We’re just days away from the unveiling of Muse‘s seventh studio album, Drones – a conceptual effort that sees the English three piece deal with such epic themes as abandonment, loss of hope, indoctrination and oppression.
It’s a bold move to take on a concept album, especially given that Drones follows up Muse’s ambitious and vastly diverse 2012 release The 2nd Law. This time round the band enlisted the help of famed AC/DC producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, replaced the dubstep and electro funk with dazzling guitar work and channelled the magic of their three-piece sound.
We caught up with bassist Chris Wolstenholme ahead of the album’s release to talk about working with the famed producer, the importance of concept albums, and whether the band have any plans to give Drones: The Musical its West End debut.
Watch: Muse – Dead Inside
Music Feeds: There’s just so much to say about this new record. Drones goes way beyond the bounds of your average-joe concept album, becoming a fully blown rock opera that tells a story, from start to finish. What was the motivation behind doing an album like that?
Chris Wolstenholme: We’ve kind of touched on the ‘concept album’ before, but I think it’s always quite difficult when you come up with an idea and you try to, you know, make the whole album fit into that idea. And I think that, probably in the past, that’s the thing that’s made the previous albums not be concept albums, because they’ve had these kinds of loose concepts attached to them. But there’ve always been songs that kind of almost fall outside of the concept a little bit.
I think particularly with the way that albums seem to be becoming less and less important – and have been for a number of years – you know, we almost wanted to bring back the importance of the album. But I think to make an album important you really have to give it a reason to be. And I think, we just felt that, to have an album that has a real strong story that runs from start to finish, and a real kind of clear concept, it gives the album a purpose and a reason to be an album, and a reason for it to be important again.
MF: Did you go into the studio with a clear strategy of how to tell that story? And if so, how did that change up the song-writing process this time around?
CW: It’s difficult for me to say really because the lyrical side of it is something that Matt [Bellamy] does on his own, you know? And to be quite honest, when we first started as a band, once Matt had got the songs into shape, the three of us very much kind of focused on the music initially.
So quite often, me and Dom [Howard] don’t always 100% know what’s going on lyrically. I know Matt had said it was a concept album and he’d had this sort of Drones idea – but you know, he didn’t really elaborate on it too much initially. It wasn’t really until we got to the rehearsal process – we sort of had this process of recording a lot of our rehearsals so that we could constantly go back and check against things that we’d done the previous week – and as this process sort of got deeper and deeper, you know, Matt was obviously starting to throw a lot of lyrical ideas down. And that was really when the concept became obvious to me, and that was at the point when I realised that this wasn’t just, you know, some sort of loose concept that he’d come up with, it was a real kind of story, it was something that was kind of obvious throughout that album from start to finish.
To be honest, I feel that a lot of the subject matter that we’ve dealt with on previous albums – I think it almost feels like it’s all been heading to this one album.
MF: On the musical side of things, we’ve seen a return to the kind of monster guitar riffs and massive rock anthems that a lot of fans class as Muse’s core sound. Was that a strategic choice?
CW: I think the most important thing was that the album was consistent in the way that it sounded, you know, and I think it had to be because obviously it’s a backdrop to a story. And I think when you listen to The 2nd Law, that album – every song is so radically different, and every song has a different production technique and lots and lots of different styles within the different songs. I don’t think that would have helped with the flow of a story.
So from our point of view, I think it was about just recording us as a three-piece and letting people hear what we sounded like at that point in time. I think that was part of the reason we got Mutt Lange on this album to produce because we felt like we needed somebody to come in and make the album sound really consistent and really capture the best of what the three of us sound like as individuals.
We felt like that was really important on this album. Because I think on the last album – as much as I still really like it – I do think that the three-piece element of the band was becoming a little bit watered down, you know, all of a sudden it sort of became a bit more about the production and a little bit less about three guys playing their instruments. And, you know, I think it worked for that album but, like I said, I think the whole idea of having a concept and a story, it needed to have some sort of consistency to it to hold it altogether, you know?
Watch: Muse – The Handler [Official Lyric Video]
MF: And speaking of Mutt Lange – whom rock music poindexters might recognise as AC/DC’s long-time producer – were you guys big fans of his prior to getting him on board?
CW: Yeah, I mean obviously we all love Back In Black, don’t we? [laughs] It was a great album. You know, his track record just speaks for itself, he’s been incredibly successful as a producer and but also as a songwriter as well, you know, he’s written a lot of big songs.
We’ve worked with a lot of great producers over the course of the six previous albums, but I think the difference with Mutt was that he had that song-writing experience that, I guess, just made us trust him a little bit more when it came to musical ideas, not just sonic ideas, you know? And he was a lovely guy to work with, you know, really, really nice, just kind of mellow person, and I think he brought a lot to the album.
The one thing that I think we wanted to do he really helped us achieve: before the album we said we wanted to spend less time in the control room and more time in the live room, playing. And having someone like Mutt involved, being able to do all of the technical side of things and deal with the actual recording of stuff, then we could just go and play our instruments and focus on the important side of it, really.
MF: Because Drones is essentially a rock opera… If it ends up doing really well, have you guys considered maybe, at some point down the track, making Drones: The Musical and taking it to the West End? It worked for The Who and Queen?
CW: Well you’re not the first person to say that [laughs]. I think it would be great to be able to do that at some point! I think in the immediate future obviously it’s still an album that the fans haven’t heard, you know, so all we can really think about at this point in time is getting the album out and going on tour. But yeah, it would be great to be able to have it incorporated into some sort of musical or something, you know, it’s not something that we’ve ever done before, it would be very exciting to be a part of it!
MF: The big question: when will we see you guys back Down Under?
CW: Well hopefully next year. I mean, we haven’t got any dates booked at the moment but I’m almost positive we will all come to Australia. We’ve been to Australia with every album we’ve ever done so there’s no reason not to with this album. But I think it’s more likely to be the middle of next year or maybe towards the end of next year. I know we’re doing stuff in the States at the end of this year and then there’s the European stuff after that, but I’m sure after that, Australia will be on the list. I’m positive we’ll be down at some point.
MF: Are you looking forward to road testing all the new songs live?
CW: [Laughs] yeah totally! We’ve already done a few shows, a small UK tour about a month back and we’re just in the States at the moment… and to be honest, so far, the reception to all the new songs has been great. I think – because it is more of a three-piece sound and it is more of a rock thing – it’s kind of been a lot easier to make that transition from the studio to live – certainly a lot easier than the last album. And I think, because it is just three-piece rock we feel fairly comfortable doing that, so we’re getting up and playing these new songs for the first time and it kind of feels a lot easier than last time, for sure.
I certainly remember the first few shows we did for The 2nd Law being fairly stressful, you know, there were so many things we had to think about – the way that we had to perform some of those songs was quite different to the way we’d done it before and I felt like it took us about two months to get it going and really settle into it, because some of the songs were so hard to replicate live. And with this album, I don’t really see any problems with any of the songs, you know, I think they’ll all be very easy to play live. So far I think we’ve played about four songs off the album live and it’s been a lot more comfortable.
‘Drones’ is set to drop June 5th. Read our review here.
Photos: Muse, Birds Of Tokyo – Allphones Arena, Sydney 13/12/2013 / Photos: Ashley Mar