Muse: The band who fell to earth

Good news! It's been a while since a group arrived fully formed from outer space. But here they are, primed and ready to storm Glastonbury, phase-shifters set to stun. Simon Price hits the road to Rome with neo-prog-rockers Muse, to reflect on the plenitude of old buildings, onrushing stardom and the place of guitar overload in the music of J S Bach
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Rome is a city where the present tarantellas chaotically with the ancient past, a surreal, anachronistic jumble of 20th-century, Renaissance and first-century architecture. Turn one corner and you're in La Dolce Vita, another and you're in Caravaggio, another and you're in Gladiator.

Rome is a city where the present tarantellas chaotically with the ancient past, a surreal, anachronistic jumble of 20th-century, Renaissance and first-century architecture. Turn one corner and you're in La Dolce Vita, another and you're in Caravaggio, another and you're in Gladiator.

In the heatlamp-intense glare of the afternoon sun, Muse do not especially resemble intrepid, Icarus-like rock visionaries whose musical ambition knows no restraint. If anything, in their brightly coloured Diesel shirts and three-quarter-length trousers, they look like anonymous, carefree Inter-railers seeing the sights.

The locals, however, are not fooled. As Matt Bellamy (vocals, guitar, piano), Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dom Howard (drums) laze by the Fontana di Trevi, where Anita Ekberg frolicked so iconically, or stroll down the Spanish Steps (until they are shooed away by a rather camp sailors' parade), they are regularly accosted by thrilled Italians asking for photos and autographs.

Bellamy, Wolstenholme and Howard all arrived in the sleepy Devon resort of Teignmouth from other parts of England. Instant outsiders, they bonded, and spent their teens getting into mild mischief, sneaking into the Single Parents Club in Winterbourne on Mondays and Tuesdays, hanging around in Poole drinking cider and playing football, and getting their heads kicked in for having long hair. "We were 14," Bellamy recalls, "and Howard was getting beaten up by 25-year-old men. It was that kind of place." Music was mainly a means to an end. Bellamy, whose father, George, played guitar in the Sixties instrumental group The Tornadoes studied the clarinet from the age of nine and had dreams of becoming a serious jazz musician. That all changed at the age of 13, when he played a Ray Charles blues piece on the piano at a talent contest. "I somehow pulled a girl, and I realised that music was a way to get female attention."

The three future Musos all joined various bands. "Dom's band was the cool one," Bellamy concedes. "They'd rent out a leisure centre, and all the kids would go to their gigs, smoke cannabis and so on." Things became a little more serious when the trio formed their own band. After working through names like Carnage Mayhem, Gothic Plague, Fixed Penalty and Rocket Baby Dolls, and frustratingly finding themselves obliged to play cover versions, they wisely settled on Muse.

With the invaluable help of the techno wizard Tom Kirk - the band's unofficial fourth member who drove them to London for their first gig in the capital, designs their live visuals and keeps a video diary of all they do - Muse were ready for take-off.

After attracting much attention at the 1998 In The City seminar in Manchester, the trio were invited to play similar showcases in New York and Los Angeles, winning record deals with Madonna's Maverick label in the States and Mushroom in the UK.

Their debut EP, Muscle Museum, and album Showbiz, produced by John Leckie(who also produced Radiohead's The Bends), won them a following from the kind of angsty teens who were already listening to bands like Placebo and the Manics, but sceptics dismissed them as a bunch of whiny sub-Radiohead wannabes. I should know. I was one of those sceptics.

For me, it all began to change with the release of "Plug In Baby", a single which sounded like a hotwired hybrid of Air's "Sexy Boy" and JS Bach's Toccata and Fugue, and the second album, the awkwardly titled Origin of Symmetry, in which they perfected a baroque'n'roll sound which combined operatic vocals with quasi-classical keyboards, Hendrix-like guitar overload, and at some points, church organs.

Muse were burning the punk rulebook. They were fearlessly resurrecting the banished ghosts of prog rock, and making music which was unashamedly pompous, histrionic and skyscrapingly ambitious. It was, in their phrase, hyper music.

At first I couldn't handle it. Slowly, I learned to love it. The clincher was their undeniably exciting live show, as encapsulated by their extraordinary appearance on this year's Brit Awards with which, to the minds of many viewers, they stole the show from that night's big winners, The Darkness. I ask if they have been aware of the way in which perceptions towards them have changed.

Howard is impish and smiley; Wolstenholme is the strong silent type; Bellamy is thoughtful and intense. Invariably, it is he who answers first.

"In the beginning," he says in the cool of the dressing room of the Stadio Centrale Del Tennis, "it was because we were young, and people thought we were just following in the footsteps of other bands." (He's right, of course. And some of those bands have been less than gracious about it. At this year's NME Awards, Thom Yorke - accepting the gong for Best Video - sneered: "We were up against some stiff competition there... what a shame Muse didn't win!")

