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Monday was a sunny afternoon in Howth. The fact that Larry Mullen wanders into The House restaurant unencumbered by a PR minder would seem odd for anyone else of his fame. But this is Larry Mullen and this is Howth. Larry feels safe here.

He feels safe really as far as Malahide, where he might go for a pint. "Town", he says, "can get messy." Mullen is the member of U2 who has most minded his private life. For example, while the other three members of the band have moved to France with their families mostly in tow for the first leg of the 360 tour, Mullen will stay in Howth and commute.

"It is more stressed from a job point of view but it is less arduous from a family point of view," he explains. "There won't be as much pressure on the kids, which is a huge consideration."

Mullen has never encouraged his children to engage with the world of U2. "It's hard enough to come from Artane and see my children grow up in Howth -- it is a privileged and charmed life they lead," he says. "The idea that you would have them engaged with what goes on around the band, I just don't think it would be good for them. I like to keep it separate for them. I am interested in music, I like making music. But I want to be able to get on and have a relatively normal existence, not for myself, but for my kids. I am not normal, of course I am not. I live in this bubble. And I accept that about myself and I accept the idea that I may have to get photographed or get written about. But kids don't deserve that, they need to be protected.

Mullen does not feel that he has paid the price that he thinks Bono has, in terms of managing to keep a normal life, but he still gets bothered sometimes when his kids come home from school and there have been comments made -- not, interestingly, by the other kids but generally by parents. Larry himself says that he doesn't "go out on the town with my mates for everyone to see".

The next day at the Nou Camp stadium in Barcelona, Bono will vigorously dispute the notion that he has sacrificed his personal life, saying that he feels he has "stolen" a remarkably normal life for himself. Bono also says he feels free, in a way that suggests Mullen might not feel so much, to go anywhere he wants, "to sleep on a beach in France or to go to the penthouse".

Today, Mullen himself seems like a slightly reluctant member of the biggest band in the world. "I'm very so over the business and the amount of stress that goes on with the whole business of being in this band. It bores me to death, I so hate it," he says. But then, he comes to the point that all four members of U2 will speak most enthusiastically about over the next few days: "The only thing that keeps me hanging on is those moments when you come together as a band and play. One of the things that frustrates me more than anything else is that there are a lot less laughs now. It is not the same. Except when we make music together there are a lot of laughs. It is only at those times that you really understand why you do it, because otherwise it is mind-numbing."

Indeed, Mullen says that for him, the music is the main element in the relationship between the four band members now. "I mean, when you bring children into the equation and when people are moving around, you know, we don't all live here all the time now because of the way the touring schedule is. You know, Edge is married to an American lady so he spends time in America with her family so it's not like the gang that it used to be."

Bono will vigorously dispute this too, saying this is Larry projecting because he never goes out, and Adam Clayton will point out, not unreasonably, that even when they were all one gang in a transit van it actually wasn't that much fun. Bono will also make the point that the four members of the band all have houses next to each other in France and regularly holiday together.

But Larry keeps doing it for the "belly laughs, the feeling of camaraderie and generosity" he gets in rehearsals. And for the escape. Lipton Village, he says, wasn't the escape for him -- the escape was playing music, and always will be. This too, is a common theme with all the band members over the next few days.

Mullen, like the others, is nervous about the new tour. The 360 tour employs a revolutionary stage concept never before seen in stadia. It basically means that U2 will play on a round stage, in the middle of the stadium, with fans all around them. There is, as Bono will say more than once, "jeopardy". Or, as Mullen puts it: "The first night can be amazing, but it can be a washout ... that's the way the shit goes."

When we speak on Monday there are certain ideas about what songs will be included in the show -- Mullen talks about an extended acoustic set in the middle, about revisiting songs from Achtung Baby and never-before-played gems from early in their career -- but really, it is only over the next week, as the band get to play on the stage, which was erected for the first time on Tuesday in Barcelona, that they will see what's possible. On Monday, yet to see the stage, Mullen comments wryly, "We don't want another Popmart."

