Album seven finds Muse at their ridiculous best: highlighting the atrocities of modern warfare using grandiose, experimental space-rock. “It’s back to basics by our standards,” they tell NME’s Gavin Haynes.
Three years ago, thanks to his girlfriend Kate Hudson’s A-list connections, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy found himself at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, sat next to George W Bush’s former Secretary Of State, General Colin Powell. There was a failure of intelligence that night – in that the powers that be hadn’t realised that you might not want to sit a man obsessed with conspiracy theories next to one of the most powerful figures in the US military-industrial complex.
“I asked him about hollow-point bullets,” says Bellamy. “Because Homeland Security had purchased millions of them. They explode when they hit you – I think they are banned under the Geneva Convention. This was widely reported in the conspiracy press, and the question was why were they buying so many. It looked like they were preparing for massive riots.”
“And so [Colin Powell] said – it was an amazing deflection, and also a chilling insight into the military mindset – ‘When you’re out in the field and you want to shoot, you want to kill: quickly and cleanly’.” Bellamy giggles one of his manic giggles. “And that was it… on to dessert…”
What was Powell like? Did he seem impressive – a man who was the equal of his office?
“It’s hard to say in one meeting. But you know, there’s a power structure there that is intoxicating to be a part of, and I think when people get offered the chance to become a part of that, they are willing to sacrifice a part of their inner morality. It becomes a culture of peer pressure – of ‘this is how we do things around here… didn’t you know?’ And before you know it you’re making kill decisions before breakfast…”
In a nutshell, that’s the psychological insight behind ‘Drones’. At one level, Muse’s seventh album is ridiculously Ronseal. ‘Drones’ it’s called, and drones it’s about, front-to-back. Even the baroque studio-dwelling prog of previous record, 2012’s ‘The 2nd Law’ – with its taped samples comparing unsustainable economic growth to the second law of thermodynamics – felt more of a conceptual shoehorn. ‘Drones’, in contrast, is a laser-guided missile down the gullet of the listener, a capital-C Concept Album that makes ‘Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ look like the latest Vaccines ditty-collection.
The sense of a band putting themselves right out there starts at the cover, which is either Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ ‘two burning men shaking hands’ genius, or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ ‘do you see that my head is on a bike’ daft. The fact that they’ve stuck it out there while barely pausing to give a shit seems indicative of where their heads are at.
End to end, ‘Drones’ has a kind of unity of purpose that seems to mark the moment at which, eighteen years and six albums since they set out from Teignmouth together, Bellamy seems to have dropped his pretence at being a hyper-camp rockstar, and gone full-bore into being the globally anxious social commentator his interviews have always suggested.
The London Edition Hotel’s foyer is what you might call ‘fusty-boutique’ – full of old pink and grey marble, the walls of its exclusive restaurant are a National Gallery’s worth of paintings of dowager Victorian aunts and Georgian maidens draped against haywains, but there is also a giant silver space-egg hung above the staircase to offset that. Behind the bar, a bearded man in black tie jabs his saw in and out of an ice sculpture he’s knocking-up. There’s a pool table just ahead of the corner where we sit, where Matt Bellamy has recently been breaking balls with the band’s drummer, Dominic Howard. It’s only ten AM, but the pair have already been up hours, having just walked the two blocks down from Radio 1 HQ, where they were chortling it up with Nick Grimshaw.
Howard grins up at us from the table. He’s wearing a classic-rocker black jacket and white t-shirt, that makes him look, with his sandy-blonde hair and California tan, like he could have been in any group on the R1 A-list from the past forty years – from Duran Duran to Eddie & The Hotrods to Sleeper to El Presidente. He looks every inch the LA in which he now lives, especially when he sits down and orders a coconut water, to which he says he is now addicted.
“Potassium,” he adds, with authority.
Is he specifically lacking it?
“I could do with a top-up…”
Bellamy’s wearing his classic-Bellamy wool-collar leather jacket. He talks very quickly.
“I read this book: Predator: The Secret Origins Of The Drone Revolution.” He shoots off. “It’s prolific, absolutely prolific how many people have been killed. Apparently Obama gets up in the morning, has a shave, goes down for breakfast, has a cup of tea, and before his day starts, he will sit there in the War Room and make kill decisions on those issues that are significant enough to be passed all the way to the top of the food chain. This one. Not that one. Kill. Don’t kill. And then, he’ll get on with his day, kiss his daughters good morning. So ‘when I started reading about this term kill decision, I became fascinated by it….”
Playing the tapes back, its remarkable how few “y’know what I’m saying” or “well I guess when you put it like that” verbal throat-clearing moments there are. His words spool out in one focused informationally dense payload.
