Four years ago, Matt Bellamy appeared to be abdicating his throne as the world’s most dystopian rock star. In interviews to promote Muse’s neon-bright album Simulation Theory, the singer praised the joys of turning off the news and escaping into VR gaming. Now, though, comes a crisis-minded ninth album called Will of the People, which climaxes with the bluntly titled We Are Fucking Fucked. What happened?
Bellamy laughs loudly. The short answer is that the news came to him. He had already scheduled a low-key 2020 because his wife, Texas-born model Elle Evans, was due to give birth in June and he wanted to be at home for his daughter’s first months. Then you-know-what happened and he had no choice. During the first phase of the pandemic, Muse’s regular producer Rich Costey fled to Vermont, handing Bellamy the keys to his studio in downtown Santa Monica. “Rich was like, I want to get out of LA, and I was like, I think I want to be right here. I love being right in the middle of it.”
Through the studio window, Bellamy observed the seasons of discontent. One month, the streets were empty; the next, they were patrolled by military vehicles during the Black Lives Matter protests. “If you’d asked me six months before, I would have been trying to get away from the old dystopian thing but then it unfolded in front of me,” he says in a twitchy, accelerated voice that sounds like a podcast playing at 1½ speed. “There’s a massive wildfire, there’s a pandemic, there’s riots on the streets, and my wife’s going into labour. Three of those things happened at exactly the same time. When you see all that going on, you think: ‘Hang on a minute, we’re all fucked.’”
Bellamy says all this while sipping lemon tea in the cool, dark corner of a favourite pub near his house in Primrose Hill. He lives in Los Angeles during term-time to be close to his son with the actor Kate Hudson, but spends the holidays in London and hopes to move back permanently one day. “Coming back here, you realise that there aren’t really any major natural disasters,” he says. “And whatever people say about the national health system, at least we have one. There are certain things you take for granted. There was a moment [in the US] when it felt like Mad Max 2. It seemed like it was one step away from complete chaos.”
He has twice had to evacuate from his home due to wildfires, one of which burned down his back yard and every house on the other side of the street. “LA is an edgy place to be. It’s literally on the edge of what could be a really big earthquake. The flipside of that is you get risk-takers and dreamers coming up with the craziest concepts. That heightened sense of risk is a double-edged sword.”
The 44-year-old seems mysteriously unchanged by his 12 years in LA, and by the passing of time in general. He still has waywardly spiky hair, a stubbly rough draft of a goatee and a wry, misfit sense of humour. His presence in the pub goes unnoticed (he says he gets recognised once a day, if that), which is strange for the frontman of a rock band that has released six No 1 albums, headlined Glastonbury three times and filled stadiums from Moscow to Buenos Aires. He is very happy about that. “Obviously, with my ex I was in a different type of fame,” he says. “Not mine, hers. That is a bit more invasive and aggressive. It changes the way you plan your day.” He exhales. “Fishbowl weirdness.”
Bellamy is an introvert in an extrovert’s job. He formed Muse in Teignmouth, Devon in 1994, with drummer Dom Howard and bass-player Chris Wolstenholme. Even when they were drawing smaller crowds than the local cover bands, they dreamed of being the biggest band in the world. But he had to grow into the role. “I was way more shoe-gazey and standoffish,” he says. “No physical movements, no eye contact.” After a few years, he realised that the more theatrical he was, the more people liked it. And the bigger the shows got, the grander their music became.
Will of the People’s title has a double meaning: it is also about giving the people what they want. When the record label requested a greatest hits album, Muse retorted with the story of their career – prog-metal, glam-rock, electro-pop, ballads – but told with new songs. “It seems a bit like the end when you do a greatest hits,” Bellamy says. “And I just don’t know if we’ve got enough hits. We’re not really a pop group.” In typical Muse fashion, one format will be the first ever chart-eligible NFT.
Bellamy is currently plotting the shape of Muse’s next mega-tour. In the stage-design arms race, Muse are a superpower, known for deploying robots, acrobats, LED pyramids, aerial drones and all manner of cutting-edge tech. Although he has talked for years about making a smaller, quieter album, maybe acoustic, maybe electronic, one has yet to materialise. The reason, it seems, is that it would be a drag to tour. “Our live show is so much fun, I can’t even tell you,” he says with a giant grin. “Massive lights, huge crowds, everybody singing along. It’s a little bit moreish. It’s akin to being in a football team and scoring the winning goal every day.” One day, he predicts, they will tire of world tours and look beyond “big-scale music” – but not yet.
Bellamy’s album concepts are usually political: populism, climate crisis, drone warfare. With almost half a billion Spotify streams, 2009’s rabble-rousing Uprising could be the most popular rock protest song of the 21st century. Yet Muse are often overlooked in discussions of political music, perhaps because Bellamy’s ideas are expressed in the colourful language of movies, video games and comic books. Not that he minds. When he starts talking about politics, he says, there are usually two reactions: “One – who the hell is this person? Just go and play the guitar. And two – people don’t want to hear that anyway.”
