The only thing that will leave you in a wilder state of nail-biting anxiety after listening to Muse’s 7th album, Drones, is talking to frontman Matt Bellamy himself about it. When explaining the ideas and inspirations that have birthed the band’s first ever proper concept album, the main songwriter and conceptualist behind the Devon-born trio builds a sense of panic that sits well with the rationale of Drones, which they produced with Mutt Lange [AC/DC, The Cars, Def Leppard] and recorded in Vancouver. Drones is a concisely realised piece of science fiction, a theory narrated through super-charged rock riffs and an ambitious vision that, given Muse’s modus operandi as The Greatest Live Band On Earth, will undoubtedly be accompanied in the future by some outrageously intelligent, fully sensory live experience.
You should fear for the day that complete imagination of Drones comes to fruition because if the music is anything to go by then the show might feature the simulation of Armageddon, cameos by the Star Wars clones from Episode II and a potential enforced uprising by all in attendance. The thought does cross your mind over the course of Drones’ 12 tracks that if anyone wanted to establish a new post-everything religion and build a following by reaching out to people’s iPods and Spotify accounts, thereafter holding church in the world’s most gargantuan rock stadiums to audiences of thousands, then Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme may well have taken the concept of ‘Rock God’ to a new, quite literal level…
“Hahahahahaha,” laughs Matt tickled by the notion that he could be a modern day prophet of rock’n’roll. Masked by Ray-Ban sunglasses while sitting in the blazing Santa Monica sunshine, Matt converses at such a speed you’d think the world was running out of time. He recalls completing the last album run for ‘The 2nd Law’ at Coachella festival several hours’ drive from here only a year previous. It’s during that time that the initial conception for Drones came to him. It’s as mad as a march hare, as mind-boggling as the first time you read Pilgrim’s Progress and as revolutionarily thrilling as your debut encounter with the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix movies. The more you dwell on it, the more it seems to make sense.
Drones begins with the single ‘Dead Inside’ and ends with closer ‘Drones’, journeying along a clear beginning, middle and end. It touches on themes that past Muse works have explored: the idea that technology is taking over humanity, the deceit and toxicity of our society’s hierarchies and the disappointment and simultaneous elation that can take hold of your mind when you’re in loving relationships that turn sour. It all started, however, with the notion of ‘Kill Decisions’ and Matt’s reading list which included Jon Ronson’s ‘The Psychopath Test’ and ‘Predators: The CIA’s Drone War On Al Qaeda’ by journalist Brian Glyn Williams about the prolificness of killing drones over the past decade. It’s fair to say that while reading this material, Matt’s mind started to work overtime. “I was surprised to learn that since he’s been in Office, President Obama gets up for breakfast, goes down to the War Rooms and sits at a computer screen making kill decisions,” says Matt, matter of factly. “What an amazing, dark position to be put in.”
The notion of the most powerful politician on the planet exercising control over the life-or-death of strangers from such a removed distance via remote control really haunted him, the idea that we’re progressing towards a time when an authority will be able to end someone’s life without any element of human involvement. “You’re telling a command to tell a remote control to tell a robot to kill someone. It becomes very easy.” His research led him to the discovery that in Britain too we’re on the edge of inventing artificial intelligence which won’t require humans to make such decisions. Drones will be programmed to hover around target areas and kill anyone via facial recognition or GPS tracking. It’s terrifying. “I’m not talking about whether that’s right or wrong, I’m taking about whether a kill decision should be made with that level of distance, that ability for empathy to be taken out of the equation. That got me thinking about psychopaths and the way the world’s structured, how politics and business tend to favour emotionless people, their success a result of not caring for the labour force or civilians. It started to merge together and made sense to tackle via an album.”
For Bellamy, Drones became the metaphor for what it means to build a killing machine with no capacity for feeling – the ultimate psychopathic object. It works on many levels, of course. “You can’t help but write about your own personal feelings too, and I started creating this idea of a protagonist going on a journey from losing faith in themselves, giving up and becoming cold and vulnerable. It’s in that state when you become easily controllable.”
