I am going to die in a plane crash with U2. This unlikely scenario springs to mind 47 minutes into our flight from Dublin to London. The gentle turbulence that began rattling our plane as we neared the English coast has turned to something altogether more jarring. It is, for the record, a small private aircraft of the kind purpose-built for chief executives and rock stars: deep leather seats, crisp white tablecloths, silver service lunch.
The first significant jolt is met by nervous laughter from the seats in the rear, in which sit U2's manager Paul McGuinness, a bodyguard and four members of staff. Further banging about quietens the plane's occupants entirely. Even Bono, who has maintained a constant dialogue since take off, is silenced.
U2's singer and I sit facing each other at the front of the plane. One's attention up to now had been focused on keeping track of the rapid gear-shifts of a Bono discourse, leaping as he does from one subject to the next with no apparent rhyme or reason (today's themes: the joys of Oasis; significant dotcom pioneers of the age; the pleasures of walking the hills about Dublin...). That, and the degree to which, compact, stocky and squashed into his seat as he is, he looks like a gothic SpongeBob.
Across the aisle sit Edge, ever-present black hat screwed onto head, and Adam Clayton, looking like a man off on holiday, his stylishly casual attire dismissing the need for socks. Family commitments account for Larry Mullen absenting himself from this trip to the Toronto Film Festival, via an overnight stop in London. As the plane is being buffeted, the irony in the fact that U2 are bound for the premiere of a new documentary called From The Sky Down is not lost.
The plane is shaken still more violently. Crockery rattles. Someone emits a shriek. At the apex of all this, and with rich comic timing, Bono hauls himself up in his seat, raises his hand and loudly announces: "I'm gay!"
From The Sky Down - screened on BBC One earlier this month - charts the rocky path U2 took to making their seventh album, Achtung Baby, 20 years old this month and reinterpreted with this issue of Q. The story it tells is a simple one of conflict and resolution: four Dublin lads become the world's biggest band; they adopt the mantle with grim seriousness; half of them (Bono, Edge) come to decide a radical reinvention is needed without being able to explain what this actually entails to the other two; there is bickering and sulking; then they write One and all ends happily.
What gives the film added resonance is the sense that it captures U2 at the point of coming full circle. Several are the parallels between then and now: their last album No Line On The Horizon was an austere affair that didn't connect outside of their - albeit extremely large - fanbase. In place of the ill-starred Rattle And Hum film there is Bono and Edge's Spider-Man musical, which became the most expensive production to open on Broadway when it finally did so earlier this year. And, as with their confusion over just what to do during the initial Achtung Baby sessions, so the current suggestion that U2 are working on three different albums - Songs Of Ascent, along-gestated, still more downbeat companion piece to No Line On The Horizon; one with Lady Gaga producer RedOne; another with Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.
Then there was Glastonbury. Delayed a year by Bono's troublesome back, their first UK festival headliner was meant, at a stroke, to revitalise U2 as a band fighting fit for contemporary purpose. Instead there they were, battling the elements and the unfamiliarity of their setting, looking uncertain and - a rarity this - vulnerable. The sense of deflation their set engendered was cruelly highlighted the next night, when Coldplay, the sleek 21st-century stadium rock model, took to the Pyramid Stage. As one observer succinctly put it to me that night: "Chris Martin has just handed Bono his arse on a plate."
U2 would seem very much to need rewiring and reinventing once more. Which brings us to the present - and to 72 hours in their company in Dublin and London (their plane having remained aloft). The record-swallowing 360° tour over, U2 are, if not at rest, at least in a state of contemplation.
I speak to each of them over three days. The missing Larry Mullen via email. Edge - softly spoken, scholarly - over a pint of Guinness and a cheese toastie in a snug room at the Clarence, the Dublin hotel he and Bono have owned since 1992. Adam Clayton - silver-haired, charming, the air of a raffish British diplomat in a Graham Greene novel - in his elegantly appointed suite at London's Claridge's hotel. And Bono - oft perceived by U2 naysayers as, well, a bit of a cock, but in my experience always entirely engaging company - while sat side by side in the back of a saloon car being piloted through London traffic and then at his capacious hotel suite. En route Bono will ask - and attempt to answer - why anyone needs another album from U2.
