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The Force Awakens
It may not come as a huge shock that Muse have devised a fully-fledged sci-fi concept for their seventh album. But Niall Doherty smells a rat: is it really about the end of Matt Bellamy’s relationship? He journeys into deep space to discover the truth.
August 2013. Muse played a last-minute club show at Zepp, a 2000-capacity venue in Tokyo. The trio were over halfway through a 124-date world tour to support their sprawling sixth album, The 2nd Law. It had been a typically understated affair: the production featured giant LED pyramids, flame-throwing towers, acrobats hanging from floating lightbulbs and a robot called Charles. The gig at Zepp was a chance to mix things up and the set was split into two halves. The first was made up of B-sides, rarities, and deep cuts that had been requested by Muse’s hardcore fans over the years and the second was a charge through a selection of their big-hitting anthems.
The band considered it one of the best shows of the tour, a return to the hysteria of their early performances amid a sea of sophisticated stadium-rock. With impending dates in South Korea, North and South America and Australia, there was no time to dwell on its success. The further Matt Bellamy got from it, though, the more the Muse frontman found himself reflecting on that gig in Tokyo. He thought about the disparity between the two sets, how one was dark and moody, and the other flamboyant and extroverted. He remembered the angst-ridden youngster who’d written those old songs and recalled the anguished headspace he’d inhabited. Back then, his parents’ divorce had sent Bellamy on an obsessive mission to form a band and throw himself into music. Twenty years and over 15 million album sales later, he realised his life was in much the same spot. He was on the cusp of his own break-up with his fiancée, the actress Kate Hudson, and it was time to start asking serious questions of himself. Everything had come full circle.
It is a bright April morning in London. There is tranquility in the lobby of the Edition, a boutique hotel just off Oxford Street. Matt Bellamy awaits in the Punch Room, an ominously named bar hidden away at the back of the building. It has been reserved especially for Muse and is empty, apart from Bellamy. In his sharp blazer and T-shirt and jeans, the singer looks a little like a funky CEO inviting a business rival in for some sinister horse-trading. He predominantly lives in Los Angeles now and only comes back to London when there is business to attend to.
The show in Tokyo planted the seed for Drones, Muse’s seventh album. It’s a record that all three members of the band – Bellamy, drummer Dom Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme – describe as a “reconnection”. “It’s almost as if we’ve looked back across the whole six albums and gone, ‘What’s the best stuff?’,” says Bellamy. “We thought maybe getting back to the guitar, bass and drums again was really when we were at our best.”
It is a side-effect of the trio’s ballooning scale and love of the ridiculous that bit would eventually turn to bloated. The 2nd Law had its moments, but it had all become a bit much. With its dubstep excursions, Queen-style piano pop, an Olympic anthem and an electro mini-opera, Muse had lost that explosive rock efficiency that propelled them to success in the mid-noughties.
Bellamy says the return to the band operating as a power-trio represents “a move towards being more human, rather than technology-based. Human empathy versus cold calculated efficiency.” This isn’t just Bellamy for “more riffs, less arsing around” – Drones is a fully-fledged concept album with its own highfalutin story arc. It’s a sci-fi dystopia about a vulnerable protagonist being brainwashed and drafted into the military before defecting and inspiring others to revolt, emerging heroic at the end. If it was a film, it would be the sort of thing Christian Bale was in during the early noughties. It would show a couple of times a month on Channel S, probably after midnight.
It’s all wonderfully silly, but Q suspects the whole thing is actually covering up the fact that Drones is a break-up album. Every song contains a line or two that suggests something more personal is going on here than Bellamy’s fantastical imagination. “Love, it will get you nowhere,” he sings on the snarling Psycho. “Home is becoming a killing field,” he spits out during the AC/DC-style rattle of Reapers. “I just wanted, I just needed to be loved,” he croons during the proggy The Globalist. This is heartbreak by way of Muse, so instead of Sam Smith-like weepy ballads, there’s lots of hammering riffs and a foreboding JFK speech with an apocalyptic soundscape behind it.
“I’ve tried hard to create a parallel arc which is relatable at a personal level,” says Bellamy. “It can be relatable to anybody who goes through that.” That is his split from Hudson last year. The pair had been engaged since 2011 and have a three-year-old son, Bing, whom they have joint custody of. “The album was quite difficult for me to make at certain points,” he says. “My personal life went through a bit of a shift. All I can say is that she’s a lovely person, we had a great relationship and we’re good friends. It could’ve been a lot messier.”
IN THE AFTERMATH of the split, Bellamy struggled to get his head round starting over again. He had lost control of what he thought his life was: life as he knew it had gone. “Something changes and you have to reinvent, you have to restart, basically,” he says. Bellamy has been through three or four break-ups in his life and this time he didn’t just want to slide along without asking himself why he kept ending up back in the same position. “I looked at all those times, those points in your life where something happens and you think, ‘Where am I and what am I doing?’” he says.
