U2's Adam Clayton on battling addiction and the unexpected effects sobriety had on his work

The U2 bass player talks about his struggle with addiction, the band’s relationship with the late Michael Hutchence of INXS, and the meaning behind recently remastered songs off of their seminal, Grammy-winning album All That You Can't Leave Behind.

‘I pushed it quite far,’ says U2’s bassist in a frank conversation about his struggle with addiction

Adam Clayton of the Irish band U2. (Sam Jones and Olaf Heine)

U2's 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, was a massive commercial success that made the band an international sensation, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide, reaching number one in more than 20 countries and ultimately becoming one of the best selling albums of all time.

It wasn't until October of 2000 — after almost a decade of exploration, in which the band diverged from rock to electronica-infused sounds, leaving fans and critics divided — that U2 reemerged with a vengeance, releasing their critically acclaimed 10th studio album, All That You Can't Leave Behind.

Produced by Daniel Lanois (who worked with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson) and Brian Eno (who produced David Bowie, Talking Heads and Coldplay), the album quickly went number one in 32 countries, sold more than 12 million copies and won seven Grammys, including the best rock album category.

U2 at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards as they won a Grammy for the Best Rock Album for All That You Can't Leave Behind, in 2002. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Having had time to think back, U2's bassist, Adam Clayton says that the band didn't lose their way after The Joshua Tree.

"I think we'd really stretched what U2 meant and what U2 could be. And we'd had a lot of fun doing that."

This year, to mark its 20th anniversary, All That You Can't Leave Behind was reissued as a brand new 12-track remaster — featuring anthemic hits such as Beautiful Day, Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, Walk On, Elevation and a 51-track Super Deluxe box set that includes a photo book, outtakes, unreleased remixes and more. 

Clayton joined q's Tom Power to look back at the seminal album and to share the deeper meaning that period had for him. He talks about his struggle with addiction, U2's relationship with the late lead singer of INXS, Michael Hutchence, and reminisces on what it was like performing in New York right after the September 11 attacks.

Reapplying for the 'best band in the world' job

By the time All That You Can't Leave Behind was released, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. had already been playing together for 25 years. They made one hit after another and topped charts all over the world, yet the band still felt they had to prove themselves.

Something Bono would say a lot during their massive 2001 Elevation tour which supported All That You Can't Leave Behind was: "We're back, re-applying for the job of best band in the world." 

The band had gone from performing arenas for The Joshua Tree and by the end of that tour, they were in stadiums with three stadium productions but "no video reinforcement, no bells and whistles, no help at all. Just the four guys on stage," remembers Clayton. 

"And then, we'd come into Zoo TV and supported the Achtung Baby album where we've gone the exact opposite," with a complex set up that included large video screens and a video production with a full-fledged control room built into the tour that directed and projected content on the screens.

Clayton explains that because of the movement that was happening in the U.K., while they were away touring their album The Joshua Tree, the album itself ended up sounding different and was imbued with electronica. 

"When we got back from The Joshua Tree, we suddenly went, 'Whoa, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, New Order, why can't we do some of this?' And that was what we tried to kind of bring to the Achtung Baby sessions." 

U2 went a step further with their album Pop and in support of it made their PopMart tour even more elaborately staged with a golden arch in front of a sloped video screen and a motorized lemon shaped mirrorball that took the band over the audience.

"[Pop] was an extraordinarily experimental album, in terms of sounds, and some really great songs. But, I think people lost the songs in the experimental sounds" says Clayton. "There are some great songs on that record. … So by the time I think we'd returned from the stadium tours, we just felt we wanted to get close to the audience."

And after a decade spent performing in outdoor stadiums, U2 not only went back to their stripped down R'n'R rooted sound with their next album, but decided to support it and their fans with a more intimate setting, bringing their Elevation tour in support of All That You Can't Leave Behind back to the arenas.

Stripping down the sound and vices

While the grandeur of the austere PopMart tour was fun for him, Clayton says that he was battling his own "issues with alcohol and drugs" during that time.

"I pushed it quite far,'' says Clayton of his addiction.

I think many people who have issues with addiction, kind of, know deep down in themselves that this could be a problem at some point. And I suppose like all addicts, I probably knew that as well. ​​​​- Adam Clayton

But the thing about being in a rock and roll band, and particularly one that is successful, adds Clayton, is that "you can paper over the cracks pretty easily. You don't have to get up in the morning, you're expected to be a little sloppy late at night. It's OK." 

It wasn't until he missed a big show in Sydney, Australia on the Zoo TV tour that Clayton realized he needed help. 

The 60-year-old explains that when you mess up as an addict, the effect is minimized because of it. "But when you actually miss a show to whatever it was, 80 or 90,000 people in that stadium, it's pretty hard to ignore or minimize." 

"It wasn't the thing that sent me immediately into recovery or rehab but it was certainly the thing that made me realize I only had one more chance left. And I had to, you know, make good on my promise not to do this again."

By the end of the PopMart tour, Clayton had gone through rehab. "Half of that [tour] I've been sober. But certainly coming into All That You Can't Leave Behind, it was my first sober record."

Clayton says that as a result, making the album felt a lot more focused and productive but that the weird and unexpected effect of it was, "I actually got tired very quickly. ... I guess that's just, you know, concentrating in a different way and not running on the fuel of dopamine and alcohol."

"I was in a very different place and I loved the back to basics, the going back to, you know, U2 as four guys in the room. I mean, we had our friends Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois along as well but it was very much the band and what we could do, you know, with the instruments that we played at that moment together."

Stevie Ray Vaughan Award recipient Adam Clayton of U2 gives his award acceptance speech at the 13th Annual MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit Concert at the PlayStation Theater in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

In his acceptance speech, while receiving the Stevie Ray Vaughan award in 2017 — in recognition of his commitment to helping others with addiction recovery — Clayton acknowledged the immense support of his bandmates, saying: "At first, it was hard examining the evidence of recovery. But I have never met an alcoholic in recovery that doesn't believe that this is the best thing they have ever done. I was lucky because I had three friends who could see what was going on, and who loved me enough to take up the slack of my failings. Bono, the Edge and Larry truly supported me before and after I entered recovery, and I am unreservedly grateful for their friendship, understanding and support."

Contextualizing iconic songs

As U2 reevaluated their sound and performance after PopMart, they embraced who they are and ended up creating iconic songs — including Beautiful Day, Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of, Elevation, Walk On and Kite — with noticeable levels of maturity. Clayton takes us back.


"What Bono's really addressing in the lyric is he's talking to his own children and, you know, his own sort of mortality.

"And what that means …. and this is where the title of the album comes from, is that his own father is at the twilight of his life. And from this album onwards, we were never quite sure when we would get the call that Bono's father had passed." 

They ended up getting that call a year or so later, while performing in Dublin, says Clayton. 

"And when I come back to it now, with double maturity, I now have children roughly the same age as Bono had back then," he adds. "My father is the only parent of the band that's still alive so it's an interesting song for me." 

Clayton remembers that it was The Edge who worked on Kite, put it into a sequencer and the song, in a way, almost immediately came out written.

Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of

"An extraordinary song that means so much more now" to Clayton than it did when it was first made is Stuck In A Moment You Can't Get Out Of. 

He explains that over the course of a summer, The Edge was playing this song on a piano, adjusting, changing and modulating the notes just to get it just right.

"If you're in a band with Edge, and we've been doing this for, you know, six weeks or so, you can get a little, kind of, lost in the weeds. But that is Edge, he'll stick with something and it could have been a very traditional gospel song that wore off after a while and felt overly familiar but every time you hear it, the richness of the harmonies and the chords and the notes that he chose, really stand up."

What Clayton loves about that song is how a combination of The Edge's melody and Bono's songwriting chops, lyrics and vocal delivery come together.

That particular song was partly inspired by the death of U2 friend Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS. 

"We all used to kind of decamp to the south of France in the summer. And that was where, you know, we put away our rock star shades and left our trousers, and kind of hung out."

We were just a bunch of blokes that happened to be in bands. And the great thing about U2 is that we've always hung out together, we've always been the best company for each other.- Adam Clayton

"We weren't that sure when things started to go wrong for [Hutchence]. But the wheels started to come off his world a little bit. And as we only ever saw him in the summer, when he was having a good time anyway, you know, the warning signs were not apparent to us in perhaps the way they would now — because I think everyone's a lot more conscious nowadays about people having issues in mental health. [sic]" 

It's never been clear or fully explained whether Hutchence took his own life or whether it was a "terrible accident or he was very depressed," explains Clayton, but whatever the case, he feels that this song really looks back at the band's relationship with him and questions the quality of their friendship.

"It's one of those great songs of just questioning," reflects Clayton. "Were we there for him? Did we do the right thing? Could we have made a difference?" 

With or Without You

"When I hear it now and we're talking something that's, what 30 years on? I feel like it's some kind of Buddhist meditation for me. Because I've been playing it for 30 years, but I kind of lock into it. And it's very freeing. 

"I hope that part of that comes across to the listener that, you know, it's just there and you never have to doubt it. And because it's there, you tend to focus on the atmospherics and the vocal that's going on. And that's job done, as far as I'm concerned." 

Resonating and representing during difficult times

Though All That You Can't Leave Behind was recorded pre 9/11, a month short of a year prior, it very much resonated in the aftermath of it. 

Just over a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, as part of a TV special commemorating the victims and first responders, U2 performed three nights in Madison Square Garden.

"It was very moving. I think we were the first kind of big concert into the city after 9/11 and of course, everyone was in shock in the city, and in the world perhaps, that the twin towers had been taken out."

"At that moment in time, it seemed like World War Three was about to happen so going in there as artists, it was, 'Well, is anyone going to come out?' You know, because people were pretty shell shocked about gathering in large groups. But we realized pretty quickly that this was New York coming together in mass grieving, but also mass celebration. And we've just started the party and New York took it over." 

"We felt that the city was coming back to life and was on fire emotionally and metaphorically."

U2 invited first responders, the fire crews, hospital staff and made them the center of the show. "They went for it and they had the time of their life."

Interestingly, the cathartic and optimistic songs off of All That You Can't Leave Behind once again resonate, during today's difficult, COVID-19 times. 

But U2 is not looking to reapply for the "best band in the world" job anymore. Clayton quips, "we probably realized that that's a mantle that you can only have in your first 30 years. I'm not sure what we have now as we approach becoming elder statesmen."

The wonderful power that you have when you're the same age as the audience and the people that listen to you is that you are one of them, and they are one of you, and you represent their voice.- Adam Clayton

"The challenge as you become an elder statesman is to keep representing your audience's voice. And that's certainly the job that we take really seriously."

Written by Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic. Interview produced by Catherine Stockhausen.

Note: The conversation was condensed and edited for clarity and context.


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