Beat 2007-11-07 – Muse

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Date: 07 Nov 2007
Issue: Beat #1089


by Nick Snelling

In any given interview opportunity, speaking with the drummer of the band might seem like second-best. But in the case of UK progressive rock trio Muse, Dom Howard is an exception to the rule. Far from what any mono-syllabic stereotype might suggest, the drummer is now well used to being the mouthpiece for Muse both onstage and off. While some have put that down to frontman Matt Bellamy’s social shyness (a factor in perhaps inverse proportion to his creative genius and live showmanship), Howard says it’s simply a practical measure. “He actually speaks very, very quickly, and no one can understand a word he says,” chuckles the drummer fondly. “He actually makes more sense when he’s singing.”

When it comes to describing Muse, the term ‘progressive’ couldn’t really suit a band better. With their high-falutin’ fusion of classical, electronica, funk and dramatic heavy rock, Muse’s theatrical flair is rendered all the more compelling by Bellamy’s flashy guitar riffery, wild crystalline falsettos and dark lyrical kaleidoscope of post-Apocalyptic imagery. Earlier EPs and two critically acclaimed albums (Showbiz and Origin Of Symmetry) earned them a core base of devoted fans and paved an ambitious precedent for their next two definitive pieces; the spectacular Absolution and, more recently, it’s companion opus Black Holes & Revelations. As one of the main drawcards of this year’s Big Day Out festival (usurping even Tool in terms of rabid moshpit devotion on the day) Muse are now undisputedly one of the biggest bands in the world. No surprise then that at the top of their game and after selling out – not one but two – Wembley Stadiums in London, Muse are back in Australia stepping it up a notch by playing arenas.

Drummer Dom Howard says the Wembley experience has been a formative one. “It just blew our minds,” he gushes. “Doing a gig of that size, of 70,000 people where everyone has just come to see you, and not a whole bunch of other bands that are also playing on the day, is just an overwhelming feeling. The whole crowd and atmosphere in that kind of space is unbelievable.” Happily for the millions of Muse fans worldwide who weren’t present, a DVD of the two sold-out Wembley shows will be released in December. “Initially, there was a lot of scepticism that it was going to be too big and people would be too far away, but there’s something about that many people all in a round space and all there for the same reason to see the same band, there becomes a real electrifying vibe and it was just amazing. We came off stage saying that was the best gig we’ve ever done in our entire lives.”

For an act that seamlessly combines the classical with the classic rock, was it a stretch for Dom and the rest of the band to ever envisage they would be selling out stadiums and becoming such an international live heavyweight? “We never had any fixed ideas of where we wanted to be, but we’ve always have very fixed musical ambitions,” he considers. “We’ve always taken it one step at a time – it’s taken almost 12 years to where we are now, and looking back it’s been the best part of our lives.

“It’s only now we’ve felt like we’re in a position to even handle doing something that,” he refers again to the Wembley shows, “I don’t think in the past we’d have been able to handle doing gigs of that size. We’ve grown a lot as band and as musicians and performers so it’s now that it feels comfortable.”

How does the drummer categorise Muse’s musical progression through the years? “Organically, I suppose,” he says simply. “Literally we’ve grown up together as teenagers through to adulthood… or just about. Musically, it’s been a natural progression – from the size of the venues, through the musical ambition and the various lengths to which we’ve pushed ourselves in the studio.”

Howard resists confirming rumours that the new album is going to take more of an electronic or dance-based slant. “It’s still hard to tell,” hedges the drummer. “It seems with every album we always go to a lot of different, extreme and fringe areas of our musical abilities and what the concept of the band is about… and sometimes that forms the bridge to the next album.

“Take something like Supermassive Black Hole, which is electronic-sounding so maybe that’s something we’ll pursue a bit more of in the future,” he hints. “But there’s a whole other side, a piano-based orchestral sound that we’ll continue to look into. We always want to go into different areas and gradually hone it all down into what hopefully still sounds like one band.”

