"I hate to make predictions," U2 bassist Adam Clayton says with a soft chuckle, as if he's afraid someone will hear him over the midday buzz in the lobby of his lower-Manhattan hotel. "If we get six tunes, maybe that will roll into a project." He pauses for emphasis. "Maybe."
As you read this, U2 are at work in their Dublin studio, where they plan to stay until June, jamming, writing and revisiting outtakes from their latest album, the Grammy-winning All That You Can't Leave Behind. Their intention: to start, and possibly finish, a new record this year. Clayton, singer Bono, guitarist the Edge and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. have already been in the studio twice since their last U.S. show on December 2nd, 2001, and Clayton claims that, even after a year of touring, U2 are anything but toast.
"One advantage of playing arenas is that the band is playing much better now," he says cheerfully. "We can actually hear each other onstage. So the bands sounds good." The same, he adds, goes for the feast of unissued songs from the sessions for Can't Leave Behind. "Everything we had left over was finished, which was unusual for us. There are maybe another ten pieces that are more immediate, slightly poppier, tunes that I know will turn up." Clayton smiles. "Because they're good."
He then explains what happens behind those studio doors. "Nowadays, Edge tends to do his homework and discipline some chord sequences. Then, as a group, we find an interpretation, a unique way they fit together. Or a sound will get thrown out from a jam, and we figure out a melody to go with it." Clayton cites two examples from Can't Leave Behind: "'Elevation' came from a sound, that abrasive guitar: 'We've really got to do something with that.' 'Walk On' was two songs that both had great chords but weren't great songs." He laughs. "We sewed them together."
Clayton -- the oldest member of U2 (he turned forty-two on March 13th) and, along with the Edge, part of the English-born half of the band -- remains amazed by the sustained power of Can't Leave Behind. It was a record written, he says, "about the journey we'd been through as a band, as men in relationships, as sons of mothers and fathers. It was about the baggage that you have to live with, the sense of loss, like the fact that Bono's father was terminally ill through that whole period."
September 11th changed that. "Suddenly, this happened to America as a whole," Clayton says with lingering shock, "which means people reassess your record and music in a totally different way." When U2 pulled into New York's Madison Square Garden in October, "it was like when we played Sarajevo [in 1997], where the act of the band being there was just a reason for everybody to come out. At the Garden, everyone turned up because they knew the band would be onstage at nine o'clock. But as crazy as those shows were, it was the audience taking us on a journey, not us taking them."
U2 are done with the road -- for now. But even with another record looming, Clayton does not fret about Bono's manic commuting between U2 and his twin crusades: third-world debt relief and the AIDS crisis in Africa. For instance, Bono spent most of his Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans for U2's halftime show and the game itself, in New York at the World Economic Forum.
"We wouldn't get any more of him if he wasn't doing this stuff," Clayton says, noting that it's great fun to watch Bono turn his acuity and Irish charm on politicians and CEOs. "These guys don't expect him to have a grasp of the subject matter. He's able to go in with the facts and figures, talk circles around them, and suddenly, where they thought they were just going to get their picture taken with him, he's gotten something out of them before the picture.
"You can't deny the penetration he has achieved," Clayton says. "And it makes the rest of us realize that what we do is important to the group. We need to keep it going forward, to allow him to come in and out. Bono has a legitimate reason not to be around all the time. And we have a legitimate reason to make sure that the time we are all together is used wisely."