- 06 Mar 09
Part two of our U2 interview...
An assistant, the lovely Frances, knocks on the door and tells Larry it’s time for his soundcheck. As he firmly shakes my hand (“Hope you got what you needed!”) and prepares to go and hit things, Bono unexpectedly breezes in. I think he’s just coming in to say hello, but actually the interview schedule’s just been reshuffled.
“There’s been a change of plan,” Frances informs me. “Turns out that Bono has an appointment immediately after the soundcheck so you won’t be able to do your interview then. I’m afraid you’ll have to do it now.”
Not a problem. Wearing his trademark yellow Armani shades and a tan leather jacket, the singer has a long black scarf wrapped around his neck. When he greets me, his voice is lower and huskier than normal.
Olaf Tyaransen: Have you got a cold or a problem with your throat or something?
Bono: I haven’t had throat problems for years, I’m very happy to say.
Are you still smoking cigarettes?
It’s easy, you know, I give them up every few months. It’s one of those scenarios. But I only smoke when I’m drinking and, as you know, I don’t drink very much (wry smile).
It seems that you’re mostly writing from the perspectives of other characters on this album...
Well, it’s not in any method-acting approach or anything like that. It was just a way of getting a fresh starting place. And I’d just kind of worn out my own biography or autobiography. The last two albums were very personal. And I’m not sure if I could bear it any more, let alone anyone else. The irony is, of course, as Oscar Wilde taught us, the mask reveals the man. So you end up in fancy dress revealing your true self. You end up in these very emotional places which you shouldn’t understand, but somehow do.
The closing track ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ is written from the perspective of a war correspondent.
I, of course, am not a war correspondent, but I’ve spent a lot of time in those bars with those bravest of men and women. And I’ve a very deep conviction that were I not doing what I’m doing now, I’d be doing what you are. And I’d probably be writing about music and art and all my other interests, but I can imagine I’d also find myself in some very unsafe places because that’s my tendency. So I’ve a lot of not just sympathy but empathy for these people. And I’ve met them all over – from Sarajevo to El Salvador to Addis Ababa. And they tend to be there for the highest-minded reasons, and then for other ones.
They’re usually very damaged people in my experience.
Have you had a lot of experience with them?
I’ve never been a war correspondent myself, but I’ve met a few of them.
You’ve started wars! Ha, ha! You’ve been through your own wars and, indeed, documented them very well I might add. But yes, I’ve had some extraordinary conversations late into the night. But the self-immolation, self-destruction that we see in rock ‘n’ roll in late night taverns is a very different thing from the kind of damage of people who have witnessed lives extinguished for no good reason. And I obviously relate to that bit of it.
What’s your release from that?
It dawned on me, and it was pointed out to me by my friends, and indeed by my missus, that I never ever talk about what I’ve been through when I’m off in faraway places and experiencing things I’d rather not. That’s a phenomenon in itself, that you just don’t want to bring it up. Though there is another phenomenon, which is when the trauma really kicks in and you can’t stop talking about it. And I’ve met a few like that, too. Who, at dinner, tell the most gruesome stories and don’t know that you can no longer finish your meal now. So there are a few like that.
You were recently quoted as saying that your other obligations and activities outside of the band have become so demanding that your creative day now ends at midday. What time do you usually get up in the morning?
I get up at six. I was actually up at five this morning. But I’m up early when I’m working. Unless I’m out. Then I go to bed at six! But I don’t go out as much as I used to, hardly at all. But if I have any moments of clarity, it’s in those hours. And that’s when I write and that’s when I read. Now, when I say I’m not being creative after midday, that wouldn’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing creative in rehearsals (laughs). Or that there’s nothing creative in taking care of business. It’s just not as creative. And the stillness of the morning before kids get up is a very, very powerful moment for me. And then when they get up, I’ve got to take them to school, or make their breakfast at the very least, and then get back to work. And then my head gets filled with all the other ideas and I don’t think as clearly as I do in the morning.
