Since ancient times, the sounds of drums has prevailed at human rites of passage: war drums, funeral drums, marching drums, drums of life, and drums of death. It was the call of a "different drummer" that guided Henry David Thoreau. Martin Luther King asked to be remembered as a "drum major for peace."
If Martin Luther King is the drum major, U2's Larry Mullen, Jr., is the drummer. On "Pride (In the Name of Love)" from the Irish rock group's latest album, The Unforgettable Fire, Mullen pounds out a memorial to the fallen man of peace that stands with the weight and enduring strength of granite, amid the simplicity of life and death.
Voted Number One in the Up and Coming category of Modern Drummer's 1985 Readers Poll, Larry Mullen, Jr., is a different drummer. A universal blend of past and future, East and West, primitive and classical, his sound is huge and heroic. Even before he began drumming with U2 at age 16, he was, in his own words, "unteachable." Logic and reason do not define his approach to drumming; spirit and instinct do. He treats each song as an experiment. He'll ride a tom where others would ride a cymbal, or work the hi-hat like others would work a snare.
U2's bassman Adam Clayton refers to Larry's "dignity" as a drummer and adds, "He won't play anything that isn't natural to him."
Assigned with a long shopping list of percussive paraphernalia to set up for experimentation in Larry's new home, drum roadie Tom Mullaly describes Larry as "not demanding." "But," Mullally continues, "If he gets an idea, we work bloody hard to make sure it happens. He'll turn everything upside down."
Prefacing with "Larry's not going to talk about it," U2 singer Bono recalls the early days when people came just to see the drummer; in fact, "the band was known as the Larry Mullen Band at one point." He tells how Larry began with a "florid" style, "like a kind of Keith Moon," and then "devolved. He realized that less is more. There was a period when he was about 18 when he was losing confidence in his drumming, because he was stripping down the kit…and he got a kind of fear of change in that in-between stage. But out of that came his very strong style, which is both expressive and minimal when it needs to be. Larry started as a completely free spirit, and he ended up as a completely free spirit."
Rebelling against the clutter is so much music. Larry allows the freshness and freedom of the open space to be important, and in the drummer's dangerous world of time and space, he knows when to hit and when not to hit. At 23, he's a young master.
This has been a year of growth for Larry -- the year he faced the trials of his first arena tour and all its trappings -- the public eye never shuts, the spotlight of a million watts. He met the challenge. In a concert, he leads the band into the arena and takes his place at the drums. Like a fighter, he bears down over the kit, and he never gives up. He knows the fancy footwork, but he goes for the knockout punch. With unflinching control, he thrusts his arms skyward and comes down with a blistering slam to the snare that meets with the force of a shot heard 'round the world -- revolution, apocalypse, eternity. He attacks the toms, and the rumble of artillery assaults the crown. Then with Mullen's powerful bass drum as the buttress, the band transforms the battlefield into a cathedral, and the cymbals that blazed before with the burst of a rocket flare become celestial light.
The real world is Larry's daily bread. He has dealt with death, the terror in Northern Ireland, and the bomb, yet he retains an innocence and a child's sense of wonder. Unlike most musicians his age, he seems to have already lost his taste for stardom, if he ever had it. He instinctively senses the pitfalls. He's wary around strangers, but once he opens up, he holds nothing back. He speaks with conviction and passion, mixed with genuine humility and a gentle smile.
This interview explores the thoughts of a drummer who holds his ground. Whatever it took for Larry Mullen, Jr., to become himself, he made it. And he is truly one of the most gifted and innovative drummers in the world day.
LARRY MULLEN: Let me say first of all that I don't do interviews, ever. I did when the band started, and then I stopped because I didn't enjoy them. I've seen issues of Modern Drummer. I like what the magazine does, so I decided to do this. But I'm not a talker; I hope you can make sense of what I say. I saw a piece on Russ Kunkel about how musical he is and all that. I don't deserve that kind of praise in a technical sense; I don't consider myself great by any means. I wouldn't want the magazine to make me something I'm not. But what I do feel is that, if I'm going to do an interview, I want people to know that you don't have to be a technical drummer. You can follow your own rules and be in a successful band.
MODERN DRUMMER: I think you're underestimating yourself.
LM: Maybe. There's no harm in that. It means that I'll continue to grow, hopefully.
MD: Your music projects a global consciousness, but your roots are firmly in Ireland. What was it like to grow up there?
LM: There's no comparison with America or even Europe. It's a very isolated country -- a totally different world. Things like abortion, contraception, and pornography don't exist. You have to fight -- very hard -- if you want to do anything different. To be in a band is really, really difficult. There's nowhere to play. But it's an interesting and beautiful place, too. I live there now; I wouldn't live anywhere else. It doesn't have the pressures of rock 'n' roll. Somebody says, "There's the drummer from U2." Another person answers, "So what?" In America or anywhere else, you come out of the hotel, and people want to take bits out of you. In Ireland, people have respect, and they leave you alone.
MD: Did you spend much time by the ocean? Sounds of the ocean come across in some of your bass drum and cymbal work.
