British rockers Muse released a new album to fight back against the 'corporate-ocracy' and envision the rise of Eurasia atop a new world order. Michael Odell meets the three men from a small town in England who take their big ideas very seriously. I think Dubai is an amazing place. I think the Middle East is absolutely incredible. More than anywhere it encompasses all the big issues of the century. Religion. Oil. You don't get that in Devon."
The Muse singer Matt Bellamy is sitting in a Madrid bar watching the sun go down. With any other rock star, the scene would play out predictably enough: drinks, food, a chat about the new album stopping only to field wide-eyed appreciation from passing tourists. We do all these things, of course. But with Bellamy, the scene takes on a whole new resonance. He is reminiscing about his experiences with Muse in Dubai last year, and pondering one of the key ideas of the band's new album The Resistance. On the track The United States Of Eurasia, he tries to envision the rise of a new world order. In fact, in all its overblown glory, the song is a national anthem for a new super state.
"This would be the far western boundary," he says, motioning to the western horizon from the hotel's rooftop bar. "Spain and Portugal on the western flank and Japan to the east. Everything else in between would be Eurasia. I think more than anything what America fears is that Europe and Asia find unified purpose and come together to share their resources." Muse fans will recognise the tenor of this statement immediately. Bellamy is as intellectually curious and well-read as they come. But he also has form as a conspiracy theorist. For their first four albums, the British band have toyed with big themes: intergalactic space travel, and September 11 as a self-inflicted American wound, for example.
But for their fifth, The Resistance, he has distilled his bedtime reading into something greater. On one level it's another epic rock record to soundtrack manic air-punching. On another, though, it's a geopolitical vision for the new century. "History fascinates me. Politics fascinates me. And the potential of the internet absolutely amazes me. Ever since I was a kid I've questioned why the world is the way that it is. Who's in charge? Who makes things happen? I've read enough in the past couple of years to believe that we are due for great change. I think the internet will be the means of that change."
As if to underline this, Bellamy masterminded a fantastical "teaser" marketing idea for the launch of The Resistance. He arranged for a team to hide a series of flash drives containing codes in public places around the world, including Dubai, London and New York. Fans then followed internet clues to locate "secret agents" in each place and collect the flash drives, which contained a code allowing online access to parts of the new album.
"It was just a bit of fun, but it shows that the internet can bring people together across national, religious and cultural boundaries. But you have to ask yourself, 'With the internet, what will national identities really mean in a few year's time?'" Think of the queasy millennial jitters of Radiohead. Then imagine them successfully fused with the high-camp rock histrionics of Queen. No, it doesn't sound like it should work. But that, in essence, is Muse. Not only that, but they also have the stage show to match. Two years ago they became the first band to play the rebuilt Wembley Stadium. They sold out two nights and staged one of the most spectacular rock shows ever seen, with satellite dishes, a grid-sucking light show, multi-screens and stages, as well as dancers emerging from barrage balloons above the crowd.
Not bad for a band from Teignmouth in Devon, a small seaside town whose only claim to rock fame previously was that the Beatles played there in the 1960s. Two weeks ago Muse played their hometown for the first time in years. So how did a close-knit trio from a tiny town evolve into one of the most intriguing stadium bands of the moment? Well, even in Teignmouth, they were always outsiders. Bellamy, the drummer Matt Howard and the bass player Chris Wolstenholme bonded at college in their teens. They had each moved there from various parts of the UK - Cambridge (Bellamy), Stockport (Howard) and Rotherham (Wolstenholme). It was the mid-90s, and the music landscape was very different to how it is now. Few people wanted to be in rock bands and even fewer wanted to forge their own ideas.
"You were either into dance or rap music. Or if you were into rock, then you just wanted to be Nirvana," says Bellamy. "I had my own ideas but I really didn't see myself as a frontman. It was only when other friends got sick of me suggesting I write our own material that it was left to me to sing. Even now I wouldn't call myself a natural. I'm not that great with attention. I'm not Bono. I'm not Liam Gallagher. I don't revel in it."
Wolstenholme says he was impressed with Bellamy's early ideas but there were questions over his ability to hold a crowd. He remembers an early gig at the Cavern Club in Exeter, where Bellamy could barely make eye contact with his audience and was mumbling the words to his songs. The sound guy afterwards told Howard and Wolstenholme they should get a new singer. The criticism had an extraordinary effect.
"The very next gig Matt opened his mouth and we literally could not believe the sound he made. He had this powerful clear voice. It was like he had gone home and thought, 'Right, you bastards, I'll show you'." Howard could be the slight, fine-featured brother of Bellamy. In fact, their bond seems the closest in the band, though Howard admits there were fierce battles over the new ideas on The Resistance.
"I am the drummer. When Matt says he wants a drum machine on a certain track, then obviously I have an issue with that. But it's good. Everyone has to fight their corner. That's how you get the best out of people. If I said I wanted a robot to front the band, I'd expect Matt to make a strong case for that not to happen." Together they have produced an album as much opera, even film script, as rock record. It posits a fightback against what Bellamy terms, "the corporate-ocracy" that has bankrupted banks, poisoned the earth and taken the planet to the verge of a multidimensional meltdown. It begins with Uprising, develops through the rise of The United States Of Eurasia and rolls on until the surviving members of the human race pitch up on another planet to "start again" on Exogenesis.
Next week Muse mark the release of the album with an American tour supporting U2. Two stadium bands. Two different agendas. Bono will try to love the crowd to death. Bellamy will issue a loud, coded warning. "I can't knock Bono. He's irreplaceable at what he does. But I think people of my generation in the West have enjoyed quite an insulated existence. My nan, who's in her 90s, always reminds me about those who lived through wars. They know about change and struggle and resistance. Who knows, we might have to experience all that again."