Never a band to play it safe

Dominic Howard of Muse tells Ed Power why the group made the decision to venture into new territory on their latest album

Never a band to play it safe

Dominic Howard of Muse feared the end was near. It was 2009 and the stadium mega-act were wrestling with the oldest quandary in the A-Z of rock cliches. What to do when one of your band mates goes spectacularly off the rails?

“We questioned it,” he says. “We thought ‘We’re not sure if we can do this any more’. I’m sure he felt the same.”

‘’He’ was bassist Chris Wolstensholme, an amiable chap in the early stages of chronic alcoholism. Drummer Howard and singer Matt Bellamy liked to party as much as the next millionaire rock star (Howard once told a journalist that his motto was Spinal Tap’s ‘Have a good time, all the time’). But this was something different. This was scary.

“He was away from his family and dealt with it through drinking,” says Howard. “We didn’t know how he was going to end. It’s not simply a case of one day you stop and everything is fine. It takes a couple of years to readjust.”

All of this was unfolding as Muse recorded their fifth album, The Resistance. With Wolstenholme in the pub most days, the bulk of the heavy lifting was by Howard and Bellamy. It was not a happy period.

“Chris wasn’t around much. I’m sure he wasn’t certain he could continue to do it either. He was addicted to booze. Some people have addictive personalities and easily get hooked on things. They need vices, be that drugs, booze or whatever. They have that trait. And Chris is one of those individuals. When he drank, he consumed an obscene amount. When he smoked, he was on 40 fags a day. Everyone in Muse has done too much — the difference is that Matt and I haven’t fallen into the trap. We were able to step back.”

There was never an ultimatum or a band meeting. Friends since their schooldays in Devon, Muse knew each other too well for anything that formal. Still, Wolstenholme must have sensed he was close to the brink because, having toured The Resistance for 18 months, he decided to pull himself together. He moved with his family to Foxrock in Dublin for 18 months and got serious about drying out. By the time the group reconvened in London to record the latest LP The 2nd Law, he was a transformed man.

“Chris being around was fantastic,” says Howard. “We produced the record ourselves, so it was only the three of us and an engineer. Having him ‘present’ so to speak made a huge difference.”

The new record is an extraordinarily brave — some might say rash — gesture for a band in Muse’s position. With the possible exception of Coldplay, they are the biggest outfit in the world under the age of 40. They have played London’s Wembley Stadium two nights in a row; their albums sell by the million.

In that context, each new release has a huge amount riding on it. Rather than just give fans more of what they were used to, with The 2nd Law Muse have taken a gamble. In place of the usual thumping rock the new project contains surprising extremes: there are tender ballads, Queen-style classical crossover and thumping forays into electronica.

“The first three songs are like the work of three different bands in a way,” says Howard. “There are some political tracks. ‘Animals’ is about the bankers who gambled away all our money. But then ‘Madness’ is a tender love song. However, there is a thread of ambition running through everything.”

One thing The 2nd Law isn’t is a dubstep album. In the weeks before its release, the rumour was that Muse had decided to go in a completely unexpected direction and release an album influenced by the bass heavy dance genre, much beloved of urban sophisticates. Howard laughs when this is brought up.

“People picked up on this dubstep notion and went with it. To be honest, we have always been influenced by all kinds of dance music. We are fans of the Aphex Twin, Justice, Daft Punk, Nero – all of that really heavy electronic music. Obviously dubstep is big at the moment.

“ We would never draw entirely off of one thing. We are interested in the dual influences of metal and electronica. That’s one of the elements that has always driven this group.”

The other influence people have picked up is, as already pointed out, Queen. In earlier interviews Muse were aghast at any mention of the ‘q’ word. Today, Howard seems perfectly comfortable to have his band compared to Freddie Mercury’s merchants of 1970s bombast.

“Queen had a singer who wrote songs that were very much influenced by piano music. They walked that line between different genres – they mixed it all up, which is definitely a similarity with our band. We combine radically different things and get this big bombastic sound. Queen definitely had a similar thing going on.”

Muse’s current tour is almost stripped down. Certainly, it’s a good deal more understated than their 2009 production which featured guitarist, drummer and bassist atop elevated ‘towers’.

The idea – intended to signal the musicians ‘alienation’ from the world – had sounded great in theory. On the first night of the tour however, Muse were alarmed to discover how high up they were.

“When we had rehearsed, the building wasn’t high enough to build the whole production. So it was learning curve. Wit h the whole towers thing, there was a sense of ‘oh for fuck’s sake – do we have to back up again’. It was definitely a relief to come down and stay grounded for the rest of the evening. I think what we took away from that experience is that we need to rehearse for longer.”

* Muse’s new single, ‘Follow Me’, is released Friday December 7

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