In a Chickenshit World, A Band You Can Trust (200005 Select article)

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Select May 2000

In A Chickenshit World, A Band You Can Trust

From a fishing village in Devon come the first new stars of 2000. Epic, angst-ridden and utterly thrilling, they have the world in their grasp. Join the ever-growing cult of Muse.

Matthew Bellamy hasn't communed with the dead for a good few years now. There was a time when Muse's ghostly pale singer would contact the other side on a daily basis - he'd sneak downstairs with his brother after his parents had gone to bed, get out a ouija board and pick voices out of the air as if they were some kind of spectral radio signals.

Getting intimate with the supernatural is in Matt's blood. There have been mediums in his family for generations: the last being his mum. It was only when Mrs Bellamy saw how dangerously obsessed her children were becoming with the psychic realm that she decided to pack it in before they started speaking in tongues.

Now, of course, as a rational adult Matt can explain away all the crazy shit he saw when he was a child: you believe all kinds of things then, like mysterious faries that steal teeth from under your pillow in exchange for the price of a couple of gnasher-rotting sweets. But the spiritual realm is once more making its presence felt on the band's first promotional trip to Japan - a country where the national religion of Shinto takes the existence of spirits for granted.

Among the usual teasers about whether they've ever met Radiohead, a female journalist politely asks Matt, "Do you think that you're actually a medium, and the reason you're doing this is because you're tapping into spirits without realising it?".

He's totally gobsmacked, "Well," he wonders, "is that what I'm doing? Is that where these songs come from? Is Muse just my way of carrying on the family business?"

With or without the aid of the netherworld, it's clear that Muse are on the kind of triumphant upward curve not experienced by a young new band in a depressingly long time. Sellout tours, a John Lecki-produced debut album "Showbiz" - which has sold nearly 200, 000 copies worldwide, ever-ascending chart placings, appearances on Top Of The Pops and TFI Firday ... Even the fact that Chris Evans introduced them as "Sunburn playing their new song 'Muse'" can't detract from the feeling that this is a group that could soon be filling the auditoria of their choice.

And in a music scene that still warms to the most ludicrous of hype-merchants, Muse's story seems wonderfully uncontrived. There's no Gay Dad-style hot air, no Embrace-like statements about beating the crap out of, say, Thom Yorke. And because they hail from the Devn backwater of Teignmouth, they've been able to steer clear of any petty local rivalries. Papa Lazarou soundalikes Terris have to battle against the Manics, Catatonia and Sterophonecs. Muse, on the other hand, only had Rootjoose.

Their favoured fellow three-piece might be Nirvana, but Muse have obviously learned a lot from the Stereophonics. Starting from the one place on god's earth less fashionable that Cwmaman, they've carefully created a fanbase impervious to fashion, through continual touring. As Matt cries on their finest moment 'Muscle Museum', "I've playing in every toilet". They're also rediculously well-connected in the alt-rock community. Red Hot Chili Peppers' singer Anthony Kiedis could be seen crowd surfing at their LA gig [though thankfully with his pants on]; Dave Grohl speaks about them with an almost embarrassing degree of reverence; while Gavin Rossdale was so taking with them on a recent Bush support tour in Germany that he introduced them to a variety of high-class strip-joints.

But Muse aren't so credible with everyone. For a long time the mayor of their hometown wanted to put them in the stocks for claiming that Teignmouth is so stultifyingly dull that half the town's young population are in a permanent chemical haze. More seriously, some question the timing of Muse's seemingly natural rist to prominence. With the more angstily-inclined young rock fan having to do without the genius of Jeff Buckley, and Radiohead apparently taking centuries to nail down their new snare-drum sounds, some accuse Muse of simply filling in the aching emotive angst-rock void - in the same way Bush allegedly capitalised on the untimely departure of Nirvana. Or perhaps in the way that Oasis muscled into the arena left vacant by the Roses and and Mondays.

So, are Muse the future, or just a convenient stop-gap until the true maestros are ready to return?

Before you answer that, consider the average age of the members of Muse is 21.

It's a grey, miserable Saturday afternoon in Tokyo, but there's still any manner of weirdness to distract you. Everywhere there are exponents of Japan's first original youth movement - they're called 'eggs' - 15-year-old schoolkids [boys and girls] who frill their skin under sun-lamps, then apply pasty white make-up and walk around in 12-inch platform shoes. Elsewhere, an electronic billboard features a 40-foot ape dressed as a policeman directing traffic, which for some reason is supposed to make you buy a certain brand of toothpaste. But there's an infinitely stranger sight to behold. Sat in the window of Towar Records like human goldfish are the three members of Muse, being interviewed by a pony-tailed goatee merchance for Bay FM [station motto: "Love Your Bay!"]. Stood outside in the rain are about 100 girls staring rapt at the trio and listing in complete silence as a loud speaker relays what they're saying. We're a long way from Teignmouth.

