MUSE (DRUMS)

DOMINIC HOWARD DISCUSSES THE NEW ALBUM, DRONES

IN 1993, WHEN 16-YEAR-OLD DOMINIC HOWARD AND MATTHEW BELLAMY ASKED 15-YEAR-OLD CHRIS WOLSTENHOLME TO JOIN THEIR BAND, ARTISTS LIKE WHITNEY HOUSTON, MEATLOAF AND ACE OF BASE WERE TOPPING THE UK MUSIC CHARTS. HOWEVER, THE TRIO WE WOULD COME TO KNOW AS MUSE WERE MUCH MORE INSPIRED BY THE AMERICAN ROCK GROUPS OF THE DAY, LIKE NIRVANA, SMASHING PUMPKINS AND RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. TWENTY-ONE YEARS LATER, MUSE IS RETURNING TO A SOUND MORE INSPIRED BY THOSE EARLY ’90S ROCK ROOTS WITH THE RELEASE OF THEIR SEVENTH STUDIO ALBUM, DRONES.

Though the band’s previous two records were self-produced, this time, Howard and company decided to bring in veteran producer Mutt Lange, whose résumé includes such artists as AC/DC, Def Leppard, Foreigner and Maroon 5. “[We brought in Mutt] just to do something different to what we’ve done before,” says Howard. “I mean, we produced the last two, and you kind of get into certain habits with production, I suppose. I thought it would be nice to have an objective opinion on what we’re doing. And then we heard about Mutt, and then we heard about his interest in wanting to work with us, as well. We thought, you know, he rarely comes out of the woodwork to produce anyone … clearly a legend. And so, why not? Let’s do it. And we met him, and he’s, like, super chilled, really nice, and we thought, ‘Cool. Let’s do it. Let’s go.’”

The new album (available now on iTunes) leans heavily away from the electronic-based sound of the band’s previous releases, The 2nd Law and The Resistance, but is studiously reminiscent of the band’s earlier work on albums like Black Holes and Revelations and Absolution. According to Howard, “I think we wanted it to be pretty, like, rock, and have a good more emphasis on three-piece, bass, drums and guitar. The last album, we definitely were in this very experimental stage … synth stuff, programming. The entire album is really kind of diverse and weird, stylistically … we were just trying out all these different things, like, losing our minds in the studio. I think we definitely wanted to have a bit more emphasis on it being about the three of us playing, again. So there’s way more kind of guitar riffs on this album, which we haven’t done for a little while, probably since Absolution.”

To bring out that raw, three-piece sound Howards speaks of, the band mostly tracked Drones live at The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver. “[The Warehouse Studio]’s got good gear in there, like a nice Neve, an old Neve board … one of the few in the world,” he says. “But yeah, this was quite a different recording process, because working with Mutt, he just likes to make us play tracks to death [laughs], essentially. And he just likes to get so much stuff. He wants to get all the different versions that you could ever play a song, you know? Whether it’s, like, really energetic, or just knackered, jaded at the end. He wants to get all those different emotions … he really kind of pushed all of us together and individually to play a lot, which was different. And he, yeah, he pushed everyone. Even Chris (Wolstenholme, bassist), the way he was playing it, choice of notes, things like this. We all did a lot of takes, but for the greater good. It was interesting that he really wanted to try and just get as many options as possible and kinda pick the best one. We wouldn’t normally do that, we’d normally go in and do, like, five, and go, ‘Cool, there it is. Done.’ So, yeah, it was completely different … Mutt definitely brought some great things, and great ideas, and great moments
to all the tracks. Every single track, from where it was—kind of demo stage—to where it ended up. They all got elevated, somehow.”

