Muse's Matt Bellamy: ‘There’s a time-lag with fans, where five years later they get it’
Exclusive interview: One of Britain’s biggest rock bands talk to Mark Beaumont about their new album ‘Simulation Theory’, relationships in the spotlight, and leaving the EU
The world is constantly racing to catch up with Muse. Like some kind of musical super-intelligence, the three schoolmates from Teignmouth in Devon left less visionary acts dawdling in the blocks when, at the first strike of the 21st century, they began merging noirish synthpop, classical symphonics and space rock, bound up with sci-fi fantasies, conspiracy paranoia and quantum physics. Some 20 million album sales later, they’re a stadium-destroying spectacle and a band that’s always at least half a decade ahead of their rabidly devoted fans.
“The fanbase we have, there’s this time-lag where five years later they get it,” says frontman Matt Bellamy, sitting in a west London recording studio. “When we put ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ out, I remember there being a huge backlash. The first time we started playing that live, the crowd reaction was absolutely dead … the crowd would just stand there. [Then] ‘Supermassive Black Hole’, for a while, was the number one most streamed song in the UK in the [previous] two or three years, and when we play it live it gets the best reaction, in the top three or four songs we have.”
History repeats. Bellamy is addressing the more negative fan responses to the first songs to emerge from – the brilliant, actually – new album Simulation Theory. In stark, colourful contrast to the monochrome menace of 2015’s Drones, the eighth Muse album takes a synth-heavy Eighties pop slant, fusing their usual sci-fi rock with the retro synth textures of Erasure and Vangelis, plus dashes of contemporary, processed chart sizzle.
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“This is probably a 50/50 blend of electronic programming and organic instruments,” Bellamy argues, “and even that, by modern standards, is pretty retro. The vast majority of top 40 music is just laptops and a vocalist, and even the vocalist is largely processed. We’re still flying the flag as best we can for humans making music rather than programmers. We live in the age of the programmer … the individual auteur, often not social, outgoing people, these are the people very much dominating the scene. We’re trying to create this symbiosis between the absolute cutting edge of programming and technology, but still trying to find a place for humans. That’s the entire journey of Muse.”
Five minutes into a conversation that has already taken in the rise of artificial intelligence, accelerating computational power, the Turing test and the likelihood we’re all living in a simulated universe, it’s becoming clear Bellamy is done with reality. It torments him. On Muse’s spectacular tour for Drones, rock’s ever-whirring brainiac felt hemmed in by the rigid, cutting-edge technological miasma of hovering drones and sheet-curtain video screens, weighed down by the record’s songs of fear and paranoia about the rise of remote, AI warfare. He decided, if the march of tech is as unstoppable as he thinks, he should embrace it. Upload himself.
“I bought a VR headset and got into VR gaming for the first time,” he says – babbles would be more accurate, such is his excitable, boffin-like manner. “I found it to be quite optimistic. Doing social media, there’s a certain distance it creates between people which means people lean mean. Whereas in VR, I was playing Star Trek: Bridge Crew, and I was on a space station, exactly like that Black Mirror episode, with some avatar of someone from China, someone from Germany and someone from the countryside in Surrey. We were all together working on trying to fly this spaceship and solve missions that were created by some AI.
“What I found is that my interactions with total strangers were so friendly. Everybody’s generally so much nicer to each other in VR. The next level of that will be more and more sensory connection – people are nicer to each other the more contact they have. But comments through a little screen on social media, I’ve got a feeling that’s gonna be out of date quite soon.”
So a band dedicated to unravelling hidden truths about the universe – political oppression, thermodynamic horror stories, government conspiracies about secret power cabals and plots to control the weather – chose instead to lose itself in the unreal. Simulation Theory dives headfirst into the concept we’re all just avatars in some vast alien game of Sims. How likely is it?
“To understand reality we’re having to simulate things,” Bellamy explains. “Galaxy formations, the Big Bang, weather patterns, all this stuff is being understood through simulation. If computational power continues speeding up, then there will come a point where we’ll be able to simulate reality. It’ll only be when we are able to simulate a universe ourselves that we’re able to enter into an experience like this one, and at that point, it’ll be very hard to say whether this universe is or isn’t a simulation.”
