Q FEBRUARY 2009 - by Keith Cameron


He may have said too much.

Mullen founded U2 - original name: The Larry Mullen Band - in 1976 and his bandmates still defer to him on artistic concerns, but he isn't the arch-traditionalist of legend. During the 2005/06 Vertigo tour, it was Mullen who declared that U2 had to "return to experimentation". With Q fresh from a playback at Olympic Studios, he's keen to hear how U2's latest collaboration with Brian Eno sounds, though when informed that Eno earlier declared one song, Crazy Tonight, to be "in a bad way", he flinches.

Did he say that? When I finished yesterday it was doing OK. It's obviously had a setback during the night..."

You're working with Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite. But the new album began with Rick Rubin producing. What happened?

Rick has a particular way of working and he's very wise man, and I like him very much. But he works with professional people who have their ideas and they record them. Not a bunch of amateurs who arrive and wait for shit to happen. Sometimes that's what happens with U2. I think it was difficult for him, because he really wanted to take the songs forward, but the songs weren't ready. We have a long and distinguished history of breaking producers. There's always a casualty. You're dealing with four people with differing opinions of how things should go. So it's a bit of a challenge.

What came out of those sessions?

There were about six or seven with Rick. One or two made it over and the rest we will get back to when this record comes out. We'd like to get another record out sooner rather than later, we've got a lot of material. I would hate Rick to think we were saying, "It didn't work out because you were crap." We said, "We need to get other people in to help us." Because we were stuck.

Why return to Eno and Lanois?

They have a long history with us. As producers, they've both been doing what producers do, which is make serious contributions to how the record should sound, helping you with all sorts of things. Rather than just having them as producers we thought we would also involve them in the song-writing - to a degree.

...Which has been a bone of contention in the past, hasn't it?

Well, nothing was really meant to change, because there's a contribution that producers have to make, but we were just making it official and giving them more responsibility. Not all the songs are co-written. With or without a song-writing credit, in fairness to Eno, he is an extraordinary individual. Like, I hit things for a living and I enjoy it very much. Brian Eno is a cerebral kinda guy. A lot of brains. What I love about him is if you ask what his favourite music is, it's all soul music. So he's full of contradictions. he's not a musical snob at all. That's his real value: a sense of adventure.

Apparently Eno brought in a hypnotist to help Coldplay make their last album. Did he try anything similar with U2?

[Laughs] That's great, I wish I'd known that! No, he won't be needing any hypnotists with us, we've got enough problems. I worked quite a lot with Brian this time. I've always liked Brian, but it was great to actually sit down in a room where he was fiddling and I was able to sit down beside him and fiddle too. So we were fiddling - not with each other, but fiddling nonetheless.

You began recording with Eno and Lanois in Fez. Whose idea was Morocco?

Bono had been talking about this religious festival and he mentioned it to me, thinking that I'd shoot it down. And I said, "Actually, that's a good idea, I'd like to go back to Morocco." The last time I was there the food was shite. I was vegetarian, full-blown, verging on the vegan, and so it was a difficult time. but underneath all the cultural shock I enjoyed it. So I was happy to go back. I felt musically it would be a very good thing. So we got together and it was an amazing experiment. Threw up all these ideas.

You're no longer vegetarian?

I'm not a strict vegetarian. I don't eat red meat at all, I eat a bit of fish and some poultry. But Morocco was successful. We were recording in this riad, this huge open space, with birds flying around: an odd environment to be in. It just reminded me of the early days when we'd all just get together in a room. And I had this new electronic drum-kit that was turned down low, so no one was like, "Larry, would you turn the fucking drums down?" Or, "Can you put something over the drums?" Or, "Could you just step out for a few days?" Brian always got frustrated with the noise of the drums. So I enjoyed it.

You've got three children. How does that side of your life fit in with the band?

It's something that occupies a lot of my time. I like my family. I like my kids. They make me laugh and they make me cry and they make me wanna get up in the morning. The band used to do that. So in some ways the two have collided, and I find it difficult sometimes to make decisions. Do I stay in the studio all night? Or do I go home and get up the next day? It's worked out pretty well but I do struggle with it. I think the other guys do as well. One of my kids, he's thirteen, and now I'm getting those phone calls: trouble here, homework there, disappearing over there - and that's a bit of a challenge, as I now move forward to finishing a record and going on the road. It is a concern.

Where's your family home?

Dublin. I spend time outside of Dublin, but that's my home, that's where my family is, that's where my kids go to school. That's my base.

What's a typical day like away from U2?

It depends. There's rarely a day where there isn't something to do with the band. But a lot of the time I feel like I should put a cap on my head and a sign over my car with "Taxi" written on it. I spend a lot of time ferrying children, including other people's children, to various houses. There's swimming, there's ballet, there's soccer, and it goes on. And, of course, if you are left in charge, food is a big issue. Everyone wants different things. So I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. But I enjoy it, I enjoy what it does for me.

Have you still got a thing for Harley-Davidsons?

I still love motorcycles. But I haven't ridden in a long time. Having kids changed that. Not only from the safety point of view. You have choices: what are you gonna do? Go off for three days with your tent or actually take care of your kids? The reality is that in ten years' time I'll have as much time as I want to go off and do all those things.

When you're away from the band, are drums the last thing you want to see?

