It’s been a big past few months for U2 — and its fans.
After a pandemic period marked by mostly archival projects, the Irish quartet (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2005) reactivated last November through frontman Bono’s memoir, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” which uses some of his compositions as a narrative vehicle.
That was followed by his “Stories of Surrender” live shows in several cities during the fall, with more coming in April and May at the Beacon Theater in New York City. Then, on March 17, U2 released “Songs of Surrender,” the band’s first new album since 2017 and a companion to the book that features stripped-down rearrangements of 40 songs from throughout U2′s career.
That, in turn, was accompanied by “Bono & The Edge: A Sort Of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman,” a documentary that’s now streaming on Disney+, and a U2SOS40 video series that will eventually cover all of the “Songs of Surrender.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, U2 announced its return to the stage with a fall residence at The Sphere, a new venue still under construction in Las Vegas, at which Bona, The Edge and Adam Clayton will be joined by drummer Bram van den Berg from the Dutch band Krezip while Larry Mullen Jr. tends to injuries he’s accumulated through the years. And on top of all that, Clayton has released a new bass amplifier, the ACB 50, in partnership with Fender.
So there’s a lot of ground to cover as Clayton, 63, Zooms in from U2′s home base of Dublin, and he’s clearly happy to have his band back on active duty…
“Songs of Surrender” was not necessarily what people expected for U2′s next album. How did it come about?
Clayton: It was one of the more organic processes that U2 engaged in. It grew out of the fact that Bono was really telling his story…in these 40 events. He used the device of the 40 song titles, and we started to talk about what we could do while he was busy making his book. Edge said, “Let me have a look at those titles. Let me see if I can come up with a different space for these songs so we can present them in a way where the narrative of the songs in some way is associated with the arc of the book.” It was very unwieldy as an idea, reimagining 40 songs, so big respect to Edge for coming up with all these amazing arrangements of acoustic songs and delivering 40 of them. That is no mean feat. That’s a lot of late nights.
So many bands, and their fans, tend to view the original recordings of songs as being in stone. What was it like to go back and, really, drastically revise these?
Clayton: We started to see that a lot of the early songs that had felt incomplete or unfinished or naive, when one looked at them now these were songs with a lot of DNA and intuition in them. When you look back at them now, from this position of being in our 50s, those lyrics and those songs meant something, and it meant Edge could slow them down. He could bring the keys down. Bono could deliver the vocals in a different way. And suddenly there was a personality that had much more of the gravitas of a story that Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson might tell, and it engaged you in a different way. It stopped you (from) thinking about that big ol’ 80s rock band that had this big, stadium-filling sound.
How did that approach impact you as a player and your approach to the arrangements?
Clayton: I said to Edge early on, “I don’t think we should really add the band into any of these tunes unless it’s strictly necessary.” And the songs that I found the most interesting because they made me think differently were the ones where he worked up piano arrangements. It was lockdown so we weren’t always gathering together in one place at any one given time; at various times (The Edge) would ring me and say, “Will you do a week in the studio, work on these songs if you can, see where you get to with that?” So I’d go into the studio…and they’d play me what Edge had, and sometimes Edge hadn’t developed it very well and I’d just put something down with no real responsibility towards anything. It was really freeing because I could say to myself, “I don’t have to deliver this as a U2 rock band track. I’m just putting something down, and if somebody likes it, if they want to use it, great. If it doesn’t ring their bell, if they don’t want to use it, it’s not gonna put my nose out of joint. And that’s how we really progressed it. It was whatever served the song best at that moment in time. I think it makes for really good listening. It makes you listen to the tracks in a different way.
Your favorite moments?
Clayton: There’s one song in particular, which is “Stories For Boys,” where (The Edge) also takes the lead vocal and I think it’s a beautiful reading of that song and it’s a beautiful insight into Edge as an artist and a singer. And “All I Want is You”…I was playing an acoustic bass guitar, an old Martin bass guitar that made it onto a lot of the tracks, and when I listen back to it I can really hear the air moving and I can hear my fingers on the strings. I just like that intimacy. I think it really worked.
At the end of the Disney+ show Bono and Edge thank you and Larry for letting them “go rogue” on that. Between Bono’s book and Edge taking the lead on “Songs of Surrender” they’ve really taken the reins, which I take it you’re comfortable with?
Clayton: Well, How can you be pissed off with people that you’ve done really well by for such a long time. I’m a big fan of Bono and Edge, and of Larry. I love to see Bono and Edge do interesting things. I’m grateful to be in a band with those two extraordinary talents and hard-working people. They’re great songwriters, great artists but they’re great humanitarians and they’re really great people. I need to be inspired and I need to be led by that kind of thinking. I believe in music as a higher art, a higher form, and you don’t have to be dumbed down by it. You can change the world with a guitar — that’s what I signed up for.
What kind of insights did you get from Bono’s book? It’s partly your story, too.
Clayton: Y’know, I think what I got is a level of respect for Bono that is kind of new in a way. I knew a lot about what he was doing politically, but I didn’t really, really know what it took, what kind of effort it took to get up and trudge through the Capitol building, waiting on having meetings with people and how arbitrary some of the decision-making really is. That’s a guy who didn’t have to get up and go to work every day like that and look at everything he’s done. Like I said, that’s inspiring.
What are you anticipating for the Las Vegas dates in the fall?
Clayton: I’m excited. I’ve always liked playing. There’s something about the roar of the crowd and the element that being in front of a crowd brings to the music and brings to the playing. It’s where the magic happens. I think in some ways as a musician you’re serving the audience. You are the thing that they gather around. You create the music that takes them somewhere else, and they take you with them if you’re lucky.
This will be your first time on stage without Larry. How are you feeling about that?
Clayton: I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I haven’t played with anyone else before. I know playing with Larry Mullen, he always made me sound good, and that was half the job done. So it might just keep us on our toes. I’m sure we’ll find our groove. I think Bram is a great player. He’s got a great reputation. He’s a lovely man, and I always find with music, if the musician’s heart is in the right place the music follows without too much difficulty.
There’s been talk about the next album of original material, that you’ve put one album aside (“Songs of Ascent”) in favor of something that’ll be harder rocking. Where does that stand now?
Clayton: That’s the intention. I think we’re feeling that music has kind of got stuck a little bit. We’re feeling that probably with modern processing and modern production techniques and the use of digital that it’s lost some of its spontaneity and some of its rawness, and I think we’re hoping that we can kind of connect back to that rawness that we were excited by as teenagers. There’s been some very, very minimal recording…Edge is always working on stuff, but until we get the Sphere shows out of the way and we know what’s going to be happening with Larry it’ll be very hard to organize what we’ve got and figure out what the plan will be.
Amidst all this, you have a new amplifier, the ACB 50, with Fender. How did that come about?
Clayton: Again, one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’ve had a relationship with Fender for a number of years and we did all those signature basses. Fender had put out an amp for Edge and I got a little jealous, I guess — “Well, if Edge can have an amp, I’m gonna have an amp!” (laughs) So I spoke to the guys at Fender…and they were up for the challenge. They were very respectful. They didn’t mind me saying I couldn’t play one of their old, vintage amps because it didn’t have enough midrange in it. So we set about creating a midrange booster system and I said, “Let’s do a combo,” something that’s a good size and good proportion. So it’s the Adam Clayton Bass 50 and it’s a very loud 50 watts — the loudest 50 watts you’re ever gonna need — and you can fit it in a Smart car and carry it up the stairs on your shoulder as well. It’s the kind of amp you can take anywhere, you can do anything with it and it just keeps on giving.