Love. Empathy. Autonomy. Are these the fundamental principles of what it is to be human? And what happens when these begin to crumble, do we fall into a mindless existence at the hands of others as we lose the ability to feel and think for ourselves? Muse explore personal questions in a greater social context on what may be the first concept record of their career.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Australian Guitar Magazine
When Muse first set about promoting their new record Drones, the British three-piece consistently reiterated one point that's made its way into almost every interview since - the album would be a stripped-back return to their rock roots. It was the kind of statement could pique the interest of newcomers who may have discovered Muse during their recent explorations into bombastic, symphonic proggy electro, while leaving long-term fans salivating over the idea of roaring riffs gracing a Muse record once again.
So did they make good on their promise? "The seven-string, which I used for "Citizen Erased" on our second album Origin of Symmetry, I also used it on the middle part of "The Globalist," says front man Matt Bellamy, who speaks with an almost giddy excitement at the idea of connecting a track on the band's new album with a song they released almost 15 years ago.
That said, Drones isn't a nostalgic work, it doesn't attempt to recreate the past and it's certainly not Origin of Symmetry Pt. II. And frankly, it isn't supposed to be, because Drones is the product of a band that's never content to rest on their laurels. Instead of simply recreating the past, Muse have found a way to combine the heavy riffage of yesteryear and synth-pop, grandiose rock operas that frequently soar into the stratosphere into something new. Because according to Bellamy, while the band had fun exploring sky high rock and electronica on The Resistance and The 2nd Law, the time had come to move forward again, and a little bit back as it were.
"Generally, and with the last album especially, I think we spent more time in the control room than we did in the live room," he explains. "Even though we love the album because we did things that were very experimental and changed the boundaries, it wasn't just about three piece rock anymore it was about orchestral, electronic music, all sorts of stuff."
"On this album, we'd had enough of being in a control room, we wanted to get back in the live room and spend our time in there playing. We wanted to rely on playing our instruments and our ability to solve musical problems as a band rather than editing, programming and doing things inside a computer."
Bellamy has always had a reputation for being a fast talker, and even though he's apparently slowed it down in recent years, words still fly out of his mouth like a fully-loaded machine gun. He speaks with a wild combination of enthusiasm and self-assurance, as he confidently explains why the band went down these particular paths musically and lyrically. There's no "ums" "ahs" or "I'm not sures" uttered at any point.
Taking a somewhat traditional approach to recording scratched their creative itch and complimented the album's concept. Drones explores a world where influential groups and individuals manipulate the malleable masses into a life of unquestioning loyalty. At the heart of the record is an unnamed individual who loses touch with their humanity, removed from their sense of self worth and deeply personal sensations such as love. The slightest push could turn them into another easily directed creature incapable of independent thought.
It's a much darker concept than the usual revolution inspired rock we're used to hearing from Muse, but one that resonates strongly with the current state of societies around the globe. "I think that we live in a world with military and religious extremists and so on, and a lot of humans do behave like drones," Bellamy explains. "Obviously we think about drones being remote controlled devices, they're the ultimate unfeeling machine, but a lot of humans can behave that way as well and be controlled by others."
From the dark, reflective tones of "Dead Inside" through to "Reapers," we see the lead up to potential submission, but come track six, "The Handler," the character decides fight back and gradually becomes autonomous once more. After spreading this message to others, the character's story wraps up with "Aftermath," a powerful declaration of love that reinforces their humanity and helps them overcome the temptation to follow the herd.
"The album is trying to empathise with that battle, to just want to give up and be controlled by others, but at the same time songs like "Defector" and "Revolt" are really trying to inspire change and inspire people to take control of themselves," he continues. "I guess if there was a message on the album it's simply that in certain points in our lives we all experience bad things. But we all have a choice to make and that's to detach from our humanity because some things are too painful, or to experience the humanity and regain control of your own life."
At first, Drones seems like it only tells the tale of a person who manages to regain control, but while "Aftermath" may be the end of the story, it isn't the final track on the record. Instead of simply sticking to hope, Bellamy chose to explore both outcomes of exposure to external influence, with the sombre conclusion rearing its head through the final two tracks, "The Globalist," and "Drones."
"It's kind of the same story except it has a bad ending. It starts off the same, a person giving up on themselves and losing hope, but instead of becoming an underling they end up becoming a dictator type, a kind of crazed maniac," he explains, with a serious tone. "Drones" is a mysterious little afterthought, like the ghosts of all the damage that's been done when humans do detach from their emotions and become psychopathic leaders, soldiers or religious extremists for example."
