THE GENRE – DEFYING ALTERNATIVE ROCK GROUP TALKS TONE, MUSIC AND DRONES
FORMED IN 1994, MUSE SET ABOUT BREAKING THE BOUNDARIES OF ALTERNATIVE ROCK FROM THEIR BEGINNINGS. FUSING GLAM, PROGRESSIVE AND HARD ROCK WITH ELECTRONICA AND CLASSICAL MUSIC, AND ADDING EXTRAVAGANT AND ENERGETIC LIVE SHOWS INTO THE MIX, THE GROUP HAS BEEN CONSISTENTLY ONE OF THE MOST ORIGINAL AND SUCCESSFUL ACTS OF THE LAST 20 YEARS.
Muse released their first album, Showbiz, in 1999 after building a following in their native U.K. on the strength of their live performances and two EP releases. The group, with their original and only lineup of vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard, have released their seventh album, Drones, this year.
After self-producing their last two albums, The Resistance in 2009 and The 2nd Law in 2012, Muse decided to bring in veteran producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange for their current release. “We felt like we’d achieved what we wanted to achieve, as far as producing on our own. We worked with (producer/engineer) Rich Costey and people like that … And we just kind of felt that we’d learned enough to give it a go on our own.” Bellamy says. “I kind of feel like, across those two albums, we thought we’d achieved something there we hadn’t already done. We created some new sounds and we opened up some new genres for us … but we felt like to move forward, it might be good to get some outside input again. We felt like, maybe toward the end of 2nd Law, if we carried on self-producing there might be a danger that it would just start going a bit too weird.”
As Wolstenholme explains, “We always knew we were going to use a producer with this album … particularly because there was such a strong concept to the album and we had a very definite idea of what we wanted sonically … Obviously, somebody like Mutt Lange … his record when it comes to producing rock albums is second to none, really. So, his name kept coming up. I think Matt and Dom went to meet him a couple of times and then we just decided to give it a go … straight away from day one in the studio, he was a great guy … it was really nice having a producer who, you know, has a lot of songwriting experience as well, because I think he probably tuned into the music in a way that no one else had done before.”
Howard adds, “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 …”
Being able to reproduce the album’s songs in live performance was also a concern, as the group had been branching out into more elaborate production on each release. “We noticed some distance between what we did in the studio and what we did on stage was starting to get a little too far apart.” Says Bellamy, “The first four albums, what we did in the studio and what we do onstage was largely the same thing—jam a song out, play it, record it, and then go and play it live. Whereas, the last time especially, more than half the songs we couldn’t really play them live. They required too much orchestration and all these additional components … On this album, we made the decision we want to get back to sort of reconnect with ourselves as instrumentalists, musicians. Three-piece in a band … a rock band in a room—that’s really what the objective was. We thought someone like Mutt Lange would be great … help us maybe redefine and re-inspire us to go back to that format again.”
Getting back to a sound closer to their rock band roots, Bellamy’s highly distinctive guitar tone was more important than ever. “I’ve always tried to do my best to kind of merge my two favorite guitarists together, which would be Jimi Hendrix and Tom Morello … Tom Morello, being extremely contemporary … almost approaching it like a synth or something at times—really thinking outside the box. I’d also put him in similar categories like The Edge or something. I like them both for those reasons … There’s some that are like The Edge, and then you’ve got, like, Jimi Hendrix and probably Kurt Cobain,” Bellamy says. “I like trying to draw them both … at the same time. I come from somewhere in the middle of that. I like the chaos and craziness of almost letting go and things getting chaotic on the guitar, without being too controlled … In terms of the sound itself, I’ve always been drawn to a simple combination between a high-saturated Marshall and a VOX. Again, if anything, you can see that it’s actually a precise mix of some of those. For example, The Edge is a VOX player … and then you have Hendrix, which is much more of a saturated Marshall sound. I tend to blend those two together … It sort of matches what I was saying about the playing style, as well.”
