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Muse's Dominic Howard: the complete conversation


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Montreal favourite Muse performed Wednesday night at the Bell Centre. Drummer Dominic Howard sat down with the Montreal Gazette’s Jordan Zivitz before the concert to talk about the British trio’s new album, Drones, and their elaborate stage show. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.


Muse is back at the Bell Centre on Thursday, Jan. 21; tickets cost $52 to $94 and are available via Evenko (514-790-2525; evenko.ca). The review of the concert is here.


Montreal Gazette: You’re doing these shows in the round, with the stage in the centre of the arena. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the benefits and the challenges of that setup, compared to how you performed on previous tours.


Dominic Howard: Yeah, sure. It’s completely different being in the round. I mean, trying to get your head around how to perform with the audience all around you, kind of realizing that you’ve always got your back to someone. (Laughs) It’s quite a challenge, you know. It’s something we’ve been wanting to take on for many, many years. We kind of talked about it on The 2nd Law (2012), and on The Resistance (2009) we talked about it, but to be completely in the middle of the arena was something this time we thought, “Yes, we have to do it.”


It’s wicked, though. I mean, I suppose the positives of it, we’re so close to the audience. The people who are on the floor around the actual stage, they’re right there, and the people in the seats are just over there, so a lot of people are eye line, eye level, with you, which is kind of cool because you can really see people. You can see the faces — I can pick out people I know in the audience and stuff like that. So I suppose the interaction with the audience is a lot closer, a lot more personal in some kind of way than a traditional setup. Yeah, it’s cool.


But it’s challenging, in that I think we’ve had to change the way we perform, because, like I said, there’s nowhere to hide. Matt (Bellamy, vocals and guitar) and Chris (Wolstenholme, bass) particularly, kind of running around all over the place, singing one verse over there, the second verse over there. So there’s quite a lot of, I suppose, physical movement that takes place, maybe, compared to a traditional kind of one-ended show. But it’s cool. It took us a while to get into it, but I think now we’re just getting used to it. When we started, we were like, “Jesus Christ, we’re not doing this ever again!” (Laughs) But you know, I think now we’re just getting into it. It takes a little while to get into the swing of things.


MG: And that ties into other parts of the design of the show, right? I know you have drones flying around the arena. Was the circular setup done specifically to accommodate that?


DH: In many ways, yeah. Like I said, I think we always wanted to try and pull off the in-the-round show, so it clearly made sense with this album being called Drones and knowing that we wanted to try to incorporate some flying objects into the show. It’s like, “Well, we’ve got to go in the middle and have loads of s–t flying around us.” (Laughs) So that’s literally where the idea started and came from. But yeah, being in the centre definitely lent itself to that.


MG: When I read about the drones, the first image that came into my mind was from the live performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, with the plane dive-bombing the stage at the start. Is this quite that malevolent?


DH: It’s a bit more mysterious than that. I also saw The Wall and thought it was fantastic. It was very inspiring to see, for sure. Yeah, it’s completely different to that; it’s a bit more mysterious because the flying objects, the drones, they’re floating around — they’re not on any wires or anything like that. I mean, it’s pretty cool because they come out and you think they’re hanging from the ceiling, but they’re kind of programmed to move around and they’re choreographed in certain ways to dance around the room, almost. So we wanted to make it a little bit more menacing and make the audience feel a little bit on edge at times as well. And we also have a huge, big kind of Reaper drone that comes out and starts scanning the audience towards the end of the set. So again, the idea of that was to just make the audience feel a little threatened or something, just for a couple of seconds. (Laughs)


MG: When you started out, did you always dream of doing these kind of productions? Because I remember seeing you when you first started playing headlining shows here, and the impression I got in those clubs was that you were too big for the room.


DH: (Laughs) I think we just kind of fell into putting on big shows in many ways. When we first started out, we were obviously playing small clubs, and we just got a backdrop and it was “just about the music, man.” But something changed, particularly around our third album (Absolution, 2003), when we started playing arenas and bigger venues like that. We were just like, “We have to do something with all this space. We can’t just go on stage and play” — as great as that can be. There’s not many people out there who can just pull off a Bruce Springsteen (laughs) and just roll up and is genius, you know? I mean, some people can, but we always felt like we have to do something. So we got into a lot of video screens and stuff like that and projections straight away, straight off the bat. And it’s all about being concerned about the people at the back of the room, and wondering whether they can really see it or feel the gig. So it was very much born out of that. And then I suppose we became a bit known for putting on a bit of a show and a spectacle, so the huge thing’s just snowballed into the Drones Tour 2016. (Laughs)


MG: Are there ever nights when you think back and go, “It would be nice to do a Springsteen”?