Muse headlining Download Festival UK, 2015. Photo - Peter Zaluzny
It's a tragic conclusion, but also one that speaks volumes about the way Bellamy sees the world. While the positive scenario certainly exists, it's not the final chapter on the record. Instead, as the last vocal harmony drifts away, the subject of people becoming drones lingers in the air, leaving the tale of those who managed to break the cycle some 15 minutes behind. However, Bellamy's not exactly a defeatist, as he frequently discusses the means and importance of reinforcing or rediscovering one's humanity before it's too late.
As the concept is laid out, the reasons for Muse returning to rock become pretty clear. After all, maintaining the highly refined, computer oriented approach to song writing didn't feel entirely appropriate for an album with such raw concepts at its core.
Like most Muse records, Drones takes plenty of influence from contemporary politics and social issues. But instead of attacking powerful figures or organisations, the album explores their impact in a broader context. The means of execution and people's willing participation in social submission that are under the microscope here, and even though you could link these ideas to a thousand governments, military organisations or religious groups for example, Bellamy is quick to point out that the record isn't overtly political. Rather, it examines the journey of an individual through a landscape where various figures are fighting for control.
"Military brainwashing and religious extremists, they're the two opposite sides of the coin that are battling each other at the moment. They're both trained to kill and do things without even questioning whether it's right or wrong, they're brainwashed, manipulated and fulfilling the orders of others," he says, before explaining why a speech from John F. Kennedy is included on a record that isn't supposed to be too political. "It's a comment on how futile that all is and what's missing is the idea that, like what JFK is attempting to say on that speech in the album is that freedom and independence of the mind, and autonomy, is the only way to actually fight that."
It's not the first time JFK has made his way into Muse's music. In 2007 (and at a few recent shows too) a portion of his speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association was used as an opener for live shows during the Black Holes and Revelations Tour. It was originally delivered at the height of the Cold War in April 1961, around one week after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and focused on the idea of secret societies and spheres of influence. Although the speech was referring to the rise of the USSR, not once did JFK mention the Soviets by name, suggesting a broader warning may have been hidden between the lines. In any case, the lack of specifics makes the speech applicable to external influences beyond the Soviets, which is why a portion of the same speech fits perfectly into the concepts behind Drones.
"There's a wider story which is the battle between humanity and technology," Bellamy explains. "I think technology has had a big influence on humanity and it might be that it's causing us to behave less like humans as time goes on and more like machines. Drones was a perfect title that summarises all of that."
And like the music, the JFK speech is another interesting example of Muse connecting with their past. In 2007 they were deeply embedded in the world of conspiracy theories, when their music demanded unification against the enemy. Just look at the lyrics to "Knights of Cydonia" and you'll get the idea. Now the speech marks a turning point in the record, when the character shifts from mindless slave to independent revolutionary. So even though the topic hasn't changed in 54 years, the take home message seems to have changed in Bellamy's eyes. Why? It's simply a matter of age.
"When I first found myself to be feeding that feeling of mistrust for people you thought were in trustworthy positions, governments, religious leaders and so, my initial feeling was one of anger and frustration, with an avid desire to work out a way that those people could be taken down," says Bellamy. "But there isn't really, and I think what has occurred to me, what has changed, is that the only way to actually overcome those problems in the world is to actually take control of your own life and form a mind which is immune to their propaganda."
Muse, Sydney, 2010. Photo - Peter Zaluzny
A cursory glance may interpret this idea of abandoning inspirational leadership in the interest of self-preservation as a kind of philosophical egotism, but the logic behind this position goes far deeper than superficial selfishness as Bellamy continues to explain the concept. "Think about it, if half the military and half the religious extremists out there started thinking for themselves, the powers that be would have no pawns to play with."
So the lyrics, song writing and recording methods combine the present and the past, but what about the gear? Bellamy is known for having an arsenal of eclectic custom made Hugh Manson guitars that pack everything from Kaoss pads to battery-powered laser lights (for those extra special concerts). But in keeping with the stripped-back style, these futuristic beasts were barely brought into the studio.
"There's one that I call the Flat Black because it's a standard black Manson guitar, it's really the most basic one. It doesn't have any electronics in it apart from a sustainer, that's my go to guitar in terms of basic sound," he says, immediately opening the floodgates on his unabashed guitar geekery. "To me, every other guitar sounds like an experiment step away from that basic sound which has become the sound I like the most. I didn't do much in the way of Kaoss pad stuff or really crazy effects, except for a lot of whammy stuff and a reverb a couple of times."
