Muse: 'We blew them all off the stage'

The once-unfashionable Muse have cracked the big time - and they've no intention of being modest. Alexia Loundras joins them on the road

"The problem with David Icke," announces Matt Bellamy, "is that he tends to dig a hole for himself the moment he brings lizards into the equation." The Muse front man shakes his head. "You know, I'm interested in some berserk things too, but you've got to try to talk about the ideas that are possibly not crazy, otherwise you just end up devaluing everything you're saying."

The singer might front a multi-million-selling band, but he can easily empathise with the sports presenter-turned-Messiah. Bellamy has a well-documented affection for, let's say, alternative thinking. The singer defends Icke's less reptilian pronouncements, has a firm belief in conspiracy theories, such as September 11 being an inside job, and is a fan of the writer Zecharia Sitchin - who claims that humans are an alien/ape genetic mix. Such opinions have had Bellamy labelled a sci-fi crank. But, having been a member of Muse for more than a decade, ridicule is something he's had to get used to.

For a long time Muse were the high-school misfits of the music world. When they released their 1999 debut Showbiz they were dismissed as Radiohead sound-alikes. Then, when they returned with 2001's Origins Of Symmetry, which added quasi-classical flourishes to their already overblown rock, they were accused of being pretentious and po-faced. But their breakthrough third album, 2003's Absolution, forced critics into a rethink.

Absolution was a revelation for everyone who had written off the band as the preserve of space-geeks and teen goths. With its exciting fusion of tempestuous rock and quasi-Baroque grandeur, the album proved that the pieces had finally fallen into place. Now, with the follow-up, July's Black Holes And Revelations, they've gone one better. Even more adventurous than its predecessor, album number four finds a mighty, more visceral Muse exploring new ground, and it was given a richly deserved place on the Mercury Prize shortlist.

Right now, however, what Bellamy wants most is a long, hot bath. The band have spent the day recording three tracks for a new Channel 4 series - Live At Abbey Road - and the effort of delivering a hyper-animated performance to an unresponsive jungle of cables and mic stands has sapped much of the life out of the usually ebullient front man.

Ensconced in the shiny, wooded cavern of Studio One, the band play multiple takes of each song just to be sure that every vocal warble and every exaggerated fret-move is captured. From the spaceship-like control room, the excitable producer repeatedly calls for the volume to be turned up to so that he can enjoy the full ear-bleeding effect of Bellamy's wired guitar riffs. It seems the adrenalin is still coursing through their veins from the night before.

Just 16 hours ago, the band were delivering a flame-ridden encore as the final curtain was drawn on this year's Reading and Leeds Festivals, in front of a 60,000-strong crowd in Leeds. The night before that, they gave an equally breathtaking headlining set at Reading, which the NME later called "the gig of the millennium". That might sound like undue hyperbole, but the fact is that, when Muse took to the stage after Arctic Monkeys, they made the Sheffield tykes look average in comparison. "We blew everyone else off stage," says Muse's impish drummer Dominic Howard with a victorious gleam in his tired eyes. It'll take a lot more than a few sleepless nights and a day in a TV studio to smother the buzz of the weekend's achievement.

As star-struck youths, making their annual rock pilgrimage from the sunny, seaside town of Teignmouth to Reading's rock mecca, the aspiring band dreamt of playing the headline slot. "The one thing I've always said," continues Howard, "is, 'when you headline Reading, you know you've made it.'" He grins. "So, have we made it now?" he asks. "Maybe we have!"

Visibly tickled by the notion, he collapses into laughter. "I don't know - headlining Reading was just so surreal," he says, determined not to get too philosophical. "Whenever we play festivals it feels as though there are still a lot of people who don't know who we are. But it felt like we did a good job. By the end of our set, there was definitely a sense that they liked what we do. It felt like we were winning people over. And that feels great."

Compared to the rapid rise of the Arctic Monkeys, Muse are the tortoises of the music industry. Yet their slow-but-sure approach has paid off. From their Teignmouth days, they've always been the underdogs: "We were the kids in town that got chased around," says Howard. "We looked different, got in fights and generally despised the town because we felt so different."

But, far from trying to fit in, Muse revelled in their status as outsiders. "Making music was never about mixing with the in-crowd or trying to be a part of anything," explains the band's amiable bass-player, Chris Wolstenholme. "We never dreamt of adapting what we were doing in order to fit in with anyone else."

Sticking to their florid, arpeggioed guns while tight-trousered and even tighter-riffed bands like The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand redefined the musical landscape meant that Muse have never been very cool. However, existing outside the scrutinising lens of the media meant that Muse had something few bands in recent years have enjoyed: time to evolve.

"It's always been really important for us to feel like we're pushing our own boundaries in some way," says Howard. "But on this album, everything about us has changed. How we interact with each other, how we play together, how we talk about music - it's all changed."

Two summers ago, Muse delivered an incendiary Glastonbury headline performance. But the band suffered a tragic end to what should have been a triumphant night, when Howard's father died of a sudden heart attack shortly after the band stepped off the Glastonbury stage. However, never ones to falter in the face of adversity, the bandmates rallied and a new openness was forged between them. "How we interacted with each other definitely became more positive," says Howard. "It's a shame that something so terrible has to happen to inspire something so positive but that's just life."