Bellamy adds: "I think we've always been seen as an alternative band by which I mean that we're a band that has never really had its time. We've always been outside of all those. When nu-metal was big, we used to be seen in the same bracket as Coldplay, Radiohead, Travis. Now we're seen as quite rockin' - or maybe to the retro scene. What we've become alternative to has changed."

Muse now play with the assurance of a band who know that their pyrotechnics, both aural and visual, can win over pretty much any crowd. "We played a metal festival in Portugal the other day, and we were pretty nervous because the line-up was Korn, Static X, Linkin Park, and we were the only band who weren't pure metal. But we ended up going down really well. We can just about get away with playing to a metal audience without getting bottled off."

They've recently enjoyed playing to smaller, 500- to 1,800-seat venues in the United States, where the absence of the regimentation which their full visual extravaganza necessitates allowed them to play a more spontaneous, improvised set. But Muse aren't the sort of band who fetishise dingy, smoky club gigs - they're in their element playing to the masses.

Next Sunday, Muse headline the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival. I put it to them that it's a special challenge, since they will be playing to a crowd who aren't there to see them, and indeed who bought their tickets before the line-up was announced. There's a certain pressure to unify and to entertain.

Wolstenholme is sceptical. "Sometimes it's easy to big-up certain festivals, like Glastonbury and Reading, because they were the ones we went to when we were kids. But when you've played loads of other European festivals, you look at it just like any other. But at the same time," he ponders, "it is Glastonbury..."

"Sometimes it's enjoyable," says Howard, "when you know people haven't seen you before. We do know that there will be a lot of people who aren't there to see us..." "Unless it rains," says Bellamy, "in which case they'll all go home except 4,000 Muse fans standing around in their wellies."

Ludicrous. Preposterous. Ridiculous. Absurd. Flick through any random pile of Muse press cuttings, and these words will crop up time and again. Can the band, I wonder, see where this sort of appraisal is coming from? "I think I could," Bellamy admits, "until The Darkness came along. And we had to let them take over. There was a bit of Queen in what we did, a bit of pompous rock, but now they've come along and shown people what that really is like." Listening to The Origin of Symmetry, and it's even more grandiose successor Absolution, I imagine Muse in the studio having debates on whether they can really get away with so many excessive pomp-rock flourishes.

"You'll often turn around," says Howard, addressing Bellamy, "and go: 'We can't get away with this!' And I'll go: 'Of course we can!'" I get the impression that Yes We Can invariably wins... "Definitely," confirms Wolstenholme. "There have been times when we listen to what we've done, and we've forgotten what we set out to do in the first place. And those usually are the best tracks on the album. Like 'Butterflies And Hurricanes', with those 48-track backing vocals..." "We had so many different scene changes," remembers Bellamy. "At one point there were bongos! It sounded like that percussion troupe Stomp. It sounded like that."

Yesterday, I tell them, I watched Ronald Reagan's funeral on CNN in my hotel room. The church organist played a crashing, portentous chord which reminded me of something I'd heard recently, and which made me laugh when I remembered what it was: the final note of "Megalomania" by Muse. "I can see why people are amused by it," Bellamy smiles. "It's music you can't listen to every day. If someone put it on in the background of a party, everyone would go: 'Fucking hell, turn it off!' Our music is definitely not for all occasions."

Muse's latest video, for "Sing For Absolution", is another example of the Yes We Can spirit. Most bands would baulk at a treatment which had them blasting into space on a futuristic shuttle, crashing through a meteor storm, and come skidding to Earth which, in a Planet Of The Apes-like twist, turns out to be in ruins. Muse, however, thought...

"Yeah, why not! Exactly!" Howard says. "We thought: 'Let's fly some spaceships around!'" "Something happened in the early Nineties," theorises Bellamy, "where bands started taking themselves very seriously... No, 'seriously' isn't the right word, but being very anti-everything."

There's always been an idea that "alternativeness" is about sullen refusal, about what you say "No" to. It dates right back to The Clash refusing to play Top Of The Pops. "We do say 'No' to a whole lot of stuff - teenage magazines, certain TV shows we try to shy away from... but the chance to wear a space suit? We're well up for that."

There's a famous Smiths story about Johnny Marr presenting Morrissey with what he considered to be his finest piece of music. Morrissey took it away, and came back with the lyric: "Some girls are bigger than others/ Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers." Marr reportedly wept. When Muse have created a similarly epic piece of music, does Bellamy feel an obligation to match it with lyrics of sufficient solemnity and import? "That can be dangerous sometimes when music is written by one person and lyrics by another. But when I write something epic, I feel I have to match it, sure." Lyrically, Muse have improved noticeably since Showbiz. Gone are the vague abstractions and, while they're never completely specific either, their songs now express a similar pre-apocalyptic dread to Joy Division and The Specials in their era, or Tricky and (yes) Radiohead in theirs. "I think I'm trying to write something that genuinely means something and has a purpose," Bellamy says, "whereas in the past maybe it was vague lines strung together, abstractly. You had to read it a line at a time, and the lines never matched up.