I saw you in The Clarence the other week. Two days later I opened a newspaper and you were in Washington. Then I read you were in France somewhere, and the next day you turned up at an event in Dublin. Last weekend you were playing at the Grammys in LA. So my question is – exactly how many Bonos are there?
There’s a factory!
You’re like Saddam Hussein with all of his body doubles!
Yeah... thanks! For the analogy. But the band, when they saw me getting busy, opened a factory. It’s just there at the back of Tallaght. And there’s various different ones and they’re being used for different occasions. But I think, unlike Saddam Hussein, they’re hoping I get assassinated! (laughs)
You also recently said that you’re in a band with three people who persecute you as a national sport. How bad does the persecution get?
It’s humour, really. It’s a lot of fun being in U2. Unless things are going poorly; then people tend to lose their sense of humour. But if things are going well and we’re on the crest of a wave then they’re really funny guys. All of them – even Larry!
Larry recently called your friend Tony Blair a war criminal. How do you feel about that?
Well, it’s a very serious accusation and I wish he was joking, but I’m sure he wasn’t. I think it’s very hard to use those words, but I suppose we do all the time. We advance tirades against politicians and people who are in positions of power. And I guess that just goes with their job. And if you take a decision like going to war in Iraq, you know that that’s about the most important decision you’re ever gonna make in your life. And he’s ready to be judged by that decision and he knows that some people think – including I – that it was a grand error. But, you know, I think Larry... it wasn’t a surprise when I read it. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, Larry thinks this!’ Of course he does! But he thinks Eamon Dunphy’s a war criminal (laughs).
Yourself and Paul McGuinness publicly differed on the Radiohead ‘honesty box’ approach recently. You were quite in favour of their experiment.
I was in favour of the instinct to find a new way of being with your audience. And I thought it was brave and courageous to try these things. I do not like the concept of giving music away free. Yet I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. They were swapping their music for a relationship with their website. Now, I don’t know how many people continued to take it free from LimeWire, but I would consider that a bit of a betrayal – and apparently there were many hundreds of thousands who continued. And that’s not good.
Can you elaborate?
It shows a lack of respect for the band’s wishes. I don’t think music should be free. And I thinkthe music business has become like lambs to the slaughter. It’s very easy to say, ‘what has the music business ever done for us? They overpriced their CDs in the ‘80s and the ‘90s so fuck ‘em!’ But when we say the music business, we’re also including artists, bands, lighting people, sound engineers, people who run rehearsal studios. And they’re also gonna be out of a job, while the technologists and telecoms and whoever else walk away with the booty. You’ve seen the strike in Hollywood over the digital rights by writers. Digital rights of the digital space, that was what that strike was about. Because they’re very smart and they knew what was coming. But unfortunately the music business – and I include us in it – are not that smart. So now we’re back, if we’re not careful, to playing troubadours at the table in the castle of the king. We should’ve been sitting at that table.
Or owned the castle!
Own the castle! That’s always been our modus. And decide what’s for dinner. And it better not be you! (laughs) Which it absolutely most certainly is at the moment.
The Irish government have just reduced their promised African aid again. How do you feel about that?
Well, it’s three times now over the last 18 months. And I just spent the morning with [Bishop] Desmond Tutu, and we were talking about it. It’s a very difficult situation for a rich rock star to comment on. These are unimaginable circumstances that this government, and indeed every government, find themselves in. Whilst Ireland is in a bigger mess than Germany, it is a matter of great pride to the Germans – and to me who worked with them – that Angela Merkel for 2010’s budget increased aid by €900million. This year. Same as she did in 2009 and same as she did in 2008, for the 2010 budget. And made a beautiful speech about this being the point to stand with the poorest of the poor. President Obama has also committed to doubling aid – originally by 2012, but certainly by the time he leaves office. How he gets there, we don’t know. We’ve gotta trust that they’ll get there. Same with this [Irish] government. They have enormous respect around the world, the Irish government.
Last year I think we were No. 7 on the charts of leadership on these issues. And there’s a broader conversation to be had, which is what’s really happening is capitalism has gone up on trial. The project, so-called, of globalisation has gone up on trial. And there needs to be some honesty about it – both positive as well as negative.