LM: Yes, I grew up in Dublin. You've always got the sea. From where I lived, it's about 500 yards down the road. Dublin has about a million people, but if you go just a mile outside the city, it's very peaceful, with green trees, and all the things you'd imagine are in Ireland.
MD: Were you into native Irish music?
LM: Well, obviously, I listened to it. When I was growing up, there wasn't one rock 'n' roll station in Dublin. There was a station that played an occasional Beatles song, but if you wanted to hear rock 'n' roll, you had to tune into a pirate radio station or a British radio station like Radio Luxembourg. I'd have my pocket radio under my bed, trying to listen to Radio Luxembourg so I could hear the charts. It wasn't until around the last five years that new bands would come to Ireland; before that, very few came. The Stones came about two years ago, which was the first time since '76 or '77. Now rock 'n' roll is big in Ireland. It's just that very few can survive playing it or doing anything original.
MD: How did you become a drummer?
LM: I started at about nine; I used to play piano. The teacher was really a nice lady, but one day she said, "Larry, you're not going to make it." [Laughs] She suggested that I try something else. I was delighted, because I had wanted to say the same thing to her a year before that.
MD: But your parents were making you take lessons?
LM: Well, they thought it would be good for me to be exposed to music and since I liked music, I went along with it. But I wasn't good at piano; I didn't practice much. So, as I walked away from my last piano lesson at the College of Music, I heard someone playing drums. I turned around to my old lady and said, "You hear that? I want to do that." She said, "Okay. If you want to do that, you'll pay for it yourself!" So at nine years of age, I saved up a bit of money and I got nine pounds for my first term of drum instruction. I wasn't very good at learning or technique; I didn't practice much, because I was far more interested in my doing my own thing. I wanted to play along with records like Bowie and the Stones. I didn't want to go through the rudiments -- paradiddles and all that stuff, you know. I carried on which this teacher for about two years, and I just got bored. This is terrible, but he passed away, and [Pauses] I mean, I was only a kid: I said, "Wow, Divine Intervention! I don't have to do this anymore!" [Laughs] So I joined a military-style band: fife and drum -- all that sort of stuff.
MD: Why did you want to join that? It seems more like regimentation.
LM: It was more or a goof, because there were girls in this band, in the Color Guard.
MD: I've seen some of those bands in competition. They can be quite sophisticated in their musicianship.
LM: Not this one. It was more, "Let's have a good time and march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin." They would try to make us read music as well and I could read, but this other guy and I said, "This sounds too drab off the sheet." So we just threw the sheet music away and invented our own things. I was in that band for two years, including the early days of U2.
MD: I've read that you got kicked out of a military band.
LM: That was another band, the Artane Boys' Band. The band I was just telling you about was a bit more loose -- a little freer. The Artane band was too rigid for me. I was in for three days, and they told me to get my hair cut. And at the time, it was my pride and joy -- you know, shoulder-length golden locks. So I got it cut a few inches, and they told me to cut it more. So I told them to stick it, and I left! [Laughs] I'd forgotten about that.
I had a stage, too, when a guy tried to teach me jazz drumming, but again, the same problem. This teacher was really into Steve Gadd; Steve Gadd was his idol. I think Steve Gadd is a great drummer, but this teacher would play Gadd's records and tell me to play like that. I was rehearsing with U2 as well then, so I gave it up. I just couldn't sit there and imitate someone else.
MD: The story has it that you founded U2.
LM: Yes, and I was in charge for about three days! [Laughs] We were all in the same school, and the prospect of leaving school and getting a job wasn't there. There were no jobs to get. It was like we were all going nowhere, so we decided to go nowhere together and form a band. Our school was an experimental, interdenominational school, quite liberal and open. We had to do our work, and if we were interested in sports or music, for instance, we were actually given time. They gave us a room to practice in. There were very schools in Ireland like that. Most were Christian Brothers schools where you studied, did your work, and that was it.
We started the band as punk rock was bursting on the scene, and when we heard it, we said, "Wow, this is amazing, this is energy!" Music was getting so boring. There seemed to be so much conveyor-belt rock where they'd just take the money and run, but punk rock had raw power. A lot of the bands couldn't play, but they had something to say. They gave us inspiration.
MD: Did you ever think that the isolation, and maybe even the adversity, you experienced in your formative years in Ireland was an advantage?
LM: Yes. I don't honestly think a band like U2 could have come from anywhere else. We had time to grow at our pace, protected and away from the circus of the rock 'n' roll culture. We never got involved in that. We live in Ireland; we record there. It's home, it's freedom. We can be ourselves, be with our families, and do all the things human beings are meant to do. Our music comes from being around real people in the real world.
The title The Unforgettable Fire comes from a book we saw of paintings that were done by survivors of Hiroshima. And if you listen very carefully to Bono's lyrics in "Bad" from that album, he touches on the huge heroin problem in Dublin, and everything that surrounds it. We're very aware of those things. But go to London, and what some people are influenced by is the fantasy "scene" -- the clothes, the dancing girls, how many drugs you can take. We just leave that behind. That's not what this band is about.
MD: You talk to the public about clean living and spirituality, but you manage to walk a thin line. You're not wimps. You're still legitimate rock 'n' rollers.