He says he’s long had an inkling he’s being observed “from within”. “I remember being in school,” he says, “I must’ve been 13 or 14, when I first had this moment where I felt like I was watching myself interact with other people. That is a thing which can make you question whether there’s something, an observer, separate within us. Is this me? You look in the mirror and think ‘is this really who I am, or is this a vessel that I’m in?’ … sometimes when you look at all the things that are going wrong in the world, you think ‘something seems not quite right with the programme’.”
This none-more-Muse idea unshackled them. Initially intended to be a series of singles recorded and released at their leisure – “There was a really relaxed attitude towards it,” says bassist Chris Wolstenholme, “we weren’t thinking about ‘how does this track play into the rest of the album?’ We were just thinking about making great songs and trying new ideas” – the tracks took on a unified theme of attempting to hold on to a human connection in an automated world, and the aesthetic went full San Junipero, to hold to the Black Mirror theme.
Filling the videos with tongue-in-cheek references to Tron, Teen Wolf, Back to the Future, Gremlins and Blade Runner, Muse cast themselves as a virtual Eighties pop band. Is this Muse’s version of a Sgt Pepper character album? “I guess so,” says drummer Dom Howard, lounging across a sofa in an adjoining studio. “In the videos, you don’t really know when they’re taking place. The “Pressure” one [featuring Muse as Marty McFly’s prom band fighting critters] obviously looks like it’s from the Eighties, but it’s in a simulated world so it could be in the future. It’s like we’re playing the avatars of ourselves, so it’s not really us. If it doesn’t work out and people don’t like it, we’ll go: ‘that wasn’t us anyway’.”
“It’s a sign of the times that there’s no restrictions any more,” Bellamy argues. “We’re able to do whatever we want to do and be whatever we want to be. We no longer feel necessarily limited to have to be a certain type of band or a certain type of music, or even a certain type of look. I was going back to some of those dystopian ideas and early Eighties synth influences, soundtracks to films like The Thing and Blade Runner. It was the freedom to not have to be serious all the time.”
Simulation Theory is serious some of the time, however. Bellamy usually finds sociopolitical truths within his sci-fi flights of fancy, and chief amongst the new album’s concerns is the rise of the populist right. “Dig Down” talks of dark days “when a clown takes the throne”, and “Thought Contagion” discusses the nefarious use of AI bot technology to spread dissent and disunity. Yet he was a supporter of a soft Brexit during the referendum campaign – has the ensuing shambles changed his mind?
“We come from a rural part of the UK, so we understand this rise of populism,” he says. “It’s very frightening the way it’s going – across Europe and America … people feel like the political establishment doesn’t care for you or doesn’t listen to you. It’s wanting the political establishment to reform itself and change in a way that gives more feeling of democracy, more power to local government.
“My political position is that the vote that was on offer didn’t give me the ability to vote for what I wanted. I believe the EU has to reform itself to being more about a constitution of human rights, find the things we all have in common and create a constitution, similar to the American constitution but based on what European values are. It should be a federal system but it should be centred around European defence and the constitution on human rights.
“I think almost all other issues should be at a state level and if it was me, I’d even go to a local level … I feel that the EU is not democratic enough and the UK isn’t democratic enough, and if the powers that be within those structures don’t create some kind of reform soon then we’re in real danger of this populist movement going in a really bad direction.”
But the UK does have control over the vast majority of its domestic laws – the EU largely imposes beneficial standards, rights and regulations – and Brexit threatens the Human Rights Act which Britain fought for Europe to accept. And it’s all very well taking the moral high-ground on global democracy when you’re a wealthy rock star living in LA – what about the people that will lose jobs and businesses, or the mid-level bands that won’t be able to tour internationally due to visa costs?
“My general opinion is I’d much rather be a part of Europe, one hundred per cent,” Bellamy says. “I’d much rather stay as part of Europe, but the EU itself should listen to some degree to what’s happening across the whole of Europe, that people want there to be a little bit of change … People in Lancashire, in Cornwall, they need to feel like they have more say over what goes on in their actual vicinity. The more things you outsource towards distant centralised government, there’s always going to be revolutions, uprisings and populist movements. Sometimes destruction needs to happen.”
