Jmag 2009-10-03 – Oh the Melodrama!

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Words: Samantha Clode. Illo: Mike Watt

Detractors argue Muse are stuck in a time warp, with their showmanship overshadowing songwriting. Others embrace them as one of the best live outfits on the planet, with a flair for originality that sees new album The Resistance out-pomping even 'Knights of Cydonia'!

Fifty-three per cent of Muse fans agree: Matt Bellamy is a god. Twenty-eight per cent, however, believe he may be an alien. Less than 10 per cent reckon the frontman doesn't exist while two per cent are pretty sure he's Obama. They're the stats, anyway, according to the 'Pornogenic Matt Thread 45: The Holy Shrine of Bellamomania' on Muse's official messageboard. Pitchfork, meanwhile - that online tastemaker of all things music - described triple j's No.1 song in 2007's Hottest 100 - 'Knight's of Cydonia' - as a song that "begs to be taken off on a stretcher and sprayed down with liquid novocaine like a historic Italian midfielder". Clearly, Muse will not be ignored.

"Whenever the electrician comes around he brings T-shirts and CDs to sign," Muse's semi-mythical frontman laughs. Matthew James Bellamy, aged 31, has just finished dinner at his mum's house, in Plymouth, Devon. In the mailbox are letters from local fans and former school pals, who figure that Marilyn will pass them along to her famous son for his perusal. Back in the UK for band rehearsals (these days Matt resides in Lake Como, Italy, which boasts George Clooney and Jet's Nic Cester in its rather large 'hood'), he's in a joyful mood. Chris Wolstenholme (Muse bassist) rung him a few hours earlier with the news that the trio's application to play two homecoming shows on Teignmouth Den, the band's small-town former haunting ground, has been granted, amidst political toing and froing. "Today we had a meeting with the towns council," Matt explains. "It's the first time that we've played here, actually. We just got approval, so that's great. It's a smallish rural town that doesn't have any venues, but they have a nice seaside square that, when we were growing up, always thought it'd be great to play one day. "And that day," he exclaims, "has come!" Marking the first public airing of tracks from their fifth album, The Resistance, approval for the gig meant Chris had to appear in front of coucil in person to state the band's case. "He thought he'd be best because he's been living here. Me and Dom [Howard, drums] don't live here anymore," Matt says. "He got a gang of local friends and fans together and made a good case, got the job done." So Matt should now expect every old school pal to come out of the woodwork, then? "Absolutely," he chuckles. "Immediately, I recieved three letters at my mum's today, saying 'Please can we have tickets?'" He laughs. "We can probably fit about 7000 people down there - I reckon at least half will be guests." Indeed, one local posting online about the gig pleads: "My husband has just retired from Teignmouth Community College after 34 years... I would love to get tickets so he can see his ex-students perform. Can anyone help me?!"

Twelve years since they left town and 15 after they formed at high school as Rocket Baby Dolls, Muse are returning home as conquerors. The Resistance is easily the trio's most ambitious work - and for a band built on melding arena-style calls to arms, epic space rock-outs and colossal, futuristic anthems, that's saying something. Recorded in the band's own studios in Italy and, for the first time, without the aid of a producer, The Resistance starts off with 'Uprising', also the first single. With its football-style "Hey!" chants kicking in with each snare, Matt sings of "endless red tape to keep the truth confined". It's classic Muse subject matter... which leads to more numbers like the title track ("Love is our resistance / They'll keep us apart and then won't stop breaking us down") and the '80s pop of 'Undisclosed Desire' ("I want to reconcile the violence in your heart"). There's the glam guitar solo of 'MK Ultra', followed by the smooth piano pop of 'I Belong to You/Mon Cœur S'ouvre à Ta Voix' (the later taken from an opera production of Samson & Delilah). "I can't find the words to say when I'm confused / I've travelled half the world to say / You are my muse" Matt croons, taking it down a notch with a bit of romantic piano fiddling... before the entire song explodes into a sort of choir-based musical theatre. And don't even get started on the Queen-esque rock opera of 'United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage', which gives 'Knights of Cydonia' a run for its money in the big number stakes. The Resistance's tour de force, however comes at the very end - a fully orchestrated, three part symphony titled 'Exogenesis'. Matt's classical piano playing alone is worth the listen - he might not be a god, but there's no mistaking that talent. The defeated, gentle acceptance of 'Exogenesis: Symphony Part III (Redemption)' is simply beautiful (makes it hard to understand why the musical team behind Twilight rejected a similar ballad for the vampire flick). Forget any hint of the overblown fun that's come before - the album closer is Matt's finest hour. On paper, The Resistance should be an overblown mess. On record, it's utterly impressive. Not that the humble Muse frontman would ever admit it. Unlike lesser rock gods, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the singer for your average guy from a small English town. Renowned for their friendliness just as much as their live prowess, having won over Europe, the UK and Australia, Muse are about to embark on world domination. Just try to resist.