LM: All the sex and drugs in rock is so old, so boring, and so pretentious. I suppose some people think you have to go along with that old image to be a legitimate rock 'n' roller, but why should we pretend? If you actually meet a lot of big name rock 'n' roll bands as human beings, you find they're a lot straighter than you think. It's a big game, and we don't play it. People can make up their own minds about U2. People who see us live know it's not "wimp rock."
MD: How would you describe your drum style?
LM: Well, I never thought of it as a style until somebody said, "You know, you have a really unique style." And I said, "Oh really, what's a unique style?" It's hard for me to articulate what I do. Other people have to tell me what they think. Once, there were two professional session drummers on Irish TV who took the drumbeats from "Pride," and explained what they were in great musical terms, and explained how this technique was used. [Chuckles] I mean, they could be right, but I never thought of it like that! I just do what I do. I've developed into something myself. Sometimes people ring me up, or write and say, "We think you're fab. Can you give us hints on how to drum?" The only thing I can think of is something I learned myself and that is, "Hit 'em hard!" Just put everything into it; don't hold anything back.
MD: But you know when to hit 'em soft, too. You're capable of subtlety in your drumming.
LM: Yes, we like to put light and shade into the music as well -- not always hammering away. There are times to be lighter, but still it's strong. There are times to come down and to go back up again. I don't hit the drums at the same intensity all the time.
MD: Of course, one of the standard critiques of rock drummers is that they know nothing about dynamics.
LM: It may be true of a lot of drummers, but certainly not all of them. You can't generalize, especially now. There are so many new drummers with new ideas. It could be said, though, that in the past I was sometimes just heavy-handed, but I think that, over the last few years, I've started to listen to music a lot more in terms of light and shade. It's a question of maturity -- of actually listening to more music and seeing other drummers. I was never interested in other drummers until about two or three years ago.
MD: "Drowning Man," on War, comes to mind as an example of light and shade. The bass drum resonates as if from the depths of the ocean, with a stirring sense of ebb and flow.
LM: That song just evolved spontaneously. I did it with a 24" marching-band bass drum that I put up on a chair, and just hit with a mallet and with my hands. It was recorded in Windmill Lane, the studio in Dublin that we use. It's an amazing place, with its own character. You can get an immaculate drum sound in the hallway, which is solid stone walls with a really high ceiling. I set my kit out there, and they put mics all the way down from the very, very top of the stairwell. I've recorded many songs out there.
MD: You also use brushes on "Drowning Man."
LM: Yes, and on "Bad," too, among others. A while back, I started to use brushes on different songs, and it seemed then that it was catching on. Are you familiar with the band Echo and the Bunnymen? They did a complete album with just brushes; I really like it. The only thing is that so many drummers are using brushes now that I've sort of stayed away from it slightly.
MD: There seems to be an Oriental streak in your playing, which I noticed first on "Drowning Man."
LM: Oh, did you get Oriental flavors in that? In The Unforgettable Fire, there are many Oriental touches, even in the design of the album over, with the rich purple-y color and the calligraphy. When we went to Japan, we avoided all the "touristy" trappings. Most bands stay in rock 'n' roll hotels there; we stayed in traditional Japanese hotels and ate at traditional Japanese restaurants. Everywhere we went, we heard the traditional music, and it was fantastic. Obviously, we were all influenced by it.
MD: You must also be aware of the marching-band influence, evident especially on War.
LM: Oh, yeah. I see it, although it's not something I cultivated. It was just there. It was very, very natural. Again, it was a case of someone asking me if I were ever in a marching band, because they could hear it in my style, and I said, "Oh really, can you?" I didn't realize it, because it wasn't a conscious decision on my part.
MD: The sense of open space is prominent in your drumming. There are times when you allow the absolute maximum space between beats; you hold it to the last fraction of a second.
LM: Yes, I like gaps; I like to be able to feel the music -- not to clutter the songs. Lots of new drummers tend to fill in all the gaps and not leave space. Technically, a lot of drummers leave me standing miles away, but they don't leave gaps. It may sound good for their band, but it's just not me. I've really been getting into R&B drummers. They're right down to earth -- simple. All those jazz-head drummers are just so complex. It's like going to college. It's like, "How intelligent are you? How many big words do you know?" It doesn't really matter, ultimately.
MD: There are some who would say that the technique -- all those big words, if you will -- gives you a greater vocabulary to convey the musical message.
LM: Well, to me it's like difference between a novel and a poem. Sometimes, you can say everything in one line or even one word. I don't mean to knock anybody, there's room for everyone. But what happened to the whole punk thing -- just getting up there and doing what you feel? I'm into the spirit, not into the musicianship. I'm a big fan of Sandy Nelson. I remember trying to play with "Let There Be Drums" as a kid and thinking, "This is great! I can actually do what this guy is doing." It had such a joyful spirit -- such a great feel. And there were mistakes on the record, which I really liked because I thought, "This drummer makes mistakes as well!" [Laughs]
MD: Are there any other drummers that you listen to?
LM: I don't listen to drummers as much as I listen to music. I do like Andy Newmark a lot.
