Muse: On the road to self-discovery

There was never any doubt about the scale of their ambition, but Muse used to be more swagger than substance. No longer. Alexia Loundras, joining them on tour in Europe, finds a band ascending into the major league with a fusion of piano and power chords

Julien looks fit to burst. The young Frenchman throws his arms up in the air and explodes: "C'est fantastique!" He is trying to explain what he feels for Muse - the band whom 16,000 visibly excited French fans have come to see play tonight in Lyon. Emeline, another thrilled devotee, is rather more poetic. "You don't need to understand their lyrics," she says. "You can feel the soul of the song through their music." But it's a glamorous goth, Natacha, who is the most expressive. "I love Muse," she gushes. Her boyfriend, Pascal, doesn't look impressed. "You love me," he reminds her. Natacha shakes her head. "No, I love Muse."

Muse have a big following in Europe - especially in France, where in a few days they'll top their "biggest show ever" personal best when they play to 20,000 people in Paris. Since the September release of their third album, Absolution, their profile has rocketed. Muse have all but sold out both this 29-date continental jaunt and their upcoming UK arena shows; and in the two months since its release, Absolution has sold nearly a million copies - reaching the top of the UK album charts and continuing the band's ascent into the major league.

Tonight in Lyon, Muse arrive on stage to a hero's welcome. And despite it being the biggest gig of Muse's career, the band more than live up to it. The venue, La Halle, is massive. But so is the show. With their thundering sound and hugely theatrical performance - punctuated by rippling spacecraft lights, choreographed films and giant balloons - the three-piece make the jumbo warehouse seem as intimate as an in-yer-face rock dive. The frontman Matt Bellamy darts between his keyboard and stage-front guitar like a man possessed. The equally crazed crowd throw themselves about, electrified by the pulsing force of the music, a clashing thing made up of classical piano, razor-edged guitar rock and stalking basslines from the trio of Bellamy, the drummer Dominic Howard and the bass-player Chris Wolstenholme.

Half an hour after the gig, Muse have swapped their sweaty stage gear for T-shirts and jeans and sit in their dressing-room trying to wind down. But that's unlikely. Outside the dressing-room, the back- stage area is heaving - crew are frantically packing up, and the determined fans who have managed to blag their way past the security are milling around outside the dressing room, eagerly clutching their Muse albums for signing. "That was massive!" says Howard, visibly overwhelmed by the size of tonight's crowd. "It was quite scary," laughs Bellamy. "Last time we came here we played to about 6,000 people... Now it's 16,000."

In the past, Muse were dismissed by the British music press as sub-Radiohead wannabes. They were derided for their over-the-top, pretentious musical tendencies. And rightly so. Both Muse's debut, 1999's Showbiz, and their 2001 follow-up, Origin of Symmetry, overflowed with pomp and unrealised ambition. Like cocky sixth-formers using big words to win arguments, their bombastic and overly histrionic records were more about swagger than substance.

Even their critics, however, had to admit that Muse's wedding of the grandiosity of classical piano with the excesses of epic rock had a certain nerve. And the bold and confident Absolution is evidence of the band hitting their stride: Muse have come of age.

Three days after the Lyon gig and Muse's touring menagerie has moved on to balmy Barcelona. As we wander the winding medieval alleys of the old city's Barri Gothic, the frontman discusses the previous day's promotional duties. "Looking back, it really wasn't the coolest choice," says the impish Bellamy. The band had flown out to Madrid to play the single "Time is Running Out" on a TV pop show - except that Muse hadn't realised they'd be performing to a studio audience of pre-teens: "I ended up playing completely differently - really happy and smiley, trying to make the song sound light-hearted," smiles Bellamy. In the event, he succeeded only in terrifying the mites: trying to pull off a knee slide - a performance staple for him- he hurtled head-first into the young crowd.

Bellamy tells the tale with the gusto of Lee Evans - throwing himself about as he relives the embarrassing fall and peppering his speech with infectious bursts of high-pitched laughter. If you believe what is written about him, such self-deprecating humour is the last thing you'd expect. He has always been portrayed by the music press as something of a sci-fi-loving eccentric; a serious and hyper-intense crank, obsessed with space, evolution and religion. His interest in the books of Zecharia Sitchin - who claims humans are an alien/ape genetic mix - is often cited in support of this "oddball frontman" theory. Not surprisingly, the singer often feels misrepresented. "I don't think it's unusual to talk about these bigger things," he says. "But journalists exaggerate what I say. When the piece comes out in print, what I've said to them looks like it's meant as a series of statements, as opposed to a conversation."

Later, when we come across a small, open-air bric-a-brac market, Bellamy's natural curiosity is tickled. He rifles avidly among the tables, examining worn coins and dusty old doilies as if trying to divine their hidden histories. Eventually, he stumbles on a silver, Victoria Cross-like medal, embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary. He buys it as a souvenir and proudly shows it off to the rest of the band.

"I'm enjoying these shows more than ever. I want to try to tie them to a location - attach them to some real memories," says Bellamy, explaining his little purchase as we make our way to lunch. "It's not a nice feeling when certain days of your life disappear in a blur of gigs. And sightseeing helps you remember."

The band are definitely enjoying what Bellamy calls "the more touristy side of touring". Although still in their mid-20s, they have put their wild days behind them. In the past, their tours could be reckless affairs. Long periods of "relatively non-stop touring" gradually took their toll, and as Bellamy admits, "you start to lose it." Muse dealt with it by living out the on-the-road cliché: working their way through groupies, partying excessively and, when gigs went badly - which in their exhausted state happened frequently - trashing their equipment.

