Remember rock bands? You can be forgiven if you don’t, in this day and age, but one of the very few great and viable ones of the 21stcentury, Muse, is back to save the day with “Simulation Theory,” their first album in three and a half years. Just one caveat: they aren’t sounding so rock on this one. Whereas the last album, 2015’s “Drones,” had co-producer Mutt Lange bringing the guitar noise, you may be able to tell by the credits for brief assists on this one by Timbaland, Shellback and Mike Elizondo that they’re going for something that isn’t necessarily a retrograde version of what a rock album should be.
Variety spoke with singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy and drummer Dominic Howard in separate interviews (combined here) about why they felt the need to make such a dramatic stylistic shift between albums. Also up for discussion: their love for the sounds as well as sights of John Carpenter movies; how programming is taking over the world; why the human element will overtake the digital one on their forthcoming tour; and how they came to collaborate with the UCLA Bruins marching band.
(By the way, that particular track, a version of “Pressure,” can only be found on the two-CD/”super deluxe” version of the album, which includes a whole disc of alternate takes that are either quieter and subtler or stranger and more flamboyant than the regular album versions. It’s a must-buy — and some hardcore Muse fans may even prefer this idiosyncratic bonus disc to the core album.)
VARIETY: From the first singles you released prior to this album, it became evident that “Simulation Theory” was gong to turn down the guitars, turn up the synths and be less of a rock ‘n’ roll-sounding album. That prospect delighted some fans and worried others.
BELLAMY: I think we live in a time where there’s no particular reason to limit yourselves instrumentation-wise to just guitar, bass and drums. We did do that (traditional rock sound) on purpose on the last album (“Drones”), but I think this album is a more colorful interpretation of our songs than the previous album… The guitar is still very much there; it’s just when it’s there, it’s featured. If it’s not necessary, it’s not there. We’re a band that’s in that sort of transitional period between a 50-year cycle of rock music and what could be now the beginning of a new 50-year cycle of laptop-based or programmed music. We’re an act that is still interested in that previous way of doing things, where people learn their skills and their instruments and they work together as a team to create something bigger, versus the current mentality, which is more like the programmer genius on his or her laptop that is making some amazing code or piece of music all on their own. I guess we’re in the paradox between those two worlds.
HOWARD: When we play live, it is what it is: a big rock show with loud drums and guitars and riffs and a kind of spectacle. And I feel like that is always going to stay roughly within those boundaries. But we’ve felt recently that that approach doesn’t always work for us on a record, so we flip-flopped from the last album being very rock. I think we’ve done that in the past, because “The Second Law” before “Drones” was a bit more experimental in that kind of way, too. But yeah, there are definitely a number of opinions as to where and what rock music is these days, because it’s not 1991 anymore. Now there are no rock bands in the top 40. It’s very underground. Your typical traditional rock sound is certainly not as predominant as it used to be, so that’s one of the probably conscious decisions to be a bit more experimental instrumentally on this album.
There seems to be a retro element as well as a futuristic element on this album. There are some synth or drum sounds that sound like they could have come out of ‘80s techno-pop.
HOWARD: I think some of those sound influences you hear on the album really have come from a lot of early movies that we probably used to watch when we were kids. We were taking influence from stuff like John Carpenter soundtracks that he did for horror movies. In the studio, we actually had a big projection screen set up behind the mixing desk in Rich Costey’s studio in Santa Monica. It wasn’t about listening to them, but more just for the visual; we’d put on “The Thing” or something like “Blade Runner” or some random sci-fi B movies, and often when we were working on sound, it was like, “We want to find something that sounds the way that looks.” When we were working on bass lines, it was like, “We want this bass line to sound like f—ing aliens coming out of the guy’s stomach on the spaceship! What does that sound like?” We were using old Prophets and old synths and stuff like that that have got a very character-ful sound anyway, but blending it with new ideas.
So you were going for a sound that equally emphasized past, present and future?
BELLAMY: More future and past. I would say that we were trying to create something right now that feels sort of a little bit of out of time. Timelessness is a hard thing to try and go for, when you’re making music, but I think one way to achieve that is to literally blend eras together, so you’re blending something that sounds like romantic piano from the 19th century, Chopin piano, mixed with ‘80s kind of synthesizers, mixed with contemporary drums. Era-blending is something we’ve always been interested in, but in the past we would unconsciously do that. I think on this album we very consciously were going “All right, this song sounds like a gospel song, so let’s make sure we produce it in a way that sounds like it’s from the year 2050.”
