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His last performances showcase a voice even bigger than his gut, where you cry real tears as the music messiah sings his tired heart out, turning casino into temple. -- Bono, in a tribute to Elvis Presley, 2004

Interview with U2's Larry Mullen Jr.

Chicago Sun-Times
Despite its status as a multi-platinum, arena-filling mega-band, U2 has always maintained a reputation for caring about its fans. But when tickets went on sale in late January for its Vertigo 2005 Tour, something went wrong.

Many of the faithful who paid $40 to join the band's fan club found themselves shut out when tickets went on sale via a system that ignored the special presale privileges and issued random codes instead. As a result, many of the prime tickets wound up with scalpers who have been peddling them for more than 20 times face value.

The group scheduled additional shows to make amends -- U2 performs four nights here beginning Saturday, then will return to Chicago on Sept. 20-21 -- but the band was stung nonetheless by criticism from fans and the press.

Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. seemed especially chagrined, and when the band won a Grammy for best rock performance by a Group with Vocals in February, he edged its always loquacious frontman Bono away from the mike so that he could issue a public and heartfelt apology.

Longtime fans have always considered Mullen the conscience and truest moral compass of the group, as well as one of the most distinctive drummers in rock.

In 1976, inspired by the Sex Pistols and London's punk explosion, a 14-year-old Mullen placed an ad on the bulletin board of Dublin's Mount Temple High School, eliciting responses from bassist Adam Clayton, guitarist Dave Evans (later the Edge), and an outspoken chap named Paul Hewson who, even though he couldn't sing particularly well at the time, brazenly rechristened himself Bono Vox (Latin for "good voice").

The rest, as VH1's Behind the Music is fond of saying, is history.

I had a long and wide-ranging conversation Monday with the man many consider the heart of U2 as the band made its way toward Chicago. Here are the highlights.



I was moved by your comments at the Grammys, Larry. What happened with the ticket snafu, and why were you so upset about it?

We've always been a band that's depended on its audience to carry it through, and we've put them through a lot. We've experimented on our audience, and they've been incredibly loyal to us, so we're kind of sensitive to our audience -- to what they feel and what they think. We came out of being fans: We were fans of music, and we went to gigs.

The reason we charge $165 [for some seats] is so that we can also sell a ticket for $49.50 [for general admission on the floor] -- that's the point. We're selling the best seats in the house to those who can probably afford them, and those who sit in those seats subsidize the others. I think that's fair and that's the way it should be.

We're very conscious of pricing and the ticketing and how it happens, but this time around, the tour was on and the tour was off because of a family illness that I can't go into the details of. The tour wasn't going to happen for a long period of time, so the only way it could go forward was if we changed it, and it got changed at the last minute because the decision to do it came at the last minute. All the plans we'd made for this leg of the tour were completely canceled and thrown out, and it was turned around in a couple of days.

The rules that applied to the original tour didn't get changed in time, so it meant that when the tickets went on sale, you had complete pandemonium. We ended up with this crisis situation, and people felt that they had been had, because we hadn't explained to them, because we couldn't, why the tour had been changed.

It must hurt when you see scalpers getting tickets that were intended for fan club members.

It's like I said in the note on the Web site: The idea that your loyal audience is competing with scalpers for tickets is appalling. Unfortunately, it is now part and parcel of what happens. There aren't laws to prevent it. But I think what really upset me more than anything else was the assertion by various fan Web sites who got on some kind of bandwagon where there were accusations of impropriety by the band -- that this was some kind of money-grabbing move and we didn't care about our fans. That's what really upset me more than anything else.

I'm a private kind of person. I love being in the band, and it's my life. I work hard at it, but there are things that I'm not very good at. One of them is meeting the fans and being a man of the people -- I'm not very good at it, and I don't feel particularly comfortable in that position. Bono, on the other hand, thrives on it. Because he does it, it means I'm not under the same kind of pressure. People have taken that as me being surly or disrespectful, but that's not the truth.

