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Kerrang 26/09/2012


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JOURNEY TO THE LOON

Muse's new album, The 2nd Law, is a bit different, even for them. Dubstep, the olympics and Elton John all played their part in its creation. You have to ask, have they gone totally crackers this time?

 

EXPECTING the unexpected is nothing new when it comes to Muse. You know what they're going to do—whatever it is they're doing—will be 'out there'. You know it'll be OTT, and you know it'll be louder, more ingenious and contain more kitchen sinks than what any other band are doing. But even that didn't prepare us for the bombshells surrounding the news of a new Muse album. BOOM! The 2nd Law will contain dubstep influences. BOOM! The first single from it was selected as the Olympic theme. BOOM! It became what it became thanks to the involvement of Elton John. BOOM BOOM KABOOM!

 

As we prepare for The 2nd Law, we caught up with Muse with a question looming large: have Muse finally, y'know, lost it?

 

IF the summer of 2012 belonged to Great Britain, then the soundtrack to that summer belonged to Muse. At the Closing Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, amid The Spice Girls, The Who and Gary Barlow, Muse took to the stage before a television audience of a billion people.

 

"We were there all day and our time onstage just flew by in what seemed like a few seconds," says drummer Dom Howard. After the final fireworks had exploded, Dom headed to North London, to a party at George Michael's house. At the party Dom spotted Noel Gallagher on one side of the room, and his brother, Liam, on the other. He drank champagne and got talking to Liam, "who was really nice." He also got chatting to The Spice Girls, who were also "really cool."

 

Flash party or not, one thing sticks out about that night, a seventh of the world had heard the Teignmouth trio in all their beserk majesty. 'Race, life's a race, and I'm gonna win,' sang frontman Matt Bellamy, adding that 'I am prepared to stay alive,' and that 'I won't give in because I choose to thrive'.

 

Given the triumphs of athletes such as Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah (and with the song being so closely associated with the Games themselves), it seemed for all the world as if Survival had been written specifically with the Olympic Games in mind. This, though, is not the case. The song originally grew from what Matt describes as "the right-wing side of [his] brain".

 

"In one sense it's kind of an imagining of what the world might look like when only those determined to survive are able to do so," says Matt today. "You see that kind of interpretation in films such as the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road… [because] unless we find a way to grow into other planets, then we're in trouble."

 

At this point in what is already becoming an odd story, enter Sir Elton John. Muse had met him on a few occasions in the past, and each time had been struck by just how fullsomely the superstar had praised them.

 

"He knows so much about music as well," adds Matt, "he knew more about new groups than we did!"

 

By 2011, Sir Elton had been nominated to curate the music for the whole of the Olympic Games, and suggested to Muse that the two parties pair up for a duet. Then, as Sir Elton is wont to do, he fell out with the organisers. That seemed to be that, but Muse were contacted by the Games' organisers asking if they had any songs that might suit this grandest of events. It turns out that they did—a piano-led monster which, according to Matt, "was already amped up to nine". All they had to do to make it suitable for the Olympics was "amp it up to 11".

 

This they did, and the soundtrack to this most fabulous of summers was born.

 

"The funny thing about the song is how easily the lyrics can be translated to match the aspiration of the athletes," says Matt. "So for the summer it became a song about triumph in a positive way."

 

BUT the beginnings of The 2nd Law and the far-out ideas contained within were born not at the biggest party on Earth, but with Matt Bellamy watching Newsnight. The item in question was the economic crisis. On display were a gallery of experts, some of whom blamed the ongoing meltdown on the banking sector, some of whom blamed it on national governments and European federal institutions for racking up insurmountable levels of debt, and some of whom blamed it on the population at large for expecting too much from too little. One voice, however, approched this seemingly unsolvable problem from a scientific viewpoint, and stated the laws of capitalism contradicted the basic laws of physics: that uninterrupted growth is an impossibility. Or, in other words, what goes up must come down. Above Matt's head, a light bulb went on.

 

"When I was at school the two subjects I liked were Music and Science," he says. "So when I heard someone [on Newsnight] making a comment about how the laws of physics state that an economy that is always trying to grow like this is just unsustainable, it just stayed with me. It stayed with me because out of all the things that people are talking about, I like the fact that someone is taking a scientific approach and attempting to explain what is the real cause behind all of this. It's widely accepted that the universe is dying—that the universe is spreading out and cooling down. There are people who think that this process might reverse itself, but it is generally understood that energy is cooling down."

