NME 2009-09-15 – Men at work

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An article in the 2009-09-15 issue of NME magazine

WARNING MEN AT WORK

After starting their world tour in the very town in which they formed, Muse are now talking their grandiose new album “The Resistance” to the masses. Jude Rogers visits their inner sanctum to discover what’s in store for this year’s mega-shows…

Down the rails, through the waves, past the red, jagged rocks, across town, up the lane and in a world beyond the mystical powers of sat nav, it is there – a house in a clearing, made of pale wood and glass, fed by gurgling water from a nearby stream. Sheep bleat in the fields and blue skies nose through the windows at the three local boys who have come home together. The blond one smiles, smoking a fag on an exercise bike out on the cloud shrouded balcony; his friend with brown eyes grins at the bagels in the kitchen; while the third lopes around, his hair in dark spikes, eating the first of a hundred fig rolls.


I don’t know what I’d expected from Muse. Actually, I did. I expected the men I’d seen live – three horsemen of the prog-glam apocalypse; three nihilistic nerds babbling on about absolution and delusion. I didn’t expect this – three friends giggling and grinning in an eco-house in the Devonshire countryside, a big, beautiful place that they’ve turned into an impressive rehearsal place. Apart from a poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on one wall, it is a setting devoid of any darkness, which is odd when you think of what they have planned for their upcoming tour – which features, as they will reveal exclusively to us, remarkable stage sets and some nods to MC Escher. Given their new album, “The Resistance”, is similarly menacing, orchestral and over-the-top, topped off by their three-part symphony about humans leaving our planet behind, one has to ask the question: why on earth are they here?

Drummer Dom Howard, bird-like and now off the exercise bike, tells us straightaway. “We’re near home, aren’t we?” Matt Bellamy, all right angles and quick, nervous chatter, puts it slightly differently. “It’s all about being back in place where we first met, remembering what it was like to be young and, after 10 years of albums, remembering where it all started.” Only Chris Wolstenholme, lovable, affable, huggable, has never left; only leaving his wife and four children to record and tour. “One for every album,” he adds, “apart from ‘Black Holes and Revelations’”.

Home is Teignmouth, five miles down the road from this rural hacienda. This is where the boys met as scrawny schoolboys at the Community College, drank cider under the pier and took girls that they fancied up to the cliffs. Now back on home turf, Matt and Dom are staying, rather brilliantly, with their mums – Matt in the spare room of the house that he bought for his mum and his gran. “But in a room on the other side of the house from hers,” he points out, mock-seriously. “There is something quite funny about it. My mum’s still asking weird questions like, “Your next gig’s not going to be too loud, is it?” He giggles heartily.

Teignmouth is also where Muse’s world tour kicked off this week on a huge field near the water. What a coup for a town that was – its most famous sons coming back to the place where they first bonded over music as teenagers, especially over the indie-punk bands such as Mega City Four, The Wedding Present, and Senseless Things.

Still, Dom points out, this was after Matt got over his shellsuit rapper phase. His shellsuit rapper phase? “Oh, yeah. There’s lots of things about our early days that people should find out.”

And find out we shall.

One overcast evening in 1993, a long-haired boy in New Age baggy trousers walked across The Den, a large patch of grass on Teignmouth seafront. He approached Matt Bellamy, a sporty kid in Hi-Techs who liked rapper Derek B, Run-DMC and the KLF. “My gang was over there, Dom’s gang was over there,” remembers Matt. “Dom walked over. Went (Juts out lip) ‘Alright’, I went, (Juts out lip again) ‘Alright’. He looked like Kurt Cobain and the people with all laughed – you know, what’s this weirdo want?” And then Dom said, ‘(Moves head in) Don’t tell anyone, but our guitarist’s crap and never turns up for rehearsals, so do you fancy a go?” Matt giggles again. “Got to give the boy credit, he broke the gang barrier!”