Q first encountered U2 on The Joshua Tree tour in the US. You'd become the first band since The Beatles and The Who to make the cover of Time magazine, and you had upscaled to playing stadiums. What was it like at the centre of it all?
Edge: We were always running to catch up - that was the sense. [The Joshua Tree] had taken us way out of our comfort zone in terms of the size of venues we played and what was expected of us.
Bono: I remember meeting Bob Dylan at the time and him saying, "Imagine going through all of this and not being in a band." It was a tumult but we were having a lot of laughs together. But I think we felt guilty about our success: we didn't feel that we quite lived up to it. Catholic guilt.
Larry Mullen: We all changed with success: girls, marriage, cash, alcohol, houses, children, drugs, divorce, politicians, touring, failure, supermodels, Africa, and so on.
E: I remember just after The Joshua Tree tour we ended up in LA. I was living in Beverly Hills in this awful, over-the-top house. The others were living together in this mad house in Bel Air. It was a strange time for me - things weren't going great at home. Then up the road the others... [He stops talking and fixates on his food].
Yes, what were they doing up the road?
E: Ha! The seeds of The Fly were sown in LA during that time. If you're going to be in any city in the world to revel in that kind of success, LA is the one that will run with you. People were really enjoying the fact that they were in a rock band that was a big success. It was like being in a candy store - a lot of partying, a relatively hedonistic time.., for the other three. It was more of a refuge for me. I was throwing myself into work.
Adam Clayton: It was a madhouse. To be fair I think Bono drove us mad. It's very hard to live with Bono. It was a house that was due to be demolished and was built in blocks around a pool. We each had a bedroom and living area; it was basically a commune. Bono would find all these things to do late at night; all these underground clubs. It was the early days of hip hop, NWA were just starting to happen. It was exciting from that point of view.
Ever considered sharing a house since?
LM: It kind of did happen in Bahia, Brazil, on the Vertigo tour. Sadly Adam didn't make it - he said he just couldn't take sharing a bed with Edge again, so me and Edge shared. And... wait for it... Bono and Quincy Jones hooked up. Quincy is a truly great guy. We were jealous.
When was the last time you watched Rattle And Hum?
B: I haven't seen it since it came out.
E: A good few years ago. It's very difficult to watch - I couldn't believe we were so uptight. Mostly we felt out of our depth. We were literally like rabbits in the headlights. There's no hint of humour - it's just four incredibly tense guys.
LM: The original idea was good. Throw in bad advice, plus some bad decisions, and it equalled a crap movie. I still can't watch that one scene [around Elvis's grave in Graceland]. But the fiction is that Mullen cries in it. Only girls cry.
B: We were self-conscious. When we went to see the premiere of Killing Bono this year... There's quite a talented actor [Martin McCann] playing me in the movie. But I said to Edge, "What accent is he speaking in?" - because I didn't recognise it. Edge said, "That's the accent you used to do interviews in." My telephone voice! He'd obviously done his research on YouTube. We were never self-conscious in the studio but outside of it I remember being very uncomfortable. And knowing when the '90s came we had to... not so much break our mould as smash it to pieces.
Perhaps the clearest insight to emerge out of From The Sky Down is that Bono is the conduit for all U2's bigger ideas - for good and ill. In the archive footage of them working on Achtung Baby in Berlin, as Edge immerses himself in his guitar as a distraction to his marriage disintegrating, and with Clayton and Mullen becoming more bewildered by the day, there is their indefatigable singer, pushing them to go off in a new direction but without being able to articulate to where.
