Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. It was only at last year’s Children In Need concert, broadcast on prime time which featured the great and the good of British pop that it finally sunk in just how huge Muse have become – they were there appearing with Sir Paul McCartney, Take That, Leona Lewis and Paulo Nutini. Weren’t Muse the alternative Radiohead-lite band from Devon who sing politically loaded and enjoyably paranoid lyrics against the system and all it stands for? In fact, Muse, while managing to retain something of their outsider status, were evidently bigger - at least, for now - than any of the other acts.
They sell stadiums out faster than Coldplay, their last album Resistance went to the top of the charts in 20 countries and even got to Number 3 in the States, and they are playing massive venues on their current tour (see theartsdesk’s review of their Wembley Stadium gig a couple of weeks ago: “awesome, dazzling, dizzying”) not to mention planning a ground-breaking tour of Eurasia, playing countries like Tajikistan that bands usually don’t get to play.
'We are aware that at any point we are one step away from a Spinal Tap moment, especially if you have a complicated stage show like ours.'
Seeing them on their last tour at a sell-out stadium to 25,000 people in Antwerp on their current European tour, they definitely give the impression of a band whose trajectory is rapidly upwardly mobile “We want to be the biggest band in the world – we’re not ashamed to say that,” says bassist Chris Wolstenholme, who I met before the Antwerp gig. “We’ve always been a very ambitious band,” said drummer Dom Howard, “we always had big ideas beyond our abilities.” Whereas with some bands the feeling is of a front man and songwriter and a backing band, Muse have a strong band ethos fused over ten years and five albums “through plenty of bad times as well as good".
Wolstenhome is still based in Teignmouth, Devon where the band formed and developed and seems to be the most down-to-earth member of the band, while Howard lives in London and singer Matt Bellamy is based in Lake Como, living in the house that used to belong to the composer Bellini and where they have their own studio (which was where they self-produced Resistance). The band had recently returned from touring with U2 in the States. As Chris put it, “what blew me away and was totally inspiring was the way that they’ve been together for so long and still enjoy playing music.”
The utter confidence of the band was palpable, kicking off the show with their single “Uprising” (see video below) and playing over half their new album, only just released at the time, which most of the audience already knew the lyrics to, and having the nerve of doing the 16-minute “Exogenesis Symphony” as part of the encore.
The show was as spectacular as any rock gig you’re likely to see with rising walls of massive video projections suggesting a dystopian cityscape. It’s by turns, absurd, inspiring, funny and at times moving, and it was not surprising that the band have picked up assorted best live act in the world awards such as at the Q Awards.
But it is precisely this level of showmanship and ambitiousness that has caused the most resistance among some of the more serious-minded rock critics, who prize the virtue of authenticity above all others. Muse are the other end of the spectrum to the likes of Bruce Springsteen or Manu Chao. Veteran rock critic Jon Pareles of the New York Times complained that the band “overdecorated its troubled songs with the virtuosic guitar, keyboard and vocal excesses of Matt Bellamy, including a quasi-classical piano interlude worthy of Liberace. Mr Bellamy was the most conventionally gifted singer on the bill, and the most insufferable one.”
The lyrical excesses of Matt Bellamy, often full of references to an only vaguely defined powerful elite who are controlling the world, have also alienated some critics. But, as Bellamy said to me in Antwerp, when I suggested they were walking a very fine line between seriousness and preposterousness, people don’t always get the humour of the band. “We had more fun making Resistance than at any time since before the first album. We often would crack up in the studio. But even the most serious-minded people, and we are that, can’t be serious all of the time.”
Bellamy sees Muse as part of a tradition of bands like Genesis, Queen and Depeche Mode, all of whom have been highly successful globally if not always critically acclaimed at home. “People really appreciate that slightly mad, eccentric English tradition around the world. Bands in the 90s seem to forget the entertainment aspect of rock music." He adds that he has been thinking of appearing on stage in a bird costume.
Bellamy is only too conscious of the inherent ridiculousness of rock stardom “We are aware that at any point we are one step away from a Spinal Tap moment, especially if you have a complicated stage show like ours.”
One of the strengths of the band, he believes - although others see it as a weakness - is the massive range of musical influences on the band. Resistance quotes, not always in a fully digested manner, from Chopin, Saint-Saëns, Blondie and, more than anything, Queen. “I never understood bands who were only influenced by a narrow era of say five years of music. I think younger bands like us listen to more diverse music than previously, because it’s so easily accessible.” In spite of that he thinks that “Muse have one of the strongest identities of any band around now. But it’s more of an emotional identity than anything else.”
'The world has been engineered around corporate thinking – maybe there’s some good things about that, but very bad for a lot of other things.'
While London bands, Bellamy feels “are more concerned with what is cool, it’s never been the most important thing for us”, citing his love of Prog Rock. “I think we have a lot in common with classical composers of the 19th century, although I’m not claiming to have their intelligence. They wanted to create a musical explosion, to blow the crowd away. Opera can be exceptionally moving, but can also be pompous.”
Bellamy’s father was a member of The Tornadoes, whose biggest hit was the futuristic Telstar, produced by the visionary producer Joe Meek, so “thinking big musically has been part of my upbringing.” The lyrics, says Bellamy, “have to match the epic nature of the music.” For the single "Uprising", an incandescent mix of the Dr Who theme tune, Blondie’s “Call Me” and Glam Rock, he sings “Paranoia is in bloom” and talks of “drugs to keep us all dumbed down”, with a glorious sing-along chorus line of “They will not control us, We will be victorious.”
The previous night the tour was in Berlin. We ended up talking about how Hitler, with his lighting designer Albert Speer, was the first amplified rock star. How Barack Obama ran, at least in part, as a rock star with stadium gigs (and that’s opened the door to the likes of Sarah Palin to do the same). Bellamy is aware of the crowd energy and how it can transmute into hysteria. “In the early albums I used to write as 'I' - now I notice I’m using 'we' a lot more.” Their sense of the ludicrous is their saving grace, though, at the same time played with all the conviction and intensity they can muster. When I say that the band is actually a kind of safety valve for the kind of crowd hysteria dictators in particular and politicians in general exploit, he agrees, sort of: "We are engaging the people, there's a place to do it without being risky or damaging."
Muse plug into a vaguely disquieting sense we all have, especially in the UK where there are more CCTV cameras than anywhere in the world, that we are being constantly monitored. Every call or purchase can be traced. So who is out to get us, exactly? “The world has been engineered around corporate thinking – maybe there’s some good things about that, but very bad for a lot of other things. Some people are rejecting that.”
Bellamy says the album’s key image was of the love story in Orwell’s 1984. While he has been “reserved” about being specific about his politics - “I’m a musician, not a speech-writer” - when pressed, he says things like how he thinks “the entire tax system should be overhauled in favour of a land value tax”, that corporations shouldn’t own nature or the forests, and that he believes that “We are on the brink of something as spectacular as the 60s. Because of things like climate change, the collapse of the economy and corrupt politicians, we will have a dramatic reaction against the older generation. It might be wishful thinking, though.”
He’s intrigued by all the talk of 2012 as a watershed year, the end of the Mayan calendar, and fancies playing New Zealand to see the fateful year in first. The soundtrack to the Revolution will be part metal, part Prog Rock, part classical but it will be, if Muse have anything to do with it, somewhat paranoid but hugely entertaining. A glam-rock, metal uprising.