After 36 years as U2's "plumber", Larry Mullen jnr wanted to try his hand at acting, but starring opposite Donald Sutherland in Man on the Train was jumping in at the deep end, he tells Tara Brady
IT'S A BRISK January day and Larry Mullen jnr and I have left our respective Dublin 13 abodes (his is the bigger one) and made for Clontarf Castle. Put it down to good cheekbones: at 51, he walks in the door and is still instantly recognisable as "the boyish-looking one" from U2.
He's easy to spot and yet slips in and out of the building, unnoticed and unmolested. Curious. Maybe it helps that he's a local. Though Artane was where he grew up, Howth, his current postal code, was the place "for scouts and fishing and taking girlfriends".
"I've never imagined myself living anywhere else," he says.
Then again maybe he gets to wander freely because he's the guy down the back. Or, as he modestly puts it, "the 'shut up and hit something guy' down the back."
Know any good drummer jokes? Larry certainly does. In the 36 years since he founded U2, he's had the opportunity to build up a sizeable repertoire of percussion-related punch-lines.
"The trouble with being in the background," he says, "is that people kind of assume you're one-dimensional. Everybody knows about the guitarist and the singer. And bassist is the coolest gig of all. They have nobility. They carry themselves like they could have been in front if they wanted it." He smiles. "In the next life I want to come back as a bassist."
So, once more, with feeling: How do you know when the stage is level? "Because the drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth," he grins. "Yep. I've heard them all. But they do make me laugh."
We're frequently told – and not just in ancient Neil Peart zingers – that drummers are a different breed. Case in point: while recording All That You Can't Leave Behind, Mullen and producer Brian Eno had what the former calls "back and forth" over the computer-generated click track. Days later Eno discovered that the drummer had, indeed, found a discrepancy of some two milliseconds. The incident would inspire Eno to collaborate with the neuroscientist David Eagleman on research into drummers and "brain time".
"That story is true," nods Mullen. "I think they found something like a 60-40 split in favour of the drummers and their capacity to pick up on timing. It's something some drummers just develop. If something is out of tune I'll hear it and if you put music on top of something that's out of time its never going to be in time. So Eno had to call me up and I got to say, 'I know I was right.' But only Eno would leave the studio and call up his neuroscientist friend. Only Brian Eno would have a neuroscientist friend."
Sure enough: meeting Larry Mullen jnr, one can believe – in the nicest possible way – that drummers really are different. For one thing, it's difficult to imagine any frontman maintaining Mullen's line in self-deprecation. He doesn't do many solo interviews, he says, "because nobody wants to hear what the drummer thinks".
"Maybe I'm not terribly confident in my own ability to articulate what's going on. And I'm very conscious that sometimes, when I'm watching a band interview, even I don't want to hear what the drummer thinks. You want to hear about the lyrics and melody. That's the cream. What Adam [Clayton] and I do is the plumbing. It might be interesting for us but it's not as nice as cream." He laughs. "Sorry, that's probably a crap analogy."
Until now, Larry Mullen jnr has been perfectly happily on his rig, off in the distance of a 360-degree Willie Williams-designed platform. On tour, he rarely ventures forward except obscured by a djembe or bongos. He lives, as a drummer might, quietly and almost invisibly with Ann, his partner of some 30 years, and their three children, Aaron, Ava and Ezra.
"I'm absolutely rubbish at being a rock star," he admits. "I'm one of the worst rock stars I know. I love being at home with my kids. There are no drugs. There's not even a whole lot of rock'n'roll going on. I love going on the road for a short period of time. But I'm just not a rock'n'roll animal." He's happy down the back. He doesn't crave any additional attention. "You know the term 'Splash me, I'm here too'? I don't need it that bad," he insists.
He is, accordingly, probably the last member of U2 one expects to find in a movie. How on earth has he ended up in the title role of director Mary McGuckian's Man on the Train, anyway?