Growing up in Devon, Bellamy doesn’t remember worrying about the state of the world, or indeed much at all until his parents divorced and his dad declared bankruptcy in the early 1990s. “I think my brain’s been manipulated by Stranger Things and that’s what I think all our childhoods were actually like,” he says, laughing. “I’ve seen so much 80s nostalgia that I can’t remember what’s real and what isn’t.”
His political education was self-directed and he is humble about his missteps. “I’m not an intellectually trained thinker,” he says. “I made the usual mistakes that people from my background make, which is conspiracy theories and all that kind of stuff.” At one point, he became prone to talking about UFOs, David Icke and how 9/11 was an inside job.
In the late 2000s, however, Bellamy began to think more seriously about how the world works. “I’ve clawed my way out of my own ignorance and tried to understand as best I can what’s going on,” he says. “I started to get away from, let’s say, quackery.” In an age of QAnon, Stop the Steal and Covid denial, conspiracy theories no longer seem harmlessly entertaining. The pandemic exposed and intensified the outlandish paranoia of artists from Ian Brown to Van Morrison. As a reformed conspiracy theorist, can Bellamy explain the allure?
“Yeah,” he says, leaning in. “First of all, it’s distraction from the really pressing issues. It makes people feel engaged with topics that really are going nowhere. In terms of human psychology, there’s a comfort that maybe human beings somewhere, even if they’re evil, are in control, when in fact the truth is far more frightening – there are no humans in control and it’s all a bunch of chaos.”
Occasionally, Muse records such as The Resistance (think Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by James Cameron) have been drastically misread. A decade ago, Bellamy felt moved to distance himself from the fandom of Fox News host Glenn Beck, who responded: “As uncomfortable as it might be for you, I will still play your songs loudly … I thank you for singing words that resonate with man in his struggle to be free.”
Today, Bellamy looks a bit glum when I suggest that cranks will seize on his reference, in Ghosts (How Can I Move On), to the Great Reset, a World Economic Forum initiative that has inspired conspiracy theories about a one-world government. The song is actually about people who lost partners during the pandemic. What, I wonder, does he worry about most?
“Massive wealth inequality, huge political division and ridiculously unserviceable debt – all these are signifiers of the end of an empire,” he says without hesitation. “I think in the west a lot of people feel that there is a real need for systemic change of some kind. What preoccupies me is, that’s not going to happen. The worst-case scenario is that some kind of extremist emerges and a revolution takes place that ends in George Orwell’s worst nightmare.”
But wait, it gets worse. One alternative is “absolute chaos and civil war, and players like China start to take advantage of that. Every empire eventually comes to an end. The sum of all fears, obviously, is world war. Working out how to avoid that is becoming harder for me to imagine than it actually happening.”
As the title of Muse’s 2004 track Apocalypse Please indicates, Bellamy used to relish catastrophe. Now that the world feels genuinely catastrophic, he’s more interested in solutions. He spends a lot of time in Silicon Valley, investing in start-ups, mostly related to clean energy. Young, idealistic entrepreneurs, it turns out, are his kind of people. “That has given me optimism,” he says. “When you hear their ideas and their vision for the future, it does give you genuine hope that a lot of the biggest issues we’re facing could be solved.”
Does he think Elon Musk is a kind of Matt Bellamy in reverse: a tech guy who wishes he was a pop star? “That’s funny,” he says neutrally, pausing to choose his words lest he rile the Musketeers. “I’m not sure if the solution is to find another planet to live on. I think finding ways to sustain this one should be number one. But that should include things like asteroid defence. I’m in the middle.”
Bellamy usually calls himself a left-leaning libertarian but he has been toying with a new concept he calls meta-centrism. “I think I made it up,” he says bashfully. “I’m sure there are people way more qualified than me who can describe what I’m trying to say.” The gist is to combine ideas from different political traditions. The policies he endorses are radical but not unfeasible – abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, decentralised government, decarbonisation, a land-value tax, capping the size of corporations – and not easily channelled into cathartic stadium-rock anthems. “Is there something in this oscillation between two extremes? We’re stuck in this one-dimensional mindset about what politics is and which side you’re on.”
Muse, Bellamy says, started out as “an emotional expression of unknown anxieties: I don’t really know why I’m feeling this way. I’m saying things and doing things and some of it’s confusing, some of it’s weird, some of it’s stupid. But I’m trying as time goes on to understand what those underlying emotions are about and what I can do about it.” Outside the music, the civilian version of Matt Bellamy is looking for reasons to believe that we are not, in fact, fucking fucked. “I’ve got to an age where I’m not so titillated by disaster.”
Will of the People is out on 26 August