The PV Q&A: Muse's Chris Wolstenholme on The 2nd Law—"I Think If You Strip It All Back, It’s Quite A Simple Theory"

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Click here to see more live photos of Muse at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. (PHOTOS: Andrew Youssef)

Interview by Tom Lanham

There are obsessive musicians who will go to extravagant lengths to capture one particular elusive sound. And then there’s Chris Wolstenholme, the keen-eared bassist for prog-leaning British power trio Muse, who commissioned the construction of an entirely new instrument just to reproduce in concert certain studio notes from “Madness,” the second single from the band’s latest sixth set The 2nd Law. The device—which he played on a recent Saturday Night Live appearance—looks almost otherworldly, with bass strings complemented by an adjacent touch-sensitive screen that iridescently pulsates with each tapped note.

Creating this hybrid wasn’t easy, says Wolstenholme, 34. But fans of this majestic Grammy-winning outfit would expect nothing less than perfection from him, drummer Dom Howard, and guitarist/vocalist Matt Bellamy, who’ve been pushing their music skyward since 1994.

During recording, the “Madness” bassline came courtesy of a synthesizer. “But we don’t like sticking things like that on tracks for the hell of it, so we started scouting around to see if there was any way I could play it on a guitar,” Wolstenholme says. “And we found this thing called a kitara, and we thought ‘Well, let’s see if we can get somebody who can stick a bass guitar and a kitara together!’ So that’s what we ended up with, and it’s a really cool piece. And the thing that’s so great about it is, all it actually is, is a controller, so you can plug it into any device that will take MIDI, so you can control a MIDI piano, a MIDI synthesizer, pretty much whatever you want.”

Think that’s determination? Don’t even get the man started on Muse’s current stage show, which features a monolithic suspended pyramid that, at one point during the set, effectively swallows the band whole.

PureVolume: Other rock stars do drugs—but you do bass, right? Put all your money into instruments?
Chris Wolstenholme: Ha! Pretty much. I kind of collect all sorts of guitars, really. Not just basses, but six-strings, as well, and I’ve got quite a collection building up at home. But yeah, that’s what I spend my money on.
PV: Do you have any amazing ‘Holy crap! I just scored a _____!’ finds?
CW: Well, I think the best one I found was actually in Seattle, where I ended up spending an absolute fortune. But, the thing is, with vintage guitars, they’re actually a lot cheaper in America than they are back home, because most of the guitars were American-made. But I went into this small guitar shop in Seattle, and they had everything that I’d always wanted. So that put a big hole in the bank balance that day. I bought a 1059 Strat, a 1960 Telecaster, and I bought a 1959 Bassman as well—it’s an old Fender amp which is actually one of the first bass amps that were made. But it actually became more used as a guitar amp. I think it was one of the first amps that Hendrix used, actually. So it’s a pretty cool-sounding amp: very loud and very distorted and old-sounding.
PV: Do you ever think ‘Fuck technology! I just wanna slap an old rockabilly standup bass!’
CW: Sometimes, yeah, you do. And we do that in the studio sometimes. Sometimes you get really carried away with the amount of technology that you’ve got, and then other times you listen to an album like Pet Sounds and think ‘Wouldn’t it be great to create something that sounds as huge as that? That’s purely organic?’ And I think that’s what we tried to do with a couple of songs like “Explorers” on the new album—we wanted it to stay truly organic and just get that feel of loads of instruments going off in the same room together, you know?

