For the world’s biggest rock band, U2 can be awfully hard on themselves. After all, when you’re that big, what’s ever good enough? And how do you fight the dinosaur syndrome, where veteran artists (no need to name names) make millions rehashing the hits on tour while their new songs are met with a bathroom break? It’s a career syndrome that U2 has fought doggedly and to a large degree successfully, with the cost being a constant thirst to remain relevant and years of work (not to mention soul-searching) on each of their last several albums.
Yet as 2017 dawned, the group seemed uncertain, pulling back their completed album, “Songs of Experience” — the follow-up to 2014’s “Songs of Innocence” (a.k.a. the gift iTunes couldn’t stop giving) — because, as guitarist The Edge told Rolling Stone in January, Trump had been elected and “suddenly the world changed. We just went, ‘Hold on a second – we’ve got to give ourselves a moment to think about this record and about how it relates to what’s going on in the world.’”
Instead, the group decided to look back — something they’ve done rarely in their four-decade career — and tour behind the 30th anniversary of 1987’s 10-times platinum “The Joshua Tree,” the album that made them superstars. Part of the rationale was that the world had returned to a deeply conservative state similar to the height of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes, with the fall of communism and the Clinton years on the horizon but still far away. But U2 are also one of the most business-savvy music artists in history — their 2009-2011 “360” trek grossed a record $736 million — and to the surprise of absolutely no one, “The Joshua Tree Tour 2017″ is hands-down the year’s biggest, selling 1.1 million tickets in 24 hours and grossing $62 million in its first 10 dates, according to Billboard Boxscore. The 50-date campaign began in in Vancouver on May 12 and continues across North America, Europe and South America deep into October, with more dates looking likely.
While the band’s bassist Adam Clayton spoke thoughtfully and expansively about most of those topics during a half-hour conversation with Variety, that wasn’t the purpose of this interview. Clayton is being honored in New York on Monday at MusiCares’ 13th annual Map Fund Benefit concert to raise funds for the organization’s addiction-recovery services. British one-man band Jack Garratt, andU2 opening act The Lumineers will perform — as will U2 — and Clayton, who has been sober for 19 years, will receive the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award. It recognizes his support of the fund and MusiCares — which has distributed $10 million over the past decade to nearly 3,000 substance-abuse clients — as well as his commitment to helping others with the addiction recovery process. “People can be judgmental and say that addicts are weak or they’re bad,” he says. “But my experience is that people in rehab and recovery are actually very courageous.”
Related Content www.MusiCares.org
How does it feel to be revisiting “The Joshua Tree” all these years later?
We’re not going back there because it’s the only way we can get out and do some shows; we’re going back as a way to commemorate and celebrate the release of that record, and in some ways look at what’s changed in those 30 years since “The Joshua Tree” came out. It’s about both what’s changed internally for those wide-eyed idealistic young men that toured the world — I think it probably took us all 10 years to recover from the success of “The Joshua Tree,” because it put our lives on a different course — and has the world actually changed very much?
And what are you seeing?
Politics is a complicated issue and I think what we’ve learned by the reaction to the left-wing, if you like, in the last two or three years is that there is a tremendous number of people in the middle-income area who do not feel represented and do not feel they have a stake in the future. I very much picked this up recently from millennial [aged] people, they work very hard and their chances of, for example, buying a home are very, very limited. I think [30 years ago] we were somewhat idealistic in terms of what we were buying into, arriving in America with a kind of immigrant hat on, [believing] we can have a stake in this country, and to some extent the mythology of “The Joshua Tree” is in line with that.
Thirty years on, I‘m realizing that vision of America is gone. It’s a much harsher world.
I hope change will come and democracy will reboot itself in America, and it will serve more of the people than it does now. This is a difficult period — there’s a lot of unrest in Europe in exactly the same way [as America], of people just being angry. There’s a lot of anger, and people are struggling and they’ve been struggling for too long.
Is that what you’re hearing from fans?
No, we’re not getting a direct feedback in that sense. But in terms of people that one meets in life, and if you’ve got an ear open to what’s happening, I’m getting that sense. It’s certainly true of the way people are voting, and it’s certainly true of what’s been happening in Europe. People are mistrusting traditional politics because it hasn’t worked for them.
Is it true that you’d finished your latest album, “Songs of Experience,” but decided to rethink it because it didn’t feel right after Trump had been elected?
