Date printed: Thu 17th Jan 2019 10:49am PST
U2 talk to Q about the new album (long, good)
[From the November 2004 issue of Q]
Death, despair and dining with the devil -- these have been turbulent times for U2. In a world exclusive interview they reveal the drama behind the album of their lives
Bono looks like he is having a seizure. He lurches forwards, head shaking, eyes scrunched tight. He is also singing. "Hello, hello," he mouths, punctuating each word by jabbing a finger at me. "We're at a place called Vertigo."
It is 1 July and we are in the dining room of the Hanover Quay studio in Dublin. "Vertigo," the first single from U2's new album, is booming out from a pair of wall-mounted speakers. Bono is not having an epileptic fit, but rather he is dancing, albeit without any recourse to rhythm. Like other men of a certain age -- Jeremy Clarkson springs to mind -- he is dressed head to foot in denim.
The Edge is sitting at the room's long dinner table picking at a plate of salmon salad and nodding along. Seated opposite, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton are watching Greece knock the Czech Republic out of football's European Championship. Neither pays their singer the slightest attention.
Eighteen months after they started work, U2 are about to finish their 11th studio album a day ahead of schedule. It will be released in November and is titled How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Not that all has gone according to plan. It wouldn't be a U2 record if it had. Last Christmas, the band scrapped a year's work and replaced original producer Chris Thomas (notable credits: Never Mind the Bollocks, Pulp's Different Class) with long-time studio partner Steve Lillywhite ("We didn't gel, for whatever reason," Clayton says of the aborted sessions).
Of more pressing concern now is the need to agree upon the album's running order. Bono and the Edge have each devised a track listing. No one can agree on either. Each will sidle up to me during the evening and conspiratorially insist that their version is better. "I'm not sure Edge's version works," Bono says. "In fact, I told him it's preposterous. You can't have a slow song second one in."
Set on the banks of the River Liffey and spread over two floors, Hanover Quays would have the feel of a youth hostel were it not for the acres of expensive electronic equipment. The building is to be demolished next year to make a way for a riverside development. U2, courtesy of the Irish government, will be relocated to a Canary-Wharf-style tower a mile up the river.
Upstairs there is a kitchen, dining room and a lounge equipped with a sofa and a hatstand exclusively given over to Bono's many Stetsons. Floor-to-ceiling windows run the length of one wall. A collection of bedraggled boats is moored outside. The band bought them to stop tour parties from sailing up to the Quay and staring in at them. Downstairs is a rehearsal room, TV room and two studios. U2 recorded most of the album in the smaller of the two. It's a dark pokey space you could cross in four strides.
Last night Bono gave two of the handful of fans who keep vigil outside the studio a lift home, the condition being they listen to different mixes of the new tracks in his car and nominate their preferences. Lillywhite, a garrulous gent with the air of a used car salesman styled for Miami Vice, recalls Bono doing the same with a postman who wandered into the studio.
"That's one of the things Bono uses," says the Edge. "He'll throw on different things at home and see which gets the best reaction when the hooverings happening. As a band, famously, we will literally ask anyone."
Tonight I am to be U2's guinea pig. The plan is to have dinner and listen to five new songs over a bottle of wine.
In the event U2 play the whole of the new album, initially in no particular order. Lillywhite ferries a variety of CDs from downstairs. In addition to jerking spasmodically, Bono provides a running commentary over each track -- a "great bassline" here, a "terrible rhyming couplet" there.
The first impression is of the most U2-sounding U2 album since The Joshua Tree. It has that album's epic scope, while also harking back to early career peaks The Unforgettable Fire and War. Anthems and big themes are very much back in, confirming the trajectory of 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. That album marked the point at which U2 self-confidence returned and their mid-'90s wobble -- the sudden discovery of irony, dancing music and giant lemons -- was placed firmly behind them. By December 2001 and the end of the $143m-grossing Elevation tour, it was clear that U2 were back on a roll.
When the others have drifted off, Bono suggests we hear the album in the order he would prefer it to run (two faster tracks, two slower tracks, and so on). He grills me throughout: what should the singles be?; is this mix better than that?
"I'm not being disingenuous," he insists. "I want to get another perspective. Because working here is like being marooned on an oil rig. We get cut off."