LM: I don't know. He reminds me of myself in some ways. His stuff on the Roxy albums impresses me. It's got a great feel and yet it's technical, but in a very subtle way -- some of the most unique and modern drumming I've heard. I met him once, and I asked him how to do different things I didn't know. He's a nice guy -- just an ordinary guy.
I'm into simple drumming and simple things. I think drummers are on stage to keep the beat to the best of their ability. And if they want to be flashy, they can be flashy as well, but I hate "star" drummers. I hate it when drummers come off and throw out their drumsticks every night. I really hate that. It really bugs me! [Laughs]
MD: You don't want to be a cliché.
MD: I notice on many songs that you'll be putting down a steady 2 and 4 rhythm, and then you throw in little off-the-groove licks. It keeps things off balance; it's unpredictable.
LM: Yeah, music to fall over to!
MD: I'm thinking of "Indian Summer Sky," for instance. You "hit 'em hard" on that, but there's some creative off-the-beat coloring in the bridge and intro.
LM: That's on a piccolo snare. I've never thought of it as anything special. I just do it. But if you tell me it's good, then I'll agree with you!
MD: Some of your lines have tribal, African sounds -- for example, the powerful two-minute, drum-and-rhythm-guitar coda on "Like A Song."
LM: Yes, I suppose lots of drummers are getting into the African beat. Actually, because of that, I try to avoid it, but it's there. Again, that was done totally off the cuff on the first take; it wasn't rehearsed at all. I just got into the groove of it and kept on playing. There's much more to it than what went on the record. I mean, it went on and on.
When we did that song, Windmill Lane didn't have an ambient room. We were having problems because we couldn't record out in the corridor late at night. So we just surrounded the kit with corrugated iron and put mics around the top, trying to get an ambient sound, because I don't like using the technical ambience at all. I don't think it's very natural. But the idea of actually constructing for yourself: I'm into that.
MD: Do you do any percussion work on the albums?
LM: I play bongos, and I do a lot of the weird percussion. In "Gloria," there's a part during the break near the end when I was just doing some simple percussion overdubs. Out in the hallway there was a table with a cowbell, a broken symbol, and a saucer on it, and I just went over to the table and hit the saucer with my drumsticks in time with the beat. If I had it here, I could explain it to you better, but that's what I especially like: experimental percussion, not the really traditional percussion effects.
In "I Will Follow," we had the sounds of breaking bottles and a drumstick clicking through the spokes of a turning wheel. Edge, our guitar player, actually did that one, but we were all involved in it -- all standing and improvising. There's a band called Collapsing New Buildings, and they use things like chainsaw and industrial equipment to make records, which I think is a brilliant idea.
MD: I would imagine that your songs are written in an improvisational way.
LM: Yes, most times we don't actually go into the studio with written ideas. Adam and I might sit down, and I might have a drum line. He might have a bass line. We get it together on tape, and give it to Bono and Edge. Then we all come together and thrash it out. It's very much a democratic process. Everything is split four ways, and it's quite demanding. You've got to get involved from the very beginning; there's no room to be laid-back. Sometimes it can be boring for a drummer, because they've set down your drum lines and they're working on guitar bits, so you've got to sit around and wait for them to get it together.
MD: Sometimes with four strong individuals, there can be heads butting against each other.
LM: Oh yes, we have our moments! But it's like the old story of the arrow: Unless you're chipping and pushing against it -- unless you're going metal against metal -- it stays blunt. The friction makes it sharp. Another way to explain how we write music is that it's like sculpturing. It's like a big chunk of granite with four different individuals chipping away at it, each trying to shape it into some sort of form. Sometimes what we end up with is very odd, but it's U2.
MD: That granite image makes me think of Slane Castle, where you recorded some songs for The Unforgettable Fire.
LM: We recorded in a huge ballroom of the castle, with old paintings all around. We set the kit in the middle of the room, with mics all around, just sort of breaking down all those barriers of the normal things to do in recording -- find the "right" place to put the kit, get the "good sound," and all that sort of stuff. Instead, we just all went into the ballroom together and played. There was no separation; lots of the tracks were put down live. And when we wanted to remix some things -- when we actually put up the tracks and tried to separate things -- we couldn't; everything was all over the place! [Laughs in delight] All the guitars on the drum tracks, and everything like that -- that's what made it special.
MD: So you have a positive feeling about the album.
LM: Absolutely. I was very much involved -- a lot more than I was on the other records -- in the writing, in the sounds, and in making sure the drums were right. I don't know if you're familiar with Brian Eno, or if you know anything about his work. He's prepared to take risks. He's ambitious. He's brilliant.
MD: Some people were critical about the choice of Eno as producer on The Unforgettable Fire.
LM: Yes, because they thought it would be much easier to make an album that would be huge in America -- a sure thing. But it was important to us to take some risks.
MD: Can you tell me more about the production of the album?
LM: Danny Lanois, who worked with us for a week as co-producer, was very interested in drum patterns. We spent a long time listening to music, and talking about drums and how they fit into the construction of our songs. Danny and Brian hadn't worked with a band like U2 ever, so they were learning something new as well, and there was a real vibe going. Everyone was fighting for something new. It was great. I don't really understand exactly what it was, because you always see producers as people sitting behind a mixing desk, but they were out front; they were playing with us. We would spend afternoons just playing: Edge on guitar, Brian on keyboards, Danny on percussion, just having fun, just being musical. And that was the difference. They were being musicians as well. They weren't producers. They became part of the band, and I hope that we will work with them again. I would really look forward to it. I learned a hell of a lot from them both.
