Muse: A Brief History (200704 Los Angeles Times article)

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By Craig Rosen, Special to The Times

MUSE singer-guitarist Matthew Bellamy can still remember the British trio's first Los Angeles gig. "It was at the Viper Room. There were only about 20 people there," he recalls. "It must have been when I was 19 or 20 in 1999. It was one of our first gigs abroad."

That show was set up to showcase the band for American suitors from Maverick and Columbia Records, but the conditions were far from ideal. "It was the first time I had really flown that far from home," Bellamy says. "I was completely unfamiliar with the feeling of jet lag. It probably wasn't the best performance we ever did because we were all half asleep on stage."<more>

Still, the trio managed to impress Maverick executive Guy Oseary, who, Bellamy says, attended the gig "with some geezer from the Sex Pistols" — actually guitarist-turned-radio host Steve Jones — and Muse scored a U.S. recording contract.

Fast-forward eight years, and Muse — which also includes bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard — is preparing to play its biggest North American headlining gig Tuesday at the sold-out 18,000-seat Forum. In the interim, the band split from Maverick but found a more sympathetic home with its parent company, Warner Bros. Records.

Although Maverick had high hopes for Muse, "Showbiz," the band's debut album, received a lukewarm critical reception, failed to chart and sold 100,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Things got so bad that Maverick opted not to release the band's second effort, "Origin of Symmetry," in the U.S. (It was subsequently released in 2005 by Warner Bros. but sold only 49,000 copies).

The band's fortunes began to change when it moved to Warner Bros., which issued "Absolution" in 2004. That album sold 513,000 copies and spawned two Top 10 modern rock hits, "Hysteria (I Want It Now)" and "Time Is Running Out," both of which became staples on KROQ-FM (106.7) and stoked the group's growing popularity as a live act.

In subsequent years, Muse has gone on to headline the Mayan Theatre in May 2004, a two-night stand at the Wiltern in December 2004, a date at the Greek Theatre in summer 2006, and now the Forum in support of its latest effort, "Black Holes and Revelations," which debuted at No. 9 and features the current modern rock hit "Starlight."

"For them to headline the Forum on their own is exceptional," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, which covers the concert business. "It obviously indicates huge popularity in Southern California." Bongiovanni compares Muse's success as a live draw in L.A. to Depeche Mode, whose KROQ-fueled popularity in the late '80s eventually led the group to a headline date at the Rose Bowl in 1988.

Although Muse isn't big enough to headline outdoor stadiums in the U.S., it has reached that level in the U.K., where it's scheduled to play two nights at the 75,000-seat Wembley Stadium in June. "It'll be a big challenge to us," Bellamy says on the phone during a tour stop in Japan. "You have to really think about a different type of show. You've got to really care and think about the people at the back and the top, who are not going to see my facial expressions. You've got to put a lot more effort into the visual side of the show."

Muse's music, which mixes the drama and apocalyptic angst of Radiohead with the operatic bombast of Queen, is well-suited to larger venues. The fact that Bellamy's lyrics avoid British colloquialisms in favor of more universal themes has also contributed to the band's success.

"We're just keeping the old British rock flame alive," Bellamy says, perhaps sensitive about the Radiohead comparisons, which stymied the band's progress early on. "The '90s threatened to wipe it out with Brit-pop and a lot of the softer bands like Coldplay and Radiohead. One of the reasons we get associated with some of the '70s rock bands is because we are one of the few British bands that actually plays rock music, or what I call rock music."

One of Muse's most epic rockers is "Knights of Cydonia," an alternative rock hit from "Black Holes and Revelations." Wolstenholme has said the song sums up "40 years of rock history in six minutes," which gives Bellamy a laugh.

Many have assumed it's Muse's attempt to pay homage to Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks, but actually the inspiration was a lot closer to home. Bellamy's father, George, played guitar in the early '60s combo the Tornados, whose space-rock instrumental "Telstar" became the first No. 1 single by a British act in America.

"I wanted to do something that was a bit of reference toward that because I never really paid attention to any of that music when I was growing up," he says. "I just recently realized my dad's band was pretty cool."

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