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The @U2 Interview: Willie Williams discusses the Experience + Innocence tour (Part 2)


Willie Williams interview E+I Tour 1200

U2's Experience + Innocence tour wrapped up last month and the band and crew have gone their separate ways back to "civilian life," as Willie Williams called it in part one of our tour wrap-up with him. In a tour diary-like essay, he revealed the thinking behind the dramatic decision to rebuild the show during the European tour -- dropping the "Innocence Suite" and eventually replacing it with a "Berlin Suite" that fit the band's decision to record the last show in Berlin.

In part two below, we take a more traditional Q&A approach as Willie replies to a set of questions that I first sent him in May shortly after the tour began, and added to a few times as the tour went along. Get ready to learn about the MRI-themed opening of the first leg (and whose brain scans we all saw), the decision to replace it with Charlie Chaplin, MacPhisto's return and ending the show with Bono and a toy-sized version of his childhood home.

Matt McGee: On the first leg, the show opened with what seemed like an executive summary of Bono's health scare at the end of 2016, which led into "Love Is All We Have Left." Is that an accurate description?

Willie Williams: The opening of the show in North America looked at the "personal apocalypse" aspect of "The Blackout" and "Lights Of Home." As you surmise, it was based on Bono's near-death experiences over the past few years and it was Bono's own idea to share them; his recollection of being in some kind of nether-world dream state for weeks, the experience of going through an MRI, the sense of helplessness in the face of mortality and all the emotions that go with it.

It's an imagined version of events. We looked at using Bono's real scans but ultimately they just didn't look right, and they would probably have been too revealing medically, given some of the crazies that are out there. The sounds were created by Declan Gaffney, our long-time show audio collaborator, with Gavin Friday overseeing the whole piece. Hilariously, the "nurse" is Cynthia, the tour ticketing manager, who had just the right voice, recorded over a cell phone. The brain is my own, as I just happened to have a 3D scan of it on me at the time. We were aware that this would be a very odd way to open a show, but having done lo-fi openings on the past few tours it felt like the time was right for a bit of magic.

MM: Wait a second. Your brain scans? May I ask ... is everything okay?

WW: Funny, a couple of people have reacted with alarm when I mentioned it, but fret not. A young friend of mine grew up to become a doctor of brain science, as well as a musician and artist. He's an associate professor at University College London and has access to "The Big Machines," so a few of us from my studio have had various parts of ourselves scanned. He's an extraordinary character (and his chocolate brains are particularly good).

MM: Okay, whew. So why change the intro so dramatically for the second leg?

WW: For the European show, we wanted to bring out more of the "societal apocalypse" aspect of "The Blackout." It began as an idea just to set a certain tone but ended up turning into a much bigger piece. I'd been thinking about this idea of "the long peace" that we have all grown up through -- 70 years without war in Europe that we all take completely for granted. Looking at the tour dates, it occurred to me that 70 years ago every city that we were about to visit on this tour was in smoking ruins. Even the "neutral" countries like Ireland and Portugal didn't get through unscathed and, as I was looking through footage of them, I realised that this could make a very powerful opening to the show. "The Blackout" is about both a personal and a political apocalypse and Bono had long said that he felt we had addressed the former but not the latter.

MM: That video clip from The Great Dictator seems, to this American, like a direct reference to our president and what's going on here. Is that intentional, or do you think it speaks to what's going on outside the U.S., too?

WW: It was Gavin who remembered the Chaplin speech from The Great Dictator, so out of that group conversation the idea for the new intro was born; this is very typical of the process. The Chaplin speech is so perfect for our times it's remarkable -- equally applicable to the current madness on both sides of the Atlantic.

MM: So what happened to the augmented reality app and that experience with the iceberg?

WW: It became obvious that we weren't going to be able to do this and keep the augmented reality intro and "Love Is All We Have Left," which was a shame but the new idea was clearly much more appropriate for Europe in its present state. For me personally, of the myriad compelling arguments to the irresponsibility of Brexit, the peace of nations seems strangely unspoken. After an initial cheer, the silence of the audience watching the tour cities up in flames so recently is often extremely poignant.

MM: MacPhisto returned this year! How'd that come about?

WW: The state of the EU and the re-emergence of the far right couldn't possibly go without comment but finding the right approach was going to be crucial to prevent it from becoming predictable. The idea of the return of MacPhisto via an augmented reality app came from Bono and seemed perfect on multiple levels. It's been a lot of fun having him back in our lives and, as with original character, it allows Bono to say a lot of things he couldn't say as his "real" self. He really gets quite unpleasant some nights; I don't think the intervening years have been kind to him.

MM: It was a very unique experience for me, and no doubt a lot of other fans, to see a U2 show and not hear a single Joshua Tree song. Was there any temptation at any point in the tour to bring back even one of those songs?