There are a lot of references to 'us' and 'them' on The Resistance. In 'Uprising', for example, you sing, "They will not force us / They will stop degrading us / They will not control us / We will be victorious". As a rather wealthy, successful young man, can you define who 'us' and 'them' are? (Laughs) The first song in particular, I suppose, is the real 'us' and 'them' song.

You do love a good conspiracy theory. Yeah, I'm into all that. But I think, weirdly enough, that in recent times there are things going on that are just more blatant. Like, all these bloody bankers and the MPs [referencing recent major scandals in the UK involving MPs spending public monies]. People just can't believe it, the level of corruption that goes on in government and banking. These two institutions are meant to be doing a service, but turns out they're just ripping us off. It's something that's really down-to-earth; it's not really a conspiracy theory. In some ways, it's just my general disappointment - that moment of realising that corruption is still there. I suppose that would be the 'them', and the 'us' is everyone else who's paying the consequences.

The Resistance: feeling good about it? Pretty good, yeah. I though we took quite a punt on this album; I thought we had quite a gamble. There are some pretty unusual things on it; we weren't sure how they were going to be recieved. Most people seem to be quite into it. We pretty much recorded the album in almost the order you hear it, too.

I was wondering that, because the album moves like a movie: lots of action, denouement. It's not a concept album exactly, but was there a concept behind it all? Yeah, there are a couple of things going on for me. I re-read the book 1984, which obviously everyone knows about. I read it again and was really into the romantic part of it which takes place in a backdrop of weird political unrest or political problems, whatever you want to call it. I wanted The Resistance to have that same feeling, but with the political backdrop being current times. There are a couple of references in 'Uprising' as to what's going on at the moment around the world. Musically, we pretty much recorded it in order as we were working. You can hear that we started off almost exactly where we left off on the last album, with a kind of rhythmic chant, that 'we're all together against it all' sort of feeling. The first few songs on the album, certainly the first two, are what people would expect from us, I guess. But then the album gradually gets weirder from then on.

It may be the more intimate second half that new listeners will respond to. So you wanted to make a distinction from where the record starts and ends? We're a band that's always interested in the two extremes of things. Like having one person, then suddenly all people, singing. The idea of being intimate, then suddenly having a large choir. Something very delicate and then loud; over the top, then subtle. We like moving between those extremes, we're really drawn to that - I'm still trying to figure out why. It's like that roller coaster journey of ups and downs, expectations and big falls, that sort of stuff. But, I think, the ending of the album is quite interesting, because it ends kind of soft and understated.

You've got the homecoming gig in the can, and a lot of other dates coming up, right? Yeah, we're almost booked up until summer next year, actually. We start off with the Plymouth gig - the home gig will be the first - and we go on from there. It's mostly sort of TV bits and pieces, like we did an MTV thing in America. We might do a couple of gigs in places like Berlin and Paris just to get things started. The first real tour bit, though, is with U2: we do a couple of weeks with them in America. That will be interesting (laughs). Our main tour will start after that. We look at the U2 tour as a chance to get ourselves back in gear, but also as a chance to see them play and how they deal with...

