This is one of my favorite articles about MUSE, all the way back from the Absolution era. Somehow it never fails to remind me why I love MUSE so much, — because the people behind the music are even more interesting that the music itself (and considering the band’s epic sound, that’s saying a lot!).
There is much to be said about living life to the fullest excess available…
Muse have never been a band to do things by halves. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, and then overdoing some more. That’s the attitude that’s taken them to the brink of arena-level success with precious little hype, and that’s the attitude that will get them pleasantly plastered on Beaujolais Nouveau this afternoon at a wine-tasting fair in rural France.
On a day off from a tour of European aircraft hangars, rather than sitting around getting stoned on a tour bus like most bands, they use their time for cultural enrichment such as this. And they tackle it with the systematic maximalism of men who like to eat life for breakfast of a morning.
Not for Muse a casual wander round the wine fair, pausing to taste the odd tempting grape. No, they pick up the list of around 36 different wines, and proceed to taste every last one of them, ticking them off one by one, awarding marks out of 10 and noting down comments on taste (such as “mould” and “Christmas” – your guess is as good as mine). And where everyone else here today spits out their wine in the buckets provided, lest they become too intoxicated, Muse swallow.
“I have to swallow it to really appreciate the taste,” reckons singer Matt Bellamy, displaying exactly the kind of bon viveur philosophy that you feel a selfrespecting rock’n'roll band should have.
Then again, you may just think “what a bunch of pretentious little pissheads”. That’s always been the problem with Muse. For every music fan who sees them as inspired eccentrics, carving their own lovably unfashionable niche in a revived British rock scene, there’s another who can’t believe anyone is stupid enough to fall for this modern-day pomp rock folly.
It’s not hard to see why Muse can seem like the anathema of good taste and great art in the 21st century. Their last two albums were called Absolution and The Origin Of Symmetry, titles you can imagine Fields Of The Nephilim using.
Then there’s that intense seriousness that is often taken for self-importance. The echoes of OK Computer-era Radiohead. Matt Bellamy’s melodramatic, hyperventilating holler. The dreaded “classical influence”. And the unapologetic way they embrace the kind of stadium rock and prog metal cliches that were supposed to have been chased out of town decades ago.
Yet if it’s easy to see why Muse have had their detractors, it’s also clear why they’ve got a No 1 album across Europe and look well on their way to Coldplay-sized status. To put it coldly, they tap into the young rock fan’s self-absorption in the same way as Radiohead, personified by Matt Bellamy’s flailing, overwrought wail of a voice.
But they also have a similar calibre of sublimely mournful melodies, like super-heavy hymns, which nevertheless come with unashamedly addictive pop hooks attached. Most of all they understand that, as Bryan Adams once noted, “the kids wanna rock”. Their sound is built on a gutbattering bass rumble that combines the visceral bludgeon of industrial hardcore and the muddy snarl of grunge.
As such, they surely cannot fail. If Muse hadn’t been so totally out of step with every musical trend of the past decade, you’d have sworn that it was all cynically cooked up from marketing demographics and focus groups.
These are no rocking accountants, though. The band’s own lifestyle seems to fit their music. Matt Bellamy is famously the owner of a Paramotor, a kind of personal jet pack. If Keith Moon were alive today, he would surely have one himself.
Muse are also boy racers like the rockers of the old school, invariably arsing around off-roading or racing monster trucks with wings on their days off. Previous Muse tours have been veritable orgies of drunken excess, even if they do prefer wine tasting these days.
Far from being the kind of band put together in north London through ads in the back of music papers, Muse are the original gang band, still only in their mid-20s, and yet they’ve been together 10 years, originally forming at school in Teignmouth, Devon. And from the start, they were never afraid to rock.
“When I go and see a band I like a full-on live show,” says Matt. “I was into bands like Rage Against The Machine. I don’t get it when a band doesn’t show that they like their own music.”
“With a lot of bands,” says drummer Dom Howard, “you wonder why on earth they’re up there on stage, if they don’t want to get into it – go and get a proper job. They’re bored with what they’re doing, and it’s like they’re saying, ‘Right, give me the money and let me get out of here.’ I’m not really like that.”
That much is obvious from the second they enter stage left at the amphitheatre in the Loire town of Angers tonight. Whatever you think of their records, Muse are an awesome live band, putting on the kind of arena show that other bands are too shackled, by lack of imagination or too much uptight cool, to even attempt.
They come on stage to thundering militaristic drums in front of a backdrop of what looks like falling angels lit up against the night sky, and Bellamy takes his place behind a huge red upright piano keyboard, like Freddie Mercury playing the wizard of Oz. All he needs now is a cape and a hat.
“I see what you mean,” he tells me later, “I once nearly went on in a cloak with some Dracula fangs, but I bottled out in the end.”
Just as well, perhaps. As he plays the piano, white neon lights are lit up by each note, seemingly a homage to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
“I keep meaning to play the theme tune from it in the middle of a song,” chuckles Matt, “just to see if anyone gets the joke.”
Well, even if Muse are never quite joking, they’re certainly aware of the ridiculousness inherent in this kind of operatic rock, but choose to embrace it rather than shy away. In that sense there’s a strange kind of kinship between them and the Darkness, even if sometimes Muse’s apparent po-faces might make them appear poles apart from a band who practically play with revolving bow ties round their necks.
“I can see that,” says Matt. “We mix up taking it very seriously and not taking it seriously at all. The way we play live, some of it I’m completely lost in and totally intense but then the next I’m pulling some crappy rock pose and having a laugh. The contradiction is confusing for people, but I don’t see why you can’t have it both ways.”
Nor does anyone else watching Muse tonight. Tonight is one of those rare gigs where the whole crowd, from front to back, are jumping up and down in unison, rather than the front quarter. No chin-stroking required with this lot. This correspondent, for one, is embracing the madness. Which is why we end up discussing potential “event” gigs that Muse could do. If Pink Floyd can play at Pompeii, and Spiritualized can play gigs at the highest towers round the world, there must be something Muse can do to befit their own outsized musical vision.
“We’ve always had the idea of getting a huge fuck-off boat,” reveals Dom, “and sailing it around the coast of Britain with a stage on it, docking at a different port each night and playing a gig, in a tour round the coast of Britain. Maybe if we hired a supertanker – they’re about a mile long, aren’t they?”
Muse are quite happy to walk the line between high drama and high farce, because they know that infinitely more great rock music has been made by people throwing caution to the wind and following their heart than by anyone scared of losing their cool.
Like the man says, you have to swallow it, to appreciate the taste.
Go on, it won’t poison you.