“He’s slowed down a lot,” bassist Chris Wolstenholme tells us later. “When we first started out, he was a lot faster even than that. When we went abroad, we’d go on Italian TV, say, and the live translators would really struggle to keep up with him. But I think over the years so many people have said: ‘Can you please slow down’ to him after interviews that he’s learned to apply the brakes in these moments.”
And his laugh – it’s conspiratorial, it’s anticipatory. In the 1981 play Amadeus, American actor Tom Hulce played Mozart like he was a man who took manic delight in every sparrow that farted, every curlicue of smoke that rose from his candle. There is something of that to Bellamy. He’s exactly what a rockstar should be: i.e. someone who doesn’t seem to perceive reality in the same way as the rest of humanity. A little bit celestial. A little bit neuropathological.
For now, he says, drones are still controlled by operators. Mostly good ol’ boys in the Langley, Virginia carpark where the CIA headquarters its programme, essentially playing video games all day with real lives in West Afghanistan or East Pakistan – insulated, alienated, from the consequences of their actions. That’s a pretty bad look, but not half as bad as what’s to come in the next decade or so – Artificial Intelligence systems sophisticated enough to take the more mundane kill decisions out of the hands of both good ol’ boys and Presidents.
You or I would squeeze the trigger because we have a hunch that someone is an insurgent. But a vaguely-intelligent machine can have a hunch too – based on the probability that the human beings in front of them have come from a certain place, based on the type of weapon they are holding, or on the clothes they wear. So why, we will increasingly be asking, is a human hunch any better than a machine’s?
“To me, that’s like this is the end point. The moment you accept a computer making a kill decision, you’re into Terminator 2. The whole thing’s quite frightening, and I don’t think the public are really as aware as they should be of where this is all going, what it means.”
That would be an easier question to answer if it were simply down to the Pentagon’s latest KillBot 3000. But there’s the human side of the equation too.
Simultaneously, Bellamy was reading up on psychopaths. Jon Ronson’s best-selling The Psychopath Test, and Robert D Hare’s Snakes In Suits – the story of psychopaths in the workplace, that contends that one in a hundred of us exhibit psychopathic traits, and that overwhelmingly, these people tend to end up in the boardroom. Their lack of empathy means they have charm when charm is needed, brutality when that is the most effective weapon, and none of the confusing moral ambivalence that paralyses the rest of us.
“I saw a parallel with how our obsession with efficiency, and how people with no empathy seem to do very very well in modern society. Two hundred years ago, industrialisation ruined the labour force. In the modern age, especially in the West or America, people who are ‘efficient’, who can bracket their emotions off, tend to win. But at what cost to the rest of us?”
The answer, he feels, is to recover some of that empathy we’re all having scooped out by our atomised, technology-straitened lives.
“Empathy seems to be seen as a weakness. We condition people to withdraw it to succeed. But really, it needs to be re-seen as a strength again if there is to be any kind of hope in the world.”
Chris Wolstenholme thinks Matt does have that sort of empathy. “Of course he does. I think we all do. I don’t think someone without empathy could write that album. It’s an album written by someone who is appalled at how the universe rejects that sort of empathy.”
It’s this little light of knowledge that Matt now hopes to let shine out around the globe via his time-honoured method of making a bombastic neo-classical prog record he has just made.
Starting with the classic Muse ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ boa-glam of first single ‘Dead Inside’, Drones tracks the fall and rise of some unnamed Joe Schmoe drone operator – who starts out getting the full Full Metal Jacket hairdryer treatment from a drill sergeant on ‘Psycho’ . ‘Mercy’ then goes the full caboodle of paranoia: “Men in cloaks always seem to run the show… We’re going under, hypnotised by another puppeteer”, while ‘Reapers’ takes the war for control of your mind right to the frontline of the war against terror: “You kill by remote control/The world is on your side. You’ve got the CIA babe.”
Our new friend descends into dead-eyed obedience to what the powers that be want. He handles things for them on ‘The Handler’, before developing a consciousness of his own and defects on ‘Defector’, then openly revolting on ‘Revolt’, and seeing the aftermath of it all on ‘Aftermath’.
In-between, Bellamy has pinched a famous speech from JFK as the audio apex for his nameless character’s transition from acceptance to rebellion. It begins: “For we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy…”
“He was talking about the rise of the USSR’s bureaucracy, this mechanised system for evil. But he doesn’t actually mention the Soviet Union by name, so it works perfectly in the context of the rise of actual machinery, technology, and the rise of efficiency.”
The top YouTube hit for it is a conspiracy theorist re-angling: captioned “JFK Warned Us About The New World Order”.
After the ‘Aftermath’, things get particularly weird. ‘The Globalist’ sees the same ex-drone operator – finally having thrown off the yoke of his oppressors – becoming his own ultimate dictatorship-of-one. Long and loud, it’s up there with the wiggiest things they’ve ever done: ‘Knights of Cydonia’ maximalism that begins with two minutes of soft Ennio Morricone style violins and whistling, climaxing a full six minutes later with a countdown from ten to the actual end of the actual world.