"It was a bit of shock," says Mullen, who had initially signed up for a bit part. "I had talked to Mary after working on the Electrical Storm video with Samantha Morton. I thought I'd like to try a cameo role or producing a film. That was actually something Bono said to me. He said, 'If you're going to do a movie, no matter how big or how small, get involved with the production. Then if you're really crap you have some chance of covering your ass.'"
As it happened, McGuckian, who has previously directed Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh and an entire constellation of heavyweight thespians, had grander plans for the budding actor.
"We were a couple a weeks in when she told me I was the man on the train," recalls Mullen. "So I turned up and my first day was performing with Donald Sutherland. I'm supposed to be teaching him how to shoot in the scene. And I've got my arms around trying to stop myself from thinking, 'This is the guy that did Klute and Don't Look Now.' That was jumping in the deep end."
McGuckian's remake of Patrice Leconte's 2002 drama L'Homme du Train, features an unlikely week-long bromance between a retired poetry lecturer (Sutherland) and an enigmatic drifter (Mullen, in a role once occupied by French pop legend Johnny Hallyday). Both men are counting down the days until the following Saturday when one faces surgery and the other is planning to rob a bank.
It can't have been easy trying to maintain a cool, Zen facade across from one of the most expressive faces in the movieverse, surely?
"No it wasn't," says Mullen. "Donald actually talks about his face and what he can do with it. I think it says a lot about him that he was prepared to do a movie with me. He'd take me aside and tell me to speed up sometimes. Or he'd lean in like your dad might and have a word. It can't have been easy for him. It must have been like working with a bassist when they only know two notes."
Mullen is characteristically self-effacing about his breakthrough role, though he's thrilled to have the film – replete with his contributions to the score – finally in the can.
"This is one of the scariest things I've done artistically," he says. "When I looked at the rushes I thought 'well, it's a little embarrassing in places but I've seen it through and I didn't do that badly. It's not embarrassing all the time.' And if that's all that they say I'll be happy."
Is it easier to tell on playback, I wonder? Has he known in the past when the band is hitting form? "You can never call it," says Mullen . "It's happened a couple of times in our career when we haven't even noticed. The Joshua Tree is a great example. All our stars were aligned and we didn't know it. There's a great story about Brian Eno trying to destroy the multi-track for Where the Streets Have No Name because we had spent so long putting it together he wanted to destroy it with a blade. It was a slog. And then it came out and we were, 'Oh. It worked.'
"Whereas with something like Achtung Baby we knew it was working. When we hit it, when something magical happened, we knew it."
Still, if there's one thing we do know about drummers, it's that they like to stay put. You have to wonder why one-quarter of one of the planet's multi-gazillion selling acts would fancy a radical career change. Is it madness? Or just masochism?
"There's a little bit of that to it," he says. "I think I wanted to beat myself up. I wanted to have a different kind of conversation. I wanted, I think, to get out there and work with people who don't necessarily have the same goals or opinions as I do. That sounds self-centred. But it's more to do with having been in a place of success for such a long time and not wanting to take that for granted. The idea of doing something where you could fall flat on your ass is not something that people generally want to do. But I really felt I had to do it."
He's not considering early retirement from the plumbing business, is he?
"Oh, I still want to keep the day job but I don't want to be sitting around for the six months when were not touring or recording when I could go produce a movie in that time. I do need to be able to do something else creative. Physically, my body has taken a beating. Because we've toured for all those years, I've had problems from head to toe. If a sportsman is using the same set of muscles he's lucky to get out with no lasting injuries after 10 years. I've been doing this for 35 years."
He's rather less keen on the idea of being part of an ageing prestige act.
"You can only do this for as long as your music is relevant and for as long as people still want to hear it. What The Rolling Stones do is exceptional because they have an incredible blues legacy. But if we're touring at 60 I like to think it'll be because we've put out a record that's good enough to tour. I don't want to be one of those musicians who, when someone else in the band passes away, I'm one of the three left standing and wondering: "Well, what are we going to do now?"
(c) Irish Times, 2013.