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Q&a Muse's Matt Bellamy on the lyrics, science, economics and more behind The 2nd Law

Q&a Muse's Matt Bellamy on the lyrics, science, economics and more behind The 2nd Law
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As far as statements go, naming your album The 2nd Law certainly put Muse‘s latest album into a particular thematic sphere. So what is it that inspires you to make music about thermodynamics? With the band in the middle of their UK dates we spoke to frontman an lyricist Matt Bellamy for this week’s Q&a to discuss the lyrical influences on the record.

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How the devil are you?

“Good, very good thanks. Making this album has probably been the most fun experience of making an album we’ve had. The band were all on top form.”

How long were you working on this record before it came out?

“In terms of making the songs, some of the bits have been on my mind for a year or two. I wrote a few songs a few months before I had the baby [Bellamy’s fiancée, actress Kate Hudson gave birth to a son in July 2011]. Then once we had the baby I was changing nappies, obviously, I was like the assistant in the house making bottles and all that stuff, so I wasn’t really that tuned in at that point! But three or four months after that I got back in to writing songs again, so it was probably November last year. That’s when we started meeting up for rehearsals and we very quickly got some stuff together and in December we started recording it and just carried on from there.”

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Lyrically, when did you get a sense of what you wanted to talk about for this album? The 2nd Law sounds quite definitive even if you don’t know what it’s about before hearing it?

“Lyrically there’s an anchor point that I decide on some point in the making of that I’ll stick to and if in doubt of where to go lyrically I’ll return to that point and remember that’s what I want to be the theme, if you like. On this album it’s to do with energy basically. On the last one I was interested in the riots and things like that were going on, with this one the news seemed to be obsessing on this economic crisis, the Euro banking crisis and all that kind of stuff. Believe it or not I’ve started watching financial news. I was trying to really grapple with it and gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on. I don’t totally buy or believe the paradigm that’s constantly presented to us and the financial news is obsessed with, which is growth. There seems to be this paradigm which is: There has to be growth. I’m watching it and thinking, Am I the only one who recognises this is a small planet isolated in a gigantic universe? Where are we growing too? At some point there has to be a discussion about that concept. For the first time in evolution as a species we’re hitting an energy ceiling.”

Supposedly peak oil, when it becomes uneconomical to drill for it, is supposedly not far off…

“Exactly! I started remembering that. I remember reading books in the 1990s talking about peak oil and they all said: around 2010, around 2011 there’s going to be a series of economic crashes based on the fact that oil will start to become harder to get and the price to excavated it will go up, forcing the overall price up which will cause a collapse in the economy. Then obviously oil goes down because no one is buying it and the whole thing collapses. So we’re creating this inflating, collapsing model on a constant level now. It reminded me of that peak oil concept but also how energy works in general. How life needs energy to grow, which is the reason why we’re obsessed with growth, and the fact we’re hitting a ceiling. I read about energy and came back to the laws of thermodynamics, the scientific rules of how all energy functions if you like. The second law of thermodynamics seems the most relevant to what’s going on, it states: in an isolated system entropy can only increase. It basically means energy is decreasing in all systems, a system being an organism, planet or a star. The universe, in a big bang mode, is still expanding which means it’s cooling down and evolution seems to be going against this, we’re almost battling it. That led me on to a more creative, philosophical way of thinking which is what led into influencing some of the songs, which is Maybe this is what our struggle is. Rather than try to generalise for everyone, for me the struggle in life is this battle against the fact energy is decreasing. It’s a battle in everything, whether it’s relationships, your own life, your work, the world in general, the economy, there seems to be this theme. That battle that we are all part of. The battle for me is that, going between songs like Survival which is almost celebrating the craziness and irrational side of us that just wants to grow and fight and survive against the odds. While there are other songs on the album like Explorers and even Supremacy which are almost the opposite of that song, almost giving up and saying it’s a losing battle. These two extreme points of view are on the album, battling against each other.”

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Personally do you think you have to adopt one philosophy or the other? Is there a middle way?