Beginning with ‘Dead Inside’, Matt’s protagonist – an Orwellian type anti-hero – has lost the capacity to feel. “On the outside I’m the greatest guy/But now I’m dead inside,” goes the final line. The pompous ‘Drill Sergeant’, inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, looks into the protagonist as a new drone conditioned by evil authoritative forces and single ‘Psycho’ is delivered in the drill sergeant’s voice: “I’m gonna make you a fucking psycho/Your ass belongs to me now.” Dom reassures that there was a level of fun in the studio when this particular track, developed from a very old Muse riff, began to take life, particularly as the threesome would fantasise about audiences of thousands singing that line back at them. “We were laughing, we don’t take ourselves deadly serious. That chorus is funny. Why not, y’know? Why the fuck not?”
A Black Holes-ian ‘Mercy’ follows suit about “men in cloaks trying to devour my soul” and ‘Reapers’ continues to build a narrative about dark forces wanting to manipulate humans to atrocious ends. Lyrics such as “You’ve killed by remote control, and the world is on your side/You’ve got reapers and hawks babe, and now I am radicalised,” are some of Muse’s most provocative yet, brutalising the listener, almost baying them to take action. Matt’s favourite track ‘The Handler’ is the vital centrepoint of the record once the anti-hero has been stripped of everything and is utterly lost. “In those darkest moments when you experience trauma you can find strength,” he says.
That’s when Drones twists towards faith being restored, and the fight back begins. “Then I threw ‘JFK’ in there making a speech in 1961 addressing the press about how to deal with the rise of communism around the world,” says Matt, still chattering at a speed of pure urgency. “He’s talking about these forces who are attempting to control us. They’re out there in the modern age in the form of governments and corporations who want to manipulate the weak minded to make them into human drones.” Salvation comes thereafter as the protagonist morphs into a ‘Defector’. It’s a brilliant Fuck-You song, battling to regain autonomy, and think freely again. ‘Revolt’ ramps up the ante even more with Queen-style choruses and stadium air-punches in mind, preaching to the masses: “You can revolt! You can revolt! You can revolt!”
The blues-y ‘Aftermath’ is finally a rediscovery of love, communicating that humans need each other now more than ever. ‘The Globalist” which is Chris’s favourite track, is a totally separate entity for Matt. It’s about the rise and fall of a dictator, how humanity can be industrialised and will collapse as a result. A ghostly, hymnal choir piece ‘ Drones’ rounds off its Morricone-style soundtrack, which recollects the chaos of ‘Knights Of Cydonia’. Matt wrote it as a reaction to reading about the tragedies in the Middle East. “Can you imagine what it feels like to be on the border of Afghanistan from the perspective of the families of people who have been killed accidentally by drones? I wanted to end the album on a scary note,” he says. “These ghosts are going to come and get us sometime…”
Blimey. So that’s the overblown and hugely ambitious concept behind Drones. At the heart of it, all, however, is something very relatable: the inspiration to take your life into your own hands and regain control of daily situations and relationships you might feel trapped in. “I’d love people to feel strong enough to overcome whatever they feel is abusing them. Give people the strength to believe in themselves,” says Matt, who’s felt out of control since his teenage years. His life only got more chaotic as he became the frontman of one of this generation’s biggest rock bands, and had to perfect and push his craft under the watchful guise of global audiences.
“I’ve tapped into a way to express things from my childhood and previous relationships I’ve had that have bothered me. I’m trying to inspire people to follow themselves, not us – we don’t have an ideology. Follow yourself!” Captain Matt genuinely believes that if one person is provoked to make a difference to their life then that will suffice for him. The only thing that’s remained consistent throughout his life is the power of music as a communicator, whether he’s playing to thousands or anonymous in the audience, watching someone else.