"I've never been that confident writing lyrics," he confesses. "I've always had to do it behind the mask of a melody. I wish I could write lyrics like Tom Waits, where it's full-on stories... But as you get older, you become more open to singing things you would have said no to. I wouldn't sing lyrics like 'You've got to be the best' when I was 17 or 18, because I would have thought it wasn't very cool, and a bit cheesy to sing that hook. But you get towards your mid-twenties..." Once upon a time, Muse were typical tour-bus shut-ins. No more.

"I think something happened about two or three years ago," says Wolstenholme, "where we realised we'd been to so many cities of the world, and never really seen any of them. People come up to you and say: 'Oh, you've been there, what's it like?' and you can't tell them anything." Apart from "nice air-conditioning". "Exactly. So we've been making more of an effort to get out there and take it all in."

"Now we're playing larger venues, though, it's more difficult," Bellamy adds. "Smaller venues tend to be in the town, so you step outside and you're there. Larger venues tend to be out-of-town, so you step outside and you're in... the car park. Before you know it, you've been in five car parks in five countries. So we did a bit of wine-tasting in France, went to a temple in Kyoto in Japan, did a bit of beach surfing in Australia."

"We're just trying to turn the whole thing into a bit of a holiday," grins Howard.

"I had food last night," says Bellamy, "that actually brought me to tears (mass laughter). Home-made pasta with tomatoes. It was so simple, so perfect, so intense that I started to well up! It was so fucking good compared to England. In England, tomatoes just taste of water. And these tasted of pure tomato. I was starving at the time, obviously..."

The Stadio Centrale Del Tennis is part of the vast sporting complex built on the banks of the Tiber as a monument to Mussolini's vanity. On the main piazza, a towering obelisk bears the dictator's surname, with floor tiles spelling out "DUCE DUCE DUCE", and huge blocks of stone carrying the inscription "Fascista". In Germany or Russia, they'd have torn down such an uncomfortable reminder. Not here.

But then, almost all of Rome's great monuments were built to flatter someone, whether Pope, emperor, God or gods. I ask Muse what they make of it all. "It sounds a silly thing to say," says Howard, "but everything's very old. We went to the Colosseum, but couldn't get inside 'cos the queue was so big. And I tried to go to the Vatican but they wouldn't let me in because I had shorts on. They were quite long shorts," he sulks, "they weren't Eighties running shorts... It's a shame, because I really wanted to see the Sistine Chapel."

It took Michelangelo many years to complete his great fresco. The intention was to inspire a sense of religious awe in the viewer. Can Muse identify with that kind of endeavour, to create something magnificent? I betray my question with a giveaway chuckle.

"You can always tell when journalists are trying to make you say something embarrassing," smiles Bellamy, "because they give it away by laughing." Howard is more willing to bite. "I do look at the Colosseum and think how many people and how much talent and how many years did it take to make that. I don't think people will be saying that about us in hundreds of years' time." You're so modest.

"In two thousand years' time," says Bellamy, "maybe The Beatles. But not Muse." But what about the idea of creating something purely for the glory of someone else, be they human or divine? Can you understand that? Bellamy, whose musical heroes include Debussy, Bach, Berlioz, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Reich and Glass, thinks about this one.

"Most great composers," he agrees, "were originally making music for God. And painters. They weren't making it for money in those days, because most of them were already part of a relative upper-class. It wasn't as if you could achieve fame and fortune by doing it. Maybe by the days of Chopin, but I'm talking before that. And I think that enabled them to do something that was out of the ordinary. When someone's got that belief that they are actually in touch with God, I'm sure that brings out things which they would not have thought possible. In architecture, music and the arts, there's definitely an intelligence in the past which has gone missing. We think we're advanced now, but we've actually slipped behind."

One of the stand-out tracks on Absolution is titled "Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist". Did any members of Muse have religious upbringings? Bellamy: "No." Howard: "I got christened, but... y'know..." Wolstenholme: "No." So, will you die an atheist? "I don't know," says Bellamy. "I think it's impossible to. At the last moment you'd be going 'Please!'" If Bellamy doesn't believe in God - yet - then some of his other beliefs may raise eyebrows. He's an advocate of the theories of the writer Zechariah Sitchin, who believes that humans are the result of genetic experiments by visiting aliens.

"It's a logical explanation," Bellamy gamely maintains, untroubled by the possibility that I might be trying to stitch him up and paint him as a fruitcake.

