Hot Press 2006-07-26 – Have we got Muse for you

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An interview concerning Black Holes and Revelations in Hot Press Vol. 30 #14.

Have we got Muse for you

   What do you get when cross Wagner, Radiohead and Prince? The answer probably sounds a lot like the new Muse album. In an exclusive interview, frontman Matt Bellamy tells us how he got his groove on, why gambling is one of life’s sweetest pleasures and explains that their latest hit single is, in part, about Queen Elizabeth 'when she was hot'.
   - Craig Fitzsimons

   Rising out of the ashes of a teenage grunge band whose shifting monikers included Rocket Baby Dolls, Gothic Plague and Carnage Mayhem, Muse may well be the belated saviours of Britpop.

   Emerging from the bucolic surroundings of England’s Wild West – they were formed in Devon and played their first few gigs in Cornish villages – the band have evolved mightily over the course of a decade’s work, metamorphosing into a hugely ambitious, high-concept fusion on widely diverse stylings.    The Muse experience defies easy description, but if you can imagine a meeting of the minds of seminal Teutonic pop-star Wagner and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, with the results filtered through a computer programmed by the artist intermittently known as Prince, you might have a vague idea what treasures await you on the gang’s fifth album, Black Holes and Revelations.    Add traces of Hendrix, Zeppelin and Rachmaninov and the picture will become clearer still.

   By this stage Muse have long since tired of the incessant Radiohead comparisons (Yorke once criticised them as inferior imitators), but the similarities are striking: Matt Bellamy’s arrestingly high-pitched near-operatic vocal, copious evidence of a Queen/Freddie Mercury fixation, and a Pink Floyd-like fondness for the imparting of cryptic messages via their sleeve artwork and song titles.

   Lest anyone was tempted to dismiss them as latter-day prog-rock dinosaurs, Black Holes and Revelations witnesses Muse veering off in a downright funky direction, most notably on the dancefloor-friendly single 'Supermassive Black Hole'.    Much of the album is drenched in an almost Studio 54-esque disco vibe, with audible traces of such guilty-pleasure delights as KC & The Sunshine Band, or Thriller-era Michael Jackson.

   Though the band’s reputation has chiefly been built on their live performances (they’ve won so many Brit Live Band awards they must have lost count), they’re fully atuned to the infinite possibilities offered by the studio, and Revelations is rife with evidence of hi-tech experimentation.    "We wanted to experiment, try things we hadn’t done before, explore the possibilities, get more involved in the process and try to create a bigger sound," explains Bellamy. “I think we definitely managed that. We were thinking in terms of a Prince-inspired, groove based R&B sound, which is definitely a strange thing for us to do, and I think we came up with the goods.”

   During the sessions, the band wanted to discover how musically adventrous they could be while keeping intact those trademark dark atmospherics.    “There’s an electronic edge creeping in, as well – we’ve always been interested in beats and bleeps, but only recently got a grip on how to use the gear properly,” says Bellamy. “Our earlier efforts in that direction had sounded really R2D2, totally amateur keyboard-and-synthesiser shit when we though we knew what we were doing.”

   Dominic Howard, drummer, expounds: “We wanted to do as much as we can, have fun, and approach the album without any restrictions. It’s nice and diverse, flies off in different direction but still sounds like Muse. We felt a real sense of freedom to push the individual songs as far as we could. We’ve always had that to some extent, but this was the first time it struck us all that, really, we can do whatever we want. Of course, you still have to know when to pull back... you’re always going to record stuff that goes too far.”    You might think ‘Hex’ goes too far in a vintage jazz direction, or “A Soldier’s Poem” ends up completely different from the way it was first intended. It was, says Howard, meant to sound very simple and minimal but ends up really epic and grandiose: “That’s what a studio is for, all these moments of great revelation, testing your own limits.”

   Despite Muse’s newfound funkiness, Black Holes isn’t exactly a record bursting with the joys of spring. Bellamy’s songwriting has long betrayed a sneaking suspicion that the End Of The World, if not exactly nigh, is certainly in the post.    His bedtime reading consists of books with such Donnie Darko-esque titles as Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes and Time Warps And The Tenth Dimension, and he suspects that these obsessions were accentuated by the band’s self-imposed period of seclusion from civilisation.    “We’d been stuck in this berserk studio in the south of France for months, a beautiful but very desolate 600-acre deal with nowhere to go, no car, no TV and nothing to do except hang around and talk shit to one another,” he explains. “Going up the walls, basically. The heart of the album came from that time – we basically had to produce something out of nothing. It was all very dark and gothic. We had this barn full of bats, and whenever we started playing late at night, they’d fly in which was disconcerting. This place was a maze, full of secret tunnels, you had the feeling it was haunted.”

   Rural seclusion eventually got too much to bear, he says.    “It’s all a bit weird being cut off, so to contrast that, we went to New York, which is the sort of place where you walk out the door and you’ve made 20 friends before you’ve got as far as the shops. We’d head out dancing and generally getting involved in New York life, which is how the album’s more uplifting stuff, like ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ came about.”

   Was it creatively worthwhile, condemning themselves to such isolation?    “There were nice things about it,” Bellamy proffers. “But it was the middle of nowhere and it felt like an escape when we left. But also because we were so detached from civilisation, it felt a bit like living on the moon, it was inspiring for us.”

   Secluded from the world – from reality, really – gives you plenty of time to contemplate the planet’s future and other stuff best not thought about. War, the oil crisis, environmental destruction, global warming. Most of the dinner-table chat, he says, was about how the world’s going straight to hell.    “Lot’s of songs on the album are about the things that keep you awake at night. So I think a lot of the darker side of the record probably can be traced to that time – we did some recording there, but not much, and then went to New York which is the complete opposite, where life moves at a massive pace, but it felt like a relief after the seclusion. It helped the recording process, and there was a definite sense of, ‘Life’s great really, enjoy it while you can, get on with it.’ I’m from the countryside anyway so I get a huge buzz out of massive cities, though I enjoy going back to Devon and might end up staying there.”

   Despite the impending apocalypse with theoretical physics, Matt and his pals (Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme) are a cheerful bunch who know how to have fun.    They’ve become serious poker players over the last couple of years, as Dom attests: “We all love it. Matt’s pretty good, he plays more than anyone. He’s a good instinctive player who doesn’t get too psychological about it all, and has a laugh. He’s pretty quiet and mathematical the way he goes about it. I play a more lairy, bravado, high-risk game, especially after a couple of whiskeys. I roll in and look like I own the place, even if I don’t.”    You have to play for serious money, says the drummer, otherwise there’s no point.    “Gambling is one of life’s pleasures – I’m sure I’ve lost more money than I’ve won, and even Matt’s probably just breaking even.”    Matt concurs: “Yeah – I still love it, though. I’ve played in Ireland a few times, I play in London a fair bit – you should try the Victoria on Edgware Road – but Vegas is obviously a world of it’s own.”    Great poker, he says, is like playing chess with cash. It’s also quite creative – Bellamy is convinced it’s good for the brain: “What’s great is that everybody thinks they can play but not many can. It’s nice to take arrogant young cats to the cleaners. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – there’s heavyweight places where you need about a grand to sit down, and a badly-played hand can wipe the whole lot in one go.”    Bellamy goes to the Victoria when he’s feeling particularly lucky or has a few quid to spare. But his favourite is a place called Gut-Shot in Clerkenwell which is much smaller, more casual and laid-back (there’s no dress code). It’s less intense money-wise and more about playing for fun, so you can relax that bit more: “There’s some great casinos in Melbourne, too. You could probably find one in Afghanistan, if you look hard enough.”

   What about Las Vegas?    “Vegas is crazy, you can hang out all night in the poker room and the drink’s free. Obviously the alcohol interferes with your judgement, but it seems like the more you drink, the more you keep winning.”

   Then you stumble out at eight o’clock in the morning into the Nevada desert heat, and get a helicopter straight to the Grand Canyon. It’s a decent life.    Of course, you have to know what you’re doing. Vegas is the sort of place where you could blow everything and come back a broken man.    “But I could live there, no problem,” he enthuses. “I like New York too, but gambling’s illegal there.”

   Though Matt briefly mentions the Iraq war as one of the eternal worries preying on his mind, he’s keen that the ambiguous ‘A Soldier’s Poem’ doesn’t get misinterpreted as some kind of anti-war statement.    “It’s about the war, of course. Most of our soldiers are out there perfectly aware that they’re basically fighting for oil. It must be quite lonely being out there and realising that, so all credit to them. Most people over here don’t seem to worry about them too much, or pay the subject any attention.”    He is not, he insists having a pop at the military: “It’s more at statement of respect for them. I’m not going to sit here and claim it’s an anti-war song. These lads are doing their stuff, putting their lives on the line, an you can be sure they won’t get thanked for it. The least we can do is not forget about them. It’s a tough situation out there. Basically, the world’s running out of oil and there’s not many places left to get it. The economy will collapse if we don’t keep it coming.”

   At this point the room temperature momentarily drops a couple of degrees. Still, Matt’s a genuinely nice lad who deserves for better fortune in life than to find himself debating the Iraqi war with an unreconstructed commie hack. So I just subtly nod and move onward, resolving for once in my life to observe the don’t-discuss-politics-with-strangers protocol.

   Instead I gently grill the Muse frontman about his youthful fixation with ouija boards, a topic which brings a sheepish smile to his face.    “I was intrigued by it. My mum’s Irish and she was always interesting in that kind of supernatural, paranormal stuff. I can remember being a 10-year old kid, couldn’t sleep one night, so I came downstairs and walked in to see my mum, dad and older brother with their hands on this glass, doing something obviously weird. I thought ‘What the fuck’s going on here?’ But once they explained it, I seem to remember I liked the idea and ended up being addicted to it.”

   Does he commune with the dead today?    “I’d look on it now as a bit of fun. I would have had a big effect on me then, but it’s not something I’ve kept up. It seemed all mysterious and sinister at the time, obviously you can look and think it’s daft or silly. But there’s definitely something to it, I can remember the board warned me about the first Gulf War before it happened.”

   There’s a quaint early-’80s Roland-synth buzz on tracks like ‘Starlight’: has Matt been listening to Charts ’82 in his spare time?    “I’ve listened to some Devo and quite a bit of Depeche Mode – that’s as far as it goes. The main imperative was to keep it really simple, minimal and raw. I love Depeche but I’ve only quite recently got into it, and wouldn’t have grown up worshipping them or anything. Though I think if you look around today, their influence is everywhere.”

   One of the biggest influences on the band, he reveals, is instrumental music, such as classical or Morricone’s Western soundtracks.    “I’ve always liked the concept of instrumental music, that it’s designed to let the listener create a picture in their mind. Almost everything we write, we’d intend that even with the voice taken away, you should still get a clear idea of what the song’s about, whether it’s epic or sinister or full of dread in some way.”

   The video for ‘Hysteria’ bears striking visual similarities to passages of Pink Floyd: The Wall….    “Yeah, they were recorded in the same place. It had been closed down for a number of years before we used it, and it wasn’t until I got there and saw the disc hanging on the wall that I realised The Wall had been made there.”    “ I never really paid much attention to Pink Floyd and still couldn’t tell you much about them, but I had a listen to see what all the fuss was about and I’ve got to say it’s pretty good. We’re not prog-rock freaks, but I’m sure we’ve got a concept album in us somewhere. Or some kind of deal where the whole album consists of one song. We haven’t done it yet, but we will.”

   Matt’s easygoing, down-to-earth demeanor is somewhat belied by his fine line in space-cadet pronouncements, such as his curious observation that ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ is partially inspired by “a sinister presence at the centre of the galaxy alerting us the a ménage-a-trois involving R2D2 and The Queen when she was hot.” What on Earth is that about?    “I’ll explain it, bear with me... it’s kind of comparing a woman to the centre of the galaxy, as this gigantic black hole that you powerlessly get sucked into. What I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is, that’s what women are like.”

   Seriously was there ever a time when Mrs. Windsor looked fit to trot?    “You know, when she was younger, in her prime. She might not look great on the £50 note, but she had her glory days.”

   Have you met her?
   “No, not yet. That’ll have to wait till we get the OBE’s.”

   Black Holes and Revelations is out on Warner’s.

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