Q 2007-06-01

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It's the morning of Saturday 7 April, and Muse frontman Matt Bellamy is preparing to board a flight from Heathrow to San Francisco, where his band will kick off a three-date tour of the US and Mexico. As the singer reaches the departure gate, a stony-faced security officer asks him what he intends to do in America.
    "Oh, don't worry, mate," Bellamy replies. "I'm not going to be working illegally or making bombs."
    The security officer points out that an airport is no place for bad jokes. Following a severe telling off, Bellamy apologises and is allowed to go on his way. But as he settles into his first-class seat, it becomes clear that the matter isn't closed. The aeroplane's chief steward approaches down the aisle and informs the singer that he has to get off the plane. On the tarmac, he is met by two further security guards who escort him to a windowless interview room.
    "The asked me all these silly questions," he recalls now "Like, Do you like American people?"
    What did you say?
    "I said they're quite nice. [Laughs] They mean well."

Three days after this brush with the UK authorities, Bellamy is backstage at the Los Angeles Forum. The 18,000-capacity arena is incongruously located in the middle of Inglewood, a drab gangland sprawl south-west of downtown LA notable only for being the setting for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction.
    Muse's dressing room is hung with sheets of purple raw silk, a recent purchase from Singapore. Their touring paraphernalia incldes a small Kawai MP8 piano, a Vicks steam inhaler used to ward off colds and an iSqueez foot massager that the singer - smelling strongly of Tiger Balm from a soothing rubdown - attempts to demonstrate, only to discover it is broken. As well as the typical array of alcohol, herbal tea and food, their rider specifies socks and pants (boxer shorts, preferably black, in small, medium and large) that can be disposed of rather than laundered, having being worn as stage clothes. Minimising laundry is a priority: this policy means the black V-necked T-shirt that Bellamy is wearing will not be changed for the next three days.
    The singer is articulate and good-humoured, but he still seems uncomfortable in the role of band spokesman. There's a twitchiness about him, and he sometimes breaks eye contact to look off into the middle distance when talking at length. He claims to enjoy interview more than he used to, though he gives the impression that he's only slightly less comfortable being interrogated by Q than he was by Heathrow's security officers.
    "When you're young you get this impression that everything you say, everyone in the world's going to read it," he explains. "As I'm getting older I'm realising that hardly anyone really gives a toss."

Before this trip, the band last played together three weeks ago in Nagoya, Japan, and last night's performance at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium has left them feeling slightly stiff. Towering bassist Chris Wolstenholme was throwing up between encores due to an appalling chest infection, but he is feeling marginally better this afternoon. Drummer Dominic Howard is contemplating a massage.
    Tonight's gig will be muse's biggest American show to date. Their previous visit to Los Angeles was on 19 July 2006, just as their fourth album, Black Holes And Revelations, entered America's Billboard chart at Number 9. Then, they played to 5700 people at the Greek Theatre.
    "The size of gigs we do is out of proportion to the level we are in the ether," says Bellamy.
    This isn't strictly accurate. Black Holes And Revelations has shifted more than 300,000 copies here, while its predecessor, 2003's Absolution, has passed the half-million mark. The fact that they're handled in the US by heavyweight management company Q-Prime - who look after the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica - suggests they're taking the idea of breaking America seriously.
    Just before they go onstage tonight, Howard yawns with nervous energy and Bellamy sits down, insisting, "I can't do this any more." It's a running joke, but sometimes the feat makes it feels quite genuine.
    Despite Bellamy's theatrics, Muse like touring. Since releasing Black Hoels And Revelations they have done little else. The Forum marks the 111th date of a campaign that began on 13 May 2006 at Radio 1's Big Weekend festival in Dundee. Currently, the plan is to keep going until November. Bellamy likes the synergy created by lengthy stints operating at such close quarters: "The most intense experience is when you're stuck on a bus for months at a time. You can't get any space to read a book, someone's playing music, someone's farting in your face and whatever. We've learnt to deal with all that and you become a weird organism."
    So far this your the band has already played Australia and Japan and paid maiden visits to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. Financially, they only broke even on the Asuan date, but they played the shows because they wanted to explore unfamiliar territoy. "It only turns into work when other people are making decisions for you," says Bellamy. "As long as you're doing it on your own terms it stays fun."
    While on American soil there is, as Howard puts it, "a lot of kissing arse and hand-shaking within the music business". Wherever they go, radio stations must be buttered up to secure airplay for their singles. Normally - as is the case today - this involves meeting competition winners before or after the show, htough the band has been pressed into go-karting, paintballing and, when in Texas, shooting.
    "In the past we'd just cringe," says Bellamy. "You'd think, I'm a great musician, I shouldn't be playing paintball with the fans! Now e think, Fuck it, it's a laugh."