World over, the final track is weirder still in its own understated way. Based on the choral music of Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, there are no instruments – simply Bellamy’s voice looped over and over into a choir-of-one. It’s a sad slow hymnal, in which Bellamy sings only these words: “My mother… my father my sister my brother my son my daughter… killed by drones. Can you feel anything? Are you dead inside? Now you can kill from the safety of your home with drones. Amen.”
“It’s a lament for the victims,” Bellamy considers. “It ends on this ghostly chorus of the forgotten. They will never see justice, and they have been killed by a robot. There’s something inherently tragic about humanity there.”
Musically, it often feels like a greatest hits set. Some ‘Starlight’-style dapper sundowners piano riffs on Mercy. ‘Uprising’-style Glitter-stomp on ‘Psycho’. ‘Defector’ brings a mellow-Pixies tinge to the usual Queen reign. And ‘Aftermath’ seems to be asking ‘What if Pink Floyd were asked to do an Olympics montage?’.
Yet for a band who were telling reporters towards the end of their ‘The 2nd Law’ touring commitments that they felt they’d pushed things to their limits and now needed to be getting ‘back to basics’, it’s not quite ‘Nebraska’. It’s not even ‘In Rainbows’.
“But by our standards, it is back to basics,” Dom Howard points out. “Yeah, it’s layered and bombastic, but the start of that process was very different to how we normally do it. For the first time, he three of us in a room, eyeballing each other again. I think on 2nd Law, producing it ourselves, we spent so much time in the control room that we lost sight of ourselves as a band.”
Most of ‘Drones’ was made live. Paired off with the producer of AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’, Mutt Lange, even the wigging-out of ‘The Globalist’ was recorded in one take. Eighteen years ago, they made much of what became ‘Showbiz’ in Matt’s nan’s basement – damp down the walls, egg boxes up them, and “weird shiny black spiders” descending randomly into their practice space. They decided to go back to that spirit, holing-up in Bellamy’s much nicer basement over the summer.
“I guess,” Howard explains. “We wanted to push the boat out on ‘Drones’. For that reason, it’s very diverse – it’s the sound of us being very experimental and losing our minds a bit.”
For all the group bonding, the process of making ‘Drones’ can’t have been a breeze for Bellamy, because, in December of last year, he finally, definitively split from the mother of his child, Kate Hudson, his fiancée for several years. The break-up seems to have been as amicable as these things can ever be when a child and the love of a lifetime are involved. Yet there’s a glaring irony in a man taking perhaps the tenderest, most naked moment of his adult life and turning it into an album about unthinking, unfeeling killing machines. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ it is not.
The answer he gives sums up the paradox between the exuberant man who embraced rock’s batshittiest cliches, and the private, nerdy, emotionally guarded soul who hides in facts and details, who does not wish to bring those feelings into it: “Look. We had a great relationship, she’s a lovely person, we’re better off as friends.”
But that never fed back into the music? You left it at the door?
He looks dead ahead. “It’s difficult for me to pinpoint anything on the album specifically about that… Except that when someone suddenly finds themselves outside of a relationship, they ponder things, they think over the points in their lives when they think things didn’t go the way they expected them to… It’s the fact that I reconnected with all the points in my life where I felt alone or outside.”
Did you contemplate where you’d gone wrong in your life, Matt? Did you go for long walks in the countryside?
“Of course,” he says. “I always go for walks in the countryside. The South Devon countryside… I used to go letter-boxing actually.” Letter-boxing is a wholesome country pursuit whereby you go out and find boxes, based on clues hidden for you in boxes in fields.
Bellamy still denies being a political songwriter, anyway. “I wouldn’t say I’m concerned by politics in that sense. Everything we’ve done – it’s been more about responding to the emotions involved in the situation.” But perhaps if one emotion could be said to be binding together his outwardly-directed socio-political stuff with the heart of the man himself, it’s that sense of the loner, of the outsider trying to find his way through the maze.
“When I think about my teenage years, when my parents broke up, and feeling alone and being out of control and having to survive… And then other times when you’ve had to find your own way… that’s always been a dominant theme in what I’ve done.”
Is there actually catharsis there? Do you feel happier now?
“Yeah… I’m getting there,” he pauses, a rare event. “Definitely in the last few months I’ve been feeling much better. Actually, I’ve been feeling really good…”
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. Seven albums in, Muse have built one of the most ardent, most genuinely international fanbases of any modern pop group. What do you do with a group like that? If you’re Matt Bellamy, you push them right up into the ugly, abstracted meat-patty factory of modern warfare. This is new ground, even for them.