Thirty years after becoming the biggest band in the world, Bono and co still polarise opinion. Here, taking a break in the Côte d’Azur, they discuss the Ireland of their youth, their Apple album giveaway – and why Bono works with people he would have once loathed
|Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton, Bono and the Edge: ‘The interaction is the same as it always was.’|
A warm afternoon in the Côte d’Azur village of Villefranche-sur-Mer. Yachts bob lazily in the bay, diners dawdle al fresco, and Bono, nursing a hangover behind mirrored Ray-Bans, is playing tour guide. He wants to show me the Chapelle de Saint Pierre des Pecheurs, a tiny 12th-century chapel with 1950s murals by Jean Cocteau.
Inside the chapel, he encounters a group of grey-haired American choristers. He spontaneously invites them to sing Amazing Grace with him, to their initial bemusement. Afterwards, one man asks, “Are you a well-known musician? Should we know who you are?”
“Er,” Bono says hesitantly. “I’m Bono.”
The man laughs and says that he’s heard of him. A woman steps forward to tell Bono how much she enjoyed his musical about the shipyards. Not, as far as he knows, having written one, he looks puzzled. She explains further. “Oh,” he says, the penny dropping, “it’s Sting you’re thinking of.”
Bono doesn’t seem bothered. I suspect he is unembarrassable and, anyway, one reason he spends four months a year in the vicinity is because “the particular genius of the French people is to ignore you. So you actually have a laugh.”
I’ve met Bono when he’s been in the middle of a tour and he moved at a different tempo then, always on the clock, retaining some of the overwhelming, centripetal presence of a frontman even off stage. Here, he’s relaxed, playful, sprawling. Installed in a virtually empty quayside restaurant, he extends lunch over three hours, via an “emergency beer”, several glasses of wine, a cheese plate and a solitary cigarette. Occasionally, a fan will politely approach him for a selfie. “Can you make me look tall, skinny and intelligent?” he asks one.
Bono is one of precious few celebrities (think George Clooney, Jack Nicholson, Jay Z) who visibly enjoys fame. We have come to regard fame as a dangerous, unnatural condition that exacts a terrible price. Bands lose their moorings and drift apart. Stars feel besieged and armour-plate themselves. But I think Bono actually finds fame liberating and he’s confident enough (his religious faith helps) to remain excitable and exposed. One reason many people find him annoying is that he doesn’t suffer for his success.
Perhaps those people would dislike Bono in person, too, but I’m not sure. He’s a tireless raconteur with a big, throaty laugh, fond of anecdotes, jokes, digressions, impressions (his Paul McCartney is spot-on) and catchy, if sometimes glib, aphorisms. He has the thirsty, impatient intellect of an autodidact. He seems to find everything, whether it’s the birth of cubism, the reforms of Pope Francis or maternity leave in Germany, equally stimulating. “I have many lives,” he says. It’s not surprising when he asks his assistant to pick his main course for him. He’s not good at narrowing his options.
The first night Bono spent on the Côte d’Azur, in 1986, he wrote the lyrics to U2’s colossal hit With Or Without You. Since the 90s, it’s been the band’s playground. “Down here we just fell in love with music again,” he says, dispatching his fish and vegetables in swift bites. “It was something to do with living rather than working. I know that sounds decadent.”
This is where he has holidayed with Steve Jobs, gone drinking with a former minister in Salvador Allende’s Chilean government and slept on the beach with Michael Hutchence – before “the days of the phone camera”, he says sadly. He used to enjoy bringing home colourful local characters, not always to the unalloyed delight of his wife, Ali. One night it was a magician. “It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m saying, ‘Wait till you see what this guy can do!’” he remembers. “And she said [forbiddingly]: ‘Can he make you disappear?’”
There are, it must be said, many people who would like to see that. Bono polarises opinion like no other rock star, perhaps no other celebrity. U2 remain popular enough that their 2009-11 360° tour was the biggest grossing in history, yet their critics are noisier and more venomous than ever. Bono says he got used to it 30 years ago.