Yeah, that was certainly our feeling. Once the election had happened we didn’t want to put out a record without having some time to evaluate what was going on and what was behind the outcome. And certainly that wave of change seemed to be moving through Europe as well, so we did say “Let’s reexamine where we are,” and we did reexamine and I think it’s been better for the record and it’s been better for the songwriting and it’s much more on-message of what U2 does and what U2 does well.
[“Songs of Experience”] has been ready to go for awhile, because it didn’t require a lot of surgery, so to speak — it was a little bit of cosmetic surgery. So we said, “We could put this record out this year, or we could celebrate ‘The Joshua Tree’ and put out the [new] record when all that’s done, and then plan a tour around it and all the things that go along with a new album.” The only spoiler is that ‘The Joshua Tree’ tour has been an enormous, runaway success and we just keep adding dates. So the answer to your question is, [“Songs of Experience”] is ready to go, but at this point I’m not sure when it’s going to go because the tour is still up and running.
I guess there’s no way to tour behind the new album and “The Joshua Tree” at the same time.
The messaging would be a little confusing because the new album is really part of a suite of songs that relate to “Songs of Innocence,” which was primarily designed as an indoor tour that had two halves — “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” — and they were kind of bookends. We planned “Songs of Experience” as an indoor tour; we just don’t think it’s something that would work outdoors. The “Songs of Innocence” [arena] tour two years ago was really powerful and really touched people and touched us. We wanted to continue that intensity and I think that’s what we’re going to try to do.
You’re being honored by MusiCares next week. Why is the organization so close to your heart?
I think the reason is, as someone who has been through rehab and recovery, I absolutely acknowledge that lots of people run into difficulty with addiction, and it is somewhat misunderstood. People can be judgmental and say that addicts are weak or they’re bad, but my experience is that people in rehab and recovery are actually very courageous. It’s great to know you can have a second chance. I was very lucky – it was a privilege for me in that I could afford [rehab] and I could put my life on hold to benefit from it. It’s not so easy for most other people, and I think that’s where MusiCares really helps. Around 19 years ago, the success of “The Joshua Tree” had really turned my head and I didn’t know how to cope with it. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but some musicians were there for me and showed me that you could be in a band and not party to a self-destructive [extent]. One of those people was Eric Clapton. It was amazing to me to have him say there is help and there is life after you stop drinking. So I’m very, very grateful to any organization that helps people get clean and sober.
Have you helped others in the way Clapton helped you?
Yeah, whenever I’m called upon or whenever I come across anyone who needs some guidance in the matter. In my experience every alcoholic or addict has become obsessed with the eternal question: Am I an addict? And I think if you’re in that cycle, you have to conclude that you are and you have to get help. It’s very frightening for anyone battling those demons. I like to mentor and be there and help someone get to the point where they can make those decisions for themselves.
Are organizations like MusiCares more essential now that Trump and the Republicans have declared war on Obamacare?
The fact that there is very little finance for these issues is worrying, especially when every day in the American press I’m reading stories about the proliferation of opiates and the general willingness of medical companies to encourage prescription meds, which is devastating communities in America. I am seeing some open mindedness and some willingness to help [with substance-abuse issues], but generally I don’t think it’s enough. The accidental death of Prince was absolutely shocking to people of my generation, and I come across a lot of families that are damaged and suffer from addiction and alcoholism. It’s just tragic.
Did you have a hand in selecting the performers for the MAP Benefit on Monday night?
We have Hal Willner as our musical director and he’s pulled together a great roster of people [who will be announced soon]. One my favorite new artists — I wanted to have some new artists on — is Jack Garratt, he’s a phenomenal force of nature, he’s going to be with us on the night, and so will The Lumineers, who are [opening] some shows with us. There are a few other people who are unconfirmed at this stage but I think they’re gonna come in and make it an interesting, eclectic evening. I think an event like this has to have some newer, younger artists, some new blood. It can’t just be established people turning up.
Who are some other recent newer acts that you like?
We had the pleasure of going to see Chance the Rapper, whom we met at Bonnaroo, in Miami the other night. He’s quite a character and of course he’s pioneering a very different approach to the music business, which is interesting. If we are looking at new models of how artists are going to survive in the future, he seems to have figured something out.
And what will you be doing for your MAP benefit performance?
For our set I think U2 are going to honor me, I have to say, and we’re going to do something together. But until we get closer to the event and get into rehearsals and have a few more discussions with Hal, I’m not sure if we’re going to be able to set up any collaborations because our schedule is really tight at the moment. But we’re gonna do what we can.