MD: What did you learn?
LM: It's hard to articulate. It was just the way they worked. They were unstructured. Some days we'd come in for three hours. In some ways, that's a bad thing if you're thinking about deadlines and all that stuff, but we just treated it very much in an experimental way: trying different things out and not cramping up people's styles, going into big rooms, playing the kit and seeing what happened. And whereas a lot of people would say, "Let's not waste time doing this," we said, "Let's waste a bit of time and maybe we'll get something out of it." Nine times of ten, we came up with some really great ideas. I'm sure other bands have worked like that, but I've never experienced it before. It was like a breath of fresh air for the whole band.
MD: Being able to spend the extra time in the studio seems like somewhat of a luxury nowadays. I wonder if you'd get that kind of freedom in a New York studio. If you did, you'd really pay for it.
LM: Windmill Lane is not like other recording studios; there aren't dollar signs everywhere. There's just a good vibe in the place. There are studios in New York or London that are better from a technical standpoint, but that's secondary. And now that we've seen other studios, we've taken some ideas back to Windmill Lane. We're not afraid to make a few changes.
MD: What about you? Several months ago I saw you at Radio City Music Hall, and you were literally out of the spotlight, hidden in the shadows. In just a few months, you seem to have come out more, on stage and off. Do you feel you've changed?
LM: Yes, I had to.
MD: Because you wanted to?
LM: I had to, and now that I've done it, I'm glad. There were people paying money to come in and see a band, but they weren't seeing a band. They were seeing three members and a drummer. When we were playing in theaters, the lights were a lot lower and they burned me. I said, "Forget this. I don't need the spotlight."
MD: And you didn't need the spotlight from the standpoint of ego?
LM: No, I didn't. But I can live with the spotlights now. It's okay. It's…interesting.
MD: It's fun sometimes.
LM: It is fun. It feels good. [Laughs] But what we have is a band ego; it's not an individual thing, and it never has been. If someone in our band gets more interviews and photos in the newspaper, it's not a question of his ego being bigger. It's that he's best at that job. We all do what we can. I know that, in a lot of bands, there's so much bitching going on. I've talked to some rock musicians and just hearing them discuss fellow band members is so sad. We're actually good friends, and it that ever ends, then what's the point of continuing? As far as interviews are concerned, I'll stay in the background, but as far as the music is concerned, I plan to take a bigger interest. It's too easy to become just the drummer. I was falling into that trap. The rest of the guys were moving along, and I was sort of staying behind. I want to move ahead. It's not like I'm being paid a wage. I'm a member of the band; I've to pull my own weight. If I don't, the rest of the guys start screaming, and that's fair enough.
MD: You certainly wouldn't want to be kept around for old time's sake.
LM: Absolutely. And I won't be. I'd never let myself. I want to be a continuing force in U2. That's why, thank God, I've finally got a place of my own, which I've never had before. As soon as this tour is over, I'm going home where I'll have time to myself. I'm going to get a four-track recording system, bring in instruments, and play to my heart's content. I want to learn the guitar. I want to do composing. I'm just going to learn things -- learn how to play with other people -- not necessarily other bands, but just people who know music.
MD: Can you see yourself doing solo projects, in the way that Phil Collins does, for instance.
LM: I've never really thought about it. I've never looked at myself that far ahead, but I'm open to anything. I really want to work with other musicians, just because I've never done it before. I'd love to actually go into a studio, work things out in a new way, and be a session drummer. I'd find it incredibly challenging.
MD: Are you talking straight session work, because, given your independent nature. I'm wondering if you could do that.
LM: I'm sure that, if I had to do it, I could. I don't think I'd compromise myself.
MD: But session drummers often have to just do what they're told.
LM: Well, I would not do that.
MD: Then, you wouldn't get any jobs!
LM: What I'm saying is that I would not do work where somebody says, "Play that." I'd much prefer to go in as a guest and work with people on the writing of the songs -- that kind of relationship. If they just want to tell you what to do, they might as well use a machine. Another thing I'd like to do someday is build my own studio to my specifications.
MD: What would it be like?
LM: I'd have a big room. Everything would be big and ambient -- wood and concrete. Although I'm not a big Zeppelin fan, I'm a John Bonham fan, and I know all those Zeppelin records were made in big rooms. So many of the early Stones records -- great sounds, great ambient sounds.
MD: You speak a great deal about continuing to experiment and grow, both as an individual and with U2, but it's surprising how much innovative drumming you did on your first album, Boy, which was cut when you were only 18 or 19.
LM: The funny thing is that it's because I didn't think about it that much. I just went into the studio in absolute innocence. You know: first album, "I can do what I want." As you get one, you start to slim down. You don't want to be too experimental; you want to "keep the backbeat" or whatever. In the mid-period, I got a style together. I like October and War, but I built my own little walls on those albums. It was sort of a safety thing, because I was unsure of my own position as a drummer. But now I'm breaking out of that, and I hope to stay in the experimental thing. I'm free, and the band is very free as well.