PV: How many instruments do you own now?
CW: I’ve probably got . . . hmm . . . 90 guitars and basses? It’d be in that region. I actually had to have a music room built at home, because everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve never had a designated music room. So I’ve kept all my guitars in the cases, and I was constantly putting one away to get another one out. But I moved house a couple of years ago and decided to convert the garage into a bit of a soundproof studio, so I can hang all my guitars on the wall and just go in there and lose myself for a few hours, you know?
PV: Where do you live now? Ireland still?
CW: I went to Ireland for a year. But I actually moved back to London—well, just outside of London, which was great for the band, because it was around the time of making the album, and it was the first time in 12 years when all the band lived in the same place. So obviously it made the recording sessions dead easy—we were in the studio almost every day, but at the same time we were able to go home every night and spend time with our families. It was as close to a normal job as we’ll ever experience.
PV: You have six kids. Ever catch one of ‘em touching one of your expensive instruments and have to say ‘Put Daddy’s Rickenbacker down, now! Slowly!’
CW: Well, my oldest son is a drummer, and he’s doing quite well. But his bedroom was being redecorated, so he had to have his drum kit packed away, but a couple of days before his drum exam he wanted to practice. So I let him go into my studio and use my lovely DW drum kit, which has loads of really expensive microphones all over it. And then I think he took that as an ‘I can go in there whenever the hell I want, particularly when Dad’s away’ kind of thing. But I always know when he’s been on my drum kit—I can see his stick marks all around the edges of the drums.
PV: The 2nd Law was named after the second law of thermodynamics. Are you clear on what it, and say, Lord Kelvin, were trying to convey?
CW: Not really. Well, I mean, obviously, I know what the second law of thermodynamics is—I think if you strip it all back, it’s quite a simple theory, really. It just talks about energy decreasing, and how you can’t put new energy into a system—once it’s gone, it’s gone. But we tried to put our own little twist on it.

It doesn’t relate to just physical energy. It can relate to the financial crisis, and we’re living in a period where we’re starting to realize that the financial system can’t just go into this mode of endless growth—it will all just fall apart at some point.

But I think you can also apply it to relationships, as well: How you constantly try to put new energy into relationships. You start off, and everything’s rosy, but over the years there’s a fracture here or there, and then things can fall apart. That’s something that we recognized when we were listening back to the album, when it was close to being finished.

PV: Matt writes most of the lyrics. Are there ever moments where you go ‘What in the hell is this guy talking about?’
CW: Ha! Sometimes, yeah. I think maybe a few albums ago, there was some stuff that was quite out there. But at the end of the day, when he sits down and explains it, a lot of it is stuff that we already think about, all the time, on our own.
PV: But you have two songs on The 2nd Law, “Liquid State” and “Save Me.” Is it safe to assume that they’re about your recent battle with the bottle, which you won?
CW: Yeah. I think that was a big part of it. A lot of it was written in that period after [getting sober], where life was changing a lot for me. All of a sudden, it was facing up to this new life without something that had been a big part of my life for a long time. And I think that those songs show different sides of it—“Save Me” is quite a positive song, a song about somebody coming out of something and knowing that they couldn’t do it without that one person that was there for them, no matter what.

Whereas “Liquid State” was more of an angry reflection on the kind of person that you become [under the influence], and the people you hang out with and the things that you do. It took me a long time to realize that the thing I thought was “fun”—and that gave me security and took away my self-consciousness—was actually not particularly fun for anybody else.
PV: One would imagine that an elaborate Muse tour itself pretty much demands sobriety.
CW: Yeah. The last tour we were up on these bloody towers, which were pretty scary as well when we were up there. And we didn’t realize how scary they were until the first gig, because in production rehearsal for that tour, we didn’t have a building that was tall enough to actually put the towers to their full height.

So when we arrived in Helsinki and did the soundcheck, Matt and I were like ‘Shit! How the fuck are we gonna do this? It’s terrifying up here!’

It was a pretty uncomfortable way of performing. So this time, we just felt like ‘Let’s have a nice, big open stage with some platforms, so we can get down closer to the crowd.’ But the pyramid—which moves inside-out and creates different shapes—is quite an overbearing thing that’s hanging above us.
PV: Any scary moments with that pyramid?
CW: There were a few. There’s one moment toward the end of the main set where we stand around the drum kit and the pyramid comes right to the floor and swallows us up. And it’s very easy to forget what’s going on when you’re playing a big, fat heavy riff and enjoying yourself—it’s easy to forget that there’s about three tons of steel that’s moving down in your direction.

So the first couple of gigs, I nearly got hit by the pyramid because I was too far out, head banging away and just being absorbed by the show. But you soon remember. All it takes is one little knock on the head and you’re like, ‘Oh, hell no! I will not do that again!’

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