A giant claw? The giant claw, yeah, looking forward to seeing that. Our tour starts after that and goes on until December - and hopefully we'll be coming your way to do Big Day Out.

Tell us about 'United States of Eurasia/Collateral Damage', which has a nice Queen-style breakdown, some 'Kashmir'-type strings... the usual subtle Muse touch. How do you know when you're going too over-the-top? How far is too far for Muse? We're pretty self-aware in terms of when we've gone too far. The bit where it goes, "The only one!" (delivered in a multitrack, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' style), I think you can't help but put your fist in the air and do a Freddie Mercury pose at that moment (laughs). When we were in the studio working on it we were fully aware of that, though. We thought, "Look at what we've been doing on previous albums." Not on all albums, but in certain moments we've cut things back a little bit to make it less melodramatic, less extreme.

Really? Because I'd say Muse have been pretty melodramatic. Because we produced this album ourselves, we had no one else telling us what they think it should be. We thought "Fuck it, why not? Why cant we just have a good time and have a laugh?" And I think that's what we did.

Does your band's theatricality go down as well in the States? Muse has never quite reached the same levels of popularity there. Is that changing? Has the bombast been a hindrance - or a help? I'd say it's almost inverted now. It seems in America they like that stuff more than in the UK. In the UK, it's been so saturated with English rock music, whether it be Queen or Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, that sort of history... I'm not going to say people are tired of it, but they're much more concerned about what's going on right now. Whereas in America - and it might be the same in Australia - there seems to be more of just... enjoyment in that side of music. It's gone missing a bit from rock music in the last five or 10 years. Music in the '90s really started to take itself so seriously. It got really earnest and a bit jaded in places. I do like that, but I don't want to forget that rock music has a whole lot of fun - it's supposed to be uplifting. Make you feel like you want to take on the world or whatever. I wanted to bring some of that back.

Another change with The Resistance is that it also feels quite intimate in the second half in particular. Is 'Undisclosed Desire' a direct reference to your relationship with your girlfriend? You've never really written openly about your own life before. Yeah, I think it's something I've always wondered about. I've never really been a big fan of when a writer brings what I call 'domestic life' into their songwriting. I've always found that a bit of a turn-off. That song certainly is... not totally domestic, but there are things in there that are quite personal. I suppose it's one of those things I'm challenging myself on, whether I'm ready to introduce some of these aspects into Muse. At the same time, though, you don't want to go out there and be blatantly obvious about things that are happening with your family, or your best friend, or your girlfriend, whatever it may be. A lot of those things are in the songs, sure, but they're dressed up in a different way. Sometimes in a way that's even more raw, or more melodramatic, by using different pronouns. That means I can put things in context to be even more open about myself. Sometimes you can get too literal in your lyrics - you end up having to curb your honesty. It's a weird contradiction, a weird paradox: if you're actually saying, "This is about me and my girlfriend," then there will only be certain things I want to say. Whereas if I put myself in a different scenario, like with this record, a dramatic political landscape with some kind of romance developing... you can explore those ideas without being blatantly honest.

Speaking of honesty, how much do you think your fans know you? Do you feel close to them? Well, I think back to when I was listening to a band and going to concerts. You feel a certain closeness wih the band you're watching, because they're exposing ideas or feelings, which I suppose doesn't go on in everyday life. Onstage you're throwing things out there. The fans that we've got, they know something about me probably that brings them closer to me than even someone in my family understands. Having said that, people in your family know a completely different side of you. There's a different side of your personality, you see, which goes out there with the music - and you can't help but bond. When I'm playing, I'm aware of that. I do feel really close to the people watching. I feel great pleasure that they're there to see me, but also that feeling that they see that you're expressing something that's unique to that very moment.