Elsewhere in the – possibly – real world, Muse are undergoing personal reskins. Wolstenholme, 10 years sober after descending so deep into alcoholism he was vomiting blood, is getting married to new partner Caris Ball the day before his 40th birthday in December, after years as a diehard family man with ex-wife Kelly and their six children.
“Life’s very positive for me,” he says, “It’s important that we all recognise that we deserve to be happy, and sometimes you have to go through some hard times to get there … It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through in my life. Sometimes you just have to make really hard decisions to find your own inner peace. Sometimes, that causes a massive shitstorm and it’s hard to get through that … But I feel very positive about life and the future. It’s all go.”
Devout LA bachelor Howard even has a girlfriend – “we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know why I haven’t settled down, one day, of course, I’d love to. It’s not like I’m out caning it every night because I can’t do that either, I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m trying to focus more on staying alive for another 40 years now.” And Bellamy is preparing to marry US model Elle Evans, of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Line” video fame, next year.
“We’ve been together three-and-a-half years now and she’s lovely,” he grins, “very different to me, a very sunny, happy, lovely person. We’re good for each other that way. I bring the darkness, she brings the sunshine, together it works very well.” How is the arrangement of co-parenting his son Bing with ex-partner Kate Hudson going? “It’s all going well, everybody seems to be pretty friendly. From my experience in LA it’s the modern family ... there hasn’t been any bitterness or weirdness like that.”
Was it tough dealing with the press attention as Mr Kate Hudson?
“I didn’t really notice it, to be honest,” Bellamy says. “When I was with her I’d notice it, but in myself, I’ve never been a celebrity-type person. If I get recognised in the street, it’s usually someone who knows the music. I’ve never had that invasion of privacy feeling which people who are really famous get. Especially, women get treated quite unfairly by the paparazzi – the media really want to know what woman are doing, especially when they’re going through difficult times, having children, going through break-ups or marriage, anything like that. Women get a lot more of that than men do. Famous women get really scrutinised and photographed, and the gossip stuff that gets written about them can be quite offensive. I don’t see that same amount applied to men.”
Ask Bellamy what keeps him awake at night, and you might expect paranoid diatribes about Russian brain bots or some sort of super-singularity. Instead, he worries about topping the grand, brooding spectacle of the Drones tour with 2019’s stadium shows. “It’ll be much more colourful, much more neon, bright colours. It’ll also have more emphasis on human beings, as opposed to technological objects like drones or some big piece of technology that comes in and does something. It’ll be people playing brass instruments, drumming parts, an array of additional people … there may even be elements of, dare I say it, dance. Sometimes I’m awake at night sweating, thinking ‘it’s too late to turn back, s**t, I’m gonna have to make it work’.”
“Drones was an amazing, fantastic tour,” says Howard, “it generally went really well, but there were a few times the bloody drones didn’t work, or there was the odd gig where we couldn’t use them. One of those f***ing drones fell out of the sky onto Chris’s head, and his head went through it – he had this huge clear sphere on his head. So we’ll rely less on things flying around and technology potentially breaking down on us.”
Howard also thinks, after getting used to the separate-limos-to-the-private-jet lifestyle, Muse might hop back on a tour bus for 2019. “We had a couple of really sketchy flights recently,” he explains. “We had one going from Germany to Paris, and for some people that was one of the worst experiences they’ve ever had. It was really bad turbulence flying through a storm, there was a moment of Almost Famous ‘I can’t do this any more’. The plane went mental, the trays and cutlery went up in the air, the stewardess banged her head on the ceiling of the plane, it was pretty scary there for a moment.”
Our time is called, the voice memo file shut down, but Bellamy is still talking, ceaselessly trying to fathom all of humanity’s possible futures. He talks of AIs inventing their own language when communicating with each other – we should be “cautious” of algorithms and artificial intelligence, he thinks, arguing we’re giving birth to a new silicon-based life-form superior to ourselves, which will probably explore the universe without us. He envisions swarms of terrorist drones killing without consequence, and dreams again of our own, man-made universe simulation.
“Our exploration of the universe needs to be free from the human body, and time,” he says. “If we simulate a universe we can actually travel, there’s no limitation.”
Forget what you think you know about rock and reality. This is Muse’s virtual universe now, and it’s suddenly boundless. Try to keep up.
Simulation Theory, the new album by Muse, is out now