When did a theme for the album develop?
BELLAMY: It emerged pretty much around the time that we did the videos for “Dig Down” and for “Contagion,” the first songs that we finished. Around that time I started getting into VR gaming and started reading a bit about simulation theory, which is this idea that computational power is going to one day be powerful enough to simulate the universe, basically, in a way that would be quite accurate. That combined with working with this guy Lance Drake, who made the videos, who was interested in early ‘80s kind of filmic stuff, which happened to be an influence on the music as well — going back to early ‘80s vintage synthesizers and horror film soundtracks and trying to get some of that sound. It all combined to create this theme about escaping from the current moment and the regular everyday-ness of our lives and going off into some kind of virtual world, or even into a different point in time.
There must be something in the zeitgeist that connects the future with the ‘80s, with “Ready Player One” having had that theme.
BELLAMY: Yeah, there’s something about that ‘80s dystopian vision of the future, in films like “Aliens,” “Terminator,” “Total Recall,” “Escape from New York” or even “Back to the Future.” You know, the crazy thing in “Back to the Future 2” is that there’s a scene where he accidentally goes to the future, around about now, and comes across Biff Tannen, who’s some like sort of greedy casino boss who ends up becoming the president, which is kind of crazy. There’s something about these dystopian visions of the future that the ‘80s had; I find it interesting going back to that and how I felt when I saw those things, versus where we actually are today, and how there are some parallels, and even though it’s doesn’t necessarily look the same, in terms of the way people envisaged robots taking over the world. A song like “Algorithm” sings pretty openly about the idea that automation and robotics and AI are starting to take over our lives. And I think one of the reasons why Muse has had a theme like that running through quite a few of our albums is because our industry itself was one of the first industries that experienced automation. The idea that studying to be a violin player or a pianist or something like that is, ultimately in the modern age, [less valued than] picking up a laptop to create samples or create sounds. The human skill set is being replaced by computers and sampling, and in our industry that’s been going on for a while. It’s no longer a science fiction joke to say AI may one day take your job, you know? [Laughs.]
You have a fair number of songs that invoke dread, but you also have a tradition of inspiring anthems. There are quite a few on this album, between “Dig Down,” “Something Human” and “Get Up and Fight.”
BELLAMY: That’s something that’s been around with Muse for a while, but I think you’re right in saying there are more songs on this album than previously. I think sometimes it’s good to send out a positive feeling, because it’s something that I’ve drawn upon. And I think that goes back to songs like “Invincible” and “Butterflies and Hurricanes” on the third album, and maybe even “Uprising” to some extent. In some of those songs, there’s always been a message of individual strength and your ability as an individual to overcome anything.
I remember going to a very early Bernie Sanders rally, just to check it out on a journalistic curiosity level. And before he came on, they blasted “Uprising” out of the speakers, and it was hard not to just instinctively go, “Yeaaah! Vote for Bernie!,” because the song is sounds so powerful and motivational that it kind of makes you want to rally to action — any action.
BELLAMY: I think that partly comes from when the band got cast into these bigger venues quite quickly, maybe ahead of what we were ready for, and when you’re in a large-scale venue with a large number of people, you can’t help but have this feeling of: “I want to say something for all of us, or to us.” Pronouns like “we” start to creep into songs, instead of just “me” and singing about my life. It becomes like, well, what are we experiencing? With all these people looking at you, you want to sing about something more collective.
You don’t have much in the way of politics on this album, but you do have a line about “a clown takes the throne.”
BELLAMY: There are a couple little hidden gems in there. I mean, you can’t help it; in pretty much anything anybody does, there is some element of political interpretation available. I’m generally in favor of the individual rather than the state, in terms of where power should lie. I think that’s probably a consistent theme through a lot of our music. So I’m very in tune with the American way, in that way of thinking. I’m enjoying living here for that reason. It’s a very difficult political climate now, but it isdemocracy. You can talk about corruption and talk about all the bad stuff that goes on, but the structure of what this country has is something to not get too despondent about, because it’s still something that the rest the world really is quite far from, living in countries with a lot more state power.
