by TOM PHILIP
PHOTOGRAPHS by MATTEO MOBILIO
The British band remains one of the U.K.’s most popular exports, but on Simulation Theory, they retreat from our modern horrors and look toward the future instead.
From the comfort of his boutique SoHo hotel, Matt Bellamy is showing me a grainy video on his phone. We watch a backyard in Malibu, California, captured via the Muse frontman’s home-security system. Onscreen, there’s a modest pool, a shed in the background, some dog toys strewn around. Slowly, we watch the scene turn brighter, redder, as a fire approaches. The screen flickers, as if the world itself is malfunctioning. Suddenly, a helicopter swoops down and extinguishes a small patch of burning bush just inches from where it would have begun to invade Bellamy's property.
"Look," he tells me, replaying the video. “I wanna find this pilot and thank them, because I think they saved our house."
Bellamy is lucky. His neighborhood—his state—was devastated by wildfires last month, but he emerged unscathed. "As soon as I get back from this trip, I'm gonna be putting gloves on and the gas mask and helping out the neighbors," he says. Naturally, he's not as focused as he might normally be, since his band just released its eighth studio album, Simulation Theory, which topped the U.K. charts in November.
You know Muse. Everyone knows Muse, whether they’d like to or not. They’re the group best known, depending on your age, for their hyper-literal political ballads or for being the de facto musical mascot for Twilight. Both these realities have shaped Muse’s cut-and-dry modern reputation: easy to like; easier, perhaps, to mock.
Formed in 1994 in the English town of Teignmouth by school friends Bellamy (vocals, guitar, piano, the occasional keytar), Christopher Wolstenholme (bass, the occasional harmonica), and Dom Howard (drums and…well, more drums), they've spent their careers making a lot of noise for just three people. An early proclivity for prog rock brought success with the loud, riff-fueled albums Origin of Symmetry and Absolution, but the 2006 release of Black Holes and Revelations catapulted them into the upper echelons of whatever constitutes mainstream rock nowadays. More conservatively written hits like "Starlight" and "Supermassive Black Hole" helped the band dominate the morning-radio circuit. In 2007, Muse became the first band to sell out the new Wembley Stadium in London, which seats 90,000 screaming Muse fans at its capacity.
Bellamy certainly does not look like one of the most influential rock musicians in the world today in downtown Manhattan, blindingly white jeans notwithstanding. His hair is dark and messy, and to my knowledge has not changed in style or length his entire life. He has both the peacoat and the gently pinched face of your average London lad, which adds to the amusement of seeing him work his wizardry with all manner of instruments, pack out arenas, and, at one point in history, have a baby with Kate Hudson. Like his music, he is unpretentious and welcoming. He has a booming laugh and a loud, deep voice. He gestures wildly and swears often.
Howard, though, does look famous, sporting a proto–Rod Stewart semi-mullet that only the drummer of an extremely rich band can pull off. He’s wearing an oversize zebra-print coat today, and later, when we go for a walk outside their hotel, Howard confesses his self-consciousness about the statement piece. "I haven't worn this out yet. It's a bit...look at this fuckin'—" he says, gesturing to the padded shoulders. "But I was looking at it and I thought, You've got to go for it once."
Wolstenholme doesn’t give interviews. Even during live performances he keeps mum, strolling around his assigned space, alternately nodding agreeably and, on other songs, whipping his neck back and forth so vigorously you wonder if his head might finally just pop right off and land in the lap of a dad in Row Z. As with matters of the press, he leaves the onstage banter to Bellamy and Howard. For the most part, even they keep crowd interactions to a minimum. With lyrics as bald-faced as Muse’s, the music speaks for itself.
When it comes to their longevity, they know they've gotten lucky. If Bellamy and Howard interview separately, it does not have the salacious whiff of jaded bandmates forced to stay together in a studio for the sake of money or fame. They’re just two bandmates who want some room to give their own answers. Still, the question remains: How do people who have spent every day with one another for 24 years still function? They’re not just bandmates, Howard says. They’re best friends. "Mates."
