With Cage The Elephant.
Energy. The Beach Boys. Twelve-bar blues. The Eighties. Dizziness. Stockbrokers. Thermodynamics. The Olympianideal. Fred Goodwin. Excess. INXS. Beck’s dad. Bellamy’s son…
Muse didn’t set out to make the most gloriously ambitious album of their career. How could they have? The band who dreamt up Supermassive Black Hole, Knights Of Cydonia and the three-part Exogenesis symphony were already well-versed in going One Louder. Any wilder, any further out there, and Muse would risk incineration by a dwarf star of their own making.
But you don’t become one of the biggest bands on this planet – in excess of 15 million albums sales worldwide, 5 MTV Europe Awards, 2 Brit Awards, 8 NME Awards, 5 Q Awards, 4 Kerrang Awards and winner of the Best Rock Album Grammy 2011; No 1 in 19 countries with 2009’s The Resistance; filler of arena and stadia across the world – by sitting on your hands.
So when Muse approached the making of their sixth studio album, they wouldn’t stint on the choirs, strings and horn sections. And be reassured: guitar-shredding, piano-thumping, orchestra-arranging, book-chewing, big-thinking Matt Bellamy, as the band’s chief songwriter, didn’t lower his sights from The Big Picture nor ignore The Precious Details. And nor were the trio afraid of giving space to a brilliant new element to their sound – songs written and sung by bass player Chris Wolstenholme.
But what the Devon-born band of schoolfriends did do different was this: they made things easy for themselves. For the first time since the dawn of their career in smalltown England 18 years ago, all three members were living in the same place during the making of an album. Domiciled in and around London, they block-booked a recording studio – Air – and came and went as they pleased.
This time, the only clock Muse had to beat was their own internal band rhythm. They had the days and weeks and space to experiment, explore ideas, rig up massive in-studio PA systems, hire in remixers, play with pedals, and (technical term alert!) fanny around to their hearts’ content.
And this time, Muse had the experience born of self-producing The Resistance to apply their studio knowledge to creating the album they really wanted to make.
It was about saving aggro, and conserving energy. And, appropriately, it was about The 2nd Law: an album titled after and thematically influenced by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which concerns the inevitable wasting of energy within a closed system.
It was about letting themselves go and enjoying themselves. Muse, after all, had earned it.
“We all had a lot of great fun doing it,” says Wolstenholme, “and hopefully you can hear that on the album. There are some real moments of positivity in the songs. And I just think everyone personally is in a pretty good place at the moment.”
“It feels like the best thing we’ve ever done,” says drummer Dom Howard. “There was a sense of adventure making it.”
“This was a breeze!” declares Bellamy, still high from the experience of seeing rock-operatic new track Survival emerge victorious as the official anthem for the London 2012 Olympics. “We were making ourselves laugh at times with how different things were sounding.”
As Howard accurately describes it, The 2nd Law brims with “wild” sounds. It’s exactly what Muse had in mind when they sat down last October after the completion of the two-year Resistance world tour. Within four quick weeks the trio had 13 tracks in embryonic but viable form.
From solid beginnings came big tunes. Madness, the album’s naggingly infectious first single, pulses with a grimy throb. It sounds nothing like Muse, and it sounds everything like Muse.
“I wanted to do something really minimal,” states Bellamy. “Essentially it’s 12-bar blues. I think it’s probably the best song I’ve ever written. And one of the most personal songs I’ve written. It’s kind of about that time when you’re with your girlfriend and that moment where you have a fight and she walks out the house and leaves you on your own to think about it. And you’re going, ‘no way! She was right! Of course she was right!’”
Wolstenholme knows all about personal songs. He’s contributed two songs to The 2nd Law, Save Me and Liquid State. The former is influenced by his all-time favourite band, The Beach Boys; the latter is a rocket-powered boogie.
“We’ve written two or three albums that have been much more of a global concept. And I think it’s nice just to pull it back a bit and write from within yourself. Which is kinda hard sometimes, ’cause basically,” he laughs, “you’re displaying your emotions to the whole human race”, says Wolstenholme.
Bellamy acknowledges that Big Freeze is also about relationships. But perhaps its defining characteristic is what Howard enthusiastically hails as the song’s “big Eighties sound. To me it sounds close to what we sound like live. Really full-on, in-your-face, heavy and bright.
“That song is almost like INXS or something!” adds Wolstenholme, “with that big, gated snare drum. I know people can think that sound is a bit cheesy, but it was a new thing back then, and it was unusual. It went through a period of being dated, but we wanted to use it and make it a bit more current. So there’s a bit of a U2 influence too – just blending all these things together but making it sound like something that was recorded this year.”
