Adam Clayton: Has Found What He’s Looking For

The beloved bassist discusses his two new milestone releases with his Fender signature amp and the retrospective U2 album Songs of Surrender

Adam Clayton: Has Found What He’s Looking For

The beloved bassist discusses his two new milestone releases with his Fender signature amp and the retrospective U2 album Songs of Surrender

You have to admire Adam Clayton and his U2 brothers, Bono, The Edge, and Larry Mullen Jr. They continue to strive in the manner of an up-and-coming group, hungry for their big break, despite their distinguished status. Indeed, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-inducted Irish outfit — who have amassed 22 Grammy Awards, sold upwards of 170 million records, collected $1.67 billion in ticket sales, and changed the sound of rock — is showing no signs of slowing down after 47 years. This year they released their 15th album, Songs of Surrender [Island/Interscope], which features 40 previously recorded tracks that the band reworked and reimagined to accompany frontman Bono’s book Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story [Knopf, 2022]. Additionally, their Disney+ documentary, Bono & The Edge: A Sort of Homecoming With David Letterman, debuted just before it was announced that they would be taking on a Las Vegas residency at the freshly opened MSG Sphere, from September to November 2023.  

At the same time, Fender unveiled the Adam Clayton ACB 50 combo amp. It’s the iconic company’s first-ever signature bass amp, for which they worked closely with the 63-year-old bassist. In doing so, Clayton was able to replicate his signature U2 tone: midrange-heavy, with plenty of low end. Asked what sparked his interest in a signature model, he candidly replies, “Well, a few years back Fender gave The Edge his own signature amp, and I just couldn’t be outdone — so I had to get them on the phone and demand my own model. You really think I’m going to let him outdo me like that?”   

All kidding aside, Clayton’s humble nature, both in personality and in his playing, has made him the perfect cornerstone to drive U2’s ever-changing music. With his penchant for understated grooves and memorable lines, he has continued to evolve, while finding inspiration in new places — including the next generation of bass players. While many of his contemporaries have retired, Clayton remains determined to improve as a student of the bass, and he has plenty of playing left to do. “Four-and-a-half decades might seem like a lot for some people, but this music keeps us all feeling young. And that’s not something you’re ever eager to walk away from.”

For Songs of Surrender, what was it like going back and reimagining these 40 songs from your catalog?

It’s been one of the most amazing releases, because we worked on these 40 tunes, and we didn’t quite know what the end result was going to be. We just knew that Bono had taken some time to tell his story in his book. It worked out that the way he structured the story was based on four key songs. We didn’t know what the book was going to be about or whatever, but Edge said, “Let me go and tinker with these.” It was during lockdown, so we couldn’t all get together, but he wanted to try out some different arrangements. What he did was essentially all acoustic, and we said, “Okay we’ll go for an acoustic record.” But we don’t want to be stuck with only acoustic guitar and the songs not sounding very good because of it, so we let ourselves add whatever we needed at various points. There were a number of times when they let me loose on bass, and I got to have a lot of fun with those songs. Many of my favorite tracks are the ones Edge worked up as piano arrangements, because it puts them sonically in a very different place. It was a kind of an adventure where I didn’t feel invested as a band member to deliver band tracks that we might have to perform. It was a case of just playing around with [the arrangements], and that made it very relaxing from my point of view. It was a real treat for us.

What was it like revisiting your bass playing and the band’s songwriting on these 40 songs, which span five decades?

I’m always surprised when we revisit material that I think is the most underdeveloped and immature, which is our first three records; I find there is something in those songs that we didn’t know we had at the time. Those tunes capture a moment and they’re special. They communicate a lot of our rules back in the day, which were centered around writing songs for albums with the purpose of wondering how they’re going to play live, because that was primarily how people were going to hear them. You know, in the early ’80s, a U2 record would not have gotten played on FM radio, that’s for sure. Those were songs that had to connect with an audience live, so they have a power and a rawness and a directness. I think when you become a little more schooled in how to song-write academically, you don’t make some of those decisions.

How have you evolved as a bass player through your career playing in U2?

I’m very happy when I go back to the early records and I hear how inventive it was, without any kind of deep, academic knowledge. I was instinctively doing stuff that sounded good to me. Now, I’m a lot more measured about what and when I play. There are times when what I play is important or what it sounds like is important. I suppose I look at whether a part is rhythmic: Does it drive the song? If it’s a rhythmic part that drives the song, how should it sound? Where will it sit within the instrumentation? Being a huge fan of reggae, I love a deep, low-end bass, and we’ve obviously played around a lot with dance music over the years. I like the low-end sound as much as I like the heavy midrange sound. I find the midrange has the personality and the low end has the sex, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

How has your bass tone changed over the years?

On the first five albums I was very much a P-Bass guy, and it was a simple setup. Then, after we did Achtung Baby [1991], we were starting to look for some different sounds, where I needed the bass to sit in a different place. I began adding in a few Jazz Basses; I feel like there’s a totally different character between Precisions and Jazz Basses, where they do absolutely different things. Now, if you’ve only got one bass, it should be a Precision, but the Jazz Bass will get you out of trouble. So, if you have two basses, the second should be a Jazz Bass. I mean, I love those single-coil-pickup sounds. I love the range of tone you can get on a J-Bass. You can play around with it and get a lot of variation right there on the actual bass.

Speaking of tone and gear, congrats on your new ACB combo amp. How did it come about?

A few years ago Edge did a deal with Fender where he designed an amp, and I was like, “Hmm, so he gets an amp, does he?” I’d been putting out basses with Fender for a few years at that point, and I thought, Okay, well, I could do another bass, or let me start talking to them about doing an amp. I felt like there were companies out there making very good bass gear that was all available to me, but I didn’t think Fender had made the kind of amp that I would really like to play. And what I mean by that is traditionally the vintage Fender Bassman sound was very bass-heavy and toppy with the mids scooped out. It was never an amp I went to, although I loved Fender equipment. I love the basses, I love the styling, I love that kind of vintage grille and everything. So I felt there was room to talk to Fender and see if they were up for making an amp that I felt would be more contemporary, one that would be more representative of what today’s bass players are looking for, and one that I would actually use. Particularly, if you’re an individual kind of player and you sit in the band with quite a bit of authority, you need to have some punchy midrange. Also I’d say in the past ten years, you’re hearing a lot more bass players adding distortion to their sound. It’s becoming a color people are using more.

When I started out, I tried all these big Music Man, Marshall, and Ampeg SVT heads that you needed other people around to help you carry them. Then I heard that James Jamerson used a combo amp, and I started to use combos. We’ve done a lot of TV shows over the years in America, and those house-band bass players use these simple setups, but they always sound great. So I thought, Well, that’s the kind of musician I want to be; I don’t want to be lugging huge black boxes around. So [with Fender] I went for something that was dead simple. It has a 15-inch speaker in it. It has a selective EQ in the midrange. There are two channels. It’s something that’s musical, and it’s something you can really form a relationship with. I’m from that kind of analog era, but I appreciate what you can do in the digital world. It’s brilliant and it’ll get you places very fast. But I also like the kind of physical tangibility you get with older equipment, and I think this amplifier has that vintage feel.

How hands-on were you in the process of designing this amp?

I sat down with the lead designer, Stan Cotey, and we very quickly figured out that we were both interested in the same thing. If I turn a knob, I want to hear and feel a difference; I don’t want someone to tell me there’s a difference. He understood me. He said, “Okay, this is about you having a simple tool that you can operate intuitively and instinctively. It’ll have all the calling cards that Fender equipment has, and you’ll know where you are immediately.” I didn’t want to have to relearn something. I didn’t want to have to read the manual. I just wanted to be able to plug in and hear it.

The two-channel option is a great function that delivers both a classic and modern tone with the flip of a switch. Do you have a preference between the channels?

I instinctively go for the channel with the mid-boost, because that’s where I am — but having said that, as we start to work up songs for the Las Vegas shows, I’ll be jumping between each input to figure out what’s going to best suit each song. I’ll probably have a combination of these amplifiers, maybe three or four of them, set up with different sounds that I’ll be able to switch between or blend. One of these ACB 50s won’t be enough for me.

Midrange is so important to your sound. What made you choose to go with a 15-inch speaker instead of a configuration of 10- or 12-inch speakers?

I’ve always enjoyed the sound of a 15, because you’re getting some low-end information instinctively within that kind of diameter. And then I feel you get some warmth in the midrange. With a 15 you’ve got a bit of lower-mid action happening. Now, I don’t know if that’s correct or if I’m imagining it, but I feel you’re moving air in a different way. I have amps that have 10- and 12-inch speakers, and they do a fine job. But I think if you’re relying on one speaker and you’re in a combo situation, I like the 15, because I know it can handle any kind of power, and it’s not going to crap out on me.

Are you happy with the final product?