"I think it carries weight. Evolution theory is the most widely renowned anti-religion, anti-creationist argument, but there is a loophole in it, the missing link between humans and apes, the lack of fossils. Evolution normally takes millions of years, but we seemed to advance in a very short period of time." He's in full flow now.

"In Sumerian times they calculated there were 12 planets, counting the sun and the moon - and the 12th planet is on an elliptical orbit, and every time it comes close to the earth, every 3,600 years, Biblical-level events happen. Sitchin takes it a step further, suggesting it's a self-sufficient geothermal planet - essentially a comet - with aliens on it, who experimented with chimpanzees to make us. Which explains the higher levels of thought, objectivity and so on. Our DNA is a mixture of alien and ape." Bellamy is an obsessive character. When he gets into something, he really gets into it. His current fixation is playing poker. He carries a pack of cards everywhere, and would dearly love to be on Channel 4's Late Night Poker.

"I go to a semi-legal poker club on Clerkenwell Road in London. They've found a loophole in the law where as long as you put all your money behind the counter and use chips, it's OK. I only play for small stakes, for fun. It's not really like gambling, it's not just chance: it's more advanced than just sticking your money on a roulette table. There is an element of strategy."

This, however, is about as vice-packed as things get. By rock musician standards, Muse are unusually polite, reserved young men. I only see Bellamy snap once, while he's enjoying a strawberry milkshake outside a pavement café. A corpulent, rude American woman takes an unsolicited photo of my hairdo, with a pig-like laugh, to Bellamy's disgust. "We're gonna take a picture of your arse!" he calls after her as she waddles away. They're not very rock'n'roll, as rock'n'rollers go.

"We should be dressed up like you, shouldn't we?" he jokes, eyeing my black plastic spikes. I know you went through a phase, I say. (Bellamy once sported a huge Judder Man hairdo himself.) "It comes and goes... We had a phase where we had a go," he admits, "at the full-on rock'n'roll life. It lasted about a year, then we got jaded." Nowadays the groupies are a thing of the past. Bellamy and Howard's girlfriends are here, as is Wolstenholme's wife (with whom he has three children).

"Sometimes you have the odd week where you're looking for parties, but the rest of the time you're taking it easy, relaxing on a beach." On stage, however, it's a different story. Bellamy is a man possessed. At a recent show in Atlanta, he somehow slashed his face open with the end of his guitar, leaving a laceration on his top lip which needed five stitches and must have left him looking like a gore-movie version of Moog from Will O' The Wisp.

"In your everyday life you can be reserved, but I think you become more open, comfortable, confident, relaxed on stage. The more crazy part inside gets exposed and you don't have to hide it all." Headlining one of the nights of the oddly titled Cornetto Free Music Festival (it's actually €37 to get in), Muse's intensity and energy effortlessly enraptures 6,000 Italians who know every word of every song in a language they do not understand. When he isn't pulling rock-god poses with his guitar, Bellamy leaps, Oz-like, behind a metal keyboard-pulpit known as "The Dalek", fronted by LEDs which light up every time he hits a note. It's brilliant, and it comes as little surprise to learn that Muse once considered incorporating a vampire act into the show.

Winding down backstage, and accepting with bemusement a visit from the Eighties pomp-rockers Marillion ("Who are they?" they whisper to me), Muse tell me what the future holds in store. I heard a rumour that they want to take their music into a rock-disco direction... "I think it's something we tried with 'Bliss'," says Bellamy. "I don't think we'll suddenly change genre. We may incorporate a bit of funk in there, maybe even samba... Another thing I'd like to do is take pieces of classical music, like Prokofiev, or the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don't mean sample it, I mean a piece of music which goes in and out of that." Yes, he is serious. Yes, I asked. In the more immediate future, both Howard and Bellamy have started to take helicopter lessons.

"It all depends on how many hours you can do a year to maintain your licence. I've only had one lesson so far. I've always wanted to go in a helicopter, and only recently did we get to do it when we were in..." "Australia?" ventures Howard.

"No, it was the Grand Canyon. I've always been interested in flying anyway. It's the safest form of air transport." Yeah? "People think it would just drop like a stone if the engine failed, but it would just glide slowly down. The blades keep turning - the up-force keeps them spinning." Bellamy, it must be said, has something of a daredevil streak. When he isn't piloting choppers or swimming with sharks, he's being an amateur rocketeer.

"I've got a paraglider at home. It's a 50cc engine you put on your back, with a propeller on it." His eyes sparkle as he describes it. "You've got this enormous parachute, and you run down a hill to get you off the ground, then you switch the engine on. And you can stay in the air, for hours and hours and hours..." Few bands dare to fly as high as Muse. If you see them overhead, give them a wave.

Muse are playing Glastonbury Festival on 27 June (sold out); T In The Park on 10 July (sold out); V2004: Chelmsford, Essex, 21 August and Shifnal, Shropshire, 22 August (tickets: