As one of the most impactful rock bands in history, there's not much left for U2 to accomplish, but the band is still exploring new frontiers.
Some 45 years into its career, U2 just released its first album in six years, Songs of Surrender, and premiered an acclaimed new documentary on Disney+. The band is also preparing for its highly-anticipated return to the stage later this year in Las Vegas at the MSG Sphere, celebrating the legacy of its Achtung Baby album.
This spring, bassist Adam Clayton saw a years-long side project come to fruition with the unveiling of his signature Fender ACB 50 amplifier — an endeavor that came in the footsteps of The Edge's own partnership with the renowned company.
"I had approached them because I was a little bit jealous that Edge had got an amp," Adam admits. "'I can do that too!'"
Adam has described Songs of Surrender as a sonic insight into The Edge's artistry, while the book that inspired the record — Bono's memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story — was a literary lens into the frontman's makeup as a human being, one that even decades of friendship couldn't grant.
"I was very interested in what he focused on, on what was important to him," Adam says of the memoir. "Of course there were a lot of things that I didn’t necessarily know about his early, early years and about his family life. As he talks about in the book, they never talked about his mother once she had passed away. And that certainly was my own experience with him; he rarely talked about it, rarely spoke about it."
During his sitdown via Zoom with QN'A, Adam offered further insight into his philosophy as a musician, his crucial role in U2, his thoughts on Bono's memoir and his feelings about moving ahead this year without Mullen, who is taking time off to recover from elbow and knee injuries.
Read the QN'A conversation below.
What’re you listening to these days?
I’ve been really enjoying the new Paramore album. I think they’re really interesting, and they’re playing Dublin in a few weeks’ time. I want to go check them out live.
They just seem like really energetic players, which I kind of like. I like some energy coming back into music. It’s all been so controlled and processed. They just really seem to play it and tell it how it is.
I’m so curious to know if you’ve read Bono’s memoir, or if you plan to read it?
I have read it. I spent lockdown reading a lot of my generation and younger and older memoirs. I found when we went into lockdown that I had sort of lost the sense of who I was or what generation I really belonged to.
It was because I’ve spent this extraordinary life that’s a little disorientating of living out of a suitcase and traveling and being applauded and being raised up to a level that’s not quite equitable with what one does. I just sort of thought I want to reconnect with who I am and what my generation is and where I came from. ...
...[W]hen Bono's book came out, I was very interested in what he focused on, on what was important to him. Of course there were a lot of things that I didn’t necessarily know about his early, early years and about his family life.
As he talks about in the book, they never talked about his mother once she had passed away. And that certainly was my own experience with him; he rarely talked about it, rarely spoke about it.
In the early days of the band, I remember that house on Cedar Wood Road. I remember being in the house when [Bono’s father] Bob Hewson returned home. I remember Bono cooking us dinner, which consisted of tin frankfurters and baked beans all cooked in the same saucepan. That was how we were. If we didn’t have the bus fare to get home that night, we would all sleep in the same bed in one of the rooms in the house — in his brother’s room I think it was. So [the book] brought me back to that.
The thing that was a real eye-opener to me was the commitment and doggedness to which he took on his various projects of bartering with his fame and with his success and with the people that held power in the Capitol building or elsewhere in the world, to alleviate the suffering of people with AIDS.
I didn’t know a lot of the minutia of what was involved in those briefings, sitting outside people’s doors until you could get a meeting, that sort of things. I didn’t understand a lot of that. Of course I’ve always been aware and had much respect of Bono’s absolute streetlike intelligence, that he could argue a point and make it felt. You add that to his belief system, and you have a very determined person there who has achieved amazing things. That’s partly due to being famous, partly due to being a musician, partly due to being Irish and considerably due to being intelligent and well-versed in the arguments.
Would you ever write a memoir of your own?
I don’t think it’s for me. The thing about what Bono managed to do — and it’s so rare — he managed to write 600 pages without really dissing anyone. I’m not so charitable in my internal life (laughs). I think I probably bare too many grudges to be able to write a book.
In the Fender video introducing your ACB 50 bass amp, it struck me that every riff you played in the video was so identifiable as a U2 song, even though your playing was unaccompanied.
That’s very kind of you to observe that. In a funny way, I supposed intuitively I’m aware of it, but I hadn’t taken stock of what you’re saying. I guess it was part of the philosophy of U2 from early on, because we were essentially a three-piece music section, every player had to deliver something that was essential to the composition, and each piece would add to the completeness of the composition.
Partly, I think because we were schooled as a live band, and you wanted to have that recognition factor instantly. I saw a documentary recently on MoTown, and the point was being made that all those intros on those old MoTown recordings, that if you couldn’t recognize [the tune] within the first two or three bars, then it wasn’t a good enough intro.
U2 lived by that, certainly on the first six or seven albums, that was the way we rolled. It’s a little harder now to come up with those sorts of parts because the process of recording and the process of playing live has changed, since it’s been dominated by processing and by the digital domain. By that I mean, we live in a world where you can basically dial up any sound that you can imagine. That’s a different headspace to those analog days when you were using basic technology and you were learning how to distort it and punch it up and come up with something new.
As far as listening, I know you started as a guitarist and switched to bass later on — I’m the same way — I wonder when did you start listening to bass in music?
I started out listening to music on very teeny weeny portable cassette players. The truth is I was not really aware of any low end. I was aware of the bass guitar frequency when it was in the mid range, because you could hear it on these small speakers.
Obviously as I developed as a musician and as we had a little more money to buy better quality equipment to listen back to music and go into recording studios, that whole wealth of American rhythmic music and funk and really a bass player’s dream. You know, discovering James Brown, discovering James Jamerson, discovering these titans — Carol Kaye — of American music. That changed the way I listened to music and what I wanted from music. I also got into reggae in a big way. Reggae had always been part of what was happening with punk music in the U.K., a huge influence on The Clash.
So I started to listen to bass in a different way. Fundamentally, I was always aware that for the bass to function well in U2, because of the way that Edge composed his guitar lines, and he stayed away from big, furry, bearded guitar chords, there was a midrange that needed some activity, some drive in it. That’s where I kind of ended up being.
And also the musical revolution that was punk or new wave that happened in the mid-‘70s, it was about finding different heroes and different stars in the band, and everybody had to be a star. Quite often the bass player, traditionally, was a slightly chubby guy that stood at the back of the stage, next to the drummer … and nobody kind of paid him much attention.
I think with the stripped down sound of punk rock — often there was only four guys in the band — everyone needed to take their position onstage and hold it. So the bass players became stars in that period. I’ve always thought that the bass feels better in your hands than a guitar. I like the way it’s balanced, I like the scale of it, I like the size of it; it suits my body. That minimalism of having four strings, there’s something really poetic about it to me.
The sound I gravitated to was a Fender Precision Bass through some valve compression amplifiers. Oddly enough, the Fender bass amps didn’t really drive the mid-range, they scooped it out. So you had a lot of high end on a Fender Bassman amp and a lot of low end and not much in the middle. So I didn’t use much Fender backline gear.
So what was interesting when I started to talk to Fender about the idea of doing an amp, it was apparent to me that we could do something that Fender had never really done before and it would be revolutionary for Fender to step into that space. I had approached them because I was a little bit jealous that Edge had got an amp! “I can do that too!”
Over the course of two or three years, we met up, I played through a few things. [Stan Cotey] got a reaction from me, went back to the drawing board, and eventually we came back with the ACB50.
It’s an amplifier that at 50 watts gives you a lot of headroom. I find myself wondering why on Earth I ever had these 4.12 cabinets, 100 watt heads, when you can put it in a combo. I guess nowadays monitoring is much more sophisticated and out-front sound reproduction is much more sophisticated.
What’s it going to be like playing in U2 without Larry this year at your Las Vegas residency?
The great thing about Larry and my playing relationship was he always made me sound good, and for that I’m really grateful for. It’s really hard to know what it’s going to be like with another drummer.
But you know Bram [van den Berg] is a very accomplished drummer. He’s a really nice guy. I imagine we’ll find a groove. It won’t necessarily be the same as the pocket that Larry and I find. I guess in some ways I have some trepidation of stepping away from my comfort zone and what I like, but I also think it’s an opportunity, you know, to stretch. Working with another drummer, there’s got to be a payoff for me, I’ll get something out of it. I’m sure it’ll end up being a useful and a worthwhile collaboration.
And hopefully when Larry is well again, it’ll feel that much better to have him back.
It’ll be different. You know Larry instinctively knows my strengths and my weaknesses, so he would operate in a certain area that he knows would work for me. Bram, I know, isn’t going to be like that. So you know there’s going to be a little bit of finding out feet together, but because of that we might end up in a different place sometimes and there’s no harm in that. That can only be a benefit, I’m sure.