Musings of Muse
Everything works out for the best when you just go with the flow, contends Muse vocalist Paul Isaac. A year after leaving Miami for Los Angeles to record its major label debut, Muse is finally prepared to meet the world with an album recorded in Atlanta. Titled Arcana, the disc is slated for a March 18 release by Lava Records (a subsidiary of Atlantic), with the first single, "Pretty Things," hitting local and national radio this week.
The full-length album will be familiar to those who know Muse's self-titled, self-produced 1995 EP, since seven of Arcana's thirteen songs also appeared on that set. Familiar yet not quite the same: The band -- vocalist Isaac, guitarist Gerson, bassist Ari Eisenstein, and drummer Brett Thorngren -- has exchanged its alt-rock atmospherics for a more hard-hitting, straightforward rock sound, with clear, almost jangly guitars and taut melodies.
Isaac says this change wasn't intentional, but rather the natural result of recording under different circumstances. "I think it was just everything we went through from the time we recorded the demo EP," he says in a phone interview from the house the band members share in Roswell, a well-to-do suburb of Atlanta. "We went through so much emotionally, recording it twice, and when we finally got it right it was like a big accident. But that's the way things happen with this band."
Muse recorded Arcana during the course of two weeks in May at Atlanta's Triclops Studio with the help of producer Steven Haigler, who has worked with the Pixies, Clutch, Bob Mould, and Local H. Or should we say re-recorded: After Muse signed its deal with Lava in November 1995, the band jetted to L.A. two months later to record with Eric "E.T." Thorngren, who in the Eighties produced records for Talking Heads, Eurythmics, and Squeeze, and who happens to be drummer Thorngren's father. (The elder Thorngren also mixed Muse's 1995 EP.) Muse spent three months in the studio, during which time Isaac threw out his back and had to record all vocals while lying on a mattress on the floor. Meanwhile, guitarist Gerson suffered from a severe case of tinnitus and had to stay out of the studio for a few weeks.
When the recording was completed and they began to mix some of the songs, the band wasn't happy with the finished material. Isaac, who along with Gerson writes all the band's songs, says the product was too polished and didn't capture their true sound. The label agreed. "When you spend too much time on something, you can hurt it," he says. "Every time we play, it's different and unique, so we can't duplicate what we did before even if we wanted to. We felt [the first recording] was very sterile and very controlled."
The entire L.A. experience was not a waste for Muse, however. "We did learn a lot," Isaac continues. "We learned that nobody can understand our songs the way we do -- you are the only person who can express your own opinion. And we learned about freedom. We learned it's good to experience hurt sometimes, because then you really see the beautiful colors and shapes of life." And besides, the L.A. sessions did produce one keeper in "Pretty Things."
Recording with Haigler in Atlanta was a completely different experience. "Here we got to do what we wanted," Isaac says. "We had total creative freedom and recorded live and organic, like in the Sixties, with a vintage mixing board, guitars, and amps. There were no samples or computers; it was all live and raw. We were under a lot of pressure, but that actually helped. It contributed to the result, and I think we captured the true essence of the songs."
Because of time constraints, Miami musician and long-time friend Matt Sabatella did bass duty (Eisenstein, who was originally the band's keyboard player, had been playing bass for only about a year when they went to L.A., so Gerson recorded the bass lines during those sessions). Isaac says the musicians didn't have time to analyze what they were doing, which suited their creative process: "Things happened in the studio that we normally wouldn't have done. We got sounds that we weren't looking for, like different guitar sounds that were accidents in each song. Sonically, it made the album more of a whole."
And sonically the results may be surprising to those who haven't heard the band in a while. Muse has evolved over the past four years, from dark British-style dream-pop in the vein of the Cure to an alternative sound often compared to Smashing Pumpkins. It's current straight-ahead rock that rings with a strong Rolling Stones influence but with Muse's pop melodies intact. Thematically, the album has a psychedelic vibe Muse has always strived for. Everything about Arcana suggests a spiritual return to innocence, from the lilting guitars on the dreamy "Rubylions 200 Years" and the head-bopping, pop-sweetness of "In the Middle of a Dream" (which was a favorite at local college radio stations for a couple of years), right down to the album's cover art. An ethereal child holds the world in her hands, surrounded by a rainbow halo and an abundance of toys and flowers.
Since finishing the album, Muse has kept busy playing shows in Atlanta and various other parts of North America. In July they played before a crowd of almost 10,000 people at Toronto's Eden Festival on a bill that included Live, the Cure, Bush, Porno for Pyros, Tragically Hip, and the Goo Goo Dolls, among others. (Muse, by the way, was the only band at the festival that had not yet released an album.) A January show at the Mercury Lounge in New York City with Atlantic labelmates Matchbox 20 and the Gufs was broadcast over the Internet.
The band has also returned to Miami over the past year to play a couple of shows at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge. "We haven't forgotten where we come from," says Isaac. "Miami has been very special to us, and we love going down there. We left because it's good to move and find new environments, circulate, see different things. Otherwise it's like quicksand. But we can't wait to do something cool down there." Something like the promotional deal they've concocted with Spec's Music, in which the Miami-based chain will give away a tape titled Raw and Rough from the L.A. Tapes, with the otherwise unavailable "Radioman," to the first 500 customers who purchase Arcana at any of the company's 50 Florida stores. The band expects the record to do well in Miami: In October Muse's show at Rose's drew such a large crowd that the club had to turn people away by midnight.
Muse has built a considerable following in Miami since forming in early 1992. They spent a couple of years writing songs in near-seclusion, playing the occasional show at local alternative dance clubs before making the jump to rock venues. Until the release of their EP, they played relatively few live gigs, but nonetheless gained recognition by issuing a few promotional singles to local college radio stations such as WVUM-FM (90.5) and the Broward station WKPX-FM (88.5). Well-publicized shows at the Cameo Theatre, Cheers, and the now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse took on the air of real happenings and generated some great press, much of which touted Muse as the band to put Miami on the rock-music map.
"Back then we just laughed about it, and now we still laugh about it, because we don't want that kind of fame," Isaac says of the press raves. "We just want to make our art, our music. When you are true to yourself, people will see that and relate to it, but when you start doing things to please other people and not yourself, you lose something. So we'll just see what happens.
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