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Paul McGuinness calls Larry Mullen the "squeaky wheel" of U2. Take, for example, his repeated public criticism of Bono for his associations with people like George Bush. Mullen is happy to admit to this role. "I'm not a terribly skilled musician," he says, "but I am a good band member." And central to this seems to be that Larry Mullen often asks one simple question of his bandmates, and maybe particularly of Bono: "Why? Why is it a good idea? Explain to me why it's a good idea because I just want to know, I'm interested and I'm not busy writing songs, I'm busy doing other things, so I've more time to think about it."

One concern, he says, is that Bono's associations with the Bushes and Blairs of the world can open U2 up to ridicule. There is also a moral dimension for Mullen. He worries about "when you are seen to be the arbiter of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable and a death in Africa is no different to a death in Iraq. How can you be the arbiter of that?"

Mullen is quite the political animal himself but in a more down-home way than Bono. He gives a sophisticated read on the local election results and has his own take on the Government too: "With respect to ministers of the environment or the Minister for Finance, what I don't understand is how you become a minister for finance if you don't have a degree in economics, and even if you don't have a degree in economics, how come you aren't basically surrounded by people who do have degrees ... not civil servants ... actual experts."

One of Mullen's other political concerns is what he refers to as the "eat the rich" philosophy that has emerged in Ireland in recent times. It is something that will come up with all four members of the band: "There's no question about it," he says, "and I'm not saying this because I'm rich, but the reality is -- love them or loathe them -- all those rich wives, all those rich guys with all those balls, all those women that you see organising this and organising that, without them we'd be in a very, very different state than we are now. A lot of people who are well off in this country make huge contributions and I'm not talking about anything to do with tax, I'm just talking about with their time and with their money. I mean enormous contributions."

He gets slightly annoyed when he recounts one specific example of the new antipathy towards the rich, which was seeing Dermot Desmond and his family being jeered at, late at night coming through Dublin airport.

He seems particularly baffled as to why property developers "are becoming the butt end of it all. People saying, 'Well, it serves them right -- they had it good'. What they don't understand is that during the good time they were providing thousands upon thousands of jobs. I don't want to go back to the Eighties. I grew up in the Eighties and it was miserable."

An interesting footnote to the story of his youth was that Larry Mullen was a member of the Artane Boys Band. Has he been thinking back on that experience recently? Mullen points out that he was in the band after the now notorious Artane Industrial School had become a day school. "But what was really kind of shocking was that the band became the kind of poster for how well everyone was doing -- they were all looking well fed and well turned out."

What hinted to Mullen that there was something off about the inmates of Artane was something much closer to home: "My family used to take a child from Artane," he says. "We did it for three or four years in a row. A child would come for a couple of nights in the summer and I remember there was this one kid we used to take and he was older than I was. I would have been about seven or eight and he would've been about 12. He was dressed in a suit and he just looked and behaved like he was from another planet. He was incapable of engaging at all, wouldn't talk. Now we know why, but back then we used to say 'Oh, those guys are weird from Artane'."

Tuesday afternoon in Barcelona and it is very much, as Bono calls it, "first day back at school". Bono, the Edge, Paul McGuinness and U2's longtime friend and creative consultant Gavin Friday are seeing what Bono calls "the giant cactus" for the first time. No doubt the enormous space invader that sits in the middle of the stadium will become a familiar sight over the next year or two, part of the culture. But nothing can quite prepare you for the first time you see it. It's extraordinary. Later on, in darkness, I will see it do things I'm not even allowed tell you about. But the consensus is also that placing a circular stage, with no backdrop, towards the middle of the stadium will create more intimacy. It's easy to see how this blend of the space age and the intimate will lend itself to new U2 songs like the new album's title track No Line On The Horizon or Fez (Being Born).

No Line on the Horizon has been hailed by some as U2's best album ever and it has already sold five million copies. It is a return to the kind of European, experimental mood the band mined so successfully on Achtung Baby and Zooropa. It is also, you could imagine, their most overtly religious album since October. Magnificent is Bonanza meets the bible, Moment of Surrender is about religious epiphany (the theme of surrender pervades the album and indeed the new show) and even the hard-bitten journalism song Cedars of Lebanon seems to culminate in a question to God. This is perhaps surprising, given that U2 have tended to play down their religion in recent years, perhaps for fear of being labelled Christian Rock.