Album opener Supremacy was one of the first songs Muse worked on. Bellamy’s early sketch grabbed Wolstenholme “immediately, ’cause it was just so all over the place. It starts off and you think it’s this dirty, grungy metal… thing,” he grins. “Then by the time you get to the verse it’s gone into pure film music. I said to Matt at the time that it reminded me of Wings.”
“We were layering up loads and loads of snare drums,” adds Howard. “There were tonnes of tympani and bass drums and weird percussion. The idea is it should sound like a marching band coming over the hill, just behind the orchestra. Then it goes off into some Live And Let Die-style freak out section in the middle!
“That felt like something different,” he continues. “We really wanted it to sound like a big, live, massive stadium rock track. We were thinking that way when we recorded it – we had a big PA set up, and the room was shaking to this massive drum sound. Then the verse goes on this completely different journey from the riff – it’s a little wink back to that Ennio Morricone influence which you hear on Knights Of Cydonia.”
Soundtracks, affirms Bellamy, have long been an under-heralded influence on his writing. On The 2nd Law, this enthusiasm dovetails with his love of classical music. On previous Muse albums his orchestral excursions have been influenced by Rachmaninoff and Berlioz. This time the inspirations were contemporary composers and Hollywood legends such as Hans Zimmer and John Williams.
“I love that big sound in crazy, action, sci-fi, epic films,” says Bellamy. The results of this passion were twofold. Firstly, Muse spent three weeks in Los Angeles working with the cream of the city’s movie musicians and choirs, their hiring and conducting overseen by David Campbell, aka the father of Beck. Secondly, Bellamy wrote a two-part suite to close the album, The 2nd Law: Unsustainable and The 2nd Law: Isolated System, which he envisaged as “almost a soundtrack-type thing”. Here, again, Campbell played a role, transcribing the orchestral arrangements written by Bellamy.
This two-hander album closer also demonstrated another ear-popping detour for Muse.
“I like to follow where the moshpit goes,” smiles seasoned showman Bellamy, “and it’s moved to this world where it’s about going to a gig and watching a guy with a laptop. So our challenge with The 2nd Law: Unsustainable was to create a song like that but then play it with real instruments – an organic version of this new electronic genre that’s going on everywhere.”
There’s more digi-rock revolution on Follow Me. It sounds like Justice produced by Giorgio Moroder. In fact it started as a demo that the band are the first to describe as the workmanlike sound of a three-piece rock outfit. But in keeping with the rip-it-up-and-start-again, cavalier ambition of the new Muse, they decided to go off on one: a four-on-the-floor beat here, drum experimentation there…
“Until we decided to go the whole hog and get it remixed,” recalls Wolstenholme of the band’s decision to outsource the completion of the song to producer Nero.
“We were happy to remove ourselves from the equation completely,” nods Bellamy. Well, not quite: Follow Me is the only song on The 2nd Law directly influenced by the singer becoming a father last year. That beat at the beginning of the song? It’s a recording of the foetal heart of his at-the-time unborn son.
As ever with Matt Bellamy, when it came to writing the lyrics, there were themes big and small he wanted to address. The sinuous funk of Animals began with a jam and now, in its recorded version, ends with a sample of bellowing Wall Street stockbrokers. “That’s the song aimed at the Fred Goodwins of this world,” sniffs Bellamy of the disgraced British banker. “It’s looking at people who are instrumental in bringing down whole countries.”
The lyrics and ideas behind Explorers, like those of the two-part title track, tap into the album’s more “philosophical” side – Bellamy’s thoughts on the depletion of the planet’s energies and resources. But he also applies this thermodynamic theory to the ebb and flow of passion in relationships, as heard in Big Freeze and Madness.
But as Wolstenholme underlines, The 2nd Law is far from a sombre album. “There are some negative undertones, sure. But it’s all about human responses to them and the things we do to get through life. That’s a positive thing.”
In any case, any album that includes both Survival, their po(m)p and circumstance Olympic anthem, and a song with the Queen-go-disco abandon of Panic Station can’t, ultimately, take itself too seriously. “We weren’t afraid of doing something that’s just a dancing track,” smiles Bellamy of the latter song, a groovy belter recorded with a horn section comprising classic Chicago players (one of whom played on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition).
“There’s an eccentricity to the album which makes it fun,” their frontman offers. “I don’t think it’s taking itself too seriously even though some of the lyrics are.
“I’d go so far as to say we had a bit of a laugh making this album,” concludes a bouncily chipper Matt Bellamy. “The spirits were up, more so than on any previous Muse album, that’s for sure.”
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