How do you mean?
It is clear that globalisation has brought more people out of extreme poverty than any other idea in the history of civilisation. It is also clear that it started to not work for the bottom billion a few years ago, and needed to be rethought with their inclusion. Examples, the WTO [World Trade Organisation] talks breaking down and really first tier economies, second tier economies getting all the airspace, and nobody really giving a shit about the billion people living on a dollar a day. That was the first clue that globalisation wasn’t working for everybody. But up until this point, you could always say that every year the middle classes were growing – look at India. Wherever you looked, it seemed like globalisation was working. And whatever happens now, the rethinking and retooling of this model had better include the majority of people who do not live in the west. Or else there will be some other kind of turbulence or revolt. This is a really important time.
What do you suggest doing?
What we would suggest in the One campaign – DATA is now folding into the One campaign – or what our brainiacs in our policy teams are saying is that this is a time in a global stimulus package to include a percentage for the developing economies. It could be 1%, it could be something small. But remember when we did Live 8, people were saying, “$50billion? That’s outrageous! $25billion for Africa by 2010? That’s outrageous! These are ridiculous numbers! You and Geldof are mad!” Well, now that you see trillion dollar packages happening, do we look greedy then? I don’t think so.
There needs to be new people involved in the global economy. It’s good for everyone if Africa comes through. We saw what happened when India started to develop. India has a middle-class now of over 200 million people. And that’s one of the reasons why there was such swagger in the City of London and on Wall Street, because Russia was coming in, blah, blah, blah. So we need Africa. It shouldn’t be seen as aid, it should be seen as investment.
Finally, not to be boring on this subject because I know you’re here to talk about music, but it’s always after crises, and major, major catastrophes, that we reboot the thinking globally. You saw it after the First World War with the League of Nations, after the Second World War with the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, the Breton Woods Institute, IMF, World Bank, the WTO. All those things after 9/11, the sort of Ground Zero and the second Ground Zero just up the road from each other on Wall Street, and the fallout from both of those events – geopolitical strife and economic turmoil – this is one of those moments. And I think this is a moment to re-imagine what the whole thing should look like.
What are people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet like to deal with?
You know, as shabby a believer as I am, I am always amazed that some of the finest spirits that I’ve met in my life are... (pauses). If you think of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who’ve combined their fortunes to really transform the world for the poorest of the poor, it’s an overwhelming thing. I think it’s $60billion they’ve decided to give away. It wasn’t enough for Bill Gates to change the world once, he’s doing it twice. And it’s so far reaching, and so beyond the concept of philanthropy. Because the really genius thing about Bill Gates is that he’s applying that business nous and that sort of hard-headed tough mindedness that he applied to Microsoft to solving some of the world’s biggest problems in global health. The rotavirus or trying to rid the world of the anopheles mosquito. I mean, it is a shock to still think that nearly 3,000 kids die every day of a mosquito bite in Africa.
How is Gates helping you directly?
He’s supported me with all of my work. He gave me a million dollars in the year 2000 to help set up and formalise operations, because President Bush wouldn’t be as sympathetic to the haversack brigade that I used to travel with. I would stay in the posh hotel and my people would stay in the guesthouse and use Kinko’s for their office. But because the Bush administration was a lot more formal, we got what we needed to set up an office in DC, and eventually in London, and now we have one in Berlin and stuff. And Bill Gates was instrumental in financing that. He then publicly announced that it was the best million dollars he’d ever spent, and that was a huge thing for him to say. He got one thing wrong, though.
What was that?
He saw that I was getting friendly with Warren Buffet and he said, ‘Bono, if you think that you’ll ever get a penny out of Warren Buffet, you can forget about it. I’ve been trying for years. He’s only going to deal with that when he’s dead!’ Or something like that. And then Warren gave him all his money, but his family – through his daughter Susie – has been also helping us organise and is a strategic partner and on our board. So I’ve got to know Bill very well, and Warren quite well. And I’m really taken aback by them. Warren’s a really funny guy. He’s a comedian. In fact, I brought my kids to a dinner with him once in New York and they said, ‘You know, that’s the best grown-up’s dinner we ever had!’ Ha, ha!
