State 2008-04-03 – Muse: A Short History of Everything

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This transcription may be inaccurate as we have not seen an original copy.

Long article about Wembley, touring, the future, etc. Transcript by bekbee.

Muse: A Short History of Everything

The journey from playing to one man and his dog in rural Devon to selling out Wembley Stadium may appear an impossible dream for most, but for Muse the transition seems more organic and natural. After all, music this big wasn't supposed to be housed in thousand-seater venues.

Two sell-out shows in Wembley last year were the highlight of a mammoth world tour which saw the three-piece of Matt Bellamy (vocals, guitar). Dominic Howard (drums) and Chris Wolstenholme (bass) play everywhere from Kuala Lumpur to Oxegen. But why release their third live DVD, HAARP, (following 2001's Hullabaloo and 2004's Glastonbury headliner)?

"Because it's Wembley Stadium," laughs Dom. 'there was no way we were going to go into that venue and not film it. It was our biggest gig to date and it was such an overwhelming experience and an honour to have the privilege to play at the venue, that we felt we had to film it and get as much footage as we can. It's something that's going to be with us for the rest of our lives."

Initially, they only planned to document it for their own use but months after the gigs, they started to look at the footage and realised it was worthy of a wider audience. They still, however, have the grace and modesty to feel uncomfortable watching themselves on film. "You do cringe a bit every now and then, get a bit embarrassed and self-conscious." admits Dom. "But after seeing it, we thought it was great. It had a good vibe and it seemed to capture the electricity that was in the venue those two nights."

Of the three band members, only Chris is a big football fan, so playing there must have been really special for him. When he returned to the venue, months later, to see England play Switzerland. Dom asked him how it felt going back inside the massive arena. "He said, 'It's still fucking massive'." laughs the drummer. "I still can't believe we sold it out. It seems like a venue you never get used to. no matter how many times you go there." The two-night sojourn at Wembley was their biggest homecoming ever, but this tour, in support of the multi-million selling Black Holes & Revelations, took them further than ever before, from dodgy Indonesian bars to being attacked by beetles in Japan, which the sticksmith describes as the most disgusting experience he's ever had during a gig. "I was literally covered in beetles that big [makes a sizeable hole between his index finger and thumb]," Dom recalls, horrified at the memory. "Fuji Rock is a festival in a forest in the mountains, so once a year. this huge production comes in with loads of flashing lights and all the insects are like. 'what the fuck's going on here?' so they just flock onto the stage. This is Japanese forest insect life, and they were all over the stage, crawling down my pants, up my shirt. and I can't fucking stand insects. I had so many insects on my back that I was freaking out, reaching around to try to get them off and I totally pulled my shoulder out of its socket, 'cos I wanted to get it out so bad," he continues. "I fucked my shoulder up by stressing about this beetle. I couldn't play the next song: I could barely hold my drumstick." Eventually, however, after a protracted gap, the band were able to continue. Being covered in insects of unusual size wasn't the only bizarre experience the band had on the road. There were reports that they witnessed a UFO in Tucson, Arizona.

"On my own, I've seen all sorts of things but I'd never describe them, 'cos it just sounds like madness," frontman Matt Bellamy laughs. 'the only time it's worth talking about is when everyone sees it. This time, all the band saw it, as well as a couple of our crew guys and our tour manager. Not only that, but we were in separate locations. They were at the venue and we were at the hotel. which are a few miles apart." So what was it?

"We saw what at first looked like a silver ball, which was moving quite fast, then stopping, before moving on to another place," explains Matt. "This was in broad daylight. We were arguing about what it was. Someone else thought it might be a weather balloon but then another silver sphere appeared and they both started moving in a way that, to be moving so fast, they would have had to be really close but from what we could see, they were really far away. I don't know whether it was aliens or not: I don't think so. But it was definitely an unidentified object to us all."

After dealing with UFOs and enormous beetles on the 18 month world tour, which took them "around the world a few times", surely, the return to normal domesticity after such a long period away must prove difficult? Not so, according to bassist Chris. "I've got three kids and wife, and I spend so much time away, so it's nice to slot back into daddy mode." he laughs.

Dom certainly finds it tougher: "I'm still adjusting and it's been a couple of months. The tour was 19 months in total, with no break longer than three weeks, so it was really full-on. It's kind of weird to suddenly stop moving and just sit down on the couch at home, looking at the wall, wondering what to do now. There's always bits of trivial domestics that you need to deal with, whether it's dealing with relationships or sorting out communication with people you haven't spoke to in a long time. Or just fiddling around, trying to live, just doing basics. It's a weird experience to suddenly stop moving and not feel like you've a gig to play or something really important to do. There were a few days when I was sitting there and accidentally some daytime TV came on and you start to feel like you're skiving off school, pretending to be sick when you're not."

It must be weird to do ordinary stuff, like going to Tesco for the shopping?

"It's almost like it's a big deal," Dom laughs. "It's like. 'Oh fuck, I've got to go to the supermarket. How does that work?' You almost end up calling your tour manager and hanging up when you realise what the hell is going on," These days, when he's not touring the world, Matt resides in Northern Italy, where he can count George Clooney as one of his neighbours, So does he pop around to borrow a cup of sugar of an evening?

"Not yet, but I'm working on it," he grins. "I'm going to try to get a poker game with George. I'm good at poker and I know that he plays so I'm going to try to take him on."

Perhaps one of the reasons Muse find it difficult to adjust to domesticity when they come off the road is because the trio have garnered quite a reputation for wild partying on tour, certainly in their early days. State wondered if that still goes or if they've calmed with age?

"That kind of thing goes on," Dom smirks. "I guess it seemed wilder back then. 'cos we were young and everything was new. We were just starting to get known and have a fan base of some kind all around the world. But it was on a small scale, so it was easy to socialise without feeling funny about it. You could socialise in a very relaxed way, it seemed, back in those days. We'd do a gig, walk off stage and go straight to the bar. It was much more casual, and I think that in turn lent itself to what seemed like real wild days. Things change slightly when you get older and bigger.

"But it always seems the same for us," he grins. "Normally, when you release an album, you start the whole thing very focused, trying to keep yourself clean and off anything that's bad for you. By the end of a tour, you're generally quite tired but you don't realise you are. That's when things start to get loose: you start partying more, probably drinking too much and going out. That's how it felt on the last part of this tour. There was a bit of excessive behaviour happening all around the world. You start to feel like that is something you need to do to feel like it's all fun or feel like you're not tired, to keep you going for the next few weeks. You end up on a weird snowball of getting a bit wasted or pushing the boat out a lot, and trying to find different areas of fun. But you know, you can do whatever you want, in some ways," he laughs. "You can feel very free when you're on the road to find whatever you'd like to do."

Seeing as Chris is the only family man in the band, is he more sensible on the road? "I dunno, probably. But I think everyone has their nonsensible moments on tour," he admits. "You've got to, now and again."

18-month world tours, number one albums, playing to 150,000 people at Wembley Stadium, it's been a long road from their early gigs in and around Devon. "Sometimes, those gigs were great," Dom recalls. "When you felt like you had a few people who actually liked your music, they could be really good. Eventually, we got to the point where we could get 200 people to turn up to a gig, which was about five years after we started, and that felt really great, 'cos you really feel like things are happening."

It's been well documented that their first gig as Muse was a school battle of the bands, where they played a pure punk set, smashed their instruments on stage and promptly won. Was that where it all went right?

"We all played in cover bands before Muse and we used to trash the gear back in those days, in kind of Nirvana style," laughs Dom. "That battle of the bands was full of funk bands, who were tight and clean, and we were loose, shabby and shit. We only had six songs and we played all of 'em, so at the end we said 'bollocks to this', played some punk song and smashed up the stage. And then we won." Surely for a fledgling outfit, destroying their gear was kind of expensive? "Yeah, but a lot of it was the school's so we didn't care," the drummer grins. "Trash the school drum kit? That's fine."

Dom recalls the band's first gig in London, when they rented a coach and brought all their mates from Devon up to the capital. "We went around college, selling tickets for two quid to come up for the coach. We lost loads of money and basically ended up paying for our mates to come up to London. But the gig went really well and the guy re-booked us," he remembers. "We went back months later without all our mates from college, and there was actually one man and a dog there. That can make you feel quite despondent." The despondency didn't last that long, however, as soon Muse were garnering some serious press and radio attention, most notably from BBC DJ Steve Lamacq.

They recorded their earliest work at the Sawmills Studio in Cornwall, as studio owner Dennis Smith was a big fan of their material "so he let us use the studio for free," remembers Matt. "During that time, we made a couple of EPs, including songs from the first album like 'Muscle Museum' and 'Unintended'. Dennis liked it so much that put up a few hundred quid to print up a bunch of CDs, which we started selling at our gigs, splitting the money half-and-half."

When they sold a few hundred CDs in one week, Muse suddenly found themselves in NME's indie chart. "Steve Lamacq saw that, played it on the radio, and all the other CDs sold out really quickly," Matt notes. The band were subsequently invited by a couple of record companies to play In The City in Manchester, where Maverick, the new independent label co-owned by Madonna, took an interest. "We were working in day jobs at that point," explains Matt. "I was a painter and decorator and Dom was packing Spice Girls t-shirts. So we weren't in any way making a living from music. The next thing, we got a call and we were flown first class to the States and were brought around in these limos: the whole bullshit that took place in New York and LA. We spent a couple of weeks out there, basically being schmoozed by record companies."

Muse promptly signed a deal for America with Maverick, started recording their debut album, and for the first time began to attract interest from European labels. The band then signed distribution deals with a number of different record companies throughout Europe, which Matt feels was instrumental in their subsequent success. "It was a bit chaotic," the frontman admits, "but what was good was that we felt more known outside England than at home. When we went to France, the first couple of gigs we did there were to a few thousand people. At the time, that was massive, because we were still playing the toilet circuit in England. We became really good friends with the people [at the labels]. Every country we went to, we'd be met by someone who wasn't part of some corporation - they genuinely chose to work with us."

In their early years, Muse suffered a number of unfair Radiohead comparisons, but as the albums mounted, they certainly developed their own sound. State wondered if Matt downloaded [Radiohead's] In Rainbows. "Dom sent it to me," he admits. "It's alright but I haven't listened to all of it."

As Muse established their own sound and voice, each album became more grandiose. Here, State takes on the role of court cross-examiner. The charge is that they are single-handedly responsible for making prog rock trendy again. How do they plead?

"Not guilty," laughs Chris. "I can understand why people say prog rock, because I think we've always been experimental in what we do. It's never been straight ahead rock. But prog rock is such a broad term: it covers so much."

Matt, having finally stopped laughing, is more circumspect, admitting to a fear of putting his eggs in one basket, stylistically. "I'm not sure why that is," he admits. "I think it's just part of my character or part of the band's character." While he acknowledges that some of their songs could be described as prog, others "like 'Time Is Running Out' or 'Starlight' are not really prog at all".

"For as long as I can remember, I don't really listen to CDs in their entirety: I just listen to songs that I like," Matt confesses. "The digital world means you can take what songs you like off an album. I think that's helped a band like us, who have a pluralistic style. I think that certain people who like poppy stuff will download a few songs and they will become a fan of the band based on that. Whereas, I think other people see us as a much more progressive band and will probably just listen to the songs that are more experimental, like 'Take A Bow' or 'Butterflies And Hurricanes'.

"I've always made an effort to have multiple styles. so I think you can say we're a progressive band, and we are a pop-rock band and maybe in other places, we're something else. It's difficult to tell which of those is the one that caused us to be known: I think it's bits of everyone." The canvas they paint on has certainly got bigger with each album, to the point where they have the proggy 'Knights Of Cydonia' and the 21" Century disco stomp of 'Supermassive Black Hole' on the same album. Normal wisdom would dictate that you can't do that. Why is it different for Muse?

"Maybe not so much for our first album, but I think the second album is the first time that we looked outside the world of rock in terms of influences for music," ponders Chris. "Since then, there have been so many influences within the music that we've almost got away with it. When people hear that kind of difference in tracks within one album, it doesn't come as such a shock any more. With Origin Of Symmetry, we have songs like 'Plug In Baby', and then there's something like Megalomania', which is drastically different. I think as long as you do that early on, and don't pigeon-hole yourself from the start, you can do what you want. The way we are as musicians, we wouldn't be happy if we were just playing rock all the time, or just doing one particular type of thing".

Aside from their refusal to be pigeon-holed musically, what continues to set Muse apart is the subject matter of the lyrics. As each album has been released, they (particularly Matt) have gone on the record saying they want the next one to be more optimistic, but then they arrive with enough postmodern misery for a George Orwell compendium. It seems that Matt, as the lyricist, is fascinated/obsessed with science, science fiction and conspiracy theories.

"It's difficult to work out what caused that to happen," he avows, "but I think anyone who's involved in the media or the arts, in communicating things to a wider audience in any way, naturally thinks about the impact the thing they're creating is having. That's something I think about. I think the first album was a very cathartic, personal album. The second one was a bit of a transition away from that. For the third and fourth album, I tended to be aware of what people might think and that maybe I want to say something that might mean something to them: not just something about me. So, I started to become more interested in that possibility, that I might say something. Then, you start questioning what is your opinion on things politically, I suppose. I think a little bit of politics has crept into the albums, not a lot, but a little bit."

Their third album, Absolution, was recorded when the second Iraq War was becoming prime time television. As a response, Muse seemed to embrace their political edge more than ever before. Some of the songs are very fucking angry.

"If you're asking where that comes from, I did an A Level in Media and I think that got me interested in the amount of power the media has," muses Matt. "Later in life, you learn to what extent the media is controlled and used by other parties, for other reasons. As soon as anyone becomes aware of that kind of thing, you start to see how the general public tend to sometimes get moved around or manipulated and turned into certain things that are simply for the benefit of some corporation or some government, which is making the media do something that's for their gain."

"I think a lot of people go through this, but from my point of view, when I first went through or realised that, the first thing you feel is anger and a little bit of frustration. You also feel a sense of optimism that maybe it can be changed. A combination of those things is reflected in the songs. What I'm trying to avoid, which is starting to creep in now, is cynicism," he laughs. "1 think that's where we all end up, unfortunately."

"I think young people, from their teenage years through to their late twenties, go through those first three emotions. But I think when you start getting into your later years, you start to become cynical and you start to think that it doesn't matter who's in the government: it's always going to be crap. Well, not that it's always going to be crap, but we're all going to be used like pawns." He describes it as the "top-down and the down-up relationship": the notion that countries' governments (the 'top') will introduce concepts, ideas and laws that are for positive change. "But it doesn't really happen until the mainstream public want it to happen," argues Matt. "That's when change really happens, when the bottom goes up. But the problem is that the bottom doesn't realise how much power it actually has, that nothing changes unless the bottom wants it to change. I think the media has created such a control that the 'top', in some ways, is able to actually control what's happening."

According to Matt, "songs like 'Invincible' explore the more optimistic side, in that if people just knew how much power we really had, we could change anything. Like the Iraq war, for example. A million people protesting is not really enough but maybe five million people, with a few bricks being thrown at Parliament, that probably would change things. I think the optimistic side is coming through, I suppose, through the idea that if people could see what's happening without being led all the time, then change would be easy to take place."

State wonders if there's ever come a time when the other two band members take Matt aside over his lyrical themes? '"I think lyrics are such a personal thing," Chris opines. "If anyone's got the guts to (a) write lyrics and (b) get up on stage and sing 'em, then it's got to be something personal and it's got to be something that's close to your heart. I don't think it's anyone's right to tell someone what they should be singing about. I'm not saying I necessarily agree with absolutely everything that he sings about - I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with them either, 'cos it's just opinions and ideas, suggestions sometimes. I don't think Matt's trying to preach about what people should think: it's just a suggestion that maybe you shouldn't take everything at face value."

"For a long time, maybe up to six, seven, eight years ago, a lot of people were quite happy to go along with everyday life and think, there's the prime minister, there's the queen, there's the president, and they're all looking after us. Everything's brilliant and we're all fine. Then all of a sudden, stuff happened, and no-one thinks like that any more. Everyone thinks, 'bunch of cunts'. No-one trusts anybody anymore, I think a lot of people think about conspiracies, things that are out of our control or things that are going on that we don't know about. I think that's just something that Matt has read about that he's felt close to or has touched him in a certain way and that's what he's singing about. That's fine."

So are people starting to think they can change things, maybe with the forthcoming US elections, for example?

"Maybe, but I think it's going to take a long time," Chris muses. "Everyone says that just one voice can make a difference and that's true. I think over the next 10 or 20 years, maybe we can start to make a difference, but I guess there are a lot of world events that have happened in the last eight years, which isn't a lot of time, and there are still people who are willing to go along with everything and believe that everything is OK. Until 80 percent of the population turn around and say, 'we're being fucked over here', then it's going to be difficult. But I think over the course of time, people will make a difference. I hope so."

It's an very well writing songs about empowerment of the proletariat, even catchy ones, but if you're then going to sell your soul to the highest bidder, you could be in for a pile of well-deserved criticism. Muse, however, wear their heart on their sleeve when it comes to commerciality. 2003 saw the band successfully sue Nestle, who used their cover of Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good' on an advert for Nescafe without the band's permission. One of the main reasons why Muse were so incensed was due to Nestle's allegedly dubious reputation when it came the promotion of powdered milk to new mothers in the third world. Chris, in particular, was totally against the global super-company using their music: "It was close to my heart because I had a newborn baby at the time." Muse subsequently donated the compensation money to Oxfam. "Oxfam are one of the associations that were fighting against Nestle, so we felt that was appropriate," states Chris. The band have also donated songs to various charity projects, most recently the Energy Action Coalition (a youthdriven movement for clean energy in North America) and the Eden Project, whose aim is to build an eco-friendly sustainability building in Cornwall.

"You have to be careful with the whole charity thing because I think a lot of people abuse it for their own good," warns Chris. "We've never blurted out about what we support and what we don't. If you do charity, you should not do it for the sake of making your band massive: it's never been about that. There are things that we've all got close to our own hearts, things that we'd like to do and things that we contribute to, but it's not something we should shout about."

So what's next for Muse? Well they've a few massive gigs pencilled in this summer, including a date at Marlay Park on August 13. "It doesn't feel like we've been to Ireland anywhere near enough," notes Chris. "Usually, with each album we just play one festival and one gig, and it's a shame. I really like Dublin as a city: I've had many good times here. And I think Ireland is somewhere we should play more often." Before that, however, the trio are going back into the studio to work on their fifth album. Rumours abound that the follow-up to Black Holes And Revelations is going to be a fully electronic opus, a classically-driven collection and a full-on prog fest. According to Matt, it'll probably be a combination of all three. "Now that I feel much more comfortable with being honest that we are actually quite pluralistic, I think the next album will have a lot of variation on it, in the same way the last album did. The variations will be different ones, though," he states. "There will be one or two songs which may be much more electronic than anything we've done before. There'll probably be a couple of things that explore the area we opened up with 'Supermassive Black Hole' and maybe push them out a bit further. But at the same time, there's other things which are gonna be probably more pure in the classical realm.

"Whether or not those things can exist on the same album or not, we don't know yet," he concludes, "but based on what's happened in the past, we've always surprised ourselves how people seem to like the idea that we're putting quite different things on the same album. So I think, based on that, we'll probably take that idea further. You might have a very pure classical piano piece with orchestration, followed by a more dance/disco track, followed by a more hard rock track. I can say that I think we're going to keep working on these different areas and keep pushing them further into more extremes."

Muse play Marlay Park Dublin on August 13th and tickets go on sale Friday May 11th

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