"U2's records take a long time to make not because the band members are stuck for ideas but because they never stop talking about them."
-- Brian Eno
U2: 'We're still in the driving seat'
Scott Kara talks to U2's Adam Clayton about how the band has evolved and why the game's not over yet
November 24, 2010
Bono describes him as "wildly and mentally endowed" with the "sartorial swagger of the Brat Pack." He's the Clark Gable -- think Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind -- of the biggest band in the world.
Well, that's what Bono reckons anyway. To us mere mortals, however, Adam Clayton is simply U2's laid-back, cruisy and ever-so-stylish bass player.
Following a friendly reminder from his assistant, he calls me 25 minutes late from New York on Sunday morning (New Zealand time).
"Hi Scott. It's Adam," he says cheerily. He asks what the weather's like.
It's glum but it'll be beautiful for their two Auckland shows (the first of which is tonight), I tell him.
"It better be or we won't come," he chuckles.
There's some small talk about rugby, since the All Blacks have just played Ireland.
"Is it appropriate to ask who won?" he asks politely.
The All Blacks, but it was a typically determined Irish effort.
"It's a bit too brutish for me. I'm more of a cricket fan," he offers. It's perhaps not surprising he likes the gentlemen's game, considering he and bandmate The Edge were both born in England rather than being of pure-bred Irish stock like drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and Bono.
"Actually, I don't particularly like the cricket, I like the clothes," he laughs.
So it turns out Bono's sartorial observation is right.
Clayton, the man, is also friendly, forthcoming, and understated. The thing is, he's almost pathologically modest.
"What comes across on stage is a pretty honest depiction of the way I see things," he says. "I think people understand I don't take all of this too seriously. It [being in U2] is something you get up and do every day and life carries on, regardless.
"But it's an amazing thing to have grown up with your mates for 30 years," he says, before reverting back to the most absurd understatement, "and to have made more than a good living out of it."
Not that the 50-year-old is dismissive of what U2 have become since forming in Dublin in 1976 when 14-year-old Mullen put out a call on the school noticeboard for musicians to join a new band.
Back then, Clayton "was an unhappy teenager and music was the thing that always calmed me." He admired The Who's bass player John Entwistle, was into punk, and about to discover the funky delights of black music and rhythm and blues ("when bass gets funky, that's when I get interested").
These days, even though he's rolling in it and feeling quite relaxed, he still has the same hunger and passion for music.
"There is some essential truth within music. You know, when you see a great band or a great singer you're dealing with something irrefutable. And I've always followed that and still consider music in that way, and try to get to that moment where people reveal something that's more powerful than feeling it.
"I think what is interesting," he continues, "is that rock 'n' roll was kind of invented as a teenage art form, and in some ways people diss whether or not you can continue to be relevant as you get older. I would say my experience, and the band's experience, is that age has nothing to do with it -- it's about the quality of your ideas and how you execute them. I think we're still very much in the driving seat now."
That "good living," as Clayton describes it, comes from having sold more than 150 million records, being one of the biggest touring bands around and having, in Bono, music's ultimate statesman and crusader.
"He's crazy, charismatic, and intelligent. It's a specific job being a frontman and a lead singer and I think we've got one of the best."
Even in an age of plummeting record sales, with the 360° tour, in support of latest album No Line On The Horizon, U2 could just be bigger than ever.
The band have embarked on some large-scale tours in their time, including 1992's Zoo TV in support of Achtung Baby and the elaborate PopMart tour of the late '90s, but they don't get bigger and more technically ambitious than the 360-degree staging and audience configuration of the current stadium tour.
With its giant, claw-like centrepiece and the cylindrical video screen, it is immense and revolutionary. "It's probably our first stadium tour where we've had to learn how to make it work," says Clayton.
While the set list for the tour includes all the band's big songs, like "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Vertigo," Clayton says they are also playing a few new songs, as well as some surprises like "The Unforgettable Fire," the title track off their beautifully ambitious, yet underrated, 1984 album, which was a highlight of the 360 Live At The Pasadena Bowl DVD released earlier this year.
"The shows are kind of interesting because not only is the band playing really well -- we're really settling in nicely now -- but we're now being brave enough to add in some new songs along the way. It's a bit of a first and, I have to say, it's a bit risky to be playing new songs to a stadium full of people. But it seems to go across pretty well."
Brave? Risky? You're in U2, man.
"Well, that's true. But there are things that you don't do and one of them is, when you're playing shows to very large amounts of people, you don't give them anything that means their attention will wander. You've got to have all the bells and whistles or they'll go and get a hot dog. You can do it in a club or an arena because you can lose them for a song and you can pick them back up again, but in these bigger settings it is risky."
These new songs, he says, could be the start of a new, fresh period for U2. Clayton believes U2's albums can be grouped into cycles. So 1980's raw, impassioned debut Boy, 1981 follow-up October, and the anthemic and revolutionary War from 1982 were formative records.
Clayton describes as "a convulsion of adolescence" in the notes of the 20th anniversary collectors' edition of The Joshua Tree. The next three albums -- the The Unforgettable Fire, the mega-selling Joshua Tree (1987) and, arguably the band's best album, Achtung Baby (1991) -- were where U2 found their true identity.
"When I think of [those three records] I see one of our great creative runs as a band, a series of albums which represent the 'core values' of U2," he says.
After Achtung Baby -- "industrial, underground and noisy" -- they got even more experimental, dancey and electronic in focus on Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997).
The latter, believes Clayton, started out being more mainstream but was taken over by the influence of the British dance music scene, which comes through on lead single "Discotheque." It's arguably the band's weakest album -- yet given its shot at doing something different, it's hardly a dud.
The band's next phase signalled the start of the current era, a return to a more classic and traditional U2 sound.
"We really wanted to bring it back to being a band again. We stripped it back down to reveal what a good band we had and that really was All That You Can't Leave Behind. We decided consciously to go back indoors and play indoor concerts because at an indoor concert you don't need to have as much production value and you can pretty much be on stage and do it with the music alone.
"That cycle continued through How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and on No Line On The Horizon, which although it sounded like a band that had grown, we were still very much working in that stripped-down format, and it's probably the end of another cycle."
The band are working on new material at present and the next album will be different again.
"It is quite a fresh area for U2 to be working in. I don't think it's going to sound like familiar U2 territory at all. The creative process is always exhilarating and fun, because you can go as far as you like."
And that's all he's saying about the new songs until they play them live -- so pick your moment when you go and get that hotdog.
Who: Adam Clayton, U2 bass player
What: The 360° Tour
Where & when: Mt Smart Stadium, tonight and tomorrow
Essential albums: Boy (1980); War (1982); The Unforgettable Fire (1984); The Joshua Tree (1987); Achtung Baby (1991); All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000); No Line On The Horizon (2009)
© New Zealand Herald, 2010.