How did the three-part 'Exogenesis' symphonies come together? I've always played all the piano parts you hear in that together as one piece, really. I never, ever considered it as a song. I didn't have any vocals, and I certainly didn't have any concept for drums or bass. It really was just nodding on the piano, if you like. The first part ['Exogenesis: Symphony Part I (Overture)'] doesn't have any piano on it, but I would play a version of it on the piano, which just had this flowing upwards kinda thing. Then part two [Exogenesis: Symphony Part II (Cross Pollination)'] was more cascading pianos going into this jaded waltz; part three [Exogenesis: Symphony Part III (Redemption)'] is a more understated, flowing piece. I don't know why it never occured to me before to do it. I've been playing that stuff for a number of years. It never occurred to me to fit it with Muse. It was just one of those random things that I tried in the studio. I said to Dom and Chris, "See if you can do bass and drums with this, I'll see if I can get a vocal part and see if it works." And that was it really. That's how it ended up. I'm really proud of it.

How did it feel to work with an orchestra and hear your own compositions played back to you? It was surprising and nerve-wracking (laughs). You're thinking, "Are these people going to laugh and think it's really cheesy or too basic?" Because these players spend most of their time playing stuff by real, great composers. It went well, though - I really enjoyed the whole process. I got a chance to work with them all and make modifications to the score at the last minute, got to know them. It was a really good experience. It's amazing hearing music you've created being played by a large number of people. It's unique.

I was wondering how you were going to play this album live when you come to Australia for BDO - don't expect we'll be seeing an orchestra backing you? We were really worried about playing live. We just started rehearsing last week, and realised that Dom's, Chris' and my parts are easy. We've got this fourth guy, Morgan. He tours with us occasionally, plays synthesisers, keyboards, piano parts, things like that. We've basically thrown it all at him and said, "Deal with that!" So he's panicking as we speak, trying to learn all the symphony on a keyboard, ha ha! I suppose we'll have to use sample sounds, electronics, but hopefully we'll come up with a version that will work live. Whether or not we play 'Exogenesis', whether we play that live on a regular basis, I don't know. Something like Big Day Out, we'll just want to rock out a bit.

Looking forward to coming back to Australia? Yeah, I'm totally looking forward to coming out. And maybe we'll tour again a bit later next year too, in our summertime. So we'll see you twice. I think the Streets or Lily Allen are gonna be at BDO too, so we'll get up to trouble. It should be fun.

Bring on the dancing elephants! We're not ones to suggest that Matt & co. are fond of histronics and hysterics... But here are our fave OTT Muse moments

Muse lobbing their gear into the sea in the final throes of 'Showbiz' in a French TV broadcast. In actual fact, Matt's famous Sparkle Jet guitar landed on the sand... only to be sacrificed a few days later when he threw it into an amplifier.

The ludicrously complicated 'Ununited States of Eurasia' treasure hunt in July, the completion of which was rewarded with a preview track from The Resistance. Registering at sent fans on a trail of espionage across the globe. Or something. Our heads exploded trying to figure it out

'Megalomania' performed live with Matt dwarfed by a mammoth church organ: "Since we're at the Royal Albert Hall, it would be rude not to play this beast!"

Matt's guitar tech robot, Hal, which used to trundle on stage and deliver him the appropriate axe

On-stage injuries, including Matt smashing himself in the face with his guitar and being forced to pull the gig when he was unable to stem the grizzly gushing from his mouth. Then there's the kamikaze launch into Dom's drum kit at the climax of their LA Wiltern Theatre show.

The unlikely collaboration between the Streets and Muse, on track 'Who Knows Who'. Elementary rapping over enthusiastic guitar squealing

The Spinal Tap moment where Matt was trapped inside a white cone he'd insisted on being constructed to allow him to create an "act of genius" with lasers and shadows. "The gig finished and the lights came up and I was stuck on stage," he recalls. "I actually rolled and hid underneath the drum kit inside a white cone..."

Playing guitar with a shoe; playing guitar with a balloon; acrobats; giant balloons; lasers, oh my...

With thanks to the maniacs on the messageboard

: Jenny Valentish