Muse’s Matt Bellamy: “We challenged ourselves”
In his only online Aus interview, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy opens up to SAMANTHA CLODE about the democratic process that lead to new album The 2nd Law, “asshole” bankers and how they’re not necessarily going dubstep
Six albums in and stadiums aplenty, Muse are world conquerors. Despite promising new long-player The 2nd Law would be a “Christian gangsta rap jazz odyssey, with some ambient rebellious dubstep and face melting metal flamenco cowboy psychedelia” (via Twitter), turns out frontman/chief songwriter Matt Bellamy was joking. Sort of. After the bombast of 2009’s Orwellian, conspiracy theory-inspired opus The Resistance, The 2nd Law offers more depth and delicacy to Muse’s epic sound. What on paper reads like a free-for-all is, the band insist, a reflection of their many tastes and influences – they are, first and foremost, music fans. And so we have R&B, Prince-inspired beats alongside reverent choirs; samples of infants (Bellamy’s son, Bingham) squeezed next to mammoth orchestras; and much touted forays into dubstep. Bellamy even lets the bassist sing. But despite the changes, Muse know what they do best – there’s no shortage of fist-in-the-air epics. For Bellamy, Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dominic Howard (drums), The 2nd Law isn’t just another album. It’s a new beginning.
The 2nd Law is Muse’s sixth record. Are there any nerves left at this stage, after so many releases?
I feel good, you know? It was a cool process. It’s the most democratic album we’ve ever made. I think that made it a lot easier to do the things we set out to do – we set ourselves new challenges to make sure that what we came up with would get ourselves a new result, musically.
Can you give me an example?
Bellamy: So on a song like ‘Follow Me’, for instance, when you hear us playing it normally it sounds like a standard rock track. But we wanted to make it completely electronic, so we replaced everything – guitar, bass, drums, not vocals – but everything else pretty much. And then also for example, we listened to this dubstep genre that was becoming big…
Which the British music press immediately jumped on: “Muse are going dubstep!”
With that, it was almost like sticking up for the real players. We wanted to see if we could actually play that with our instruments. There’s nothing electronic on that song. And then there’s songs like ‘Madness’, where we wanted to keep everything real minimal. That song, we played it so many different ways, but we chose to keep it stripped down. There’s a bit of an R&B influence, and a little bit of Prince as well. And then there’s other songs, like ‘Panic Station’, where we challenged ourselves to do something that was just … fun.
‘Panic Station’ could almost be a Scissor Sisters tune. There’s not a lot of dance numbers in the Muse catalogue, is there?
For us, it was about doing something that is truly light-hearted. There’s nothing serious about it. And then there are other things: Chris wrote a couple of songs, he’s never done that before, and that was another challenge, making that work, him singing. He had to go through his own stuff to get that done, you know? So I think there’s quite a lot of newness on this album.
The Resistance was the first time the band self-produced. After that experience, was it a given that you’d do that again for The 2nd Law? Did you talk to anyone about coming onboard?
Bellamy: We contemplated getting a producer in, but the same thing happened as last time – as soon as we started [writing] the ball was rolling, it was happening. We did a few weeks and had about 10 songs ready for recording straight after rehearsing, so there really wasn’t much to debate. We kind of knew we had the experience of the last album, with technology, to do the things we wanted to do with this record, and also the experiences of arranging orchestras, things like that. I don’t think we’re always going to produce ourselves every time, but I do think that this album was an important moment for us to take control – so that when we do go forward, we can then maybe work with other producers without being led in their direction all the time. That was a problem – we want to make sure it always sounds like us.
The 2nd Law is based on principles of science – the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that everything is declining, energy is decreasing. Yet as humans we’re constantly on the search for more energy – how do you relate that theme to being in a band? If an artist wants to constantly grow with each release, are there easy parallels to be drawn?
The whole thing’s a parallel [laughs]. It’s in my nature, musically, to want to grow, shift and evolve, all that stuff. I think it’s just so interesting that it’s how we as humans are – we’re dead against what the second law is telling us is going to happen.