DH: (Laughs) Yeah, we talk about that literally every night. (Laughs) We’re like, “Ahh, next tour we’re just gonna go out with nothing. We’re just gonna play.” I don’t know — we did a little bit of that at the start of this album, around when the album actually got released, so last summer. We did a little tour of small venues. Just for fun, really. Just to kind of warm up and for fun. There was no production or anything. It was just us on stage, and it was great. It was awesome. I mean, it was a smaller room, but it was a good feeling to realize that we can actually still pull that off. And I think the audience had a great time, because it was just about the music and I suppose us being on stage, rather than a big old … conceptual … nightmare. (Laughs)


MG: Even when it is just about the music, though, your music has always sounded big. Maybe that’s what I was thinking when I said it seemed like you were too big for the rooms here when you started playing in North America, those 1,000-capacity venues.


DH: Yeah, I suppose so. We’ve always had that tendency to make music that is very layered and big-sounding and epic-sounding. And a lot of our early influences came from mixing some piano and classical music with rock music, and that created a kind of epicness or grandness to it when we started mixing those styles. So the music, definitely around the third album — well, I suppose the second album (Origin of Symmetry, 2001) — it started to really expand and get larger. And even back then when we were young, we always had dreams of playing massive festivals, headlining festivals and stadiums and stuff like that. We probably didn’t know how deep we were going to go with the show and production and all the choreography. It’s like bloody Cirque du Soleil out there at the moment. (Laughs)


MG: Well, since you brought up Cirque du Soleil: do you have any particular memories or do you feel a deeper connection to Montreal than some cities? Because you always have been bigger here than in most North American cities, certainly.


DH: Yeah. Every time we’ve come to Montreal, we’ve just had a great time. The audiences have always been amazing. And just very energetic — and loud! (Laughs) So yeah, we love it here. And within North America, it feels very much like Europe in many ways, here in Quebec. In the feel of the city, obviously the language. So yeah, I guess we just feel comfortable here.


MG: When you were talking about the music being so big: how hard is it generally for a song to become a Muse song? Do they sound like your songs right off the bat?


DH: It depends song by song, really. Some start out with such a simple idea, and then by the time we’ve recorded them and finished them, they can just be a completely different monster to what they started out as. Yeah, I mean, if anything, on this album we’ve tried to hold back a little bit from going too far, because when we’re recording music we tend to put a lot of layers and instrumentation on the tracks. We can’t really help ourselves. So that’s normally the case, and then normally towards the end of the process we’ll start to take things out to create more space. But I think instinctively we like to put on loads of … whether it’s keyboards or synths or strings or loads of vocals, layers of this and that. It’s quite hard for us to hold back. But I think we tried to do it on this album, and tried to become a little more, uh, refined in some way in the studio. (Laughs) Which I think we pulled off.


MG: Were you just tired of all those layers, or did you want to see if you could go back to the beginning in a way?


DH: Yeah, I think so. I mean, our last album, The 2nd Law, I think there was a lot of experimentation — which is great. Which we love doing. But there was a lot of experimentation with orchestras, choirs — we really went there with the 60-piece choir on the last album. (Laughs) And that’s something we hadn’t done previously — not to that level, anyway. And we just kind of felt like we went almost as far as we could with the amount of people that actually performed on one song. (Laughs) With all the strings and the orchestra and singers and stuff. So when we actually started working on the new material for this current album, it was just as we do — we start in a much smaller way, with just the three of us playing some music in a room, and we just really got off on that feeling. It reminded us a little bit of how we used to work when we were kids in Matt’s nan’s basement. (Laughs) So we kind of stuck with that, really. We were just enjoying that vibe. And because of that, the album ended up sounding a little heavier, a little bit more rock and guitar-y in many ways.


The Complete Conversation is an occasional series where the Montreal Gazette publishes full transcripts of interviews with musicians.





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