Published in National Post, October 6, 2009
By Brad Frenette, National Post
With their blend of prog-rock and fist-raising anthems, British band Muse have been filling stadiums for years in Europe. With the release of The Resistance, their fifth, and most challenging and versatile record to date, the band has taken the top spot in the Canadian charts and finally cracked the North American market.
Brad Frenette spoke to Muse’s lead singer, Matthew Bellamy, on the phone from Washington between stops on the U2 360° tour, to discuss the new record, film scores and how to write a song for 50,000 screaming fans.
Q: How has the U2 opening slot been for you guys?
A: It’s good fun. It’s been great seeing them play. They are probably he best live rock band out there.
Q: Were you a fan growing up?
A: My older brother was a big fan. It’s before my time, really. The first thing I really heard was around the Actung Baby album really. But a good band, yeah.
Q: There are a lot of different elements on this new album – from a Saint-Saëns opera to some eastern elements and the anthemic rock. Did you go into the writing process with a certain musical thesis?
A: Not really. Some of the plans we had were more like – let’s produce this ourselves. And work in a home studio and see what happens. Every album you try to change something – whether the producer or the location – and hope the formula will change and something will come out of it.
We thought there was a a chance we might go in and just make music like the first album. Or we might find that we can work in a dramatically different way. What I think we ended up with was a combination of those two things. In some ways it reminds me of our early stuff, but we’ve got some bizarre elements which would have surprised me if I’d heard it back years ago. Surprised me that it’d somehow found a way to get into a rock band – some of those elements you mentioned, the operatic music or the Asian or mid-eastern music.
We didn’t have a producer guiding us. What we came out with is not actually that raw, it doesn’t sound like a self-produced album. The sounds quality is good. That was the thing I was most worried about – that it would come out sounding like a bunch of amateurs. I’m pretty happy with it.
Q: Your lyrical themes are pretty grandiose. What literature influences your writing?
A: In terms of fiction, I’m not a big fiction reader at all. [George Orwell’s novel] 1984, you can hear a bit of that creeping into the album. I read a lot of foreign policy, political think-tank type books. The Grand Chessboard, by Zbigniew Brzezinski is a book about America’s desire for hegemonic primacy, world dominance, how they manage the Eurasian land-mass. That sort of Dr. Strangelove style thinking. I love these sort of mad thinkers. I used to read a lot of things like mystery books and things like that. I’m always interested in peoples different perspectives of reality. I don’t know if I necessarily believe them, but I enjoy them.
Q: Exogenesis is this three part mini-opera to close the album . Was it always meant to be a trio of songs, or did it start as one long epic? How did it come together?
A: It was a collection of piano pieces. It didn’t really have too much melody. It was more something I played before a concert to warm up. Through the course of time, it became something that had more structure to it and it went together quite well. I had it lying around. Some of the bits of it were actually around during the making of the last album. But it was me noodling on the piano, it wasn’t anything being looked at as material.
When we came to make this album, I suggested that we try to make something more in the classical genre. And incorporate the bass and drums into it. Dom and Chris worked on parts. In the end, I put guitars on part one, and vocals across most of it. And that led to the orchestra arrangement that went with it.
We were pitching to do something that was purely from a non-rock genre, purely from the classical world, if you like. I think we ended up with something toward the middle – we merged the three piece that we used with an orchestra.
Q: Would you ever consider writing something like an opera?
A: I don’t know. I care about communicating with the younger generation, if you like. I’m interested with all age groups, but the rock concert is very difficult to argue with in terms of performance of music. I’d say in some ways, if you watch U2, with all the lighting and all the stage production, in some ways it has surpassed the opera as an art form. My interest would be more to enhance the rock concert in someway that takes an influence from the theatrics of opera, as opposed to downsize to a small theatre that will be seen in a few cities by people wearing suits.
I’m not against opera, I like opera. I go to watch it sometime, but it has a slight stiff edge to it.
I quite like the musical. The more contemporary twist, where you bring in technology. I don’t like the songwriting in musicals.
Generally, if you come to one of our concerts, you’ll hear some of the influences are in there. the live show we do in Europe, we are going to bring it over here in March or April next year. there are aspects of that which are quiet theatrical, quite different.
Q: So dates in North America next spring?
A: Yes, March, April and May. Quite a few dates up in Canada.
Q: Speaking of your live show, Muse uses a lot of layers and complicated structures. As you are writing, do you three confer about how the songs will translate live.
A: The end venue, which relates to the last question, it has an impact on the writing, whether you like it or not. You’re always thinking – how is this going to be listened to. Our time is dominated mostly by touring, not by being in the studio. If we were just a studio band, we’d make one kind of album, but because we know we are going on the road, you can’t help but make music that has a relevance being in a large venue.
Using pronouns like “we” and “us”, instead of “I” – you move away from the personal and start moving to singing about more – even the whole venue will feel like it’s about them, or about all of us together in that room. It has an impact. It’s a major difference between the first album to this one, I feel the music we’re making is making a bigger effort to reach out to the people at the back of the venue. You can’t help but wanting to engage the audience.
Q: Do you miss playing small clubs?
A: I like it for different reasons. When you go into a small club, you can totally misjudge the set-list. There’s a certain type of songs which work well in a small venue and others that work well in a big venue. You can get it wrong. There’s a song from the last album called “Take A Bow”, and I imaging on this album it’ll be the track “Eurasia”, that if you played at a really small venue it would actually be crap (laughs). It just wouldn’t work. The pretensions of it, or the over-reachingness of it would be exposed.
Whereas when you go into a stadium environment, it feels perfectly relevant. The boldness of the emotion, the instrumentation of the music fits very well.
Q: So when you are writing, you are writing to the space?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s conscious. I’ve noticed it’s happening unconsciously. It might be the impact of playing in front of large audiences for a long period of time. It makes you think differently about people, it make you think differently about yourself. It’s no longer just a subjective, lonely experience.
Q: You have a song on the new Twilight film. Are you a fan?
A: Well, I liked The Lost Boys
in the ’80s. I remember that one had a pretty good soundtrack as well.
This sort of film struck me as this generations version of The Lost Boys.
It was actually Stephenie Meyer who approached the band quite a few
years before the film was name, just as she was becoming known. She
came to a concert in Phoenix, in Arizona – I think that’s where she
lived, or she lived nearby. She was very friendly, and she told us that
she liked the music and that she’d like to use the music in the films.
It was a few years later that the filmmakers came to us, and we said
sure. I had no idea [the first film] was going to be a film as it was,
I thought is was going to be an indie film.
Q: You’ve also put your band forth as being interested in contributing the theme song to a future Bond film.
A: Yes (laughs).
Q: Are you interested in working on a full film score?
Me personally, yes, I’d be interested in. Not in the Muse style.
Picking a film that the music would work. I’ve been offered to do some
work on a remake of Clash of the Titans. It’ll be really sort of mental music for a film like that. Totally different to Muse.
Q: What bands are you listening to?
A: There’s a band called White Lies. They are pretty good. The Horrors. I’m really into Lady Gaga (laughs). She’s such a brilliant performer.
Q: Did you ever feel part of the Brit-pop scene?
A: I think we’re separate from it. We didn’t grow up in a major city like London or Manchester. We came from a place we here there was no real city or anything. People ay we come from Devon. That’s like people saying we came from Alaska, like an entire state. There’s no cities in in that mean anything. The early press didn’t know how to lump us in. And musically, we evolved quite separately. We really skipped the Brit-pop thing.
Q: How would you describe Muse, then?
Q: Well, it’s a rock band, isn’t it?