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The Weekly interview: Muse bassist Chris Wolstenholme

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Photo: Gavin Bond
Annie Zaleski

Note: Muse's Mandalay Bay show, originally scheduled for December 6, has been postponed until January 9. A statement from the band reads: "Due to unforeseen logistical and technical challenges with setting up this huge show, moving arena scoreboards in order to play in the round and the difficulty encountered moving the production between back to back shows with long journeys in between, unfortunately we are forced to reschedule the following shows."

As anyone who’s seen Muse live can attest, the U.K. trio is a force, a band that pairs sonic bombast with innovative special effects. Bassist/keyboardist Chris Wolstenholme checked in from LA, during a week of production rehearsals for the band’s new tour in support of guitar-oriented new album Drones. The affable musician chatted about working with producer Mutt Lange, the perils of having flighty special effects live, and how the group’s latest record emerged.

You’re playing in the round for the first time on this tour. What’s the biggest difference doing that? A lot of the time you’ve got to think about where you’re at, who you’re actually playing to. You’re used to having people in front of you all the time, and behind you is kind of a dead space normally. So no matter where you look, and no matter where you stand, you’re always looking at somebody.

We had a really good run through the set last night, and I think it’s going to be great. It’s really cool because there’s a lot of new things on this tour as well. There’s so much technology involved, and a lot of technology that’s never really been attempted before in a concert.

Any particular sneak peek you can give on that? We’ve actually got the flying drones in the show. I don’t think that’s something that’s ever been done before. [There are] things that actually fly around the venue at various points in the show. We’ve had a few sleepless nights about that in the last few days. I mean, I think the first few attempts at getting the drones up and flying was pretty disastrous. The technology involved is way beyond my understanding. They’re all tracked on cameras and things, and they all like to be super-calibrated. And there was some sort of issue ... when the P.A. was switched on, the vibration of the P.A. in the building was decalibrating the drones. So all of a sudden, they didn’t know where they were; they were crashing into things. There’s been quite a bit of that going on this week, but the last couple days we managed to solve most of the problems with the drones. And the last two run-throughs of the set they flew with no problem. It’s a little bit fingers crossed at this point in time, but we’ll see how it goes. (laughs)

These are the type of things that when you started a band you probably never expected you were going to be talking about. Not really, no. I mean, I think it’s a first for anyone—not just us, so yeah. Certainly not really when we were 15, 16, starting this band. It was enough just to concentrate on playing our instruments, other than worrying about aircraft flying around the arena, you know?

For June album Drones, how conscious a decision was it for you guys to have it be a little bit more guitar-oriented than the last few records? I think it’s something we thought about for a while, particularly since [2012’s] The 2nd Law came out. There were a lot of other influences that were creeping into the music, particularly the electronic things. The biggest single off the last album [“Madness”] was primarily an electronic track, and we felt that we didn’t want to push that too much further yet. We still feel like we’re young and we can rock out onstage, and we’ve still got the energy to do that. So we felt that maybe we should continue to make heavy music, energetic music. I think there’s plenty of time down the line, when maybe we’re not quite as young and fit and can’t run around the stage as much as we do now. … Maybe that’s the time to start experimenting with other things.

[Drones] was a much easier album to make than The 2nd Law. When we made The 2nd Law, we spent so much time in the control room, messing around with synths and computers, and far less time actually set in the live room with our guitars in our hands, and Dom [Howard] behind the drum kit. So for this album, we just felt, maybe we need to go back to playing our instruments again and just stripping things back a little bit, and maybe focusing more on the songwriting, as opposed to concentrating on sonics all the time. I think for that reason, it was a really easy album to make.

We [also] found that some of the songs on The 2nd Law were incredibly difficult to re-create in a live environment. For this album, we knew that [frontman] Matt [Bellamy] had this whole concept of drones, and we knew that was gonna lend itself to some really good ideas for the live production. And we just felt that kind of tour and production [was more suited] to a very guitar-oriented, heavy, energetic set.

What was it like working with producer Mutt Lange? I mean, you look at the people he’s produced, and it’s jaw-dropping. He was awesome. He’s one of these guys, he’s a little bit of an enigma, really. He’s produced some huge, huge albums, and his c.v. is unquestionably one of the best in the world [in terms] of production and even in songwriting. But the guy’s never really done an interview, and people don’t really know a lot about him. So it was great just as music fans to actually meet the guy and see what makes him tick.

He’s a really mellow guy, not at all what I expected. Very mellow, very private and just a great musical guy. He’s one of these producers that’s more from the old school, where he’s very much about the music. He’s very good at getting great sounds and things like that, but for him it’s primarily about the music and the performance.

As far as what he did with us, I don’t think we’ve ever done as many takes of songs as we did with Mutt. He just hammered us for more and more takes, and was very, very particular about getting the right performance of the song and making sure the energy was right at certain points in the song. When we did The 2nd Law and produced it ourselves, maybe we’d record five or six takes of a song. With Mutt we were in the 20s and 30s. But I think it was much better for it. For this album, the performances have to be really energetic, and that was his primary focus, just making sure the band sounded as good as it possibly could.

Having a producer [who has] songwriting experience was really helpful as well. To have that fourth opinion in the studio was invaluable at times.

You guys have played in Vegas a ton. Do you have any memorable shows or stories from playing in the city? Most of my memories of Vegas is what goes on after the gig, to be honest. (laughs) I can remember the first time we came to Vegas. It was so exciting, because to us it was this place that we’d seen in films and you hear all about, but we never got to experience ourselves. The first time we played in Vegas, I don’t think anyone was thinking about the gig at all. It was like, “What are we going to do after the gig?” You know, go and party and lose a load of money—and that’s kind of what we do in Vegas, really. It’s always a good excuse to do a show and have a great time afterwards as well. But the Vegas crowds have always been great for us. We’ve had some very, very good gigs in Vegas. It’s one of the places on the tour we really look forward to coming to.

As you’ve been playing these Drones songs live this year, how have they evolved and changed as they’ve been in the concert setting? Well, in a sense, they haven’t needed to as much as other songs did, because I think the way that they were recorded was very much as a live band. Every song on Drones, we actually got in the room together as a three-piece and just played live the whole time. Normally, we spend a lot of time stressing about playing the songs live and trying to strip everything back down to being a three-piece. And on this album, it was just easy. I think “Psycho” and “Reapers” and maybe “Dead Inside” were the first new songs that we played, and they just slid into the set like they’d always been there. They didn’t really feel like new songs.

But I guess the more you play the songs, the more comfortable you become, and I think the energy intensifies within the song. We’ve done a handful of gigs, and we’ve done a bunch of festivals, but for us the tour is starting now, really, with the whole Drones production. Who knows where it’ll go. Quite often the songs do evolve and go down a different path and end up sounding quite different to how they did when we recorded them.

Muse with Phantogram. December 6, 7:30 p.m., $37-$69. Mandalay Bay Events Center, 702-632-7777.

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