MD: The battle every artist faces is to be free to go in every direction. A lot of people want to pigeonhole you; they don't want you to change.
LM: But it's an amazing thing, and we're very thankful for this: Many bands make experimental records, and they're put down for it. You know, "This is a departure." We've made four studio records. Our last one, The Unforgettable Fire, is our most experimental and also our most successful. There are few bands who are lucky enough to be able to do that. We've set our own standards, and we can move in whatever direction we want. Nobody's going to say, "This is a departure." They'll expect something new.
MD: Then there's the problem of always having to come up with something new.
LM: Yes, but that keeps the fire. If we go stale, then it's no good. We can't actually sit down and say, "We've got to come up with something new." You can't think. You've got to listen to music and be hungry for it. You can't create all the time, but if you take time off and say, "I'm not going to think about drumming," that can be dangerous as well. You've always got to be listening and always looking -- not forcing it, but always open to learning something new in every situation. I'm preaching to myself here, because sometimes I do fall into that trap of just sitting back and saying, "Wouldn't it be easy if I just had this style and left it at that?" I am preaching to myself, because I fully admit that I can be really lazy. I suppose that everyone can, but that's so dangerous, especially in this moment, and it's so easy just to sit back and say, "Wow, we've done it!" We've got to fight with ourselves, because this is the most crucial time for us. Unless we're on fire for learning new things, we'll go under. And I hope we do if we get lazy. I hope a young band comes along and kicks us in the ass.
There are no excuses for me coming up with average lines. If you don't have equipment, you can blame it on that. But now I have all sorts of snare drums here and there, and I can experiment all over the place -- at the soundchecks and at the gigs themselves.
MD: So you find that you might use a snare, cymbal, or whatever in a spot that you didn't use the night before.
LM: Oh, yeah. Just take a chance. Sometimes it falls flat on its face, but there are things in the set now that started out that way. At the end of "Bad," Bono does a rendition of "Ruby Tuesday" that goes into "Sympathy for the Devil": "Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name," and I just come down and whack on the snare.
MD: Yes, it shows the impact of one hit, well timed. It's very dramatic.
LM: I just did that totally by accident one night. I could feel the power of the moment; it was in Bono's voice, and I was just compelled to do it, absolutely off the cuff. In most of the gigs I do, there are always little things I'll try. If they work, great. If they don't, it doesn't matter. It's great to have that sort of freedom, because nobody turns around and says, "You shouldn't have done that; it sounded lousy." They turn around and say, "That was really strange. What was it?" So at the next soundtrack, I'll explain what I was trying to do, I work it out, and I've got a really good drum line or a really good piece for a new song. It would be nice to actually play songs live before we record them, because after we play them on the road for three or four months, they're different songs.
MD: Have you ever really made a mistake on stage, like totally losing the time?
LM: I've totally lost it a few times. I don't know if it's the same for all drummers, but where I sit on the stage, I see everything that happens -- every single movement in the audience -- the bouncers, everything. And I find that if there's any sort of hassle, like somebody jumping onstage, I can lose my rhythm. I find that, since we've moved into arenas, I'm much more conscious of security and how the audience is being treated. At times, I've started to concentrate a lot more on what they were doing instead of what I was doing. I found myself making just simple mistakes -- dropping drumsticks, missing out on beats.
MD: Lack of concentration.
LM: Yes, and there's a balance to be struck that I'm still working toward in these bigger arenas, because I like to see the audience.
MD: You don't look like you're looking around that much; your head is down.
LM: It's funny, because I sort of peer up with my eyes.
MD: How do you keep up onstage with a singer like Bono, who is so intense, emotional, and I assume, unpredictable at times?
LM: I just watch him all the time. He gives me a signal, looks at me in a certain way, makes all kinds of gestures with his hands behind his back -- speed up, slow down, one finger up for one more verse. Or I might say, "Let's do another verse of 'New Year's Day' at the end"; it changes all the time. I've been on the road for seven months now, and I must admit that I'm a little tired physically, but I'm not at all.
MD: Is your playing different in an arena?
LM: I've got to be a little more precise. There's no room for sloppiness in my overall approach. I was talking before about concentration. I can relax more in a small place; in an arena, I've got to be on the ball all the time. The lights are on me continuously. Before, I might have turned around and talked to Tom, my roadie, but I can't do that anymore, because the audience notices it and it doesn't look "professional."
MD: Does that bother you?
LM: No, it's good discipline. I realize that people aren't paying to see me talking to see me talking to my drum roadie. Again, it's that thin line. Sometimes, I'm not as concerned with the audience as I should be; I sort of isolate myself. I'm more interested in my own gig. I've got to break out of that. It's not just how well I play; it's the spirit. It's easy to fall into that thing of how good a drummer I am, but that's not important. It's got to be the band: How do I support the band?
MD: Do you find, being a supporting force on stage, that it carries over into your off stage relationship with the band?
