Times Online 2006-07-29 – Ready for blast off

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Ready for blast off

Alien ancestors, giant meteorites, cod-classical pomp rock. Matt Bellamy, main man of Muse, bemuses Stephen Dalton

In keeping with his reputation as Britrock’s reigning maestro of overblown melodrama, Matt Bellamy lives in a grand old villa overlooking Lake Como in northern Italy. The Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini was a former resident. The Muse frontman denies that he dons a cape in the dead of night and haunts the building’s shadowy depths. However, he is building his studio in a cave beneath the villa. Perfect.

“It’s quite common there, because all the properties are built on the side of mountains,” Bellamy explains. “Lots of people have outbuildings built into caves.”

With his wiry frame, sharp features and spiky thatch of raven hair, Bellamy resembles a cross between Edward Scissorhands and a consumptive Tom Cruise. He is engaging and chatty company, if a little on the nutty side. We meet near his London flat, in the looming shadow of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. The Muse singer now divides his time between Britain and Lake Como to be with his Italian girlfriend, a psychology student. [more] “It does change your perspective on the UK music scene,” he says. “You realise how self-inflated it is. You see bands that are so unbelievably hyped in the UK, but they come to Italy and play in front of 500 people. Out there, it’s really not about how many drinks they’ve been having or who their girlfriends are.”

European exile makes sense for Bellamy. Muse have been defiant outsiders to Britpop’s metropolitan inner circle ever since he, the drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme first burst out of the sleepy Devon backwater of Teignmouth seven years ago.

Nowadays they play stadium-sized shows like Edinburgh’s T on the Fringe and the Carling Weekend, both set for late August. But critical acceptance has been slow in coming.

Muse’s first inclusion on this year’s Mercury Music Prize shortlist marks something of a turning point. Their latest album, Black Holes and Revelations, has been universally well reviewed. And yet it is their most extravagant creation yet, a roaring great cyclotron of cod-classical bombast and raging paranoia. The sleeve was even designed by Storm Thorgerson, best known for his trippy covers for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Bellamy argues that Wagnerian Sturm und Drang has become so unfashionable that it is perversely credible. “Bands come along every now and again to neutralise the flamboyance of rock,” he says. “The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, even the White Stripes. They take it back to basics again, but to me that’s become almost the conservative way. What we are doing is kind of punk. To be flamboyant and excessive and over the top is more against the system than what most bands are doing.”

Even America has begun to embrace Muse, after their 2002 [sic] album, Origin of Symmetry, was rejected as too European by their US label. “For English bands to be super-big in America, you have to do the U2 class,” Bellamy says sniffily. “A little bit of gospel, a little bit of country, a whisper of blues. I think Coldplay watched Rattle and Hum a few times and found the key to American success.”

Muse’s steady ascent has included majestic highs and tragic lows, sometimes simultaneously. When the trio headlined at Glastonbury in 2004, it cemented their growing commercial and critical clout. But half an hour after watching the show, Howard’s father collapsed and died of a heart attack on the festival site.

“That was pretty tough for Dom,” frowns Bellamy. “It was the fact that he hadn’t seen him for so long that made it so difficult. We cancelled a few gigs, and we all went down to Devon for a week or so, hanging around with Dom and his family. We considered stopping touring, full-stop. But it was Dom who wanted to go back on the road.”

Although he rarely discusses it, Bellamy has family ties to the first Britpop boom. One of the sly musical allusions on Black Holes and Revelations is the galloping synthesizer melody in Knights of Cydonia, a homage to the 1962 chart-topper Telstar by the Tornados. Bellamy’s father George played in the Tornados, and partly inspired him to form Muse.

“It was just in the fact that my dad was a big record collector,” Bellamy says, “and there were always guitars and pianos around the house. He lives in Spain now. I think he plays in some pub band down there.”

Bellamy has long been a keen consumer of internet conspiracy theories, but Black Holes and Revelations charts whole new galaxies of apocalyptic hysteria. With its howled warnings about “our leaders” colluding with alien invasion and lost civilisations on Mars, the album contains more sci-fi paranoia than an entire series of The X-Files. In the course of our afternoon together, Bellamy shares some spectacularly ripe theories: mankind is descended from alien interbreeding; geometric patterns link the Pyramids of Giza, Washington DC, and the surface of Mars with the Orion’s Belt constellation; the Beatles were a front for a clandestine think-tank brainwashing American youth. Oh, and The Da Vinci Code is grounded in fact.

“It’s serious to me, all this,” Bellamy says with a pained smile. “But at the same time I’m able to laugh at it. I know when people like David Icke start coming out with this stuff, the initial reaction of most people is to laugh. I’m able to do that as well. The only difference is I do believe this stuff, and I do want to try and communicate some of it subtly, through some of the songs.”

During a recent promotional trip to New York, Bellamy insisted on conducting interviews in a helicopter. Online rumours had convinced him that a giant meteorite impact was about to unleash a tsunami, wiping out Manhattan. More seriously, he insists that the global banking system is a centuries-old cartel intent on trapping the human race into economic slavery. To anyone with a mortgage, this is hardly news.

But surely Muse’s main songwriter must have a bank account for his royalties? “I keep mostly cash, to be honest,” he says. “It’s best to convert it into real objects, or give it away.” Perhaps, I suggest, Bellamy’s paranoia results from smoking too many illicit substances? “No, not for a long time,” he says. “I had a strong relationship with mushrooms at the time of Origin of Symmetry. But at one point I said: ‘I’ve seen enough,’ and I haven’t been near them since.”

The circular logic of Bellamy’s theories could keep us arguing all day, so in the end we agree to differ. But what is beyond question is that British rock needs grandiose, passionate, crackpot visionaries like Muse.

They have released one of the year’s finest albums, and are certain to unleash a mighty musical firework display in Edinburgh next month. In a pop scene dominated by overpraised indie weaklings, the phantom of the rock opera always delivers.

Muse headline T on the Fringe, Edinburgh (0870 1690100), on August 24

See also

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