- 31 Oct 19
To celebrate Larry Mullen Jr.'s 58th birthday, we're revisiting an extract from our 2009 interview with U2.
The vast and cavernous Earl’s Court venue is buzzing with activity as a small army of workers prepare for tomorrow night’s mega-bash. Cleaners, carpenters, technicians, soundmen, assistants, cameramen, security personnel and the occasional celebrity scurry to and fro. Busy, busy, busy...
No more than ourselves. As soon as we arrive, The Edge is ushered off towards the stage and Hot Press is directed towards the band’s dressing room (the Kings Of Leon are just up the corridor). Manager Paul McGuinness and publicist Regine Moylett greet me warmly, coffee me up, and take me into a small side room.
No sooner have I taken my jacket off and pulled up a seat than Larry Mullen, Jr briskly walks in. Dressed entirely in black, the blonde-haired U2 stickman easily looks 10 years younger than his 47 years. He’s affable, courteous and professional. However, there’s a cold steeliness to Larry’s eyes that suggests he’d go through you for a shortcut if you ever pissed him off.
We’re under a bit of time pressure here so I’m gonna ask you to talk pretty quickly.
I’lltalkprettyquickly! (Laughs). No, it’s all a bit chaotic, but if there’s stuff you want to clarify later I’m sure we can figure it out. But I’ll talk fast.
Edge tells me that that the birds were shitting on your drums in Fez.
Yeah, they were. They wrecked my new electronic drumkit. It was just one of those great moments, you know. This idyllic place, everything is just perfect – or not perfect, but pretty close to it. From a musician’s perspective, anyway. Brian Eno’s on one side, you’ve got the rest of U2, you’ve got Daniel Lanois doing his thing on his guitar. The roof is open, the sun is shining. And suddenly the birds are shitting on you! That suddenly brought us back down to reality.
Was it the legendary Joujouka drummers that attracted you to Fez?
No, not at all. The original idea was to go to this spiritual festival that goes on every year in Fez. And I was certainly interested to go along and see it, but there was talk at one stage of us performing at it. I think every time you record, you need to be placed somewhere. It just seemed like a good place for us to be. I don’t really understand why – and sometimes you don’t.
You’d visited Morocco before, hadn’t you?
Yeah, we’d been before and we liked the vibe. It’s just a very interesting place. Musically its influences are Arabic, you know. There’s nothing Moroccan, necessarily. Like, the drums are Egyptian. They’re Egyptian drums and it’s fascinating to watch – complex and all as it is. But no, it was really just to see the festival. And then to debunk there for a couple of weeks and record, as well. But the idea that there wouldn’t be an idea was very much part of it. And that was what was attractive to me.
As a drummer, do you have any sort of academic interest in the history of drumming or of drumming styles?
I’m about as basic as you get as far as drums are concerned. When I started, I was a huge Gene Krupa fan because what he did sounded simple enough to me. And I liked Buddy Rich and I liked a lot of the jazz players, but I always knew that that wasn’t where I was going to be. So I never studied with that in mind. When I was a kid, when I went to learn how to play, I got frustrated that I had to only learn on one drum, that I couldn’t use more. I was one of those kids that got bored easily.
This was when you were in the Artane Boys Band?
I wasn’t there for very long. But they wanted you to learn these things over and over again. And they were absolutely right. But I wanted to play Croke Park. I wanted it now. And it was the same when I was learning how to play. I wanted to be better than I actually was. I never thought I was better than I was. But I guess I missed a golden opportunity to become proficient, and I ended up with U2. So you’ve gotta weigh it up (shrugs, laughs).
How good a drummer are you now? Would you say that you’re at the top of your game?
I would never say I was at the top of my game, not by any stretch. I think within U2 we’ve always worked as a team...
Even though it’s your band!
I guess (laughs). No, I’ve always wanted to be part of a band. That was always the idea. So I’m a very good member of U2. I’m not sure I’m even the best drummer in U2. But that doesn’t really bother me. I’m interested in being inventive and I’m interested in being creative. And I don’t care what that takes. And that’s not necessarily about chops. There are some extraordinary players, really great players, out there.
Do you ever throw a lyrical suggestion at Bono?
Absolutely. That’s part of the rich tapestry of U2 is that there are no rules, and everybody hasan opportunity to contribute on whatever level they want to. And early on in the record, I got an opportunity to go into a studio and to do my drum parts. Edge is in another part of the world, I send him those drum parts. He’s got guitar parts he sends me. So we work very much like that. Not on everything, but on a lot of the stuff.
I spoke to Ronnie Vannucci from The Killers recently...
He’s a great drummer!
He was telling me that the band put much of their new album together via email, just sending each other their various parts and working independently of each other. Do U2 do much of that?
It’s not as set in stone as that. We use that technology if Edge is in another part of the world, as I say, and I’ll be somewhere else, and we’ll work together. But what we don’t do is we don’t go back and forth by email. I’ll send the idea, Edge sends his idea, and then we’ll come together as a band and thrash it out. And we know what we’re talking about. So we all get a sense very early on of where the song is going. And it goes and meanders for a long period of time, and in the last two weeks of a record is when you actually realise what you have and when things start to change and move on. The things you held onto as being so important, they disappear – and that’s part of the game. We don’t write in a traditional fashion and we never have. We’re not very good at writing in a traditional fashion.
You’re a bunch of amateurs!