"Having said that, I did use one other guitar and that was a Fender Stratocaster on songs that involved slide guitar like "Aftermath" and parts of "The Globalist," he continues. "I felt like that sounded a bit more evocative, Manson guitars are a better suited for more aggressive playing, whereas the Stratocasters are a bit more finessed."
These, and the Manson 7 String E aka the "Citizen Erased" Guitar, account for almost every song on Drones. The number of pedals and amps used was similarly small, although the models he chose weren't quite as straight forward as the Flat Black for example.
"My standard three amps that I've been using for a while now are a Diesel VH-4 which is a German made valve high saturation amp, I use that for really heavy stuff, and I'm lucky enough to have a JTM-50 which is the first Marshall ever made, it's the one that Hendrix used, and to this day I still think it's the best sounding Marshall amp ever. I've got another one called a Superlead, it's modified by a guy called Matt Wells in New York, then of course I use the VOX AC30 from the 60s, and I've got one from the 70s as well."
"I used a reissue of a really cool delay pedal, an SDD delay for pretty much all of the delay tones, which is an old, early 80s digital delay made famous by The Edge from U2, he used it a lot on The Joshua Tree. It's a digital delay so it's perfectly accurate, but it has this mysterious D-generation to it that's difficult to describe, but the early 80s digital stuff wasn't perfect and therefore had a slightly human quality to it," he continues. "And I used the Classic Digitech Whammy on quite a lot of the album, there's a standard piece of outboard you get in most outboards, an Eventide Multiple Effects rack unit. Inside there's a couple of pre-sets that are basically a simulation of a Big Muff, but because it's simulated in this old digital way it sounds slightly weird."
There was one standout pedal however that Bellamy can't quite put his finger on, but it doesn't matter. In the time that he spent with it, Bellamy seemed to have developed a working knowledge of the insides, to the point where his description of the sound provides more than enough detail.
"It simulates a mic preamp called a Neve 1073, and if you plug a guitar directly into it then crank up the input gain until it's really high but trim it back, you end up with a really interesting DI'd distortion sound. So this company brought out a pedal simulation of that, but goes a step further so you can push the gain beyond what the mic one can do. It's got a very unique character to it, it really doesn't sound like anything else."
But every guitarist has a dream instrument, the one that they'd love to acquire but haven't quite managed to get their hands on. Bellamy was extremely close to scoring his ideal axe, but money and touch of youthful ignorance got in the way.
"It's a Gibson Gold Top Les Paul 1953," he says enthusiastically. "When we made the first album [Showbiz], we went to the studio in Cornwall and made a bunch of B-sides, and there was one of them there. So I plugged it in, and it just sounded so mean and aggro, it provided a lot of beef on songs from that time like "Agitated" and "Yes Please." I didn't know much about guitar value at the time, so I said to the owner of the studio "I love this guitar, would you consider selling it," and he was like "yeah, £20,000" or something [laughs]."
"He gave me some figure and I just couldn't believe it," Bellamy continues. "It was the first time I'd heard that guitars could even have value like that. I'm not sure what they go for now but it's an extraordinary figure, they're just so rare and they've got a very particular sound. The thing is when you hear those songs, you realise I wasn't being particularly respectful to the guitar, I was just playing really cheap riffs and really hard stuff. It wasn't until afterwards that I found out what it was worth, and I probably wouldn't have played the same if I'd known!"
Like the Neve simulator, Drones doesn't sound exactly like anything else in Muse's discography. Yeah there are plenty of points where a not so subtle nod to the past rears its head, like "Psycho's" core riff which began life at a small show in 1999 and has survived as a live outro shred until now, but as a whole it feels unique. It's because, for the first time in their career, Muse have put together something almost akin to a concept record, an approach they had intentionally avoided in the past. Drones has a clear beginning, middle and end rather than a series of similar songs with a set of independent stories, which is why Bellamy believes that there's an important message at the heart of Drones, a message that breaks through the band's conspiracy laden lyrics of the past into an idea most people can relate to.
"We're bombarded with propaganda from everywhere, everything from corporate advertising to religious, military and government things, it's an endless, endless barrage of people trying to sell something or make you do something for their benefit. "If you don't take control of yourself then there's plenty of other nefarious forces out there that would love to take control of you, and use you to do very bad things. That's what the album is about."
Catch Muse in Australia this December.
Saturday December 16th | Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
Monday December 18th | Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne