Muse are back with a new album, ‘Drones’, set for release on June 8. Excited? You ought to be, even if only for the operatic trio’s return to the live arena to promote the new record. When it comes to dizzying live spectacles, there’s no one like Matt Bellamy’s band – as NME’s Mark Beaumont discovered in this 2012 NME cover feature…
To a normal pair of eyes, it looks a lot like an enormous LED light structure hanging from the ceiling, directly above Muse drummer Dom Howard’s kit. The structure is moving, like a Transformer, constantly changing shape. One minute it’s a pyramid. The next, an inverted tornado. The one after, it’s sort of dancing. In front of Howard’s drumkit and below the raised plinth it’s sitting on are two black circles, each with a microphone stand. One is for the band’s bassist Chris Wolstenholme to stand on. The other is for the trio’s frontman, Matt Bellamy. Bellamy’s is spinning. This is so when Muse begin their initial 20-date European tour to promote new album ‘The 2nd Law’ at the Park & Suites Arena in Montpellier, France, fans sitting behind the stage get to see Bellamy’s face – and more importantly, his goatee beard – rather than the back of his head. Howard’s drumkit also spins, for the same reason, although he doesn’t have a goatee. Wolstenholme won’t spin, but there’s a horseshoe-shaped runway lined with panels of LED lights that leads from his black circle all the way around the back of the stage to Bellamy’s black circle, for both of them to run about on when they get the urge. In front of and slightly below Bellamy and Wolstenholme’s black circles is an arrow-shaped bit of stage jutting into where the crowd will be. This is for when Bellamy wants to get down on his knees to howl the closing riff of ‘Hysteria’ to the thousands of people watching him. Basically, the whole thing looks fucking amazing.
To the man dressed in black who’s eating a plate of fish and vegetables in a dimmed room deep inside the inner workings of Wembley Arena, where the rehearsals have been taking place, it looks like this: “It’s basically an upside-down pyramid,” says Matt Bellamy. “Which is a very symbolic gesture. A lot of people think the pyramid represents power structures, you know, in every walk of life. Anything from basic corporate structures with a top-down system where CEOs take all the profit and get paid more than the people at the bottom, which is the kind of down-to-Earth version, to the Illuminati, you know. The pyramid seems to represent the power structures of the world, or what some people see as the justice of the world. It can all be summarised by a pyramid. Turning it upside down is a gesture as to what we think of that. But during the concert it becomes a pyramid and eats the band. Then we escape out of it.”
It sounds ridiculous. And clearly, it is ridiculous. But Muse are the absolute best at being ridiculous. Their last tour – 2009-2011’s The Resistance Tour – was the one where the band all played on individual towers that vibrated so much Matt had to deliberately get down onto his knees to play guitar to stop himself falling off. “A fucking nightmare,” says Dom Howard, who’s rocking a leather jacket, red shirt and proper Australian beach hair. There was a spaceship though. And a UFO. Because of course there was. And because the Muse live experience is exactly that: an experience. A special kind of giganticness no other band can pull off. Plus they’ve just released their sixth album, ‘The 2nd Law’, named after and inspired by the second law of thermodynamics. The record sounds like INXS crossed with Skrillex crossed with Queen crossed with every good idea Muse have had in the last year. So, you know, a bunch of ordinary rock shows isn’t going to do the job.
For Dom, the tour (which reaches the UK on October 24, first stop Glasgow SECC) is shaping up to be a terrifying experience, because he has to play the drums with this shape-shifting pyramid above his head. “When I’m sitting at my kit it’s pretty bloody scary, to be honest. I’ve only played a couple of songs under it so far, but I just look up and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, look at the size of that. Is it secure? Who’s rigging this?’ It’s a completely different monster to The Resistance Tour, a completely different spaceship. We’ve built a new spaceship.”
Howard takes it upon himself to lead a tour of the area underneath the stage, and takes particular interest in
a small section where there’s a red Chesterfield sofa. This is where the band will hang out between the main bit of the gig and the encore, and listen to the crowd shouting “MUSE! MUSE! MUSE!” over and over again. “We’re gonna set up a little bar down here, and it’ll be our changing room. Swap a few items of clothing. Have a Moscow mule. I’m currently working on a costume that looks like I’m some kind of weird laser or lighting effect. It looks like I’m being blasted with light. And I’ve got my ninja suit as well.” We’ll come back to the ninjas.
First, the show. For every song Muse play, a short film made by the band’s mate Tom Kirk will appear on the LED pyramid. Despite the trio regularly putting on spectacular shows like it’s no big deal, this is the first time they’ve designed a stage production themselves. It began, says Bellamy, “as a sketch on a napkin”. And you can tell he’s enthused because he has minute details of every aspect of the live show rattling around in his brain.
“The opening of the show is great because people will realise the track ‘The 2nd Law: Unsustainable’ was written to be the opening to the concert. On The Resistance Tour we had a piece of intro music and I started to really like it, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s put the intro music for this tour on the album so people really know it’, and that’s what that song is. So a big robot face will just go ‘UNSUSTAINABLE’ and we’ll come out together. We’ll be in a triangle of rock position.