You can tell a lot about the band through their reactions. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme is obviously a little mortified but still tries to appear accommodating to the doe-eyed mass. Unflappable drummer Dominic Howard seems highly amused, waving sweetly at each of the vrowd. Matt Bellamy moves between looking slightly distracted to an almost Red Coat-like ability toe work the crowd into a delighted frenzy. "We can't wait to come back here!" he cries. The crowd burst into applause as they forlornly reach out to touch the glass.

That's as far as they get because, once the interview is over, the band are escorted by the shop's guards through a labytinth of corridors to shake off any potential stalkers. They eventually make it to the shop's garage, where an anonymous-looking van with tinted windows is waiting to whisk them away, In Fact, It's almost a disappointment when no-one throws themself on the impeccably polished bonnet, Chris even feels safe enough to open up his window to have a fag.

It hasn't gone so smoothly everywhere though. "Germany was a nightmare," says Matt, twitching in annoyance. "until then I was appreciative of anyone who liked the music. But we picked up some people in France, and they travelled to Germany to see every gig - I mean every single one. They'd come up to me afterwards and I've have to explain, 'Sorry, I'm busy talking to my friend'. and it was like they were being dumped."

Pawing through some just-arrived press cuttings from back home, Dom is well chuffed that at last someone has likened Muse to Rage Against The Machine. "Excellent! Nobody ever picks up on the fact that we can be heavy as well."

Matt's less pleased with an interview that, while bordering on sycophancy, still manages to misquote him. "un-be-fucking-lievable!" he exhorts. "If I wasn't in this band and I read some of these things, I'd think that I was a complete twat."

By far the most affecting track on 'Showbiz' is the lonesome blues hymn 'Falling Down', which opens with Matt singing in a supernaturally high falsetto "I'm falling down/And 15, 000 people scream" Not uncoincidentally, 15, 000 is the population of Teignmouth, a town whose only famous residents pre-Muse were John Keats [for about 15 minutes] and the inventor of the computer Charles Babbage.

The one celeb always left out of the Teignmouth guide-books is Matt's dad, George Bellamy, who played guitar for the legenday '60s group The Tornados, who took Joe Meek's 'Telstar' to number one in 1967. Despite having two Top Ten hits, his dad came out of the music industry without a penny. He's a plumber now. Still, to quote Les McQueen from The League Of Gentlemen, "It's a shit buesiness."

The comedic dispute between the band and Teignmouth's mayor has finally died down. "We've apparently 'officially apologised," says Dom, "Like, when?!" He still reckons it's "a crap place to grow up in". [The key to social success was "sports and beating people up."] But this could be due to the rumour that at the age of eigh he thought he saw a ghost and pooed his pants. "That's just a joke that got out of hand," he sighs.

In fact, all three spent their formative years elsewhere. Chris moved there from Rotherham, Matt from Cambridge and Dom from Manchester. Maybe it was this shared 'new kid' status that drew them towards the outsiders at school' "We always felt outside from the rest of the town," says Dominic.

And they didn't really enjoy the favoured youth activity of sitting on the sea-front on the deck-chairs, drinking White Lightening till it got dark, throwing up on the beach, necking some Polo mints to fool the folks and stumbling back home. So instead they decided to 'choose music' - Matt and Dom formed the inappropriately-named Gothic Plague [they specialised in ripping off the Wedding Present] and Chris dummed in Fixed Penalty, who preferred covering fraggle losers like Mega City Four. In fact, Chris was booted out of the 'Penalty for six weeks because of his unashamed love of Status Quo - a love he recently consumated when he saw them soundchecking and he got to stand in for a sickly Rick Parfitt on a version of 'Don't Waste My Time'.

The two bands acted like a mutual support group in a school where the ability to grow a bum-fluff 'tache was prized over knowledge of early Sonic Youth albums. But as the twin perils of GCSEs and girlfriends lured members away from the bands, Dom, Chris and Matt realised that they were the only three people committed enough to mortgage their futures for music.

The three finally came together at the age of 15 with Rocket Baby Dolls, a band which took its name from a Japanese porn film Matt and Dom on satellite telly. And because the three of them were now spending an almost unhealthy amount of time together, RBD was afar more serious, darker outfit than their previous bands. "We didn't have that 'normal guy' atmosphere most people have at that age," says Matt.

They gained local notoriety by their Bacchanallan performance at a Battle Of The Bands contest. They realised they had absolutely no chance of winning against the jazz-funk/pub-rock competency of their peers, so they turned up caked in mascara, blasted through five disgustingly noisy thrash-fests and a howling cover of Nirvana's 'Tourette's' and then invited the audience onstage to trash their gear. Matt was dragged off the stage by a security guard, only for him to calmber back on again to smash his guitar to splinters.

The only thing that stopped it from being the perfect nihilistic art-rock gesture is that it was so impressive, that they won the award. Two weeks later they changed their name to Muse. It's not that Matt actually lies in interviews - it's just that sometimes he likes to make the truth a little more interesting. His preferred method of spicing up interviews back home is to make blatantly ridiculous, tongue-in-cheeck remarks and then see whether the interviewer is sharp enough to get the gag.

This stress-relieveing approach, however, doesn't really work in Japan. Maybe because everything is formalised because of the presence of a translator, but it's not considered good etiquette to challenge the interviewer over anything. Matt could say that he was actually born Marth Bellamy and they'd still politely write it all down.

Back at the minimalist offices of their Japanese record company Avex, there are no windows, no Japanese posters to reveal that Avex is also the home of Steps and Britney Spears - in fact, nothing that would indicate that this is Tokyo rather than a posh conference room in Torquay.

This is the last day of interviews [they've been meeting for the press for the last four days, sometimes from tun in the morning till eight in the evening], and there are indications that if they have to deny sounding like Radiohead one more time Muse are going to cry. Inbetween interviews Matt has taken to defacing a picture of Smashing Pumpkins with a thick black marker, while Chris just looks slightly desolate - he has a seven-month-old kid called Alfie that he knows he won't be able to see for another week. "The name was my girlfriend's idea," he says later, glowing with paternal pride. "I never wanted him to be called Alfie. It sounded like the name of a dealer in school - 'Oi, Alfie, can you score mate?' But as soon as his head popped out it was like, 'He's definately an Alfie.' When you see something like that, you realise that you don't have to constantly question everything in life all the time. I think." He adds, "Matt would disagree with me though!"

Still, at least Dominic is still enviably fresh-faced. With a foppish, Alex James-like air of casual decadence and a similar liking for roll-ups, he's also the only member of the band who's supposed to enjoy the slightly more debauched aspects of their new-found dame. "Well," he smiles, "that's not more my to say. I tend to take life in my stride, easy come, easy go. Sometimes Matt takes it in his stride, sometimes he goes mental."

It's now the very last interview of the day, and the answers from the band are becoming a little fractious ["Are we the leaders of the British rock scene? There isn't a British rock scene!"]. And then a question comes along that's so anodyne, something snaps.

So what do you like about Japan?

"I like the food," replies Dom. "Good, good food."

"We wnet to this restaurant," continues Matt, "and the killed the animals there in front of you or cooked them alive, you could see them die in front of you. And i think it's good to come face-to-face with death, because I think about death a lot. Pople in the West don't like knowing the truth about it. [His arms are flailing around now as if some of those old spirits are trying to escape]. It could be quick or it could be extremely painful. Maybe it's because my mum used to speak to the dead and so did I, but there's nothing to be afraid about facing death. Leaving the body behind could be <liberating> if there wasn't so much fear. It's the <truth>.

The interviewer nods politely. "So," the translator then asks, "what's your favourite Muse song?"

Matt admits that at the time Muse began playing seriously, he only had a few friends - Dom, Chris and three strange girls who referred to themselves as witches and sang to themselves in eerie, high-pitched voices. They were his muses - hence the band's name. "We did a lot of strange stuff that I don't really want to remember," he says elliptically. "We've just gone our seperate ways since then." For a while they were doing okay, playing packed out gigs around their hometown until one day the shows just emptied. "Everyone had gone away to university," giggles Chris. "Our gigs had just been excuses for parties."

So, at the ages of 17 and 18, Muse decided to "pay their dues", playing gigs that even the fledgling Stereophonics would've turned down. "We played this working man's club on a Sunday afternoon," shudders Chris. "The 'audience' was made up of familes having their Sunday dinners. There was one two-year-old girl who was dancing and falling over, and these scary blokes coming up to us shouting 'too fucking loud!' We didn't even have a PA!"

They all had day-jobs that they quite enjoyed - Matt was a painted and decorator and, incredibly, part-time demolitionist. Dom did bits-and-bobs such as dressing students for their graduation ceremonies ["helping ladies to dress? There are worse jobs"] and Chris worked for £90-a-week in a guitar shop. But by the time they were able to put out any material, British labels just saw a bad risk - in the chilly post-Britpop climate, they were more interested in dumping their existing guitar bands than signing any more.

But the permanently FM-rock friendly States was a different matter. Having played s revelatory gig at New York's CMJ music converence, they flew to play a showcase for a couple of American labels. A representative from Madonna's Maverick label turned up with some old muscle geezer they didn't know, heard them play two songs and signed them on the spot [the muscley bloke was Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols].

Inevitably, after Maverick signed them for a US-only deal, everyong else decided they were A Good Thing. So in a couple of months they went fomr being unsigned hopefuls to acquiring seperate record deals in Germany, France and Britain [with Garbage's label Mushroom]. After years of struggling they finally got to take The Man's dollars. "We;re not a hardcore, underground act," says Matt. "I just want to be able to communicate with people."

They ahve no doubts about where they're headed next. "At the moment, the US have got all these heavy metal bands like Korn and all these poppy punky skate bands," says Dom "So they're due for some sort of a change."

Then, in more natural Ironic mode: "Not that we're the name to do it."

One of the first big purchases Matt Bellamy made from Muse royalties was a Paramotor. It's a jet engine that you attach to your back which allows you to zoom ungracefully through the air. "I've nearly got my licence now," says Matt seriously. "you an go up to 10,000 feet if you've got enough oxygen."

It's the kind of absurd activity you'd expect from a bloated '70s prog-rocker, but for Matt it's almost a symbolic purchase. He continually talks about the sense of distance he feels from normal, everyday life, as if he's gazing down on events from afar. "I'm only really myself when I'm onstage," he says. "At other times I just feel like an onlooker. Sometimes I just completely lose myself, especially when I've been drinking for a few nights in succession."

Which can be a little scary for the rest of the band. Muse recently played Vienna during the outrage over the country's neo-Nazi Freedom Party. Matt went AWOL for two days. "I was hanging around with people I didn't know," he says vaguely. "I didn't sleep for 48 hours." The gig was a mess. Matt trashed the band's gear and smashed a mike into a dozing bouncer. "I just lost it," he says apologetically. "Dom said afterwards I looked possessed."

Thankfully he seems a little more in control here, relaxing in a traditional restaurant where any killing or torturing of shellfish is thankfully done behind closed doors. "This is a £150 bottle of wine," he laughs. "God, it's absolutely disgraceful how much this cost, but the record company said I could have any bottle I wanted, so how could you not go for the most expensive one?"

But even here, he never really seems at ease. Matt might have an air of Sid Vicious in his sharply defined cheekbones and greasy black hair, but watching him speak is reminiscent of an early Johnny Rotten - the same kind of barely repressed energy that makes him continually fidget or rock forward, and a gift for sneeringly over-enunciating certain words for dramatic effect. He rarely makes eye-contact. We're back onto the subject of death again.

"I'm really intrigued by death," he says, disconcertingly tucking in to a freshly prepared lobster. "i'm intrigued by what happens to your mind when your body starts to decay, or when you're being tortured. I recently watched Jacon's Ladder and Hellraiser. They've got these ideas that torture can be done by angels or demons. It's the idea of pain liberating the soul."

There are many such troubling notions within Matt's pitch-black world-view, but what really pulls people towards Muse is the contradiction between Matt's cerebral impulses and his intense desire to be a celebrity. Their debut album wasn't entitled "Showbiz" for nothing. "Showbiz' is nothing to do with me claiming that I'm going to break down the walls of the record industry," he cries. "I love showbiz! I love that glitz and glamour and Broadway cool. It can be sad as well, but it's always there, just untouchable."

That's why his band's time is defiantly now. 1999 was the year that saw the triumph of the nice bloke as pop star. Fran Healy, Kelly Jones - both lovely individuals who's get their round in and wouldn't swear in front of your gran.

Matt Bellamy, on the other hand, the millennium's first new rock star, promises far more illicit, darker pleasures. He could have it all - you can go up to 10,000 feet if you've got enough oxygen - but how much does he want it?

"I just hope that I'm not so jaded and pissed that the next album will be really miserable," he says sincerely. "I want to take from the negative but turn it into a postitive."

He's cheering up now, looking forward to having an afternoon off. "I'm going to go shopping, buy some gadgets," he smiles. And no, he doesn't think his band sound anything like Radiohead. He really doesn't.


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