Stop The Presses!

An Interview With Muse’s Guitar Hero, Matt Bellamy

Lyndsey Parker
Stop The Presses!
The upcoming sixth album by Muse is titled The Resistance, and aptly so--as resistance is futile when it comes to Muse. Over the course of the past decade, the British power trio has quietly (okay, not really quietly, since everything they play is cranked BEYOND 11, but stealthily, slowly) built up a devoted fanbase via tireless touring, and now they are finally poised to become The Biggest Band In The WorldTM.

With songs on the recent Twilight soundtrack and in Guitar Hero 5 ("Supermassive Black Hole" and "Plug-In Baby," respectively), a hot slot performing at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and props from American Idol's Adam Lambert (who's currently covering Muse's "Starlight" on tour), Muse are set to skyrocket from merely massive to, well, supermassive. Few bands are creating the sort of over-the-top symphonic rock that is Muse's signature sonic-booming sound, and their time is NOW.

Lead singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy--whose crimson-suited, rooster-haired, guitar-jackhammering likeness has been uncannily recreated for Guitar Hero 5 (see clip at the bottom of this blog), and whose righteous riffs will inspire many a gamer to shred at advanced levels--recently chatted with Yahoo! Music not only about becoming a digital cartoon, but also, of course, about Muse's ambitious new album and plans for inevitable world domination.

Resistance is futile. Read now...

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Y! MUSIC: So I got to check out the Guitar Hero cartoon of you, and it's pretty awesome. How does it feel to see yourself in Guitar Hero avatar form?

MATT: It's pretty bizarre, actually. I thought they made me look a little more muscley than in reality! But I'm sure that's just part of the marketing or something. It was good fun to do, actually. I had to wear a sort of silly spandex costume with little weird ping-pong balls stuck all over my body, and basically just make a fool of myself in front of a room full of people. But it was all good, all good!

Y! MUSIC: See, I didn't know they did that. I thought they just studied your onstage moves and mimicked you that way.

MATT: No, they actually record your movements, so I was basically miming along to "Plug-In Baby" as if playing it in concert, and I had a guitar on me. Motion-capture, I think that's what they call it. They just sort of capture all of your movements, and they put your avatar onto that, and it moves exactly as you do. It's cool.

Y! MUSIC: It's sort of another sign that you've "made it," when you get to be a Guitar Hero cartoon.

MATT: [laughs] Yeah, probably! It's definitely some kind of compliment, yeah. It's sort of given me a taste, actually--made me wonder if we could do a whole game, with the whole band involved, so we could get, like, a drummer version and a bass version as well. A few bands have done that now, and they've done games sort of based on the whole history of their albums. I think it might be cool to do something like that.

Y! MUSIC: That would be cool, but I fear if people tried to play "Knights Of Cydonia" it would just exhaust them too much!

MATT: Actually, that was in Guitar Hero 3! I think it was one of those difficult ones, where you have to get to a certain level to be able to play it! [laughs]

Y! MUSIC: Yes, that's definitely an advanced song. And that actually brings me to the subject of your new album coming out...I hears there's a song on it that would be even more super-advanced, "Exogenesis." And it's a three-part song!

MATT: That was sort of us, or me really, dabbling into orchestral work. That's something I've always been interested in. I've always been quite into classical music and film music and that kind of stuff, and I'm always looking for ways to incorporate that into a rock band and into what we do as a three-piece. On previous albums we've touched on that, but on this album, we recorded three or four songs which were sort of the foundation of the album, and then after that we thought we could be a little more experimental and do things a little more outside of the box. And one of the things was to do a three-part prog symphony! [laughs] I don't know what else to call it! But I'd like to think that we weren't being overly extravagant in the instruments, in the way it's orchestrated. I think you can hear it was very influenced by 20th century film music and late 19th century/20th century classical and romantic music. For me it was a challenge to learn how to orchestrate for the first time, myself, arranging for a small orchestra--working out the violins, violas, cellos, double basses, even timpani, trombones, various horns...just learning about the range of instruments and the kind of things they can and cannot do. It's quite an interesting challenge, translating our music for other players, you know?

