Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Pride of U2

Complete article by STEVEN HYDEN  in

Interview to Adam Clayton:

After Vancouver, U2 was set to perform in arenas for multiple nights in some of North America’s biggest cities — this week there are five shows in Los Angeles, and later this summer there will be residencies in Denver, Montreal, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York City, followed by a trip through Europe in the fall. More than 1 million tickets have already been sold. Everyone involved in steering this perpetually roving beast must keep their eyes trained forward and not sweat the small stuff, for the good of the shark.

Waiting for me inside the receiving room is Adam Clayton, 55, who is craggishly handsome and speaks with the cool remove of a Bond villain. When I was a grade-school kid in the late ’80s just starting to get into U2 — which was my entrée into caring about rock bands, period —Clayton was known as the “party guy” in the group.2 But when I meet him, Clayton is not the Zoo TV–era carouser of my imagination.

Clayton greets me warmly, offering a seat on the sofa while pulling up an office chair for himself. His wardrobe is rock-star casual: black slacks, black slip-on sneakers, white-and-black T-shirt. On the table is a dark-colored drink that looks like matcha green tea.

“Looking out at that audience, they looked like a very much revitalized U2 audience,” Clayton says in a dry, regal purr of the tour’s opening night. “They looked younger or the same as the last time we were out. The way the record went out to people, I think a lot of people heard the songs. I think it’s a great album. I think everyone really pushed themselves to make a great record. I think Bono went to a place that was painful and difficult, and he went there and he got really good stuff that’s in these songs.”

The record to which Clayton refers, Songs of Innocence, came out eight months ago, and has been mostly overshadowed by how it was distributed, via a free, involuntary download to 500 million unwitting iTunes users. While Songs got the requisite five-star review and album of the year honors from Rolling Stone, it received mixed to negative notices elsewhere in the music press and, more crucially, was ignored by radio, historically an engine for U2’s success. As with U2’s previous album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence has not produced a hit single, a stinging rebuke of U2’s decision to utilize trendy producers like Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, and Ryan Tedder to give the album a more contemporary, pop-friendly sound.

The challenge of U2’s stage show is to contextualize a record that was derided as “spam” and “Apple’s $100 million U2 debacle” as a personal, creatively vital statement.3 For its part, U2 isn’t backing down from supporting Songs of Innocence, interspersing several songs from the record on this tour among the proven audience favorites. The new material is most prominent during the show’s first act, which includes a suite of the album’s most explicitly autobiographical tracks, including “Iris (Hold Me Close),” a pained tribute to Bono’s late mother, and “Cedarwood Road,” named after the street where Bono lived as a child. These songs are accompanied by home movies of Bono’s parents and animated footage starring Bono’s 15-year-old son, Elijah, playing a teenaged version of his father.

At the conclusion of the concert’s first half, the two video screens are lowered to the narrow platform connecting the stages, literally and figuratively dividing U2’s audience, a metaphor for youthful alienation that is swiftly resolved in the show’s reconciliatory (translation: hits-oriented) second act. Between the sets is a brief intermission during which video clips of U2’s early heroes — Iggy Pop, David Bowie, the Clash, Patti Smith — play on the screens. It’s the most visually overpowering Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit ever conceived.

Here’s a grandiose analogy that Bono might appreciate: If Marcel Proust had been inspired by an old Ramones song instead of a madeleine cookie, Remembrance of Things Past would have resembled Songs of Innocence and its accompanying tour.4

“I think it’s always a little dangerous when artists go back too far, because we were always aware that we had to avoid being nostalgic. We had to have a reason for going back. The reason for going back on those formative years was we had to understand how we’ve arrived at where we are now,” Clayton says between sips of his green drink. “I remember the kind of blind faith and ignorance that we had in where we were going and what our vision was. I think the songs represent a naïveté and a fragility, but also a strength and truthfulness that sometimes you don’t give yourself credit for.”

“Just to puncture public consciousness at this time is really, really hard, so we were trying to think of ways that would get our album through to people,” The Edge told the New York Times last month. “The prospect of putting it out and have it just disappearing down a rabbit hole, which seems to happen to so many albums now — that would be soul-destroying.”

If you’re Beyoncé, it’s an ambitious but not impossible goal to put out an album with real legs. For a band like U2, whose debut LP came out 35 years ago, believing that the denizens of a youth-obsessed pop marketplace would want a record about the growing pains of middle age forcibly implanted on their phones is delusional, bordering on self-destructive.

When I ask Clayton about this, I expect him to shrug off the suggestion that U2 can no longer go broad like it once did, especially since he’s four hours away from performing in front of 18,000 people.

Instead, I’m surprised to find that he sort of agrees.

“I do feel part of a different world where we used to see albums come out, we used to see tracks going to radio and those albums would become more and more popular,” Clayton says. “This new way, I don’t really understand. We’re [part of] a generation that no longer gets music the way we like to listen. Does that mean that everyone else that’s getting their music in a different way is not getting as intense of an experience? I don’t really know the answer to that.

“I think, sadly, what we’re seeing happen is, albums as collections of music had a cultural significance that told a story and connected people, [and] now have social media filling that role. Music no longer has that social or political place in the community. It’s become a novelty and a soundtrack because I don’t think there’s any real invested loyalty anymore. It’s a different relationship.”

I pose what seems like an obvious follow-up question: What motivates U2 to keep making records?

“Well, partly the answer is, it’s kind of the only thing that I do,” Clayton says. “I do love playing music. I do love listening to music. I do love making music. That’s not gonna change. If it wasn’t with U2, I don’t know how motivated I’d be, but I still get a buzz out of the way Larry plays drums, the way Edge writes songs, the way Bono sings them. It’s fulfilling and interesting to me. Maybe one day it won’t be. For as long as it’s stimulating, the ambitions for the music might change, but the actual enjoyment of it won’t.”

What do you mean, “the ambitions for the music might change”?

“You can make music for different reasons,” Clayton replies. “Up to now, inclusive of this record, we wanted to make music that could communicate to the most people, that could be played on the radio. We were conscious that we wanted to be relevant to this time. That’s not something that we might always want. We have a very loyal, strong, intelligent audience. We might make music just for them in the future. We might not want to connect with other people.”

Clayton’s thinking seems totally reasonable and refreshingly self-aware. As a fan, it makes me hopeful that U2 might once again make an album for people who already like U2.5 But there’s another part of me that feels a little sad. If U2 becomes interested in only catering to a niche, is that really U2?

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