The “demo stage” Howard refers to was, at least this time around, much more purposefully low-quality, removing the safety net of using that material for the album’s release. “Actually, this time around we wanted to make [crap] demos because in the past, I think 2nd Law … we were demoing in studios, and then it just suddenly switched into real recording. We ended up using a lot of stuff from the demos, as well, I think, because they were kind of well-recorded. Whereas, I think this time we had hoped we wanted to make really [crap] demos we could really work, learn, listen to, and then can record well … you can get demo-itis, if you get too attached to your demos … which you don’t want to do. So we kind of purposely made [crap].”
Though perhaps Howard purposefully made the quality of his demo recordings poor, the quality of his tone continues to improve as he experiments with new tonewoods and new cymbals. “I like [my drums to sound] quite open and tonally clean, I suppose,” he says. “This new kit I’ve got, I just started using mahogany. Never used one before. Heard a lot of people, like, raving about them … the kind of geeky, technical thing about [mahogany], apparently, is that it’s quite a porous wood, and it’s got quite a deep grain in it … so it kind of absorbs a lot of the sound. So the drums sound really full and short, whereas maple shells can ring on forever, like, you hit the floor tom and it’s like ‘booooom’—say, what’s going on? [It’s] still going, you know? And apparently it’s because, someone just told me recently, maple’s really hard and it resonates for longer. It’s annoying, really, isn’t it? Let’s face it. So, yeah, the mahogany. I got this new kit and it sounds pretty amazing.”

When it comes to his selection of cymbals, Howard prefers to experiment in the studio with a variety of options. “For recording, it’s kind of whatever suits the song, really. So, I’ve always got a bunch of rides and bunch of crashes, because I do a lot of riding on the crash cymbal, which can be detrimental to recording sometimes, because it just [freaking] goes everywhere … it’s loud and annoying,” he says. “My cymbals sound pretty nice at the moment. I’ve just honed it in. It almost feels like I’ve finally found it. I found a ride cymbal—I didn’t end up using on the album, ’cause I just found it kind of recently—but it’s [the Zildjian] Sweet Ride. 23-inch. It’s [freaking] brilliant. Because it’s got that—’cause I like to smack the ride when I’m playing live, and kind of get a bit of wash out of it. But if it’s too heavy, it just gets too out of control. Sometimes it would just disappear. And to get a cymbal that’s got a really good wash, you don’t get any bloody stick when you’re just tapping, you know, riding along. Yeah. Sweet Ride. 23-inch. And 15-inch light hats.”
While Mutt Lange served as producer on Drones, the band also had significant input in terms of engineering and mixing—a definitive “co-production,” as Howard explains. “[We] were there for every single mix. The last album was kind of mixed by a bunch of different people without us being present … it’s a nightmare … you make the comment, and the mix comes back, and it’s completely different,” says Howard. “The mixing process is really a creative process. Rich (Costey, mix engineer on Drones) is a very creative guy … we needed to go through the process with Rich, and he’s great for that. I think the album needed that kind of second injection of creativity at that stage.” He adds, “It’s a constant battle between drums and guitars. It is … but there’s a delicate balance between guitars and drums … if you ask Matt (Bellamy, vocals/guitars) the same question, he’ll just [complain about] the drums. But if you listen to one of his mixes, it’s all guitars and no drums,” he laughs. “There’s a fine balance, somewhere, where you can have your guitars really loud and your drums really loud at the same time, but it’s to do with EQ.”

With 2015 marking the 21st year of Muse’s existence, Howard shares a bit of insight into what it takes to keep a band together for more than two decades. “It’s a fine balance of egos,” he laughs. “You’ve got to look at the things that split up bands, really, and it’s egos, normally. Typically. I don’t know, we just started so young that we were able to get over any problems like that. And even now, we’ve always got the past to refer back to … what’s kept us together, really, was just the basic ambition of all wanting to do the same thing. Believing in it, and not getting frustrated or just not feeling it anymore or wanting to do something different. It’s always been about the band. It’s always been about Muse for us. It’s the most important thing, and that’s what’s kept us together.”

That mutual love for the craft of music, undoubtedly shared by all three band members, has kept Howard driven ever since his school days with Bellamy and Wolstenholme. “I think I play [music] because I felt like … nothing else was an option, really. It always felt like my only option—not that I wasn’t good at anything else, I was really into art and stuff like that in school. I think I would have gone down that path if I was studying. But we didn’t. We all stopped because of music. We knew that it was the most important thing to us. So it felt like there weren’t any other options, really. Why? Because I think we always knew, deep down, you can do whatever you want, and have complete freedom in your life, typically—artistically, for sure. And personally, physically, as well, you know? [As a musician,] you can have this absolute freedom to do whatever you want. Be who you want to be. Wear what you want, say what you want, and not have anyone else tell you what to do.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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