Sound Mixer Brian Riordan on How He Made U2’s ‘A Sort of Homecoming’ Performance ‘Intimate,’ ‘Real’ and ‘Raw’ [Interview]

Working with U2 is a moment many fans would love to be 'stuck in' — Brian Riordan got to do just that.

 After nearly four years since their last tour and more than five years since their last album, U2 is finally back. Last fall kicked off what’s been a bit of a resurgence of U2 back in the mainstream spotlight after Bono released his memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, and subsequently embarked on a solo tour of sorts (think Springsteen on Broadway meets U2’s ‘INNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour) that visited a number of theaters throughout America and Europe (can’t wait to see the show on May 8). 

But this spring has been a big moment (that you can’t get out of) for U2 fans. Not only was Songs of Surrender released — an album full of re-recordings of old songs — the Disney+ documentary special, Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with David Letterman, was also released on St. Patrick’s Day. The documentary, directed by music documentary veteran Morgan Neville, gives a behind-the-scenes look at U2’s background in Dublin and features live performances in an intimate setting. It’s truly something special.

A still from Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming courtesy of Disney.

That’s why it was such a pleasure to speak with Brian Riordan — the re-recording mixer for A Sort of Homecoming. Riordan, along with his wonderful team including Phil DeTolve (re-recording mixer), Josh Reinhardt (sound designer) and Lucas Recinos (sound editor) from Levels Audio did a fantastic job bringing this documentary to life. As a U2 fan, I can say they passed the test when it came to the job they did mixing the live performances and interweaving them with the rest of the documentary. 

In this interview, Riordan spoke about being a U2 fan growing up, interweaving the live performances with the other segments and sheds some light on whether or not we may ever see the full performance Bono and The Edge did last December. 

The Hollywood Handle: How does it feel to get the documentary out into the world, tied into the release of Songs of Surrender

Brian Riordan: It feels great. I mean, I’m really, really proud of the film. I think that the timing of it — releasing it on St. Patty’s Day — [and] the sort of deep dive into both the history [and] origin of the band as well as Dublin itself and the, and the country of Ireland, I think it’s just very insightful. 

THH: I don’t know if you know this, but U2 fans are quite fickle. Did you feel any pressure from U2 fans or even Ireland at large?

Riordan: [Smiles] I didn’t [know that] at the time. I [was] just head down, excited, passionate about making it sound [as] amazing as possible, and was grateful to be part of it. So I didn’t really feel that sort of pressure, [but] obviously, [I] wanted to make sure we did a great job and that the band was happy and the fans were happy, so that that was always somewhere in the mind, but it wasn’t affecting the way I was sort of present in the moment.

THH: I don’t know when certain things were shot — I’m aware that the concert itself was shot in December of last year, so for that, was that three or four months a normal amount of time for you to be able to finish all the work on your end?

Riordan: It was a tight turnaround for production overall. On our end, it was a tight turnaround, but we’re sort of in the business of tight turnarounds. But in terms of Morgan [Neville] and Dave [Letterman] and Bono and The Edge flying out there and seeing what they were gonna get without really a clear idea of what they were gonna get or what they were gonna [get], it was very sort of “run and gun,” “gorilla style,” winging it, and something really magical came out of it.

THH: Oh, that’s interesting. So I’m sure that you knew maybe that they would record a concert, but did you have any sort of clear idea of what songs we played or how you were gonna interweave it and stuff? 

Riordan: I was not completely aware, no. I had spoken to Morgan prior to them because we were working on another project together here at the studio and I knew that he was going out to Dublin to do this and that was about the full amount of knowledge that I had before they got back with footage and everything. 

A still from Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming courtesy of Disney.

THH: So in total then, do you have a rough estimate of how much footage you were given to work on? 

Riordan: Yeah, so the offline video editor is handling all of that [smiles], so I could not accurately say, [but] I’m guessing they ran cameras of some kind pretty much every waking hour they were there, but they weren’t there very long. So, obviously, the stage aspect of it was far more controlled when they were in the studio with the orchestra and the choir and everything. That was far more controlled in terms of timeframe, what they were gonna knock out, what they weren’t, rehearsals, all of that, but everything else was sort of just completely wild.

THH: U2 fans know how involved The Edge usually is with the mixing of albums and stuff like that, did you work with him at all when mixing this documentary?

Riordan: Yeah, The Edge was very involved. As well as Alistair and, Jacknife Lee, who [both] have a long history of working with U2. So yeah, they definitely were very involved in the sign-off process and all of that.

And then ultimately at the end of the line, it was Morgan here in the studio — the band did not end up coming into the states to do a review… everything was done remotely. There was talk about The Edge coming and then I think scheduling conflicts and things happened. We were really racing [and] pushing to get things done in time for that St. Patrick’s Day release — so it sort of put a real hard deadline in front of us.

THH: I know you’ve done mixing on things before, but is there something unique about editing something like a live show that people would be surprised to know? 

Riordan: We do a lot of mixing for concerts and recorded performances for broadcast and things of that nature. With this, one of the really important things was to keep it intimate. You really want the viewer, the listener, to be present in that room as much as possible. So to have it feel immersive, but also close up and intimate and keep it really dynamic. And that was the sort of essence of what I believe they were going for, which is strip this thing down to its bare bones, these amazing compositions, strip ’em all down to these acoustic, rearranged, completely different instrumentation versions of these masterpieces. That was always top of mind throughout the entire process for us here, which is how do we focus on making this sound incredible without overproducing it — without making it too big, without making it too small. It’s like sort of that constant bobbing and weaving and I feel like the outcome was really good.

THH: When people watch a documentary titled Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, they’re gonna go and listen for Bono on the Edge, right? But of course, there are other musicians in this concert; there’s the choir and the orchestra and Glen Hansard, you know, all these musicians, can you talk to me about that balance of blending all that?

A still from Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming courtesy of Disney.

Riordan: I think that’s a very, very good question. It definitely has to feature Bono and The Edge at all times — they’re always front and center — but that large support, that sound, that sort of big bed that they’re laying in of these incredible string instruments and choir [singers] and additional acoustic guitars and all the vocals, I think that it really just allowed Bono and The Edge to sort of sit in there and really feel supported while still staying very much out front.

THH: This is a two-part question. First, I imagine that the first part of the question is I imagine that you got the whole concert was filmed — I know the whole concert wasn’t necessarily thrown into this documentary, and some songs left out — did you get that whole show to mix?

Riordan: I did not. I ended up getting the final cut from the offline editor [and the] video editors, and we only mixed that portion. Now, Alistair [McMillan] and Jackknife Lee may be [mixing the whole show]… I have no idea, so I don’t want to say I don’t want to misspeak, but there are probably a lot of amazing things on the cutting room floor that has not been mixed, that perhaps will be mixed and released at some point [smiles].

I don’t want to misspeak, but we only mixed the exact stuff that made the show, and a lot of that was due to time constraints as well/

THH: Fair enough. Well, you kind of answered my second part of the question because even this morning, ironically, I saw on Twitter somebody asking the question of whether or not we would ever see the full show. But I won’t push you on that.

Riordan: Yeah, I wish I knew the answer, man. I hope the answer is yes [smiles]. I’d like to see more of Dave interacting with them. I mean, all of the humor and there’s probably a lot of locations that they went to and a lot of great stuff that just [didn’t make it]. You know, [you’ve] gotta fit it all in an hour and a half.

THH: Hypothetically, if they were to release more of it, would that involve you? 

Riordan: Um… I would hope so!

THH: In preparation for A Sort of Homecoming, did you listen to/watch any other U2 concerts to get a feel for mixing their live sound? A Sort of Homecoming is so unique with its arrangements and the setting of the show, and the only comparable show I can think of is Abbey Road in 2017.

Riordan: No, we really treated this film as its own unique piece. We relied heavily on Alastair McMillan and Jackknife Lee to keep the band specifics true to their signature sound, and they did a fantastic job.

THH: I know I asked you about the blending of the other musicians into the concert performances, but I also was curious about some of the times when it cuts between the documentary, like you said, David Letterman walking on the street or even the time it cuts from the concert to Bono in the studio recording “Every Breaking Wave” for the new album, so not every song is played in full and uninterrupted. Was it ever difficult to segue between two different segments? 

Riordan: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another great question because a lot of times there were these elements where we would interweave full performances with vocals underneath. You know, segments and things like that where it’s Dave talking or it’s Glen and Dave talking, or all these different moments and you want to keep the energy up with the music going under it, but clarity and what they’re saying is so important. So we did our very best to build out ambiances of Dublin so that you’re really feeling like you’re there and you’re being immersed in this sort of Dublin atmosphere [both] when you’re outside [and] when you’re in the pub. We’re really trying to put you in there. 

A still from Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming courtesy of Disney.

Again, [it] goes back to what I had stated earlier, which is really the goal was always to try to take you along with them because that’s ultimately where we all wanted to be, right? We wanted to be there [laughs], so we did our very best to keep all of that really balanced and weaving in and out while still being dynamic and fun and keeping the energy alive. 

THH: So now I have two questions off of it based on what you just said there. The first is, I know at one point some of the Songs of Surrender album versions of the songs are interwoven into the film. It’s subtle, but I know I heard “Red Hill Mining Town” in there at some point, but were you the person who selected what songs went where in those situations? 

Riordan: That was done by Morgan and his incredible team and all of the producers — they were the ones deciding how that all kind of goes together. Our job was to kind of clean it all up and make it sound good. But they’re the creative visions with that, and they were doing that during the editing process.

THH: There’s a scene in a pub where Bono and The Edge play with other musicians. I’m so interested in this because the setting’s so different and I’m sure the acoustics are a lot different. Was this sequence any more difficult to mix?

Riordan: You know, [it] actually [was] not. That, ironically, was very easy because the band played around with the idea of remixing all of that stuff, and then ultimately, for much of that, we went with just super raw, somewhat organic to that moment, live-ish type of mix with a lot of those pub sections because it just felt more real — it felt more raw in those moments. And also the juxtaposition between that rawness in the pub and the beautifully-produced and polished stuff that was on the stage made for a nice contrast.

THH: So my last question for you is another two-parter. I probably should have started with this question, but coming into this project, were you a U2 fan? 

Riordan: Oh yeah, man. I’ve been one since I was a very young, young boy when, you know, Boy, October, War, when those albums came out — they were life-changing. I was a guitar player at a young age, and when I heard those delay [effects] being played against the delays [by] The Edge, it just blew my mind. Those albums were just masterpieces. Obviously, I’ve been a lifelong fan of U2, but I really got hooked at a very early age.

I mean, in the eighties, U2 was cranking out another masterpiece every year for a while. They took like one-year breaks in between [albums], but it was like every year you got a new killer album. So this really brought me back [because] admittedly, I’ve always loved U2, but I haven’t been this constant U2 [fan] of the newer stuff for a handful of years at least. This really just kicked back my love for it — they’re just such an incredible band. 

THH: In that case, do you have a favorite song that you got to mix ad nauseam from this special? 

Riordan: They’re all so good in their own way — I mean, they really are [smiles]. “Invisible” is really just [special] — I think that one really stood out, but all of them were so good. “Vertigo” was amazing. I mean, every single one was just really powerful. But if I had to pick, I’d say “Invisible.” 

THH: On the other side of that coin, were there any songs that you ever got sick of hearing? You can be honest [laughs]. 

Riordan: No. Not at all [smiles].

Bono and The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, with David Letterman is streaming on Disney+ now.

Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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