Do any wealthy Irish businessmen support your ventures?
Well at home, I don’t know if they want me to say this, but I get a lot of support from Paddy McKillen, Derek Quinlan, Johnny Ronan, Sean Mulryan and Bernard McNamara. They give me lots of money every year, because they want the Irish to be represented.
Some of them are interested in the detail of the work, some of them less so, but I have a dinner with them once or twice a year where I turn up to tell them what I’m doing with their money. I’m usually standing up for about two minutes when they all tell me to fuck off and sit down, and put a drink in my hand (laughs). And they’re just the easiest people to deal with. They literally wouldn’t even ask me for a ticket to a U2 show. Amazing people in terms of support. But Irish people are very good at this stuff.
We often see pictures of you with prominent politicians, religious leaders and business moguls. But what are the meetings you can’t get?
It was very difficult at first to meet the Japanese prime minister, because they’re very formal in government. But again, I think the association with Bill Gates really helps. And the fact that when we do get in the door, I know what I’m talking about. And our team are at the cutting edge of development ideas. So usually people leave the meeting going, ‘Oh, I’m glad I took that’. But while some people can be difficult to get to, it used to be a lot harder.
Wasn’t [Canadian PM] Stephen Harper quite dismissive of you last year?
Yeah, he was (laughs). Apparently he’d like to meet up now. But to be fair to him, we did torture him. And we will continue to. The Canadians are the only surplus economy, and they weren’t ready to make the same commitment – 2.7% by 2015 – as everyone else had done in the US. But Canada’s one of my favourite places on earth, but it’s in the grips of quite a conservative point of view on development. Everywhere else we’ve managed to work with conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, to move them on these things, but we couldn’t manage to in Canada.
Are you optimistic that now that there’s an African-American in the White House it’ll make a massive difference to what you’re attempting to do?
Yeah. Obama has some very smart people around him. What has to be done now is, and what we’re working on now is, a kind of weaving together of three strands that will most preoccupy his administration. You might call them the three extremes – extreme ideology, extreme climate and extreme poverty. I’m talking about foreign policy, not what’s happening in America. The weaving together of those three strands into a cohesive foreign policy will be Hilary Clinton’s job. So we’re talking about what we call ‘the grand bargain’ – which is how the developing world can benefit from a deal on climate change, for instance. Because the poorest countries played the least role in causing climate change, but they will pay the biggest price for it – in low lying areas like Bangladesh, for instance.
Have you ever attended a meeting of the Bilderberg Group? [A highly secretive group of around 130 of the world’s most influential politicians, bankers and businessmen who meet annually – OT].
No. I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never attended. Why do you ask?
Well, as somebody who’s walked the corridors of power, do you think that many of the most important decisions are made behind closed doors?
The most shocking thing to me is the role that personal chemistry plays. That’s the thing I wasn’t expecting. Unlikely allies are made just because people like the look in each other’s eye or they happen to make each other laugh. And entrenched positions are relaxed based on that kind of thing. I was very taken by that. The other thing I suppose I’ve noticed is the preposterousness of how conspiracy theorists really fundamentally don’t recognise the human trait of not being able to keep a secret. You know, people can’t keep a secret (laughs). And everything out’s in the end. And these cabals of influence, in the end, they all out each other. I suppose why I’m saying that is because I’ve learned that it’s not so mysterious. The only frightening thing that I get is not that somebody’s in charge that we don’t know about – like the little old man in the Wizard of Oz – but the real shock is not that there are faceless people in charge that we don’t know who are pulling the strings of this world. The real shock is that maybe no-one’s in charge – and that things move more like the weather than we would like. And you can really see that with the markets. Having said that, though, there are systems in place, and hard-working civil servants, and in the end who’s actually sitting in the Oval Office and the IFF really matters. Because they really can move the goalposts if they want to.
Back to music. ‘Breathe’ is currently my favourite song on the album...
Me, too! Me, too! It’s great to perform it.