“I think the middle way is when science kicks in. The earth is not an entirely closed system and we’re not entirely closed systems unless you do that [holds his nose and covers his mouth] if you do that you’ll die within two days. The same with the planet, if you cloaked the earth it would die in two days. So we’re not entirely closed, but the solar system doesn’t have any energy coming in, so the only one energy source that is guaranteed to be long lasting is the sun. So really we should align our economics to be in line with the energy that is guaranteed. The sun offers a certain amount of energy, it creates photosynthesis, which creates the food chain and now we’re developing solar panels and that sort of thing, so the middle way is sustainability. The second track The 2nd Law Part 1: Unsustainable is about that point, the video for it includes references to lots of energy stuff, people digging for oil, looking for coal and the noise of all that – as good as it is and as much as it can offer a chance to experience what it’s like to have more energy is available – it’s is temporary. It’s a time for more long term thinking. But at the same time, there’s a part of you that wants to be like Star Trek and get into spaceships and explore the universe.

The final frontier?

“We can learn how the sun works, nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion, rather than nuclear fission. All the matter in the sun is collapsing in on itself, fusing together, creating more interesting more complex atoms and the amount of energy that comes from that is unbelievable, that’s the key. In the song Explorers, which is the most pessimistic song on the album about from the bit where I say, Use Helium 3 our last hope. In that song it’s pretty jaded, I’m singing almost in a lullaby style. Basically singing about the fact that being an explorer these days means there’s not much to explore [laughs] most of it’s been seen, most of it’s been found and some of it has been used in terms of what’s available on this planet. It’s all pretty jaded, talking about all the land I owned, all the jobs are done, there’s not much available, you’re growing up into a discovered, own system. To cut a long story short an energy revolution would serve the character in Survival, by fusing helium three rather than breaking the atom which creates loads of residue and damage, fusing the atom – and helium three is the one substance you can do that with and is abundant on the moon – would cause an energy revolution, there would be free energy for everyone and enough energy for spaceships and stuff like that. It could happen in our life time but it’s most likely to be owned and patented by Enron – this is an interesting interview, you’ve got me off on one here!”

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That’s the battle, what is possible versus the politics of what’s possible.

“There you go. Wasn’t it Nikola Tesla birthday the other day, he’s had an interest in that. That might be one of the things that got me interested in energy, I real a book about Tesla and his whole thing was he was obsessed with free energy that was accessible to everyone from the ionosphere. He wanted to create wireless energy, that would have been amazing but all his patents are owned by the American government.”

Right, so how easy it to apply these ideas into an actual lyrics?

“Ok, everything I just talked about is the stuff I’m into it’s not the lyrics, but it rubs off on writing songs. Everything I’ve just said is not a description of how the album is, it’s just they’re the things I’m interested in or watching or reading while I’m making the album, so it rubs off on the songs. Songs like Animals is a song which aimed at [former Bank Of Scotland CEO] Fred Godwin, the people who brought down the big banks, songs like Big Freeze which talks about energy dependency, 2nd Law Part 1 and Part 2 the first one literally spells out what the 2nd Law is and how brutal it is, the second part is an instrumental piece which devolves into the sound of the universe cooling down. So in my mind I’m saying, I want to create the sound of the universe cooling down [laughs], even though it’s a ridiculously abstract idea it makes you approach a sound in a particular day. You’re thinking, this piano part should slowing down, there should be some deep reverb here and it goes further and further. It’s things like that, abstract ideas, that you try to get the music to conjure up in some way. Having said that I wouldn’t want to make out the album is leaning too far into the heavyweight ideas area, because there’s lots of light hearted ideas on the album and some very personal ones as well.”

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Is that’s why you don’t do concept records, you can embrace a wider spectrum?

“Exactly, Big Freeze is a personal, relationship-based song, but all the metaphors relate to things I read about the second law of thermodynamics. Talking about cooling down, fighting for love, all that sort of stuff. There are songs where I’ve drawn a theme from the album and other songs don’t. If I could say there was a theme on the album then it’s the struggle against the cooling!”

Paul Stokes@Stokesie

For more head to Muse.mu. This interview originally appeared in Spanish in Warp.la.


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