Muse ought to be used to logistical challenges. As one of the most spectacular live bands in the world, the Devon trio know their way around a massive firework blindfolded, and in the past have shared their stage with George Orwell’s all-seeing eye and a giant robot named Charles. They were last seen in London flying giant drones over their O2 Arena audience in April last year. Now they’re doing something far smaller but just as problematic. At a show for the homelessness charity Passage in the tiny (for them) Shepherd’s Bush Empire this month, they’re letting the audience choose the songs.
“Only people who are going to the show can vote,” frontman Matt Bellamy explains, before you head to your laptop to request your favourite of the band’s many greats. Time is Running Out, Supermassive Black Hole, Knights of Cydonia and Uprising have all hit the top 10. “Unless we’ve been hacked, and now I can see the songs that have been picked I wonder if we have been hacked by some crazy fan somewhere.”
Muse share a manager, Peter Mensch, with Metallica, the metal giants who performed a similar By Request Tour around Europe and South America in 2014. “He told us, ‘Don’t worry, all they’re gonna do is pick well known songs.’ I said to him, ‘You don’t know our fans!’” says Bellamy. “Turns out they’ve picked way more obscure songs than even I imagined. Most of them are B-sides and at least two of them are songs we’ve never even performed live before.”
It’s a new challenge for the band who have already pushed the concert experience about as far as it can go, providing scenes that are so over the top that the top is usually just a distant speck far below them. Leading his old schoolfriends, bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dom Howard, since their teens in Teignmouth, 39-year-old Bellamy has created a unique role for himself as rock’s unhinged space captain, cackling at the controls as his vessel hurtles ever faster and bits fly off all around him.
After completing the world tour accompanying their seventh album, Drones, last summer, they still can’t rest. When we speak, Muse are travelling America once again, this time playing mostly in outdoor ampitheatres in cities which they didn’t reach the last go around: St Louis, Kansas City, Miami and so on, as well as various festivals. It’s what the singer-guitarist calls a “holding pattern tour” – fewer stunts, and better suited to the sleeker, slightly less berserk sound of their recent songs.
“It has a different atmosphere to the Drones Tour, which felt very serious, very dark, very stark in a way. And that was in the round. This is more straight rocking out, more relaxed, basically. It feels like a summer festival on the road. I’m really enjoying it,” he tells me.
Apart from Shepherd’s Bush, Muse’s only UK appearance this summer is at the Reading and Leeds Festival, where they will top the bill for the third time on the bank holiday weekend. They were regulars at this long-running weekender well before they first headlined in 2006, however. If you look at the poster from 1999 under a microscope, you can just spot them at the very bottom of the page, playing the smallest tent in between The Motorhomes and Peeps Into Fairyland – whoever they were.
Bellamy can still recall his surprise when his band were deemed to be worthy festival headliners well before he personally thought they were ready. They first became the main attraction on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2004, following the release of their third album, and headlined Reading and Leeds for the first time in 2006, just after the release of their fourth. “We were daunted, getting cast into these huge events as a live band, which felt almost disproportionate to our general success level and perception in the media,” he says. “My memory of it was feeling, ‘Are we big enough for this? Do we even have enough songs to fill an hour and 45 minutes?’ Very different from how it feels now.”
Because now the biggest stages are where they’re most at home. They’ve been a stadium band for a decade, first playing two nights at Wembley in 2007 and again in 2010. They’ve also been making music to suit such occasions for a long time. There’s no point looking to Bellamy’s lyrics for insights into his 2014 breakup with the actress Kate Hudson, with whom he has a six-year-old son. It’s all sinister post-apocalyptic dystopias round here.
However, with the singer based in LA and Donald Trump in charge of his adopted home, he wonders if he may yet turn out to have been writing about real life all this time. He points me towards The Globalist, the song at the end of the Drones album which, at 10 minutes and seven seconds, is the longest Muse have ever recorded. “It’s the story of the rise of a very narcissistic leader who ends up becoming a dicator of sorts, and taking a nation to its demise,” he explains. “That’s all strangely relevant in America right now.”
Released 11 days before Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States in June 2015, it features Bellamy singing, “Free your mind from false beliefs/You can be the commander in chief/You can hide your true motives/To dismantle and destroy,” before a nuclear war, illustrated in the song by a violent guitar riff and choral wailing, means “There’s no country left to love and cherish/It’s gone, it’s gone for good”. Oh dear.
He’s still on the subject on Dig Down, a standalone single released three months ago. It’s a cold, electronic groove that proposes that all is not quite lost: “When God decides to look the other way and a clown takes the throne/We must find a way,” he sings.
The band have enjoyed simply putting out one song and inserting it into their current concert setlist, without the need for an entirely new concept, stage extravaganza and 18 month tour that a whole new album would demand. “We wrote and recorded it quite quickly at the start of this year, and it had a feeling to it and lyrical content that felt relevant to right now,” says Bellamy. “So rather than sit on it til next year or whenever the next album comes out, it felt like it would be good to get it out.”
Nevertheless, it has still been presented with characteristic Muse ambition. Its video, on display at ai.muse.mu, changes every day thanks to Artificial Intelligence technology which trawls broadcast news to cut together clips of a different person – from Hillary Clinton to Prince William – saying each word of the lyrics.
Bellamy, ever the futurist, wanted to play around with the potential of AI. “In the long term, Artificial Intelligence and automation are going to be taking over so much of what gives humans a feeling of purpose. It’s already starting to have a real impact on our lives which is only going to get deeper and deeper.
“It’s fascinating, exciting and frightening in equal measure,” he says, which just about sums up a Muse show. If you can’t get in to see them in Shepherd’s Bush, no doubt they’ll be bringing the end of the world back round your way again soon.
Aug 19, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk). Dig Down is out now on Warner Bros.