“We were already annoying people, it was already divisive, it was already, ‘I can’t stand them, I want to kill them,’” he says, waving his fork. “It’s the job of art to be divisive.”
Still, the last month or so has been a whirlwind. Just a week after U2 finished their 13th album, Songs of Innocence, Apple delivered it gratis to the clouds of half a billion iTunes accounts. It appealed to U2 as an audacious move in the spirit of Bono’s star-making walk into the crowd at Live Aid, or the recklessly expensive 1992 Zoo TV tour. Their gambles tend to pay off. This somewhat intrusive giveaway caused such uproar on social media that Apple released a tool enabling unhappy customers to delete the album. But Twitter is not the world. At the last count the album has been accessed by 81 million people and downloaded in full by 26 million.
Their different responses to the furore are revealing. Bono says emphatically: “We got paid. And this is about a company [Apple] that’s fighting for musicians to be paid.” And he is bullish about the quality of the songwriting. “These songs, you could stamp on their head and kick them to the ground and they’re still going to stay there.”
Monk-like guitarist the Edge is typically even-handed. “I absolutely had my doubts about it before we did it, and after, but it was the right thing to do,” he says. “It was an opportunity that will only ever come around once for anybody. I don’t think anyone would want to do it again.”
Forthright drummer Larry Mullen “couldn’t give a shite” and louche bass player Adam Clayton wonders what all the fuss is about. “The plan wasn’t to be controversial. In today’s world there is so much chatter, so in order to get through the chatter I’m afraid we are destined to make a very loud noise ourselves.”
The scale of the release felt at odds with what is the most lyrically intimate set of songs of U2’s career, candidly exploring the 54-year-old’s troubled youth as plain Paul Hewson in 1970s Dublin. I ask Bono if the stunt might have missold the album? “No, no, no, that’s the duality!” he shouts. “Intimacies through large public address systems is what we do. That’s what rock’n’roll is! This is not a poetry reading. I didn’t abandon ship on the rest of my life for that. I abandoned ship because I heard Joey Ramone singing about his neighbourhood at deafening volume. That’s the thing.”
U2 became the biggest band in the world in the 80s, when that status was both measurable and desirable. They regarded hugeness as something to aspire to, master and, eventually, enjoy. But bands don’t talk like that any more. Arcade Fire or the Black Keys are suspicious of success while the Rolling Stones or AC/DC release albums chiefly as an excuse to tour the hits. Only U2 crave both size and relevance. They are proudly, perhaps unfashionably, alone.
The question that Songs of Innocence attempts to answer is why Bono wanted all of this. It makes clear how necessary U2 was to a teenager blasted sideways by his mother Iris’s fatal cerebral aneurysm when he was just 14.
“If somebody were to do an analysis of the singers and writers in rock’n’roll, you’d be so shocked by how many lost their mother,” he says. “You’re just at the age where you’re discovering girls and the woman who brought you into the world exits stage left in a very dramatic way. But what’s more interesting is the rage that follows grief. Where do you put it? Music arrives in my life as an emancipation and punk rock gives me a place to howl. And it’s alchemy. It’s literally turning your shit into gold records.”
Bono has maintained the same bandmates since then, most of the same friends and crew members and, until last year, the same manager, Paul McGuinness. U2 even shared houses during the album sessions in London and Malibu. Bono loves the romance of friends in a band so much that he’s still upset that the Beatles and the Clash split up. “He’s a guy that values friendship probably above anything else,” says Edge.
To many outsiders, for better or worse, U2 is the Bono show but each member is a distinctly strong character: a leg without which the table would collapse. Edge, who meets me for coffee in a neighbouring village the next day, is the band’s studio perfectionist, music geek and diplomat. He is calm and precise, with the soothing tones of a late-night radio DJ, but he’s nostalgic for the rowdy battles of punk.
“People were either turned on by it or completely repulsed,” he says fondly. “It was something that defined you. It makes me start to twitch when music is smooth, like a beautiful soundtrack to your life. Music has become wallpaper, a commodity, something going on in the background. That’s why I love Kanye West because he’s like, Take this! I’m with him. Let’s not make it comfortable.”