WW: There was never any serious doubt that we should give that entire album a fallow year. This was for a couple of reasons; even the greatest songs have the potential to go cold on you if they're overplayed without reinvention, and there comes a point where it becomes impossible to reinvent a song on demand, yet again -- like when you're creating three new shows within four years, for example.

More importantly though, we figured that if U2 was able to present new work just a year after playing "the show that everyone wanted," it would put them in a position of being able to do pretty much anything they want to from this point forward. They have now definitively managed to free themselves from the tyranny of being obligated to play all of the "greatest hits" and just make great work which, ultimately, has to be more satisfying for all. Next time around they could be delivering an Achtung Baby stadium show, or they could be showcasing new material in theatres if they feel like it.

Arthur Fogel, our wise leader at Live Nation, always reminds us that it's crucial to inform the audience ahead of time as to what the show is, but beyond that I really believe U2 can do whatever they want to now.

MM: The first time I interviewed you, way back in 2002, you said you can't imagine doing a show without "Streets." I'm curious what you think now that it was left out for an entire tour.

WW: Did we miss the Joshua Tree songs? Of course. Moments like "Streets" and "With Or Without You" are hard habits to break, but ultimately that's all they are -- habits. The upside has been rediscovering some overlooked gems like "Staring At The Sun," a full band version of "Stay" and, of course, the mighty "Acrobat." There are only so many slots on a set list after all, so freeing up some parking space has been very liberating.

MM: Is everyone aware that "Acrobat" is the unplayed song that most fans have clamored for years to hear?

WW: "Acrobat" just seemed like its moment had come. There's so much rage and frustration in that song, which is the ideal vehicle to express the confusion of this moment in history. I love that they play it on the e-stage, so close to each other, looking inwards. It's a real "band" moment; the antithesis of the high-production moments of this show.

MM: Early in the first leg, you used a video during "One" that featured kids going about their day wearing army helmets -- regular stuff like going to school, playing with friends, sitting at the kitchen table with family, and all while wearing helmets. It was really powerful ... and then it was dropped for the longest time. What happened?

WW: The video of the kids in helmets was made by Anton [Corbijn], of course. He didn't make it specifically to go with "One." Initially, we thought it might be an interstitial sequence, perhaps to be shown during the encore break.

It's such an extraordinary piece of work that it has remarkable power, even without music. This, in the end, became a problem because there was really nowhere else for it to go other than in "One." That song already has a very strong mood and power of its own, so we could feel there was a conflict between them.

Neither the North American nor European version of the Experience show has much room for the audience to draw breath and have a communal moment, so we debated continuously about whether or not Anton's film helped or hindered this during "One." I'm not sure we ever resolved the question terribly satisfactorily, but we eventually found a workable compromise by showing a shorter version of the film during the latter part of the song.

MM: U2's last few tours seemed to have a handful of spots every night for the band to improvise. On the first leg of the E+I tour, it felt to me like there were fewer opportunities -- on many nights only one song would change. Do you feel like the show gave the band enough room for spontaneity?

WW: As you point out, there's not a lot of room for improvisation within this show. Ironically, there might have been more swap-outs in the earlier part of the European tour had we not been spending so much time rehearsing to replace the Innocence Suite. I had to smile at the overwhelmingly positive Twitter storm the night we finally began the swap. It's so heartening to be able to make people so happy.

MM: I loved the poetry at the end of this show with the swinging light bulb, Bono walking off the e-stage by himself -- it's the opposite of how the I+E tour began. But part of me wonders ... was "13" too mellow of a song to end with?

WW: I appreciate that it's another aspect that's a tad counterintuitive. From the very beginning of the project, I was in love with the cyclic idea of the duo of shows beginning and ending under the single lightbulb. Initially, I was concerned that it might be an idea that came up too early in the proceedings and so might not survive the long haul, but to my great joy, it did. I love U2 shows that finish quietly -- i.e., "Moment Of Surrender," "Love Is Blindness," etc. Anyone can do the big hurrah kitchen-sink ending, or the buy-the-world-a-Coke group hug ending, but who else in the universe has got the balls to trust their audience to accompany them on a two-hour roller coaster ride, and then kiss them goodnight with a barely audible whisper?

At the end of each show, I join the band in the "runner" to the vehicles, so once we're out of rehearsals it takes some serious strategy and a major sprint for me to be able to see the very end of the show. On this tour I have done so more often than on any other, simply to see that moment of the light bulb appearing from the house. You can imagine how much we debated whether we'd crossed a line into barf-inducing sentimentality, but somehow the image of the giant grown man looking down at the now-tiny model of his childhood home really connected. I'll never forget the audible gasp from the audience in Tulsa when the bulb appeared from the house for the first time; no longer a signifier of loss, poverty, loneliness, mother, the universe ... it's now just a bulb. He can embrace the light it gives out before leaving it for the rest of us.

(c) @U2, 2018.