LM: It's funny. On stage, I treat my gig very seriously. We're not there to just shake our ass in front of the people. We're not preaching, but we have something to say in addition to playing rock 'n' roll, and it can be a strain sometimes getting up there. I don't mind that because I know what we're trying to do, but when we come off stage, I tend to loosen up all together. In that respect, I'll do the silliest thing. I'll go jet-skiing. I'll fall down and break my arm. [Laughs]
MD: You broke your arm?
LM: Two days before our last gig in school, I got into a row with someone. He kicked me in the arm and broke my hand, so I played my first gig with my hand in plaster. And before my first demo, I fell off a motorbike and broke my ankle, so I couldn't open and close my hi-hat. But I haven't broken anything lately.
MD: Do you consciously try to protect your health?
LM: [Deadpans] No, I do the opposite. I do karate. [Laughs] It helps build up my muscles, especially in the stomach and back. I like it as a sport, although I'm not interested, obviously, in the violence of it. I don't do it when we're on tour, though, to be careful.
MD: Karate provides a good release of aggression. You show a lot of aggression in your drumming.
LM: It doesn't really come from within. I'm not really an aggressive person. I just feel I've got to hit 'em hard for the people to hear. I've set my own standard now, and I can't come down from it. I've got 22,000 watts behind me. We use a lot of monitors -- not for volume, just for sound quality. I like to hear what I'm doing.
MD: You wear headphones in concert.
LM: Yes, two different sets. One has got the bass drum and Bono's vocals in it; the other has a bass click track, which I use when we do "Bad" and "The Unforgettable Fire." We use a sequencer on those songs. I can't hear a sequencer through my monitors, so I listen to a click that is triggered by the sequencer. I really enjoy playing to a click. Some people say it takes away from the feel because you can't hear the rest of the band. I know it can, but I've avoided that by doing it differently. I don't just have the click loud and everything else down very low. I make sure that I can hear the band in my monitors, so I can keep the feel. As a result, I must have the click very loud, very loud, and after I use it my ears pop, but I won't sacrifice hearing the band.
MD: Do you ever worry about your ears?
LM: I just had my ears tested two days ago -- fine. I get my ears tested all the time. I do it on my own.
MD: So you take care of yourself. You're not self-destructive.
LM: No, I'm not. If I wanted to kill myself, I'd get on a motorbike and do it properly. [Laughs] I'm not interested in the rock 'n' roll trip -- be a hero, take a lot of drugs and die. No way.
MD: There's nothing wrong with living to an old age.
LM: Certainly not!
MD: Every hard-working drummer gets a few battle scars, though. I notice that you have your thumb wrapped in a kind of splint when you're off stage now, which you didn't have the last time I saw you.
LM: Yes, it's tendonitis. I sprained the ligaments and tendons in the thumb area.
MD: Do you know how?
LM: God knows. It's probably just an occupational hazard. Tom thinks it could be from some drumsticks I had. The weight distribution wasn't at good, and the shock didn't travel to the sticks. I've got some new sticks by Pro-Mark, and they're just masterpieces.
MD: What are they called?
LM: They're designed specifically for me; they're not for sale. They're built with extra weight in the tips. When I hit with them, they take the shock and stay solidly in my hands. At the moment, they're made of hickory, but Pro-Mark is experimenting with different types of wood for us, including some Japanese wood.
MD: Tell me about your kit setup.
LM: The drums and hardware are Yamaha. We're always changing things, but right now I've got my usual 24" bass drum, an 18" floor tom, and a 14" rack tom on the left, one 16" floor tom on the left and one on the right, and an 8 x 14 snare. I've also got two Ludwig piccolo snares and another piccolo snare custom made by Eddie Ryan in London. The drumheads are Evans Black Golds. I've got two Latin Percussion timbales and assorted Latin Percussion instruments. All the cymbals are Paiste: an 18" 2002 heavy crash, two 18" Rudes, a 20" Rude, a 20" 2002 China, and 14" Sound Edge hi-hats. On this tour, I've been getting some different ideas for hi-hats. Tom and I will work on it when I get home. Our setup is basically the same in the studio as it is on the road, and we don't do any special tuning for the album recording.
MD: What is your tuning mechanism?
LM: By ear. A while back, we played with some big name bands, and I'd see the drummer out there tuning his kit -- you know, getting all the "right notes." I did feel a little intimidated by it, so I tried to do it. I got this torque kind of thing and my drums sounded so bad, so I went back to tuning by ear. There's nobody else who can get the sound like you yourself. Tom is a very find roadie, and even he can't get it just right. If it were tuned to a note, there would be a way, but it's to a sound.
MD: You obviously have a strong preference for the natural approach to things. Have you tried any of the electronic drums?
LM: Yes. I don't like them much, although I don't want to limit myself and say I'll never use them. For arenas, we've started using a Simmons SDS7 triggered by the acoustic drums, just for sound reinforcement. I'm not really into it, but if we rely on the mics too much for the up-front sounds, there's too much ambience and the drum sound gets lost. The Simmons just tightens up the sound. We don't use it on every song, and there's no Simmons sound as such.
MD: How do you prepare yourself for a performance?
LM: I don't warm up. I used to do some physical exercises, but now I just like to relax and take it easy with the band. The four of us come together with nobody else in the dressing room for about 15 or 20 minutes before we go on stage. We just chat about the show, nice and peaceful; it's not like we're trying to pump ourselves up or anything.
