Catching up with frontman Matt Bellamy about VR headsets, Burning Man, and the new album that dropped today.
Here’s how Muse does press: The British rock trio holes up in a building for hours on end with a revolving door of reporters coming in to speak to a member of the band for a brief time; frontman Matthew Bellamy speaks at a pace that suggests he’s worried the planet will run out of oxygen; and opportunities to get into nuances are in short supply. “We did one in the U.K. recently — 25 interviews in one day,” Bellamy says, poised for his next appointment.
Today it’s not as intense. Bellamy is alone, perched on a couch inside Warner’s L.A. headquarters, ready to promote Muse’s eighth album, Simulation Theory. Despite being together for over two decades, winning two Grammys and selling more than 20 million albums worldwide, this is the first time they’ve invited so many producers into the mix: Rich Costey, Mike Elizondo, Shellback and hip-hop maestro Timbaland. It even features backing vocals from Swedish pop star Tove Lo (“Get Up And Fight”).
As a result, the LP pivots away from the more traditional rock of their last album, 2015’s Drones — also the group’s first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — and embraces a synth-heavy, ’80s-indebted sound. Simulation opens with a Vangelis-esque tune titled “Algorithm,” which contains orchestral strings among a barrage of synthesizers. It sounds expensive and excessive. The art reminds — generously — of the poster from the Ryan Gosling flick Drive. The themes are less dark and paranoid than previous records, which were structured around war, surveillance, and governmental oppression.
Bellamy attributes this optimistic outlook to his new lifestyle: “I go to a lot of parties,” he says. “Well, I don’t go to a lot of parties, but I feel like I’m in the hedonistic ‘80s.” Now based in the Hollywood Hills, he draws parallels between 2018 and an era in which the Cold War generated fear among the masses, and the elite chose escapism. “There’s a nostalgia for how free people seemed back then, not worried about climate change or political landscapes. That innocence was lost in the ‘90s and 2000s. People will say, ‘I wish I could wear a pair of Nike trainers, drink a Coke, dance to cool music and not give a shit,’” he says. Bellamy insists he’s noticed it more as he’s pulled way from a chaotic and negative news cycle.
“There’s certain Twitter accounts, and if you didn’t follow them, you’d have a more peaceful life,” he argues. “These thought contagions come into our minds, get us riled and pissed off. If you disconnect from it — enjoy yourself, go to a party, put on a VR headset, go for a run, let months drift by — then switch the noise back on, you realize nothing’s changed. It’s the same grind, arguments and debates that nobody’s ever gonna win. Ultimately underneath it all, there’s not an immediate direct threat to our lives. Only a small percentage of the noise is real.”
Of course, some of that is probably rich white male privilege talking — not everyone feels they have the luxury of not paying attention. His breathless musings about artificial intelligence, robots, and space don’t exactly help his case. (“Technology is a new silicone based life form that is emerging in front of us and is literally unstoppable,” he says at one point. “Its ability to survive in space is superior, and our best bet is to create a symbiosis with it. If we try to fight it, we’re gonna lose.”) And his arguments about social media seem less sturdy once he admits to not using it as a form of two-way communication — he only follows 33 people. He employs Twitter and Instagram to “communicate what I want to say.” He doesn’t receive information there.
In fact, he doesn’t receive much information anywhere. “I used to watch news a lot,” he says. “I found myself enjoying turning it off, checking in maybe once a month. They talk about the same stuff over and over. There’s no resolution.” The place where Bellamy found resolution was in VR gaming. He did a lot of it while writing this LP. “You’re talking to random people all over — some Russian guy, someone in Surrey, someone in Australia, playing some Star Trek game together, flying a ship. It gave me hope about humans.” He had a similar epiphany at Burning Man, which he’s been to four times since Drones’ release. “When you escape reality, everybody’s lovely,” he says, laughing. “There’s no police, no law, nothing. No one’s talking about weird politics. Put humans outside reality, and they have a great time with no wars. Bring them back to reality, and it’s problematic. In the future we will spend a lot more time in VR. In 10 to 20 years, it’s gonna be really there.”
Bellamy takes a moment for air. I prod him on some of the obvious criticisms of this point of view: There’s an issue with Burning Man and VR, right? They’re the concern of the time- and money-rich. There’s a massive accessibility problem. Bellamy concedes a bit. “I’m not saying that VR or Burning Man is gonna solve any political issues,” he says. “I’m talking about what it is to escape from reality, then come back to it and realize that the discourse is not going anywhere.” He further defends his position by talking up his skepticism with technology on past albums such as Drones and The 2nd Law. “I’m tired of talking about how technology is going to destroy our lives. I’ve chosen to ask about the positive side. What if we could use nanotechnology to build some kind of huge pair of sunglasses for the earth?”
Still, despite his interest in focusing on the positives, it’s still a Muse record — which means there’s still a ton of anxiety on the album. Bellamy has already revealed the track “Dig Down” is a response to the Brexit vote in the U.K. On “The Dark Side” he sings, “I have lived with darkness for all my life.” It seems to be a rare moment of personal vulnerability. “That’s been a journey all my life,” he says. “In my teenage years I was more introverted. Being in this band has been a journey of confronting that.”
What’s the most enlightening thing Bellamy’s learned about himself in the past three years? He hesitates. “There’s been a lot of emphasis on groove, creating more of a vibe,” he says, deflecting the focus outward. “I wouldn’t say it’s dance music, but it’s been nice for me to enjoy music at a base level of dancing.”