A newsreader appears on the screens and we’ll walk out when they’re speaking. Then it kicks off with a big riff.” From then on, every detail has been planned. As Dom says: “It’s like, ‘OK, for ‘Knights Of Cydonia’ we need an exploded pyramid’. And the next thing you know, you’ve got an exploded pyramid.” Bellamy adds: “For ‘Animals’ we’ve got a video featuring this older actor who plays this corporate business guy who’s proud and successful, and it starts with him making a speech to his boardroom with loads of charts. Things are going very well for him and we’ve digitally morphed on this creepy smile to his face that makes you not like this guy, and it’s just trying to capture the feeling of corporate greed. Then his life unravels and the stock markets crash and it ends with him running around London with a camera on him. He’s sweating and he collapses. That’s one of the more narrative videos. Not too abstract.”
As you’d expect, Muse will play loads of songs from ‘The 2nd Law’. “We can play pretty much everything off the new album,” says Howard. “We’ll rotate a bunch of songs, but there’ll be six or seven key new songs we’ll play every night.” But there’ll be some of the old stuff too. “We promise to play a song off ‘Showbiz’ that we haven’t played since the year 2000,” says Bellamy. “Exciting times!”
The only problem – if there is a problem with being in Muse in 2012 – is they have too many songs. Wolstenholme will be singing one every night of the tour, but he’ll have to choose between the two songs – ‘Liquid State’ and ‘Save Me’ – he wrote for ‘The 2nd Law’. The biggest dilemma the band faces is picking between proper Muse classics like ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and ‘New Born’. The thing is, says Bellamy, “We can’t get both of them in unless we start playing for over two hours. That’s stadium length. An hour and 45 is enough and we’re struggling to get it that short.”
But there’s a solution. “We’re thinking of creating a really cool visual effect,” says Matt, “which makes the horseshoe setup at the back of the stage look like a roulette wheel. We’re thinking of having song titles on the roulette wheel, and dropping a ball down so it stops on certain songs. Then we’ll play that song. So we can have ‘Stockholm…’ and ‘New Born’ or something, and it’ll spin around and choose whichever one.”
The way Bellamy talks about these ideas is so matter-of-fact they sound extremely sensible, even when he starts talking about the album’s themes seeping into the show. “There’s lots of energy-consumption footage of oil fields and coal fields and power stations and nuclear stations,” he says. “This is all happening during the bit when the pyramid kills the band at the end of the show.” Which brings us back to the ninjas.
Everyone’s heard about the ninjas, and everyone knows Dom is one of them. So let’s take this on a little. “I have Dom’s ninja costume,” says Bellamy. “It’ll come out after the first part of the set, which is gonna be about an hour and 10 minutes, and will end with the band being consumed by the pyramid and destroyed. While the pyramid is still down, a video will start playing, and so will the track ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’, which will have the same video with it that fans who bought the album will have seen. The one with the kids running away from a digital horizon that they realise they can’t escape from. So one of them jumps into it, kind of like a suicide. It’s a great piece. Good young actors. And that’s the main part of the set finished. That’s the serious conceptual part over. Then we can have some fun.”
At this point Bellamy’s face does that thing a kid’s face does when he’s pretty sure he’s had the best idea of all time ever. And then he describes what’s going to happen in the encore. “So the pyramid stays down and the light dies out with ‘The 2nd Law: Isolated System’ playing. You can’t see us. And then the pyramid turns into a dojo, a Japanese martial arts temple straight out of Kill Bill or Enter The Dragon. And you see old-fashioned bankers walking around and you think, ‘Why are they walking around a dojo?’ Then me and Chris appear on the wings of the stage, with our guitars, and we start playing ‘Uprising’. But we can’t see Dom because Dom’s buried under the pyramid. So we pre-filmed an action sequence of Dom in a red ninja costume trying to play the drums and fending off all these businessmen and doing all these karate moves, and then halfway through the song the pyramid lifts up and Dom’s underneath wearing the costume. That’s the light touch!”
The best thing about all this extreme planning is that Muse aren’t even playing Wembley Arena. This is all just practice. When they’re ready they’ll stick all the gear into 17 trucks and lug it around Europe until December. Which sounds fancy, but apparently 17 trucks isn’t very many trucks. “It’s pretty light compared to U2,” says Bellamy. “We joined them on tour in America a couple of times and they had hundreds of trucks. It was outrageous.”
But this is just the beginning of The 2nd Law Tour.
In 2013 the band will go on their biggest run of stadium shows ever, play their biggest American shows ever and play places no other bands have played (“I can’t tell you where,” says Bellamy). But their most noble quest is one that will find them in Moscow. “We may do a stadium there, but it depends on the whole Putin and Pussy Riot thing,” says Bellamy. “We’re going to keep an eye on the situation because ideally we want Pussy Riot to play.” And as if to confirm how pleased he is with all of this, Bellamy says: “This is definitely the best stage show we’ve ever had, no question. I don’t know how we’re going to top it, to be honest. Usually there’s always something that’s seemed not quite right. But this is all really right. And it makes me nervous…”