But the religious is all around U2 and their work. Ask Bono why they still do this, why men well into their 40s would uproot their families and their lives for what could be anything up to two years, and he will refer to the parable of the talents. He almost threatens to become evangelical. "There is a sense genuinely that something special exists between us," he says, "and that we make a certain kind of music that is not your regular pop fare or rock fare, and that we owe it to that chemistry to try and protect it."

I say to Bono that Larry Mullen told me he didn't think this was a religious album, But then, that Larry said that, with respect, he doesn't really listen to the lyrics.

"Or understand them," Bono laughs, "I'm gonna draw pictures for the next album." In terms of the religious thing, Bono says, "I think you're probably right in that, at their best, U2's always made ecstatic music. Joy is the hardest thing for any musician to approach. Melancholy and anxiety and anger, these are quite easy emotions to paint whereas joy ... The Beatles had joy, Mozart has joy, the Who, Oasis. It's a very hard thing to find. And in our moments we have it."

Do you think it's a God-given gift?

"No. Yes. But I think it's taken me years to understand what that was. And I'm not sure I fully understand it."

Try and tie Bono down about his own religion right now and he seems reluctant to define it. He rejects the label "Born-Again Christian" as "a bumper sticker", saying, "I think you should be born again every day." The day before, Larry Mullen also rejected the tag on the grounds that it is exclusive and his God is inclusive. Mullen said he had been in that club but no more and now he was largely a-la-carte, seeming to prefer Church of Ireland services when at home in Howth. His kids are also being raised Church of Ireland, which is their mother's faith.

Bono argues that all music is devotional and worshipful -- "It just depends what you're worshipping." And he talks eloquently about how making music is an act of faith or, at least, requires a leap of faith. And he admits, when talking about Moment of Surrender, that, "I'm very interested in the idea of being moved by the spirit. You have to be vulnerable to it and sometimes it takes you coming to a real impasse in your life, like right up against it, whether its financially or drink or whatever it is, and you run out of your own steam. And the character in Moment of Surrender has done that and it's very powerful."

On calling himself a Christian, Bono says, "Not a very good one. My thing is just struggling to approach that word. I don't feel worthy to use the word Christian because I know too much about myself. I'd be more the one who'd just stick my hand out to grab at the hem of the robe. That'd be me. Because I feel like I've broken and entered heaven. I climbed up the drainpipe and got in the window. I can carry the cross but I can't wear the badge."

I ask him if the reason that he wrote many of the songs in the third person this time is because Bono the rich rock star doesn't have the struggle or the dark nights of the soul anymore.

"Why do you say that?" he says, sounding genuinely mystified. But he admits that the contradictions between success and striving is something that's come up before, brought up by Adam Clayton and also by his wife. "Some people sing for a living and some people sing for their life," he answers. "And I would tell you that the place that I find peace is when we're writing and when we're making music together. I find not to do that is to create a kind turbulence and a kind of deep dissatisfaction with my life ... And that hasn't gotten better."

As for the dark nights of the soul, he's an early riser anyway but he was awake a few nights last week, at four and five, worrying about, as he puts it, "heading off to join the circus one more time".

Was he thinking in terms of the price he will pay in his personal life? I mention Larry Mullen saying that Bono pays a bigger price in those terms than any of the others in the band. As with many of the things I bring up from Mullen, Bono gently disagrees. "I don't know that I have," he says, "because I look at my family and I've got two teenage girls who are just the most joyful creatures to be around and two boys coming through that look again like they're just having the best life and Ali ... "

And does he feel he is there for his family?

"I'm there more than most parents," he says. "Writers can stay at home. Whereas other people that you grew up with, they're up at seven in the morning and they're gone till nine at night. And at least when I'm home I'm really home and now we can afford for them to run away with the circus as well."

This is a reference to the fact that Bono's kids will join him and Ali in France for the summer, for the first part of the tour, fitting in with school holidays. "The two boys haven't finished school yet," he says, "Eve has just finished her Leaving, Jordan's in college in New York."

What has actually been keeping him awake, recently, is the fear of the unknown, of how touring can mess with your head. He worries about becoming like some of his famous friends who he meets out on tour now and then, and they have a slight look in the eye that tells Bono "they've been away from home too long".

