Muse spent the past few years pushing the sonic boundaries of rock & roll, creating increasingly bombastic music that utilized symphonies, choirs, synthesizers and, in the case of 2012's The 2nd Law, Skrillex-inspired dubstep sounds. But when they began plotting out Drones, their politically-charged seventh album inspired by the expanded use of drone warfare across the globe, the trio decided it was time to radically strip things down. "Our intention was to go back to how we made music in the early stages of our career," says Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, "when we were more like a standard three-piece rock band with guitar, bass and drums."
Bellamy says he's immensely proud of Muse's last three albums, but things were just getting a little out of hand. "We probably spent more time in the control room, fiddling with knobs and synths and computers and drum machines than actually playing together as a band," he says. "As I look back at the last three albums, each one had progressively less and less songs that we could play live."
Muse produced their last two albums themselves, but this time around they decided to bring in an outsider. "We wanted to spend our time in the live room, being performers," says Bellamy. "So we knew we had to find someone to sit in the control room and handle most of the production side." Their management team of Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch suggested Robert "Mutt" Lange, best known for producing AC/DC's Back in Black and Def Leppard's Hysteria. "Before I met him I wasn't sure," Bellamy says. "I didn't want us to be turned into a kind of Top 40 act."
The group flew out to Switzerland to meet Lange, who remains one of the most mysterious figures in rock. He almost never grants interviews and has rarely even been photographed. "He's a very eccentric person, very laid back," says Bellamy. "He has the air of a person that has not lived in the constraints of normal society or life for a very long time. You feel like you're in the presence of some sort of guru or spiritual outsider."
Much to their surprise, Lange was incredibly enthused about the project. "I figured that Mutt Lange would be more focused on, 'What's the single? What's going to be the big hit?,'" the singer says. "He wasn't like that at all. He was totally into the concept. He is the kind of person to get into the mind of the artist and whatever the artist wants."
Muse recorded their last three albums within a short driving distance of their families, but this time around they opted to travel to Vancouver and work at Warehouse Studios. "It was neutral ground," says Bellamy. "We all went there and had nothing to do but live and breathe the album."
They cheated a bit by adding pianos and synths to a few songs, but they mostly stuck to their pledge of using just guitar, bass and drums. "As soon as you pick up a guitar you're up against the legends of rock," says Bellamy. "The same goes with stadium drum kits and electric bass. Essentially, you're already in a soundscape that's very familiar and has a lot of established legendary material recorded using those instruments."
A concept about the dehumanizing aspects of drone technology is, however, fresh territory for a rock band. Bellamy first got the idea about two years ago when he read the book Predators: The CIA's Drone War on al Qaeda by Dartmouth professor Brian Glyn Williams. "I was shocked," he says. "I didn't know how prolific drone usage has been. I always perceived Obama as an all-around likable guy. But from reading the book, you find out that most mornings he wakes up, has a breakfast and then goes down to the war room and makes what they call 'kill decisions.' He makes that decision based on a long chain of intelligence people who, as we all know, can be very unreliable."
The LP kicks off with "Dead Inside." "It's about someone having something bad happen to them, but they choose not to feel it but become dead inside," Bellamy explains. "Then they go on and become vulnerable to these dark, oppressive forces, which are more than happy to take advantage of people like that." After furious dialogue from a drill sergeant ("your ass belongs to me now!"), the album gets even darker with "Psycho," "Mercy" and "Reapers." "They're about being overcome by these oppressive forces," says Bellamy. "Midway through 'The Handler,' in the darkest places, the protagonist, or me, since I'm singing in the first person, feels this desire to actually feel something. They decide, 'I don't want to be used by others. I don't want to be controlled. I don't want to be a cold, non-feeling person. I want to actually feel something.' The desire to fight against the oppressors sinks in."
Midway through, a JFK speech from 1961 is played, unedited. "He's addressing the American press about how to deal with the rise of communism," says Bellamy. "What's so interesting is that he never says the words 'Soviet Union' and he never says the word 'communism.' He's just talking in general terms about oppressive systems and how there are people out there who want to infiltrate and covertly control us or dominate us and create these complex bureaucratic systems that enslave humanity in one way or another."
The JFK speech leads directly to "Defector," "Revolt" and "Aftermath." "This is where the person tries to inspire others to think for themselves and think freely and independently," Bellamy says. "Then this narrative ends on 'Aftermath' where the person is ready to re-engage. He recognizes the importance of human love." It ends with the 10-minute track "Globalist," which is a separate narrative from the rest of the LP. "It is almost the same story with a bad ending," the singer explains. "At the end you have the ghosts of the unknown dead that have been killed by robots that will never see justice and we'll never see who they are, haunting us."
It's hard to imagine any of the songs getting airplay on Top 40 radio, but Muse have managed to become a stadium-level act all over the world without the benefit of mainstream hits. "I'm sort of happy to not have had to rely on the mainstream methods to reach people," says Bellamy. "I think when you rely on those too much, you lose a bit of your independence. You have to play certain games and you have to start worrying about things like commerciality."
Muse are booking a world tour right now that will find them performing in the round, and they don't plan on applying the stripped-down approach of the album to their staging. "Its going to be even more theatrical than probably any show we've done in North America," says Bellamy. "I don't want to promise too much, but we want to incorporate drones into the show. I don't know what health and safety will allow us to do though."
There's talk of playing the entirety of Drones at a special concert at some point, but the regular show will feature cuts from the band's entire career. "We want to integrate the old songs with the new songs," the singer says. "The goal is to create a sort of abstract narrative, not necessarily a specific story."
Countless people have argued in recent years that the album as an art form is dead, but Muse hope this whole project will prove that idea wrong. "Apple, iTunes and streaming services have made the single a more easy thing to access," says Bellamy. "What that's done has made the album as a collection of songs almost meaningless. But an album that has a concept or story or reason to be an album, if anything, has more meaning now than it ever has."