"I've nothing against synths, contrary to popular belief -- it's the machines who play the machines that worry me."
The Larry Mullen, Jr. Interview
Propaganda, Issue 22,
April 01, 1995
Larry Mullen, Jr. could never be described as a great fan of the "rock interview." He usually leaves that to the other three. But he did recently agree to talk with the specialist drumming magazine Rhythm. In a candid conversation with Mark Cunningham, Larry revealed the birth of U2 in the Mullen family kitchen, reflected on his unusual pedigree as a musician and wondered a little about the band's future direction.
After more than a decade at the height of commercial and critical success with ground breaking albums such as War, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, it is hard to believe that U2's epic journey to success began when 15-year-old Larry Mullen Jr. pinned a "Musicians Wanted" ad on the notice board at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. Nineteen years later the band is arguably the most talked about and revered on the planet.
As the chameleon-like quartet enjoys a well-earned sabbatical from the limelight, Larry recalls those early days when the fledgling U2 rehearsed in his parents' kitchen. "We'd all had some form of interest in music and there were about six or seven of us, plus a couple of friends, jamming away with no real direction. The idea was to see who could and couldn't play, as normally happens with new bands. The thing that was most interesting about the meeting was that Edge (then plain Dave Evans) and his brother Dick, who later played with the Virgin Prunes, had built their own very funky looking electric guitar, which didn't work very well. Everything else was borrowed or didn't work, and it was pretty chaotic."
It was the following day, they figured out who was going to be in the band. "It was down to who had the loudest voice and the most money," explains Larry, tongue firmly in cheek.
"I saved up my cash from mowing lawns to buy my first drum kit: Edge attempted to build guitars and Adam already had a bass. But Bono was slightly in dire straits and we wanted him to play guitar, although he insisted on singing. Now we know why -- because he didn't have to buy or move any equipment."
Larry is quick to destroy several well-documented myths that have gone down as "facts" in the U2 history books: one of which concerns the band's original name. "At the first rehearsals people were referring to the band as Larry Mullen's Band, for want of a better name. We never played under that name but I think it was done to protect my ego at that stage, because we had rehearsed at my house and when Bono came in he could sing better than me, looked better and was just plain that bit older. He basically shot my chance of becoming the leader of the band." It has also been cast in literary stone that a Bay City Rollers cover was a regular feature of their early set. "That was bullshit -- we only did it once for a laugh. Very early on we started writing our own material, albeit badly. It wasn't until much later, in 1978-79 that we had some idea of musical direction. The band had gone through a whole lot of changes and it wasn't a proper working band until '78 or '79."
Growing up in the mid-Seventies, Larry's staple musical diet consisted of glam-rock greats, like the Sweet, T-Rex, Roxy Music, Slade and Gary Glitter, whose two-drummer band fascinated the Dublin lad. "I just knew that this was something I wanted to do. If you listen back to a lot of that music as far as beat is concerned, it was so 'on' and rhythmic in a very simple way. I also loved Bowie -- rhythmically he was so advanced, and that's why Ziggy Stardust and a lot of that Seventies music still stands up today. At the other end of the scale there were Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen and Yes, but I knew nothing about them, even though my sister would bring those albums into the house. Glam rock was certainly the foundation of my influences and I used to take out a pair of drumsticks and hit things along to the records."
U2 producer Brian Eno has said that he thought many aspects of Larry's distinctive drumming style and sense of rhythm had their origins in his experiences as a young marching band drummer. Larry agrees: "Yeah, certainly some of it did. I'm very interested in Irish traditional music and rhythm and that's really where I come from. I have played in a lot of military style bands and at some point I think it crossed over into U2. If you listen to the first three or four albums you can spot the influence. One of the things I find when I listen back is that my playing was very simple, kind of inventive at times, but at other times it didn't have a lot of rhythmic qualities."
"When you're playing with two guys like a bass player and a guitarist, there are a lot of spaces to fill. A good example of that was the Police, where they filled those gaps in quite a sophisticated way compared to U2. We were rhythmically unsophisticated, and a lot of that came from the fact that when I was playing in military bands there were other people covering all those different areas. You had percussionists, another drummer and three or four bass instruments, and there was confusion over who exactly should be providing the beat."