Thom Yorke, you sense, does not do this. But Radiohead, unlike U2, don't strive to satisfy the Everyman. Equally, Yorke is as likely to announce that his band are reapplying for the job of best in the world as he is to invade Poland. Such was Bono's mission statement for All That You Can't Leave Behind. What is it to be this time?
"It's never about competing with other bands," he says, lighting a cigarette. "We compete with ourselves, with the idea of not becoming crap like everyone else does. Because the only way you can justify living like this -- with your fancy houses and no money problems -- is surely not to be crap."
As Bono is queuing up his CD for a second time, Adam Clayton and Steve Lillywhite wander back. The latter has come to collect Bono for his final vocal of the record. He eyes Bono smoking and smiles. "It makes a change for Adam and I to be watching over Bono's bad habits," he says
"At least my habits are legal," replies Bono archly as he gets up.
Adam Clayton is the black sheep of the U2 family, famous for getting engaged, albeit briefly, to Naomi Campbell in 1993, and missing a gig in Sydney because he was too drunk to play. He says he hasn't drunk alcohol for six years. These days, his idea of a perfect night is one where he is in bed by 11:30 p.m.
Ask him when he was last chatted up and he says, "By a bloke or a girl?" adding that it hasn't happened in either case for longer than he can recall. "Once you take alcohol out of the equation, there's a lot less sex," he says.
With his graying hair, bookish spectacles and gently lisping Home Counties accent, Clayton is more geography teacher than rock star. There is, too, a vulnerability about him. He says he has no idea what he brings to the band.
"Playing bass has become much simpler during the last two records," he says. "Before it used to be so complicated. I was always trying to come up with the best possible, ever. When you put yourself under that much pressure you don't necessarily get anywhere. The wheels just spin a lot."
Did you feel insecure about your position in the band?
"Yeah. There was a period of not being comfortable. I can't put it down to anything."
It is 1 a.m. when the Edge invites me to hear his version of the album. He appears to have waited for Bono to make himself scarce. He has, he says, compiled it according to mood. As it's playing, he explains his reasoning for placing a song before or after the next in a soft, lilting voice. Then he pulls his ever-present woolen hat over his eyes and sits nodding to himself. There's much of the mad scientist about the Edge. In last month's issue, Q's newest contributor revealed that he had computed 39 million possible running orders for the new U2 album (reflecting on this, Bono notes, "girls tend to make the best DJs and, let's be honest, the Edge is a girl with a moustache"). He drives a secondhand BMW, which he keeps strictly to the speed limit.
Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" single was the last thing the Edge heard which made him sit up and take notice. He unwinds with a round of golf or the odd game of tennis. He is only ever been called "Mr. Edge" when checking into hotels.
"This is going to be a great live record," he announces over the top of "All Because of You"'s guitar solo.
Will lemons be involved?
"If memory serves, the lemon is a pretty lousy form of transport. It was for sale on eBay for a while but I don't think there were any takers."
Dawn is coming. Larry Mullen is sitting in the TV room idly channel surfing. He appears to have remained ageless for 20 years. Mullen only seems to really relax when the tape switched off. He says that most of his friends are "builders and plumbers." When, in 1997, U2 released a high-camp video to accompany their "Discotheque" single, the regulars in Larry Mullen's local pub put the drummer's scene as a disco-dancing cowboy on a tape loop on the video jukebox. He is not mourning the fact that U2 have stopped trying to make us smile.
"I was always concerned that the further we moved from what we knew, the greater the danger we'd disappear up our own arses," he says. "I couldn't cope with being called a pretentious prat."
Mullen says he's yet to form an objective opinion of the new album. He is surprised the band has come through another one.
"There were some heated debates as usual," he says "but the party line is, if you don't have a better idea, shut the f--k up. It usually does the trick."
Bono enters to bid us goodnight. It is still dark outside but he is wearing sunglasses. "Did Edge play you his version?" he asks. "Did you prefer his or mine?"
"You see what we have to put up with?" asks Mullen with a long, weary sigh.
It's mid-July and U2 are in the south of France for their annual summer break. They have been coming here since finishing The Joshua Tree. Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton each have homes off the coastal road which winds eastwards out of Nice. The Edge and Bono and their families share a villa in the same area.
"Bono wanted us all to share a place," says Mullen. "I told him, I'm happy to come here but I'm not living in the same house as you."
