Stepping into Muse frontman Matt Bellamy’s Los Angeles studio is immediately surreal, on a couple of different fronts. For one thing, there’s the fact that it’s in an unmarked former storefront on a heavily trafficked urban street, so on the other side of the one-way glass, pedestrians are constantly passing by, unaware that they’re about two yards away from a rock star coming up with new songs to potentially join “Madness” or ”Uprising” guy as new KROQ-driven earworms in their heads.
But apart from the street scene outside practically brushing up against his console, there’s something else about the place…
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“I don’t know if you remember the TV show ‘Twin Peaks,’” Bellamy inquires. As a matter of fact, yes. “Do you remember the Red Room? We’re sitting in it, basically,” he says, and sure enough, here in the front room of his studio, there is the black-and-white zig-zag flooring, the wrap-around red drapes, the minimalist lamp, the vaguely retro sitting chair…. Bellamy is a student of fantastical pop culture, so it makes sense that he’s surrounded by a Lynchian throwback space — even if the rock arias he creates here passionately reach for the sky, rather than feeling like they’re stuck in an interdimensional waiting room.
Bellamy sat down with Variety to talk about Muse’s seventh album, “Will of the People,” which comes out this weekend. Along the way he spilled the beans on the band’s touring plans, which, besides a few already-revealed stops in small theaters this fall, will bloom into the expected arena tour next spring. He also touched on the state of rock, Rage Against the Machine, Stephen King, geothermal energy, why he’s drawn to rather than repelled by his adopted America’s political divide, and whether we are all really (as the climax of the new album would have it) “fucking fucked.”
Muse’s last album, “Simulation Theory,” felt much more electronic, which fit in with the overall concept you had for that album. With this one, a heavy guitar sound returns on quite a few numbers. Did you miss that, or maybe think the fans missed it?
Yeah, it’s definitely more guitar-oriented. We did a bit of a review of everything that we’ve done up to date and wanted to focus on the parts that we felt like we hadn’t improved upon for a long time, which meant we ended up looking back at some of the older stuff. So a new song like “Kill or Be Killed” — the last time we went down that kind of heavy route, like that heavy, was “Stockholm Syndrome,” which is on our third album. But I think you’re right in saying there was an element of missing the energy of playing together as a band after being separated from each other. … When I started writing songs, definitely there was a lean toward writing things that worked for the three of us to play together, which basically means guitar, bass and drums being the primary sounds, rather than going down the kind of more separated route of electronics and programming and synth basses.
You said at one point that the label had asked you for a greatest-hits album, and instead you wanted to come up with something new that feels like it should be a greatest-hits set. Is that about right?
Our contract with the record label meant that we were due to do a best-of, but I spoke to ’em about it and we weren’t very keen on doing that. We preferred the idea that we could either defer that down the line or just not do it all. We’re old-fashioned in thinking that when you do a greatest hits, it seems like the end or something. So with that in mind, that was one of the reasons why we started thinking: Well, what are our hits? And, like, do we even have any? I don’t think we do, but we do have songs that are the most popular songs with our fan base, and we started going through what our best-of or greatest-hits would even look like. And the bottom line was, we were like, God, we could do that so much better now. Some of these old songs from 2002 or something that would probably be on there, we felt like we could just better it. So that was trying to give ourselves a high bar to really strive harder, to almost make a definitive album that would be the album that I would show to people if they were asking, “What is Muse?” Would I give them a greatest hits album? Or would I give them this album? I think at this point I would give them this, in terms of a representation of all of the things that we do on one record, and represented in a good way.
It’s a cliche to ask, is this your pandemic album? But it seems like, thematically, the pandemic combined with a lot of other things going on in the world to put you a bit back in an apocalyptic mood.
We’ve always had elements of sort of dystopian fears for the future. And even though we’ve usually stayed in the realms of the relative safety of fiction, I’d say that this album sort of collided with reality a little bit. And I think that’s what was quite different about this album. There’s similar themes on this album that you’d find on songs like “Resistance” in 2009, or “Absolution” in 2000. But the difference was the time that this album came out, where it was unavoidable that it collided with things that I’d say were less about the pandemic and more about, let’s say, the overall division in the West, and the American empire being under threat from internal and external disorder, and how that could play out in the next few decades.
On the lighter side of the album, you invoke the horror genre on the new song “You Make Me Feel Like It’s Halloween.”
It’s clearly like a bit tongue-in-cheek: Here comes the church organ and a few scream sound effects. I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I read his book “On Writing” around the time I started making the album as well, and it reminded me of how much he was quite influential on a lot of the films that I liked when I was growing up, and how even TV shows we see today like “Stranger Things” owe a hell of a lot to him. So I ended up making that song a bit of a homage to him, putting quotes from “Misery” and “The Shining” in there. Both those films really resonated for me with the isolation of the pandemic experience, in some way.
When “Ghost” came up in the running order, it was like, well, here is a breakup song — and that kind of song is always unusual for Muse, where there are not so many relationship lyrics, but “Madness” is a famous one in the middle of “The Second Law.” But then you said something somewhere that made it seem like it is not about lovers having parted, but was inspired by deaths that occurred during the pandemic.
Yeah, I like the idea that songs can be interpreted different ways. During the pandemic period, because I was alone in the studio for about a period of six months where even Dom wasn’t here for a while, I started doing a couple songs on my own, on the piano. I put out a few covers of songs where I played acoustically; I’ve already done a couple on the acoustic guitar, but then I did a couple of piano. It was just something to do during that period, but that also led to the “Ghost” song, which was in that stripped-down style, created in the middle of that isolation/loneliness period. And yeah, (it was) reflecting on previous relationships. But I was also trying to connect it in some way to what was happening in the world, in terms of people experiencing terrible loss, especially elderly couples where someone passes away. The media was all hyped up with all the science arguments and that kind of stuff, but behind all of that, there was obviously a terrible tragedy taking place, and it wasn’t something that I necessarily thought there was enough coverage of in the media.
Speaking of that softer side, you’ve said that, left to your own devices, your solo music might sound more like Enya than stuff that’s as heavy as Muse.
I’ve always had a little thing for modern sort of ethereal, classical stuff. I listen to a lot of stuff that’s completely different to Muse, but I found myself in a band with two guys that want to rock real hard. So I think one of the unusual dynamics in the band is that you’ve got me, who probably as a natural inclination leans toward some pretty different music to what we do together. I’ve always been really into classical music in general. But I mean, obviously I love rock music as well. Rage Against the Machine is one of my favorite bands. I went to New York this last weekend, and I saw them play twice.
I was going to mention a level of commonality between you and Rage Against the Machine, but worried it would be an overreach.
I mean, obviously, politically, I’m not gonna pretend to be in the same sphere as them. They’re fighting for really serious causes, to do with the backgrounds of the band members. But I’ve got massive respect for the passion they put into it, and the musicality.
In terms of live performance, you have some theater shows coming up in America this fall, but we haven’t heard much yet about the massive worldwide tour people would expect to follow this album.
We are doing one. We’re just booking at the moment. It starts in January in Mexico, and then we’re doing probably our most extensive North American arena tour, which is gonna be from, I think, February through to April. Then we finish up with a European tour — of our own venues, and not festivals necessarily. We did a few festivals just now in Europe that were supposed to happen in ‘21 but got pushed back to ‘22. Really, those shows we just did now were kind of out of place in a way. But after the album comes out, we do a few little theater shows and bits and pieces just to kind of test out some of the new songs, and then next year will be a pretty extensive tour.
On the last major tour, you had that very big guy (a massive animatronic figure) on stage. Do you think about: How do we top that?
The “big guy” — or the big girl! — I feel like is gonna be here to stay. We feel like we’ve created a mascot, in a way, but we’re gonna make them look different for this tour. On the last tour, it was a big kind of cyborg/skeleton thing or something. On this tour, it’s gonna be more a hooded, masked kind of revolutionary-looking figure of some kind, who’s gonna be a big monster on stage. It’s like the revolutionary monster, basically, in all of us.
Being a citizen of both England and America, and seeing the turmoil in the U.S. over the last few years — along with being affected by fires where you live — did you ever think of moving back to the U.K. permanently?
I usually go back a lot anyway. But Dom (Howard), the drummer of the band, did actually go down that road of “I want to go home, I want to go back to England, where it feels safe.” And when you go to England after being somewhere like L.A. for a long time, England does seem very safe by comparison. In America in general, obviously there’s the gun culture and everything here that doesn’t exist in the U.K., and natural disasters that you get in California, and also the political division. We do get that in the U.K, but it doesn’t come in the same format that it comes here, which is genuinely quite crazy. But oddly, I went the other way. I actually wanted to stay here and be in the eye of the storm, if you like, because America is where it’s going down. It’s where the whole world is, America right now. And where’s this going? America’s a couple of steps away from going in a really crazy direction, you know? We just don’t know. I’m talking more about the division and the potential for real civil unrest, on a grand scale.