Not that the tour will be a non-stop party. Bono claims he has never been able to party while he's on tour. "But," he smirks, "I make up for that when I'm at home." I read somewhere recently that Bono doesn't drink much any more, that he's up at six every morning writing. But, apparently, rumours of the demise of his social life have been greatly exaggerated.

"When I go out, I go out," he says. "It's just unfortunately not enough. I used to love that. I love to run with my mates that I grew up with and I've seen you out so you know this to be true. I love that I can do that in the city I grew up in and I love that I do it without security and I love that I can go anywhere I want. I might have a car, I might not; if I don't, the taxi driver will get me home."

Indeed, Bono is proud that he has, as he puts it, "stolen a life" and he believes that Irish people have afforded him that life. He's seen too many of his friends in the business fail to keep in touch with reality for him not to value that.

However, he will mutter darkly later on, when the subject of photos of his teenage daughter on holidays in her bikini comes up, about newspapers that he won't mention by name, "newspapers that have no interest in Irish people apart from taking their money".

And then he's off to sort out a problem with the stage. He is concerned that a couple of rows of seats at the back may have a compromised view and he seems really bothered about it. I had heard that Bono can tend to micromanage things in the U2 organisation but he seems to have taken particular responsibility for the new show. This is, he says, because he was the one who talked everyone else into it and, if it doesn't work, it's not only a very expensive mistake, it's his expensive mistake.

The Edge doesn't seem to have any such worries as he walks me around the stage. Of all of them he seems most gleeful to be here and most excited about getting out playing the new songs and dusting off numbers people haven't seen them perform before. He tells me some but then makes contact afterwards to ask me not to ruin the surprise. He lovingly shows me, in the middle of all the space-age high-tech, the battered old Vox amps that have been with him since the beginning, and then the vast collection of about 20 guitars under the stage, each with its own niche. Like the one on which he wrote "Vertigo" that had to be flown across continents because he couldn't recreate the Vertigo riff on any other guitar when they went to record it.

He seems particularly excited to be playing the new music because he thinks that it was made for the four members of the band, and because there are new moods and motivations in it, things that are very personal to them all. They all mention this, how they decided not to make an album this time but just to make music for the hell of it. "Because we learnt to play in front of an audience we've always tended to be audience driven, but this time we weren't so much," he says. Indeed, Bono says that while they were making the music, every time there was a suggestion of making an album Larry or Adam would dismiss it and plead for them just to keep playing together with no agenda.

What will come out of that journey, ultimately, will probably be three albums. Edge is adamant that the work that was done with Rick Rubin (the legendary metal, Beastie Boy and latterly Johnny Cash producer and label boss) before the band went back to make an album with longtime collaborators and de facto fifth and sixth band members Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, was not shelved, that it is something they will go back to. It just became apparent that the work they were doing with their old friends Brian and Daniel was the album to make right now.

When I suggest to him that Window in The Skies, which came out of those Rick Rubin sessions, is one of the best songs U2 have done in years, Edge agrees that Rubin is great on songs and he says that Window in The Skies is only the tip of the iceberg of the Rubin sessions. But, in the meantime, there will probably be another album from the No Line On The Horizon sessions.

While a spring release date had been mentioned, Bono seems to damping down that expectation now, saying that while they have nine pieces of music that they think are really special, the album will only come out if and when it is as good or better than No Line. And it certainly won't come out, as was reported in some media, this year. Bono is unashamedly clear that he wants No Line On The Horizon to be the U2 product that gets bought this Christmas.

It's now midnight in a beautiful duplex suite in the Hotel Arts with a stunning view over Barcelona. Adam Clayton is radiating calm and content. "Actually, I quite like being here. In this world again. Doing shows and being in hotels again. You can be home looking after yourself and being normal and thinking you don't want it but then it comes around again and you go, 'maybe, you know'." It's nice to know that Clayton appreciates his life. And he does.

Once perhaps the most troubled member of the band, and perhaps the least appreciative of their success, Adam Clayton seems to have found extraordinary stillness and peace as he's got older. It is actually calming to be in the same room as him, being lulled by his deliciously timbered cut-glass speaking voice.

