Muse frontman Matt Bellamy
has been experiencing "intense emotions" of late. Might it be down to being painted naked with a hawk on his shoulder?
WORDS: BEN MITCHELL PHOTOGRAPHER: NICK WILSON
MATT BELLAMY ORDERS spaghetti with tomato and bacon, a small beer and asks the waiter for a bottloe of chilli oil. It's a breezy day on Italy's Lake Como when we meet the Muse singer for lunch at a modest resteraunt in the village of Moltrasio. Sharp-eyed sci-fi fans would recognise the area as the location for a planet called Naboo from Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, while readers of Hello will know that this is where George Clooney likes to much around during his time off.
"I've seen him when I've been cycling up this road," says Bellamy. "He's got this Riva boat, which is the most expensive boat known to man. He was in it with two lovely-looking ladies. I wasn't sure if it was him or not, so I tried to get a bit closer and another boat came over with two big guys in it, like, What the fuck do you want? When he goes out he's got his security to keep a buffer zone around him."
It's a far cry from Teignmouth, Devon, where Bellamy, drummer Dom Howard and bassist Christ Wolstenholme first started playing together as Muse 12 years ago. However, despite the exotic surroundings and glamorous - if rather aloof - neighbours, Bellamy's choice of address was made for the practical reason that this is his Italian girlfriend's hometown.
"I've been spending a lot of time here on and off over the last year," he says. "I'm converting a few cellars into a studio, which was supposed to be done for the recording of this album, but the builders take years to do anything. They said it was going to be finished last September and they're only halfway through."
With relaxed tradesmen putting the kibosh on working from home, Muse's fourth album, Black Holes And Revelations, was put together further afield. "We went to the South of France - Chateau Miraval [also used by Pink Floyd on The Wall] - but we just ended up writing, really. We did the bulk of recording in New York and then went to Milan to finish off. If we were doing a track and it started to sound like something we'd done before we abandoned it pretty quickly. That was the challenge."
Eclectic but not esoteric, the result is the band's most ambitious - and by far their best - album to date. Having built a reputation as Britain's most thrilling live rock act, Muse now seem perfectly positioned to become a truly global concern and in Bellamy they have the right frontman for the job. An intriguing songwriter and intense performer, offstage the singer is a thoughtful, idiosyncratic character whose interests extend beyond such typical musicians' pursuits as investigating which country has the best hotel porn. Even so, after reading his own press, Bellamy s convinced that he might well come across as "a complete twat".
"I suppose in conversations sometimes I'm happy to veer off," he explains. "When you're in a bar having a beer, before you know it you're talking about conspiracy theories and alien abductions and all sorts of weird stuff and some people print that as if I'm making some kind of serious statement."
When you first got started, the band always seemed to be characterised as Devon boys, but none of you are from there, are you?
No, no, we were all born elsewhere. I was born in Cambridge, actually, Chris is from Rotherham and Dom is from Stockport. I think that's one of the things we had in common growing up, really. There's a bit of a local vibe. If you're not from there you know about it from an early age.
Did you pick up the accent?
Not reall, no. I can't even do the accent very well. It's a funny one down there. Torquay is where it's at. I had a girlfriend for a number of years who was a proper farm girl, so that's the closest I got to being yokel. I used to go out and watch her younger brother shoot cows in the bollocks.
I read somewhere that it was actually your finger on the trigger.
No, I wasn't the triggerman. I would never be stupid enough to shoot a bull in the nuts but I definitely saw it done and kind of realised that maybe I'm a bit more city-orientated than I thought, really.
Where did you go on your holidays back then?
I just used to go to the beach or the amusement arcade. I'd wear slip-on shoes so I could build up static because there was a particular method with the fruit machines. If you built up a bit of static and put a 10p piece on the little keyhole it would reset the machine and then the first two hits would be a jackpot, so I, basically, would hang around and do that all day. I actually did reasonably well. I didn't really need to work much, though I did have a paper round.
How much was a jackpot in those days? Four quid?
No, less than that, about £1.50. I was playing on games where you put 10p in and get five goes. The ones that were 10p per shot, that was out of my league.
How did you pass the time otherwise?
There wasn't much exciting nightlife. When you got older, in the summer you wouldn't actually go into the amusement arcades, you'd hang around outside them with a bottle of cider and try and get a girl or something but all the girls would always go off with dodgy old blokes in Capris. I say old, but I suppose they were probably my age now. At the time I was only 16. That was a learning experience about women, really.
Presumably, once the band got going, attracting women stopped being a problem?
That actually doesn't happen. We did a tour with the Chili Peppers and after every gig there'd be 30 women just waiting around for Flea or Anthony [Kiedis] to come out and they'd do anything. We don't seem to get that, really. We're working on it. We get the kind of... in Russia there were a couple of larger-than-life artists who painted pictures of us in strange positions. One of them painted me naked with a hawk on my shoulder. I looked a bit like Mr Burns from The Simpsons. It was very disturbing.
Have you still got it?
Dom kept it just to annoy me. He's got it in his house somewhere.
When you finished school and worked as a painter and a decorator in Exeter, were you any good?
I was very good, yes. There's a lot of pride in that kind of work. I really enjoyed it.
What kind of mistakes do people make when trying to tackle jobs like that around the house?
It's all about preparation. You've got to make sure it's all sanded down properly, fill in all the holes.
What was the first thing you bought when you got a decent cheque from the band?
A Paramotor. I've still got it, the only problem is I never finished my lessons. There's something so nice about it, just a simple flying machine.
How does it work?
It's a 50cc engine on your back with a propeller. Then you have a paraglider, which looks like a big parachute. I haven't used it since I bought it. It cost about £6000.
Was that something you'd always wanted?
It was something that I'd read about/ I thought I could actually make a living off hanging long ribbon adverts off the back and flying over festivals... like "Buy Red Bull" or something. When we were making a DVD around the time of the second album, the producer offered me £500 to fly over a Jamiroquai gig in Verona with a camera. They wanted an aerial shot. I think that's something I'd enjoy doing.
Are you any kind of sportsman?
I like snooker. I'm not very good, though. My highest break's 30, maybe. I try to play squash but I keep running into the walls.
What's it like to drive a Lotus off the forecourt?
I suppose that's my silly purchase. We were playing at London's Docklands [in 2001], our first arena gig, and just around the corner is a place that sells them. Just before the soundcheck I went and got it and drove it to the arena, which was quite funny. It was just an Elise, nothing too flash. The only problem was I crashed it into the back of a BMW 7-series, which is really big. We were doing a photoshoot for this DVD called Hullabaloo where we're wearing these stupid top hats and white suits. I don't know why we were dressed up like a bunch of twats, but we were. It was raining outside and I'd had a bit of an argument with my girlfriend so I had to go home.
The farm girl?
No, my current girlfriend. I jumped in the car and drove back in a bit of a rush. I was riding along, the car in front stopped at the lights, I slammed on the brakes and literally half my car went under the other car. The guy looked a bit pissed off, but I got out wearing a top hat and carrying a cane and that took the edge off. He just laughed. Luckily his car was completely intact. The front of mine was knackered.
What have you got now?
I've got a couple of classics from America. I bought a 1966 Mustang Fastback, which has got a flat tyre, and a 1962 T-Bird, which is the old Beach Boys car. I don't have anything else. The truth is my insurance is just... I've got nine points on my licence. Nothing major, just illegal right turns. That and my lack of a no-claims bonus means that my insurance costs are deeply uncomfortable. So that was one of the reasons I bought those cars in America - they're classic cars so they're cheap to insure. When I'm here my girlfriend has a Beetle, one of the new ones, but it's in the garage at the moment.
How did you meet your girlfriend?
She was studying to be a psychologist in London. She's now doing a doctorate at a hospital in Milan. She wears a white coat, which is quite cool. It's interesting, they show the patients a video of a woman putting up a blind in a house and another woman saying, "I don't like that blind, it looks a bit crap." Then they interview the schizophrenic people and ask them what they think happened. It's amazing, they just see something completely different to what actually happened. They'll say, "Oh, she's extremely jealous of that other woman and she wants to kill her."
What's your interpretation of it?
Jealousy. My girlfriend said that's, apparently, the beginnings of interpreting things badly because there's no element of that in the film. Schizophrenics read into things wrongly, they're paranoid so whatever someone says they misinterpret it. Dom tells me I do that quite a lot, so maybe I'm borderline.
What was on your mind when you were writing the lyrics for this album?
A few things, really. I was reading a book called Crossing The Rubicon by Michael Ruppert. It's about the oil situation and the crumbling American empire. That changed the way I look at the news. These clandestine organisations, the FBI, CIA, NSA, just announce something like, This country has nuclear weapons" and you can't investigate it. I wouldn't say it's as extreme as brainwashing, but there's certainly some strong massaging [of the truth] going on.
That wasn't the only thing. Sometimes you can feel that being in a band and this way of life is taking you very far away from who you really are. Touring last time, there were a lot of ups and downs. We had a bad situation at Glastonbury when Dom's dad passed away after the gig. That was a really upsetting experience for everyone. And on top of all that you do kind of get a bit loose on tour...
It's easy to fall into a party way of life, then when something heavy happens, it's a massive shock and it brings you crashing down to earth. There's that feeling of wanting to get back to who you were - sometimes you feel like you're surrounded by people who aren't really talking to you. You can get a slightly warped sense of reality. Black holes and revelations - they're the two areas of songwriting for me that make up the majority of this album. A revelation is about yourself, something personal, something genuine of an everyday nature that maybe people can relate to. Then black holes are these songs that are from the more... unknown regions of the imagination.
Do you have a stage persona?
I think the way I am onstage is probably who I really am. Everything else is a persona. If you're doing well you're tapping into things that you're unable to express in normal life - deeper feelings, more intense emotions and things that are not acceptable in society, maybe. When you're being frisked in an airport you want to say, "Fuck off, don't touch me, you cunt." You can't do that in real life because you'd probably get locked away, but you can say that in a song. It's an unedited version of who you are. For me there's something pure about that.
BELLAMY SETTLES THE BILL, thanks the waiter in passable Italian and we leave the restaurant to walk along the shore. Dressed smartly in black with white braces, some regional style would seem to have rubbed off on him. "I think when you get a girlfriend she tends to start telling you what to wear, so that's helped me out a bit," he says, fingering the collar of his shirt. "This is from H&M, I think." Despite living what would appear to be the very definition of la dolce vita - and with no obvious need to swindle fruit machines for supplemental income any time soon - Bellamy nonetheless carries a torch for that area of Devon some call the English Riviera. "I do miss it. My parents don't live down there now so I don't have any excuses to go to Teignmouth. It's nice... well, it's alright." The wind drops and he raises a hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight reflecting off the glassy water. A smile. "This is better, though."
Image scans courtesy of George Bratley