"There's a lot of people who preach about politics who just aren't fucking qualified to." Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme talks politics, poker, parentage and playing the biggest festival of their lives...
Ten years ago, three wide-eyed festival fans from the West Country took the train to Reading Festival. They got grubby, made mates they'd never see again, overdid it on cheap booze and then stood stunned as Rage Against The Machine and Sonic Youth ripped the sky apart. Years later you'd find them sat on mountain tops, eating mushrooms and writing songs about armageddon. This was the beginnings of Muse.
Ten years on and the band fulfill their teenage dream by headlining this year's most prestigious UK festival, Reading, and its twin sister, Leeds. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme brought his family along on the tour bus to both, the first time his children have ever seen Muse play live, and their first ever festival experience. It's all come full circle. If you were blown away by Muse's headline set, just imagine if that was your old man up there...
VF: Ok Chris, you've headlined Glastonbury, V and now Reading and Leeds. How do you top that?
Chris: "I'm not sure. Do them all again? I don't know, it's a bit strange, Reading in particular because I went to Reading quite a few times when I was younger. I've just seen so many amazing gigs there and when we played it was almost ten years ago to the day that we saw Rage Against The Machine headline in 1996, which was the second time I went and is still probably one of the best gigs I've ever been to. To be playing on the same slot ten years later is kind of weird because we were talking about it ten years ago telling eachother "one day". I think Reading was always going to have something that little bit special about it."
VF: Do you reckon you could be the first act to play in space?
Chris: "It would be nice. I'd like to think so but I think that's probably a way off yet. But a gig on the moon would be nice wouldn't it?"
VF: Going back to the Carling Weekender, apart from playing, what was your highlight?
Chris: "I think Wolfmother actually, Wolfmother are amazing. I've had their album for a while now. I think it's a great album but live it's even better. Their keyboard player, well he's their bass player but he does a lot of stuff on the keyboard like bass lines, he kind of plays the keyboard like it's a guitar, he throws it around and stuff and they are just very impressive to watch."
VF: Any backstage gossip?
Chris: "Not really no, but I had my family with me for the whole weekend so I didn't really get to mingle too much, I spent most of the time looking after the kids. So I didn't really see too much going on to be honest. But I'm sure there was."
VF: Did you have your family in Leeds as well?
Chris: "Yeah, I've had my wife and kids out on tour for the last two weeks of festivals, which has been great. My wife's been out a few times but the kids have never been out on tour so it was their first festival experience. It was actually their first Muse experience altogether, the first time they'd seen any of the shows. They really enjoyed it actually."
VF: Were you more inspired to put on a good show knowing they were out there watching you?
Chris: "I didn't really think about it too much when I was on stage but it's nice to come off stage and have your family there. I spend so much time away from home and I obviously miss them a lot so it's just a very nice feeling to come off stage and have your kids run up to you and give you a big hug."
VF: How old are they?
Chris: "It was actually my son's birthday the day before Reading, it was his third birthday. My daughter was five on New Year's Eve and my oldest son is seven."
VF: Are they big Muse fans?
Chris: "They are actually. They've listened to the records a lot. I think their perception of what we do live was quite different to what we actually do. When I said we were playing on the tour bus I think they thought we were going around playing one song and then going somewhere else. They all get a bit confused when we come on the radio and I'm with them. They think I just go and play at these radio stations every day. They don't quite grasp the concept of a recording."
VF: Did it feel weird going on after Arctic Monkeys? It looked like they had the biggest crowd of the entire weekend?
Chris: "Not really. I think a lot of people have made a big deal out of hierarchy on a festival line up and stuff and I don't think anyone really felt any of that. I think both festivals had really positive atmospheres and I think a lot of people are trying to make out that there's this big competition going on between all the bands and it really isn't like that. I think I watched a bit of most of the bands over the entire weekend, on the main stage anyway and I think everyone's got respect for the other bands. Everyone came off saying "good gig" and "I enjoyed it" and the crowd enjoyed it. Everybody did I think."
VF: Was there anything or anyone that blew you away that you weren't expecting to?
Chris: "Like I said I thought Wolfmother were the one, you know I've heard the album but to see them live took it that little bit further. I would have liked to have ventured out to the other stage to be honest but we didn't really get the chance to do that. But I saw the Yeahs Yeah Yeahs on the telly the night before and I know it's really difficult to get the vibe when you're watching it on TV, but that looked really good and I heard a lot of people say that they were amazing. So I was a bit disappointed to miss that as I'm quite a big fan of theirs. They were on the Friday and we were in a hotel in London so we were just sort of tuning in and watching the bands and starting to get nervous about the next day."
VF: Do you all get nervous? Is there one of you who takes it by the balls and says "come on guys!"?
Chris: "I think you always get nervous to a point, but I don't think any of us really suffer from nerves really badly. There's always an element when you first go on, there's always that element of slight uncomfortableness [sic] when you go out on stage, but as soon as you start playing that all disappears really. It just kind of turns into pure adrenalin from that point onwards. You kind of need it in a way, I guess ten minutes before you get kind of nervous, I guess I get more nervous than Dom, he always seems really calm. We generally spend ten minutes pacing the dressing room which is a bit strange. But I think there's always going to be an element of nerves and I think it's something you need because it just turns into energy after a while and that keeps it going you know."
VF: What difference to the live experience does it make having a fourth member?
Chris: "It's been great. It's something we've been thinking about for quite a long time. Every time we do an album we think about it. In the past we got away with it because it was generally piano or guitar. There weren't too many occasions where it was going on at the same time but I think with this album there are certain songs that do, like 'Invincible' for instance. It's got that big kind of organ track going on and then you've got the guitar going on over the top of it and both are really, really important parts of the song, so to sacrifice one of those parts is going to seriously compromise it. I think it's something that we've been thinking about for eight years and we've bottled it every time. There really is no harm in having a go and if it doesn't work we can always go back to what we were doing before. We always knew that if we were going to get a fourth member in it was probably going to be by chance. We knew Morgan from when I broke my wrist a couple of years ago and he filled in on bass for a couple of shows. He just fitted in really well, which is surprising really as the three of us have known each other for the best part of 15 years so there's obviously an element of history. I think if anyone else came in they might have felt slightly alienated because there are certain things you just can't talk about because they weren't there. But when he came in last time he just fitted in straight away and it was like he'd been there forever. As soon as we started thinking about getting a keyboard player he just seemed like the obvious choice. We didn't need to worry about getting through that initial uncomfortable period because we already knew him. Like I said it was something we could have gone back on but it was just something we wanted to try and we tried it and it worked."
VF: On that note I take it you haven't had any football matches with the Cooper Temple Clause recently? (Chris' wrist was broken playing footy with the Coopers in 2004)
Chris: "Ha ha. No, I have been playing football matches, just not with them. I saw Dids the other day actually, whose with Dirty Pretty Things now, and that was the first time I'd seen him since the incident. He wasn't actually directly involved, it was Fisher who was involved in the collision. I also bumped into him three or four weeks ago for the first time since and he was a little sheepish! It was funny actually, it was a pure accident, it was my fault really, I just got a bit too aggressive and slipped over. But I still play football - just not on concrete."
VF: Going back to the album. Was going political a bit of a risk? There are a few subtle references…
Chris: "I'm not sure that it is that political. I think the inspiration or influences behind it are. I think songs like 'Take a Bow' and 'Soldier's Poem' have been written or inspired by current world events but at the same time I don't think there's any direct references to people or references to places so there's still that element of it being open. I think it's obvious what they're influenced by but at the same time I think it is nice to be able to relate lyrics to an impersonal situation or things that have influenced other people. As soon as you start talking about politics it becomes almost like preaching and I don't think we've ever wanted to preach about anything. When Matt writes his lyrics I think it's just an expression of him about something else, just an expression of emotions but at the same time if you start getting really political you need to have your facts pretty straight. There's a lot of people who preach about politics who just aren't fucking qualified to."
VF: Muse seem to continually evolve. Have you ever thought about doing an album with a full orchestra or a string section or something like that?