Bono arranges to meet at a seaside restaurant 5 miles from Nice called the African Queen. The harbor it faces is home to a flotilla of gleaming private yachts. It is pouring with rain but he is still wearing sunglasses, a straw Stetson atop his head. He exchanges greetings in French with the owner.
Bono looks slimmer than he has for some time, having recovered from a back injury he says that prevented him from working out. He admits to being self-conscious about his weight.
"I see pictures of myself and think, Oh God," he groans. "I can look like a rock star. But I can also look like pudgy politician. Or a darts player. It's always sexy on the inside, though."
He orders two glasses of rose and casually relates how Robert DeNiro persuaded him to give a keynote speech at 2003's Tribeca film Festival. He goes on to recall meeting the Pope five years ago.
"He was wearing oxblood loafers," says Bono. "I remember Quincy Jones turning to me and going check...out...the...shoes. The cat is wearing pimp shoes!
"I'm a terrible name dropper," he offers with a smile. "But then the right to be ridiculous is something I hold very dear." (Larry Mullen claims that whenever he's berated by a stranger in Dublin, it is always about Bono. "I'll walk into the pub," he says, "and some old guy will go, 'Larry, yer man Bono, he's a f--kin' eejit'.")
Tomorrow Bono will be called by Radio 4's Today programme to pass comment on Gordon Brown's announcement of the substantial increase in Britain's overseas aid. Bono co-founded the DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, in Africa) organisation in 2002 to lobby the governments of the world's wealthy nations to do just that. He watched Brown's speech live in his villa. It was, he says, "an amazing moment." Two years ago he stood next to George W. Bush when the U.S. President outlined an increase in aid to Africa to $5 billion. "My life," he reflects, "is getting more and more surreal."
In addition to public meetings with Bush and Tony Blair, Bono has successfully courted arch republican Jesse Helms (the 82-year-old former U.S. Senator who described homosexuals as "weak, morally sick wretches") for donations to his AIDS drive. DATA itself is funded by billionaires such as Bill Gates and George Soros. The latter bankrolls their Washington office.
"Bono is very good at figuring out what he wants and how to get it," says Adam Clayton. "He has absolute dedication to achieving his goals. There are certain things you think it might be prudent for him not to do, but he's a grown-up. He knows his business."
There have been rumors of frustrations within the U2 camp at the amount of time Bono has been campaigning. Not so, says the Edge. He insists Bono's absences allowed him time to work on the new record alone and it's all the better for that. He did beg Bono not to meet with President Bush. But believes the end justified the means.
Bono himself says he'd have lunch with the Devil to secure a donation.
"Some people I've met have made me sick to the stomach," he says. "I can't tell you their names because I still have to work with them. But I've also got to like a lot of very conservative people. I find their up-frontness can be more refreshing than my liberal friends, who tell me everything is possible but sometimes don't want to follow through."
It would be easy to view these as the acts of a vainglorious rock star...
"Yes it would. And you wouldn't be wrong. There's something very uncomfortable about a rich rock star being photographed with poor, starving kids. In that sense I wish it wasn't me. I don't blame people for being cynical.
"I'm sure it's not all altruistic. There must be some ego involved. There's a sense of duty, too. And I have the sort of personality where I believe I can always find a solution."
Bono says he is the atomic bomb referred to in the album's title. On 21 August, 2001, he was at his father Bob Hewson's bedside when he died. It's a subject he mines for two of the record's best tracks -- "Sometimes You Can't Make it On Your Own" and "One Step Closer." On the former he sings, "It's you when I look in the mirror/It's you when I pick up the phone." When Bono speaks about his father he does so haltingly. It is the only time he breaks eye contact.
"A bomb went off when my old man died and I had no idea how to deal with it," he says. "If I'm honest, I've been running away from it for the past two years.
"I've always enjoyed drinking and going out, but I found I was drinking far more. I went to Bali for a drink. Got on a plane, went for two days, came back."
"I don't know. Because I could. I was sitting in a beach bar when I got there thinking, What am I doing here? I took on more and more projects. But eventually you have to turn and face yourself. That's come to an end now with finishing this work. Literally in the last week I've felt a sense of putting things to rest."