We are! But that’s what separates us is that we are... if you want to pitch yourself against some of the greatest singer-songwriters or just songwriters, we’re not songwriter-ly and if we try to be songwriter-ly what we do is we lose that thing that makes it special.
Could U2 continue without any one member?
I’m sure it could. Of course, it’d be very hard for U2 to continue without Bono, but think of Van Halen, think of AC/DC. But I don’t know. Do I see myself doing this into my ‘70s? No, I don’t. There will be a time. Whether that’s on an individual basis or a band decision. But right now I just think it’s very exciting to be out there making music. Making music and being creative is an incredibly amazing thing to be able to do. And the fact that people still want to hear what you do and people still want to come and see you. Why would you give that up? It’s a very hard thing to give up. And it’s not the money, it’s not the success, it’s just the challenge of being creative. Within the band, it’s the creative thing that drives people. It’s not being at the top of your game. Will we ever be as good as so and so? You can make all the comparisons, but I think that’s an error. You can only be as good as your last record. It’s a cliché, but it’s true.
You recently told an interviewer that you didn’t like seeing Bono palling around with people whom you consider to be war criminals, i.e. Bush and Blair. Was he upset with you?
I don’t know if he was. I didn’t discuss it with him. Bono is a big boy who understands that there are differences of opinion and there always have been. That’s just the way it is. We’ve been disagreeing on everything except music for more than 30 years. There is an impression out there that U2 is some kind of corporate team – that we move together and we all agree on everything. But we don’t. That’s not how it works. It’s important that people not understand that, but that they recognise that that is the case. That we all have a point of view and an opinion and we don’t always agree. And I think the older you get the harder it is to find things that you agree on. And that’s why having a creative basis is so important – because that is something that we do agree on.
Are the friendships within the band as strong as they were when you were in school?
You ask yourself that question. Are you still friends in the same way as you were with people you knew when you were 15? You grow up, you have a family, things change. You’re not a gang of four guys from Dublin kicking against the world anymore. Things have changed. Friendships have changed. They’ve developed. They’re different.
Speaking of family, you’ve now got three kids. Is it difficult combining a rock ‘n’ roll career with the responsibilities of fatherhood?
It’s a real challenge, just trying to get the balance right. I haven’t figured it out. I really haven’t figured it out. I don’t know. There’s a certain amount of guilt that goes along with being away for long periods or being in the studio. You’re distracted a lot of your time. Of course, your priority is your family. But this is my job, this is what I do. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid and I’m not qualified to do anything else. And I hope my family are resilient enough to withstand the pressures and difficulties that my life imposes on them. It’s not comfortable all the time.
I guess Adam’s the lucky one there.
Well, I don’t know if he’s lucky. I think having kids is a really lucky thing. It’s certainly different; it’s a lifestyle choice. He’s made a different choice. But he doesn’t have the complications, you’re right about that. It’s not as complicated.
What do you make of what’s happening in Ireland at the moment?
On an economic basis? If I thought it was just an Irish phenomenon, I’d be really concerned. But I think it’s a worldwide phenomenon. So everybody is going through this. What was particularly difficult for Ireland is that it was so good for so long – we couldn’t be touched – and to have it go so badly wrong so quickly is a shock to everyone. I don’t know. I’m not an economist. I’m not even close to an economist. I hit things for a living. But I live in Ireland and when you see what’s going on... (shakes head).
In fairness, it’s not going to hit you that badly...
It doesn’t particularly affect me the way it’s affecting other people. I’m a rich rock star. There’s a lot of people really hurting out there and I’m not in that position. We tour internationally, we sell records internationally. So there is a certain amount of discomfort, I have to say. I haven’t felt that before. I didn’t feel it in the ‘80s, but I’m definitely feeling it now. There’s a different mood. Rich people and successful people are all lumped in together now – and there’s a perception that everyone’s ripping everyone off. But I think that will settle down. I think it’s a kneejerk reaction, and it’ll find its level. Or else there’ll be revolt.
There’s certainly a spirit of revolution in the air.
There is revolution in the air, but the advantage we have is that the European community is a parachute. And it was a parachute in the very poor times, it was a parachute in the good times, and I think it’ll be a parachute again.
I take it you’ll be voting ‘yes’ to Lisbon in the second referendum?
I was very confused about Lisbon. I thought it was very, very badly managed. I’m bipartisan as far as politics is concerned, but I thought the government did themselves no favours. I thought they didn’t explain it properly. So you ended up with extremists. So I was very confused about what was in there. I think there are probably some very good things in there, I think there are some compromises. I think there should be an opportunity to vote on it again. I know that’s a hard thing for some people to swallow, but I don’t think the facts were laid out clearly last time. And I think it’s very unfair to expect the people to vote on something when the facts are not obvious. I mean, I think there were government Ministers who hadn’t even read the text of it.
Brian Cowen admitted he hadn’t read it!
Well, I’m not being critical of him, but I just think there was a certain amount of complacency that happened around that time. You know, we’re all on the pig’s back so we can do what we want. That may have been an error.
The chickens have come home to roost.
They have – and there’s no glory in it at all. There’s no glory in seeing people losing their jobs, people who’ve never been on the dole. You know, I’ve been on the dole. I didn’t find it humiliating, I just found it difficult going in there and... oh, I dunno. It was just a difficult thing. But I was 17 at the time and there was a certain expectation that this was going to happen. So I was prepared for it. But the idea that you work in the IT sector, that you’re an educated person – all of a sudden your job’s gone and you’ve gotta go on the dole. That must be hard.