thursday night, when we were making our first album and first few singles," the Edge says. "We also did a string of shows in the month of July one year, might have been 1979. We called them the 'jingle balls' because we decked out the entire club in Christmas decorations in the middle of summer. That was at a club called McGonagles, which is no longer there. Since then we've not done anything like this, so it will be not a totally new experience, but something we haven't done in many, many years."
REALLY BIG SHOW
U2 has always approached its concerts as epics, according to longtime manager Paul McGuinness. "I don't think U2 have ever rested on their laurels as either a touring act or a recording act," he says. "We have an in-house proverb: Every time we make a record we intend to break the band again, and that really is the discipline. If we released a record and didn't gain new fans, we'd be very disappointed. Naming no names, there are big touring acts whose new records are not successful or very interesting, and it has to be both for U2."
U2 will tour Europe through August 22, then hit America starting September 12 with a show at Soldier Field in Chicago; the band will play North America until October 28 and work the globe until the fall of 2010.
In addition to its production firsts -- the tour will feature 360-degree audience configuration, ambitious staging and a cylindrical video screen -- Kiss the Future will almost certainly become one of the highest-grossing tours ever. At $389 million, the band's 2005-07 Vertigo tour is second only to the Rolling Stones' A Bigger Bang.
After playing arenas in North America and stadiums elsewhere on its last few tours, U2 will play only stadiums this time out.
"This is going to be completely different, and that's what makes it exciting -- finding something new to bring to the touring culture," the Edge says. "It's hard to come up with something that's fundamentally different, but we have, I think, on this tour. Where we're taking our production will never have been seen before by anybody, and that's an amazing thing to be able to say."
While the Edge doesn't seem on edge as he and his bandmates hover on the brink of yet another world tour, McGuinness admits that launching a new album and a major tour comes with a certain amount of anxiety.
"The industry and the world are changing very, very fast at the moment, and we're all hoping that we can do something that's appropriate, that works and succeeds and continues the careers of the artists we represent," he says. "Anyone who says they're not nervous when they put out an album is a liar. And anyone who put tickets on sale in this economic climate and doesn't wait with bated breath is a liar, too."
Live Nation global music chairman Arthur Fogel and his team will produce and promote U2 worldwide, as they have for more than a decade. This will be the first tour under U2's 12-year multi-rights deal with Live Nation, although the band's relationship with Fogel dates back to a 1979 show at the El Mocambo in Toronto.
Committing to a global stadium tour now is "obviously a major undertaking on a bunch of different levels," Fogel says. "On the last tour it basically (was divided between) indoors (shows) in America and stadiums outside of America. ... I think the general feeling, and certainly mine, was the experience of U2 in a stadium is special and unique, and it would be great for North America to experience that the way the rest of the world did the last time around."
What the band will do live on the Kiss the Future tour has never been done on this scale. By performing at the center of stadiums on a stage that can be seen from 360 degrees, the band will increase the capacity of venues by 15 percent to 20 percent.
The configuration opens up myriad opportunities for scaling ticket prices, an important consideration for Fogel and the band. "I've never been a proponent of one or even two prices," he says. "There's a logical way to price an arena or a stadium."
The top ticket price will be slightly higher than U2's last tour, but the bottom price will be lower. Field-level tickets will be $55; in addition, there will be 10,000 tickets to every show for $30. Besides that, the price points are $250 and $90 or $95, depending on the market, Fogel says.
"Playing larger-capacity venues allows for more conservative pricing overall," he says. "Usually when somebody wants to go after the top price, they talk about the best seats being too expensive. The reality is, at a U2 show this time, and last time in the arenas, the best place is $55."
U2 will bring back its random upgrade program, first seen on the 2001 Elevation tour. A number of general-admission ticket-holders chosen randomly by computer will be moved into the circle closest to the stage.
The basic schedule of the tour is Europe in July and August, and America in September and October, with a total of 40 to 45 shows in 2009. In 2010, the band will play more stadiums in America in June and July, Europe in August and September and, tentatively, South America that fall. Potentially the group could play 90 to 100 shows in the next two years.
For the Edge and U2, the tour is about doing what they do: blowing audiences away. "There's such a special thing that goes on between the band and the audience at a U2 show, and we never get tired of that. It's like a kind of semireligious experience for the band, and I think for the audience, too," the Edge says. "For a lot of people it's the soundtrack of their lives. It's not just the band they're applauding, it's themselves and their own history and connection with the music. It's a very personal thing."
Asked for the secret to the band's longevity and continued passion, the Edge says there's no simple answer. "I think good luck in many regards, and I suppose we just figured out the idea of a band ego being bigger than all other egos," he says. "We've got egos, but we lay them to one side when we're working together. All our agendas always align to the same idea: to make some great music together and put on some great performances, and whatever makes for a great album or live show is everyone's priority."
It helps that the members remain close friends. "We've held onto our friendships. We're still the friends we were when we started way back in the late '70s," the Edge says. "We know it's sort of unique, but we're also trying to keep it going, because not only is it fun but it also produces, we think, some great results in terms of music and live concerts. We all instinctively know we would really regret the end of it, should that come."
Iovine says the band's fearlessness ensures its longevity as the members continue to reinvent themselves. "This band has many crossroads. I don't know how they do it. They figure out a new challenge and a new way to overcome it," he says. "Once you get on in your career it's easy to not want to go to that dark place and make a record -- that is painful. They could easily sit on their sound, and they just don't. These guys fearlessly run toward that dark place; they're first in line."