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The title track from Muse’s latest album, “The 2nd Law,” is a two-part suite that, according to the British rock band’s members, relates to Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, which posits that the universe tends toward equilibrium and therefore any energy, however great, will eventually dissipate as the universe finds its balance.
That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case for Muse, however. The trio has been on a steady ascent since its debut album in 1999, and currently ranks as one of the biggest bands on the planet. It has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide and won a Grammy Award, with two more nominations this year, for “The 2nd Law” album and for its hit single “Madness.” Muse’s “The Resistance” (2009) hit No. 1 in 19 countries, while “The 2nd Law” debuted atop 13 charts around the world.
The album’s first single, “Survival,” was the official song of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, where Muse performed at the closing ceremony. The group also has become one of the world’s most popular live bands, headlining nearly ever major rock festival around the globe.
It’s all a far cry from what guitarist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic Howard expected when they joined forces in 1994 after playing in separate bands at Teignmouth Community College in Devon, England, originally calling the band Rocket Baby Dolls. While their creative ambitions remain grand, however, Muse’s members try to maintain a sense of perspective on the band’s achievements to this point.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” the 34-year-old Wolstenholme says, speaking by telephone before the start of the North American leg of Muse’s “The 2nd Law” tour. “We know that there’s a certain expectation on this band with the quality of music that we make, and it’s an expectation that we put on ourselves as well, because we always want to better ourselves.”
The 35-year-old Howard agrees — “You always want to create better music and discover new musical ideas and feel like we’re moving forward and not backward,” he says — but adds that, for Muse, that process is more relaxed than some might expect.
“We never really feel like we’ve got too much pressure on ourselves in the studio,” the drummer says. “We certainly don’t have any outside pressure from anyone else. We just want to go in there and have a very fluid and natural process. If we find ourselves having pressure or feeling like we have pressure, I don’t think you necessarily work to your best capacity. So we like to feel very relaxed and comfortable when we’re in that situation.
“At least, to the three of us, it feels like a comfortable creative environment.”
Howard reports that Muse went into “The 2nd Law” without much of a master plan. Instead the group took its usual, mad-scientist approach of experimentation and improvisation, spending the better part of 10 months in California and England finding new ways to mash together elements of classic-pop melodicism and progressive-rock sophistication.
“It was pretty spontaneous, really,” the drummer says. “Anything we had when we came in was really at an embryonic level and then, during the course of recording them, they changed so drastically. We just went into a room and started working on songs and, once we started bashing them out between the three of us, we realized that they were all sounding very different and quite diverse and different musically.
“The idea was to create these ... almost like challenges for certain songs,” Howard continues, “to take them in new directions we hadn’t tried before. But ultimately I think this album sounds like us enjoying ourselves and experimenting a lot.”
He says that each of “The 2nd Law’s” songs became its own adventure. “Follow Me,” for instance, started out “very, very raw and organic and rock-sounding,” but was dressed up with electronics for a different feel. “Panic Station” adopted a funkier quality than Muse previously had put on record, while the group quickly decided that it wanted the album-opening “Supremacy” ‘’to sound like we were playing it in a stadium, or something like that.”
“We know something’s done when all three of us are totally on the same page and we’re like, ‘Yes, that’s done,’” Howard says. “There’s something that balances out between the three of us, and that’s the kind of place we can stamp it and go, ‘Cool, that’s finished. Let’s not touch it anymore.’
“But it’s still quite a hard thing to do, because you’re tempted to fiddle with things forever.”
“The 2nd Law” is also distinctive for the number of musicians involved, more than on any previous Muse album. Howard estimates that some 70 other players took part, including an orchestra, a choir, and a brass section.
Muse began touring to support “The 2nd Law” in September, with a typically opulent stage set that uses pyramid-shaped video boards and elaborate special effects.
“We always feel like we’re doing something slightly better than the last time,” Howard says. “It’s almost getting to a point where that’s getting hard to do, so we just need to do something big.”
The trio plans to stay on the road until at least the fall, and won’t turn to thoughts of its next album until much later in the tour, maybe not even until it’s completely finished.
“Me and Matt have been tentatively talking about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, when we’re going to do it,” the drummer says, “not really discussing musical ideas so much as [logistics]. We’ve still got loads of touring to do, and we tend to feel like we need to finish touring one album before we start anything else. We like to finish one chapter and then start afresh.
“We’ve known each other for so many years,” Howard concludes. “We’ve grown up together. We’ve seen lots of different changes in each other ... and we’ve always stuck together, which is quite unique, really, because not too many people have friends from when they were, like, 10 like we are.
“It really makes this special, I think.”