INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Q FEBRUARY 2009 - by Johnny Davis
It's always the quiet ones...
Adam Clayton swishes into the room, pours himself a glass of soy milk and joins Brian Eno and me for lunch. He is wearing an Alexander McQueen overcoat. It has a leopard-skin collar.
"Nice coat," blinks Eno.
"It's not every day you get to wear a coat like this," says Clayton.
"Indeed," grins Eno, as he returns to his salad.
Since passing his bass audition in Larry Mullen Jr's parents' kitchen in 1976, Clayton has spent the last thirty-three years being U2's square peg. Born in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, he was their first manager, baulked when the others "got" religion for 1981's October, went off the rails during 1993's Zooropa and remains the only person to ever miss a gig - through "overindulgence". He was engaged to Naomi Campbell, once took lessons from the author of Bass Guitar For Dummies and has been proudly intoxicant-free since 1994.
Today he appears in the rudest of health. Indeed, the forty-eight-year-old reveals himself to be disarmingly au courant: having enjoyed Fleet Foxes at London's Shepherds Bush Empire two nights ago, he wastes no time in quizzing me on whether The Black Keys are worth the trip to Brixton Academy tonight.
Raised in a family of women, he is mildly camp, speaks in complete paragraphs and amuses himself by making short films for U2.com in which he demonstrates brewing green tea ("With leaves!") and goes for a drive along the French coast - in split-screen ("Very 1960s!"). We repair upstairs to talk. The room contains a sofa and an armchair. He plumps for the sofa.
"I'll be patient!" he says, brightly.
Let's begin with a quote from The Edge: "We really don't want to start making bad records. After all this time we know what a great record is."
[Laughs] Well, we've been at it a long time. We started writing pretty much after the last tour. We finished in Australia in Christmas of '05 and within two months we were back writing in the south of France. We'd invited Eno and [co-producer Daniel] Lanois to come in as writers. It was a big, big step for us to say, "We wanna open the thing up and that will determine the direction." From the first session Larry was performing on an electronic drum kit. Normally Larry drums so hard, it's very hard to spend hours working stuff up when you've got all this bang and clatter. But the electronic kit made him play in a certain way. So the music came from a different place.
I own eleven U2 albums. Do I need a twelfth?
[Laughs] Well, I hope what translates is that you hear a band that's... content is the wrong word... but you hear a band that has got to a stage in its life where it can genuinely hold its head up and say, "We like where we are." I think it's great we've actually said, "We're not going to rush this release." We're not going to apologise like we have for every other bloody record and say, "If we'd had more time this would have been better or that would have been better..." We've really got into these songs and they've been finished to the best of our abilities.
Brian Eno says he can guarantee that on the last minute of the last day, when the courier is outside the studio waiting to take the album away to be pressed, you'll still be going, "Hang on, just one more thing to tinker with..."
Yeah, Well, you know, that's the creative process!
I had a really good record. And I don't say that very often. I normally have a shit record, where it's an absolute struggle.
What do you put that down to?
[Sighs] I dunno. I feel after years of struggling with certain stuff - and I don't wish to be melodramatic about it - that I suddenly got to the point of going, "Actually, it doesn't matter that much. I'm in a great band. There's my three best mates that I've known for a long time. How bad can it get?" It was much easier than I ever thought possible. And that is a very strange thing for me to say [laughs].
Did the others have a good record too? Or was it just you knocking off early?
I think this has been very, very hard. It's been really hard on Edge, cos it's taken a lot of his time. And Bono because he's had to find new ways of expressing himself. Some of the lyrics are Bono trying to write in the third person, which is not something he has been that successful at before. Larry found it difficult as well. But these are all men who have other responsibilities. They do have families and they have to juggle stuff. Bono has a very busy life as a campaigner. You could say that's self-inflicted... I'm in the lucky position of not having any of those responsibilities.
This record was supposed to be out last October, with all the other big releases. What happened. Scared off by The Kaiser Chiefs?
Well, you know I love The Kaiser Chiefs. I think they've got great neck. They did some shows for us [on the 2005 Vertigo tour]. [Mischievously] And I always like a band where the drummer's in charge.
Really? I never thought about it that way. Usually we spend two years [making] a record, so it's nice when it's noticed. But it keeps getting harder. You're playing against yourself and you don't want to lose. It takes graft. If you thought it was a little over-the-hill and it was a bit of a joke... I don't think it would feel the same way. It's not easy for me to stand up in front of fifty thousand people. It's not my natural habitat. I think it's probably easy for Bono [laughs]. But I can do it. And I will do it if I know the songs are great.
It's a lot of bother though, isn't it? Couldn't you do a Rolling Stones, bang out Sunday Bloody Sunday and Pride (In The Name Of Love) every few years and collect the cash?
I think that's actually pretty justified. In America that works as a business model. You can't do that in Britain or Ireland. The numbers don't add up. You've got a population of four million in Ireland. You can't spend a year on the road because you've played to them all... by January. We don't make pop music for mass airplay. We're doing something a little bit different that gathers up literary, art and sonic ideas. The ideas and sounds being bandied about are probably getting us into the area of the "art" world, where it's a minority audience.
Why are U2 so popular?
I'm always surprised when people say, "I went to that concert," or, "I got turned on by that record." I'm surprised that they're still interested. They must see a little of themselves in our awkwardness. Because we're not slick.
Would you be a fan of U2, do you think?
I dunno. [Smirks] I don't like those big gigs.
This album was famously preceded by a leak. Four tracks recorded on a mobile phone, then posted online. The source: Bono blasting songs out of his French villa.
[Carefully] Yeah... there was a leak. Our record company, who owns the rights, were obviously...