Bono says that Adam Clayton, a supermodel-dating hellraiser in the 90s but teetotal now, has matured into “a wise owl”. Sipping sparkling water, Clayton is wry, unflappable, more aristocratic than his middle-class origins would suggest, relentlessly self-effacing about his bass-playing, and still amazed by his good fortune.
“I consider myself a very lucky person,” he says. “The overriding sense is, how the hell did I get from there to here? Because you would not in a million years have imagined that a complete waster and fantasist from a dodgy Irish public school could end up in a comprehensive in a Dublin suburb and meet three extraordinary characters that would go on to become world-class musicians, and be a part of it.”
He’s not sure why U2’s friendship has proved unusually rock-solid but he’s grateful. “The interaction is kind of the same as it always was,” he says. “The job of being in U2 is hard enough when you really like each other. I can’t imagine what it would be like if we had fights.”
Larry Mullen, a drummer by temperament as well as trade, is the band’s anchor, its voice of caution, its youngest member and bluntest talker. He neither needs nor wants attention so it’s a surprise to see him embracing his 18-year-old son Elvis on the cover of Songs of Innocence. Predictably, it was Bono’s idea. “It doesn’t sit terribly comfortably but it’s a good image,” says Mullen, sitting at a table by the bay.
When I ask him if the album prompted him to reflect on his own youth, he says, “No. I don’t need to look back to go forward.” But he admits, reluctantly, that losing his own mother in his teens gave him an immediate kinship with Bono.
“Everything I thought that would be was no longer,” he says. “Everything was broken. Like home, that was just gone, everything was gone. So my thing was to find somewhere else to go. I needed another family and the band became that for me, and it was a refuge. I was sitting behind a drumkit. I didn’t have to explain myself. And that’s been very convenient because it’s not easy stuff to talk about, and I admire Bono for doing it. I find it… kind of… you know, it’s a painful period of my life and it still feels the same way. I wish I could just expel it. I don’t have the resources or the willpower to do that yet.”
Later, he says, “The reason that we do this is because we are incomplete, and being in the band allows people who are slightly broken to feel fixed for that period of time.”
When I ask Mullen if he remembers the teenage Bono as the cannonball of fury and grief portrayed in the new song Volcano, the drummer instantly replies: “That’s the guy I know now.”
Despite the staggering success of the 360° tour, the past few years have found U2 looking unusually vulnerable. The tour’s final leg and U2’s Glastonbury debut were postponed by a year when Bono incurred a serious back injury. Their last album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, sold disappointingly and lacked hit singles.
“It was conceived as a more fun, off-the-cuff type of work but we realised towards the end that that doesn’t exist for us,” Edge says ruefully. “There’s no small album from us.”
“It wasn’t fun,” Mullen says of the album he refers to as No Craic on the Horizon. “It was pretty fucking miserable. It turns out that we’re not as good as we thought we were and things got in the way.”
When Glastonbury finally came around in 2011, it rained solidly throughout U2’s set and Bono’s usual rapport with a crowd eluded him. I ask Mullen if it’s true that he said “Never again” after coming off stage. No, he corrects me. “I said: I’ll never, ever do that again. I will never do a gig where you have that distance between yourself and the audience.”
“Do I think it could have been better?” says Clayton. “Yeah, it could have been better, but I’m very glad we did it.”
Then there was Bono and Edge’s songbook for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the jinxed Broadway musical that closed early with a reported loss of $60m. “We had some wonderful times and I don’t regret it but it really did become a bit of a nightmare,” says Edge. “We had to get involved with aspects of the show that I didn’t feel comfortable with. I would not want to be involved to that degree in something like that again. It’s just too difficult.”
In 2011, U2 were working on three different albums simultaneously: the never-completed Songs of Ascent; a more electronic record with Lady Gaga producer RedOne; and another with Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley producer Danger Mouse. They decided, says Clayton, that they had “run out of road” with their semi-regular collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and needed another reboot like 1991’s Achtung Baby or 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “We needed to reinvent and revitalise.”
