What’s the hard part of your job?
I don’t have the kind of technique that allows
me to get through ideas quickly and easily. I’m instinctive when it comes to looking for a different sound. I start
with the opposite of what I feel has been done before, and often that’s something I don’t find easy to play. Then,
from that extreme position, I bring it back to the center and gradually refine it until it’s more normal or conventional.
If you start in the obvious place, it’s very hard to get into new territory.
Do you ever try to pull yourself back from playing too much?
No. Sometimes I get a little
frustrated by always playing eighth-notes. But at the end of the day, we perform songs live, and that’s what works.
Eighth-notes drive the band, they’re propulsive, and they form a foundation for what Edge and Bono are doing. There
are only so many different ways of doing it.
It seems like you do find different ways to play eighth-notes, for example, by using either your
fingers or a pick. On “Beautiful Day,” which has a driving eighth-note line, you play with your fingers. Why?
[Laughs.] You know, Bono always wanted me to play that part with a pick, because he saw it as a more driving, percussive line.
But I found it very hard to play that particular riff with a pick. I could hear it and play it with my fingers, but every
time I tried it with a pick, I’d fumble. I don’t know why. Now I think that if I used a pick, it would be a little
mundane, because you’d have the bass and guitar just driving the same riff, and it wouldn’t be as sexy as going
under the guitar part with my fingers. I get a different physical reaction from playing with my fingers. There’s nothing
quite like that contact of pulling the wires. But a song like “All Because of You” is a great tune to pick. I
love that crunchiness.
On slower songs like “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” you’re holding
long notes. When you don’t have the driving rhythm, how do you feel the groove?
That song was very problematic,
because it was a midtempo tune with a descending chord sequence. I find those to be like black holes; you have to go with
them! When we were working on that in the studio, Edge was changing some of the root chords to try to break it up, but it
was still a descending sequence. It was frustrating, because I couldn’t get a bass part to work over it. We wanted to
give it a twist, to go against the predictability and inevitability of ending up down on that F#. The end result is a hybrid.
I followed the roots, and then during the playback, I noodled with a figure up around the 12th fret that could run through
the whole tune. We tried using just that figure, but then we were missing the chord changes. In the end we put the two parts
together. There’s no real way of playing that live, so we’ve got a sequencer that covers the roots while I play
the higher melodic part. It’s a beautiful little countermelody. In many ways, that’s as much a part of what I
do as the eighth-notes—I’ve always had a desire to pull some melody out, to give a little counterpoint to what’s
What other bass players do you feel are really good at that?
I’ve always been
hugely respectful of Peter Hook. He’s always managed to weave a melancholic, melodic thread through Joy Division and
New Order. The problem is that sometimes the root isn’t there, and that’s not U2—we need the root for what
I adore anything [Motown’s] James Jamerson ever played on. His playing
had such feel, flair, and personality. [The Who’s John] Entwistle is on the edge
of being technically too perfect for me. Sometimes it’s hard to see the humanity in that. He’s like an athlete.
I’m drawn to R&B—players like Duck Dunn. I like the heaviness of those grooves, and I love those melodies.
On Boy, you played open-string drones like Peter Hook on “Out of Control” and “The
Early on, we didn’t have very good equipment, and
the bass was rarely in the PA. So I always figured if two strings were going instead of one, you get a bit more volume. Also,
at the time Edge was playing very minimal guitar melodies, and this was a way of getting more power into those songs. That
was great for what we were, which was essentially a three-piece band.
How did that fact affect your own playing?
I’m so grateful we never had a keyboard
player until much later, because keyboards just cover everything up. With just Edge and Larry, if there was real estate that
wasn’t being exploited, it was very obvious. It produced an economy in my early playing, but it also produced an atmosphere
of risk—to try and get something else happening in that space.
But part of the U2 sound is that openness.
Sometimes it’s a big decision to say, You
know what, I am just going to do boom–boom here, and nothing else. I’m much more comfortable doing that now than
I was back then, where everything had to count. Like “Vertigo,” which is just a riff with nothing else going on:
It’s a pure situation; it’s perfect.
Yet you have your own way of phrasing that line.
Those are the things that as a bass player,
when you come upon something like that riff, you go, Oh—I can make this a bass part rather than a guitar part. And I
think they make a difference. It gives it a bit more dimension.
Do you get emotionally attached to the instruments you play?
Not really. I have a ’73
Precision Bass that I’ve used since day one. I used to think, This is the old work horse—old faithful. I loved
it. I still love it, and I play it all the time, but I try to branch out and play different instruments. I’m not so
attached to any of the others. I’ll play them for a bit and then move on. But there’s an amazing difference with
vintage basses compared to regular stock instruments. I love finding instruments that have had a life before you got them.
They bring something to you.
I have an short-scale Gibson Les Paul Recording Bass from the ’70s. I don’t know
what it is about this one—it’s a very inspiring instrument. The strings very rarely get changed, and I haven’t
changed the way it’s set up since I bought it. But I always have it sitting around the studio. When I put it on, I always
go somewhere with it, playing little melodies. That’s what I used to play the countermelody on “Sometimes You
Can’t Make It on Your Own.”
What do you look for in basses?
I love bottom end—I’m a low-end junkie. But for
these kinds of shows, and for being in a rock band, I need a bit of swagger—the sound Entwistle and [the Stranglers’]
J.J. Brunell used to get, where the bass is strong on the upper mids, warm and throaty. I don’t like too much high end—high
end hurts me. Especially back when we were experimenting with the dance club sound, I was looking for a big bottom end. I
wanted to really get underneath everything.
Is the band conscious of having “a sound”?
Yeah, I think we are, but not because
we want to remain true to that—we want to know how far from it we can go. We really push ideas to their extreme to find
different sounds. Then, once we’re aware of the different possibilities, we ask what represents us and where we are
Are you guys usually on the same page when it comes to that?
Usually. Sometimes there’s
a bit of a struggle for everyone to agree, but generally, if one person doesn’t agree, they then defer to the other
three. It’s quite a good process of protecting the band’s ability to make decisions.
I sometimes feel we’re
always making the same record, and what we get at the end of that is a distillation of what’s gone on in our lives up
to that period. This is a very complete record. And it’s very fresh, because a lot of the tunes—although we’d
worked on them a long time in the writing phase—were tracked very quickly without many overdubs. It’s very direct.
Along with several other producers, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite worked with you on this album.
What are some of their strengths?
Danny’s a music guy—he’s great at making musicians feel comfortable,
helping them get to a place where they produce something that has resonance. That’s needed, because quite often we’re
not grounded in the studio—we’re up in the air emotionally and intellectually. Steve is great at knowing what
the band is capable of and pointing out when we’re not doing our best. Plus, he’s tireless.
How have you progressed as a musician and bass player over the years?
Sometimes I don’t
feel like I’ve progressed very much. But I do feel that in the last couple years, there’s a precision that’s
come into my playing that wasn’t there before. Sometimes I’m not sure if that economy is growth or atrophy. But
Edge always says that notes sound different when I play them. I guess that’s it—without thinking, I just know
which notes to play, how hard to hit them, and how long to hold them. Now I just make better decisions more quickly. What
I do is probably not that extraordinary or unusual—I’m sure somebody else could do it. But they would make different
choices. In the end, it’s just personality.