- 23 Mar 09
He’s been at the helm with U2 since 1979. In the intervening time he’s been involved in every aspect of the career of the biggest rock band in the world. In a rare in-depth interview, Paul McGuinness talks about the highs and lows of managing the fab four and reflects on the State of the Nation and the implosion of the Irish economy.
Eight days after Hot Press’s encounter with U2 manager Paul McGuinness, on the eve of the Irish release of No Line On The Horizon, there was an unusual protest held outside the Department of Finance in Dublin. A campaign group called the Debt and Development Coalition Ireland (DDCI) claimed that by moving part of its business to the Netherlands to avail of a better tax rate on royalty payments, U2 was depriving the Exchequer of revenue which could be spent on overseas aid.
Given that the band are fully tax compliant and breaking absolutely no Irish laws, it’s hard to say exactly what the DDCI expected beleaguered Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to do about it. However, according to spokesperson Nessa Ni Chasaide: “We wanted to raise our concern that while Bono has championed the cause of fighting poverty and injustice in the impoverished world, the fact is that his band has moved part of its business to a tax shelter in the Netherlands.”
McGuinness duly issued an annoyed statement through his company Principle Management, which was described by elements of the Irish media as “the very first time he has publicly commented on the band’s tax affairs.”
Untrue. In an extensive Hot Press interview which appeared in September 2006, Paul McGuinness told this writer pretty much the same thing he said in his statement:
“The reality is that U2’s business is 90% conducted around the world. 90% of our tickets and 98% of our records are sold outside of Ireland. It’s where we live and where we work and where we employ a lot of people. But we pay taxes all over the world – of many different kinds. And like any other business, we’re perfectly entitled to minimise the tax we pay. And I’d say it’s a little rich that Ireland – Ireland particularly – which has benefited economically so enormously from attracting people to a low tax environment... I thought that point was being slightly missed. But that really is all I want to say about it.”
The contentious tax issue didn’t arise during the following interview, which was conducted on February 17 backstage at Earl’s Court during U2’s soundcheck for the 2009 Brit Awards. In fact, it wasn’t meant to be a proper interview at all. As the band were playing ‘Get On Your Boots’ for the third or fourth time, it was suggested to me that perhaps I’d like to grab 10 minutes on tape with their manager to add some colour to my U2 interview.
With the soundcheck going on longer than anticipated, we ultimately chatted for the best part of an hour.
Olaf Tyaransen: I keep reading that this is U2’s twelfth studio album, but it’s actually the eleventh – unless I’m missing one.
Paul McGuiness: There’s some dispute about that.
Are you counting Rattle and Hum as a studio album?
Well, it’s half. It’s half in the studio. I mean it’s a double album, and half of it is live and half of it is produced by Jimmy Iovine in the recording studio. But I don’t know whether it’s twelve or thirteen. There was Passengers.
Are you dealing with U2 stuff when they’re not touring and recording or does the machine basically run itself at this point?
No, not at all. I mean there’s always a kind of rolling plan, and usually superseded by events. But nonetheless it is necessary to develop a rolling plan. You know, watch the world and keep informed. That’s what we do. With the industry in constant flux …
In crisis at the moment!
Well, the world is in crisis. It’s scary. And U2 are as ambitious as ever for the quality of their music and their shows. They’re as puzzled and baffled by what’s happening to the economy as everyone else.
Will the credit crunch mean that the tour will have to be scaled down a little bit?
Actually, the absolute opposite! (laughs) This is going to be a very big tour, the biggest shows we’ve ever done. We’re going to play stadiums only. Football stadiums. That excludes, for instance, baseball stadiums because the production that we’ve designed is 360º. It’s a stage with the audience on all sides.
Were you over in in Fez for the first sessions of No Line On The Horizon?
Yes, I was in Fez at the beginning. As I sometimes say, I am strictly behind the camera, and I did go to Fez and left after a few days.
You weren’t there for Paul Allen’s visit?
I wasn’t actually. I missed Paul’s visit.