"For me in military bands I was providing a form of rhythm but not necessarily the +/+ beat, and it was only after we started working with Danny (Daniel Lanois) that I started to understand what the position of a drummer in a band was. I know it sounds strange but we don't have a rock 'n roll tradition in Ireland and when you're 15 or 16 and starting out in a band like I was, it's hard for a drummer to instinctively know what to do in that role. Do you provide a musical element or just a beat? It was a dilemma and I notice it now when I listen to some of our early records. I suppose it's the challenge for drummers to both provide the beat and be inventive, all at once. In traditional Irish music, where they play bodhrans, it's rarely on the +/+, it's always on the off-beat and other instruments like spoons and bones provide the +/+. So I guess those things have had a huge influence on me."
These influences do not come any stronger than on the U2 classics "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)," the latter exhibiting some of the most electrifying snare fills in rock's 40 year history. "When it came to recording 'Pride' for The Unforgettable Fire album, Danny was able to pick up from me that I had some interesting ideas but here was a slight lack of focus. My kick drum technique was then, as it is now, completely underdeveloped and I never got a chance to practice and learn like most people would. In the marching bands, I only used a snare and when I first got a kit, I never learned how to properly use all the elements together."
"So I went and listened to a basic demo of 'Pride' and tried to play a beat just using the kick and snare. But I couldn't get the kick to do what I wanted, so I got a floor tom down and did what I'd done in the past, which was if I couldn't physically do what was necessary, I'd find another way around it. I couldn't do what most people would consider a normal beat for the song, so I chose alternatives. Those snare rolls were originally very straight, until Bono told me it didn't sound right. So I spent a couple of hours trying things out until I came up with the build-ups and the accents you hear. If I'd had the knowledge I would have done something completely different, but I don't think it would have been half as interesting. You give up something to get something else, and my drumming career has always been based on a complete lack of expertise!"
Despite Larry's razor sharp self-criticism, there is no doubt that his unique approach is highly effective in the context of U2's music. "I've never thought of myself as U2's drummer but rather a contributor to the overall sound. I'm still earning about rhythm and over the last year since U2 have taken some time off, I've been working with a couple of guys in America. It's shown me how professional drummers really play, because I really want to know. I don't necessarily want to emulate them but I certainly want to know how it's done."
Keen to improve his craft, Larry practices whenever time permits at his North Dublin home. In fact wherever in the world he roams, a set of electronic drums is not far away for the occasional honing of paradiddles and other rudiments. "I have some exercises I go through, although I don't do it as often as I should. But I try and keep my hand in as often as possible. As I said my kick drum technique leaves a lot to be desired, but the time comes when you think 'Hey, I really want to be able to do this shit!' I won't stop doing all the other things but it's getting a little embarrassing now to ignore it!"
It is clear from talking to Larry that the musical traditions of his homeland run thick in his veins and he is not averse to dabbling with that most famous of Irish percussion instruments, the bodhran. "I played one on the last two U2 albums and also on the new Nanci Griffith record (which also features his remixing talents), although I don't play it in the traditional way. I play it with mallets or my hands or any way I can because, again, it's not something I learned to play properly. But it's a great versatile instrument that's underrated. That and the tabla are my favorite items of percussion."
The kit on which Larry began his career was, he says, "a bit of a nightmare." Made by a Taiwanese toy company, it was a mother of pearl ensemble of odd-sizes including a 19 ˝" kick drum that Larry had to cover himself with calf hide, due to the absence of off-the-shelf skins. "I persevered with it for quite a few years and, like an old friend, I was sorry to see it go," he remembers.
These days with considerably more punts in his pocket, Larry has been able to improve his set-up and regularly used up to three kits in the studio. "My main kit is a Yamaha Studio kit with a 22" kick, one mounted rack tom, a floor drum on the left and right, a Brady 13" snare, Yamaha or Ludwig piccolos and a selection of Paiste cymbals. There is also a monitoring system around that set-up. I also have a Yamaha cocktail-type kit with an 18" kick, a couple of toms and another Brady snare, but without any monitoring. In addition, Edge has an old Slingerland kit that is always thrown up in one corner for me to play if necessary. Then there are various percussion instruments, but the volume affects Brian (Eno) these days so I have to find the kit that's furthest away to avoid upsetting him!"