"We met when we were 14, 15. You still remember those conversations or jokes or some of those times with the music you made. It's like time travel. So maybe that's why we're gonna continue to make albums. There's not a lot of ego, because that's always the danger of success. Right? There are definitely weeks [that] can take over without [us] speaking to each other, for sure. Me and Matt are mostly in L.A. We still hang out and do things. Our social group is all the same."
"That's the hardest thing, staying together,” he adds. “Some new bands come along and they're brilliant and really successful. They blow up around the world and then end really quickly. I've always respected and envied those bands that stick around together, like U2. They met at school and started really young. And they've done it. You have to really accept your role in the band. Because as soon as you don't, egos get in the way. [It’s] such a typical way of things going wrong."
The Muse model is probably the envy of the music industry: building a loyal following of fans while “still figuring out” your sound, and releasing albums (each bigger than the last) until a steady, safe ubiquity is achieved. There's a reason so many politicians have requested (and been denied) permission to use Muse’s 2009 staple single “Uprising” in campaign appearances and speeches. It's a great song to scream-sing in a crowded arena, sure, but it's also a blank-canvas call to action, one that anarchists, Democrats, and, famously, Glenn Beck have been able to project onto at one point or another. "Rise up and take the power back / It's time that the fat cats had a heart attack," the song goes, before reaching a crescendo of dozens of Bellamy vocal layers all singing in harmony. "They will not force us / They will stop degrading us / They will not control us / We will be victorious." It's not so much a call to arms as it is a call to throw your arms up, go to a gig with your buds, and jump around mindlessly in rhythm to some sick-ass guitar. It is quintessential Muse at their most serious. Or is it? I ask Bellamy at one point: Just how seriously are we to take them?
"I think one of the biggest misconceptions about our band was that we're these serious, moody musicians, you know?” Howard says. “Fucking depressed and shit. So there's always a wink in our songs."
Bellamy's answer is more expansive: "It's a reflection of who we are, who I am when I'm writing these songs. There will be elements of serious anxiety and concern, but also elements of humor and irony. I think that sort of mixture of sincerity and irony, sometimes in the same song, is actually quite modern. There are certain points in songs like ‘Knights of Cydonia’ where you don't quite know whether it's just completely a farcical joke or what. But at the same time, every time we play it live, the crowd, the energy...I wouldn't call it serious, but it's so, so powerful."
Muse is, first and foremost, a band designed to be seen live. As their ambitions have expanded, so too have their set designs, their lighting rigs, the mad professor guitar hybrids Bellamy trots out to create impossible noises in stadiums around the world. Often eager to defer and listen in conversation, Bellamy is insistent when it comes to the intentions behind his music.
"The one context where it never seems ridiculous is in the concerts," he says. “The music we've composed, we've made it with that in mind: the idea of a large number of people coming together to actually celebrate music. And when you write music for that, it's a different sort of format than when you write music for someone driving home from work."
That works just fine for the readily initiated, but as Muse has entrenched itself more deeply in its tongue-in-cheek messaging, so too have its detractors found the Muse experiment increasingly exasperating. "Pitchfork never really liked you guys, did they?" I ask Bellamy, who raises his eyebrows in agreement. Reviewing Black Holes and Revelations, the site wrote, “This is the band's most autopiloted effort yet, a hacked-up last-gen rehash of said space jams, only now with greater emphasis on glitz and glam. Somehow Muse, always loveably lame, have managed to take a turn for the lamer.” Later, the writer posits that their music is based in “three fundamental assumptions: 1) distortion is always better than no distortion; 2) every measure of music should contain at least one drum fill; and 3) the future will be dominated by robots.” All of which most Muse fans would likely enthusiastically agree with.