In the scenes showing the rehearsals for this year's Glastonbury he's still at it, badgering his bandmates to find new ways to coax 20-year-old songs to life. Often, the expression on the face of whomever he's talking at suggests it is only Bono who really knows what Bono is talking about. In the interviews the band gave for the film, Larry Mullen reflects, "[Bono's] a very good salesman - he could sell sand to the Arabs. He still comes in with daft ideas all the time. But to be a singer it takes a certain kind of madness, a different side of the brain. They're all fucking crazy."
Speaking to Q in January 1998 Bono said: "The trouble is I'm interested in everything. I'm finally realising how great it is to be in a group and not fuck it up trying to do everything else." Discuss.
AC: [Snorts with laughter] He really took that on board!
B: Oops. The spiritual principle that my life - and this band - is based on is the idea of rebirth; that you don't keep repeating the same mistakes. But I fear that's exactly what I do. But... Jay-Z's a mate. I look up to him as an artist. I like the way he carries himself. The reason we're connected is we're interested in what F Scott Fitzgerald referred to as "the whole equation" - all the different aspects of a project. Looking at music from the point of view of politics, commerce... If you go back to The Beatles, John Lennon was writing to The Sunday Times about the [European] revolts of '68; their spiritual sojourn is well known; they formed Apple... In hip hop that's what they do, they follow their noses wherever it takes them. That's why with our band there's a lot going on in many different areas. That shouldn't be as unusual today as it is.
Let's go back to making Achtung Baby. Not a fun time?
E: It was a very sobering, challenging period for us - very uncomfortable.
B: The band just got too straight in the '80s. I mean we were wrestling with some pretty big questions... but I kind of lost touch with my friends. I remember one night at home on Cedarwood Road [in Dublin], my father woke me up and said, "There's someone trying to steal your car." He had an iron bar in his hand. I looked out the window... I had this tiny little Fiat Bambino. They'd wrapped the entire car in toilet roll and were smashing eggs on it. I didn't see it at the time but it was my mates saying, "You need to lighten up."
E: It was at the end of my marriage. I'd moved in with Adam for awhile... I threw myself into work. I guess that's how I got through and maybe why the album is as dark as it is. The last three songs on it... it's intense stuff. Listening to what Jack White has done for the Q album [Love Is Blindness]... It's incredible. Then I realised he'd been through a similar thing to me not that long ago [White announced his split from wife Karen Elson in June].
More seriously, would Adam have appeared naked on the sleeve artwork had he been hung like a budgie?
E: Ha ha! I don't think so. We all got close to doing it, but I think we realised it was going to be the butt of too many jokes. Mystery - it's very important.
AC: I was more concerned about how my belly looked. I still can't quite believe I did it.
Looking back at the Zoo TV tour in Q in 1993, Bono suggested you'd enjoyed "a lot of the bullshit aspects of the road - whereas before we didn't"...
E: We certainly did revel in it during that period. That was when Adam started going out with Naomi Campbell and that seemed to epitomise what you'd expect of a rock star and a rock band.
AC: You know… it was fun until it started to turn. It was unrelenting for a year and there was no real time off. Then we did the Zooropa album and toured again the following year. I got absolutely caught up in the crazy atmosphere of it.
You do tend to resort to other stimulants. I drank a lot and it didn't really suit me. For Larry, Edge and Bono - and this is projection - they all had stable home environments they went back to or kept ties with, and I'd never really held onto girlfriends for long periods. So I came back from tour wondering what I was supposed to do when I got home. It was very easy to go down the pub, then a club and end up back at somebody's apartment - and then it's seven in the morning again. Maybe I could have moderated my behaviour to the point I could continue drinking and the occasional recreational drug use, but by the time I came out the end of all that I needed to make some big changes.
Do you have any regrets?
AC: I don't actually. Obviously the one I would have is that I missed that Sydney show fin 1993 on the Zoo TV tour: he was too worse for wear to play]. But the strength of the relationships in the band was enough that we got over it and moved on.
