Innocence and Absolution (200506 Keyboard Magazine article)

MuseWiki, wiki for the band Muse
Jump to: navigation, search

To cite this source, include <ref>{{cite/keyboardmagazine200506}}</ref>

By Robbie Gennet, June 2005

Innocence and Absolution

Blending a natural talent for melody and harmony with an engaging sense of mystery and storytelling, Matt Bellamy puts the piano up front.

The lights dim at Phoenix’s Marquee Theater and the crowd roars in anticipation as a silhouetted trio takes the stage. As the opening chords of “Apocalypse Please” ring out, the audience sings along, enraptured. For the English band Muse, the adulation of the crowd is not unexpected yet hugely appreciated. Their third album, Absolution, has been a worldwide smash, exposing them to an ever-widening audience.

Muse is a true power trio, and Matt Bellamy’s third of the stage is filled with his guitar and keyboard rig, the latter looming like a metal pyramid next to the drum riser. As he rocks out on his Kawai MP9500, MIDI-controlled lights in the front of the rig create a visual spectacle that matches his torrid keyboard playing. And he’s equally gifted as a guitarist. The sheer energy he unleashes on both instruments, combined with his cathartic vocals and lyrics, leaves fans amazed and marveling that three people can create such a gigantic sound.

They didn’t set out with a vision of such success, however. Bellamy describes the early days of the band as being typical of schoolkids anywhere, forming bands and playing gigs to beat the boredom of life in a small town. At first, he just played guitar in the band, playing a combination of originals and covers. They started the band under the name Rocket Baby Dolls, and Bellamy describes them as “looking like the Cure, but sounding like Rush. Call it progressive goth.” It was mainly an instrumental band, but after winning a contentious Battle of the Bands contest and getting a good response from the judges, they began to focus more on songwriting. “We wrote hundreds of songs,” he says, “but it wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 when I began to express myself more and be more confident to do that. I wound up as the lead singer by default. There was no one else in the town that wanted to sing. Back then, it wasn’t really cool to sing falsetto because Nirvana and all that stuff was in. We saw Jeff Buckley do a concert, though, and he wasn’t scared to be a high-voiced male. I think that helped me open up and not be afraid to use a more expressive and emotional vocal style.”

Some would argue that Bellamy has mastered his craft as writer, singer, and player, and his growing legions of adoring fans are testimony to his well-crafted melodies and hooks. As Muse continues to tour the world and gain wider recognition, Bellamy and his band are enjoying the ride and the adulation. But at heart, these three guys from the tiny burg of Teignmouth are in it purely for the love of the music, and it shows. Keyboard went backstage at the Marquee, where Bellamy told us Muse’s story and parted the curtain on the band’s ethos and working methods.

What’s your piano story?
Piano was the first instrument I really played. I didn’t have any lessons, and though I tinkered with it since I was five, I didn’t really get interested until I was ten or 11. My dad used to play a lot of blues records, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles was the one that stuck out; I used to work on my left hand to “What’d I Say” in sort of this boogie-woogie style. I spent ages working that out, practicing the left hand doing one thing and trying to do chords with the right hand. I went into a talent contest and played a solo version of that piece and actually won the contest. My older brother forced me into this talent contest and, though I was too nervous to do it, I did it anyway. It made me want to get out there and get some gigs and get in a band. When I first got into a band when I was about 13 or 14, I didn’t play piano for about six years because I just got so into the guitar.

It wasn’t until we came to record our first album, Showbiz, that I got back into piano. We were working on a song called “Sunburn,” which is kind of a strummy guitar song. It sounded a bit weak, and since it was one of my favorite songs, I wanted to make it sound good. So that was when John Leckie, our producer, had this idea to work out the guitar part on the piano. That was the first time I played piano in years it seems, and I had to spend two or three days just practicing “Sunburn,” which is a pretty simple part. When we recorded it, it sounded a bit like a Philip Glass film soundtrack. I think at that point I decided I’d get back into piano again. From that point on, I went in the opposite direction and started intensively working on piano and the guitar became more just for the live thing. I’d say 70 to 80 percent of the songs I’ve written since then have been written on piano. Even though live, I play some of them on guitar. Even a song like “Stockholm Syndrome” was written on piano.