“The easiest thing would be a greatest hits tour,” says Mullen. “We could do that for years. I just wasn’t prepared to go down in flames on the last record. This is not the way to finish your career. Go out with something that you really believe in. There were questions like: can we do this? Is it possible for us?”
The Danger Mouse sessions (finished with extra producers including Paul Epworth) became Songs of Innocence when Jimmy Iovine, the former record mogul who is currently working for Apple, told Bono: “The person you need to be to make this album, he’s a long way from where you live.”
“He threw down the gauntlet,” says Bono. “Are you ready to go there? Are you ready to ask yourself the hard questions? And I asked myself the hard questions about why I wanted to be in the band in the first place. You know, I didn’t go to a shrink. I should. I went there. And there’s some surprising outcomes.”
The album describes musical epiphanies, personal tragedies, childhood friendships and aspects of life in 70s Ireland. In U2’s early days, Bono avoided singing about both the Catholic church and the Troubles. “I think to get anywhere there was a large element of fantasy, so the last thing we wanted to do was dwell on the tough reality of our situation,” says Edge.
Now, however, Sleep Like a Baby Tonight is a furiously sarcastic lullaby to a paedophile priest, while Raised By Wolves describes a UVF triple car bombing in Dublin in 1974, the deadliest terrorist attack in Irish history. One of Bono’s best friends witnessed the devastation. The singer wonders if this is one reason why he’s drawn to protest songs.
“Why do I write songs about political violence?” he asks. “Where is that coming from? And I think that’s why. It was very disturbing to realise that my teenage life was largely dominated by memories of violence and that my worldview was shaped by that. It might mean some sort of psychological flaw in me, but I feel most comfortable in the middle of the biggest, noisiest, most chaotic, howling argument.”
As we talk, he formulates a new theory about the album. (He likes new theories.) It’s really about bullies, he says, whether priests, terrorists, cruel teachers, street-corner bootboys or abusive patriarchs. “I remember those bullies,” he says darkly. “The dads brutalising their kids, the husband brutalising the wife. I can’t stand bullies. I can’t stand them online, I can’t stand them in front of me. Defining yourself by degrading someone else.”
He gets angry about online trolls, not for his own sake but because of the damage they do to people without the insulation of success. “The internet, it’s like mankind [has just] discovered fire,” he says. “What are we going to do with this? It’s very exciting, it’s very worrying. You can say some mad shit out there.”
One of Bono’s more controversial decisions has been to fraternise with unpopular politicians, most notoriously George W Bush, in order to achieve goals he cares about such as debt relief and HIV/Aids treatment. Critics claim he is an apologist for neoliberalism, cosying up to the 1% (including Bill Gates and economist Jeffrey Sachs) in order to tackle problems caused by the 1%. He calls himself “a natural social democrat” but he is also a pragmatist and an optimist who believes people can be persuaded to do the right thing. He says he often ends up liking powerful people he previously regarded as “Lucifer”.
Come on, I say. This can’t be the only story. Surely he’s met some people in business or politics who were every bit as noxious as he’d feared.
“Yeah, there’s a few people where I’ve wanted to take a shower after shaking their hands,” he concedes. “Even recently. But I don’t believe in individuals in power or personality cults, including myself. I believe in social movements and their power to change things.”
Recently, he’s dialled down the high-profile advocacy to concentrate on behind-the-scenes activism, like fighting for legislation to promote transparency and combat corruption in the developing world. He admires Matt Damon’s campaigning (“he’s the best at it because he uses humour as a weapon”) but says it’s not appropriate for him right now.
“I went from front of house to the back room,” he says. “I just thought, y’know, I can take a hint. I do not want to devalue the issues that I’m campaigning for. I thought I could use this absurdity, celebrity, and I managed to turn it into currency and go to work with it, but then at some point it became difficult to be in a band and bring your baggage to this issue. So I’ve tried to keep my head down and wait for the right moment to put it up.”
