Kerrang 2002-06-22 – The dark side of Matt Bellamy

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Front cover

An article on page 14 of issue 909 of Kerrang magazine, which went on sale 22nd June 2002. The article's editor was Paul Rees.

Hello dead sir, the name's Bellamy

Dark man Matt Bellamy, the man behind Muse, is Britain's most charismatic rockstar. He's also the only one who has contacted the dead...

Matt Bellamy is in a room in West London, trying on sunglasses. We're in a large, modern photographers studio in East Acton, a faceless, horrible conurbation of the Capital's concrete sprawl, attempting to steal the look that will suit the sound of this week's cover band. Thin, small and angular, Bellamy arrives from his home in Brighton in his black Lotus sports car, wearing a dark shirt and a tie made for him by one of Muse's one million fans. Hair whipped upwards like egg peaks, he slips into a black leather, calf length trenchcoat that brings to mind the Gestapo. He strolls around the room, looking down at himself; Rage Against The Machine blares from the stereo at the end of the studio. It's all coming together.

The first thing that strikes you about Matt Bellamy is how quiet he is; giggly, almost childlike. In the world of the black and white quote - where voice and mannerism are lost to typing and print - this stands at odds with many of things he's said in the past (an entertaining spat with Stereophonics' Kelly Jones, for one), many of things he's done (his undisguised penchant for rock and roll largesse) and many of the sounds he's made. Especially these days. At a time where normalcy and intimate, occasionally exploitative, humanity are the creative focal points for even the biggest and most successful bands, Muse have turned their initially self-conscious and introspective group outward. They've taken steps and they've taken big ones. The Muse of today, with its scale, its colour and invention and its ambition, is an explosion of sound. It's an explosion of life.

Which is why, today, we have explosions ourselves. Literally. As a pyrotechnician climbs a stepladder to wire the fuses to the cylinders that hang from a horizontal pole above us (advising us to blow our noses throughout the day and to spit alot (sic)) and counts down from three to synchronize with the lens shutter, a crack of angry sparks and a noseful of cordite shouts into the air. The image looks big, it looks bold, it looks wild, it looks brave. It fits Muse's sound like a contact lens.

And it fits Matt Bellamy in exactly the same way. If asked, the singer will admit that Muse's music is the sound of his true personality. It's not, he says, how Matt Bellamy is 'walking around a pub', but how he is inside of himself. The music of Muse, as compared to his personal identity is, he says, 'pretty damn close'. 'The way a person presents themselves in an everyday situation isn't necessarily what they're truly like. The only time you can see how a person really is, is when you witness those animal instinct moments, maybe when someone is starving, or maybe when they're having sex with their girlfriend - something that is a really private moment. In the same way, the music is something that's in me. The music is an expression of things that you can't express in everyday life'. Otherwise why express them? 'Exactly'.

At the age of 18, Bellamy left home and moved to Exeter, where he lived and worked with a friend as a painter and decorator. This, in keeping with much of the conversation, is an unlikely story told in the tones of a likeable story teller. It sounds like no big deal. But Bellamy's friend was a drug dealer, someone who started dealing to friends, turned this enterprise into something more serious and eventually landed himself in prison. The pair of them used to live above a pornographic bookshop. This was in a part of town where all the right stuff was available to all the wrong people. Bellamy's flat was, he says, 'like a scene from Trainspotting: white powders and mirrors and tin foil and needles everywhere'. People would be turning up and tying off at all hours of the night and day.

'The effect those days had on me,' Bellamy says, 'is that I don't dabble in those kinds of drugs. I don't touch the cocaine and the heroin. I've seen what it does to people.' That's strange. Because you do have a reputation for cliched largesse. 'Well, I think people like to believe in some sort of ideal rock 'n' roll life,' he says. 'They believe that when you do it that it feels somehow different to the way it actually does. And of course it doesn't. When Showbiz came out we were in a similar situation - there were people around us offering drugs and there were women and it was something that we didn't really engage with. It just didn't feel right to us; it just seemed something that was fake or made up. These things weren't in our face, but the opportunities were there.

But when we changed, at about the time of the second album, we suddenly wanted to have parties, and wanted to engage in those things. And when the word got around, especially on the European leg of the tour, people started hearing that we were having these parties and there'd be groups of people who would tour with us and follow us around just to come to these parties. And that's when it started to become the type of thing that people fantasise about.' For you? 'Yeah, at the time.' If not cocaine or heroin, then what?

Bellamy explains that his narcotic pursuit, in keeping with the spirit - no pun intended - of his Ouija board pursuit, is transcendental. And, with this as the aim, the drug of choice is hallucinogenic magic mushrooms.