Clayton enjoys the rhythm of life on the road: days spent trying to declutter his head before the gig, gym, shower, travel to gig, playing the gig and then coming back to his room to maybe watch a box set of The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm (that's the last tour; this time it's likely to be Mistresses, which Clayton is getting into. He's also a big fan of Shameless). Clayton doesn't find the fact that he doesn't drink is any problem on tour. But then, he says, after 11 years he is "very easy" about his sobriety now. He does, however avoid late-night drunkenness. Done that.

Like the others, Clayton seems to have found a new lease of life in making No Line On The Horizon. "It's funny with this record and where we're at as a band," he says, "I think the spirit that we made this record in was such a spirit of 'we're only doing it because we want to'. Somewhere in it we've got to find something that we believe in. And, in the course of making it, we found our truths, we found some values that don't exist in regular life. The fact that four guys have been together for 30 years and they dreamed it up and they went after it. There's a point where I'm proud of it and I'm proud of the integrity behind what we do. If you have created any catalogue of material you're entitled to go out and play it if people want to hear it. There are people who want to hear it; we are relevant. And we still get on and we're not fighting. There are so many bad things that happen to musicians and businesses that have been going on this long. So much infighting, and we don't come with that baggage. You know, it's amazing."

Bono had mentioned to me that Adam Clayton is a joy to be around these days. It seems with the new album, Clayton has managed to finally and fully put to bed his issues with U2's success.

"I wrestled a lot with U2", Clayton says, "and I wrestled with the success of it and what I thought it meant and what I thought it had done. And, in the end, a lot of it was kind of nonsense. Suffice to say, I thought having to manage and deal with the difficulties of being successful got in the way of creating. And, in reality, I realised with maturity that it's what you make it. You choose. It's not making you do anything."

Clayton's disillusionment began, not surprisingly, when the incredible success of The Joshua Tree turned the lives of everyone involved in it upside down.

"I think it knocked the wind out of everyone", he says, "I think it took everybody a good 10 years to adjust to it and to make changes. It was sort of after 10 years that I'd gone a little bit too far down a road of rejecting it and feeling disenfranchised by it and feeling I couldn't walk down the road and I couldn't go to gigs and feeling I couldn't do the things that I enjoyed doing and I couldn't go to a club to hear some music without someone in my ear. Bono was able to adjust to it very quickly. He was able to take the good stuff and ignore the s*** that went with it. It took me a bit longer. Maybe I was more arrogant. And now I'm able to accept the good stuff and the bad stuff."

Clayton also thinks that not having a family to come home to, the way the others did, perhaps threw him a bit as well. Coming back from tours, he would find he couldn't remember what he had done before in Dublin, whom he had hung out with or where he had gone. He was also very insecure about his own abilities and his place within the band -- "It's hard to find your place with three strong characters."

But on this album he truly learnt, he says, to get out of his own way, "and when someone tries to give you a hand, thank them, don't say, 'No I can do this, leave me alone.'"

Clayton takes pop music seriously. Ask him about being nearly 50 and single and he will say that while this isn't how he saw things panning out for him, while he thought his life would work out more like the others, and while he still wouldn't rule out settling down and having kids, being on his own does give him the time to pursue his interests -- pop music being chief among them, along with art, the growing passion in his life.

But then Clayton owes pop music. He has said that music saved him when he was a troubled youngster. "I think what happened," he says of his childhood, "was we travelled quite a lot." Born in England, Clayton moved as a young child to Kenya and then to Ireland (his father was an airline pilot). Shortly after arriving in Ireland he was sent to boarding school, which didn't suit him. He is keen to stress that he doesn't want to "Do A Sinead O'Connor" and that his parents thought they were doing the right thing. Unsporty, uncompetitive, chubby and with glasses, Clayton says he wasn't bullied but if anyone was going to get bullied it would have been him. And then along came that one cool teacher who can save someone's life and played Adam Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell on an old top loader tape-recorder and began the relationship that would ultimately bring Adam Clayton to the happy place he is today.

So maybe the devil doesn't have the best tunes. Maybe Adam Clayton and his band mates are proof that you don't need to keep your demons in order to be a great band. Maybe, in fact, it's not the demons that give you the tunes, but the angels.

U2 play Croke Park, Dublin on July 24, 25 and 27th. See www.u2.com

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