Three days ago, Bono went to a small church near his French home and lit a candle for his father. Bob Hewson was, by all accounts, a bluff man not given to sharing his feelings. Bono says the two fought throughout his father's life. He had flown home after each show on the band's last U.K. tour to be with him.
"I think we did make peace towards the end" he says. "But in a really Irish way. We were like two men sitting in a pub and not talking to each other. He loved Shakespeare so I read some to him. I drew him in his sleep. There was a greater understanding."
What was the last thing he said to him?
"I can't remember. I can remember the last thing he said to me. I was sitting at the side of his bed and he woke with a start. I asked him if he was OK and his mouth started moving. By then all he could do was whisper. I had to put my year to his mouth. And he said, 'F--k off!' Then he said, 'This place is a prison. Take me home'."
What do you miss most about him?
"Sometimes I forget he's not there. I want to call him. There's a whole raft of questions I wanted to ask him and never did."
A thread running through the record is Bono musing on the nature of marriage. The protagonist in "A Man and a Woman," for example, ponders "forever, faith, sex and fear, and all the things that keep us here," before concluding he could "never take a chance on losing love to find romance." Is he referring to himself here?
"It is personal, yes," says Bono, "but I couldn't specifically tell you what that song's about. There's a desperate character in there, though. I shake when I sing it. It obviously touches a nerve."
Bono and his wife Ali were classmates at school and have four children, aged between 3 and 15. Bono describes his wife as confident, relaxed and smart. She is, he says, very much like the Edge in that respect.
"Because Ali and I have known each other since we were kids, we're like mates," he says. "People have tried to figure out our marriage for years. It's simple. Relationships need management and she's a very good manager.
"There's still a lot I don't know about her. She's a mystery to me. Sometimes I feel I'm not good enough for...I love her," he says, finishing his drink.
Bono admits he is becoming an embarrassing dad to his elder children, particularly for his 13-year-old daughter Eve, a hip-hop fan. He relates how Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles came to stay with him in Ireland earlier this year. While hip-hop's foremost power couple were there, Bono overheard his daughter telling friends her father had probably been "boring the arses" off his guests, talking about Africa.
"And I think I may have been," he says, laughing.
That evening Bono holds court at a small beachside bar down the road from his house. Larry Mullen is here. Adam Clayton -- whom the no-nonsense Mullen refers to as a "recovering alcoholic" -- prefers not to be dragged along to bars or clubs. The Edge has gone to pick his family up from the airport.
We sit on a wooden veranda overlooking the moonlit Mediterranean, listening to Bono tell stories about Bob Geldof and Bob Dylan. He is indeed a terrible name-dropper. Does he ever grow tired of being Bono?
"Listen," he says, "I am Bono and I'm sick of him. I really am. But there are a lot of Bonos. Some annoy me more than others. Like Van Morrison said, I'll be great when I'm finished."
The last we see of him, Bono is walking unsteadily down the pebbled beach and into the night. He takes off his Stetson, waves it the once and is gone.
At the end of August Bono calls me at home. He is, he says, enjoying being on holiday, watching the kids run around. Dr. Dre is coming next week for a social visit. Bono wants to know if he might have embarrassed anyone the last time we spoke. "I have a dreadful habit of dropping other people in it," he says.
Since our last meeting he has flown to Omaha to sing "All I Want is You" at the funeral of Susan Buffett, wife of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and a DATA board member. And the U2 album has been stolen. Or at least the Edge's copy of it has -- he had left it in his bag while the band were doing a photoshoot.
"I was so happy it was him," says Bono. "It's the sort of thing I would do. Everything turned a little Pink Panther down here for a while. There were gendarmes falling out of the sky. But it looks to have turned out OK -- it hasn't popped up anywhere yet."
Bono has sent copies of the album to Rick Rubin, Michael Stipe and Interscope Records co-chairman Jimmy Iovine. The consensus, he says, is that U2 have made their best record.
"I played it yesterday for the first time in a while and I was blown away," he says. "It's such a personal record. You know, it may just be our best. I won't know until there's a little more distance. But right now it feels like the one we've waited 25 years to make."
You said last time that they were many Bonos. Which did I meet?
"I'd say you met several," he says. There's a pause on the line. "Did I really say that?" he finally asks. "People who speak about themselves in the third person are to be avoided at all times. That I'm doing so is a real worry."
Anything else to declare?
