Muse is Matt Bellamy, at left, drummer Dominic Howard, center, and bassist Chris Wolstenholme, who formed the band at Teignmouth Community College in Teignmouth, Devon, U.K., in 1994. Together, they have released eight studio albums and two live recordings. Photo by Jeff Forney
Muse’s eighth studio project, Simulation Theory, is essentially a concept album, addressing the ubiquitous nature of technology in our lives and the prospect of the simulation hypothesis—which poses that reality as we know it is an artificial simulation. Sounds ominous, but the band looked at this from a lighter perspective.
“This album deals with what it means to embrace technology and be positive about it,” explains the band’s frontman and primary songwriter, guitarist Matt Bellamy. “In the past, we made albums, like Drones, that were more resistant to the idea of technology, both in terms of the way we worked in the studio and also lyrical concepts. On Drones, we used our usual instruments and we didn’t bring too much technology into the creative picture. The concept of that album was all about our fears of drones, AI, robotics, and the future. Simulation Theory is, in many ways, actually a more optimistic view about what technology can do.” And so, in the studio, Bellamy and his cohorts, drummer Dominic Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme, harnessed that optimism by integrating a blend of real instruments, programming, and synthesizers. Lots of synthesizers.
“Think of it like the simulation of Muse,” he continues. “We pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone by finding ways for the instruments that we’ve traditionally used—guitar, bass, drums, and piano—to exist alongside more contemporary production methods.”
The result is a densely woven tapestry that mixes different genres and eras of music, and combines recording technologies into an incredibly cohesive, singular-sounding sonic masterstroke. On any given number on Simulation Theory, elements of synth-pop, hard rock, classical piano, and chiptunes abound and coalesce to form a highly original sound—from the sultry, subversive, Prince-like groove of “Propaganda” to the Primus-infused opening guitar riff of “Break It to Me.” The sheer magnitude of artistic exploration on Simulation Theory makes it abundantly evident why Muse has become one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Adopting different working methods from album to album has been a hallmark of Muse’s career since they arrived in 1999 with their full-length debut, Showbiz. As they’ve evolved, Muse has been called “alternative rock,” “space rock” and “progressive,” among other labels, but somehow don’t fit neatly into any one of those categories. The release of their second album, Origin of Symmetry, in 2001, saw Muse adopt a more aggressive rock sound than their debut, whereas Absolution, released in 2003 and featuring their breakout single “Time Is Running Out,” featured prominent string arrangements and drew heavily on a different set of influences, including English actor-musician Anthony Newley and Queen. In 2006, Muse released Black Holes and Revelations, which reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. That release’s lyrical themes reflect their interest in science fiction and, musically, leans heavily on yet another set of more clangorous influences, including Depeche Mode and noise-rock auteurs Lightning Bolt.
Muse’s 2009 The Resistance earned their first Grammy for Best Rock Album and featured the ambitious three-part “Exogenesis,” recorded with an ensemble of more than 40 musicians. They released The 2nd Law in 2012, incorporating funk, electronica, film score music, and dubstep into their already otherworldly rock pastiche. Drones arrived in 2015 and saw them return to a more straightforward rock sound, and it, too, was awarded a Grammy for Best Rock Album. If there’s one thing that has come to define Muse over the past 20 years, it’s that they’re not content to simply replicate their success—even while maintaining it.
For Simulation Theory, Muse opted to write and record one song at a time for much of the album, and brought in an A-list team of producers, including Rich Costey (who previously produced the band’s Absolution and Black Holes and Revelations), Mike Elizondo, Shellback, and Timbaland. “This album was different in that each song had a different approach,” explains Bellamy. “There’s a handful of songs that evolved with the three of us working together—the more rock songs. ‘Blockades’ was done that way, ‘Thought Contagion,’ and ‘Pressure.’ But then there are songs like ‘Algorithm,’ ‘Propaganda,’ ‘The Void,’ and ‘Dig Down,’ which were written on the piano and synthesizer. I made demos of those songs that we then co-produced with the producers we were working with.”
Muse also thought outside the box regarding how their newest music would be released. The album’s 21-song deluxe version is only available online, via streaming platforms like iTunes, Pandora and Spotify, and features alternate versions of the 11 official tracks. “With streaming services, there isn’t really much of a limitation on how much material you can put out,” explains Bellamy. “You could put out a 30-song album if you wanted.” Historically, formats have dictated the length of a product. A vinyl LP is roughly 42 minutes or less. CDs go a bit longer, but the limitation is around 70 minutes. Bellamy and the band felt like streaming offered an opportunity. “Some of the alternate versions are more or less how the song was written,” he says. “For some people, this album contains a lot of synthetic processing, so I thought they might like hearing raw, untouched, stripped-down versions of the songs, with just me on piano or guitar.”
When pressed, however, another, slightly more altruistic reason emerges as to why Bellamy decided to include alternate renditions, and it demonstrates just how much he cares about the message he sends to Muse fans. “I did say in interviews a couple of years ago that this album would be more stripped down,” he confesses.
TIBDIT: Bellamy describes the new album as a “simulation of Muse,” due to its use of electronic music creation techniques and multiple collaborations with outside producers.
Bellamy says that comparing the album to the streaming tracks is “a way of showcasing how production alone can change the reality of a song—it can change the entire nature of how a song feels or sounds.” On some tunes, the alternate versions are so different they’re almost entirely unique entities. Consider “The Dark Side”: The album cut and “The Dark Side (Alternate Reality Version)” streaming version are almost completely different emotional enterprises. And “Algorithm,” on the album, harkens back to something like an ’80s film soundtrack, while “Algorithm (Alternate Reality Version)” sounds more akin to a Hans Zimmer score. And then there’s “Pressure” and “Pressure (feat. UCLA Marching Band),” which is pretty self-explanatory, but once one hears the latter, it’s surprisingly uncanny in how perfect the choice was to incorporate a marching band.
Bellamy was seemingly born to play guitar. His father is George Bellamy, rhythm guitarist of the Tornados, a band made famous for its chart-topping 1962 instrumental hit “Telstar.” Matt— born on June 9, 1978, in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire—formed Muse with classmates Howard and Wolstenholme at Teignmouth Community College in Teignmouth, Devon, U.K., in 1994. Since then he’s evolved into a bona fide guitar hero with a non-linear creative vision that’s taken Muse to the top echelon of rock, while driving the band’s sonic assault with his born-for-Guitar Hero riffs. Bellamy carries the torch brandished by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Edge, and Kurt Cobain—guitarists who’ve helped anchor the mighty riff into the canon of popular culture.
PG recently caught up with Bellamy in New York City, where he was fresh off of promoting Simulation Theory with a Muse performance of their single, “Pressure,” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. To our delight, Bellamy candidly discussed guitar tones, amps, playing styles, and mods.