U2 threw a small party in a hospitality tent backstage after their Glastonbury show. The mood was more subdued than celebratory. Bono and Edge both shuffled off at one point to watch footage of their set in a BBC truck, as if in need of reassurance about what they'd done. It was left to Ali Hewson, Bono's wife, to be the life and soul of the party, announcing to anyone who happened to pass that, having turned 50 in March, she intended to celebrate for the rest of the year. My last sight of Bono was of his wife gently leading him off to a quiet corner, away from the driving rain outside and, maybe, from whatever storm might have been raging in his head.
Glastonbury was terribly disappointing. What happened?
B: There were a couple of things... There was a DJ under the stage, playing music in between sets, and he bumped into our keyboard computer. So we lost all the keyboards. I walked out and realised that the stage was like an ice rink and I was wearing the wrong shoes. I couldn't move - I was stuck on the spot. We were a bit freaked out. We had come in the middle of a US tour to do Glastonbury on our day off. That's a long shot. A
C: You can't blame the circumstances. But on a beautiful, clear summer's evening it would have been a different experience. But it wasn't that Live Aid moment, which would have been nice.
The distraction of the Spider-Man musical can't have helped...
AC: Urn... I... I think it was a great thing for Bono and Edge to do. My reservation is that it made an already difficult year even more difficult.
E: Would I do it again? I don't know. It'd have to really feel like the right project.
LM: I haven't seen it yet.
No Line On The Horizon: how do you feel about it at this distance? I came along to the final sessions in London and they seemed chaotic: you had three different producers - Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite and will.i.am - going full pelt in separate studios...
B: I know. I don't want to do that again.
AC: We were all working on different records, actually. It was difficult. I still think it's a strong record - I listened to it recently - but we were absolutely tripped up by the wrong single [Get On Your Boots]. We fooled ourselves.
LM: The songs on the record were unfinished. Still, it has some good tunes.
E: The hardest thing for any band to do is "joy"... actual joy. It's so rare in music and we had precious little of it in the end on that record. But it's powerful... Unknown Caller I still think is one of our great moments; Moment Of Surrender is a classic; Get On Your Boots - live, it's a stonker...
B: Somebody told me that it's going to have sold five million copies by Christmas and that it's the equivalent now of what All That You Can't Leave Behind sold in 2000. While numbers aren't that interesting, when you don't have a hit song, which we didn't, that's kind of amazing. It's an album that's been taken to heart by a very particular audience and it hasn't popped the pop consciousness, so in that sense it didn't achieve what we wanted. Yet it's a great piece of work... it's complex, a big meal, and I'm very proud of it.
Have you really been working on three albums?
B: We have, yes. We've done some amazing work with RedOne... It's shocking. I just played the tracks to Michael Stipe. He was like, "What?! It doesn't sound like U2."
AC: At first we went into this next record with a bit of a sketchpad mentality. We thought there was more material left over from No Line... We now feel a long way from that material. We don't want to go back there. In and around the time Bono wasn't able to play live shows we experimented on working with RedOne - and some very good pop songs and club-y things came out of that. But our duty is to being the best we can be at what we're good at. That's sort of what we're getting out of the sessions with Danger Mouse. I think he's going to bring something out that is the essence of the band, but it'll be a different colour - as opposed to another collection of songs with a bit of echo-y guitar. I think we've played that one out.
B: We could have put an album out last year but I went off the idea. Let's wait. Why do people need to hear a new U2 album? Let's just see: could we, possibly, begin again? I don't know. Can you?
When asked what he hopes is next for U2, Larry Mullen writes: "Total reinvention maybe, no compromise." Such is the mood around the band. For now, though, there is the prospect of an extended break. Reflecting on the year he took off following the Zoo TV tour, Edge suggests it was the happiest time of his life and one he plans to repeat. Bono says he's deriving pleasure from such simple domestic experiences as putting a kettle on.
