Bono meeting Barack Obama in Washington . . .Bono and Bob Geldof with Gordon Brown in Davos. . . Bono and Bill Gates in Africa . . . Bono and Brad Pitt chilling out in the South of France . . . Bono and U2 playing at the Grammys in Los Angeles. . . Phew! He certainly gets around. But how on earth does the man do it?
"There's a Bono factory," the 48-year-old Irishman laughs. "The band, when they saw me getting busy, opened a factory. It's just there at the back of [Dublin suburb] Tallaght. And there’s various different ones, and they're being used for different occasions."
The Bono factory will be working overtime in the coming months as the band gear up to release and tour their 12th studio album No Line On The Horizon (the title apparently inspired by the sea view from the window of the study of the singer’s Dublin home). Recorded over two years in Morocco, France, New York, Dublin and London, and produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the album has already received rave reviews from some of the world’s most influential music critics, many of whom consider it to be U2s finest album to date. High praise indeed when you consider that their back catalogue includes such classics as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.
Although the band had originally drafted Rick Rubin in to produce, the plan changed after an inspiring song-writing session with Eno and Lanois in the Moroccan city of Fez.
What attracted U2 to North Africa in the first place? "There was a religious music festival on, which was the original reason to be there," explains guitarist and band engine The Edge. "I think Bono had been invited a few years running, and he was going through his schedule and he saw this invitation and said, 'You know, maybe I should go and maybe I should see if the others would like to come'. So that was one of the original reasons why we considered it.
"And then to our surprise, Adam and Larry showed huge enthusiasm for the idea. I wouldn’t have assumed that at the time, but they were well up for it. So we went for different reasons, but mostly a kind of instinctive sense that going somewhere different was going to be important and inspiring for us. And I think that turned out to be very much the case."
How long did U2 stay in Fez? "It was just two weeks, but it was great," says Edge. "I remember clearly at least two or three songs being born in that location. And very quick. Like, maybe three or four hours. We’d start with one little idea – it might be a rhythm or a chord progression or a guitar or a keyboard sound – and then very quickly through a series of ideas thrown in a song would come together. "'Unknown Caller came together there. It was a live performance and once we had hit that arrangement, we only ever played it once. So that song, there were a couple of iterations that were different leading up to that version, but that definitive version was only ever played once. That is also true of 'No Line On The Horizon' and 'Moment Of Surrender' and 'White As Snow'. Although on 'White As Snow' we had to do a little bit of editing afterwards, but basically there's four songs that were only ever performed once in their final version. Because it was that kind of a free-flowing song-writing workshop atmosphere."
Although U2 have millions of fans all over the world, the birds of Fez apparently weren't overly impressed by the Irish rockers. And somewhat unfortunately for drummer Larry Mullen, Jr, the recording sessions took place in an open air courtyard. "They wrecked my new electronic drumkit," the youngest U2 member laughs. "It was just one of those great moments, you know. This idyllic place, everything is just perfect – or not perfect, but it’s pretty close. From a musician’s perspective, anyway. Brian Eno’s on one side, you’ve got the rest of U2, you’ve got Daniel Lanois doing his thing on his guitar. The roof is open, the sun is shining. And suddenly the birds are shitting on you! So that brought us back to reality!"
Some footage of those Fez sessions can be viewed on the band’s website, U2.com. Bass player Adam Clayton was the filmmaker but, by his own admission, he’s no budding director.
"We’ve had this website for ages and we didn't really do much with it in terms of doing interviews or whatever," Clayton explains. "And I just saw these great cameras, these flip cameras, and I thought we should just film stuff, but not film it in an 'I'm trying to make a film' kind of way. Like the camera might be stuck under a table or whatever. So they’re rough and ready.
"I mean, I hope that it says as much about the person behind the camera as it does about the person in front of it," he continues. "And they’re edited a little bit when we put them out, they’re like maybe a couple of minutes at a time. I’d prefer it to run for 20 minutes, but I think people would be bored by that. They'd realise how boring making a record can be!"
Beginning with 1984's The Unforgettable Fire, Eno and Lanois have worked with the band on some of their key albums over the last quarter-century. “Brian Eno has got a very good understanding of what we go through,” says Clayton. “And he had an interesting attitude to it this time, where he started to enjoy being part of the band. He liked the fact that he could work on something in the morning with us, and by the evening it had turned into something. Brian’s method of working is very much he likes to do it for a while and then move on. He likes to leave it as an unresolved piece very often. And that’s not what we do."
What do you do?
"We like to fully resolve something and work it through to the end. And sometimes we overwork it, but generally if we have enough time, and if we make good decisions, it always gets better. And that was a unique thing with this record. That when we took the decision not to finish it in June or July for a November 2008 release, it really allowed us to go back to certain things. “It allowed us to look at the proposed list of tracks and pull a few more back onto the record that we hadn’t worked on, and take a few off. And it changed the balance of the record. It allowed Bono to re-sing a few things and to rewrite some lyrics. So by the time we finished in December, everything was pretty well rounded on the record. Certainly this is the first record in a very long time where I’ve kind of gone, ‘I understand and I know every decision that was made – and I back it'."
Although softly spoken and polite, Clayton used to be known as the wild man of U2. He’s been arrested for drunk driving and for drug possession (marijuana), and was once briefly engaged to supermodel Naomi Campbell. However, he’s been clean and sober for a full decade now.
Has that been difficult or is it getting easier?
"It became easier in the last two years," he says. "I think the first five or six or seven years, I really had to learn how to live in a new way. And it made it very difficult for me because I had to kind of cut myself off a bit and not go out and be quite controlling. But I’m sort of over that now so I’m now going out and having a bit more fun."
Do you miss going for a pint of Guinness with the rest of the band after a show?
"If people want to go for a pint after the show, I don’t feel particularly left out," he says, with an indifferent shrug. "I think the big difference for me, and the big difference in terms of what happens when you stop drinking and drugging, is that your days become more important and your nights become less important. It’s hard to imagine going to a nightclub. I mean, I have been to a couple of nightclubs recently, over Christmas and whatnot, but it just really underlined the fact that there’s nothing particularly there for me. You have to be off your face to go to a nightclub!" [laughs].
Although Bono usually writes directly from personal experience, many of the songs on No Line On The Horizon are written from the perspectives of other characters – a French traffic cop gone AWOL in Cadiz, a junksick drug addict on the New York subway, a burnt out war correspondent in Lebanon, etc. Why did he choose to write from a third person perspective?
"Well, it's not in any method acting approach or anything like that," Bono explains. "It was just a way of getting a fresh starting place. And I'd just kind of worn out my own biography or autobiography. The last two albums were very personal. And I’m not sure if I could bear it any more, let alone anyone else. The irony is, of course, as Oscar Wilde taught us, the mask reveals the man. So you end up in fancy dress revealing your true self. You end up in these very emotional places which you shouldn’t understand, but somehow do." I know you didn’t write the song from your own perspective, but on ‘Cedars Of Lebanon’ you sing the line, “Choose your enemies carefully 'cos they will define you." So who are your enemies? "I think in that sense, that (song) speaks for U2 because we’ve always picked interesting enemies," he says. "That's always what separated us. We didn't pick the obvious – the establishment, the 'man', us against them. That's so corny to me! Our band was always about there's no 'them', there's only us. The enemies are the things that are in the way of you realising your potential. They can be all kinds of things. Your vanity. They can be your demons."
On the song 'Stand Up Comedy', you sing, "Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels/ Josephine , be careful of small men with big ideas." "That wasn't third person," he laughs. "That was me writing about me!" Although Bono’s involvement in the One Campaign (for African aid) and various other extracurricular activities kept him away from the recording studio more than the band would’ve liked, they’ve learnt to work around his busy schedule.
"We figured it out," says Edge. "It's been a feature of the last few records where we know Bono’s gonna not be present for periods of time during the making of the record. So we just plan around that, and I use the time to work on the musical side of things. It actually is pretty good. It adds a different sort of rhythm to the process." After two years recording in five separate locations, it’s been reported that the band ultimately wound up with fifty new songs. Given that there's eleven tracks on NLOTH, does this mean that there’s another thirty-nine finished U2 songs in the can?
"There's a ream of material that's in various states of unfinished-ness," admits Edge. "Some ideas that we would have spent half-an-hour on have got real promise, but we haven’t looked at again. Or songs we would’ve spent a lot of time on, that for one reason or another just didn’t fit with this collection. So we'll get back to them. So in some ways, we’re in a very good position for a follow-up album, with so much stuff there. And a lot of quite experimental stuff as well."
How experimental did you get?
"Towards the end of the process of making this record, we were trying to balance out the moods. We didn’t want to make an album that was too mono-dimensional in terms of its mood and emotion. We wanted to have a contrast of light and shade within the work, and so having got a lot of more moody pieces, we held some of those back. So [for] the next release, we’re not short of dark, brooding material."
First formed in Dublin in 1976 after Larry Mullen famously pinned a ‘Musicians Wanted’ notice to their school message-board, U2 have now been making music together for an astonishing 33 years. They’re not planning on doing this forever, but right now there’s still no finishing line on the band’s horizon.
"Do I see myself doing this into my seventies?" mulls Mullen. "No, I don't. There will be a time. Whether that’s on an individual basis or a band decision. But right now, I just think it’s very exciting to be out there making music. Making music and being creative is an incredibly amazing thing to be able to do. And the fact that people still want to hear what you do and people still want to come and see you. Why would you give that up?"
With an album as powerful as No Line On The Horizon to show for it, you'd have to ask: why indeed? This one will run and run.
* Olaf Tyaransen is a contributing editor with Dublin’s Hot Press magazine