Y! MUSIC: I think I read you said it was Muse's "hardest song ever"...

MATT: Um, hardest in terms of certainly the one that took the most time to work on. It took the most time to write it, to arrange it, and then to record it and everything. A lot of work went into it. I think it's one of those things that came out because we were self-producing. You've got more time to investigate stuff when you're not working with someone else who's pressuring you to get on with it. I always think that that song wouldn't have happened if it was produced by someone else, because I don't think any producer would have allowed us to do it! [laughs]

Y! MUSIC: Is that why it took so long for you guys to follow up your last album? People have been hungering for new Muse!

MATT: Every album, we try to do something that in some way modifies the working process or the creative process. We go and work in different locations, or work with a different producer. This time, we decided to build a home studio for the first time, and also produce it ourselves. So those two things, they were the things we chose to do to make this a little bit different. But they happened to be things that added quite a lot of time! It takes a lot of time to build a studio properly, and also, when you're producing yourselves, there's a lot of learning curve to go up, you know?

Y! MUSIC: One thing that I think is a benefit, is Muse's career path seems to be the opposite of most bands', in that you've been allowed over the course of many years to grow and become bigger with every album. Usually it's the opposite, and most bands don't have that luxury of time to evolve.

MATT: Yeah, in some ways it's kind of old-fashioned, more in line with how it was for bands in the '70s or '80s, where you're gaining a fanbase and people are getting to know you just from you touring extensively. We've toured all over the place. We've toured even in places where we don't release records, like South America, East Asia, and really we've gained a fanbase from touring more than anything else. And also using the Internet as well--I think the Internet is another thing that's really helped, certainly with this new wave, if you like. I think in some ways we're outside of the marketing box that record companies try to put bands in. I think sometimes [record labels'] approach can damage an artist; I think sometimes it's best to allow them to develop without too much pressure, especially in the early years. Some bands get so much put on their shoulders straight away, that it can sometimes turn them off or completely distract them away from what they're supposed to be doing, which is just making good music and being a good live act.

Y! MUSIC: Muse is obviously already at a certain level of hugeness in America, but I kind of just get this vibe that this album, The Resistance, is the one that's going to make you superstars here, make things go insane.

MATT: Ha! [laughs]

Y! MUSIC: I just feel it. There's so much momentum with you guys right now, a lot of things aligning, like the Twilight soundtrack, the VMAs, Adam Lambert covering "Starlight" on the American Idol tour...are you aware of Adam's cover?

MATT: Yeah, I saw a clip of that on YouTube, and I thought it was a nice compliment, really. It's always nice when someone covers your music. It's one of the ultimate compliments as a writer and also as a band, that someone else would want to adopt one of your songs. It was cool, you know. An interesting version.

Y! MUSIC: He's been really vocal about you guys. Even on Jazz Night on American Idol, the "Feeling Good" cover he did was inspired by your version. He's given you some good additional publicity in America.

MATT: Yeah, it's cool! I think that's nice. Is he making an album soon?

Y! MUSIC: Yes, it comes out this fall.

MATT: OK, cool. Yeah, it would be interesting to hear that.

Y! MUSIC: So developments like that, they're really putting Muse in the public consciousness, and I just feel like this next album is the one that's going to make you huge, like U2-huge, in America!

MATT: [laughs] I don't know about that! That might take us another decade or two! But yeah, our third album [Absolution], in a way, was almost perceived as a debut album for us in America, because a lot of people had never heard of us before. That was really quite exciting, because it was a chance to feel like a new band again. Sometimes when bands get to their third or fourth album they can sort of wind down a little bit, but what happened to us is we did the first two albums and we got quite well-known across Europe and parts of Japan and Australia, but really we were still completely unknown in America. And then the third album came out and we were on the Warners record label, and that was perceived as a debut album in America. So when we came to America we felt really energized, feeling like a new band again. And we were still quite young and we thought that was really exciting, and so we just went with it, did loads of touring. That's what kept us really fresh. And the last two albums seemed to have gone over really well in America, and with the touring, each time we come into town more people show up. So I'm very excited to come back--and interestingly, we're opening up for U2 for the first couple of weeks of our tour! So that should be interesting, to learn a few moves from them.