A man of few words, Bellamy punctuates the gripping two-hour Forum set with little more than the odd "cheers". The band performs under giant screens, the stage dressed sparingly with a tow of transparent tubes for a backdrop. Originally they were intended to contain mannequins like an array of cybernetic wombs but Bellamy says it looked "naff". During Plug In Baby, gigantic white balloons fall from the ceiling of the venue.
    The next day, I meet the singer for lunch at the casually upmarket Ritz-Carlton hotel in Marina del Rey, a seaside community for California's boating set. After last ngiht's gig, he stayed up drinking with friends in the hotel bar until other guests complained and a visit from the local sheriff was threatened. "I didn't realise that sheriffs still existed," he says. "I made a sharp exit at around five."
    He says he'd like to sit by the pool if the weather was better, but his complexion suggests an acute aversion to tanning. Instead, we move inside to the otherwise deserted restaurant and sit at a corner table . Bellamy is a shy person until you get to know him, a process that would probably take several years. Howard does most of the talking onstage, reading from cue cards when the language gap needs to be bridged. In the Far East, these visual aids are occasionally sabotaged by his bandmates, so the drummer will greet the audience by saying, "I've got a nice bum." Between bites of ahi tune salad Bellamy considers the question of why he says to little to the crowd. "I find it difficult to say something without sounding contrived. The idea of making a speech to a bunch of people at a dinner scares me more than playing Wembley."
    One week after George Michael becomes the inaugural act to perform at the new Wembley Stadium on 9 June, Muse will play to 150,000 people over two nights there. "We're going to be the first proper band to play there," announces Bellamy proudly.
    Howard briefly considered this expert opinion. "It's shit? OK, well, we'll book it." As ever, Muse want to make the event as spectacular as possible, but so far Brent Council's fastidious health and safety department has put the kibosh on helicopters with searchlights and, in case someone gets blinded, lasers. At this moment, a big screen and the band actually being there are all that has been approved.
    Small, chirpy and the most outgoing member of the band, Howard could ordinarily be mistaken for a flamboyant paperboy, but not right now. Lounging in one of the two black Cadillac Escalade vans that will take the band to Los Angeles International Airport for the two-hour plane journey to the tour's next stop-off in Mexico City, he looked brutally hungover. Mirrored sunglasses and the hood of his green sweatshirt shield his face from the harsh sunshine. While none of Muse conforms to the stereotypical image of rock stars, Howard embraces certain traditions. He enjoys holidaying in the Caribbean and, when appropriate, likes to get hammered.
    "Though I don't get loose before I go onstage," he grimaces. "Only afterwards."

The Muse touring machine is well-oiled, though it still occasionally jumps off the rails. As the band recall, 2007 has not been without dama, or comedy.

Australia, 4 February...
Howard: "We were doing the Big Day Out festival. I went, "Hello, Adelaide!" Matt turned round going, "We're in fucking Perth, you dick." He was quite pissed off with me for the whole day."
Indonesia, 23 February...
Howard: "I took a pill in Jakarta. We were recommended to go to this club that was open until five so we got a cab and ended up in 'the hood'. We pulled up outside this shack with an iron roof, trash all over the place and people banging on the car window. It was horrific so we drove off. We later found out we would have been shot and then robbed. Maybe robbed and then shot. Either way, it wouldn't have been good."
Hong Kong, 3 March...
Bellamy: "There was some guy in a bar, a journalist, he was acting like Mr Big: "This is my town, so let's go to these places." Then he picked up a glass and lobbed it. It smashed on the back of one of our security guys, Tony. He probably couldn't have hit anyone worse than that. He was promptly pummeled to the ground. That's life, isn't it?"