But Matt had a secret that he hadn’t told his sporty friends: he had already seen Dom’s band playing live. They were called – but of course – Gothic Plague, and girls seemed to flock to them. “That got my attention”, says Matt. “Teignmouth’s your usual small town – you’re trying to get with a girl, and then some dodgy old geezer turns up in a Capri and that’s it, they’ve gone! Then I saw Dom’s band, and all these girls staring at them, and thought, “Hmm, these guys have got something,” that’s when I started playing the guitar…”

Dom had noticed Matt strumming in their music class, knew he had a knack for it, and soon got Matt trading in his Hi-Techs for Dr Martens. Together, they got into Rage Against The Machine, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, formed a new group, the Rocket Baby Dolls, and eventually recruited Chris from a school year below. They renamed themselves Muse. They practiced in a grubby rehearsal room for which they still have the keys (“We went there the other week, and it was all mould, cobwebs and mushrooms,” Dom winces) and played gigs in Teignmouth’s Ivy House in 1995, just before it got turned into retirement flats.

Until 2009, that was the last time Muse played a concert in town. Matt still remembers when their first tour began there, and the excitement he felt.

“That memory of getting of getting into our crappy orange tour bus, grinning like idiots, going out from town into the big unknown…” His eyes glaze over and he shakes his head. “It reminds me of that excitement of starting out. But by starting our world tour here this time, we’re also reminding local kids that you can get out there and do what we did.” He smiles. “It means a lot.”

At the two Teignmouth shows, Muse weren’t allowed to be as loud as they can be – the council didn’t want to wake up those grannies in The Ivy House, obviously – but for the stadium shows around Europe this autumn they are pulling out all the stops. But how exactly do they pull them out further? The ‘Black Holes & Revelations’ gigs were extraordinary things, as flamboyant as U2’s spectacles, as bonkers as Pink Floyd’s proggy light shows, as darkly brilliant as Nine Inch Nails’ concert-shaped messages from the underworld. When they became the first band to sell out Wembley Stadium in 2007, huge satellite dishes, antennas and thousands of lights were not enough. They had to have acrobats descending through the air on white balloons, too, as the soft beauty of “Blackout” from the 2003’s ‘Absolution’ travelled gently through the Middlesex air.

Matt looks twitchily excited as he tells us exclusively about the band’s plans for ‘The Resistance’ tour. “We are planning to create a group of utilitarian-style buildings, like prisons, one for each of us, that we’re going to be locked in. They’ll look a little like skyscrapers – three metres wide and seven metres tall, and have stairs inside them inspired by MC Escher’s paintings, that go in different directions. We can travel through them and stand on top of them, but we can’t escape them.” They are also planning to have an acrobatic couple involved in the show again, but this time to reflect the idea of love that runs right through the album – love that conquers all in a world where there are few people to trust. “I like the idea that they can’t get to each other, chasing each other across the stadium – and then getting together in some theatrical fashion above everyone’s heads.”

It all sounds brilliantly absurd, as well as highly ambitious. Does Matt worry that they will turn into a 21st century Spinal Tap? That giggle again. “No, not really! I think everyone likes a grand statement in a show. So many rock bands stick to showing visuals on big screens and I think, ‘What’s the point in that?’ People have paid for their tickets, so they deserve new stuff every time.” He’s been looking to opera and the Cirque Du Soleil to find ideas that have drama but are still “on the edge”. So not ballet around a mini Stonehenge, then? “God, no! That’d be ridiculous!”

Muse, let’s face it, are a rather ridiculous group. You couldn’t not be if your new album included a 21st century ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ soundalike called ‘United States of Eurasia’, a piece of church organ sci-fi called ‘[[Unnatural Selection (song) |Unnatural Selection’, a homage to Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ called ‘Guiding Light’ and that three-part symphony we mentioned earlier, snappily titled ‘Exogenesis Symphony’, and featuring sections titled ‘Overture’, ‘Cross Pollination’, and ‘Redemption’. And when Matt describes Muse’s style as “symphonic music played by a three-piece rock band”, the phrase certainly has a whiff of Andrew Lloyd Webber gone evil about it.