Any probes too deep into the end of the relationship are met with polite rebuttals. His private life is also of interest to the tablets and existing in a world where reporters try to get a line out of him as he’s getting into a car outside an airport or doing his shopping has made him wary of talking too frankly. “I’d like to talk more about [the split] but the way the game works is that all that stuff just gets blown out of proportion,” he says.
Bellamy found his break-up elicited the same reaction in him as his parents’ divorce and he regained a “total obsession and dedication to music”. He was a teenager when his parents parted, a moment in his life that led him to join a band.
“I guess in some ways the band became a family,” he says. “At the time, it wasn’t like I didn’t feel sadness or anything but I became so obsessed with the music. The music itself had a nature of expression to it that kind of revealed what was going on in my life.”
Controlling forces and paranoia are recurring themes in Muse world and, as he was making Drones, Bellamy realised these were ideas born out of his teen years. He spent a lot of time thinking back to himself as a teenager. “What I think defined what we were doing back then was, for me, the feeling of not being in control of my life and the feeling of chaos that comes with that. Then that led to paranoia, little elements of thinking, ‘Well, who is controlling it’.”
Bellamy is entertaining and intense company. He often lets out an exuberant laugh and he has exactly the sort of wicked cackle you expect. He talks at a quicksilver pace, his mouth just about managing to keep up with his thought process. He can embark on long, winding monologues, usually at a point when the conversation might be getting a little too close to something he doesn’t want to talk about. Immediately after batting away a question about his break-up, for example, he launches into a long dissection of drone technology and autonomous killing machines, which then turns into a thorough synopsis of Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test.
Bellamy says that Muse is the longest relationship any of its members have sustained. There have been bumps along the way. Bellamy remembers the time around their debut album, Showbiz, as a particularly testing hurdle for the future of the band. “We were struggling at that point,” he says. “We weren’t necessarily doing well in terms of touring, gear would go missing, stuff wouldn’t work, people wouldn’t be there.” The lowest point for the frontman came during a tour in Spain. After a night drinking more than his constitution could handle, he ate an entire chorizo sausage and woke up in the middle of the night covered in his own sick. “It was two or three in the morning and you realise there’s no shower, there’s no real change of clothes. I came back from that tour and said, ‘If we don’t start having a good time, I don’t really want to do it.’ So when we did Origin Of Symmetry, it was all about having a good time.”
DOM HOWARD hasn’t got any brothers but imagines that if he did the relationship would be a lot like the one he has with Bellamy and Wolstenholme. He and Bellamy have been best friends since the guitarist successfully auditioned to join Howard’s band Carnage Mayhem at college in Teignmouth, Devon. These days they live near each other in LA. Sitting in the same spot in the Punch Room that Bellamy occupied an hour previously, Howard is different to the frontman in that he looks like he lives in LA. He has dyed black hair, a tan all over and a laid back, amiable vibe. Out of the three members of Muse, he is the one who lives up to his rock star status: you can definitely imagine him being in a supergroup one day, maybe with members of Foo Fighters, Haim and Paramore, with Skrillex on beats.
He says Bellamy is like an annoying younger sibling. The two hang out together all the time when they’re not on Muse duty. Over the past four years, Howard has divided his time between LA and London but he spends most of his time in the US now. When he’s not working, he sunbathes. When he’s not sunbathing, he goes hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains. “I love that shit,” he says. “I could wear shorts and a T-shirt every day for the rest of my life.” LA feels like home to him. He feels strange telling people in England that he doesn’t live here any more, like he’s a traitor. He lived in London for 15 years, sharing a house with Bellamy at one point, but he says he’d never be able to live in one place for the rest of his life. New York is next on his wish list.
Next to Bellamy’s studious nature, there’s a leisurely stride to the way Howard approaches life. It all seems so simple. He doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. “Mate, I’ve been browsing for a while. I’m still browsing,” he says. LA is a good place to browse, he advises. “All the hottest girls from all over the world go to LA.” What’s the point at which you get bored of being in one place, Q asks? “Run out of girls,” he laughs. He has hosted some great parties at his house recently but, “I don’t think I can go into that.” He says Muse have all gone through wild patches in their lives, adding that he thinks Bellamy’s is just beginning. “He’s always in relationships and rarely isn’t,” he adds.
A week later, Muse are rehearsing at Air Studios in North London. They have so much equipment that the room resembles a Bond villain’s lair with a set of drums in the middle: rows and rows of techno wizardry and flashing gizmos and a crew of henchmen ready to follow their every command. Howard has just returned from a weekend in Devon visiting his mum. He doesn’t get back to Teignmouth very often. The band are local heroes in their hometown and there’s a mural of them on a wall in the town centre. “I’m surprised no one has drawn a penis on it,” says Howard.