For a real live drummer with an "organic" approach, it is surprising how warmly Larry has embraced experimentation with drum samples, loops and machines. Although this use of technology began to infiltrate the band's music as early as 1984 ("Bad") and progressed with spectacular effect on "God Part 2" (from Rattle and Hum), it was not until Achtung Baby and Zooropa that it became an integral part of their sonic make-up. Vital to this process has been co-producer and engineer Flood. "It evolved quite slowly and gave me a chance to understand what was going to happen by the time we got to make Achtung Baby because we were using a lot of machinery by then and we were able to strike a good balance. Flood has a vast knowledge of how studios work and the use of electronics, as his work with Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode demonstrates."
"My relationship with Flood has always been about taking basic ideas and making them special, using the technology available in the studio. As far as playing with samples and things like that is concerned, a lot of that is done during the putting together of a song. There might be some sort of pulse or rhythmic idea that's been used in constructing the melody, and when we get to playing on that, it will be a question of maybe emphasizing more of the machinery and using less of the real drums. I believe the future will see more of a marriage between rock 'n roll and technology. That is definitely the way forward. For me, it's not like I'm coming from a position of strength where I can say 'Hey, I know better'. I'm open to anything that will make it sound better. Machines do that, so I'm perfectly happy with that marriage."
"I actually get off on playing alongside machines and it has certainly improved my playing a hundredfold. There may have been a bit of resistance in the beginning because I think the expectations for what would happen between machine and drummer were very high.
When you actually work through it, you find that it's not about one or the other, it's the marriage of both elements to create a musical atmosphere in which the best work can come out. However it has to be an equal marriage, otherwise it's disastrous. There are some producers who prefer not to use drummers, letting the machines take over and concentrating on the "musicians" but it's important to strike a balance." There are one or two bands around at the moment, including the rather excellent Doppelgangers, who are marketing themselves as U2 copycats."
To change the mood of our conversation I ask Larry if he finds this flattering or should they go away and get a life? "I don't have any strong feelings on it at all really. Whatever gets you through the night. If that is what they need to do to earn a living, then fair enough. I have no problem with it." For the first time in their brilliant career, U2's members find themselves with time on their hands to catch up with their personal lives. "We are all individually out in the world, doing whatever we need to do to get ourselves in a frame of mind whereby we can get back together at some point and make a great record. One of the mistakes we made between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby, was that we didn't give ourselves enough time to get back into listening to music and being musical. The whole process of The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum was so difficult that we kind of hibernated for a while, and when we re-grouped, we didn't have any new ideas. But this time around we are going to keep our hand in to make sure we don't repeat our mistakes."
How the hell do you follow an album like Zooropa and a multi-media extravaganza tour like Zoo TV? "To be honest, I don't think you ever can follow something like that and I don't think I would ever want to. On a musical level, I still don't believe U2 has reached its peak and there are a lot of things for us to do. I look forward to that challenge and without that goal there is no point in continuing. But I don't want us to repeat anything we've done before and instead of improving on Zooropa and the tour, I think we should do something different, although there's no telling what it will be like. I'd like to think that whatever happens will be better not bigger."
Does Larry think that there is a danger of the band's apparent obsession with unpredictability eventually compromising its music? "Musically, I think U2 is unpredictable but I don't think it's contrived, it's just a fact of life. We've never been proficient enough to be regular and have always worked in an ad hoc way, experimenting with different producers, and I don't think that will change. Surely that can only enhance the music and not take away from it?"
Finally, I ask Larry what it is that makes U2 so special. "Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with the four individuals, but what happens when we get together and the music we make as a collective unit. The band's greatest strength is that there are no boundaries, there are no limits. You can't get any bigger, we have been able to achieve everything, for the most part on our own terms. That's the most satisfying thing for us."
[A version of this article originally appeared in Rhythm Magazine]
© Propaganda, 1995. All rights reserved.