Are you very heavily involved in Bono’s extra-curricular activities?
Well, you know, I very much support his political work, his work as an activist, and I know a lot of the people he’s involved with in those worlds, but it’s important for my company, Principle Management, to manage all four members of the band as well as other clients. So there was more overlap a few years ago, but now there are fully professional organisations – One and Red – which support Bono’s activism and, although we’re obviously in very close touch with them, we don’t run that side of his life.
Of course, you’d still need to know what’s going on in his schedule.
Yeah. You know, he has very much contradicted, or proved wrong, that old adage that you can only be famous for doing one thing at a time.
Do you worry sometimes that it’ll overshadow U2?
No, I stopped worrying about that a long time ago. The public, and the fans generally, they understand what he’s doing. It started a long time ago and he’s explained it pretty well as he went along for those who were prepared to pay attention. I suppose it’s easy to lampoon him – and politics is a rougher world than the creative and artistic world. Politicians take more knocks than artists do, and I suppose Bono has learned that the hard way. And yet his convictions lead him to continue with what has been an extraordinarily effective series of campaigns in terms of what they have achieved in terms of fighting poverty globally.
The Red organisation itself has to date given well over $100million to the global fund for AIDS eradication. That’s the UN AIDS fund. They can give you a more accurate figure than that, but it’s north of $100 million. That’s real money. That’s not just posturing. That’s cash. The way in which they have brought global poverty up the political agenda in the last few years has been extraordinary. And that achievement can never be taken away from him – he has done it. And at a time of crisis like this, where I saw today the Irish government’s commitment to development has been reduced again, but funnily enough, recently the German government increased theirs. Obviously they’ve got more money anyway. And so an increase in the German percentage is worth more than an increase in the Irish percentage. But that’s extraordinary stuff. You know, some years ago the Germans were not as inclined to get involved in development as they are now. There are lots of people working on them, it’s not Bono alone, but there’s an activist world which in many ways he’s spearheading.
Speaking of the Irish government, what’s your opinion of the current leadership?
I mean, it’s very scary. It must be very scary to them. We are a small country and we are vulnerable. We have less critical mass, I suppose.
How about the banking scandals?
It certainly surprised me to learn what had been going on within our financial institutions. I know it has surprised everyone. I had no idea. There will be consequences that we will live with for the rest of our lives.
Watching someone like Patrick Neary walking away with a €600,000 golden-handshake sticks in the craw somewhat.
Yeah. I’m not going to be specific about it. It’s disgusting. I’m afraid it’s pretty frightening for everyone in the country.
I certainly hope U2 didn’t have all their money in Anglo Irish shares.
No need to answer that one! Tell me your thoughts on the new album.
I think it’s extraordinary. I think it’s a masterpiece. The extraordinary thing about managing U2 is how ambitious they continue to be with the quality of the work they do. And they keep doing better work, and it’s been going on for years and years and years now. People are not really surprised any longer, but in a way they ought to be, that this kind of creative stamina and ambition still exists. If it was a sports team, this would be a team that has won the Premiership every year for...
Thirty odd years!
Yeah, and people would say ‘wow!’ but people are not surprised by that any longer… Maybe the World Cup is a better analogy (laughs) . To my way of thinking, they have completely rewritten the book about how long a career can be. It was inevitable that artists making records would find a plateau and basically repeat themselves and probably not make novel records anymore.
It’s a bit of a record for you also, in the sense that you’ve now had a rock ‘n’ roll management career for the past three decades with the same charges. That’s quite unusual in this notoriously fickle business.
Yeah. It’s quite surprising. It started to surprise us, I suppose, some time in the ‘90s. We started to look around, and all of our contemporaries had basically fallen by the wayside or broken up. When we started out, The Clash, Talking Heads, The Police, The Ramones, The Pretenders – all these were the groups who in many cases were our friends, our contemporaries. They all stopped. They either ceased to be bands or became individuals like Chrissie Hynde or Sting, or broke up completely, or died. After a few years, I suppose we got used to it. But it was a disappointing sensation because these were people we knew and had a similar frame of reference to, and had similar experience to, and we thought we were a generation of bands who’d probably continue to know each other for years. A lot of those friendships still exist, but the exhilaration of being a band really is something that U2 uniquely have been able to experience for that length of time. It’s quite amazing.
Why do you think that is?
I suppose we knew nothing about this at the beginning, we just knew we wanted to do it. We knew that it would be pathetic, or we felt, instinctively, that it would be pathetic to be good at the music and bad at the business. We understood that was necessary in order to not be part of that list of people who got fucked over by the industry and died broke. We didn’t want to be on that list. I feel conscious I have said this to you before, but I feel it just as strongly; we put a lot of effort into that and it wasn’t just me, it was the band who had to put their own time and money and investment into the organisation that surrounds them in terms of technicians, facilities, my company, the management company, all these things, we made very strong efforts to be the best. But we weren’t using any standards other than our own. We ended up setting standards which are now acknowledged and admired worldwide, I think. It’s not just about the money, it never was. But it is about winning, you know. Definitely about being the best.
You kind of put your necks on the block doing the Zoo TV tour, didn’t you?
Well the Zoo TV tour was the last time we toured using the old paradigm of agent, local promoter, and the band financing the tour. It was pretty scary – we basically invested in that whole tour ourselves. We had imagined at one point that Philips, who owned Polygram, would be very excited that we were using all these new screens and things that they’d just developed, but in the end they made us buy them. We had to pay for them. So while that tour didn’t lose money, it didn’t really do much more than break even. It was before ‘scaling the house’ became commonplace in rock ‘n’ roll. Up until then you had this, and it now seems inexplicable, but up until the ‘90s, rock ‘n’ roll tickets, whether they were the worst or the best, were the same price. And I think the ticket price for the Zoo TV tour was $25, that’s what I remember. And I remember our agents at the time, Ian Flooks, and in America, Frank Barcelona, saying, ‘If you put this ticket price up by $5 you are going to make a lot of money’. And we resisted that – and didn’t. So that idea of value for money has always been part of the U2 canon. I think everyone who has ever been to a U2 show, knows that they are right to expect a show, a production, that becomes a kind of great memory. And people know that when they go to see a U2 show, it’s not going to be just lights and sound. There’ll be architecture, there’ll be engineering.
Do you think other bands are worriedly saying ‘what’re they going to do next?’
Well, Mick Jagger said to me once when he saw Zoo TV at the RDS, that would have been ’93, and I remember he stood beside me and he said, [impersonates Jagger] “Faawk, this is like Star Wars. This is going to cost us money, because if you do a show like this, we have to spend even more money on our next show.” And that was Mick the manager speaking. And the Rolling Stones have done state of the art productions time and time again. I think that they have understood it.
It’s a shame they haven’t released state of the art albums time and time again.
Well, that’s… you know… that’s the… yes. I agree.
Even they would agree.
Is there a possibility there’ll be a second U2 album later this year?
I can’t see how, but we did that once before on the Zoo TV tour – the Zooropa album came out. But I remember the sheer effort of flying back to Dublin every night of the European tour to work on that album and then fly out again a day or so later – it nearly killed the band. They should remember that period if they think about doing it again. Nothing would surprise me, but it’s certainly not something I would have expected.
Edge told me that the band have the guts of 50 new songs in the can.
Well, finishing a song is a different thing to having the basis of a song. The finishing always takes longer than you may expect. U2 consists of hopeless optimists – as well as pragmatists and pessimists (laughs) .
Did you ever think about writing it all down?
Me, personally? I can’t, really, because so much of what people expect me to talk about, or write about, would be confidential. It’s U2’s career. I obviously have a very close relationship with them, but I think it would be quite wrong for me to describe it in print.
And yet so many others have done so.
Well, that’s very often in cases where the relationship has completely disintegrated, and there are sour grapes and scores to settle involved. We’re not really like that. We’re five guys who’ve been working together for over thirty years. It’s very unusual. If we were architects or dentists, it would be very unusual. I think we know each other’s moods pretty well at this stage, and we know how to work together and we know how to stay out of each other’s way as well. It’s a very stimulating job. It is by no means plain sailing, but it’s very satisfying. And I think the creative achievements, and indeed the business achievements, and the sort of standard-setting that they’re responsible for are recognised.
It’s a little hard to say these things without seeming like a braggart, and I know, at home in Ireland where things are falling apart at the moment, it must grate. There was a funny piece a few weeks ago in one of the papers, I think Declan Lynch wrote it, that really made me laugh. He said, ‘Oh God! Fuck! It’s gonna be just like the ‘80s. We’re going to be back to the ‘80s any minute now where the only good thing in the country was U2!’ That really made me laugh (chuckles). Declan obviously remembers the ‘80s very well. We‘re not responsible for running the country, but we’re aware of what’s going on. All we can do is do what we do as well as possible and try and keep faith with the fans.
What’s been U2’s biggest mistake over the years?
Biggest mistake? Hmmm... it’s hard to say. I mean, I suppose Rattle and Hum was a bit vainglorious. We got carried away. And I’ll take my share of the blame. I was attracted by the idea of taking it to a new level through cinema. And that had happened, you know there was a kind of precedent that I liked. You know, some of them were ghastly precedents – like Elvis. Elvis’s movie career is now a kind of anachronistic, humorous thing to check out.
He made about fifty movies, didn’t he?
Yeah, he made an awful lot of movies. But The Beatles’ movies, you know, were very much part of establishing them. I mean, The Beatles’ career was hamstrung by the fact that there was no technology for concerts. And they felt it was humiliating to be in a baseball stadium when no one could hear them, and they were just being gawked at like performing animals. If The Beatles had had the benefit of the sort of sound equipment we use, they might have gone on performing. They obviously were good at performing, they’d spent years performing in Hamburg. And U2 has always had this dual existence as performers and as recording artists. If you think about what The Beatles might have achieved, given that opportunity, it’s very interesting.
But anyway, back to Rattle and Hum...
The Rattle and Hum experience was too big, it was too perhaps controlled. It was our film, we produced it. We paid for it before we sold it to Paramount. We needed to sell it because it cost a lot of money, so it was never really an option to release it in art-houses. It had to be a studio release. Looking back on that, even though the album that came out if it is pretty good, I think the sheer size of the campaign annoyed people.
I remember Edge being extremely pissed off when the studio airbrushed his stubble out for the promotional poster.
Yeah (laughs) . It was really fun. We all went and lived in Hollywood for the best part of a year. It was the Hollywood year, and I enjoyed it as much as anyone else, but that probably would have been a low point. We got a good kicking from the critics. And the creative response to that was magnificent, it was Achtung Baby!
Which might not have happened if the band felt they’d nothing to prove.
Exactly. So you have to see it in terms of the big picture. And then Achtung Baby’s offspring, Zooropa, is one of my favourite U2 albums, because it’s so light and it’s so experimental and radical. And it does the thing that we’ve often talked about, the one-two punch. When the audience is paying attention, you can hit them with the strange stuff, the more experimental, radical stuff, and that’s exactly what happened on that occasion. And you were asking is there gonna be another album this year; I doubt it, but who knows? The thing about a stadium tour is that there are longer gaps between the shows.
So they’ll potentially have more free time to go back to the studio.
Well, they’ve been working pretty well non-stop for five or six years. There never seems to be any real downtime with U2. And it would not be surprising if they took time to spend with their families.
What’s happening with the Spiderman musical?
Spiderman is the other project which is pretty well done in terms of the writing. Spiderman is on track now and is likely to open on Broadway in the spring of 2010. Bono and Edge will be very involved in putting that show together and effectively producing a band.
It’s not their first foray into musicals. How did the A Clockwork Orange show go in 1990?
Years and years ago? (laughs) It was for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it wasn’t very satisfactory, actually. The Royal Shakespeare Company in those days was a bit like a branch of the civil service. The actors played very much in repertory. And the same group of actors would rehearse three shows, and they would do those shows in Stratford or in The Barbican in rep. And the standards, I would have to say, were not very high.
I always loved that track ‘Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk’ [B-side of single ‘The Fly’ - OT].
Yeah! It produced some nice, experimental music that probably led to better things, but it was very frustrating creatively. Anthony Burgess, who had written the original book, hated it, hated the stage production, and he hated the music particularly, because he was a composer. And he had written a score for A Clockwork Orange in some kind of experimental jazz idiom that I have never heard. I have told this story before, but on the first night – this is in the Barbican in London – I saw a group of journalists, some of whom I recognised, who had sat down around this little old man who was telling them how much he hated the music. And I went over and discovered that it was Anthony Burgess himself, and he was telling the critics how much he hated what U2 had done musically.
You must have met many interesting writers and artists over the years.
Well, that wasn’t an interesting meeting (smiles), but the worldwide creative community of actors and musicians, I suppose we have been part of it for many years and that’s enjoyable. That’s one of the consequences, one of the perks. You get to meet people you might have been very interested in knowing about, and suddenly they’re coming to your shows. Actors, particularly, are fascinated by U2 because they see something they can never really achieve in movies or theatre.
How do you mean?
They see the artist/performer in charge, and that’s a very elusive thing for an actor. An actor, sooner or later, is going to find himself in a film with a lousy script and a director he hates, or a co-star who’s difficult. You know, things can go badly for an actor and you can’t control the process. U2 may sometimes come over as over-controlling, or people will describe them as very controlling, but they’re controlling in the best interests of their own work. That’s a hard won right. In as much as I am part of having won that for them, I am very proud of that. I have met a lot of those actors, and I know that’s the look in their eye. I mean, who are the actors who have managed to pull that off in their world? Clint Eastwood is probably… is he the only one? Excellent actor, excellent director.
He’s a bit of a one trick actor, I find – the hardened, grizzled guy who takes no shit.
Yeah, but the point is he doesn’t end up in crap movies that he’s got no control over. He ends up doing what he wants. You can see that he is happy in his skin. What’s that one I’ve just seen?
Yeah. And he has been doing it for years and years and years. He has directed over twenty films. He has my undying admiration.
Is film production something you’d venture into again?
Well, I started out as a film technician. I was an assistant director. I worked on other people’s films and television commercials, lots of things. And I’m still to a tangential extent involved in film, as one of the owners of Ardmore. But the film business in Ireland has really suffered from government neglect. The studios lose money, and they’ve been losing money for the twenty years that I’ve been one of the owners. And we were negotiating with the government last year, before the bubble burst, and they were going to take us out – Ossie Kilkenny and I own a third each, and the government own a third. They were, at long last, prepared to accede and accept their responsibilities, because you can’t really have a film industry without a film studio. A film studio as a business can’t exist without subsidy. And it has been getting that subsidy from Ossie and me for all these years (laughs) . The land is clearly worth – or used to be worth – more than the business, but even that option is gone now, and the system of Irish tax breaks for film production is no longer competitive with the rest of Europe.
And with Eastern Europe, particularly.
Yeah. And England has a thriving film industry at the moment and Ireland could have.
England always did have a thriving industry, though, didn’t it?
No, no (shakes head). The English learned a lot from the Irish in the ‘90s and put in place a system that really works, and works to this day. The Irish tax breaks were at one time attractive, but they weren’t maintained with any enthusiasm by the Department of Finance, and we now have a very weak film industry.
Given the success of Once, it might be the time for indie films to come back.
Yeah, there will always be films of some kind or another made, but you need infrastructure, you need tax support, if your film artists are going to survive without leaving the country. I’d like to see that recognised. I talk to otherwise well-informed people who tell me that the Irish film industry is very healthy. It certainly isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time. Were it not for The Tudors, Ardmore would probably have had to close.