 

In short, this means we're doomed. And while Matt is quick to point out tat The 2nd Law—the title itself refers to the second law of thermodynamics (see right for explanation)—is not a concept album, many of the songs explore the battle between the "right wing" side of Matt's brain and the "left-wing" side. Between an instinct to survive and to take flight at all costs—the kind of sentiment expressed in Survival—and the realisation that the game might be up and that humanity needs to unite in order to manage the inexorable decline.

 

"The theme of this album is collapse and aftermath," he explains. "It's about expressing eternal conflict, of having this strength and desire of wanting to expand and grow as a species, but being hit by limitations. My nature is to expand and grow beyond this planet and just keep going. That seems to me to be exciting. But then again, I'm very aware of what the conequences of growth and expansion actually are. So on the album, I'm kind of going between the two."

 

In doing this, The 2nd Law sees Muse exploring yet further into musical territories unknown. Widely advertised has been the fact that the album's final two tracks—The 2nd Law: Unsustainable and The 2nd Law: Isolated System—are influcned by dubstep superstar Skrillex. But while this observation is true in principle, it is quite different in practice. Muse, it seems, were as usual on the hunt for new musical challenges, to try something they hadn't done before and see if they could make it their own. On this particular portion of the album dubstep fit the bill. But once this form was nominated, the question then was how to incorporate this style into a sound that would be true to the way the band made its own music.

 

"We've always tried to be influenced by electronica, and particularly the more hard-edged electronica," explains Matt. "We had a song called Stockholm Syndrome [on Absolution[, which was inspired by The Prodigy. On this album the only that we did that I would say was directly influenced by what would be called dubstep was that we did the same thing as we did on Stockholm Syndrome. We tried to do what these people were doing but with organic instruments, to see how it sounds. I think we took that approach to music from Rage Against The Machine… The challenge for us is to be able to play this music organically.

 

"I think the thing about [dubstep] is that it's clearly a very serious fad or phase at the moment," he continues. "Because of that, people might have the idea that the whole album might sound that way. And that's not the case at all. But for us, it was an instrumental challenge to try to recreate those sounds.

 

"I suppose what we're doing is standing up a little bit for real musicians," he ponders. "A lot of these sounds can be done on laptops, and that takes skill. It takes a different degree of skill to be able to do it with real instruments."

 

There are fans of your band that might read all of this, this stuff about thermodynamics and the shrinking of the universe, about dubstep and electronica, and think back to the question at the beginning of this piece. What would you say to those people?

 

Matt Bellamy allows himself a quiet laugh. And then he answers the question.

 

"No, I don't think that we've lost the plot," he says. And then he has a think about what he's said and thinks of something else to say.

 

"In fact," he answers, "I'd say that on this album, we've found the plot."

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TODAY, Muse find themselves in a plush and markedly chic photography studio in London's Kentish Town. As they pose for K!'s camera, bowls of fresh fruit and plates of cooling croissants sit amid stainless steel coffee dispensers placed on black wood tables placed in front of black leather sofas. In the facility's restaurant there is a wall that displays caricatures of Kiss frontman Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne, in front of which waiters bustle around serving what looks like delicious food to what looks like a sophisticated clientele. No one in the room pays the three members of Muse any attention at all.

 

It was the band's hope that the recording of The 2nd Law would be a more communal process than those of its predecessor, The Resistance, were. And so it proved. The trio booked AIR Studios in Hampstead for six months and used the facility with an ease that had been lacking from the sessions for their last album. At that point, the three members of the band were all living in different countries and flying in to record for a set number of days on each occasion. According to bassist Christ Wolstenholme, this placed extra pressure on the band to create something special each time they convened. The sessions were also hampered by the bassist's addiction to alcohol, a condition he now realises is at least in part genetic [Chris' father was a pub landlord in Yorkshire, who drank himself into an early grave aged just 40 years old], and on the days when his bass playing services were not required in the studio he would simply bend the elbow to an excessive degree. Today he says, "I had to get away from that habit of thinking 'Okay, it's Saturday, time to get wankered'—actually, more like, 'It's daylight, time to get wankered.'

 

This he did while out on tour in support of The Resistance, and has been 'dry' ever since. In times past, Chris would never knowingly take to the stage without a drink inside of him, and usually a lot more than one drink; after the final song of the night he would leave the stage soaked in sweat, heavy and out of shape.

 

Young enough to realise that his body was not yet in terminal decline, and wise enough to realise that vomiting blood was not a sign of rude health, during the period of The Resistance Chris checked himself into rehab and gave up the booze for good. The bassist found the weeks leading up to his first anniversary as a sober man difficult to endure, but other than that it seems that a life free from hand-pulled pints and optics was a prize that the recovering alcoholic never once allowed to leave his determined gaze.