I raise this with Mullen, who has previously seemed uneasy with Bono’s extracurricular tub-thumping. “He doesn’t give a damn what people think if he can achieve what he wants to achieve, and that’s a very brave thing to do,” he says. “Most people wouldn’t be able to withstand the vitriol that goes with that. And we’ve kind of accepted that’s why he’s the singer in your band – that’s why a lot of people come to see you and it’s why a lot of people don’t like you. So there’s a bit of both but I think, overall, it’s a positive tailwind.”
“I think what pisses off the community in general is that we keep turning up in places that we’re not supposed to turn up in,” Clayton says with amusement. “I understand that.”
Of course, the biggest blow to Bono’s activist reputation has been U2’s collectivedecision in 2006 to transfer U2 Ltd, which handles their publishing royalties (not the bulk of their income but a significant chunk), from Ireland to the Netherlands to reduce their tax bill. Their Glastonbury set attracted a small lobby of banner-waving protesters. Edge is painstakingly even-handed about it. “Was it totally fair? Probably not. The perception is a gross distortion. We do pay a lot of tax. But if I was them I probably would have done the same, so it goes with the territory.”
Like the protesters, I think the arrangement sits badly with Bono’s development work and we go back and forth for a while. It isn’t a clandestine offshore tax haven, Bono insists. “All of our stuff is out in the open. How did people find out about it? Because it’s published. The sneakiness is when you don’t even know what’s going on.” Eventually, we agree to disagree, and the conversation moves on to Ireland’s corporation-friendly tax laws, currently the subject of an EU investigation.
“Look, Ireland is not going to back down on this,” he says. “We are a tiny little country, we don’t have scale, and our version of scale is to be innovative and to be clever, and tax competitiveness has brought our country the only prosperity we’ve known. That’s how we got these [tech] companies here. Little countries, we don’t have natural resources, we have to be able to attract people. We’ve been through the 50s and the 60s, and mass haemorrhaging of our population all over the world. There are more hospitals and firemen and teachers because of [Ireland’s tax] policy.”
One of Bono’s current obsessions is using commerce towards progressive ends. “As a person who’s spent nearly 30 years fighting to get people out of poverty, it was somewhat humbling to realise that commerce played a bigger job than development. I’d say that’s my biggest transformation in 10 years: understanding the power of commerce to make or break lives, and that it cannot be given into as the dominating force in our lives.”
He’s found the learning curve exhilarating. “I just want to know, and the way I get to know things is by doing them,” he says. “I’m like that with anything. What’s that? How does this work? Let’s go in, let’s find out. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s quite dysfunctional when artists are over here, science is over there, politicians are in their own place… No, I’m not having that. I want to be able to walk through every room and listen and learn.”
Regarding the powerful people he’s dealt with, Bono says “the younger me wouldn’t have liked any of them”. I ask him if he misses certain aspects of that confused yet righteous youth and he replies by reciting the lyrics to The Morning After Innocence, a song from Songs of Experience, the work-in-progress sequel toSongs of Innocence.
“The older protagonist is asking the younger one for help,” he explains. “The biggest problem that I face now is that I understand the dialectical nature of things. It can make you less clear about your response.” He sounds wistful. “When I was younger, I knew what my position was on everything.”
It’s often overlooked how many of Bono’s lyrics thrive on guilt and self-recrimination (in a certain light, Achtung Baby is an extended apology for going on the lash), but I suspect he can only beat himself up because he’s fundamentally resilient, retaining the scrappy, headlong self-belief that got U2 off the ground in the first place. As he sings on the new album’s final song, The Troubles: “I have a will for survival/So you can hurt me and hurt me some more.”
What’s more, he is still fired up by the prospect of the next room, the next person, the next record, the next glass of wine. He has made his life as interesting as humanly possible.
“There’s some heat involved,” he says, draining his glass. “But you get a nice seat in restaurants.”
Sunday 12 October 2014
Sunday 12 October 2014