“No one tells us what to do”Muse are one of the world’s most successful bands, thanks to the power of bananas and outmaneuvering Madonna.
They’ve sold more than 17 million albums, won a Grammy and go on huge sold-out tours; Muse have now been superstars and critics’ favorites since 1999. Lead vocalist and guitarist Matthew Bellamy, one third of the British band, explains why they won’t settle for second best, whether we’re talking instruments or record contracts.
THE RED BULLETIN: What does it feel like being heralded as the Jimi Hendrix of your generation?
MATTHEW BELLAMY: Compliments like that are flattering, of course, but they’re total nonsense.
But they’re not baseless. You’ve revolutionized the guitar like Hendrix did back in the 1960s.
I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 11. The better I got at it, the more constrained I felt by what it could do. No wonder most creative people now make music on computers. That’s why I’ve made a guitar for the 21st century.
What’s your guitar capable of?
It’s got a built-in touchscreen linked directly to a computer, which gives the musician a completely new feel. I hope it’s a way of getting tech- savvy kids interested in the instrument.
Your guitar is on sale for $6,000. What should a young musician who can’t afford that do?
He should do exactly what I did: find a craftsman and design his own guitar. The Internet is full of suggestions and instructions. It’s a very basic principle: If you’re not satisfied with what life has to offer, then reshape it according to what you want. And don’t let anyone tell you what to do.
Can you give us an example from your career?
Madonna wanted to release our debut album, Showbiz, on her record label in the U.S. in 1999. But on one condition: She wanted us to re-record our songs and make them more catchy. We told her where to go and the deal fell through. But I know that if that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Which is gigs with up to 100,000 fans. How do you prepare yourself for such huge shows?
I eat bananas before every gig. I picked up the ritual watching Boris Becker play tennis as a kid. When he won Wimbledon, he was always stuffing himself with bananas between games. I thought to myself, “They must be a secret weapon.”
Is it possible that the bananas give you too much energy? You’re listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the musician who smashed the most guitars on a single tour: 140.
I think that’s an exaggeration. But I was definitely in a bad way on our 2004 tour. We’d saddled ourselves with far too many gigs and we were struggling with technical problems. It was a nightmare. That’s why I sometimes smashed up my guitar out of frustration at the end of a gig. But I don’t think it was 140. It was 40, max.
How do you let off steam in your private life? Do you drive fast cars?
Nothing could be further from the truth. A few years ago, my ex [the actress Kate Hudson] even made me go on an aggressive driving course.
Is there really a course for that?
Not aggressive in the sense of being a danger on the road. They taught me to drive quickly and smoothly. I’m more the type to sit back and relax when I’m behind the wheel. I wasn’t sporty enough for her.
Are you quicker now?
Not really. One time our drummer and I went head-to-head on a racetrack and at first I thought that I’d done a reasonably good time, but he was five seconds quicker. Maybe drummers just make better racing drivers than guitarists.
How does your enthusiasm for hi-tech sit with your obvious love of old cars, like your 1962 Ford Thunderbird?
I love that car precisely because it is so old-fashioned. Driving one feels like being at the helm of a sailing boat in that it’s pretty slow and clunky, which is just perfect for my adopted homeland, California.
Didn’t you also once have a Tesla sports car, a fully electric vehicle?
I did. But I’ve sold it now, like most of my other cars, just because there were too many at one point. All I still have is a 1966 Mustang, the 1962 Thunderbird and a Mercedes. Oh, and I still have a Mini in England. Just because the traffic’s so bad in London there’s no other car you can drive.
The new Muse album Drones also deals with high-tech. Your lyrics expound one interesting theory, namely that we’re all drones being controlled by other drones.
Indeed, you could put it like that. Control has always been an important topic for me. Yet I can’t say exactly why. Maybe it’s because my parents split up when I was a teenager. I had this period when my life was spinning completely out of control and I couldn’t do anything about it. That feeling of domestic security was taken away from me, which is why setting up the band was a complete escape and a way of making me the master of my own destiny. I was thinking about that while making this album.
So is the album a call for self-empowerment?
It’s a call for greater individuality, more liberal thinking and a greater empathy, even when it comes to technology. We have to accept the shortcomings of human thinking for our own well-being because if we concentrate wholly on technology, we’ll lose our humanity. On this album I express my doubts as to whether technological progress is taking us in the right direction.
That’s an interesting statement…
I think a lot of people now look back on the 20th century and see it in a different light. Then people felt technology was moving us forward, which it did in terms of efficiency and productivity. But at the same time it made a great number of people redundant because they couldn’t keep up with the speed of change and became surplus to requirements. That was a direct result of generally prioritising efficiency over everything else.
Which translates to us only harming ourselves by unreservedly accepting technology, you mean?
Yes! And for me drones are the point we can’t go beyond, the point at which we have to say, ‘life-and-death decisions, i.e. drone operations, should not be made by a computer’.
Hand on heart, have you tried the mini-drones that we can now actually buy fairly cheaply?
I haven’t tried the really small ones that have only just come onto the market. But I’ve got one of the big ones, a quadcopter. I fly it a lot, actually. You can make really good home videos with it.
So that’s what you get up to at home in Malibu when you’re not writing new songs!
Among other things. If I’m not looking after my son, then I’m doing research with my quadcopter. I use it for investigative purposes. (He laughs) But don’t worry. The kind of drone I use is nothing like the ones that are used for military strikes.
So you know what you’re singing about?
Of course I’ve looked into it. That goes without saying, doesn’t it? (He laughs) It’s this weird new technology which suddenly seems to be everywhere. It’s like it’s come out of nowhere.
Will this new technology also get an airing in your live performances?
We’re going to at least try to involve drones in our gigs. But there are restrictions and regulations, of course, which vary from country to country. And we have to abide by them in terms of what we can get away with and how far we can take things. Because of course there are concerns when there’s something flying over the public’s heads. You wouldn’t be able to do it at Wembley Stadium in London, for example. They have very strict rules.
Do you think you can ever beat the last Muse live show with the robots and the huge balloons?
That’s one question. Another question is whether we want such an elaborate show again or want something a bit less extravagant this time round. There’ll be less mad video stuff this time and we’ll focus more on the music instead. But we’ll use a couple of flying objects too. So less film, more music and more going on above the crowd’s heads. It’s going to be fun!