Chris: "Maybe, I don't think it's something we've ever ruled out. I mean I don't think we'd ever do a full album of that, but the last couple of albums have had two or three songs that have had that. I think it's something we'll always consider but sometimes it's easy to get carried away with the whole strings thing, because as soon as you put a whole orchestra on top of a song it just sounds so posh and wonderful and great and then sometimes you think 'maybe this has gone a step too far'. When we started Absolution, the first session we did for that album everything had strings on it and in the end we just re-recorded a lot of it because it just sounded too much you know? Some of the songs had these really dark elements to them and if you put strings on top of it it loses its whole darkness and turns into this really slick and polished song. But at the same time, some of our songs were made to have strings on them. I think what we always try and do is what's right for the song, quite often we'll try strings and sometimes it'll work and other times it won't. That goes for a lot of other instruments as well, not just strings. I think we've always tried to be as free as possible in the studio and not set any limitations on things, especially with this album. I think in the past we maybe thought a little too much about how we were going play things live while we were in the studio and I think there were certain songs that were slightly compromised because of that. You can't do everythign live. This time round we threw that whole concept out of the window and did what we felt was right for the songs, without setting any kind of limitations and we worried about the live thing later."
VF: What music is having an effect on you at the moment?
Chris: "There's all sorts, I don't think any of us are specialists in any particular area. We all like to listen to lots and lots of different things. In terms of the making of the album we were listening to quite a lot of film music, a lot of spaghetti western type stuff, like [Ennio] Morricone. A lot of the guitar influences on this album have come from a guitar era, maybe the 50s and 60s, I think on the previous albums all the guitar influences would have been more influenced by the '90s. But this time around it was more like Dick Dale, surf guitar, The Tornados, that whole late 50s, early 60s thing that was going on."
VF: Is that music you're into anyway or was it a bit more contrived than that, like 'let's sound like this'?
Chris: "It's not something we planned but there were certain things that lent themselves to that way of playing. Our producer for this album, Rick Costy, has an i-Pod full of all sorts and when we were in the studio we started listening to things like that and also a lot of Islamic music. We were tuning into a lot of these Islam radio stations on the internet and you get these really full on guitar rhythms, quite repetitive but really full on. In songs like 'Assassin' where the riff kicks in and then the drums kick in, that's a real kind of Islamic beat, really off beat, you know? And that kind of came from that. I think we were just all listening to all sorts really and it all filtered its way into the album."
VF: You've played loads of European festivals this summer. How do festivals like Werchter and Benicassim compare to festivals you get in the UK?
Chris: "Well Werchter is probably one of the best festivals in Europe, it's one those where it's just so well organised. The crowd are amazing. We've only played Benicassim once and I can't really remember a lot about it. It was a really quick in and out one. I think with the UK festivals it's the same as when we're touring in the UK, it's a little bit more special because it's home and you're coming back to your own country. I guess there's always that element of being a bit biased. We were saying the other day with Reading how we'd been hyping ourselves up about it for months now but then sometimes you have to sit back and think we shouldn't be doing this because we've done the equivalent of headlining Reading in so many other countries."
VF: Have there been any rows at all on your recent tour?
Chris: "Rows? No, not really. I think most of the rows are usually about poker. But they're not really rows."
VF: Is that your main way of passing time on tour?
Chris: "Yeah, I don't really play an awful lot. Matt's really into it. I kind of gave it a break for a year because I was playing a lot and I didn't seem to be getting any better so I had a bit of a rest from it. But I've kind of started again now as I've got the buzz back again. It's a good way to end a night, get on the tour bus, have a few drinks and then bed."
VF: What can we expect from the winter tour, is it going to be much the same?
Chris: "No, I think it's going to be quite different. I think once the festivals are done and dusted we'll be rethinking the whole ideas of the stage, lights and what's going to go on. I wouldn't want to give the whole game away but I think it's going to be quite different. I think the set lists are probably going to be quite different as well. We'll probably mix it up a bit. The last few gigs we've been playing a very similar kind of set, a set that we felt comfortable with and I think when we start the arena tour in the UK and Europe it's going to be total, total new thing."
For more info on Muse's forthcoming UK tour visit their official site here.