At essence, he continues, Muse will remain a three-piece rock band. The hard-rock contingent who make up a hefty proportion of the band’s faithful needn’t fear that the band will abandon the kind of big riff-fest that has always driven live favourites like Stockholm Syndrome. At least, not if their drummer has anything to do with it. “There’s always going to be the big riff,” laughs Howard. “It’s ‘cause you need it in there. It’s the part to get excited about – for example when we put together the riffs for Knights Of Cydonia, we were all excited about it because we knew it had that appeal, that section that is going to work in front of 10,000 people. It’s always good to see a lot of people jumping up and down.”

What does he have to say about those critics who find the band too operatic, overblown and overwrought? “I understand that our music is very bombastic and excessive in places,” admits Howard, “but often that’s the point of the song. We want to push the excess and drive the drama so that everything is constantly building in a song to the point where the whole thing explodes.

“As for those who find it too much,” he adds succinctly, “well, they are usually those who like much simpler things.”

Speaking of simpler things, Muse were forced to abandon a recent American tour with emo favourites My Chemical Romance. What could have been a chance to upstage on a nightly basis the musical one-dimensionality of their headliners, fell apart when chronic food poisoning saw the whole venture abandoned. “The whole thing fell to bits before we were even halfway through,” relates the drummer grimly. “Three of the My Chemical Romance guys got it, Chris (Wolstenhome, Muse bassist) got it, and all the crew got it. It was a full-blown epidemic disaster! It was like 28 Days Later or something – our tour manager was in hospital for like six days, and consequently the whole tour gradually just devolved and crumbled into nothing. So, we stopped and went home. We had to – apart from me, Matt and our keyboard-player Morgan, everyone else was vomiting their guts out for days. There we were, sitting somewhere in Columbus, Ohio, waiting and hoping that people were going to get better, but they didn’t.”

Unprepared to trust dodgy catering companies again, Matt Bellamy, it appears, is now both maestro onstage and in the kitchen. “We cook our own food in our dressing-rooms now – Matt’s got a little set-up with two pots where he whips up pasta for everyone,” laughs the drummer. “It’s a lot safer that eating some dodgy chicken-wrap from god knows where.”

If Howard is disappointed at the fiasco of the My Chemical Romance tour and Muse’s lost opportunity to convert more fans in an elusive American market, he doesn’t show it. In fact, if anything, he says, their US fanbase has grown exponentially since Absolution and the band can now fill arenas on both coasts. Besides, cracking America is not such a priority as it once was for the band. “I think the whole cheesy ideal of ‘needing to be big in America before you’ve made it’ is just a ridiculous concept,” he comments. “There’s this mythical vibe that America is hard to crack, but I guess I believe if you’re good you can do well anywhere.”

Still, he admits, it took longer for American fans to catch on. “I suppose the reason we didn’t tour the US until after Absolution was because the whole music scene was so far away from what was happening in the European music scene,” he elaborates. “I mean, what was cool in the States were bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn, whereas what was cool back home was bands like ourselves and Coldplay or Radiohead – that’s a big difference stylistically. We were too different for Americans to ‘get’. Or at least their radio stations, anyway. But now, of course, that’s all changed as it’s much easier to hear whatever you want.”

For a band that’s been together 14 years and counting, Muse are fortunate that their success hasn’t brought with it any internal frisson. Yes, Howard says, they really do all get along. “We’ve been very lucky that way. 14 years and we’re still mates. As far as band solidarity goes,” he laughs, “well, it’s pretty solid.”

As for the impending Australian tour, the trio are looking forward to it. “It’s definitely one of the most fun places to tour and the reason I say that is that we associate it not only with touring but also having a good time,” he says. “Typical cheesy things like ‘weather’ and ‘good beaches’ always helps and if your touring without actually feeling like you are touring, then that’s a good thing.”

So then, can we expect any new material? “Well… there’s a few riffs hanging about and that’s usually the first place new songs appear, so we’ll see,” he adds. “I imagine we’ll pull something out of the bag. We’re always one to try new things.”

Just not the prawn salad backstage, huh? “Err…no. I think we’ll be steering well clear of the prawn salad this time.”

Limited tickets remain to see Muse at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday November 15. The Haarp Tour: Live From Wembley is out in December through Warner.

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