Finding strength in their new bond, the band continued their intensive year-long world tour promoting Absolution. Once they'd got to the end of that gruelling schedule, it didn't matter that Bellamy upped sticks to live in Milan with his Italian girlfriend, leaving Howard in London and dad-of-three Wolstenholme in Devon. Although, geographically speaking, the three friends had never been so far apart, as a band they'd never been closer. And for Muse, that meant they had the confidence to make music that was bigger and bolder.

"Over the years we've cast loads of ideas aside thinking they were too cheesy, too silly or simply not rock enough," explains Bellamy. "But when we came to writing Black Holes And Revelations, none of those things seemed to matter any more. We'd got to the point where we were just not afraid to do anything."

Black Holes And Revelations is Muse's most unabashedly honest album to date. Lyrically, Bellamy has let down his guard and for the first time, fire-and-brimstone cautionary tales inspired by his passionately held beliefs sit side-by-side with poignant, heartfelt love songs: "This is the first time I've managed to get these things into the music," he says proudly. Rather than feeling pressured by the success of Absolution, it seems to have freed them. "We really wanted this album to be a departure for us," says Howard. "Whatever it was we were doing - whether just working out the guitar sound or arranging the whole song structure - we wanted to make it more extreme."

Black Holes And Revelations is the sound of a band letting their hair down and, for the first time, really having some fun. "The dirty Prince-like groove of [the album's first single] 'Supermassive Black Hole', definitely surprised people," says Bellamy gleefully. "It was just so light-hearted. That's a side of the band we didn't capture on the first three albums: us jamming around and having a laugh."

In fact, Muse aren't the dour, chin-stroking types of repute. When the likeable Bellamy punctuates his self-proclaimed "berserk" assertions with an infectious hyena-like laugh, he proves that the band possess a mocking self-awareness. "We really don't take ourselves as seriously as people think," he chuckles.

Not that they're unwilling to use that perception to their advantage. In New York recently, they wangled themselves a spectacular day in a helicopter over the city after they convinced their label that an asteroid was due to crash into the Atlantic that day, and that Manhattan would drown in the consequent tsunamis. "Pieces of a comet had gone missing in space," says Bellamy, "and when I read about the possibility of them crashing into Earth, I thought: that's a bit of a shame. But I must admit," he continues, wearing a mischievous smile, "I was looking for a few days off."

Muse have always embraced their sense of the ridiculous. "Our best songs have always sounded ever so slightly ludicrous," says Wolstenholme. "Songs where we've had no fear of seeming over the top. We've never lost that fearlessness, and now it seems we've earned some respect for that." He's right: a somewhat open mind is called for to appreciate the bold ambition of Black Holes And Revelations, but surrendering to Muse's hyper-coloured world is well-rewarded.

In the current climate of copycat acts signed because they sound like the last big thing, Muse should be cherished. The band have found success and - latterly - credibility without having to compromise their music or their ideas. People don't compare Muse to Radiohead anymore. As Howard says: "No one else is making music like we are and we're not making music like anyone else.

"We didn't peak early with this band," he continues. "It's always been a slow, steady evolution. But it feels like we're always stepping up and pushing on. I've always been happy about existing on the fringes of the mainstream. But I'm more happy about it than ever now."

Muse might have proved themselves worthy of headlining any festival and won the critics over, but one thing hasn't changed since their Teignmouth days. "We're still outsiders," Bellamy agrees, with his customary assurance. "And that makes us feel absolutely untouchable."

'Black Holes And Revelations' and the single 'Starlight' are out now on WEA; the band tour the UK in November

Story Of The Song: 'Karma Police' Radiohead (1997)

OK Computer, Radiohead's epic third album, has little to do with PCs: "It was just a noise that was going on in my head for most of the year," said the band's frontman, Thom Yorke (right). Track six, the faux satirical "Karma Police", was inspired by Yorke's dislike of being sneered at. "I can't handle having people looking at me in that certain way," he said. "That's what 'Karma Police' and a lot of the album is about."

With a plummeting chord progression, resembling The Beatles' "Sexy Sadie", and some deftly humorous lyrics, this is an atypical off-the-shoulder number from the usually buttoned-up Oxford five-piece. It was premiered live when Radiohead supported Alanis Morissette on her Can't Not tour in the summer of 1996 and was recorded in September of that year at a Bath manor house, owned by the actress Jane Seymour. The OK Computer track "Exit Music (For a Film)" was taped in the stone entrance hall. The eerie siren closing "Karma Police" was created by the band's second guitarist, Ed O'Brien, by feeding sound through a digital delay machine. "He made weird noises, and we taped that a few times," Yorke said.

On release as the second single from the album, "Karma Police" proceeded in a northerly direction up the charts. The accompanying video, more disturbing than the song itself, showed Yorke pursued by a petrol-leaking car which he ends up torching. Unpicking the metaphors and meanings embedded in the song's brief lyrics and accompanying imagery might keep the chatrooms busy, but Yorke has made it quite clear: "It's for someone who has to work for a large company. This is a song against bosses. Fuck the middle management!"

Robert Webb

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