“Let There Be Lights” – Matt Bellamy interview for "The Drum Media" (2010)
At the beginning of this year Muse, very possibly the UK’s biggest rock outfit right now, made the somewhat unusual decision to not play any sideshows while in Australia for their Big Day Out appearances. It’s not as if they shy away from the live stage – the band repeatedly appear in those sorts of lists that music mags love to make up as one of the top live acts in the world. Indeed, they actually put everything they have into their live shows (lasers included), so it seems they just wanted Australian audiences to experience their latest ‘production’ in all its glory. And size. Speaking during a brief break following their North American dates before the tour arrives (and finishes) in Australia, frontman Matthew Bellamy explains the reasoning further. “It was simply because we knew we wanted to come back and do our own gigs later in the year. It just didn’t really make sense to try and squeeze in a couple of shows on the side when we were going to return and hopefully get to spend a bit more time in each city.”
This time they are bringing the full scale The Resistance Tour, which will get to reside for a couple of nights each in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne before winding up with a night in Perth. It’s a massive show in every sense, centring on three large video-walled towers that rise and fall with the band members perched separately on top of each. Over the last few years it seems that just as their music has got more and more epic in sound and depth, their live acts has been designed to keep up the pace. “Yeah I suppose the music that we make has always lent itself towards good light shows and synchronising with video and also putting on a bit of a spectacular,” Bellamy acknowledges. “It may not be all the songs, but some definitely lean towards it and they can’t help but make you want to do something like that and the crowd respond to it. I think when people hear the songs on record they imagine something to be quite epic sounding, so it’s nice to try and reflect that in the live show.”
So is there increasing pressure on them now to keep making things ever more extravagant? “Yeah. It’s no problem though, I love it. I work well under pressure I think, so I like a challenge. As the venues have got bigger and bigger, it’s like you’ve got to try and put on something a bit more spectacular than what you’ve done before. Then it’s just a case of refining all your ideas and trying to to find out what can be done and what can’t be done, with a little bit of set design. It’s quite an exciting thing really.”
Despite the ever-growing scale of their performances, Bellamy reverently refuses to accept the notion that they may soon take over the crown as kings of the stadium/arena production from US (who Muse recently supported on some of the US dates for the 360° tour). “No, they’re definitely the biggest live band out there and they put on a great show, an amazing show. Watching U2 is different to anything else that’s out there or any band that’s ever been out there. It’s so unique and they really work the crowd really well and I think they’re a great live band. The only way we’d ever overtake them would be if they retired. So long as they’re around, I don’t think so.”
With such a big set up – and the inevitable malfunctions – there have been moment on the tour that closer resembled another ‘band’, though. “Oh yeah, we’ve had a couple of pretty serious Spinal Tap moments,” Bellamy laughs. “The worst was on the second of two gigs in LA. We’ve got these curtain reveals at the beginning when we’re playing up on the towers and three curtains drop down to reveal each band member. As the first song kicked in only two of them came down, mine and our drummer Dom [Howard]’s. Basically, no one could see our bassist Chris [Wolstenholme] as he played the whole song – Uprising – and only when we finished the song did his curtain come down. Also, when my one came down it pulled my entire guitar rack off the tower that I was on and it smashed up two of my guitars. At the time to be honest with you I didn’t notice anything. It wasn’t until the whole lift that we’re on started coming down towards the end of the song that I thought ‘something’s really wrong here’ and I looked behind me and saw two of my guitars in pieces. I think when things are that bad you just have to start laughing, because it is just farcical.”
When they finish up with the Australian dates it will be 14 months since the tour commenced. No amount of bright lights, smoke and mirrors can cover up a band’s actual ability to play a dynamic live set, but Muse always manage to match the power bill with their energy. It’s that ever-present enthusiasm that has helped cement their formidable reputation. Bellamy explains how he manages to maintain that every night on such a long tour: “Well you make as much eye contact with your audience as you can. You’re looking for people out there that you can see and they’re looking at you and you have a bit of a connection with them. You’ve got to tune in to the people as individuals rather than always just see it as a mass of people. If you can pick some people out and see their eyes – that makes it feel more intimate even when it’s a big gig and that makes a difference.”
It’s all a far cry from all those support slots that the band played in the early days after forming in 1994. Bellamy believes that there were some advantages in those times of minimal lighting and crowds though: “Actually it was quite a lot of fun not being the headline, because you can be much more flexible with your setlist. You can play anything you want really and obviously it’s not your audience so it doesn’t really matter what happens. If the gig goes badly you can say: ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter it wasn’t our crowd anyway.’ There’s no responsibility or anything so there’s just less pressure.”
Bellamy also hints that they do have some desire to play some altogether simpler shows in the future and may try making things more minimalist again for a while. “I think we might do that at some point. I think we’d do it in an artistic way though. I don’t think we’d do it literally as just the basics. I can imagine doing like a very starkly lit show which is all about being in black and white and just shadows and weird, strange lighting and stuff. In other words I think you could strip it back as long as it’s artistically done and not just for the sake of saving money.”
The band intends to take a break at the conclusion of the tour, so the Australian shows look like being their last for a while. Bellamy says he expects they will do only a handful of gigs in 2011 and those they do will most likely be in places they haven’t been to yet like South America and Russia. Then, towards the end of next year, they will start making a new album. Although it’s early days, when pushed he does reveal to Drum Media a little about the direction his most recent writing has been taking. “I’ve been through a lot of personal changes over the last year of so, so I think it’s likely some of the songwriting might be a bit more open and personal. Musically I don’t know though, it’s just too early to predict.” He pauses and adds, “Actually I’ve got to say a couple of bits that I’ve written so far are more stripped-down but it remains to be seen whether they’ll stay that way and obviously, whether something else might come out.”
Before looking too far ahead the focus is on their upcoming Australian tour though and Bellamy promises something extra special for those going along to both nights (where they are doing them) in any city. Despite the sometimes restrictive nature of a big show, they have found ways of changing the set around and it seems they have every intention to of doing so. “What’s going to be interesting on this tour is that we’re doing two nights in most cities so I think we’re going to come up with two quite different setlists for night one and night two. The only thing is some of the changes you make you have to rehearse a bit, but I think across the two nights we’ll play quite a big range of material. We’re certainly going to try and mix it up.”
Matt Bellamy’s own description of The Resistance Tour as “a pretty big rock show” is something of an understatement. With its mix of old-school lasers (ten in total to create a 360° ‘cage’ around the stage) and ultra-modern high-spec LED screens (each tower has 30 square metres on all four sides giving an overpowering total of 360 square metres) that are used to display visuals selected to match up with some of the concepts of the album, it is as visually impressive as anything ever seen before. Work started on designing the show four months before the arena began and it was originally test built at Elstree Film Studios in England (where the original Star Wars trilogy was filmed) whilst Muse were busy away supporting U2. That allowed the whole show to be put up and thoroughly checked out before being taken on the road.
The stage can be positioned to play to an audience surrounding it where possible and because of that unique ability, the production crew always have on board everything that may possibly be needed. That includes a special rolling stage that allows for the lighting rig to be built at one end of the arena while the stage is being built at the other. With Australia marking the end of this world tour the stage set, following 14 months of use, will be recycled.
A full catering team is also on board to keep the crew well fed. That decision followed an American tour a few years ago where a meal prepared by local caterers gave many of the party salmonella. With a number of the crew winding up in hospital, several performances had to be cancelled (Natalia – I think this was during the Curiosa Tour in 2004).
Such is the scale of the operation it is critical that unloading starts at 8.30 am on the day of the show to ensure it is ready for soundcheck seven hours later. Then, during the last few songs of the set, as many as 90 local crew arrive to assist the 48 touring crew in loading the 12 trucks required to move the set to its next destination. For most of the world tour it was considered critical the loading took no more than two and a half hours to allow transportation by truck rather than by air, with distances of up to 700km between towns. The band generally played three days on and one day off so would average five to six shows a week.
With that in mind, it is not surprising that the three towers concept is actually scaled down version of what they first planned to do. Bellamy recalls plan A: “The original idea was to have three towers inside what would look like a kind of three or four storey office block of some description. We would be playing inside it but also inside was like lots of prison cells or something like that and the idea was that either the building gradually disintegrated or we slowly made our way out of the building. It would look like we were trapped in an experiment and as the gig went on we’d gradually try and find our way to escape out of it. It would be something like an Escher staircase. So the first ideas were in that area and then we had to cut them back a bit. It was more a case of what was physically possible to actually move and in particular the biggest thing is what is possible to set up and take down in the space of a day. There is only so much you can do.”