Over the course of six albums, the sound of Muse has grown larger and increasingly complex. Thanks to string arrangements, piano compositions, synthesized layers, and heavy electronic elements, the English three-piece has become known for a huge sound that fills the arenas that have become their playgrounds. But when it came time to create their seventh album, Drones, Chris Wolstenholme, guitarist/frontman Matt Bellamy, and drummer Dominic Howard decided to strip away the excess and revisit their roots as a power trio. Instead of shrinking their sound, their return to riff-based rock did exactly the opposite.
Wolstenholme embraced the new mentality by adopting a different approach in the studio. The 35-year-old has become known for the large array of basses he uses on the road and in the studio, but this time, Chris used just one bass—his signature Status Graphite 4-string—for a more consistent sound, homing in on every nuance of his bandmates’ playing so that his bold lines could best bridge rhythm and melody.
No Muse album would be complete, however, without a few of the breakout moments we’ve come to expect since 2004’s bass-heavy Absolution, and Drones has its share. Wolstenholme’s aggressive licks at the halfway point of “Reapers” will undoubtedly turn heads, as will his speedy finger work on the bridge of “The Handler.” Relinquishing production duties to ’80s rock king Robert John “Mutt” Lange gave Wolstenholme freedom to focus on playing bass, and that freedom reignited his lust for harnessing big tones and writing heavy riffs. To Wolstenholme, the live show is everything, and it was no mistake that Muse’s latest album was tailored specifically to cause pandemonium.
Drones is much more riff-driven and focused than The 2nd Law. Was this a conscious change?
We approached this album as a three-piece band playing loud, straightforward rock. There aren’t as many layers and elaborate production as there was on The 2nd Law. Part of the reason for that is some of the music on that record was somewhat of a bore to play live, and I’m not too certain how much of it worked for our shows. The transition from the studio to the stage with this music is much easier than before, because it’s just guitar, bass, and drums. Songs like “Psycho” and “Mercy” feel like they’ve been in the set list for a long time already, while a lot of the songs on our last album felt like they never settled in for us to play out.
Stylistically, what was your aim for these songs?
We’re a band that dabbles in a lot of genres. We’ve gone through classical music and progressive rock phases, and many of our albums have had an electronic influence. After a while, the electronic side became such a big part of our sound that had we taken it any further, we would have become an electronic band entirely. We felt that the core of our band was being watered down. We needed to return to what we do best, and that’s being a three-piece rock band. Being a trio is the best weapon that we have, and it’s the one thing we do that makes us very comfortable. The logical step was to strip away all the outer layers and go back to the way we started. Sometimes, making things simpler makes them more powerful.
How did you embrace simplicity?
When we recorded 2nd Law and The Resistance, I took almost every bass I owned into the studio, and I pretty much used a different bass for each song to get a different sound. I also used a ton of different pedals on those records. This time, I used only one bass and only five or so pedals; we had to be more dynamic in our playing to get the differences in sounds. It made the recording process more fluent because I wasn’t just chasing sounds. I wanted the bass to be cohesive in tone from the first song to the last.
What inspired you to bring in a producer for the first time since 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations?
We wanted someone to handle all the Pro Tools stuff and be the judge of our performances so it wasn’t just on us. On our last album, we spent about 25 percent of our time playing and recording and about 75 percent mixing. On this one, we pretty much did the exact opposite, and it took us much less time. We were happy to just be the band.
What was the key to your tone?
A lot of the unique sounds I got came from my hands and my playing style, especially because I used less gear. A lot of people ask how I get certain bass sounds, but the reality is that every bass player is different. We all have different fingers that are different sizes and shapes, and we all hit the strings differently. You could put me through Flea’s rig and I wouldn’t sound anything like Flea, and you could put him on mine and he wouldn’t sound like me. I can tell a million young bass players what gear I use, but they still wouldn’t sound exactly like me because they’re not me playing it. A lot of it is your relationship with your instrument, how you feel things, and how you strike the strings.
You seem to strike the strings harder than most bassists.
I try to play as hard as I can within a measure of control. Sometimes, when I play too powerfully, I lose control of the strings and get pops and crackles, so I have to figure out the range that I can play in and still make it sound good. I do play pretty hard, but it’s always about where I play on the bass that is most important. I’ve always been quite interested in the difference between playing off the bridge pickup, playing off the neck pickup, and how drastically different those two positions sound. And then I have to figure out when it’s right to use either one.
How does playing in a trio dictate your role in the band?
My role is definitely enhanced in this three-piece, and a big reason is that Matt isn’t really a rhythm guitarist. A lot of guitarists in trios are rhythm-oriented, but Matt is a lead player, and his riffs are more melodic than rhythmic; he plays across everything, so it’s important for Dom and me to hold everything down. But in a way, it gives me more freedom to fill those gaps and extend my playing—rhythm needs to be infused into the music, and that gives me a lot of space to work. It works well for Matt because it frees him up to play the lead guitar role. If we had a rhythm guitar player, my role would be much different in this band.
You’ve used a lot of basses over the years, and you have quite a collection. Which ones are your favorites?
I own around 60 right now—I’m not certain of the exact number. My favorites are my custom Status basses, which are my go-to workhorses. If those don’t work, then I’ll pick up my 1973 Fender Jazz Bass, which I used for “Panic Station” on our last album. I love collecting instruments, but every instrument has its place, and I make sure they all get attention. When I’m home, I play all of them. There will always be a moment when one will work better than another, and it always changes. One moment I’ll look at a bass and I’ll hate it, and then three weeks later it will be the best bass I’ve ever played in my life.
What do you work on when you’re practicing on your own?
I play like most people who are learning how to play bass: I pick one up and I play what I feel like playing. I’ve never been a person who sits down and plays for hours. I’ll just play a groove that I like and try to write something. My kids are musicians now—my two oldest sons play drums, and my daughter plays piano. There are instruments all over my house, so one of them will pick something up and we’ll play some 12-bar blues and jam when we can. My oldest son gets on the drum kit and we play lots of Nirvana songs together.
Which Muse songs do you love playing most?
It’s not really about the songs; it’s about the crowd reactions. I love the moments when I know I’m going to feel electricity from the crowd—moments like the riff at the end of “Knights,” because it just goes off. No matter where we play, we know that the crowd will go nuts at that point, and it’s amazing to watch from the stage. Moments like those are the ones I remember, and it’s because of the crowd, not us.
Muse, Drones [2015, Warner Bros.]
Bass Status Graphite Chris Wolstenholme Signature Graphite Bass, Status Graphite Original Series II
Rig Kemper Profiler head, 2 Markbass SD1200 heads, Skrydstrup Bass Routing System
Pedals Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, Electro-Harmonix POG2, Boss OC2 Octave, ZVex Basstortion Bass Distortion, ZVex Mastotron Fuzz
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.045–.105)