I have never encouraged my children to do music. However, my two boys like playing, so I have a kit of drums at home that they play without any involvement from me at all. It's not something I would do at home, generally speaking. The only time that I would play at home, and I would do it with an electronic kit, would be if I'm preparing work for something. Drums are not the focus of my world.

During the Vertigo tour, Bono said, "This band still has the ambition, the audacity, to take on pop music." Why? It would be so much easier to say, "Stuff the cutting edge, let's just tour the hits until we collapse under the weight of cash."

It's a fair question. Sometimes, y'know, I think... God, I'd love to play with Kenny Rogers. Kenny Rogers, Las Vegas: that's where it's at [laughs]. But we're not that kind of a band. I spend a lot of my time away from my kids, so there has to be a good reason to do that. It's hard to justify. So you really have to care about it, and we still do care about making really great music. It's not about having the hits, it's not about selling out stadiums... necessarily - it's just about making great music. And having something to stand up to. There is a sense within U2 that we've circumvented the system a little, and we were - certainly in the past - more successful than we really deserved [to be] because we navigated a slightly different course, not because we were any better than our contemporaries. So we've always felt that need to prove the point, that it wasn't just sleight of hand or it wasn't just luck, but that within U2 there is something, a musical force. Our brightest spark wasn't at the beginning. Our brightest will be, I hope, at the end of our career. And I know that sounds like a load of bollocks. I'm always very conscious of Bono-isms...

Creeping into your conversation?

Yeah! But none of us want to accept good, or even very good. We want to be in a different place. So The Killers can dream on as much as they like about U2 retiring and letting them take the spot, but they're going to have to fight a bit harder! With respect to those guys, I love that band.

Bono casts a big shadow over U2. Are there moments when his extracurricular activities get you down? Do you ever open the paper and think, "For fuck's sake, man"?

Yes. On a regular basis. Look, I'm not toeing any party line at all, that's not in my nature. I admire him for what he's done. I think he's done incredible things. And I believe it will be his legacy. So I've got no problems with that. he still does his job: he's still capable of writing great lyrics, he's got great pipes - it hasn't interfered with being in a band. My biggest problem really is sometimes the company he keeps. And I struggle with that. Particularly the political people, less the financial people. Particularly Tony Blair - I mean, I think Tony Blair is a war criminal. And then I see Bono and him as pals, and I'm going: I don't like that.

Is this stuff that you pull him up on?

He would know how I feel about Tony Blair. he went to see George Bush and there were people who criticised him for that - but I understand why he went to see George Bush. George Bush has been very generous to his cause. Do I think that George Bush is a war criminal? Probably - but the difference between him and Tony Blair is that Blair is intelligent. So he has no excuse for what he did. Whereas I think George Bush could find a few excuses for his behaviour. But it is hard sometimes when you see stuff in the papers - I understand why people find it really offensive. On the other hand, I think it has made people understand where Bono's coming from, in that he's prepared to use his weight as a celebrity, at great cost to himself and his family, to help other people. And you can't deny the price for what he's doing is huge. What are the benefits? The benefits are you get your photograph taken with politicians. Well, it's hardly a benefit. Your finances get scrutinised. I don't think there's much of an upside for him, and I don't think there's much of an upside for him, and I don't think he chooses where he goes and who he meets. I think he will do whatever he has to do to achieve his ultimate goal. But as an outsider looking in, I cringe. And in fairness to him, he does, too. He's a smart guy, and he knows. I've seen him. It's not like there are any surprises here - there are none.

Do you socialise with the others when you're not on tour or in the studio?

It happens occasionally. but when I'm finished on Friday, I'm straight home to see my family. That's my choice. So we spend less time on a social level. We're still friends, but it's a lot more difficult now. It's not the four guys fighting the world. That doesn't exist any more. The opportunity to just sit around the pub and have a pint and talk about nothing doesn't happen as often as it should.

You sound as if you quite fancy the idea.

I like it because it created a bond that was unskakeable. Because the studio can be a difficult environment to work in, and people get het up and passionate and when people become passionate, they become difficult. So, the further away you go from confirming your friendship, the harder it is.

Will this album mark U2's " return to experimentation"?

I don't know the answer to that, Initially, the idea was to do the esoteric, obscure little thing, and have a few hits there as well. It's kind of morphed into something else. I think there is experimentation in here... it's just a different animal. It's not quite what people would expect a U2 experimental thing would be. I mean, if you think of Zooropa, or Passengers, this is not that. This has got a lot of weight.

Is it better?

Potentially. I think it's some of the best music we've ever written. That's not the party line, I really believe that. Have we brought it to its ultimate and most appropriate conclusion? I don't know. That's the risk you take when you release a record: you just don't know. But bar one or two little mistakes along the way, I think we've been pretty successful at the gambling up until now.

Larry Mullens gets up and chuckles: "I may have said too much." But U2's man of rigour is off to the studio to see a man called Brian; there's a song that needs his attention. Currently, Larry isn't even on it: for percussion it's got Eno hitting his chest.

"Now that really is unfinished," Mullen says with a smile, "and in need of some professional help."


Larry Mullen Jr: not the only sticksman who really runs the band.

Lars Ulrich (Metallica) / Phil Collins (Genesis) / Nick Hodgson (The Kaiser Chiefs) / Don Henley (The Eagles) / Robert Wyatt (Soft Machine) / Joey Jordison (Slipknot) / Dave Clark (Dave Clark Five) / Levon Helm (The Band) / Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac) / Neil Peart (Rush)