I’m speaking with a “pretty good, chilled” Dominic Howard as he enjoys some touring respite at the south of France. Last time we spoke, the Muse drummer was in the hungover nexus of the band’s Olympics-closing performance and the imminent touring cycle of new album The 2nd Law. Back then, he assured us that the all-conquering UK trio would touch down in Australia towards the end of 2013. And waddaya know, they made good on their promise.
The 2nd Law, Muse’s typically bombastic sixth studio LP, will have reached its first birthday by the time it arrives in the live setting on Australian shores, representing the measured touring approach of one of the world’s biggest bands. “We’ve been touring, just really busy since the album came out in September,” Dominic recalls. “We did a few special shows in smaller venues, then we hit the road in October with the bigger production. We’ve been all over Europe, the States, all over Asia, now we’re just coming towards the end of the European stadium tour, which is amazing. This summer’s been awesome, we’ve been outdoors in these football stadiums playing these huge shows – 60 to 70 thousand people, that type of vibe. But we’re coming towards the end of that, then loads more touring for the rest of the year, and next year.”
The stadium-sized Australian tour is a far cry from their first visit to our land over a decade ago, where they plugged away at the entry-level echelon of relatively quaint pubs. As Dominic explains, the band still manages to fit in more diminutive-sized performances along the way. “They’re great, really cool. Just recently we did one in Shepards Bush as a charity gig for War Child. We haven’t really played a venue like that in a while, and it was great to get in there and play a theatre without any massive production, and floating pyramids. It was so great to be close to the fans. We came out of that gig thinking it would be great to do a whole lot more of that in the future, somehow. We might go for a few little special gigs next year. The band is actually going to be 20 [years old] next year, so we plan to do something special,” he forecasts.
Over those two decades, Muse have built a most impressive canon of modern rock classics. Despite the lavish and involved production value of their live performance, they still manage to incorporate surprise cuts within the setlist. “Each album you do, the harder and harder it gets to do the setlist – you have more songs to choose from,” Dominic states. “There are times when you think, ‘Really, we can’t play that tonight?’ We’ve been keeping it quite varied. We have a list of ten to 12 songs we are constantly rotating that go in and out, but there are moments in the set that are very fixed – especially with the new songs. There are songs we have to play every night because certain things are happening in the show. But that’s cool, that’s the way we structure the show. It does involve a certain choreography with the production, with screens moving up and down. But we leave gaps where we can throw a few songs on that we haven’t played in a while. But that’s something we love doing, putting on a big show that incorporates all that choreography,” he pauses. “Not dance moves, obviously.”
“We started doing Dead Star, an old one that’s very heavy. It wasn’t actually on an album, it was an inbetween single to promote a DVD we released in 2001. We actually played Muscle Museum, our first ever single from our first ever album. We played it once recently and never played it again. I’d like to bring that back. When you bring a song back after years and years it feels so different to how you remember playing it back in those days. Butterflies And Hurricanes had a rest for a few years, now that’s back and it’s great. At Reading Festival in 2011 we did our whole second album [Origin Of Symmetry] from start to finish. It was interesting trying to learn all those songs again, I think there was one song we had never played live before.”
At this stage, Muse have honed a touring schedule which affords that illusive work-life balance. It’s a factor which becomes a necessity eventually, according to Dominic. “I’ve been taking it easy the past few weeks down here, drinking too much rosé wine and sitting in the sun. We tour a lot, but we don’t tour as intensely as we used to. When you do bigger shows, you can’t do so many back to back because it takes time to move all the gear around. So you end up with a slightly lighter schedule. We’ve changed the way we tour. The guys have families, Chris [Wolstenholme] has six kids, Matt [Bellamy] has just had one, and that changes the way you feel about being away. We tend to tour for a few weeks, have a gap, then continue touring. That way of doing things takes the edge off a little bit and lets you stay on the road longer. A lot of bands die out because they go away from friends and family and loved ones for months at a time, then they come back and their life’s gone to shit,” Dominic laughs. “Then you’ve got to split up – either with the girlfriend or the band.”
Close to clocking up that 20 year mark, why is it that Muse are one of the very few to have maintained the same lineup from inception through to unimaginable success? “Shit, I dunno,” Dominic answers. “It’s partly to do with the fact we’re schoolmates and we’ve known each other for so long. It’s partly to do with where we’ve came from as well. Teignmouth, Devon is a very small town and detached from the music scene, so we were left to our own devices. It’s not a place where anything can happen particularly quickly. I think we’ve just had this feeling like we’re a gang, we stick together, and we believe in the music. We want to take it as far as possible. That, and we are like, ‘What the bloody hell else are we going to do?’” he chuckles. “I can’t see us being in any other bands. We’ve become institutionalised within ourselves. We’ve definitely had ups and downs as a band, but we all know that it’s this or nothing. People in other bands probably don’t think like that – thinking, ‘Let’s do this for a bit, then fuck it, let’s split up, join another band, do a solo project.’ For us, it’s either this or go back to Devon and become a painter and decorator, or clean out caravans, which is what we used to do before we signed as a band. So this is it, our life is to keep Muse going. And we’re doing a pretty good job of it so far.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK