- 13 Mar 19
On the U2 bassist's 59th birthday, we're revisiting one of his classic interviews with Hot Press, originally published in 2001.
Back in 2001, Hot Press's Dermod Moore caught up with Adam Clayton during the UK leg of U2's Elevation tour, in support of All That You Can't Leave Behind. Take a look at the interview below:
DERMOD MOORE: Did you enjoy last night?
ADAM CLAYTON: It's always nerve-wracking playing at home - and I guess Manchester is kind of a home crowd. But I have to say that the audience were as noisy and as committed as any we’ve encountered in Europe, so it was actually a great homecoming. It's the first one out of the way; but it's a kind of a bit of a roll from now until Slane.
I'm wondering about when you were a kid, and playing air guitar in front of a mirror; the dreams you had then.
I guess I was one of those kids that for quite a long time didn't know where I fitted in, and the only thing I knew was that I didn't want to be part of what my parents were allegedly preparing me for. It was only probably when I was about 9 or 10 when any kind of music had an effect on me, and suddenly I had a world I could escape into.
Well, it was certainly something that made sense to me. I mean music is something that affects your emotions, that's really the physics of it in a sense. I listened to classical music, my grandmother played piano, I knew various people that played guitar, I was always drawn to it. I'm not sure that the reasons matter. I suppose it was a process then of being liberated by that, and going "OK, this is something I feel I want to devote my time to."
In many ways U2 is a testament to friendship. Did you know that when you met them? That you'd be friends?
I guess instinctively, that was probably true. Edge – I'd known his parents and therefore him – since about 7 or 8. We went to national school together. Our parents were friends and neighbours and were in drama and musical societies together. In some ways, the great thing about U2 was having met in school, and having met in Dublin, Ireland, one was thrown into a co-operative situation. Had we met up in our mid-twenties in London, and tried to form a group, it would have been a different kind of relationship.
You'd have been the same people though.
Well except that people come to London to get into show business for a different set of reasons, and they don't necessarily pull together, they're putting something together to see if it works, for a year or two, and the more ambitious person is using it as a stepping stone, if you like.
So are you saying that you weren't that ambitious in the beginning?
No, it's just that we got together when we were very young - and there was nowhere else to go, that was the nature of those friendships. Had the band not been successful in its late teens, I imagine, like every other first band of teenagers it would have broken up and we would have focused on different things. We were fortunate in that because of the effect that punk had on the music business, it was desirable to sign bands as young as possible, as opposed to their late twenties. To some extent, when we were looking for record deals, the other bands ahead of us, The Stranglers, the Clash, even the Boomtown Rats, these were all bands that consisted of people a good ten years older than us; they'd been around the block, they knew what they were doing, they were not gangly teenagers just making a noise, they were serious about where they were going.
Have you seen Vincent Browne's piece in The Irish Times, attacking Bono for embracing the G8 leaders?
It's hardly world press, you know. It's a provincial opinion from someone who doesn't really understand how these things work. I couldn't really give it any credence to be honest.
As U2 has been so supportive of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and as the stalemate continues, has your patience run out yet, and, if so, with whom?
I think you have to be very careful about what is going on. It's a very delicate, very complex situation, into which a lot of people have put their oar, and tried to find a solution. They're very talented, very committed, they're very intelligent people and it is a slow process, and I accept that. You know there are times when you would like to stand up and say "Look, if only you would do this..." but that's not the way it works. It’s frustrating. But you have to accept that it's in the hands of the people who are best able to make some progress. Everyone knows what the options are, and time and time again the majority of people have wished to get to the point where there is a resolution. So, I suppose, to some extent, we just have to hope that we are getting there, by very small movements.
So has your patience run out yet?
You know, it's very hard to comment.
I know. The reason I'm asking you to comment, is because, as a band, you were so publicly involved with the peace process.
We were so publicly involved with it because, as we’d become more well known around the world, and as people have differentiated us as an Irish band as opposed to an English band, we had to comment in certain ways. But I find it difficult to comment on the precise politics of it, other than the enormous tragedy of history, and the use of violence over the last 30 years.
Celebrity brings with it a certain power, do you believe it also carries with it a responsibility?
In general terms, I'm not sure that it does. I think the supposed power – and it's absolutely fleeting and not particularly of any great substance – is really the power of the audience you have, it's not actually your power. It's the power that brings people together, in some way, shape or form – it's kind of up to them. That was always what appealed to us in our support of, say, Amnesty and Greenpeace; we were just facilitating those organisations to access the people coming to the concerts, and to say, if you want to get involved: write a letter, turn up, whatever. What Bono's found in the Drop The Debt and the Jubilee 2000 campaigns, is that, within politics, the demographic of people who are 35 and up is that their politics are decided – and they become progressively more interested in politics. The below 35's are undecided still, and they are open, and that is our constituency. That is the power that we have, the access to those people - but within ourselves, we don't necessarily carry any credence, people make up their own mind. But that's why Bono's been able to get those political meetings that he's had in America.
Has it been a difficult process personally for you to switch into that engagement in the political process? Bono's the action man, when it comes to politics, but does it brush off on you, and are you comfortable with it?
I don't like it and I tend to avoid it. He’s good at it and he's a master diplomat; he speaks the same language as those guys. It's not my natural arena. He's done that off his own bat, and met the various senators – a lot of them have turned up at gigs. I think in New York we had Clinton and Kofi Annan, which is fantastic; we've had Jesse Helms and others; we've had a weird bunch of people, but they are people who are able to move the process along. Again, it's not my area, but Bono's been able to talk to them, to convince them that they should be looking at these issues of debt. It's a very good argument – it has produced a form of economic slavery that is inappropriate, and the World Bank is not really peopled by right-thinking folk at this stage, you know – it is exploitative.
If that's Bono's area, what's your area?
Well, I'm not quite sure I would look for those definitions. We are a hard working band, we work ten, eleven months a year.
You described your role, as a bass player, as essentially one of support, to make everyone else feel confident. Who boosts your confidence?
I think it comes from knowing that within the four-man group, at some point you have to make it possible, or have to be part of the process of making it possible, for everyone to commit to whatever is happening musically, whether it’s an idea for a song, an arrangement for a song, or an actual song. You have to say that there's enough of an idea here that is worth pursuing, that is worth investing time in. You have to muck in. If you took the luxury of sitting on the sidelines, saying "I'm not going to come to the studio at all, I've heard fifteen finished songs with lyrics", then you'd never get to the studio at all, and you'd never make a record. I think everyone in the band, in their own way, operates on the same level of blind faith and generosity. We're all here, why spend twelve hours staring at the ceiling when we could actually be playing?
Bono calls you the "musical conscience of the family business". As that conscience, are you nagging them now or are you clear?
Well, that's a very generous statement from him. I think it's almost like when we started talking – the kind of music that I'm interested in is the stuff that transports you to a different place. That's a certain thing, and not everyone's doing it; so I guess that's what I look for in our own music, but also what I look for in the music that is available in any given year, in terms of the new records and ideas out there.
Who are you enjoying at the moment?
Well, I'm really enjoying that Travis record. This has been a difficult year, as we've been on the road, in terms of finding things. Actually I like the new Nick Cave record, though it's probably not new any more, it's probably quite old at this stage. There’s something interesting happening with The Strokes. I've just got the new Super Furry Animals record – I like that too.
Speaking of conscience, your tabloid troubles, your brushes with the law – I'm wondering what's it like to be so publicly grilled for being human?
Well, you know, it is human, and those things do happen to people. At the time, they were incredibly unpleasant – but it wasn't anybody else's fault other than mine. Thankfully, I think I left all that behind about ten years ago, so I'm really quite enjoying the present and the future.
You've been quite honest in talking about giving up drink, speaking of the devil within, in combating substance abuse – I'm wondering how's your devil doing now?
I have to say that, really, on a day-to-day basis, there's so much positive stuff going on. Life is really pretty damn good! So, that side of me generally just has less power over how I feel, or what I do. I have found it much easier to go with the flow, to enjoy some of the stresses and strains that touring puts on you, and just go, well, "I'm pretty lucky to be experiencing that, things could be a hell of a lot worse". It's not a big issue: I think it's probably much more to do with finding a comfort zone within the band, recognising my own limitations, and not fighting them – not always being frustrated by not achieving the sort of things that I felt I should be achieving. So it's almost like saying to myself: "I should stop giving myself such a hard time" – then the problems seem to be much less.
Speaking of that comfort zone: the American writer James Hillman has written about the spirit of loneliness that affects us all, and how we fill it up with drugs and fame and religion and excess of all sorts to avoid it. As you are, quite publicly, not a card-carrying member of the God squad, where do you get your support when that spirit descends?
I suppose one has to embrace loneliness, to some extent, as a human condition. Once you do that, then you have choice over it; it's not something that's not being done to you, it's something that you have control over. I have to say I'm much better now at pulling together the various aspects of my life, as opposed to segregating things, and putting them in boxes. As my girlfriend remarks: it's actually about flexibility, not being rigid, and not being so perfectionist-orientated.
In the programme notes for this tour, you're quoted as saying that there are two couples in the group, there's Edge the "man" playing to Bono the "woman". Onstage, you are very tuned into the "man" Larry behind the drums. What I loved about the gig was that it was four very loving men playing music on a giant "manly" heart-shaped stage – it's wonderfully subversive, almost queer stuff, challenging traditional male roles. I wonder how conscious are you of that?
Actually I’m not particularly conscious of that - I suppose Larry and Bono – and, in fact, Edge – they are all such classic male examples, that I wouldn't see it as blurring the roles or being in any way androgynous.
And yet, you've been quoted as saying that you'd be a much better woman than you are a man – I'm not sure how accurate that quote is.
It depends how serious I was. No, I do think we are made up of two couples in the band, I think it's quite funny the way we each look after, or are looked after by our spouse. But that is a particularly idiosyncratic view that I have – I'm not sure that anyone else would share it.
You are also notable for having revealed all of yourself on an album cover. (Laughter.) You have a lovely penis.
And it's all mine
You've mentioned Robert Mapplethorpe on this. You said that a spirit of wickedness inspired you before you were going to reveal all for the photoshoot. You said he helped you look at yourself as a man and get used to looking at penises. You said "it's a hard thing to overcome to begin with but I think it's good."
Well, again, within that spirit of not-seriousness, I do think that there is a male inhibition, a double-standard, where one is encouraged to look at women's bodies, but not men's bodies, unless you're a bodybuilder. I suppose I'd always felt, instinctively, that there was something wrong with that as a cultural taboo. I always felt that one's own penis, and other people's penises, did have an amazing amount of power and beauty, and that's not really expressed in modern culture very much. In what is called primitive cultures they express that. I suppose it's Mapplethorpe who really started to challenge people to see them as beautiful and as artistic and virile things. I mean, still within our culture, it is still very controversial to show an erect penis, I mean that is one of the taboos of our censorship system. I think it is changing slightly. To all intents and purposes, the mystery and power of the penis is, what will it become?
[At this, he embellishes his words with a dramatic flourish of the eyebrows over his tinted glasses, and I realise I am being gently teased. When I finish laughing, I gather myself to continue.]
Well, having just extolled the penis' virtues, you've also been quoted as saying that women are the stronger sex, and you also need their support and companionship to help you realise your potential as a man. Are you realising your potential as a man now, and who's helping?
Oh gosh, this is all very deep.
You don't have to answer. You could always say: "next"
Unfortunately, I do fundamentally believe that, although women get a very raw deal in our world and in our society, ultimately, they carry the responsibility. Whether it's recognised in equal wages or equal conditions and legal protection is irrelevant to the reality of that. Women have a survival mechanism that is about protecting their children; to some extent they do run the world. I think they let men think they're in charge, but at the end of the day, women, whether or not they exert political power, certainly have a power in society.
[There's a knock on the door – another interviewer is waiting. It's time to change gear and wind up.]
Are you looking forward to Slane?
I'm sure it'll be fine on the day. Because, playing Ireland, you only really get one shot at it every five years, whatever the impression that is left after the event, you don't get a chance to comment or do anything about it for another five years. That's a particularly unique situation. To some extent, you can play for three to four months in America, and a very small percentage of the population will actually notice. In Ireland, everyone will have an opinion and a reaction and an experience, and, to some extent, how you go about your daily business changes, depending on what that opinion is. So, you take it on board; at the end of the day it'll be another gig. It'll be another great day out for the people there, and I'm sure it'll be talked about for… several weeks.
How will you unwind after this tour?
Well, it depends; there isn't really an unwinding, debriefing time. After Slane, we're going to take a month off. I'll probably just travel or whatever, go to a beach somewhere. Then we're going to go back to America for another couple of months; then, after that, we're probably going to start writing. What works for us is that if you keep going, it's better than completely stopping and trying to catch the wave again. We've a couple of things in the pipeline, there's a couple of soundtracks for movies to be done; a DVD of the live concert in Boston to be finished up; and there's all the various business meetings that you have to have at the end of a long tour.
Where do you call home now?
I'd like to say Dublin – that is a type of a home. But as a musician, you almost feel at home when you're actually on the road. In some way, the type of musicians that we are, and the length of time we've been doing it, it's almost more familiar to be in a place for a few days, see some people, play a show, see what's happening in that place, and then move on to another place. I guess I move most comfortably between Dublin, London and New York; they're all places that, in terms of the stuff that I'm interested in, the kind of musical culture, and every-other-which-way type of culture, between those three places I feel I get a sense of what changes are happening, what way people are thinking. In New York, ideas tend to come to the surface very quickly, and they get evaluated very quickly. You see how they change as they get to London, and then, ultimately, you see what sticks by the time they get to Dublin. It’s kind of a little triangle...
What would you bring with you on a desert island as your luxury?
I think I'd have to say… a pair of very old linen sheets.
[That's just about it. Starting to clear things up, Adam puts his cigarettes back in his pocket.]
Should we sue tobacco companies for the damage they're doing to us?
I find that a hard argument to endorse. But, I do hate the fact that I still smoke. But that’s my next thing: it's how I intend to spend my time unwinding, to stop smoking.
That sounds like a contradiction in terms, there.
Well it is a contradiction in terms, but I’ll be away from all the environments in which I would smoke quite naturally, like on the road or in a studio, where you smoke a lot because you can; there's a lot of hanging about, killing time. But if we do stop after the American leg, I'm just going to take two or three weeks, and that's what I'll be concentrating on.
I go out into the hotel lobby, and wait for my cab. There’s a wedding going on. A couple of the charming PR staff are chatting with me; they say how strange it is that there always seem to be weddings in the hotels they stay in, it makes marriage seem strangely trivial. But then, when you’re part of the world of U2, a group of men who have made their relationships as exciting, respectful, and as creative as any successful marriage, lasting longer than most, I can see their point. In Adam Clayton, U2 have their emotional touchstone, a thoughtful, reflective man, comfortable in his skin, fluid with his feelings, enjoying his life.