Muse album sleeves have a habit of stopping fans in their tracks. 2003’s ‘Absolution’ cover suggested a sky full of falling bodies that, released almost two years to the day of the September 11 attacks in New York, tapped into the teeth-grinding tension of the era that followed, full of constant, looming terror. 2006’s ‘Black Holes and Revelations’ sleeve, the work of acclaimed Pink Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson, was more subtly unnerving: a surreal shot of four bald men sat calmly at the forefront of a dusty otherworldly vista (think Magritte on Mars). Even 2012’s more playful ‘The 2nd Law’ cover, featuring what looked like a stick of radioactive broccoli, startled in its neon weirdness. If there’s a lesson to be learned from all this, it’s that Muse will likely never settle for a moody press photo slapped on a jewel case when it comes to artwork. Muse, you get the impression, see album sleeves as another opportunity to chill, confuse and provoke.
No wonder, then, that a week after the cover to ‘Drones’, their seventh album, due on June 8, hit the web, debate continues to rage about its meaning and merit. “It’s been so overwhelming. Muse are so mind-bogglingly global. There’s nothing to really prepare you for how passionate and international their fan base is, for the intensity and breadth of their reaction,” says Matt Mahurin, the man behind the sleeve, and a number of other artworks centered around ‘Drones’ (he also provided images for the ‘Psycho’ video). “The reaction I’ve had from fans has been hugely positive. It’s been a really great experience so far.”
A celebrated illustrator, photographer and music video director, Mahurin was suggested to the band by their management, who had previously worked with the 56-year-old Californian on a number of Metallica projects. “They put us in touch, and I met the band just before Christmas where we talked about the album’s themes and the topics they were exploring.” He says he prefers to discuss “the process, rather the content” of his pieces, so is understandably reluctant to describe exactly the message behind the strange, greyscale cover image. What Mahurin mentions about his conversations with the band, however, about the record is revealing.
“People refer to ‘drones’ as those flying machines and robots but a drone can be anything: a student, a soldier… anything that’s subject to being controlled and manipulated,” he says. “A funny allegory that comes to mind, and I’m no Trekkie but hear me out, is the Borg – the villainous race on Star Trek, who are independent organisms, but wear this thing over their eyes that keeps them permanently plugged into this mother consciousness. The way we’re all connected permanently to YouTube, to Google, it makes you wonder how much we’re like that, how much its messaging we let into our brains, to the point where it controls what toothpaste we buy…”
It’s these conspiracy theories, threaded through Muse’s music and interviews, that turns a lot of people off the band, but to Mahurin, it’s one of their virtues. “The fact it riles people up is a fantastic thing. Without acts willing to do that, whether you agree with them or not, music would be really boring and safe. I’ve worked with Tom Waits, I’ve worked with U2, Lou Reed, Tracey Chapman… quite radical artists committed to waking people up to what’s going on, and Muse are right up there with them. They start dialogues.”
Their collaboration was aided, it’s probably fair to presume, by the similar causes he’s been fighting across his career. Among Matt’s acclaimed body of photo-essays and TIME magazine covers are works on domestic violence, homelessness, the Texas prison system, AIDS and abortion clinics. “I guess my social-political background might have appealed to them,” Mahurin says. “I consider myself a visual journalist. There has to be content to what you’re creating. I want images to say something. Otherwise they’re just pretty pictures. I didn’t look back at any of Muse’s old artwork when working on my own but I know now that’s something they understand too. It’s made the project a pleasure to be involved in.”