“I started with piano,” explains Muse’s Matt Bellamy. “I just played for fun at home—mostly blues piano and stuff like that. I got into guitar when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Again, I started out playing blues—a lot of slide-guitar stuff.”
Photo by Debi Del Grande
There is such a wide tapestry of musical motifs on Simulation Theory. How complicated was it to figure all that out?
It was our intent to create a tapestry—that’s a good word actually—to deliberately meld together different eras of music, even within the context of one song. “Algorithm,” for example, contains a reference to both ’80s film soundtracks and ’90s computer-game music, but also, bizarrely, romantic classical piano. And so, it’s not easy, to try to put those things together [cohesively], but we set out with that intention—to blend different eras of music together in one song.
There seems to be so much going on at any given moment, and yet there’s space and breadth, and it all works—almost surprisingly.
I wouldn’t say we hit the nail on the head every single time, but that’s what we were going for. The song “Blockades,” for example, is pretty much transitioning between electronic dance music and, I wouldn’t call it metal, but heavy rock. That’s the kind of genre-blending we’ve done before, on our previous albums, but I think on this album there’s a few that we did that are new, like “Propaganda,” which is sort of funk/blues with some Delta-blues slide guitar. We wanted to try to find a way to mix that with contemporary Timbaland-produced R&B music and modern pop. Finding these unusual collisions, and I don’t think we’re unique in that way, is a sign of the times. The best music of this decade is from people who are splicing together stuff that is unexpected.
I hear a bit of a Prince influence in “Propaganda,” as well.
Oh yeah. I’ve always been a Prince fan. We had a song called “Supermassive Black Hole,” which was the first time that we dabbled with that kind of funk, blues-rock, but done in a more contemporary way.
When you’re weaving stuff together from different genres and eras, do you have a signal chain that you stick with for all the songs or are you mixing and matching guitars and amps based on the character of the song?
Over the years, I’ve experimented with so many different tones. On the Drones album, it’s pretty consistent, I’d say, but on this album, it was all about picking what was right for the song. There are even two songs that I play primarily on acoustic guitar, which is unusual for us. “Something Human” and “Propaganda” are both acoustic-based songs, but again, not acoustic in the traditional way, in terms of, like, stripped-down. They still have lots of layers of synthesizers, programmed drums and things like that. So that’s something that was different.
Do you have a go-to amp?
I tend to always use a combination of a Vox AC30 blended with a more metal-type of amp, like a Diezel—a high-gain amp—or my Marshall JCM800, which was modified by [NYC-based amp guru] Matt Wells to be a much more high-gain version. I like to have that combination of saturation with clarity at the same time. The Vox has a clearer tone and provides the clarity and attack, while the saturation and high sustain comes from the Diezel or Marshall. That’s always been my go-to and that’s what I tend to use live. On this album, however, there were some other things that were completely different. There are probably a few more DI guitar tones going on.
Sometimes you get a real nasal-sounding tone, like on “Pressure.” Is that from a combination of those amps?
That’s actually an Ampeg bass amp and, again, I can’t remember the exact model number, but I think it’s an ’80s era. [Editor’s Note: It’s a V-4B.] It has these switches on the front that allow you to filter out certain frequencies, which are aimed at bass frequencies, naturally, but Matt Wells modified it and made it so that it has more gain. I use that on the main riff in “Pressure.” It does have a really unusual, nasally, forward-sounding kind of tone. It lacks brittle, top-end attack, but it’s really useful for the placement of the guitar in certain songs, like “Pressure,” where you’ve already got a lot of brightness coming from brass instruments, Dom’s cymbals, and room mics.
The opening guitar part on “Break It to Me” has a very distinct “voicing” to it.
I very rarely use the neck pickup. I’m much more of a bridge-pickup bloke. It’s a very bright guitar sound. I think “Break It to Me” was primarily the Vox blended with another small combo amp that belonged to Rich Costey, and I don’t know if he told me what it was because it’s a secret [laughs]. You’d have to ask him. It’s some little, small combo amp made by a boutique maker in L.A. [Editor’s Note: Black Volt Amplification.] So, “Break It to Me” was that and a Vox, essentially for that guitar tone—very brittle, very bright tone, not very saturated. It’s almost like what it would sound like if you put an acoustic guitar into a distorted amp. It’s standard tuning apart from the low string, which is down to a B.
Are you using an effect on that intro riff?
I’m playing a dominant 7, sharp 9, like the classic Hendrix chord, but I’m bending it. I’m bending all the notes of the chord a quarter- to a half-tone as I’m hitting it, and then, after I hit it, I release the bend down to the standard chord and then just hit the low B string. It may be a little of our Primus influence coming through on that one [laughs].
How was recording Simulation Theory different than previous albums, like Drones?
Previous albums were done the more traditional way, where you get in the studio and you work on a bunch of songs at the same time. With this album, the first three or four singles that we released, were actually recorded and finished one at a time. We weren’t working on any other songs. Weirdly, the song “Something Human” was recorded as the acoustic version first, which is on the deluxe version of the album. That was the first thing we ever recorded for this album, way back when we finished the Drones tour, and it didn’t get finished until a year and a half later. So that song was an extremely slow process. Some songs were done one at a time and we’d put all of our focus into that one song before we moved on to the next one.
Can you give us an example of how you incorporated using your usual instruments with synths during the writing and recording process?
With programmed drums, Dom would take over how that goes down by choosing all of the samples and making it work in a way that he likes to work. With songs like “Dig Down” and “Algorithm,” they often evolve into real played drums about halfway through the song. Towards the end of the song it’s full live drums. And with the bass, Chris would put his bass lines down and we’d often embellish them with synths. So, it’s different for every song.
What was your musical upbringing like? Are you a pianist who plays guitar or a guitarist who plays piano?
I started with piano. I never took lessons or anything. I was self-taught. I just played for fun at home—mostly blues piano and stuff like that. I got into guitar when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Again, I started out playing blues—a lot of slide-guitar stuff. In my teenage years, I went on a little journey where I started getting into rock and, bizarrely, got into classical guitar. When I was about 17 or 18, I took about six months of classical guitar lessons—mainly nylon string, flamenco guitar. That’s when I learned music theory. It was a really helpful time. At that point, I started playing piano again, and I got even more interested in classical stuff and interesting chord structures and moved away from the blues thing a little bit.
What are some of the challenges of singing and playing simultaneously?
In terms of singing and playing, the answer is … it’s very difficult [laughs]. For me, I try not to play really important rhythm parts on the guitar [when singing]. Rhythm-wise, I’m really relying on my drummer Dom, and then obviously Chris, to play really solid, important bass lines. The band was musically put together so that the songs could function with just the bass and drums. You’ve got the feel and you’ve got the rhythm, and the overall vibe from just the bass and drums. It allows me to come in with top parts on the guitar and vocal.
Are you intentionally crafting your rhythm parts so that they aren’t too restricting for your vocals?
Exactly. And so, in a live format, I’m inspired by a Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain style, which is a bit looser and a bit wild around the edges. It’s almost like creating a scenario where mistakes are okay [laughs]. I wouldn’t be a very good funk guitarist, if I had to play those kinds of guitar parts and sing at the same time. I find it close to impossible. To be able to sing expressively, I need to be free and not be too restricted by having to play a rhythm part that is very precise. If you write the parts in the right way, it can work. With me, it’s a case of adapting the arrangements and the parts to fit the fact that I’m having to sing and play at the same time.
Is that why you often employ arpeggios?
I really like arpeggiation. It’s a method of adding two things. First, it adds harmonic structure. Secondly, it provides some rhythmic precision. So, sometimes the rhythmic precision of an arpeggio can outline the harmonic structure and add the 16s [16th-note feel] to the song, which means my guitar and my vocal can be a bit looser around the edges and not be too restricted by having to play in time.
Your solos tend to be very nuanced, melodic components of the song—almost like a song-within-a-song—yet there’s still something chaotic sounding about them. Are they improvised in the studio or pre-planned?
I’ve never been a very good improviser. I’m good at improvisation, if it’s chaotic. I can do crazy noises and throw the guitar around and create chaos. I’m good at that kind of improvisation, but I’ve never been good at well-informed scales and improvising in a jazz way or blues kind of method. Knowing the keys and the scales and just going for it and improvising melody and scales…. That’s never been my strong suit at all. Also, I’ve never been a particularly fast shredder. For those two reasons I tend to lean more towards melodic, simplistic lines that add a layer—almost like a continuation of a vocal melody. I don’t like solos that just repeat the vocal melody too much. That seems a bit pointless. To me the guitar solo is a chance to express a different melody, like having a guest vocalist singing a verse on the song.
In 2012, Muse played BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge show, delivering the goods with effortless intensity. Watch Matt Bellamy, on one of his Manson signature models, uncork at 9:27 during the song “Uprising.”