A successful band requires trust. The members must have faith in each other, whether they’re engaged in studio experimentation, walking the tightrope of live performance, or dividing up the publishing royalties from songwriting.
That’s why, on a late afternoon in Chicago, Muse drummer Dominic Howard is guardedly optimistic about going to a dinner organised by the English rock group’s frontman, Matt Bellamy.
“Matt has organised some crazy restaurant that he saw on Chef’s Table on Netflix, so we’ll eat at that,” Howard says. “I think it’s an experimental restaurant where your drink changes flavour as you actually drink it – it sounds a bit Willy Wonka.”
Whether it’s molecular gastronomy or stadium-sized paranoid hard rock, Muse have always had a taste for the far-fetched, and it has served them increasingly well. More than 20 years after they formed, Bellamy, Howard and bassist Chris Wolstenholme have evolved from Radiohead acolytes to true believers of Radio Ga Ga. With album sales of more than 20 million and aged in their late 30s, Muse are the last titan-sized rock band that can’t be classified in the veteran age bracket.
“When we were starting out we absolutely wanted to be headlining festivals and playing to lots of people at big gigs. That was a huge goal and it still is – it hasn’t disappeared at all,” Howard says. “We’ve hit some amazing goals, but there are still so many to hit.”
Now aged 39, the drummer was all of 14 when he and Bellamy, who played together in a cover band in the Devon fishing town of Teignmouth, decided to recruit Wolstenholme from another rickety teenage outfit and attempt to make original music. It took them several years, firstly as Gothic Plague and then as Muse from 1994, to get the songwriting underway, but seven studio albums and numerous career landmarks, such as selling 90,000 tickets to a 2006 Wembley Stadium gig in less than 30 minutes, have followed.
“We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to stay together for so long. There’s a whole huge list of reasons that we’ve managed to achieve that and not give up. It’s all about drive and passion and that’s what you have when you start out, but keeping that for a long time is the thing to do,” Howard says. “We still chat every day about what he band is doing and the music we’re making. We’re recording now and the process is really exciting for us. That spark is what keeps us going.”
Muse arrive in Australia for a brief tour four years after their last visit; it roughly takes them that long to write and record an album and tour it widely twice in the northern hemisphere. Their gigs have become increasingly designed, a digital flurry of light and sound that suggests both a head-banging Valhalla and the cyberwarfare experience brought to life.
Get the latest news and updates emailed straight to your inbox.
“There have been been so many times when we’ve said, ‘Let’s just get rid of the screens and just play some music’, which we might yet do at some point, but we can’t help ourselves from getting a load of visual things happening,” Howard says.
“There’s always a lot of red tape,” he adds. “Once we wanted to fly this ginormous zeppelin over the audience and project video onto it, but health and safety wouldn’t have it because if it went down there would have been problems.”
That stoic acceptance of workplace safety is a reminder that for all their thudding backbeat and Orwellian screen projections, Muse retain a distinctly British ordinariness. Bellamy might throw extravagant stage shapes and wear shiny science-fiction pants, but after all these years he stills looks like an I.T. technician whose every fantasy has come true. Muse never give off a devil may care attitude – they care, greatly, and Howard is almost embarrassed that he has ambitions outside the band.
“I’m planning – and this is a longshot – on becoming a race car driver when I grow up,” he says. “I have raced a few cars and I’ve done some pro go-karting, so my plan at this late stage life is to start in the karts, the ones that go 100mph, and work my way up.”
“That’s a solid waste of money right there,” Howard adds with a laugh.
He might have to polish up his technique first. Earlier on Muse’s North American tour an afternoon off at a go-karting facility in St Louis ended with the drummer heavily bruising his ribs in a collision with a crash barrier. The result was a run of shows played on painkillers and a reminder that sitting behind a kit is safer than most recreational activities.
“Years ago, the very first time I went snowboarding, I fell down straight away and either severely bruised or cracked my ribs and it was so painful that it hurt to laugh or even sneeze,” Howard says. “I could barely get out of my bunk on the tour bus – I had to roll onto the floor and snake my along the walkway until I could get upright.”
The band are also in the early stages of recording a follow-up to 2015’s Drones album, which topped the charts in Australia, Britain, and the US. They’re recording demos, trying to roughly finish ideas before settling on a direction and hiring a producer. The studio phase they’re in, according to Howard, is “early enthusiasm”, when the possibilities outweigh any potential problem.
“We have to figure out what it is,” Howard says, “and make sure we keep the bar high.” With Muse, there’s no other way.
Muse play Qudos Arena in Sydney on Saturday, December 16, and Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on Monday, December 18.