But Muse see their exuberance as a virtue, as do their fans. After all, what brings the musician and the mosher closer together than exuberance? And is there anything actually wrong with putting whims, powerful emotions and soul-mangling fears into flamboyantly escapist, entertaining songs?

‘The Resistance’ is a step up from the band’s previous grand efforts, however – a sprawling, cavorting, whirling dervish of a record. It was also the first, explains Matt, where the band felt no pressure to edit themselves. This may be because it was the first record they produced themselves, away from Rich Costley[transcription error?]. “Rich is brilliant, but at this point in our careers we had to be more honest, take more risks, just to see what happened. If everyone slags us off, then fine – we’ll learn from our mistakes.” The whole band really felt that they had to go back to the fun of making music and not take things too seriously. “If we’ve exposed ourselves to the negatives of that – sounding a bit like Queen, for instance…” He smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “We just thought ‘Whatever, let’s just go for it’.”

Matt is talking, of course, about ‘United States of Eurasia’ and the line “Be only one!”, which is so Freddie Mercury I bet the man is oscillating wildly in his grave. “We definitely had a debate over that. Every time we heard it, we were laughing. The song’s supposed to have an emotional meaning, after all, so can we let this epic Queen-like chord change be in it? In the end we thought ‘Fuck it! We love it, it’s in!’” But Muse often worry about going too far, Matt admits, if only because they don’t want to lose their connection with people who love them. “We can overproduce our songs sometimes on record – a few too many layers of orchestration, too much fuzz or noise – but if a bit of one of our songs makes someone smile or laugh, than I think that’s fine.”

Being excessive and daft is all part of being human, after all, he continues, and his favorite artists have always done that. We talk about David Bowie’s silly mimes and Elton John’s ostentatious live concerts. “But I’m sure that what’s Elton’s like – I don’t think he’s acting. I think you can be real and flamboyant, because we all have a dramatic side. I don’t think we should have to be based in reality all of the time.” Matt also loves the way in which modern band are bringing back a sense of pride in their performance. “You can see that with bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That sense of showmanship dies for a while after Nirvana – who were a great band, but they took that away, making everything very earthy, and very real. Now we are back to the good old days.”

It’s been tough work getting the songs from ‘The Resistance’ ready for the tour. Lots of them segue into each other on the album, and few of them stick to a familiar beat. Chris remembers being bamboozled when he first heard Matt’s compositions for it. “They made me think of Brian Wilson’s “Smile” – they were orchestral pieces, rather than rock songs. When he played the piano part for ‘Exogenesis’, he sat there like he was playing Chopin in a concert hall.” But the band have dug deep and they are finally getting there. Some songs from the new record also give them room to breathe, like Delia-Derbyshire-goes-rock single ‘Uprising’ and ‘Undisclosed Desires’, a song that Chris describes well when he says it wouldn’t be out of place in a club. “I can imagine people getting pissed up and pulling to that,” he laughs. “That’s not very Muse.”

But where – if anywhere – do Muse go next? And how, heaven forbid, do they keep their fans close? “We have to go bigger and better,” says Matt, very passionately, presumably getting energy from those fig rolls at last, as the sun finally beams down on the balcony. “We need to be more theatrical with our stage shows and look to different styles for our music. I think that’s what the fans want because we were one of the first bands of the MP3 generation. People hear so many different things these days, and they seem to genuinely love the different styles we put together. As long as we show we are still grounded, and that we still play for them, I really think they are happy for us to do more.”

It’s a very different world to the one in which Muse started, he smiles, as we wind up our afternoon. It’s not like it was when they were young boys in Teignmouth, when rock fans were in one gang, dance fans in another, dressing and acting in very different ways. But just as Matt and Dom came together on The Den back in 1993, music-lovers in Muse’s dizzying 21st century have joined together just as madly – and as magnificently. Down the rails, through the waves, past the red, jagged rocks, Muse will keep pushing out all the stops but bringing everyone together, making music as true to their roots as it is to their fans.

Resist them at your peril.

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