"Guilty of all that I'm charged with," he concludes. "And a whole lot more than I haven't told you about."
© Q magazine, 2004.
"Awards are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later, every asshole gets one."
The Bomb Squad
U2's track-by-track guide to 'How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb'
Q magazine, October 02, 2004
U2 as garage band. Over power chords, Bono sings about boys who play rock 'n' roll. Adam Clayton: "It was originally called Native Son and had a very different feel. Bono and Edge rewrote it when we started work with Steve Lillywhite. The bass and drums have a little bit of Echo & the Bunnymen in there -- a nice wink to where we came from."
The sort of wide-eyed anthem that should by now carry a U2 patent. Bono: "It started off being about the Irish writer Christopher Nolan, who was at our school (Nolan, who was born with cerebral palsy, won the 1988 Whitbread Prize for his autobiographical novel Under the Eyes of the Clock). But in a more oblique way it's probably as much about AIDS and the drugs developed to arrest it. I couldn't write specifically about that without feeling an idiot."
Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own
Bono on his father's death. As stately and emotive as "One." Bono: "There's a line, 'You're the reason I have the operas in me.' My old man was a beautiful tenor. He was this working-class guy who loved opera. He used to sit conducting the stereo with knitting needles."
Love and Peace or Else
As close as U2 have come to being Led Zeppelin. The Edge: "I'm delighted about this one. It's been around since the last record. All we had was an amazing keyboard part of Brian [Eno]'s and a rhythm section Larry and Daniel [Lanois] had worked up. I fought for hours trying to figure out what to do with this fantastic raw track. We cracked it this time."
City of Blinding Lights
Back to the wide-open terrain of The Unforgettable Fire, via a vintage Edge motif. Bono: "It's a New York song. About going there for the first time. We were the first band to play Madison Square Gardens after 9/11. During 'Where the Streets Have No Name' the house lights came up and there were 20,000 people in tears. It was beautiful."
All Because of You
Three minutes of gleeful stomping and a likely single. Sample lyric: "I like the sound of my own voice." Adam Clayton: "Often when we have something which is straight rock it never goes anywhere -- we just keep churning it around. But this was one or two takes."
A Man and a Woman
Motown by way of the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend." Bono: "The sound of sitting on a stoop in New York in the summer. I wanted a song that rolled up the Clash and Marvin Gaye into one."
Crumbs From Your Table
The Edge breaks out "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"'s ringing guita. Bono rails at the AIDS crisis. Bono: "I went to speak to Christian fundamentalist groups in America to convince them to give money to fight AIDS in Africa. It was like getting blood from a stone. I told them about a hospice in Uganda where so many people were dying they had to sleep three to a bed. Sister Anne, who I mention in the song, works at that hospice. Her office is a sewer."
One Step Closer
Bono ponders the meaning of death over a hushed backdrop. Bono: "Noel Gallagher gave me that line. We were in Birmingham on the last U.K. tour. I was telling Noel my old man had lost his faith and didn't know where he was going. And Noel just said (adopts passable Mancunian drawl), 'Well he's one step closer to knowing, isn't he?' "
Original of the Species
A strident torch song. Contains the lines, "Some things you shouldn't get too good at/Like smiling, crying and celebrity." The Edge: "The last time I cried was listening to that song. It was a song Bono started on the last record about my daughter Holly. He's her godfather. The lyric became more universal. About being young and full of doubt about yourself. He probably won't agree, but I think it has connotations for Bono, looking back to when he was 20."
Quintessentially U2 -- from soaring chorus to a title that co-opts the Hebrew word for God. Bono: "I had the idea that no one can own Jerusalem, but everybody wants to put flags on it. The title's an ancient name that's not meant to be spoken. I got around it by singing it. I hope I don't offend anyone."
Bizarrely, U2 come on like the house band in a Moroccan bazaar. Bono: "We did this on the very last day in the studio. It was really just for fun, but it came out so well it'll be an extra track on the record in some countries."
© Q magazine, 2004.
"Awards are like hemorrhoids. Sooner or later, every asshole gets one."
Awesome! It's too long of a wait though.
SHIT!!! Sounds friggin' awesome! Can't wait!!!
Do not hurry yourself in your spirit to become offended, for the taking of offense is what rests in the bosom of the stupid ones. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)
Date printed: Thu 17th Jan 2019 10:49am PST