The bass guitar is often unmistakably prevalent in the music of Muse compared to many of their modern rock contemporaries. Wolstenholme describes his sound and role in the band, “I don’t know if it was the guitarist ego coming out of me or whatever but I just always felt that, as a bass player, I didn’t want to just be felt. I wanted to be heard as well. And that’s the thing with a lot of bass players these days is it just sort of rumbles around in the background … it doesn’t have a prominent role in a lot of rock bands. You know, it just kind of fills the holes. I just always wanted to do something a bit different … I think particularly just having one guitar player in the band and because of the way Matt plays as well. You know, he’s not really … he’s not one I would call a rhythm guitar player. Everything he does has some kind of melodic element to it and I think, because of that, it leaves quite a lot of space in there, sort of midrange for me to occupy if I want to. So, you know, from quite an early stage of playing bass, I used to experiment a lot … I’d have my bass rig but then I’d just take a split off into some cheap crappy amp … split that off into a distortion … Obviously, over the years it’s developed a little bit and I’ve kind of got various pedals that I use. I’ve got my two main distortion pedals that, I guess, is what you would recognize as the signature Muse sound. I sort of stray away from it a little bit, but I could always use that as the sort of the go-to bass sound … I do try other things occasionally and I quite often just go, ‘well you know, the bass sound that I’ve got, it still sounds fairly unique’ … It works in the context of what we do and with the way that Matt plays.”
Possibly even more than their instrumental tones, the songwriting process of Muse continues to evolve on each album. Drawing inspiration from science, technology, politics and more, the group often utilizes themes centered on the intersection of technology and art. “There’s been, over the last few decades, or even the last century, really, there’s a gradual industrialization of more things. Machines, technology, artificial intelligence … All of these things are gradually coming in to assist us to some degree … my concern on this album, regarding specifically drones, drone warfare … I think that, as much as we’ve gained, we’ve probably lost an equal amount.” Bellamy says. “When you go back through industrialization, the labor force was well-raised. Manufacturing became taken over by robots all around the world, especially in mid-America and lots of rural areas in England … that progression has kept going and going and going, to the point where we now talk about a time where warfare is largely robot-driven. This year, the big debate’s going on, because they’re inventing these autonomous killing machines, autonomous drones which you can actually program, for example, like to hover over a building and just shoot everybody that walks out. At that point there’s no . . . There’s no human involved at all, right? When there’s no human involved at all, there’s also no recourse … You can’t send a drone to prison … I think we’re at a dangerous point … Basically, on the album, we are trying to get back to humanity, back to playing our instruments again, and we also are saying maybe somebody’s gone a bit too far … I guess I’ve read a lot about drones. I just became interested … I started buying books, reading about it, basically. And I started, there’s a great book called Predators: The CIA’s Drone Warfare, which is an almost unbelievably honest account of what’s been going on in the last 12, 15 years. I wouldn’t want to be casting any kind of opinion on politics, behind the reasons why America and so on are doing this. But I would like to cast questions about the ethics of what it is to use killing machines like that in the first place.”
With more than 17 million albums sold from their current catalog, the latest release from Muse, Drones, will certainly continue their ongoing legacy. There are very few bands that can stay relevant and successful for over 20 years, but the group sounds as cutting edge today as ever. Bellamy offers some insight on their longevity, “I think the fact that you got together as kids and friends and you knew each other way before anyone had any success or anything, you always have that to refer to. Because the egos can get a little bit weird at times, but you just keep each other in check with everything from the obvious abuses of alcohol and drugs that can be around this kind of lifestyle. You just keep an eye on each other, you know … I think it’s really just looking out for each other and being good friends, really caring for each other.” Howard speaks to the power of the music itself, “When you go on stage and play, you can feel like you’re going out there and playing for the first time. You still want to try and do the best you can for those people that are watching you. Just doing shows is always surprising … It’s like if the crowd is reacting very well to the music, it’s, like—this is amazing. It’s still amazing.” Wolstenholme adds, “I don’t know what it is about music but it’s almost like you become absorbed in something. It kind of temporarily removes you from the human race and you just forget all your problems … it’s the only thing for me that can, like, fully absorb my tension and take me away from everything else. And I think there have been various instances in my life where music’s kind of saved me a lot. It’s really almost saved me from myself.”