Lyrically it reminds me of Stipe’s ‘E-Bow The Letter’ and Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, but also a little of one of Allen Ginsberg’s raps. I remember when he visited Ireland in 1995, you two did some recording together. Was that ever used anywhere?
Were you not at the event in Liberty Hall? No, you were at the Galway reading, weren’t you? The Liberty Hall thing was a great event. It was great. I remember I bought him a suit at Louis Copeland’s. So he had this suit. And in fact, Ginsberg when he died, he auctioned everything he owned – every single thing he owned. Some people were shocked. Well, his friends were. It was Gavin who introduced him to me – he was a very good friend of Gavin Friday’s. And he was always meticulous about everything he did. And he sold all of his stuff off for that Buddhist institute, Napa.
Anyway, I looked at the stuff and I thought I’d buy one of his pens or something. And then I saw a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband, which I thought was so funny – for him, if you think aboutit. So I said to myself, ‘I have to buy that!’ Because I collect first editions. And I got it. I didn’t get some of the other things I bid for – I guess the pens were very popular, and I didn’t buy the suit. I bought the Uncle Sam hat and I gave it to Gavin for his 40th birthday – you know, the famous Uncle Sam hat he wore in photographs? And I got the book for me. When it came back, I opened it, and written inside was, ‘To Allen Ginsberg – Love, Bono’. Ha, ha! I’d forgotten I’d given it to him. But Ginsberg was a real maestro as well as a professor, and he was very good to me. And you’re absolutely right about the lineage. Dylan will credit him. Obviously America was a big influence on The Joshua Tree, as was Howl. And because my style of singing is operatic, I use a lot of vowel sounds. Very restrictive for a writer. So sometimes it’s nice to break away from that and just use a sort of scattergun. And as regards Michael Stipe – it’s strange. It was his favourite. He loved that and encouraged me down that direction.
Your debut New York Times column read a bit like that.
It’s from the same flow. Just a desire to use words that are not vowels.
How often will you be contributing to the paper?
I have one I’m working on at the moment. They’d like one a month, but if it’s one every two months or one every three months, so be it. They’ve given me free reign. They’ve been very good. As I explained to them, I’m not very good with full stops or commas. And this is the New York Times! Actually in a way, I gave them the curveball of Frank Sinatra, thinking I’d see how far I can go and they went, ‘Yep!’ They made a few little nips and tucks, but that was it.
I know you didn’t write the song from your own perspective, but on ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ you sing the line, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you.” So who are your enemies?
I think in that sense that speaks for U2 because we’ve always picked interesting enemies. That’s always what separated us. We didn’t pick the obvious – the establishment, the ‘man’, us against them. That’s so corny to me! Our band was always about there’s no ‘them’, there’s only us. The enemies are the things that are in the way of you realising your potential. They can be all kinds of things. Your vanity. They can be your demons. You’ve dealt with your demons, Olaf, and you’ve written about them very honestly. And I think that’s the first way of dealing with it. I just think you’ve gotta be very careful with the fights you pick, because they’ll take a lot out of you.
Fifteen minutes after I’ve interviewed Bono, myself and Regine Moylett are seated at a front row table in the near-empty hall watching the band soundcheck on the Earl’s Court stage. “I can’t believe they’ve set up all the tables 24 hours before the show,” she says, disgustedly examining some dusty cutlery. “I’ll be bringing a bacterial wipe tomorrow night.”
U2 will be opening the Brits in 24 hours time and, although they’re only performing one song, the preparations are still intense. Much like the overblown start of the ZOO TV shows, they kick off with Bono standing on a platform above the rest of the band. Behind him a massive screen displays the lyrics [“The future needs a big kiss/Winds blow with a twist”] and various related imagery – including a sperm fertilising an egg at one point.
They run-through ‘Get On Your Boots’ three or four times, playing it slightly differently each time. Eventually, Paul McGuinness – affectionately known as ‘Magoo’ when he’s out of earshot – wanders over for a chat. Balding and be-suited, he’s been the band’s manager from day one. Considering they formed in 1976, this must be a rock ‘n’ roll world record.