The reality is that behind the scenes, I take a real interest in what's happening, with ticketing, with U2.com, with all those things. This time around, because everything was up in the air, I didn't have my finger on the pulse, and I was angry that I hadn't been more in charge and actually taken the bull by the balls and stopped the tickets going on sale the way they did. I felt guilty about that, and I felt that a lot of people, loyal U2 fans, were being treated badly, not because of anything that we'd done, just because the system had broken down.

A band at your level is a major international corporation. Does the machine ever get so big that you lose control?

When we moved out of the clubs into the theaters, it was like, "Oh, my God, they've moved into the theaters; it's a sellout!" Then we moved out of the theaters into arenas, and it was, "Oh, they were so much better in theaters; they've sold out!" Then it was, "Oh, my God, they've gone to stadiums!" Or, "Oh my God, they're doing the Super Bowl; what a sellout!" So every time, you always end up pissing off somebody.

As for the question of being out of control, of course as it gets bigger, there are more people involved. We work really hard at trying to keep our finger on the pulse, but sometimes it's just not possible, and sometimes things fall between the cracks. But generally speaking, decisions are made by the band, and they're made in a relatively democratic way.

The iPod idea came from the band; it didn't come from Steve Jobs and Apple. It was something we were happy to stand over as a band. We make decisions through consensus, and we stand by them. If people are unhappy with them, so be it. Things are not always what they seem. We wanted to play to big audiences; we want to be on the radio. We are greedy; we are hungry; we are never satisfied.

I think for some sections of our audience, they wanted to keep us as their own, and we don't feel like that. We appreciate our audience, but we want to get new people in, we want to be on the radio, we wanted to be on the iPod commercial because it is the greatest piece of pop art since the '60s.

It's an amazing design, and it's very cool; we want our music on that. We asked them if we could be in that commercial. We felt like, "Why should there be dancers dancing to a U2 song? Why aren't U2 in it?" And it did what we wanted it to do, and we got to an audience that we never got to before.

The argument against it, Larry, is that when I close my eyes and listen to Achtung Baby, the images it creates in my head are infinitely richer than even the best videos the band has ever made. Now, every time I hear "Vertigo," I can't think of anything besides that damn commercial.

I understand and appreciate that; I really do. But our job is to move forward and bring our music to a bigger audience. When you sign on the dotted line for that record deal, you are basically joining the commercial world. That's what we do.

You can't deny that that's what this is: It's part of commerce. You can hide behind this attitude of, "We don't want to be famous; we don't want the money." We're over that. We were over it when we started. We always wanted to be the band that would be part of breaking through, and this just seemed like a perfectly natural progression for us.

Let's talk about the artistic ambition of the last two albums. I was disappointed that All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb lacked the edge that characterized Achtung Baby and Zooropa. At the time, I interviewed the producer of those albums, Brian Eno, who said his role was to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2, forcing the band to move in new directions. The more time passes, the more I realize how brave that was.

I disagree with you; that was then, and this is now. We've always been a band that has tried to walk away from the past and move into new areas and do new things, and we've always done that. But we got to a stage where the band as a band wasn't functioning. It was functioning like individuals, and the band wasn't performing and playing in a room. We'd become so acute in our distaste for anything U2 that it was just becoming impossible to be creative as a band.

We took the decision that what we'd do is get back into a room and play as a band -- to do what we do. We hadn't done it for years, and that's what this is. It's not a commercial decision: "Oh, let's go back to what we know, because maybe we'll get back onto the charts." It's hard for people to appreciate that. A lot of people go, "Bollocks, all you want to do is sell more records and you'll do anything to do that." That's just not the case. We wanted to get back to being a band.

After The Joshua Tree, we chopped it down with Achtung Baby and then Zooropa, and then with Pop. They were great things, and we're very proud of those things, and we will do that again. But there's a certain stage where you've actually just got to go back to what you know.