I find it easy to find interesting chords on the piano. Especially because on a lot of stuff we do, the guitar and bass are harmonizing; I’m not just playing power chords and Chris [Wolstenholme, bassist] isn’t just playing root notes.

What music did you listen to for inspiration?
I started to look into classical music and people like Philip Glass. From listening to stuff, I found out that I didn’t really like the “proper classical” stuff from around 1750, like Mozart and all that. But with Philip Glass, his music has a lot of mystery. That was my introduction to discovering that side of music, the kind of abstract nature of music that has no lyrics and no title. With Rachmaninoff, Lizst, and Chopin, there’s a mystery to the music, it’s much more abstract and much more able to stimulate your imagination, I think. For me, that was something I had never discovered in music. I was about 19 or 20 by then.

So rather than learning pieces, you were soaking up the flavor of it.
Yeah. I knew it was too late for me to really catch up to that level of technique to play those kinds of pieces. But I just wanted to try and incorporate that kind of mystery into the band. And something that has had such an emotional resonance through history that it’s managed to live nearly two hundred years. I think a little bit of that started to creep through the second album, Origin of Symmetry, and then the new album as well.

I’m not really sure how much further we can go with that. There are a couple of songs that I’m working on now that are along those lines. One song that really shows that is on the second album, a song called “Space Dementia.” I always wanted to make a heavy rock song that could just have a piano without a guitar. I think we got there again on “Butterflies and Hurricanes” on the new album. I was trying to find a classical type of piano style that would be heavy and work with bass and drums. It had that sort of mechanical paradiddle thing all the way through, and then it breaks down into this kind of romantic, flowing weird bit in the middle.

When you were writing “Butterflies and Hurricanes,” were you consciously trying to create the breakdown or did it happen naturally?
It was part of the whole concept to make it mechanical. I wrote it on the piano and originally, I didn’t know how we were going to get the bass and drums to work with it. Steve Reich did that kind of really intensive, repetitive piano stuff with his piece, “In C.” I wanted to do that and then break into a really emotional thing. It’s really about that, the contrast between the two bits. The challenge was getting it to work with the bass and drums.

A lot of your songwriting doesn’t adhere to normal song structure. What inspires you to write outside the box? In the world of rock, Queen stands out as a good example of the clash between guitar and piano in songwriting. I think that’s where you stumble across those more unusual arrangements and chord structures. In my heart I want to do more hard rock music, but at the same time, I’m much more attracted to the piano. I think that automatically causes something unusual to happen. Also Smashing Pumpkins, even though they’re not piano-based. I always found their arrangements interesting, like on the album, Siamese Dream. In terms of guitar, I also like Rage Against the Machine and Jimi Hendrix.

But in terms of piano, I love Ben Folds, but to me, that’s a very different style of music. I love the low, heavy piano bit in “Jackson Cannery.” It made me realize if you want to get heavy, you have to get down there and hit some large chord.

How do you write?
Generally, it’s the music first. I’m always trying to find chord structures that haven’t been used before. That’s the first thing I look for; I try to find a chord structure that inspires the melody to just fall out of my mouth automatically. That usually inspires the lyrics. The words come very naturally to me. I think if you’re struggling to write words to a piece of music, it’s probably not inspiring you enough. In a song like “Apocalypse Please” on Absolution, the chord structure was so epic and in your face, and the words just fell out. The lyrics weren’t the kind of words I ever expected to sing. But in finding those kinds of weirder chords first, it inspired me to want to say something.

Do the words change between the writing and recording?
Sometimes, there’ll be one bit and you know it’s got to be those words, and you’re struggling to get the rest of the song to make sense around that. There will be two or three lines where that’s what it’s all about, and then you’ll struggle is to fill in the gaps and make the whole thing make sense. With most songs, I’ll get the melody complete and then get those two or three lines that are solid as a rock. That’s usually as finished as songs get in the purely natural sense. The rest of it is the challenge.

Do you find that sometimes when you write a line, the meaning may not come to you until months or years later?
Oh yeah, that does happen. Usually at the time of writing, I don’t always know what the lyrics are about. Then later on, it’s just so blatantly clear.