Early on with this album, you released several singles and indicated you weren’t even sure about shaping them into an album.
HOWARD: Yeah, that’s what we thought. [Laughs.] How you release music is rapidly, so we thought, probably over a year ago, “Albums are dead. Let’s just release songs.” And I’ve still yet to know whether that’s (a good idea) or not. But people’s attention spans are changing when it comes to listening to music. I mean, mine are. You know, I haven’t got a CD player, and I haven’t looked at a CD for years. The way I listen to music on Spotify, I’m flicking around all over the place, so if I’m doing it, everyone’s probably doing it. [Chuckles.] So we thought it’d be a good idea to chuck out tracks and just see what happens. But if anything, we just want to make and put out more music. Historically we’ve put an album out every three years, and then we’d tour for ages. We want to be able to put out more music when it’s ready generally going forward. I mean, we won’t put out any shit. But instead of the pressure of doing an album and thinking this whole thing has got to be successful, it’s like, f— it. Let’s just put out music and see what happens. That’s how it used to be, way back in the ‘60s or something. People put out two albums a year, and hopefully one worked. [Laughs.]
You are definitely putting out more music with the “super deluxe” version of this album, which includes a second disc with alternate versions of 9 out of 11 songs.
HOWARD: This is another thing about the landscape for how you release music changing. Essentially, with the label, there’s a more-the-merrier approach going on. But we wanted to not just have the alternate versions be a bunch of remixes, which seemed a bit obvious. We referred back to some of the really early ideas of what the songs were and realized they were quite interesting, and so we decided to kind of take them a bit further and re-record them in that way. “Dig Down” is fundamentally a gospel song, so we redid that with a gospel choir. For “Algorithm,” we worked with this film scorer guy who turned it into much more of an epic, orchestral version rather than purely synths and electronic beats. Why? I don’t know. Why not?
My favorite alternate version is the one of “Pressure” where your band is replaced by the UCLA marching band. My feeling is, there is virtually no rock song that wouldn’t be improved somehow by the addition of a marching band. How did that come about?
HOWARD: Matt had a loose demo of him playing the guitar on “Pressure” and I was like, “Yeah, it’s great, but why don’t we not do that riff with guitar? Because it seems obvious. Let’s get a load of horns in and have some heavy brass doing it for different texture.” So we did, and we got the horn players in and it sounded great. One of them was like, “Oh man, every f—ing college band around the country is going to want to to play this.” We’re like, yeah, maybe so. And I think maybe that idea just stuck with us. Then we saw a video where the UCLA band had done a whole Muse tribute thing at one of the football games, and we saw a video of it, and it was amazing. So we thought, why don’t we get them to do a version of “Pressure”?
Is it your preference that fans experience the super deluxe edition and get it all and understand the songs better through comparing and contrasting? Or were the alternate versions just a fun, oddball thing to do?
BELLAMY: It was really because in this day and age, with streaming, there’s not really a limitation on how much music you can put on there. Some of those things were already lying around, as unfinished alternative versions, and it just seemed like there’s no reason not to sort of share that stuff anymore. You might as well let people hear, because that way people are getting a much more complete picture of really what this period in time was for us, in terms of creativity. And I really enjoyed that. I can imagine wanting to do that a bit more with even older songs, creating these kinds of alt versions of how it was in my head before we produced it, basically.
You have a song on the album, “Something Human,” that references the weariness of being out on the road. But here you are, about to go back through that part of the cycle in 2019.
HOWARD: The “Drones” tour was great; it was just quite long, and particularly in Europe, we did lots of nights in the same city. It might be four, five, six nights in one venue, and it felt a bit Groundhog Day — “What, this is still Paris?” But it’s the same for every band: you’re tired of touring and you feel like you need to stop and make music again, and by the time you’ve made the album, you’re like, Christ, let’s go out and play! We start in February in Texas and we’re excited. We’re designing it right now, figuring out how to do something that feels pretty different from what we’ve done before. We want to try and incorporate many more people into the show, and not just have it be a barrage of cool video content. There will still be screens so people can see what’s going on, but it will be more about human beings than digital content. It could be ourselves and some other people doing weird shit — not dancing around or anything, but trying to use human performance in a way that’s artistic and theatrical. There’s only so many fireworks you can have in a show, you know… only so much confetti.