 

A committed family man who married (and who remains married) before almost anyone knew who Muse were, Chris now resides just outside of London and, come the European tour in support of The 2nd Law, he plans to travel home to be with his family on days off. With the recording of the album, the balancing of work and family life was made easy by Chris and his bandmates being resident in and around London for the duration of the recording sessions. Each member of the group spent the day at the studio making music and would be home in time for Dinner.

 

"I never felt that I wasn't fully a part of the band," he says today, "but the drinking definitely took me away from the others. Now it's different. The way we recorded the album, the way we were all together, it just felt so complete."

 

At the weekends, Chris could be found on concrete terraces up and down the land supporting Rotherham United—he describes an on-field interview at that team's new New York Stadium as being "the most nerve-wracking interview I've ever done"—while in the week he was presenting his first batch of songs to his bandmates. Not only did the bassist's songs Save Me and Liquid State make the cut on The 2nd Law, but with Matt's encouragement, Chris himself actually sings the songs. Touchingly, Muse's member believes that this is "so that Matt can have a rest when we're onstage", but it is much more likely that this decision is much more to do with Muse's desire not to retreat familiar ground.

 

"We're always looking to reinvent ourselves," says Matt. "it makes us want to go onstage. It makes it exciting for us. It makes the idea of going on tour for a year and a half much more exciting. I don't want to go out there and just be doing the same thing. On some levels, it's as mundane as not wishing to be bored when we're onstage."

 

That doesn't sound mundane at all.

 

"Really? Oh well that's good," he says, touchingly surprised by our comment.

 

BACK to the natural laws of phyics, though. One doesn't need to hold a PhD in this science to recognize that Muse themselves have so far broken the first rule of physics—that is, that what goes up must come down. This is a group who don't seem to be facing the problem of contraction. For his part, Matt has a manner that makes the person towhom he is speaking feel as if there is no material difference between interviewer and interviewee. But then you'll actually recogniase that he's saying something like "maybe we'll play the Emirates [stadium, in London] rather than Wembley this time, because the sound is meant to be really good," or, "I'd love to play the Olympic Stadium, but unfortunately it won't be ready [in time for next summer's brace of outdoor shows]," and you realise that there is, in fact, a world of difference.

 

Still, the question remains after playing a pair of shows at Wembley Stadium [twice], and having headlined such grand stadiums as the Park De France in Paris and the San Siro in Milan—as well as arenas in the rest of the world—in commercial terms, is there anything left for Muse to achieve?

 

"It'd be nice to have a run at being the biggest band in the world," says Dom Howard. "It would be nice for every venue we play to be a stadium. Surely it's better to be the biggest band in the world than, I don't know, the 20th biggest band in the world."

 

Yeah, imagine being only the 20th biggest band in the world! That'd suck to be you.

 

"Right!" he says, and laughs, "but really it isn't about numbers or any of that stuff. It's about…"

 

Art?

 

"Yeah. Art."

 

"I think we're just kind of an anomaly," is Matt's take, when asked to identify the secret ingredients of Muse's towering artistic and commercial achievements. "I don't think a band like us could have survived before the internet age. Because we did come through at that time, listeneres were able to dicover us for themselves. They weren't force-fed us through the radio or through other untrustworthy media sources. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that when we played Wembley Stadium for the first time, we were the group who played a stadium with the least amount of media exposure. It was like no-one knew who we were, except the people in that stadium over those two nights. I think what that means is that the relationship we have with our audience is stronger than it would be if they'd just heard us on the radio.

 

"I think what that might mean," he adds, "is that there's a level of trust there that's just a little bit out of the ordinary."

 

It's not just the level of trust that's a little bit out of the ordinary. Muse are one of those rare bands who please their own instincts first, and in doing so refuse to play it safe. In this they are not alone—Green Day, Pearl Jam and Biffy Clyro are all bands whose popularity stems from their determination to move forward—but there is something exquisitely original in their DNA that makes them so unique.

 

So, have Muse gone totally nuts? Nah, they're just being Muse. Long may it continue.

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It's not just the level of trust that's a little bit out of the ordinary. Muse are one of those rare bands who please their own instincts first, and in doing so refuse to play it safe. In this they are not alone—Green Day, Pearl Jam and Biffy Clyro are all bands whose popularity stems from their determination to move forward—but there is something exquisitely original in their DNA that makes them so unique.

 

So, have Muse gone totally nuts? Nah, they're just being Muse. Long may it continue.

 

This made me go :wtf:

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