MD: U2 concerts can be very spiritual. Do you think rock 'n' roll has become a new religion, as John Lennon once suggested?
LM: I don't know about calling it a new religion, although maybe it is that for some people. But I think music is a very spiritual thing; it always has been. You find that musicians are a lot more spiritually aware than many other people. I hope the people can see the spiritual side of U2. I hope people see our music as a positive thing. But we're not into preaching. I can't put my standards on somebody else. People come to concerts for different reasons. Some people come to hear the music for their heads, some come to hear the music for their hearts, and some come to hear the music for their feet, and that's fine.
MD: Some people don't even care; they just want to make the scene.
LM: Absolutely. And I'm prepared to accept that. You know, without dropping names or anything, we met Springsteen one night, and Bono and I were saying, "All those AOR bands are so contrived. There's no soul. There's nothing to it." Bruce turned around and said, "You know, you're probably right, but people go to listen to that music, and it makes them happy." So you can't knock it. You may not necessarily like it, but at least it's not destructive. It's positive in what it does because it brings people together, and that's what music is meant to do. It's meant to break down the barriers -- break down all those walls.
MD: The performance in Belfast of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," which laments the futility of war and the religious conflict in Northern Ireland to a military snare beat, has been described as a turning point for the band -- your first political statement. Can you describe it?
LM: It was quite amazing. We had kept the song quiet, because we knew we would be playing it in Belfast. When we got there, we said, "This is not a rebel song; it's not on anybody's side. And if you don't like it -- if you don't want us to play this song again ever again -- we won't play it." Since it was about them, we gave them the option.
MD: It was defiant to throw the conflict right back into their faces that way.
LM: It was; we took a risk. They could have done anything, but they realized what we were trying to say.
MD: Do you feel that you have changed any minds or hearts with your music, in Ireland or around the world?
LM: I think it would be really arrogant of me to say, "Yeah man, we're going to change the world." We're not saying we've got the answers by any means. I think what we do is make people think and let them make up their own minds.
But I believe that music says more and can do more in 90 minutes than politicians can do in years -- in centuries. It can unite people, and that's something that politicians will never be able to do, because music can be pure. It can be absolutely, straight-down-the-line honest, and I think a lot of music is. Yes, I think music has got a huge power, especially in influencing people -- not influencing as in deceiving people, but influencing people to see the truth. Music can change history. The Beatles changed history. The Rolling Stones changed history, in a positive or negative way; you've got to make up your own mind. Dylan stopped the Vietnam War, no matter what anybody says. I really believe that. Springsteen's made people aware in America.
MD: And politicians on both sides tried to draw him in to support them in the 1984 presidential election.
LM: And he said, "Absolutely no way."
MD: President Reagan is of Irish descent and proud of it. Do you mean that if he asked you to the White House, you would decline?
LM: I would say, "Sure." I'd meet the people in the White House and tell them how I feel, whether they liked it or not.
MD: You probably won't get invited.
LM: [Laughs] Absolutely.
MD: People don't know much about you. Is there any one thing about yourself that you'd like them to know?
LM: That's a difficult question. I guess it would be that I'm human. The audience sort of makes musicians out to be stars or something special. It's flattering, but we are just ordinary people. I don't see myself as a star. I'm not just a poster on a wall. I'm a drummer as well, in case you didn't know. [Laughs] People don't know too much about me, and I quite like it that way. Some people have put things in the papers about my personal life -- not my love life; but things that have happened in the past -- people in my family who have died -- and that actually hurts a lot.
MD: It invades your privacy.
LM: Yes, it does. It really does. One magazine in particular put in details of how my mother died, and I don't want to hear that. It's private -- absolutely personal -- and I get very upset about it. And when a 16-year-old writes to you about it like they were there -- like they know how it feels -- I'm not saying they don't know how it feels, but it's a private matter. Actually, I'm going to be meeting that journalist who wrote the piece tomorrow night, and, um…I'm going to send him a rocket! [Laughs]
MD: Well, don't hurt your hands!
LM: No, I won't hurt my hands. [Laughs] I'm a drummer, and I enjoy it. I wouldn't do anything else in the world. Lots of people in the music business just want you to talk, they want you to be part of the scene, and the rest of the guys in the band are good at that. They're able to do it and keep their dignity, but I can't be a part of it. I can't pretend to myself. I don't enjoy, I won't do. When I go on that stage, that's my time, and I give it 100%. If I give it any less, I know and everybody else knows, and I'm not prepared to risk that; so when I come off stage, I don't want to spend too much time philosophize about the music and its meaning, but ultimately it's in the music. Ultimately, it's in there. You can talk and talk and talk, but people hear it in the music. You don't have to jump around and wave banners and say, "Yoo-hoo, here we are. We're for peace!" People know. Ultimately, they know.
MD: You speak, Larry, like you drum -- simply, but eloquently. May I ask one last question: you've been written up as Larry Mullen and Larry Mullen, Jr. Which do you want to be called in this interview?
LM: [Smiles] Larry Mullen, Jr. It makes my old man very, very proud.
© Modern Drummer, 1985.