I think on this record, the Edge is on fire. I couldn't disagree with you more about what he's doing. Of course there are references back to the past, but I like that. I like getting into a room and playing with the band and doing those things we used to do. I think what Brian Eno brought was invaluable, and Daniel Lanois as well. But we've got to move on, we've got to change, and we've got to take references from the past and bring them into the future. And that's what we've done.

But U2 never wanted to be a band like Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones, which basically became massive money-making oldies shows.

And we won't! With respect to you and your colleagues, when it's time for U2 to get the bullet in the head, we'll do it ourselves, thank you very much! But we're greedy, and we want to push boundaries. We want to do things that nobody else has done before, and we will do whatever we have to do to achieve that. We're never satisfied. We never feel like we've made our greatest record. We always feel we can do better, we can be better, and that's constant. After every record, we sit down and go, "OK, what was wrong with that? What was right with it?" And next time around, we fix it. We constantly do that, and that's why U2 survives.

There's a very deep unhappiness in U2, because there's a sense that we achieved great success and became a really big band, but we were never a really great band. There was always that thing that we were given all these accolades, but we didn't really deserve it. We got it because we managed to do very well live, and it was all about being big. Being big means s--- to us. It's being great that we want, and that's what we strive for.

That sense of satisfaction destroys so many bands. But you're saying that with U2, it's exactly the opposite.

It's the exact opposite: We are not happy. [Laughs] It's like, "How can you be unhappy when you're selling out a tour and your record's doing well?" But it's not that kind of unhappiness. It's a creative dissatisfaction.

We want to do better, we want to compete on the highest level, and that means competing on radio, and competing with people like Britney Spears and all those pop artists who are at the top of their game. The songs that are written for them are pretty spectacular, and we want to compete with that. Why else do this? There's no other reason. None of us need to do it, we're all financially secure, and for a lot of bands, that's a huge turn-off. "I've got the kids now, I've got the money, what do I need this for?" This is revenge for us.

Why do you care about competing with Britney Spears? You grew up loving the Sex Pistols, and they didn't care about competing in that world.

I'm not sure about that; that was a huge commercial idea. For [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren, it was all about that: getting the money and doing whatever he had to do to make it controversial. There's little difference between that and Britney Spears taking her clothes off. It's the same instinct. It's all about selling records and getting the cash.

There is no such thing as anything in the music business at its purest form. It's all cursed by commerce, and you can't get away from it. I don't want to be in a band that's treading water. I want to have my 17-year-old niece or nephew say, "I love that new single." I really want that, because I don't want to be relegated into, "That used to be relevant, it's no longer relevant." If that's not possible, then we will stop.

So why is it important? It just is. It's too easy to accept second best. To compete at this level takes huge brain power and a lot of work, but it's what we do, and we thrive on it. There's nothing like when a 17-year-old comes up and says, "Hey, man, I think what you're doing is cool." It might sound absolutely childish, but those are the things that make you want to continue on. When you look at your audience and see the huge variation from students, college kids, and all the way up.

We're Irish, and when we started out, we were always sort of the runt of the pack. Everybody else was cooler than us; everybody else was better than us; they were all better musicians than us. We were always that band.

We came to America and people embraced us, and they have been embracing us ever since. There's a certain responsibility that goes with that, and it's, "We've got to do this. We've got to remain relevant. We've got to make great music." That's a challenge, and we thrive on it.

And is it still fun at the end of the day?

It really is, and in a way that it hasn't been for 25 years. The band is playing better, and Bono is singing better, and there seems to be a real freedom in what we're doing. Sometimes onstage, it just feels excruciating, because you're trying to hold it down, and you never know what's going to happen.

I don't feel like that now. I'm enjoying the shows, and it's just got a different level of maturity. It's a lot less tense and not trying so hard to be perfect. If you make a mistake, it's OK. I listened to a CD of the last show, and there are a lot of fluffs, but it's OK. There was time when we were all striving for that perfection, and now it's, "It doesn't matter; it's the spirit of the show."



© Chicago Sun-Times, 2005.