Yeah. And they did something about it very quickly. But I'm of the opinion now that if people have time to be on computers twelve hours a day listening to bits of U2 songs recorded over telephones... fair dues to them. I wish I had that much time again.
Did you give Bono a bollocking - "Turn it down, you fool?"
That's Bono being Bono. [Wisely] You can't take Bono out of Bono.
There's a bit in the Rattle And Hum film where a journalist earnestly sks you all, "What's happened between the writing of The Joshua Tree album... and now the new songs?" There's a deathly silence and you all go, "Umm..." In that spirit: what else have you been up to since the Vertigo tour ended in 2006?
Personally, I've been trying to get a life. Because, and this may not sound like much of a complaint, but what tends to happen is you go into the studio and you get cut off from your friends and family because you work nights. Then you go on tour and a year later you come back to your front door and the phone does not ring for a week. And you go, "What's happened? What did I used to do?" So I've been building up my telephone directory again.
Where would we be likely to find you on a Saturday night?
Saturday night is definitely the night I stay in. It's scary out there. Everyone turns into lunatics.
As U2's sole bachelor, do the others look at you wistfully?
[Thinks] I'm sure they do, actually. It has been said to me from time to time, when I start complaining, "And you don't even have any kids!"
Do they try and set you up on dates?
[Bashfully] Well, you know... I have a girlfriend. And I'm enjoying that.
How have U2 remained virtually scandal-free over the years? Are you that squeaky clean? Or can you afford good lawyers?
I think generally we're pretty decent people. And we've been very lucky that we haven't had any nasty tabloid people digging around. I don't there's anything to find. I was reading Max Mosley's comment in The Guardian today, saying it's ridiculous to think that the editor of The Daily Mail - which is a horrible paper anyway - is upholding any particular viewpoint on people's private lives. What a pop star does in the privacy of his own room has no national interest; it' completely irrelevant. The only reason you publish it is to sell your newspaper. What Mosley has been through must have been extremely humiliating. Fair play to him for standing up to it.
You're the U2 member who famously had their tabloid moment, of course.
I did have my tabloid moment. And I must say I didn't really enjoy it. It first started when I got busted for drink-driving in Dublin [In 1989 he was found to be over twice the legal limit, fined five hundred pounds and banned for a year]. I didn't manage to stop [the car] completely. And I did manage to drag a member of the Garda down the road [chuckles]. That got printed in the paper and it really didn't get much better after that. There was that drug bust... [in August 1989, for marijuana]
It was downhill after the drink-driving...
Once you're done for drink-driving that's usually a sign that there's more stupidness to come. There's a bit more mileage there for a while!
Now it's par for the course for young rock stars to fly off the rails. Do you think, "There but for the grace of God..."?
I find myself having very little sympathy or tolerance for Amy Winehouse's situation. I don't think the public are supporting her. I reckon the public thinks, "Here is a woman with a great voice, with a great career who, for no real reason, is going down that road." She needs to get her act together. It's not funny to see her being dragged out for a show here and a show there.
Pete Doherty is recording in the studio opposite you.
I heard he's around! I haven't bumped into him.
Concerning your tabloid misadventures, your ex, Naomi Campbell, recently referred to you as a "dear friend" in an interview...
Naomi's great. She does seem to, every so often, get into a spot of trouble. But she's a great girl.
When you see she's chucked another phone at someone's head, do you think, "Good old Naomi, there she goes again"?
[laughs] Whenever a friend of mine gets publicly humiliated, I feel sympathy for them.
Bono gets all the attention for his '80s mullet. But, as the cover of 2006's U218 Singles proved, you were King Of The Barnets. Now you've got the best hair in U2.
[laughs] Well, I had as many different haircuts as I did personalities back then. I was very confused. I'm so glad I'm not eighteen any more.
A final quote from you: "For a long time I believed the rock and roll mythology of acquiring experience without responsibility. I chose to deal with being in the band in a very single-minded way and I developed a lifestyle that I thought added up to what I was. I don't want to go back there again. I operate at a level that I'm comfortable with."
Yeah. [Thinks] I was very confused. I thought I had to be so many different things. I'm really lucky that because of the band I'm in, people actually gave me the room to fuck it up. I'm kind of amazed, now more than any other time, how much room people did give me to fuck it up, actually. because I just must have been a train wreck. Probably a very likeable train wreck. But, you know, people did support me when I fucked up, and I've gradually figured it out for myself. It took a long time. I was a very slow learner. but in the end you identify what's important. And life gets easier. I have to say I'm a big fan of where I'm at - I'm really enjoying it at the moment.
Sometimes it takes a man a long time to get to that place.
It certainly can. my biggest problem was that U2 kept being successful. So I was always, "Oh, we're being successful. Why am I finding it so difficult to cope with?" And, of course, no reason. Except what was going on in my head, you know.
What happens if this album enters the charts at Number 60?
I guess that would be one one huge sigh of relief. because that's a fairly conclusive vote, isn't it. You would have to look at life differently. If I had to go and get a day job... I could do that. [brightly] You know, you get to meet girls.
tell us something under-appreciated about playing bass.
Um, well - pfftt! - what I hate is having to change chord. If I can just do one thing on one note but do it exactly the same, every single time, forever... that's happiness. That is happiness for me.
Adam Clayton swishes out of the room, and decides to give The Black Keys a miss. Too much to get done here. "We probably need to move on and look at some mixes," he says. He picks up his coat with the leopard-skin collar from where he has carefully laid it over some speakers. he offers a sturdy hand. "I don't think we can mess it up now," he says.
Not this album. Not anything.
THE BASSMAN COMETH
U2's spare part? Not if these ten classic Clayton basslines are anything to go by.
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