Jumping onto a different platform
After 36 years as U2’s “plumber”, Larry Mullen jnr wanted to try his hand at acting, but starring opposite Donald Sutherland in Man on the Train was jumping in at the deep end, he tells Tara Brady
IT’S A BRISK January day and Larry Mullen jnr and I have left our respective Dublin 13 abodes (his is the bigger one) and made for Clontarf Castle. Put it down to good cheekbones: at 51, he walks in the door and is still instantly recognisable as “the boyish-looking one” from U2.
He’s easy to spot and yet slips in and out of the building, unnoticed and unmolested. Curious. Maybe it helps that he’s a local. Though Artane was where he grew up, Howth, his current postal code, was the place “for scouts and fishing and taking girlfriends”.
“I’ve never imagined myself living anywhere else,” he says.
Then again maybe he gets to wander freely because he’s the guy down the back. Or, as he modestly puts it, “the ‘shut up and hit something guy’ down the back.”
Know any good drummer jokes? Larry certainly does. In the 36 years since he founded U2, he’s had the opportunity to build up a sizeable repertoire of percussion-related punch-lines.
“The trouble with being in the background,” he says, “is that people kind of assume you’re one-dimensional. Everybody knows about the guitarist and the singer. And bassist is the coolest gig of all. They have nobility. They carry themselves like they could have been in front if they wanted it.” He smiles. “In the next life I want to come back as a bassist.”
So, once more, with feeling: How do you know when the stage is level? “Because the drummer is drooling from both sides of his mouth,” he grins. “Yep. I’ve heard them all. But they do make me laugh.”
We’re frequently told – and not just in ancient Neil Peart zingers – that drummers are a different breed. Case in point: while recording All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Mullen and producer Brian Eno had what the former calls “back and forth” over the computer-generated click track. Days later Eno discovered that the drummer had, indeed, found a discrepancy of some two milliseconds. The incident would inspire Eno to collaborate with the neuroscientist David Eagleman on research into drummers and “brain time”.
“That story is true,” nods Mullen. “I think they found something like a 60-40 split in favour of the drummers and their capacity to pick up on timing. It’s something some drummers just develop. If something is out of tune I’ll hear it and if you put music on top of something that’s out of time its never going to be in time. So Eno had to call me up and I got to say, ‘I know I was right.’ But only Eno would leave the studio and call up his neuroscientist friend. Only Brian Eno would have a neuroscientist friend.”
Sure enough: meeting Larry Mullen jnr, one can believe – in the nicest possible way – that drummers really are different. For one thing, it’s difficult to imagine any frontman maintaining Mullen’s line in self-deprecation. He doesn’t do many solo interviews, he says, “because nobody wants to hear what the drummer thinks”.
“Maybe I’m not terribly confident in my own ability to articulate what’s going on. And I’m very conscious that sometimes, when I’m watching a band interview, even I don’t want to hear what the drummer thinks. You want to hear about the lyrics and melody. That’s the cream. What Adam [Clayton] and I do is the plumbing. It might be interesting for us but it’s not as nice as cream.” He laughs. “Sorry, that’s probably a crap analogy.”