McGuinness refuses to divulge any concrete details about the band’s forthcoming tour, except to say that they’ll only be playing stadiums and will be doing something that’s never been done before. “We haven’t fully worked out the tour details,” he explains. “The availability of certain stadiums depends entirely on the soccer leagues.”
“Do you sometimes find yourself hoping a football team will lose a match just so a stadium will be available?” I ask.
“That has happened in the past,” he chuckles. “Many years ago, I found myself paying extremely close attention to the American ice hockey and baseball leagues for that very reason.”
When the band finally wrap up on stage, their work is far from finished. I find myself waiting outside their dressing room while they repeatedly watch their performances on a TV screen.
It’s approaching 9pm by the time Adam Clayton is free to talk to me. Dressed in a military style grey jacket, the short-haired bass player reminds me more than a little of a life-sized Action Men. “Sorry, but I’m starving,” he says, as Frances delivers a silver-foiled plate to our table (fish and vegetables). “I’m going to have to eat while we do this.”
Olaf Tyaransen: You guys have just watched that soundcheck several times. Do you always pay such forensic attention to detail?
Adam Clayton: Well, it wasn’t one run-through we were watching, it was every run-through that we did. Because with each run-through we were trying different moves with the cameras, we were adjusting the lighting and we were performing it slightly differently. Which means that, when you get to view it back, it’s kind of when you get to do your work, to be honest. You view it back and you see what’s working and what makes for a better show. You’re working with the lighting people and the production people and the camera people. So they’re trying to work out their moves, you’re trying to work out your moves. Once they know what you’re doing and you know what they’re doing, it all comes together.
Have you played much recently?
We played the Grammys last week, but we haven’t got our proper touring hats on yet. TV shows are just a different part of the brain.
You’re going to be David Letterman’s house band for a full week next month, aren’t you?
Yeah. TV shows are different. You’ve gotta find a way to work with the cameras. And four years on from the last time you did it, it’s difficult. Because you’ve gotta connect with the people in TV-land, as they call it [laughs].
I’ve already spoken to all the other guys about Fez, but the only thing I want to ask you about it is did you buy any new carpets? Because I heard you auctioned off your old collection recently.
Ha, ha! Well, it was much excitement and much ado about nothing. I had a load of carpets that I bought years ago. They weren’t particularly special, but I did sell them a while ago and I think there was a little bit of attention. But I do think it was rather a local piece [laughs]. I don’t think anyone else was that interested in it.
Do you find that kind of media attention bothersome?
It can be. It’s tricky. I don’t actually read the Irish press that much. You know, Bono turns up at a nightclub, Bono turns up to meet Desmond Tutu. It’s like, I don’t know who reads it, but there’s gotta be a point where they say, ‘Okay, enough!’
You could never be accused of courting media attention...
Oh, I don’t think people are all that interested in bass players. I think they’re much more interested in people who say controversial things.
Which you don’t tend to do.
Well, I don’t know that much about politics or all that other stuff so I tend to have a much simpler outlook on it.
Every other member of the band except you has children at this stage. So are you viewed by the U2 brood as their crazy uncle?
Ha! (Mock outrage). I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. ‘Crazy’? Hopefully not!
Do you have any desire to have children yourself?
Em... (pauses) I thought it was maybe something that I wanted – or maybe I thought it was something that I should have. But I think I’m over that. I quite like my life.
And how is your life outside of U2? How do you amuse yourself?
Well, U2’s pretty much a fulltime thing. When it’s not U2 business, so to speak, I try to stay in touch with music and art and film. I’m always listening to new stuff, going to gigs. I’m always in bookshops looking around at things. Going to the movies. I mean, there isn’t much downtime. But I find probably because I am single and I am pretty mobile, that I get to a lot of different kinds of shows and that kind of thing.
You also make short films for U2.com.
Oh, that reminds me, I should’ve brought a camera to this! I must bring one tomorrow. But yeah, we’ve had this website for ages and we didn’t really do much with it in terms of doing interviews or whatever. And I just saw these great cameras, these flip cameras, and I thought we should just film stuff, but not film it in an ‘I’m trying to make a film’ kind of way. Like the camera might be stuck under a table or whatever. So they’re rough and ready. I mean, I hope that it says as much about the person behind the camera as it does about the person in front of it. And they’re edited a little bit when we put them out, they’re like maybe a couple of minutes at a time, which doesn’t really give you much of a feeling of the moment. Which I would prefer. I’d prefer it to run for 20 minutes, but I think people would be bored by that. They’d realise how boring making a record can be.
Your house has a pretty large garden. Are you a keen gardener?
Ha, ha! Not really. I know a little bit about it. I like the fact that you have a year to change your mind with every decision, but that’s about it.
(An assistant enters the room and delivers dessert – two hempseed cakes with iced marijuana leaf designs on top)
Wow! I think that’s a hash cookie!
You’ve been clean for about 14 years now, haven’t you?
Actually, it’s just over ten.
Has that been difficult or is it getting easier?
It became easier in the last two years. I think the first five or six or seven years, I really had to learn how to live in a new way. And it made it very difficult for me because I had to kind of cut myself off a bit and not go out and be quite controlling. But I’m sort of over that now so I’m now going out and having a bit more fun.
Did you have to change your circle of friends?
I didn’t so much change my circle of friends, but there’s a lot less people to hang out with when you’re going to bed early.
Even in terms of the band – people going for a pint after the show. Do you miss that?
If people want to go for a pint after the show, I don’t feel particularly left out. I think the big difference for me, and the big difference in terms of what happens when you stop drinking and drugging, is that your days become more important and your nights become less important. It’s hard to imagine going to a nightclub. I mean, I have been to a couple of nightclubs recently, over Christmas and whatnot, but it just really underlined the fact that there’s nothing particularly there for me. You have to be off your face to go to a nightclub (laughs).
Do you have much input into the songs outside of your bass duties? Do you throw lyrical suggestions at Bono or anything?
I guess very occasionally. I think Bono really takes on absolutely the lion’s share and more of the lyrics, and what he’s had to do on this record and on other records is very often he’ll write a draft of lyrics for the way the song is, and he’ll sing them and realise that they’re not working – and its not just a lyric thing, it’s a melody thing or whatever. And then he’ll rewrite a melody and then have to rewrite a lyric and then come back to it. So in those situations, I wouldn’t really say that my contribution is lyrical, but in terms of the process of refining his work, I guess we’re all editors to some extent.
In terms of the bass, are you constantly striving to improve? You studied in Jamaica at one point, didn’t you?
I travel a fair bit. But usually, I have happy accidents. I’m not really a good enough musician to play what’s in my head or what’s on other people’s records. So I tend to just try and play in an inarticulate way what I’m hearing, and something interesting comes out and then I just follow that down. I mean, I always try and do something out of my comfort zone. I try and move away from what I might have done before. On this record I made a conscious effort to kind of pull out old basses that I haven’t played for a while that had a different sound or to go with different amps. But in the end, I’m not that thoughtful about it. It’s like, very often the way we work is there’s a moment of inspiration and a moment of magic and you kind of just have to be there to catch it. Very often Danny might say to me, ‘Try this’ or ‘Try that’. Or The Edge or even Bono. In the old days, I might’ve said, ‘No, I can do this!’ Now I go, ‘Thanks very much, I’ll take it’. That’s what you do. You know, little gifts come along and you kinda go ‘Oh, I can see what that will do and take it’. ,
Do you play any other instruments?
I can do a little guitar, and that’s what I started on, but it’s pretty rudimentary. Sometimes something comes out of it, but not that often. I think Edge has emerged and grown into being a very fine composer of what we do – particularly over the last couple of records. He’s really honed his chops.
U2 are now into their fourth decade together. How long can you see the band continuing?