Y! MUSIC: Wow! That's going to be a lot of BIG stadium rock onstage. That's awesome.

MATT: Yeah, it should be a good one!

Y! MUSIC: Do you feel the need to top yourselves with each album? Each Muse album is, in and of itself, pretty ambitious, but do you feel the need to one-up yourselves?

MATT: One-up? I suppose we do think that way, as long as "one-up" means doing something completely differently, as opposed to better. I think sometimes we're just looking to find something new, something that we haven't spoken about in our lyrics before, or something new in the music that we want to get out there. So yeah, I think in some places we're refining certain things we've had a go at on previous albums, trying to make them a little bit better, but in other places we're just looking for something brand-new.

Y! MUSIC: You talked about classical influences--was that something just on "Exogenesis," or throughout the whole Resistance album?

MATT: There's a song called "I Belong To You" which has a bit of a classical influence: The middle section is taken from an excerpt from this French opera called Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns. But also the ending of a song called "United States Of Eurasia" has a little bit of a Chopin piano piece. So I've thrown a couple of classical references into the album, and I guess in some ways that is a bit of a theme. But there's certainly some other tracks that are far more straightahead rock, like "Uprising" or "Unnatural Selection."

Y! MUSIC: What about the lyrical themes? On the last album, Black Holes & Revelations, there seemed to be a couple overall concepts, namely having to do with space and politics. What about on this album?

MATT: Yeah, I read the book 1984 when I was in school, and I sort of concentrated on the political side of it then, but I read it again recently and this time I really quite liked the romantic story in that book--the love story between Winston and Julia. The idea of a tragic love story set on some sort of political backdrop, you know? I wanted to create something that had that feeling. It's not so much influenced by the book, but by the idea of a romance developing amid political unrest. That's the general theme for the album, I think.

Y! MUSIC: Very cool. You mentioned "United States Of Eurasia." Can you tell me about how you recently released bits of the song around the world on USB drives? Some sort of cool stunt like that?

MATT: That song was kind of influenced by a book called The Grand Chessboard, a book by a great foreign policy advisor [Zbigniew Brzezinski]. He talked about Eurasia like it's some kind of chessboard or some kind of game, almost--it's a little bit Dr. Strangelove, you imagine these crazy guys sitting around the council of foreign relations talking about these crazy, grand, geo-strategic ideas. I just found the whole thing quite interesting, and in that song, the music is trying to have that sort of over-the-top, megalomaniac kind of feeling. We thought it was one of the best songs on the album, so we wanted it to be one of the first songs that got heard by people. So we thought we would put together an Internet thing that in some ways incorporated the concept of the grand chessboard. We basically divided the song up into six segments and put them on these encoded USBs which were spread around different parts of Eurasia, and we gave the fans blocks of code to crack. And we had a sort of pretend secret undercover agent who read the grand chessboard, and if the fans said a certain code word, they'd get the USB. This gradually unlocked the song as it went across Eurasia. And then the final piece was in New York, and the idea was: If America recognizes the United States of Eurasia, then we'll release the MP3 for free. It was a bit of a fun game, but it also had a relationship to what inspired the song.

Y! MUSIC: I love how ambitious Muse is. You guys really go for it, really go over-the-top in all aspects of what you do. Most bands, sadly, don't do that these days. Why aren't more bands ambitious like you guys?

MATT: It definitely seems like a bit of a quiet time out there right now. I think in some ways, the music industry has been crumbling a little bit. But I think in the same sense, it's weeding it down to the artists who are really doing it because they love music, and they love playing--as opposed to the artists who are doing it because they want to be famous or make money. I think the people who choose the latter are moving on to other things now--they're trying to become film stars, trying to do this, that, and the other. But I think one of the good things that's happening in the music industry is it's getting rid of the people who are not doing it for the right reasons, and it's leaving the people who love music and playing live. Those are the artists that will last, and I hope that we're one of those bands.

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