Do you ever write a lyric just for the rhyme only to figure out later that you actually said something profound?
Rhyme in some ways compromises the nature of pure poetry or words. I think what you achieve by rhyme is you link the lyrics and the music, which can have a more powerful effect than just words on their own.

Onstage, you have two Roland JP-8000s, how do you run them?
We run the JPs through amps because the sound through a DI was just too clean and it didn’t really fit with the band. Live, my JP runs through a Fender DeVille; it’s pretty clean sounding, but going through those little speakers makes it less full-range, which makes it easier to mix.

Did you use real Wurlitzer and Mellotron on your records?
Yeah. On the first album, that was real Mellotron. John Leckie was really into his old-school stuff and he pulled out the works, whereas Rich Costey who produced Absolution prefers more modern synths. So it was interesting working with those two different styles. I had mainly a piano upbringing, but I did have a Roland Juno 60. I used to muck around with that arpeggiator trying to find ways to make it lock. I’ve got a thing with arpeggios. [Laughs.]

Do you use any effects on the keyboards onstage?
I run both keyboards through the DeVille, so I can switch between a clean and a distorted sound. I run a DI from the MP9500 as well. I always keep the clean channel going and mix the distortion in to add some edge to it. I used to use a Wurlitzer onstage, but I found the MP9500 has such a good variety of sounds. I can pretty much find anything I need in there. I use a lot of the multi-patches, so I’ll have the piano backed up with strings or whatnot. I use the “Dirty Wurly” sound on a song called “Feeling Good,” which we put on our second album. It’s an Anthony Newley song, but it was made famous by Nina Simone. She’s one of my favorite singers.

Give us some insight into how you used keyboards on the record.
One of the sounds I liked the most — and which I think really made the song — was on “Sing For Absolution,” on Absolution. We got loads of guitar strings and laid them across the piano strings so every time I’d hold the sustain pedal down and play, we’d get this really nice rattle in the upper harmonics of the piano. We also ran the acoustic piano through a wah-wah pedal and an octave divider guitar pedal. That song was all about treating the piano. In fact, on “Sunburn” on the first album, we recorded the piano with a throat microphone from a military tank. We strapped them around the bottom of the piano to get a very milky, mysterious sound. I used an ARP that we got from Rick Rubin for a few things here or there as well.

On “Blackout,” did you use live strings?
Yes. We recorded an 18-piece orchestra. I arranged the main section and the arranger did the bit that was over the piano, which was a little more advanced. I just sat down with him and played how it was supposed to be, and he wrote it down. I notate things in [Apple] Logic sometimes.

What advice would you give to an up-and-coming keyboardist or piano player?
If you want to go into the world of rock, it’s best to teach yourself. If you want to go into the world of classical music, you have to practice eight hours a day and sort it out. I do regret not having lessons, because my technique is limited in certain ways, which at some point I’d like to address. I would like to have some lessons to try to improve my fingering technique and that kind of thing. I would like to be able to read the music of those composers I talked about, too.

But I’m glad I didn’t have lessons, because I think it makes for good songwriters. I think if you spend all your time learning other people’s music, you lose something in yourself. I think you either have the technique or the originality, and having both is something of genius and I think it’s very difficult to find. I think I traded one off for the other. Sometimes, I feel a limitation on my writing because of that. I feel like I’m compromising certain parts because I can’t take them to that next level. Also, I spread myself thinly across three instruments. But I think that’s because my interest has always been in writing music rather than with becoming an expert on an instrument.

What's in Matt's CD player?

"I like the Queens of the Stone Age a lot. My favorite band of the ’90s was Rage Against the Machine. I’m into a little bit of skronk, like Lightning Bolt; skronk is kind of noise-punk. To me, the drummer of Lightning Bolt is one of the best drummers in the world; he’s like the lead. Bass and drums, that’s all it is. Very experimental."

Matt's worst gear nightmare

"Twice in the last few days, my guitar broke in the same song — just stopped working. I had to do the rest of the song without the guitar, which is pretty painful in a trio. They’re good guitars, though. I designed the concept for my guitar and had somebody build it for me. I had them put the ribbon controller from a JP-8000 in one of the guitars to control the whammy pedal via MIDI."

See also


Go back to Keyboard Magazine