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U2 in Their Own Words

Bono and Co. on the band's lifespan, their aborted Rick Rubin sessions and the legacy of "Pop"

March 13, 2009 3:04 PM ET

As they reclaim their position as the world's biggest band, U2 open up about their internal bond and how Pop led them to their new Horizon. Here are key outtakes from our cover-story interviews with Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., who also discuss their aborted Rick Rubin sessions and how long U2 will go on.

On the band's lifespan:

Adam Clayton: My thinking has changed over the years, and I now think if you are an artistic entity like U2 is and you have created these songs, there's no rulebook that says you can't ever perform those songs again at some point in your life. In my opinion, if you've written a song, it's valid for you to perform it however many times you want, wherever you want to. And if people want to turn up and pay money to experience it with you then, you know, that's very nice. Music and song writing are about communication. So it's something that you do with other people. You commune. So I don't really think there's a point when you should stop doing it. I mean it may be, it may be allegedly embarrassing for some people to see you up there performing songs when you're dribbling. But if they're your songs, you're entitled to it.

The Edge: We're all changing. We're all growing up and we're all going through what you go through when you have families, when you have a big house and a dog, whatever. It's not like we're all living in the same flat anymore. But I think we all know that there's something kind of touched about the way the four of us interact musically.

We've weathered so much stuff over the years that could well have broken up a group and we're still here. I think it's down to a number of factors. First off there's genuine friendship and regard personally between the four members of the band. We hang out together. We enjoy each other's company. We see each other on our break times as well as when we're working. It's not like I'm rushing to get out of the studio to see my friends. I'm in the studio with my friends. That's sort of unique. I think we all fully appreciate how special it is, how unique it is to still be making great music after so many years. We don't want to fuck up. It's too precious.

When anyone has a bad day and they want to leave the band or throw someone else out of the band, it doesn't last very long. I occasionally go through this thing, once a decade, where I go, "OK, that's it, I've had enough. It's over. It's all too much." And then I go through the process: "OK, what am I going to do with my life now?" So I start thinking, I would still want to make music. Am I a solo artist? To be perfectly honest, I'm not a solo artist. I need to find collaborators. OK, who do I want as my drummer? Fuck, there's no one better than Larry Mullen. What about bass? Shit, it has to be Adam. OK, singers? Oh shit, there's no one better than Bono. So I end up redesigning us for better or for worse. It's kind of ideal. That's not to say that it is not challenging.

I just know I make better music when I'm working with Bono. I make a lot of music on my own but no one ever hears. It just gets better when I'm working on it with Adam, Larry and Bono and Brian [Eno] and Danny [Lanois]. Who knows, at some point I might do some more collaborations outside of the band or solo projects. But I'm not rushing to. I like what I do.

Larry Mullen Jr.: We don't always like each other but we respect each other, and we love each other. Marriages don't last this long. Will it stop working at some time? I'm sure it will. It's not indefinite. There will be a time where it's like, "It's time to go," and I would like that time to be on a high when you're still achieving, as opposed to on the curve down. That'll be sad for me. I think it'll be a more dignified time to actually go, "You know what? That's the end of that period" and we might come back in five years time and may do something together just for old times sake 'cause we know we'll want to. And I think that'll be a beautiful end to a long a beautiful career.

No [I haven't discussed this with my bandmates]. We don't discuss a lot of things. I'm just saying what I imagine it would be like, but I don't know. Of course it can't go on forever. It just can't. And if it ended tomorrow, would it be sad? Sure. But it wouldn't be the end of the world. It helps, I imagine, that you have a family, that you have a life outside the band. As a younger man would it have felt like the end of the world? I think it would have been more difficult. But my family is obviously important, as is everybody's in the band. It's an important part of our life.

On the aborted Rick Rubin sessions:

The Edge: I think had we finished the songs, it would have worked, but we sort of hadn't really finished the songs. It's typical for us, because it's in the process of recording that we really do our writing. But we'd almost have to make a record with Brian [Eno] and Danny [Lanois] first, then go and re-record it with Rick Rubin. And we may do that. We did start material with Rick, which I still believe in. I would love to get back to that project at some point. I wouldn't rule it out.

Adam Clayton: Rick was great; he was very focused and I was excited. The material was of a very high standard, but it sort of became clear that the things that we were interested in — in terms of, once we have a song, we're interested in the atmospherics and the tones and the overdubs and the different stuff you can do with it — were things that Rick was not in the slightest bit interested in. He was interested in getting it from embryonic stage to a song that could be mixed and put on a record. And we're almost the kind of band that goes, "Well, sure, you've got it to that point, but now how far can you push it?" He was committed to that process of getting it to that finished stage, and then at the point when we were kind of excited to push it further, that's almost the point when he lost interest.

And I think initially, we had sort of said, "Well, you know, it's gonna be interesting to do a sort of stripped-down, sort of Rick Rubin, back-to-basics kind of record," and then as we as we kind of examined that it was like, "Well, all that would be doing is kind of making a kind of slightly better version of what we've already done." And we just didn't feel that the next record should be that.

I'm sure we'll go back to those Rick Rubin tunes and that Rick Rubin session, but I guess we just thought, at the time, that wasn't what we were interested in. We weren't interested in redefining the basic U2. It would've been, you know, no overdubs — just band takes and here it is.

Larry Mullen Jr.: Simple as this, I've a huge fan of Rick, he's a very nice man, an incredibly talented man, but we weren't ready. He's got very, very great skills but we are just slightly slow and we don't learn quickly and we thought we were better than we actually were. So when we went in to record the songs, he was confused and so were we. He did a lot of work, but they weren't right. And it's nothing to do with him. At all. And it's not his fault. It has been reported that he was dropped off the project and whatever — but that's not true, it was more that we needed to have something to work off of, and that's what Brian and Danny do.

On the legacy of Pop and PopMart

Bono: The film PopMart Live From Mexico City is the best thing, audio/visually that U2 has done. Eclipsed only by U2 3D, in my view. It's better than Zoo TV, it's better than all of them. It's really, quite shocking. It's unfortunate that we weren't able to play that well at the start of the tour as we did by the end of it, by the time we got to Mexico.

As regard to the album, yeah, I have some regrets and I think we fell in between two stools on that album — we neither made a dance or a combo album. And we also lacked editing and the hooks weren't good enough, but I think I really liked the subject there and I really liked, what I attempted for. Can you imagine, the best way of looking at that album is: if "Discotheque" had been to U2 what "Sledgehammer" was to Peter Gabriel then you'd understand where we were coming form.

So after that, we did two back-to-basics albums. With No Line on the Horizon, we wanted to really push the combo format. But what we actually said is "OK, if we are going to go polyrhythmic, if we are going to go into that mode, let's do hand-made digital, you know, let's do hand-made electronica." That is, actually, what the music is, it's not on a grid, it's not tightly formatted the way dance music is. The emphasis was on playing live in the room but using some electronic instruments. But we got those sounds, those extraordinary sounds, without losing the thing that a band can do when it is playing live. We got both. That is what we didn't manage to do on Pop.

On "Breathe"

Bono: I stepped into this character, like ... I think it was a little bit influenced by The Music Man. You know that musical? The scene on the train? It's a way to use words in a percussive way but not have it be hip-hop. It's somewhere between, you know, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and I did a kind of character a bit like that at the end of "Bullet the Blue Sky." I just wanted to get to a new place as a lyricist, and, I just thought making these short jabbing things made really great sense over those chords. Edge just came up with a chord sequence there and I just liked the bracing tone. I was thinking about it in a very physical way. I was improvising it — the lines were coming out like that.

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