To be awarded as 'honorary Brits' is just another of life's contradictions says Bono in today's Sunday Times (UK), ahead of tomorrow nights BRIT Awards in London.
Here we carry an edited version of Chrissy Iley's interview with Adam and Bono. The specially commissioned band photo (left) is by society photographer David Bailey.
'At tomorrow's Brit Awards, the accolade for Outstanding Contribution to British Music will, for the first time, be given not to a British band, but to an Irish one. To U2, of course, who have contended in past awards, perhaps bizarrely, for the prize of best international act, alongside the likes of Prince and REM. So what does it all mean, this greening of the Brits? That suddenly we want to claim the world's premier proper rock band as our own? The chairman of the Brits committee, Tony Wadsworth, says: "Well, they signed their deal in the UK and they've always been an in- tegral part of British music. They've had 20 years of being successful and innovative. They're a huge force, even outside of music, on a social and political level.
"Anyway, how do you define what's international? Is it about where you're born, where you pay taxes, what your passport is, where you signed your contract?"
In fact, only two of U2 were born in Ireland. Guitarist David Evans - The Edge - was born in Wales and moved there when he was three. And Adam Clayton, the bass player, was born in Africa to British parents. His father was a pilot who moved to Ireland to fly with Aer Lingus when Clayton was a boy.
U2 may sing in the same language as the British, but we are separated by more than a sea. U2 are anthemic, global. They are in love with Americana in a way that British people are not. More to the point, as Bono, the band's singer, tells me from his suite in the Savoy: "We've never been cool, we're hot. Irish people are Italians who can't dress, Jamaicans who can't dance." He goes on to expound on the nature of passion, which seems the antithesis to cool.
U2 have lived in London for long periods of time, but had to get out in order to develop their own sense of something unique. "We could have got carried away. The haircuts would have got worse. I mean, Adam had a spot of Spandau Ballets for a moment, and Edge was seen in a raincoat," Bono says.
When I first arrived to meet him, he was wearing a towel wrapped around his waist and smelt of shower heat. His eyes, without his trademark dark glasses, are an alarming pale blue. He was dressed in a lilac embroidered shirt and the rosary/crucifix the Pope gave him. It seems rather shocking that in all these 20 years of being a rock star, during which we have seen him casually pose between supermodels and religious icons, John Hume and David Trimble, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, that he should be so chuffed at getting an award. That it makes him feel accepted.
He's a complicated character who talks fluently about having to listen to his devils and his angels. "Smack in the centre of contradiction is the place to be," he states.
There are many contradictions, but the one that probably defines why we love him is the tension between his Christianity and his sexual cravings. Being a permanently strung-out lovelorn do-gooder who wants to change the world is not an easy role to play.
"If I see a rock star open his mouth and he's not singing, I put my wallet in my trousers. But I know I'm one of those. Ugh."
He also loves to drink and to party and likes dance music and the club scene. But as he's growing older it turns out he's highly allergic to salicilates, which are in things like wine. "That means I lose my voice or I fall asleep in the strangest places, like once on the lighting board for Sonic Youth, one of the loudest concerts in the world. And I get red eyes, which is one of the reasons I wear glasses."
The latest album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, which reached No 1 in 32 countries, has been described as both a return to roots and a midlife crisis for a band now entering their forties. "That's because I use the word midlife crisis in one of the songs. But the character in the song couldn't be further from me. He's led a sheltered life and is trying to set fire to it. Whereas I'm the opposite, I'm trying to calm down."
I'm not sure that he'd ever be good at being calm. He's too much of a charisma cauldron for that. His eyes flicker all over the shop, he doesn't miss anything. In 20 years, U2 have seen as many reconstructions as Madonna, but it's not been about the outfits: it's been about the more subtle application of the music itself. They've gone through punk to anthemic rock torch songs to techno sophisticated and round about again to traditional guitar benediction.
He says: "Punk rock was great. You knew your limitations and worked around them. Our first song, I Will Follow, was written on two strings." He sings: "Dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee."
"You can write songs that are successful with strong constructions and melodies, but no magic. And we discovered we'd spent 20 years out of our depth and splashing around to save our life. We never fully knew what we were doing. As soon as you become comfortable, you're in one niche."
I asked him if his rock-star-as- ambassador - fronting Jubilee 2000, the campaign to reduce Third World debt, because he could open more doors than he thought the others could - was about the need for respect. "It's self-respect again. You let go of respect and you've a right to be an arsehole. I'm an arsehole on a continuous basis, but I don't feel that I've a right to be, and that's the difference. I can't justify rock-star- as-arsehole. I made a good shot of it a couple of times, but I actually think manners are really important."
Adam Clayton is also a man of contradictions. Hugely shy, and careful with his words, he nevertheless remembers seeing Top of the Pops when he was seven and thinking: "That's a lifestyle I could go along with: fame and fortune."
Clayton is a perfect counterpart for Bono's soulful lyricism. The last tour, a big-stadium affair, did not make him happy. But this is not a band of battling egos, crises and splits.
"There have been dark days," he continues, looking back over the two decades. "But - how can I put this? It's still a great job. By the time I came to realise things were falling in around my ears, I needed the band as much as I ever did. There's such a support structure there - from the band, our manager and the record company."
How long will you go on for, I asked. "We've had an audience who've supported us through various kinds of musical changes for two decades, but we have to make decisions that are more personal to protect the creativity and validity of the band. I'm not sure you ever get to be an ex-rock star. You can get to be a fading star. That might be a tragedy, but you never get to be an ex."
Read the complete interview at http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/