It’s a surprising motivation for a frontman and band who could easily go through the motions with six albums, over 15 million record sales worldwide, jaw-droppingly massive tours taking in the likes of the iconic Wembley Stadium in London and Glastonbury headlining slots, and awards galore, including five MTV Europe Music Awards, six Q Awards, eight NME Awards, two BRITs, and five Grammy nominations. Getting back into the studio to put together a similar set of mammoth rock anthems to tour around the globe once more wasn’t enough for Matt, Dom and Chris. Not only was this concept album something Matt felt important for himself, he also felt it a necessary reality check for Muse as a band and a means to make a far greater point about the art of album making itself.
Matt is nostalgic for a time during the 1970s when the album was 50 minutes of music with a purpose before it became just a collection of songs, downloadable on iTunes or accessed via Spotify stream. Chris, too, laments a time when there’d be anticipation for weeks and months around a band’s album release and he’d save his pocket money to run out and buy it. “We wanted to signify the death of the album with a celebration of what the album should be about it,” says Matt, having carved a listening experience that necessitates sitting down for the duration and really paying attention to a story arc and unravelling jigsaw puzzle. As Chris explains: “We wanted to capture a moment in time.”
The recording process was totally key to achieving this sense of synchronicity. That’s where the final, and most introspective, motivation for Drones comes in: getting the band back to their roots. The last album ‘The 2nd Law’ was a studio record, not a band record. It allowed them to push themselves further than they’d been before in the realm of orchestras, electronics and effects. It also gave them opportunity to get extremely geeky about their own production, taking the reins of that themselves, focusing less on just their own musicianship. “With each album, everything just grew and grew and we became almost secondary,” says Chris. “On ‘The 2nd Law’ we took that as far as we possibly could. As much as I think it’s a good album the personality of the three-piece band had fallen down.” This time around the ambition was to return to organics, being three guys in a room together, taking back control from the machines, if you like…
Last summer, Dom and Matt bashed out ideas in and around LA where they both now live. Chris would receive updates over email. Then towards the end of summer, they all spent time in Matt’s basement in Central London, just guitar, drums and bass, raw but real, just like the start. “It’s a posh basement – it wasn’t like his nan’s house in 1993!” jokes Dom. “This time around we wanted to be somewhere relaxed, work on the music together like we did in the old days and purposely make some shit demos we knew we could make better when we actually started recording them.”
Sonically that’s taken effect on the record with tracks like ‘The Handler’ really reminding of early ‘Showbiz’ songs and forgotten anthems such as ‘Dead Star’ and ‘In Your World’ which were written in another state of panic shortly after 9/11. If Muse as a trio were in need of standing up and reclaiming their own voice again with confidence then legendary producer Mutt Lange helped steer them back to that place via his own neurotic levels of discipline. He became the obsessive compulsive in the production chair so that they didn’t have to. The band could relinquish control in that department this time to someone with a wealth of experience. It was tough work but he made realising the concept more effective, ensuring there was a consistency throughout. “He’s a bit of a mad genius,” laughs Dom. “He really pushed us, made us play and play 40 takes of the tracks to get a full picture of who we are and what we can do.” Despite the long days and insane perfectionism of Lange, the band still had fun in the studio. “We don’t dick around playing pranks on each other,” says Dom. “But it’s exciting when you feel the tracks building. We needed Mutt to keep us on the tracks otherwise we’d go off them!!”
So songs about robots taking over and drill sergeants dehumanising us all isn’t Muse properly going off the rails yet, then? “We could still go off into the deep end. Just for a laugh. Just for once,” says Dom. On Drones, Muse want to reclaim the notion of the ‘album’ as a vital form of artistry, they want to reclaim their identity as a powerful three-piece rock band and they intend to reignite that sense of unity and community via music fandom to inspire their audience to relocate their own passions and fight for the things in which they believe against the backdrop of an increasingly toxic world. The craziest thing of all is that there’s still so much drive and ambition fuelling a band who believe they’ve yet to hit their stride. “You always feel there are things as a band that you can do better,” says Chris. “We’ve done seven albums but there’s still so much we have left to do. There are parts of the world we haven’t touched yet – North Africa and parts of Asia. It never stops.”