On hearing the word “penis”, Bellamy marches over. “Who’s drawing penises on what?” he enquires.
“The street art thing of us in Teignmouth,” replies Howard.
“Oh yeah,” enthuses Bellamy, “we definitely would have done that!”
For their live shows, the band have had fighter pilot costumes designed (“because the fighter pilot is being made redundant with all the drones,” explains Bellamy) but they are making minor alterations after some heckling on their recent UK tour. “Someone shouted out, ‘Are you going go-karting?’” says Bellamy. “That was pretty funny.”
In a side room at the studio, Chris Wolstenholme is trying to recall the last time he asked Matt Bellamy what one of his songs was about. He thinks it might have been Megalomania, the funereal closer to Origin of Symmetry. “I didn’t get a very straight answer, so I didn’t bother again,” says the bassist. Wolstenholme contributed two songs, Save Me and Liquid State, to The 2nd Law that chronicled his alcohol abuse and he came to hate having to explain himself in interviews. “I’d never really written lyrics before,” he says. “I didn’t wanna be too clever. In a way, it was probably a little bit too on a plate for people.”
He quit drinking halfway through 2009’s The Resistance and is amazed at how easily he can live without it six years on. “I don’t miss those days at all,” he says. “I was pretty bad but I just made the decision and I knew it was gonna be tough. I just got it into my head that once I got past a year, that was a big milestone.”
He’s much mellower than he once was. As a young man in his early 20s, Wolstenholme was highly strung and could snap into a rage at any moment. “I feel a bit more balanced than I used to,” he says. He’s in a good mood today: his beloved Rotherham United escaped relegation last night. He has a footballer’s build, tall and muscular. Compared to the airy LA glamour of Bellamy and Howard, Wolstenholme is Muse’s most relatable member. He lives in an affluent Surrey suburb and the school dads he plays football with on a Monday night probably describe him as “a really solid bloke”. He’s been unable to play for the past few months due to a hip operation he had in January that he is still recovering from.
As well as playing football, he spent his downtime on holiday (he and his wife embarked on a 10-year-late honeymoon to Thailand, and then felt guilty about not taking their six kids, so took the whole family to the Caribbean as soon as they got home) and producing bands in his home studio. The bassist misses his children when he’s on tour. The moment that makes him happiest is getting through his front door and seeing Alfie, Ava, Frankie, Ernie, Buster and Teddy waiting for him.
LATER THAT afternoon, Matt Bellamy requests Q’s company at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, North London. The museum is based at 20 Manresfield Gardens, the family home of the Freuds until 1982 and a short walk from the studio. Bellamy has always been interested in psychology. His ex-ex-girlfriend Gaia Polloni, who he was with for nine years, is a sex therapist and clinical psychologist and he got used to being around someone who was studying Freud’s theories. The other reason he wanted to come here is because he’s a big fan of Adam Curtis’s 2002 documentary The Century Of Self, a film about how Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays invented public relations. “He took the stuff he learnt from his uncle about tapping into the internal and emotional self and used it to manipulate crowds, for the purposes of elections and advertising products,” he says. “It changed the 20th century and ended up making everybody become very self-based. Before that, people weren’t that way. So that’s our reason to come here.”
As we walk around the house, taking in the study and Freud’s famous couch – take a seat, Matt – Bellamy talks about life in LA. He spends his days off taking Bing to the beach or playing football with him in the garden. “He’s definitely very sporty,” he says, “he doesn’t take after me. I’m trying to get him into English football, he actually does prefer that.” Bellamy has watched with fatherly pride as his three-year-old son has smashed his toy drums around. “He does seem to have a rebellious nature and I think, ‘That’s what I was like when I was a kid,’” he says.
We find two armchairs on the landing, and Q takes a seat in Sigmund Freud’s house for one final probe into the mind of Matt Bellamy. He wants to make a stripped-down, acoustic style album one day but can’t bring himself to actually do it.
“Being intimate and close and raw is something that makes me feel a bit weird. I know I need to try to overcome that. I guess it might be a form of shyness,” he says. He thinks letting people into the depths of your imagination, into the human mind, gives a more honest picture of what’s going on in his brain than singing about the real world. Putting himself front and centre without all the theatricality is too daunting. “It becomes a bit too real for me and I guess that’s why I try to avoid that.” He lets out one final mischievous cackle and slips away, back to rehearsals and back to his comfort zone of dystopian fairylands and killer drones. Matt Bellamy isn’t ready to reveal himself just yet. Maybe at a future appointment.