Extremely happy, and every time I play through it, I love it even more. It’s amazing because it’s the first time I’ve been deeply involved in the concept and the decision-making of a piece of technology. And it’s a piece of technology that goes back to the ’50s and the invention of amplification of electronic sound. I think we did pretty well; we’ve created something that Fender can be very proud of. It’s a territory they haven’t been in before, and now they’re going to own it. I’ve always enjoyed choosing the custom coloring of the Fender basses that I have, and putting out those kinds of signature models, but I never thought I’d be involved in a piece of technology like this. For me it’s one of those boxes ticked that I never expected would ever be ticked. And I have to say, whenever I see somebody on television or in a video or a film with one of these amps sitting next to them, I’ll know that’s my kind of guy. That’s my kind of bass player.

What was your initial setup when U2 formed back in 1976?

I went through a few things very quickly. I started out with my first bass, an Ibanez EB-3 copy, which was never going to work because it was all low end and nothing else. I thought it would make me sound good if I had a 100-watt Marshall head and a 4×12 or something. That was not going to work. The next bass I tried was a Precision. I didn’t really understand the P-Bass at that point, and in punk bands Rickenbackers were very popular. It was a pretty looking bass and with a lot of those early punk bands, it was about how it looked more than how it sounded. So I tried the Rickenbacker for a while. I don’t know what it is about Rickenbackers and me, but I could never get one to sound good. They sure look pretty, but they just don’t sound good in my hands. Next, I went back to a Precision and pretty much stayed with those. I dabbled with higher-end Ibanez basses a couple of times because I thought maybe I needed to sound different from everyone else that was playing a P-Bass, but in the end, there’s something about the Precision basses that I have.

You tend to modify your Precision basses.

Yes, I put a Jazz Bass neck on my main one. The combination works well for me. It started to sit right in the band during this period when we were trying to figure out if we had two guitars in the band or one guitar — how are the phonics going to work? Edge and myself, we are minimalists, and Bono is a maximalist. For us it seemed that less going on created the better musical space. Edge started to do these very spare single-note arpeggio pieces, sort of high up the neck. That left a huge amount of space for the bass, and oftentimes the bass wasn’t doing anything quite interesting enough to fill it. But in terms of the sonic spectrum, it worked, and Bono was able to riff off those two things. Of course we always had Larry Mullen Jr. getting our back, and he just drove us all along.

What has it been like playing alongside Larry for all these years?

I remember when we first started out — it was like, “You guys are a band. Okay, we know what a band does.” And then this subdivision came along, which was, “You’re a rhythm section.” Now, I didn’t even know what a rhythm section was back then. Maybe even Larry didn’t know. We were 16, 17 years of age, but it sounded grown up to be in a rhythm section. So finally after 40 years of playing together, I feel we’re a rhythm section. I think we’ve matured; I think we can do business, and we can duel with the best of them out there. I don’t know what it’s like playing with another drummer because I’ve never played with another drummer. I’ve always played with Larry. I think Larry makes me sound good, so obviously I’m happy with that. What is there to change?

What have been the biggest changes to the bass world in the span of your lengthy career?

When I started out, it was all about the moment of the live performance — that’s changed big time. Back then it was about who’s playing bass this week, and do you like the way they look, or the way they sound, or the way they dress? It was all about the attitude. Now you can see amazing bass stuff online all day. Now you can hear some of the greatest bass players and have their work dissected on your phone. To be honest, there are days when I think maybe I should just give up playing, because I’ll look at my phone and there’ll be a bass player doing something, and I’ll think, Holy shit — if only I’d had this 20 or 30 years ago! I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this young bass player named Ellen Alaverdyan, who I believe is only ten years old. I think she’s phenomenal, just outrageous! I check her out every day and I go, Whoa! To be that young and that talented is so remarkable to me. [These days] you have everything at your fingertips. It’s incredible. And I guess what it’s done, really, is make people take notice of the bass. There was a time when people said, So the bass, what’s that all about? Oh, that’s the thing that I can’t really hear at the very bottom. Now people know what the bass is, and it’s great to see very young players coming along and breathing new life into the instrument.

Finally, why bass? What made that your path and musical voice, and why do you love it now?

I wanted something that felt good in my hands, and that’s a bass. There’s something very primal about that low-end sound, because it’s an energy, you know? I’ve heard people ask how music first happened — was it rhythm, or was it melody first? Well, it was rhythm first. It was drumming. That’s where sound comes from: the reaction of skin on a piece of wood creating a vibration. That’s the roots of the bass guitar, or the upright bass, or the low end of keyboards and synthesizers. That sound to me just feels like home. It connects me with my mother. It connects me with everything. –BM

Jon D'Auria   By: Jon D'Auria

If you're enjoying this story, please support Bass Magazine by making a donation!
You won't find this content anywhere else, and we have so much more coming soon.
A donation will help us continue to bring the future of bass to you, our beloved readers. Thank you!