It depends on which member of the band you talk to. I sort of think well... what else would I do? I don’t actually know how to do anything else. And I feel now that if you’ve been a part of those songs, if you have that history, I think you’re entitled to play them until you die. As long as people are gonna turn up. Maybe people don’t even need to turn up. If that’s your life’s work, if that’s what you do, I think that’s fine. If I lost interest in music, if I lost interest in playing and performing, maybe it’d be fine to grow rhododendrons or camellias or something. But I haven’t lost it and I don’t think I will lose it. Because the older you get, the more you appreciate and realise that to have a career as long as U2 has, and to be able to stand up in front of an audience of people who’re 20 or maybe even 30 years younger than you, and be relevant or entertained and connect, that’s an amazing thing. I wouldn’t walk away from that.
In the early days, you were a sceptic while the rest of the band were embracing Christianity. Have your thoughts on that changed? Do you believe in an afterlife?
I don’t really think about afterlife. I’m more concerned with the here and now. That’ll sort of take care of itself, I’m sure.
Are you a religious or spiritual person in any way?
I wouldn’t say I’m religious. I’m spiritual, but it relates very much to the here and now and to the everyday.
I’m asking, really, because I’m wondering if you believed in the Alcoholics Anonymous idea of a ‘higher power’?
Em... I really don’t want to discuss that (laughs).
Bono tells me he has trouble sleeping at night. Do you?
No, I’m very lucky that way. I found before rehab I had trouble sleeping. I was surprised to learn that alcohol adds to insomnia. I’d always thought that alcohol helps you sleep. So since I have stopped taking alcohol, my sleep has been much better. Occasionally, in stressful situations, I don’t sleep. And I don’t sleep very well if I’m travelling.
Are the friendships within the band still as strong as ever?
I think it’s as strong. I think it’s sort of stronger. I felt very much at the beginning of this project, and I think it’s continued throughout this project, that when we were working up the material, people were being very generous with each other, they were being really supportive and nice. And it was because we started out the project without an agenda. You know, there was no clock ticking when we started. It was just to see if the band could step into a different area. And that different area, in a way, was performing much more within ourselves, for ourselves, than performing out there and trying to grab people’s attention. I personally feel – and it is a personal view – that there’s been a shift in the band over the last couple of records. And it may be an age thing, but I think in our twenties and thirties the band was kind of restrictive. From my point of view, there was a little bit of arrogance in going, ‘Oh, can’t we just do it my way?’ And now I think I really have started to appreciate what everyone else does and actually go, ‘You know, this is actually really good the way it is’, and I’m able to do stuff that I couldn’t have done on my own with these guys’ support.
I read an interview with Brian Eno that was done during the Olympic Studio stages of recording this album. He began drawing a complicated graph to explain to the interviewer the various gestations a U2 song goes through – from good to great to awful and back again – during the recording process. He was going to bring it into the studio to show you afterwards. Can you remember it?
Brian’s always drawing little graphs about something (laughs). I think he’s got a very good understanding of what we go through. And he had an interesting attitude to it this time, where he started to enjoy being part of the band. He liked the fact that he could work on something in the morning with us, and by the evening it had turned into something. Brian’s method of working is very much – he likes to do it for a while and then move on. He likes to leave it as an unresolved piece very often. And that’s not what we do.
What do you do?
We like to fully resolve something and work it through to the end. And sometimes we overwork it, but generally if we have enough time, and if we make good decisions, it always gets better. And that was a unique thing with this record. That when we took the decision not to finish it in June or July for a November release, it really allowed us to go back to certain things. It allowed us to look at the proposed list of tracks and pull a few more back onto the record that we hadn’t worked on, and take a few off. And it changed the balance of the record. It really allowed Bono to re-sing a few things and to rewrite some lyrics. So by the time we finished in December, everything was pretty well rounded on the record. Certainly this is the first record in a very long time where I’ve kind of gone, ‘I understand and I know every decision that was made – and I back it’.
Are U2 a democratic unit?
It’s a strange kind of democracy in that some people have louder voices than others, but if three people think something’s a good idea and I don’t think it’s a good idea... they’re probably right! (laughs)
(*) Interview over and meal eaten, Adam shakes my hand and warmly wishes me well. Then he rejoins Edge and Larry in the next room. They’re still watching their performances and making notes. “We’re not quite done here,” Adam explains. “This may take a little longer.”
No line on the horizon... and no flies on these guys.