Where did ‘Supremacy’, the album’s opener, come into the mix? Was it one of the first songs to come up?
It was the first song I wrote, yep. It seemed to have all our components in that one song: It had the big rock stuff, then this really soft, classical section, then this fast tempo outro. It seemed to have a lot going for it. I kind of wanted the first half of the album to be … I take ‘Animals’ to be a transition, and up to there it’s all struggle. Except for ‘Panic Station’ [laughs], OK, that’s just a bit of business. I’m not going to make out that this is a purely conceptual album, but I’d say if there is something going on the first half seems to be about this part of the human spirit that’s this fighting spirit, a bit of a struggle, and then it goes from here on out, it gets a bit more pessimistic. But I suppose ‘Save Me’ is nice and positive. To me, the front end is more “together”, and then from here – chaos starts. I don’t know, I’m being very abstract here.
Lyrically, there’s a sense of rescue in many of the songs – either being rescued yourself, or taking care of others … Who’s the protagonist in ‘Explorers’, for example? Is it you singing, “This planet is overrun/ There’s nothing left for you and me”.
Bellamy: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of polarised views on this album, emotionally as well. I’m being both positive and negative, celebratory and pessimistic about the same thing – which is this part of the human spirit which makes us fight the part of us that makes us want to survive, to grow. In as much as that’s the thing we’re most proud of in the world, it’s also the thing we have to look at. It’s like [confused], “This is weird.”
One of Chris’ songs, ‘Save Me’, directly addresses his former issues with alcohol, and it’s a surprisingly gentle, understated number – not only in his vocals, but your guitar tone as well. Muse are not really known for holding back.
Yeah. There’s some very unsubtle guitar on this album (laughs), but I’ve also tried to be a bit more subtle in places – songs like ‘Animals’, ‘Save Me’. I definitely took a clean guitar sound and just tried to play it as is, without adding any effects all the time.
What did you think when Chris brought the song in?
It was so surprising. He’s written bits and pieces before, but he’s never actually finished a song. So over previous albums he’s had bits here and there, but never really come in with anything. This is the first time with a song: This is it. I can’t wait to see how he deals with singing it on stage. I’ll be running around like a crazy man playing the metal riffs, it’ll give me the chance to run out to the crowd or something. It could be good fun.
What’s another moment you can’t wait to translate live?
A favourite part is in ‘The 2nd Law’, when the song really kicks in, all the [sings] “unsustainable” stuff. I always love that, I can’t wait to do that live. On record, I think there’s that moment in ‘Madness’, where it peaks at the end – I sing the highest note I’ve ever sung. I’m singing in full voice, this really high note, and to me every time I hear that I go [shakes head], “Wow.” I definitely love that. In terms of music, the crazy choir in ‘Survival’ just makes me laugh, it’s crazy, I can’t get over it. We did all the album in London, and then we went to LA to work with these session players who play on film soundtrack and stuff, they were great players.
‘Animals’ is a vicious track, starting out very gentle before you drop the sweet line, “Why don’t you kill yourself / Do us all a favour”. Who is that addressed to?
That’s aimed at those bankers … there’s a handful of them around the world, those bankers who really fucked it all up. Those guys, the real assholes, who are still now hanging around on yachts somewhere, but who brought whole countries down.
The Resistance really changed things for the band in the States, while in the UK, Australia, you’ve been playing stadiums or arenas for years. Did you go into The 2nd Law feeling like had something to prove?
The thing for me personally … I couldn’t go out on tour again and play all the same songs that we played as last time. I don’t think I could do it, actually. The fact that we’ve got these songs, and they’re genuinely new experiences, that makes everything exciting again. Going on tour, doing interviews, even doing the artwork, making videos … it makes all of it exciting. I don’t think we’d be a band who would ever come out and do a tour with nothing new. I just don’t think we’d do that. Primarily this [record] is about the fact that I’m always naturally interested in making music, and I always will be doing that. The only thing I think would ever stop us was if we stopped wanting to make music … and I can’t really see that happening.
The 2nd Law is out now through Warner. Read our review here.