Bono is already thinking one step ahead, however. While the band agree that they shouldn't attempt to go any bigger than The Claw, he talks of returning to indoor shows and of playing an entirely different set of songs each night.
He is still running over the possibilities of U2 being remade when our car arrives at Claridge's. He has an appointment to keep with his friend Damien Hirst and an evening function to attend but I ask him if we can extend our conversation. "OK," he says, looking at his watch, "come on up."
This allows one to experience the manner in which Bono arrives at a hotel. Which is to say, he sweeps through the line of uniformed staff waiting to greet him, cheerfully exchanging pleasantries, is not troubled by such trifles as checking in but heads instead to a private elevator - one replete with both a liveried attendant and an ornate chaise longue. From here he is whisked directly to his room - a sprawling, opulent suite that is, one can't help but note, many, many times bigger than the one Adam Clayton occupies.
Bono heads for the floor-to-ceiling window running the length of the sitting room, flings open the balcony doors and walks out to a panoramic view of the London skyline. "This is the Churchill Suite," he shouts back. "They'd evacuate him here from Downing Street during the war..." He mimes puffing on an imaginary cigar, takes a deep breath of afternoon air and stomps back into the room. "Now, how about some tea?"
So why would anyone need a new U2 album?
B: Oh look... U2 has been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years. We've ducked and dived and dodged it. We've made some great albums, some great songs; laid a few eggs, not that many. Turkeys, I mean. Lots of people have U2 albums - why they would want another one is a reasonable question. I don't know if it's possible for us to make something current that is meaningful, not just to our audience but to the times we live in. But that's kind of the job for me and I'm not ready to give it up. I think it's unlikely that we'll pull it off, but then so has the last 20 years been unlikely.
You've often said U2 strive to be the biggest band in the world. Making interesting and challenging music might be at odds with that.
B: Oh, U2 will be playing in large places, if we want to, for the next 10 years. That's not the issue. Being a big band... the big music... that's what we do. I think what you're saying is: can you make the small music for the small speakers?
B: And it's the right question to ask. Getting songs played on the radio is very important to us. The only answer to that question is when I have the song that I can play you. It's the inarguable one. We didn't have that on the last album - we had everything else, but we didn't have that thing. I'm not sure we'll ever be Number 1 on the pop charts [again], but we need songs that go outside of our audience. The age thing is not really where it's at - there are some of the most reactionary people you'll ever meet at 17 and some of the most radical at 70. It's about: can you make that compelling song? Can you write a lyric that people feel they haven't heard before? But I don't think there's any sense of entitlement in this band. For all the rewards they've… we've... been given, we know there's something magical about what we do.
How do you think people in general perceive U2 - and you?
B: We're the most loved and the most hated band on Earth. A lot of the reasons people don't like us - apart from myself, which I understand because I have to live with me too - are actually what make us interesting. It's the tangents, the explorations, the making mistakes in public. The audacity of thinking you can get involved in something like debt cancellation... and being slagged off by your mates. When we announced the Jubilee 2000 campaign with Muhammad Ali at the Brits there were boos. "Fuck off, you cunt!" One hundred billion dollars of debt cancelled for 32 developing nations later... The people going "fuck off", what have they pulled off? I don't mean them personally but whatever they're supporting, what did it achieve? If it achieved something - great. Our diversions make us interesting. You might think, "Get the singer out of my face!", and I understand all the projectile vomiting aspects to shaking hands with politicians and having an interest in religion. But U2, love or hate them, all the things that shape and form the time, maybe not the fashionista, but all the other things, we're right there. I hope that that makes it an interesting spectator sport.
What will a successfully remade U2 look like?
B: It all comes down to tunes. Can we find those tunes? I'll play them to Q as they're arriving, so you have a feeling of it - because we're working in a few directions. We've found this great collaborator in Brian Burton, but I'll always want to work with Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, too. There are lots of things for us to do. I'll keep you posted.
(c) Q, 2011.