Muse in Asia (20070303 Weekend Mail article)
© 2007 New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad
IF Muse had any doubts over the level of their popularity in Asia, the last three concerts they played would have put paid to any fears.
Having performed to packed arenas in the Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur legs of the tour, the band were treated to hordes of screaming fans singing and moshing along to every tune they belted out during each of their Southeast Asian gigs.
Lead singer Matt Bellamy, asked at the Press conference before the KL gig on how the reception was during the Jakarta leg, expressed surprise at the fans' response.
"We've played in Japan several years before, but this is the first time that we're visiting other countries in the region. To be honest, we really weren't aware of the level of our fan base here. It's been incredible." <more>
Much has happened for Bellamy, drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenhome since they first burst onto the scene with their 1999 debut, Showbiz.
Their 2001 sophomore effort Origin of Symmetry gave them their first taste of success, spawning hits such as Plug In Baby and Newborn.
The band was even embroiled in a court case: In 2002, Nestle had sought permission from Muse to use their cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good for their coffee commercial, to which the band refused.
Undeterred, Nestle pressed on and used the track anyway, which resulted in the band hauling them to court and winning STG500,000 in damages. The band donated the winnings to British charity organisation Oxfam.
The band's two-fingered salute to the establishment endeared themselves to a whole generation of disenchanted youths who had already lived through two Gulf Wars and the trauma of 9/11.
As such, when Muse's third studio album Absolution, which featured dark themes hinting at politics and global conspiracy theories, came to the fore in 2003, their popularity went stratospheric.
Their current album Black Holes and Revelations also appears to be heading down the same path; having garnered critical acclaim and racking up album sales as well as having the distinction of being the most downloaded album of 2006.
The accolades have also been pouring in, and not just from the fans. So much has been said of their lyrical makeup that critics as well as their peers have been quick to describe Muse as 'rock music for clever people' and 'the thinking man's rock band'.
In a recent interview with Weekend Mail, Wolstenhome appears almost embarrassed when asked on the aforementioned labels.
"Well it's nice, especially coming from other musicians, when they decide that there's something intelligent within the music we play. But really, there're a lot of bands out there, which you can say the same thing about.
"For us, it's just about making music, exploring it and basically, seeing what we can come up with."
Formed in 1992 while at Teignmouth Community College in Devon, the band was originally Howard's, with Bellamy successfully auditioning for the role of lead vocalist. Following the departure of the original bassist, Howard and Bellamy then decided to rope in Wolstenhome, a close friend of theirs.
Wolstenhome had to give up the drums to join the duo. Despite having to learn playing bass from scratch, he is now regarded as among the best in the field, having pioneered the use of fuzz and distortion in songs, even receiving compliments from Beatle's bassist Sir Paul McCartney following Muse's performance at the 2004 Glastonbury Music Festival.
Wolstenhome cited desperation as their prime motivation behind forming a band.
"When we were 14 or 15, we started a band because we didn't want to be like the others. You know, we'd see people in hanging around in town, on the streets getting drunk, getting into fights, stuff like that.
"Even back then, that just seemed like a bad way of life to us. Music was an escape. It just helped us escape the reality of it all."
Grunge music played a large part in the early stages of Muse's development. They were heavily influenced by Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and Smashing Pumpkins.
"We listened to a lot of those when we started out; there was an overall American guitar rock feel to most of our stuff. But as we started to explore music more, other influences started creeping in, such as classical music."
It may come as a surprise to many that Bellamy, known for his soaring classicalesque piano solos, was an avid blues fan.
"Yeah, Matt always used to play a lot of blues," chuckled Wolstenhome. "He then began listening to a lot of Rachmaninoff and Chopin, lots of classical music. "You could probably see the beginning of that in songs like Space Dementia (on their second album, Origin of Symmetry), which then just developed on its own. It just really changed the way bands thought about music. And Absolution obviously has intense classical music references as well."
Bellamy is, without a doubt, the creative force behind Muse, something that Wolstenhome readily admits.
"Matt writes the songs. He'll come in with an idea and sometimes it's a fully developed idea in his head, sometimes it's just something intangible, like a core structure with a simple melody. Some songs come together great quickly, others take a lot longer. But we normally try to explore as many ideas as possible."The band's almost fanatical dedication towards 'getting the right sound' is well documented. Most of the songs in Black Holes and Revelation were done while Muse shacked up in an old chateau in the French countryside. The isolated environment gave the bandmates time and freedom to explore without any distractions. The recording process, however, was done in the hustle and bustle of New York City.
What has been described in other interviews as their taste for 'over-perfection' is summarised by Wolstenhome.
"Any song can be stripped down to chords and melody and it's basically up to you how you want to present it. "Like Supermassive Back Hole, it could've been a real heavy rock track, but we chose to adopt a more R&B groove. That riff, if you strip it away and leave a three-piece riff, it could be Rage Against The Machine, a Tom Morello riff.
"Even Starlight, for example, there were six or seven different versions of it, and sometimes it's really difficult to work out which one's the best. But once we get together in a room and work on it, things come together fairly quickly.
"Mostly it's about being decisive and knowing the best way of playing it; that's half the battle won."
Muse's drastic shift in direction from the classical majesty of Absolution to the almost pop-ish sensibility of Black Holes and Revelations have not been entirely lost on its fans. The album, despite being a best-seller, has been described by some long-time fans as a 'love it or hate it' affair. Wolstenhome agrees.
"This album was the first that people have heard of Muse in two to three years and they'd be like, "Whaa...?" Yeah. I think initially people were very shocked."
Wolstenhome cites film music such as Ennio Morricone tunes as main influences behind the new album.
"A lot of the guitar influences are from there. Things like late 50s early 60s slide guitars, Dick Dale (surf rock pioneer), The Tornados (1960's English instrumental group), those kind of bands. Previously, our guitar sounds have mostly been more 90s."
"But ultimately, music is about exploring yourself, exploring your abilities and just doing something new. Supermassive Black Hole pretty much chose itself as the first single.
"When we sat down and listened to our old tracks, like Plug In Baby, Time Is Running Out, Hysteria, and they were all almost in the same vein. We thought that it would be more of an impact if we did something completely different, and that's what it was all about.
"In order to move forward, we've got to do things differently and try new stuff. I think that approach has been applied to pretty much all our albums.
"I think there's this fear that we'll repeat ourselves." Touching on their apparent fondness for politics in their songs, Wolstenhome ponders awhile before offering an answer.
"Well, obviously events that happened globally in recent years have somehow found a way into our lyrics. But having said that, I don't think it's all political.
"There aren't any direct references to people or places. But I can see how songs like Take A Bow, for instance, can be construed as such.
"Obviously, when people hear it for the first time, they'd have preconceived notions about what or whom the song is referring to."
"But at the same time, it could very well be a song about someone you met at a pub that you don't like. Looking at it, it's obviously a song which expresses a deeply hateful feeling about somebody, but it isn't necessarily about politics.
( Brief pause) "But the inspiration behind it could be political though ( chuckles)."
Nevertheless, the message behind Muse's music, Wolstenhome believes, isn't nearly as important as the act of enjoying the music itself.
"I think music can mean different things to different people; for some, it's almost like a religion.
"I think regardless of how it goes out, if at the end of the day it has some kind of positive effect on people then that's great. For us, the amazing thing is being able to communicate and share our feelings through the medium and this is especially fulfilling when we're onstage," he says, as the interview draws to a close. "When we started out, music was our escape. I think a lot of people share this sentiment, regardless of whether you're creating music or listening to music. "So when people come to our shows and just let themselves go, forget their troubles for a moment, that's good enough for us".
Thanks to Tiger, Galaxy Group, Warner Music and Trader's Hotel Kuala Lumpur for the exclusive interview.
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