Mexico City, 12 April. The band is again in transit, again in a black van. After a soundcheck at tonight's venue, Palacio de los Deportes, they sit in the back of a Lincoln Navigator bound for their hotel and a light meal. It's only a few miles away, but even accompanied by a pair of siren-happy motorcycle patrolmen, the gridlocked traffic ensures the trip takes close to an hour. "If I'd known I wouldn't have come back," says Bellamy. "A police escort for spaghetti Bolognese is a bit excessive, isn't it?"
    In fact, this safety measure is in place for two good reasons. First, corruption is rife within the Mexican police force, and a pay-off is apparently par for the course here. "They took a portion of our money for the gig," says Bellamy. "So you make them work for it."
    Second, and more importantly, the capital can be dangerous. Mugging and "express kidnapping" - hailing an illicit taxi only to be forcibly taken to the nearest cash machine by the driver - is rife. On the positive side, members of the warring drug cartels tend to only shoot or behead one another and the murder rate is five times less per capita than Detroit. For the visiting musician, the most alarming crime statistic is that two of every three CDs sold in the country are pirated.
    This is the first time Muse have played in Central America. The chaotic urban sprawl of Mexico City is home to more than 19 million people, making it the third most populous metropolitan area on the planet (after Tokyo and Seoul), but their stay is brief and what they see of the city is mostly glimpsed from the windows of moving vehicles. Even from this vantage point the disparity between the very rich and the very poor is apparent in miserable cliche form. Indigent children peddle chewing gum and nuts to passing cars in the shadow of a vast hoarding for Paris Hilton's latest fragrance, Heiress.

    As our entourage arrives at the hotel in the affluent district of Polanco, Bellamy disappears off to find some pasta. Chris Wolstenholme orders a glass of still water and takes a seat in a mezzanine brasserie. The bassist has a wife and three children back in Teignmouth, Devon, and calls home twice every day. The "painful" four-figure phone bills are sent directly to the band's accountant. "Tax deductible and all that," he points out. As befits a family man, Wolstenholme is either an amused spectator or absent altogether when it comes to anything livelier than a few beers.
    Howard is 29; Wolstenholme and Bellamy are 28. The singer now lives on the shores of Italy's Lake Como while Howard has relocated to London, but other than geography not much has changed between them since they first met as schoolboys. "Obviously we've had a few fights but we've found a good balance," says Bellamy. "We're still able to view each other as we were before we got cast into this environment. I think that means our friendship is untouchable."
    Away from music, they have few common interests. All of them cite vodka and tonic as their favourite drink and admit to being fans of abtruse island drama Lost. Bellamy skis, Howard snowboards. They both scuba dive but haven't been together yet. Wolstenholm likes football - whether playing as a centre forward or supporting Rotherham. They used to enjoy a few hands of poker with one another until what Bellamy describes as "one heavy game last year" after which they didn't speak to each other for three days. It was the last time they played together.

The last major act to play here was Coldplay in March. Coming attractions at the Palacio de los Deportes include The Who, Beyonce and I1 Divo in June. Tonight Muse are spurred on by a vehemently partisan 18,500-strong crowd during this evening's show. The steel barriers in front of the stage usually break at the rate of one every other night, but tonight two are rendered useless by the weight of the surging crowd.
    Afterwards the band receive several waves of competition winners in their dressing room, where AC/DC's Back In Black provides the soundtrack to signing autographs and grinning for pictures. Once back at the hotel, Wolstenholme is still feeling unwell and turns in for the night. Bellamy has a few drinks downstairs in the crowded bar, where Howard is praising the comic genius of Ricky Gervais and intermittently banging on a small drum he bought earlier at a shop selling military accouterments and flak jackets. "This'll be on the next album," he says. "Probably quite low in the mix."
    It's three o'clock the following afternoon when Howard finally surfaces, forlornly wheeling a red suitcase through the hotel lobby, hood sunglasses firmly in place. Wolstenholme - who packed and checked out several hours ago - is still suffering from a hacking cough, but he's the picture of health next to Howard. The drummer was in the bar until eight this morning, and he's looking the worse for wear. In the early hours, southern Mexico was struck by an earthquake that registered six on the Richter scale and necessitated the evacuation of several buildings, though Howard failed to notice it. In his defence, neither did anyone else.
    Sitting on a sofa, picking at a plate of cold fries, Bellamy offers a typically succinct assessment of last night's work: "Huge gig. Fine, yeah. It was nice." He's similarly matter-of-fact when discussing the trepidation of entertaining a packed Wembley Stadium, twice. "Doing two of them is pushing it a bit," he shrugs. "That's on the edge. If one goes wrong...at least one of them will be good."
    There might be more, but time is pressing. The black vans are waiting, Muse must move on.


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