And so I think being literally where we are right now in this room, looking out that window during the making of the album, was really kind of fascinating. I saw everything out that window, from the initial shutdown of everything, a lot of the shops going out of business, to the looting and smashing windows. I had this place boarded up at one point. And then the National Guard coming in with tanks, and people walking around with machine guns on this street — seeing all that happen just right outside that window just was pretty full-on. I’ve never made an album that close to real shit happening.
So the passion and the sense of threat in those songs is not just manufactured.
Yeah, I mean, you add the wildfires into the equation, where we got evacuated from our home; then you add the January 6 riots to this equation. We had a baby in June 2020, and shortly after was when I started coming in here to work, and I was alone, largely, on a day-to-day basis, when I was working here. All that stuff I described all happened here right in front of us. And when [the original owner of the studio] moved to Vermont, and the general vibe was like Dom saying, “I wanna get back to England,” I was like the only one that’s like, “No, I want this space. I wanna be honest. I wanna stay here and see what happens.” [The trio did a lot of the work on the new album over Zoom, but convened to put the finishing touches on the record at Abbey Road in London.]
You have described yourself as formerly a left-leaning libertarian who is looking for a new term to describe yourself or where you’re at. Centrism isn’t enormously popular nowadays, but you are still interested in hearing what people are saying on all sides and interested in solutions that you think could address grievances that you think different political factions may have in common, although they don’t realize it.
With the division that’s going down in America, I am watching it from an outsider’s perspective, being from the U.K. And having some basic understanding of geopolitics, I feel like finding common ground between these two crazy factions in the United States that dislike each other, to get back to a state where the people of the U.S. feel unified as one on some issues, at least, is not just a matter of national security. It’s a matter of international security. I think that’s how serious it is, in my opinion, you know? I feel like, if it falls into disarray, then bigger, powerful entities are gonna move in. Not necessarily physically move in, but they’re gonna move into the global stage as major players, and therefore their ideologies are going to start to infiltrate everything in the West.
Your songs have been coopted by the left and right. When there’s an anti-authoritarian theme to them, maybe everyone believes it’s the other side that’s authoritarian.
I’d say the most common theme is fighting for some kind of freedom, or having that instinct of wanting to reject elements of where you feel like your freedom’s being taken away. And obviously that can be hijacked by extremists on both sides. … If there is any common ground at all between these two extremely different viewpoints that are battling themselves out as the West kind of crumbles in on itself, it’s the idea that there needs to be something that puts the powers that be, let’s say — or the elites; I hate using those words — in check. The populism that we’ve seen emerging in the last 10 years on both sides, I’m intrigued by: What’s the common theme? … It seems to be the idea that there’s kind of powerful entities, powerful corporations, and even maybe potentially powerful individuals, which are not necessarily doing anything for the gain of the people. They’re doing things for the gain of, you know, shareholders — call it whatever. And I think keeping grotesquely large power in check is what I see as the common theme… I think we see a lot of a hell of a lot of words being thrown at each other and loads of division essentially emerging out of something where I’m wondering if there is actually a common ground there — about keeping large, centralized power in check, and especially huge corporations that do massive environmental damage, keeping them in check.
If it could ever happen, if we could ever get there, I don’t know how we do it necessarily, but if there could be a type of change that could take place that could make some of the divisions we’re seeing now dissipate to some extent, there’d be a new power structure that could work. It’s a little vague because there’s certain things I can say that actually do resonate with both sides. And that’s the confusion in me. It’s like, I do believe in individual freedom, but I do also believe in shared land ownership. So how do you pair those things off?
But flipping the story a little bit, something else I enjoy about being in California is also that the types of people that are here are really big risk-takers. And I think that might be connected to the fact that everyone’s living on the edge of a tectonic plate. I don’t know what it is! But for some reason it seems to attract people that are really risk-taking, entrepreneurial people. Obviously you get a hell of a lot of hustlers as well. But it’s fascinating seeing all those people working in the startup industry, if you like, from obviously Silicon Valley all the way down to here. I’ve had some involvement in that, and I’ve been lucky enough to rub shoulders with really great people working in the fields of solving issues to do with climate change and stuff like that. And getting involved in that investment community a little bit has really actually given me a lot of hope about some of the solutions and the biggest problems that we face, like climate change.
For example, there’s really amazing things happening with geothermal as being a real genuine solution to the fossil fuel industry issue, and there’s lots of new startups in that space now. Also, nuclear fusion is another amazing technology, which is probably about a couple decades away. But I feel like that’s another reason why I like being here. It’s not just being around all the creative people that live in this part of the world, but also being around the people that are really technologically genius creators as well.
The new album climaxes with “We Are Fucking Fucked.” With the optimism you have about something like geothermal, it sounds like that level of pessimism is not necessarily where you are right now. But maybe that song is you in one mood that doesn’t define where you’re at all the time.
Well, I think I learned this from a film study class I did once. Films usually follow a straightforward pattern, which is a kind of equilibrium that goes into disequilibrium, then it comes back to equilibrium at the end for the happy ending. But whenever someone creates a film or a book that ends on a sort of tragedy of some kind, or ends on something bad, what happens is, it leaves the viewer or the listener in a state where they can’t help but feel compelled to do something about creating an equilibrium that isn’t there. When I was studying films briefly, that’s what someone told me: If you wanna do something where you leave it to the actual person who’s watching or reading or consuming the art… if you leave them in a state with an unhappy ending … they can walk away from it and go, “Maybe I need to do something about this.” So that was one of the reasons why I put “We Are Fucking Fucked” at the very end. Hopefully people come away from it and go like, “Well, are we? I don’t know about that. Maybe I’ll do this…”
In practical terms, it seems like it also would probably be hard just to follow a song called “We Are Fucking Fucked.”
Yeah, the other thing is that it didn’t fit anywhere else on the album.
You have these massive arena tours around the world, but you’ve said you don’t get much recognized out on the street. It feels like that must be the best of both worlds, as rock stars have it — being this bigger-than-life stage persona and then being able to have somewhat of a normal life.
Yeah, for sure. I’m glad. I’ve seen all sides, though. I was in a relationship with someone much more famous than me [Bellamy was engaged to and has a son with Kate Hudson; that relationship ended in 2014], and I’ve seen insane levels of fame, where everywhere you go, someone is putting cameras in your face. That is not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. Especially if you have any kind of introverted personality traits, then that’s not gonna go down well. But we’re very, very lucky to be where we are, and I think it’s nice (how) if I ever bump into someone who knows who we are, someone sees me, usually somebody’s like, “Oh, I saw you a couple years ago. Great show, blah, blah,” and there’s a little picture or something. It’s never invasive or problematic in any way. I have experienced the other, though.
Do you have a sense of who the average Muse fan is these days?
It’s a huge age range now in our shows. It wasn’t like that in the early years, for sure. The crowd always seemed to be mainly our age or just a bit younger. We never really had a big teenage fan base until we had a song called “Super Massive Black Hole” that went into a “Twilight” film, and suddenly our shows had a lot of teenagers turning up. I think it’s gone the other way now, where we now have people at our age and their kids are now coming into teenage years.
And then there’s the older crowd that likes us, because I think we are maybe one of the last rock bands around that still have overhangs of what the 20th century rock sound was — even going back to the ‘60s, but more so the ‘70s kind of rock leanings. I think that brings in some of the older kind of Queen/Pink Floyd fans, maybe. So we literally see an absolutely full, probably three-generation age range now in our shows, and we love that.
You’re also considered alternative rock, and that in itself has become kind of an oldies format, with a concentration on stuff from the mid-‘90s through to the mid- or late 2000s, which means your early stuff is considered the reliable “classics” of that format at this point.
Rock obviously is not a global force in the way that it was in the mid-20th century, but it’s still got a longevity to it. It’s one of the few genres of music where you can actually grow old. It’s been proven now I think you can grow gracefully and rock. I mean, the Rolling Stones have proven it, and it looks like U2 are on their way to proving it. And I think there’s not many other musical genres really where you can do that. I think pop and dance music and all that kind of stuff, having a career that spans three decades is probably a lot harder, you know?
Your fan base crosses boundaries also because so few acts are capable of coming up with those grand melodies for something that has some real aggression to it.
And the melodic sense, I guess, is what’s really missing in sort of heavy or heavy-ish music. So I think rock as just a wide term that describes all of the music from the ‘60s on or ‘50s on… you feel like you’re just slightly less inhibited by fashion and by trend. It’s just not quite as important as it is if you’re a pop act, where you’ve gotta have your finger on the pulse and gotta be working with the right producers and the right video makers and gotta just be hot all the time. That’s kind of exhausting.
I think for us, we’ll all happily take influences from any point in time in music, but also the history of rock is something we have on our side. I mean, we could go down a road of where we could do a song that sounds a bit like Queen, we can do a song that sounds a bit like U2, we can do a song that sounds a bit like Depeche Mode — and we could do all of that within one song. And all those things are multiple decades out of fashion, in a way, but it doesn’t really matter. Because I think operating in the sphere of rock is almost like the new jazz, or the new classical — it’s kind of timeless. I hope it feels like it’s become like a timeless genre, which is no longer in the mainstream, but is still important to a lot of people.
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