For the members of the Devon, UK-based trio, it’s also a recording that takes a step back from the past several albums’ trend towards electronic and other technological additions to the basic guitar, bass, drums instrumentation and returns to their less-adorned rock basics, as drummer Dominic Howard explains. “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. We definitely wanted to have a bit more emphasis on [Drones] being about the three of us playing. So there’s way more guitar riffs on this album, which we haven’t done for a little while, probably since Absolution.”

Bassist Chris Wolstenholme echoes those sentiments. “There’s always been this sort of underlying electronic influence that starts creeping in around the time we did the second album,” he says. “I think the frequency of that increased with each album and, by the time we got to The 2nd Law, I feel like we took the electronic thing as far as we could without it completely overtaking what the band was. If we had gone any further, we would have just been an electronic band with a bit of guitars. So I think we took it as far as we could and then it just felt to us that the next logical step is, rather than trying to push that forward, let’s go back to making it about being a three-piece rock band again and try and make sure that the personalities of the players come across on this album.”

Part of that desire to get back to basics also led them to work with an outside producer for the first time since 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations. Their choice was legendary producer Mutt Lange, who they had heard was interested in working with them. Guitarist/vocalist/principal songwriter Matt Bellamy says, “On this album, we made the decision to reconnect with ourselves as instrumentalists [and] musicians—three-piece in a rock band in a room. That’s really what the objective was. We thought someone like Mutt Lange would be great to get some outside input to help us maybe redefine and re-inspire us to go back to that format again.”

A major change in the studio that came along with this decision was the ability to let go of the technical end of things to focus more on the music. “The difference on this album, actually,” says Bellamy, “[is that] I think there’s a bit more maturity that’s emerged, in so much as we are able to trust and relax a little bit—to really focus on just the musicianship: the playing, the performance, the songs, the songwriting, and the concepts—and not have to worry about the technical side—what microphones we’re using, what preamps we’re using, the [compressors] and all that kind of stuff.”

Concentrating on the playing was a big part of what Lange brought to the equation, as it turned out. “Working with Mutt, he just liked to make us play tracks to death,” says Howard. “He wants to get all the different versions that you could ever play a song, whether it’s really energetic or just knackered [and] jaded. He wants to get all those different emotions—all those different versions, whether it’s tracking performances, drums or just even just bass lines and guitar solos and stuff like that. He really kind of pushed all of us, together and individually, to play a lot of passages different—and he pushed everyone. 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 just pick the best one. It was a different way of recording. Mutt definitely brought great things and great ideas, 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.”

Part of the sound of Drones comes from much of it being played live in the studio, an approach increasingly rare in these Pro Tools-dominated days. “It was all live really,” says Wolstenholme. “I mean, I think Mutt Lange is probably a bit more old school than producers we’ve worked with in recent years and obviously he came from an era [when] the only option was to play live—you got an arena together and you played. I think it’s difficult sometimes, trying to find that balance between the perfection but also still retaining the human element. There’s been so many advances in music technology now that it’s allowed us to make our music almost beyond perfection. You listen to a lot of stuff on the radio and you think, ‘It kind of sounds so good. It doesn’t really sound human anymore.’ And to me, when you listen to a lot of older rock records, it’s those imperfections and those natural movements that humans have. I don’t think I did any overdubs on the album. I think all the bass you hear was played live with the drums. Obviously Matt did a few guitar overdubs afterwards, but I think even a lot of the guitars we kept from live tapes and just did occasional edits here and there because we wanted that live energy to come across. We wanted it to sound like, ‘Go!'”

The back-to-basics approach meshes well with the theme of the album, which ruminates on the removal of the human element from technology that goes hand in hand with advances in robotics and machine intelligence. As a band that has more than flirted with technology, it’s a view that Muse has seen from the inside. Bellamy, based on some work he’s done with D-Wave Quantum Computing and conversations with Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla Motors) and others, sees us at a crossroads that inspired the album’s core ideas. “We really are at the edge,” he says, “where some of the last elements of human intelligence [and] human creativity—computers are starting to get to the point where they can almost pass us in some of those fields. It’s been proven that robots and computers can surpass, for example, the labor force in manufacturing. It’s been proven they can surpass us in warfare, in accuracy, in shooting accuracy. And soon, potentially, accuracy of kill decisions. And then, we’re on the precipice of it also potentially overtaking our abilities in the field of arts. I think, really, one of the messages of Drones is it’s gone too far [laughs]. 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.”

The one place that technology can’t impinge is on the relationship between band members, still strong after 20 years. “I think that comes from history, and it goes back to knowing each other’s childhoods,” says Bellamy, “each other’s friends [from] when we were kids. Being in school together, and all that kind of stuff. That becomes priceless when you get older, and, obviously, when you start traveling the world and living a different kind of lifestyle. You start to really value [that] handful of people that you’ve known all your life, and it happens that they’re in the band I’m in. 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—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.”

With Drones released and a tour under way, Muse fans can look forward to shows that reflect their multiple “Best British Live Act” Brit Awards. Howard sums it up, “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.”

Written by George Van Wagner / Photography by Ryan Hunter

  • Linked In
  • Google