Having for the most part put such excesses behind them, this time around Muse are actually enjoying the experience of being on tour. And, in a concerted effort to make sure the gig/tour bus/gig treadmill doesn't get to them, they've traded in those rampages for a touch of culture. In Nuremberg, they used their day off to visit the war museum; in Florence, they took up the mayor's offer of a trip to his palace; and in a few days time they plan to visit Figueres to check out Salvador Dali's house. All very civilised. Muse, it seems, have grown up.

"Yeah, it feels like we have," agrees Howard, settling into the dark-wood benches of a bustling cantina. Howard explains that their transformation didn't happen overnight but took place over the period of their first and second albums. Due to their intense schedules, it wasn't until Muse finished touring Origin of Symmetry and returned home that the band actually realised that they - and their priorities - had changed. In their personal lives, too: Wolstenholme has just had his third child with his long-term partner, and both Howard and Bellamy are now in relationships. And, as Absolution proves, their music has also benefited from this emotional development.

Bellamy's lyrics show evidence that he's finally been prepared to invest something of himself in his songs. "I think maturity is when you are no longer embarrassed," he says, staring intently at the crayfish in his paella. "In the past, I would never have sung anything as revealing as a love song, but I've gradually evolved into wanting to share something in some way with other people - showing inner fears and hopes. And it feels nice to do so. It makes you feel...", he pauses, searching for the right words, "not alone."

"The sound of our music has always been more important than the lyrics," admits Bellamy, between mouthfuls of paella. Muse music has always exhibited great care in putting disparate musical elements alongside each other, rather like the way early Roxy Music did in another era. And, of course, Bellamy is a huge rock fan, but he's also passionate about Romantic piano composers. When he talks about his favourites - Debussy, Rachmaninov, Berlioz and Chopin - he glows with excitement. The singer also professes to taking inspiration from European folk music, for its "vigorous energy and passion", as well as the 16th-century choral music of Palestrina.

And while this might sound horribly pretentious on paper, the actual effect is hugely powerful. Muse's music delivers a massive explosion of surging noise where elegant flourishes cut through the sound of the stormy wired guitars to stunning effect. "It's nice to try to create something that is in some way larger," says Bellamy.

If Bellamy needed any further encouragement to "create something in some way larger", Muse couldn't have picked a * * better place to visit than Barcelona's wondrous Sagrada Familia, the Modernista-movement cathedral designed by the visionary Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Like the sound of Muse's music, this place is vast. The outside is covered in modern sculptures and colourful mosaics, while its four towering neo-Gothic spires rise out of the city's skyline like elaborate rockets. Just the walk to the top of them - up a very narrow, spiral stone staircase - is an experience. And as a distinctly peaky Wolstenholme discovers, standing nearly 100 metres above the Catalonian capital is not the best place to realise you suffer from a fear of heights.

Bellamy, however, loves it. From the moment we arrive at the landmark, he's squeezing between tourists to read about Gaudi's botanical inspirations and marvelling at how the architect was allowed to get away with such flamboyance. When the time comes to leave, he is genuinely disappointed that we haven't seen the crypt in which Gaudi is buried. He consoles himself with a book about the Sagrada Familia from the gift shop and leafs through it during the taxi ride to Razmatazz, tonight's venue.

Bellamy is, I suspect, drawn to the higher sense of purpose manifest in the buildings of a profoundly religious man who believed that his work was communicating directly with God. It's the same sense of unwavering faith that he finds in his favourite composers and that makes their music so powerful. And although unsure if God exists, he hopes to inject a similar passion and other-worldly feeling into his own music. "I do love rock music, but when I hear that Romantic stuff, it sounds like the meaning of life," he says, passionately. "It's as though the composers were using the peak of their intelligence to express the deepest of emotions. And this gives me hope - hope about everything! When I hear choirs singing that Palestrina stuff, I think, there is a God - there is a heaven!"

It's only 5pm, but fans are already clustered outside the run-down, 2,300-capacity club when the band arrive for their sound check. While crew unload gear and ready the band's instruments on the stage, Bellamy rushes about spouting Gaudi facts to anyone who'll listen. Reading that the cathedral's yet-to-be-completed centre spire will be 500 metres tall, he marvels, "That's going to be scarily high, isn't it?"

Five hours later, and Razmatazz is heaving. If the Lyon show was impressive on a massive arena scale, the effect of Muse's tides of brain-scrambling noise on those crammed into this dingy cavern is bigger, bolder and nothing short of exhilarating. Responding to the euphoric crowd, Bellamy executes those knee-slides with aplomb. But even during the sound check Muse had ripped through their songs with the same ferocious passion. With performances this good, it's not surprising the band are determined to remember the experience.

After the show, in their dressing room, Muse are still fired up from the gig. As they stand about, chatting and blending Baileys with banana smoothies, the conversation turns back to the cathedral. "I was scared!" says Wolstenholme, as though no one had noticed. He shudders at the memory.

"I thought it was cool," says Bellamy, still thumbing through his book on the Sagrada Familia. "Obviously it's over the top and it has multiple styles mixed together, which I suppose for some people is difficult to take, but I love it." And he's right. Beautiful, grandiose and unapologetically extravagant, the cathedral demands respect for its bold ambition. Bellamy may not realise it, but the same could be said about Muse.

'Hysteria' is out on Monday on Taste/eastwest; Muse play Nottingham Arena tonight and the UK tour continues to 7 December

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