Muse's Matt Bellamy: 'The will of the people can be something to be frightened of'
With new album 'Will of The People' forged in the flames of civil unrest in the US, Muse's Matt Bellamy tells The Big Issue about its themes and inspiration, and why he's playing a special show to support the social enterprise.
Muse are playing their first show in three years to raise money for The Big Issue ahead of new album Will of The People. Image: Nick Fancher
On January 6, 2021, the US Capitol building was under attack. More than 2,000 people – waving the stars and stripes, guns, and signs supporting Donald Trump – stormed the seat of federal power. American democracy was poised on a knife edge. Across the country, Matt Bellamy was in his LA home watching the turmoil unfurl. He was in the midst of his longest-ever absence from England, had just become a dad for the second time… and was starting to write Muse’s ninth studio album.
“It’s been a very unusual period of time to be getting creative,” says Bellamy. “It’s very hard to get creative without thinking a little bit more about what’s going on out there.”
Bellamy was in Los Angeles with his wife, American model Elle Evans, and their dogs when Covid hit. Like so many people who enjoy living away from home only because they can go back whenever they fancy, it was a shock to find himself forcibly exiled from London’s walkable streets and leafy parks, where a man can let his dog run free. “I’ve been missing England,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d miss it as much as I did.”
Musically, thematically, the end product of those two years may be Muse’s most American record to date.
“I went to live in America in 2010, but I would always come back to the UK quite a lot,” Bellamy says. “But then during the pandemic I had to stay there and live in LA for two years. It really gave me a pretty heavy exposure to the American way of life, American politics and all the stuff that went down during that period. All the chaos we saw emerging in America, in between the election and the inauguration, has definitely been a big influence on this record.”
Conceived in pandemic and domestic political unrest, the album is now being delivered into a world at war. Its title, Will of the People, refers to Bellamy’s sense of the Janus-faced power of crowds. “‘The will of the people’ is an amazing thing that should be honoured, and democracy should be something we try to protect,” he explains. “But sometimes ‘the will of the people’ can be something to be frightened of.”
The US senators and representatives who cowered behind barricaded doors, while a mob rampaged outside, would surely agree.
“So, it comes from wanting to protect democracy, but being wary of populism. There’s an oscillation between these confusing ways ‘the will of the people’ can be used for good or for bad.”
As a band, Muse have always had an admirable, rock’n’roll dedication to the more-is-more aesthetic. Fans will be relieved to hear, therefore, that despite the gritty themes we’re not looking at a Ken-Loach-kitchen-sink album here. The “fantasy fictional realms” of previous records will remain present and correct, among the geopolitical musings: “We always blend fiction with reality. It gives me the chance to create more dramatic emotions, which can stay relevant across wide timeframes. Not purely tied to one point in time.”
Musically, Bellamy says, the songs are a tour through the genres the band has tackled in the past. The sonic palate was a cheeky riposte to the record label’s preferred next move – the dreaded late era Best Of, so redolent of a band on the slow decline to the nostalgia circuit. It was a no from Bellamy and the lads.
“We were reaching that point where there was talk about maybe doing a greatest hits album,” Bellamy confirms, “and we weren’t really in favour of doing that. So it’s almost like we’ve made a record that is a greatest hits album – of new songs.
“That means this album might have a metal track on it – and it’s like, the best metal track we’ve ever done. Or there’s a sort of soft ballad, love song and it’s probably the best ballad love song we’ve ever done, and so on. It’s a montage of the best of Muse. It’s a new take on all of those types of genres that we’ve touched on in the past.”
The album won’t arrive until the end of August, but a first chance for fans to hear new music might come as early as May 9 and 10, when the band play a pair of comeback shows at London’s Eventim Apollo, in support of The Big Issue, Médecins Sans Frontières and War Child. “We’re going to the play at least one, maybe two, new songs live before the album comes out,” says Bellamy.
“I can’t say for sure, but there’s a chance we’ll play a new song at the Apollo shows, which could be fun.” The last time Muse played live was way back in 2019, so any return to the stage is a big deal. That’s why the band wanted to make sure the gigs had a larger meaning, alongside the yearned for communal release of a live show.
Bellamy’s been a regular reader of The Big Issue since he first moved to London in the ’90s, but the 2022 partnership was inspired by experiences much closer to his current home.
“We made the album partly in Abbey Road, but the majority was made in LA in our own studio. It’s in a pretty central high street-type location,” he explains. “The homelessness issue in Los Angeles is pretty severe. Every time I was heading into the studio I’d be walking past people sleeping rough. Definitely, that had a bit of influence on the album. And so, when we came to talk about the causes we’d like to get involved with, we thought of you guys. With our first comeback show in a long time being in London, The Big Issue seemed like a natural collaboration.
“I remember when I first came to London, part-time in the mid-to-late ’90s. My girlfriend at the time was at a university in London, and I’d come up and stay with her. I’d get off at the tube station and I’d always buy The Big Issue. It was always The Big Issue and Time Out, if I was getting on a tube in London in the ’90s, either one of those magazines would always be with me.”
As well as supporting The Big Issue’s work to offer opportunity to some of the most marginalised people in the UK, the band also wanted to do something to help the millions of people who’ve been affected by the war in Ukraine. Adding a date to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières and War Child allowed them to get much-needed funds to the frontlines of that humanitarian disaster.
“It’s obviously a terrible tragedy for the population of Ukraine. All the women and children that have had to evacuate and leave their husbands behind – it’s really, really heartbreaking,” says Bellamy.
“It is just an absolute tragedy: families being separated, and all the people who have been injured and killed. It’s so shocking to see that happening in modern times. It feels like a relic of the past: dealing with an authoritarian psychopath, a person who’s just going in with sheer violence and aggression. I think it’s put the whole world on edge.”
As Bellamy says, the Ukraine war comes after years of what’s felt like escalating unrest across the world. While he watched American democracy on the brink and the world come to grips with coronavirus, the ramifications of Brexit were hitting home back in the UK. It’s left Bellamy looking to his Irish heritage. Thanks to his Belfast-born mum, he can apply for an Irish passport – now a prized possession for many lucky enough to have a dual nationality that maintains their EU membership.
“Yeah, I probably will apply [for an Irish passport]. I think my mum has one,” he says. “I watched Belfast [Kenneth Branagh’s story of his own Northern Irish childhood] with my mum and that was amazing because she was saying that pretty much was her childhood. It was really emotional for me and for my mum, especially, because she grew up in the Donegall Road area in Belfast.”
In Branagh’s movie, there’s a pivotal scene when the mother and her young sons cower under their kitchen table, hiding from rioters outside. It’s a reminder that the global unrest we’re living through now is less of a historical anomaly than we might like. Surprisingly, Bellamy says it triggered memories from his own childhood.
“I used to go to Belfast and Ballymena every summer with my mum,” he recalls. “Even then, the Troubles were still ongoing. I remember there being riots and stuff going on in the street. We’d have to close the doors and go and hide underneath the dining table. So that film connected it all together for me – my mum’s history, and what she went through growing up and the memories I had of being in the area in the mid-’80s.”
We need art, you see, to make sense of chaos.
Muse’s album Will of the People is out on August 26. They play two shows at London’s Eventim Apollo on May 9 and 10 in support of The Big Issue, Médecins Sans Frontières and War Child. muse.mu
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