Matt Bellamy is very much like the character in the Clash song, 'The Right Profile': 'Everybody says, what's he like? Everybody says, is he alright?' And the answer is, frustratingly, yes. Matt Bellamy is absolutely fine; spot on, in fact. In an hour long conversation in a quiet room of this sterile facility, Bellamy is so far removed from his public image as a charismatic, occasionally arrogant loudmouth that it's almost laughable. Inward looking without being selfish and shy without being useless, the vocalist, guitarist and songwriter talks easily, candidly and at some speed. It often takes him three goes to run through a sentence in the way that he would like (bless!), and the qualifications are many. And there is a good deal of perspective. Many of his emotional responses, he's keen for you to know, are probably no different from many other people's. But if the emotions are the same, the situations from which these emotions arise are far from routine.

'Matt really hasn't changed since the first day I met him,' says Dennis Smith, Muse's long time co-manager. Smith first heard about Bellamy when the frontman was just 13, and playing a piano composition at a school concert. The piece, Smith was told, was 'stunning'. The pair began their professional relationship when Dennis Smith was contacted by Bellamy years later. 'I would say that he is really old beyond his years. He's definitely a thinker, and quite a deep thinker at that. I can see why people sometimes level this charge of arrogance - the music does have a certain swagger to it - but Matt is not like that as a person at all. And when people say that he is, they've got it wrong.'

If you want to send a card, Matt Bellamy was born on June 9, 1978, in Cambridge. His mother, Marilyn, came from Belfast and met his father, George, a cab driver at the time, as soon as she got off the boat to England. The Bellamy's moved to Devon when Matt was five, and despite the fact that his father had a musical background - as a guitar player with 60's group The Tornado's, whose single 'Telstar' was the first US number one by a British band - their son didn't begin playing an instrument, the piano, until he was 10 years old.

But musical ability purred through him from a young age. As a small child, his first piano piece was not 'Chopsticks', but the work of Ray Charles - something the young Bellamy worked out by ear. His older brother Paul, would ask his sibling to decipher the melodies to songs by The Smiths and The Wedding Present, also on the piano. Bellamy didn't think too much about these requests at the time and doesn't seem to think too much about the precocity he displayed back then, even now. At age 13, George and Marilyn Bellamy divorced; his father moved to Exeter, and Matt stayed with his mother and his brother. It was at about this time that Bellamy began the learning curve of fundamental life interests that still fascinate and fuel him today. The first of these was the obvious process of weeding out, and the course which led him to music. The choice was, he says, between people who 'got pissed on cider and got into fights down by the sea', and those who did something else. In hiring an industrial estate youth club called Broad Meadow for 'three or four pounds an hour' and staging concerts there, Bellamy and his friends' young bands - which by this point had begun to include the future members of Muse - did something else. And Bellamy set in train the very thing that he is still doing today.

Behind the Bellamy's front door, life was bubbling in unusual - or at least unconventional - ways. At the age of 9, Matt had wandered downstairs late one evening. and discovered his mum, dad and brother focused around a Ouija board. Instead of shrieking at her son to get out of the room, Marilyn Bellamy instead chose to sit Matt down and explain what it was his family were doing. She also explained to him that this was nothing to be afraid of, no matter what anyone might think or say. Soon Matt Bellamy was rushing to school with stories from the Ouija board to tell to a young and wide-eyed audience. 'It was exciting to go to school and to tell 10-year-old kids all about it, as they found it all quite scary and I was quite impressed that I was doing something that was scary to other people but that wasn't to me,' he says. 'I did get quite into that.'

After the Bellamys' divorce, Marilyn, Paul and Matt were joined on the Ouija board committee by Paul's girlfriend, with Matt having the job of translating the letters as they were spelled out by the marker. These messages would come from dead family members and other close friends, with sentiments and sentences that were 'unspeakably real', intimate and personal details the authenticity of which was 'undoubted'. One correspondant predicted the Gulf War a full calendar year before the hostilities actually began.

By now, Matt Bellamy was on regular book runs down to the local library, in an attempt to read every text they could on this area of the occult. The intention, he says, was to 'push' their mother into becoming a medium, a talent Marilyn Bellamy was beginning to show a propensity toward. Being a medium involves being able to mouth the letters that are spelled out on the Ouija board as they arrive, and eventually being able to say the words before they've even been completed. With time, a medium will have no need for the Ouija board at all, and will be able to communicate without such a conduit. Excited and young, Matt Bellamy was well up for a bit of that.

'It wasn't that my mum was necessarily reluctant to take that step,' he says. 'It's just that she was reluctant to do it in front of me and my brother. I actually do think that she was very able to do it, it's just that she could see that me and my brother were becoming unnaturally keen. I mean I was only very young at the time. So she knocked it on the head.' Do you still practice? If practice is the right word? 'Well, my beliefs in the whole thing changed,' he says. 'I now believe that you're contacting something in your subconscious, which is quite different. Something that you might not have known was already there. That's probably more realistic than thinking you're contacting someone who's already dead. And I do practice that.'

Bellamy will cop to having taken fistfuls of mushrooms over the years, not as a weekly routine, but as a bi-annual binge. The drill is this: make sure you have no stress clouds on the horizon, clear a few days from your diary - at least three of which should be free after the event - and be willing to surrender yourself to whatever may come your way. The last time Matt Bellamy did this was in Vondelpark in Amsterdam, where he spent three days locked within the gates, scoffing 'bags and bags and bags' of magic mushrooms.

'I guess the point of doing this is to dig into your subconscious,' he says. 'To experience something that's not usually on offer. I'm not afraid of seeing something dark and seeing something horrible when I do this. In fact, I think the last time I did mushrooms I was actually looking for that to happen. But, I think it's a way of connecting with yourself in a way that you can't do in everyday situations.'

You say you have a girlfriend. Does that mean that the well reported torrent of one night stands have finished for the moment? For the first and only time in the interview, Matt Bellamy struggles. 'Erm...' He pauses, then lets out a burst of quick fire, manic laughter. 'That's a difficult one to answer. I'd rather not comment about that if you don't mind.' Okay. Were you as promiscuous as everyone thought you were when you didn't have a girlfriend? 'I'd say that...' You've brought this all on yourself you know. 'Yeah.' When I first met you at an aftershow in Manchester, you said then that you 'were going to bed: obviously not on my own'. 'Well I had a girlfriend for six years, from the age of about 15. And when we split up, just after we finished the second album, that whole period was quite, erm, experimental. It was quite a period in learning about my other self, which is what I think you wanted to know.'

And what did you learn? 'I probably learnt the quality of friendship with the bandmembers. That might sound like a strange thing to say given what we're talking about, but it's true. I became closer to the other two members of the band, which I think is the really important lesson that I learned.'

Few musicians divide opinion in quite the same way as Matt Bellamy. Those who like him, love him; those who dislike him, hate him. Part of this is down to the music; much of Muse's appeal is sonic and in concert Bellamy - down to his own discomfort - rarely speaks more than a single word to the thousands of people standing before him. So it comes down to the prism of the media to fill that void. And that void is filled with an image that says 'rock star'. An old school, stylised, enigmatic rock star.

This, though is just perception. Although the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, in conversation Matt Bellamy is gentle and generous, which comes as something of a surprise. The real surprise, though, is his candour. Save for the enquiry regarding monogamy, he meets every question, no matter how direct, without losing a step or raising an objection. This is one of the more direct ones: Does it bother you that people think you're an arrogant little prick? Here, Matt Bellamy surges out a gust of laughter.

'Well, I understand how people can be misconstrued through the media, but I wouldn't like to think that I'm an arrogant little prick. But I have chosen that form...' You do seem to relish it a little bit. 'Yeah, that's possible. I've got to admit that being that way is not necessarily a good way to be, but I think in certain situations and with certain journalists that I've found myself veering toward that area.' Why?

'Well if anything, it's people trying to make you live up to what the music is,' he says. 'And some of our music - not all of it, but some of it - does have a sense of bravado, and I think that's something inside me. That's not to say that it's not inside other people, but I'm just using it in the music. I'm using that as a creative tool.' You seem to use a lot of things as creative tools. 'I suppose I do, yeah.'

Listening back to the tape of this conversation, it strikes me that this last statement isn't quite right. It's not so much that Matt Bellamy is using many 'things' as creative tools, but that Matt Bellamy is using life itself as a creative tool. And that this pursuit is not actually a means to an end, but is, in fact, an end in itself. Many musicians can be tiresome in their narcissism and childish in their self-obsession, but there's a world of difference between a greedy ego and a curious one.

Do you think you're a weirdo waiting to happen Matt? 'Erm. I don't know what that means.' Well, do you think that you could turn into a rock star eccentric? 'I don't know. Isn't that for you to decide?' Could be. Or maybe the answers are already there, in the music. At the beginning of our conversation, Matt Bellamy proposed that the dist- his real self - and the sound of Muse is 'pretty damn close'. So within this quiet, polite, self-effacing young man is something bold, something wild and something brave. Meet Matt Bellamy. Meet Muse.


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