Simulation Theory is just the latest conspiracy Muse has been happy to disappear inside. Bellamy himself was, of course, a 9/11 truther before walking back his comments in 2012. In November 2006, they kicked off their Black Holes and Revelations tour with some lung-busting performances on a stage outfitted to resemble HAARP, the weather-research center in Alaska that has been a subject of fascination for conspiracy theorists since time immemorial.
Muse's last record was a 2015 concept album about drone warfare, appropriately titled Drones. For them, the album was something of a back-to-basics approach to making music—as close to “basics” as Muse could go, really. A riff they've been employing for years as a live interlude became the chest-thumping "Psycho." Another song, "Defector," begins with a famous JFK speech that’s a longtime favorite of conspiracy theorists, who believe his allusion to a deep state was what led to the president’s assassination.
All this is to say that their new record, Simulation Theory, presents a more laissez-faire, optimistic tone that seems at odds with Muse’s past. The record is a synth-heavy, inoffensively fun time. But this feels like a time for paranoia. For anger. For fear. There is more visible and violent civil unrest in America than the country has known in decades. Simulation Theory is, in other words, an album incongruous with its time. The two albums—this one and Drones—could easily be swapped in the chronology of Muse's repertoire.
"The times we live in are very difficult, but at the same time, we've lived through a relatively peaceful period for a few decades. We're not under direct threats of war, global warfare,” says Bellamy. I’m a little stunned. I tell him I’ve been reading about Charlottesville, just one year on. He presses forward. “We may think we are at war. The media may occasionally make us try and believe we are, but ultimately speaking, we've had quite a few decades of reasonable peace.
"When the band started, it was right around the time when the Internet was everywhere,” he continues, staring off into the distance, collecting his thoughts. “We've seen this huge growth in the world: constant innovation, tech, speed of computing, the introduction of Internet gaming, phones. I think that Drones was probably a bit more of a negative perspective on that, but this album is kinda the opposite. It's taking a bit of a positive view and looking into the future and thinking how we might be able to live some kind of fantasy world of our own creation."
But is that a good thing? "A little bit escapist, maybe."
Bellamy says he fell in love with escapism while writing the new album. "I did a lot of VR gaming on this album, and that's the first time I really gamed since I was a kid. It's amazing, I got some really big laughs socializing with strangers. I don't get that experience much in the real world, because everybody's a little bit tense and don't want to talk about politics."
Simulation Theory is named after the real hypothesis that our reality is generated artificially, that we’re all floating inside a computer somewhere. The theory has gained traction in recent years, however winkingly, thanks in part to the daily antics of the Trump administration, the latest Elon Musk Twitter meltdown, and the fact that our fucking houses are on fire. This all can’t be really real, can it? We want to be in a simulation, because at least then we’ll be in on the inexplicable cosmic joke this ridiculous higher intelligence must be playing on us. “Burn like a slave / Churn like a cog / We are caged in simulations,” Bellamy croons in the album opener, “Algorithm.”
It’s a fitting idea for the band to name their new album after, content as they are to idealistically disappear into an alternate reality at the moment rather than confront this one. Headset firmly affixed, focused elsewhere, Bellamy tells us things aren’t quite as bad as we think, while feet away the flames lick at his door.
Many fans wish Muse would reckon a little more with their social privilege. Bellamy’s seeming lack of concern for the horrors of the modern world, and the new album’s retreat from the present, could easily be taken the wrong way. Then again, this is Muse. They possess the unstoppable force of a rock band that has, time and again, been unconcerned with doing anything other than in their way, on their own time. This is such a hilariously bad time to stop paying attention that of course this is the moment they’ve chosen to release a devil-may-care synth-pop album. Bellamy, Howard, and Wolstenholme will continue to chant “Uprising” to tens of thousands of fans around the world every night during their upcoming tour, and when Bellamy gets the itch to leave the comfort of his bubble to write a new song or two, it’ll only be a matter of time before the headset comes off once again.