Muse’s Dominic Howard
On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road
story by Ilya Stemkovsky
photos by Rahav Segev
This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.
If its native England, the majestic pop-rock trio Muse is bigger than, well, almost any other band. Now, with a daring new album and an incredible live show, lefty dynamo Dominic Howard and his mates are poised to take it up a notch in the states.
It’s the day before the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and Muse—singer/guitarist/ keyboardist Matthew Bellamy, bassist Chris Wolstenholme, and drummer Dominic Howard—is on stage at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre, preparing for its U.S. television debut. The plan for the following night is to cut away from the main VMA show over at Radio City Music Hall to this tiny 900- person-capacity Broadway theater in time for the band to play its new single, “Uprising.” But today it’s all technical run-throughs with stage blocking, lighting cues, and camera angles. There must be thirty-five stagehands milling about while the group plays the song over and over again.
One would think a musician would take this opportunity to cruise on autopilot, to go through the motions and save his performance for the actual gig. But Dominic Howard chugs through the galloping shuffle and huge backbeats of the tune with as much conviction and enthusiasm as he will summon when the world is watching. The music breathes. He’s hitting hard. He’s sweating. And he’s proving that in this new Auto-Tune world, there’s still a need and desire for real musicians playing real songs on stage. “We’re constantly evolving live,” Howard says. “It emphasizes how much you’re changing as a musician over the space of a few months on the road.”
Muse formed in the mid-’90s in Teignmouth, England, and spent the next decade writing soaring anthems, fighting off comparisons to Radiohead, and slowly building a rabid following across Europe. The trio’s brand of beautifully urgent pop mixed with a penchant for serious riffage enabled a steady ascension to massive popularity overseas. Nowadays they’ll play two nights at Wembley Stadium and headline huge European festivals. Though success in America hasn’t seemed quite as dramatic, the band has done pretty well for itself here, reaching number nine on the Billboard album chart with its 2006 release, Black Holes And Revelations, and selling out Madison Square Garden in June 2007.
Muse’s latest album, 2009’s The Resistance, which reached number three on the American album chart, takes an already lofty level of progressive pop ambition to new heights of stadium rock grandeur. There are Queen-style vocal workouts drenched in Arabic scales (“United States Of Eurasia”), quick-tempo punk blasts (“Unnatural Selection”), grooving funk struts (“I Belong To You”), and a bold, piano-led, three-part orchestral “symphony” that’s about as epic as rock music can get (“Exogenesis”).
Which brings us back to the VMA performance. Directly preceding the live telecast, Muse is treating lucky fans at the Walter Kerr Theatre to a full set of songs. Howard blasts his way through the group’s dense repertoire with precision, colossal tom beats mixing with laid-back ballad understatement and gutsy, Rage Against the Machine–style headbanging snare assaults. One moment Dom rides his crash cymbal on a transcendent chorus, the next he plays the rims of his beautiful DW kit, supporting Bellamy’s operatic falsetto simply by keeping time. Howard’s live drumming is tight and powerful, to say the least. Is this a paradigm shift back to bands learning to play their instruments? Was that a Chopin nocturne they just played? (Yes, it was.) And is America actually ready for this stuff?
For MD’s special issue focusing on live performance, we catch up with Howard and the band on the eve of their grand American television debut, just before a whirlwind promotional excursion for The Resistance, which will include a few gigs opening for U2 on its 360° tour in the States. The thin, mannerly thirty-two-yearold drummer enlightens us on what’s in his monitor mix, pre-gig rituals, “rock neck,” and whether he’s ready to take over for Phil Collins.
MD: What were some of your early drumming influences?
Dominic: I listened to a lot of hip-hop when I was growing up. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising was big, as were some English rappers, like Derek B. So I was tuned in to a lot of beat-driven music. Sometime in my early teens I gravitated towards rock. I heard some Iron Maiden, and straight away I became a big fan of Nicko McBrain’s playing and began to get interested in the drums. We all certainly loved music, but we formed a band because we thought it was cool…to get the chicks. [laughs]
But eventually we got very serious about it. There were actually a lot of bands in the small town we were from, and after a while they all kind of disbanded and it was just the three of us left. There was no music scene, no real music influence at all. So we would do some covers of all the early-’90s things—some Nirvana, some Pixies, and some English bands like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. I preferred the heavier stuff. We were drawn to a lot of American music. Particularly over here, 1991 was a pretty important year. Rage Against The Machine’s first album came out, which we all loved. That rap/rock mix was confusing at first, but we grew to understand it.
MD: What opened your eyes and led you to a new level in your drumming?
Dominic: Really it was the shift to those American bands, like Rage, Helmet, Primus—we were huge Primus fans. I loved Tim Alexander, but I think I turned into an even bigger fan of Brain [Bryan Mantia] when he joined for The Brown Album. I would listen to that record ten times a day. I was inspired by what he did to that band. Before that, they were so technical, which was great, but he applied a bit more groove and swing. There was also Dave Grohl, because we were all such big Nirvana fans, and Brad Wilk as well. I’m selftaught. I didn’t love the couple lessons I had, so I continued to learn by listening to those drummers.
MD: When you started out, how difficult was it being a lefty? You couldn’t sit in with other bands, right?
Dominic: Yeah, we did lots of gigs with other bands before we got signed, and I could never use their kits. I was rolling around with this beat-up kit packed in the back of my mum’s car. I’d show up to a gig and the right-handed drummer would say, “You’re not using my kit,” which would give me an excuse to use my own drums and set up in front of them. There were a few occasions when I’d have to use someone’s kit, and they’d be so pissed off. I would undo all their clamps, move the tom over, and raise and lower the stands! But having my own kit meant at the end of our set I could kick it over and trash my stuff, and they couldn’t complain.
MD: How have you adjusted to playing bigger and bigger rooms?
Dominic: The way we perform on stage has evolved with the size of the rooms. You become much more expressive and your playing becomes much more exaggerated when you get into the bigger venues. A lot more flailing of arms, more running around the stage for the other guys. It kind of happened naturally, really. But even early, we learned a lot when we toured arenas with the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1999. They weren’t our own shows, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle doing our own shows for that many people at that stage. We were kids, maybe twenty years old. We were totally scared and nervous.
MD: Were you getting a soundcheck?
Dominic: Yeah, it was loose, just a few wedges on stage. They were pretty good to us. But it was a learning process. We were thrown on first in arenas. They weren’t empty, but, you know… [laughs] We learned more from watching those two other bands than from actually playing. Like the Peppers, because they were headlining—how they controlled the stage and the crowd, how great they were as players. Chad Smith was unbelievable on the drums. We came off that tour thinking we had to step up our game, big time.
MD: The gong drum to your right—does that help you come up with inventive tom grooves?
Dominic: I was watching the Led Zeppelin DVD, and I saw Bonham had a timpani to his side. I put in that gong drum for the last album [Black Holes And Revelations], on a song called “Map Of The Problematique.” Rather than adding a double pedal for certain grooves, which would sound a bit “metal,” we wanted to make something more layered and flammy. I use it live as a sort of bass drum substitute on “Knights Of Cydonia” [from Black Holes], as well as for some parts on “United States Of Eurasia.” It’s a great-sounding piece.
MD: Let’s talk about clicks. How much of the live show involves them? Dominic: About 70 percent. As the albums have progressed, we’ve become more and more ambitious for a threepiece band, to the point where it’s impossible to do certain things live, and we needed to add a keyboard player [in addition to Bellamy’s live piano playing]. And we run lots of live MIDI for all the arpeggios, so all that has to be clicked up.
MD: Were you always comfortable with it?
Dominic: No, I hated it at first. I remember being very frustrated in the studio early on—constantly moving in and out of it. You start sweating, just losing it. But you get better. One of the first songs I started using a click live on was “Bliss,” off the second album [2001’s Origin Of Symmetry]. It had a real obvious synth arpeggio, with us rocking out on top of it.
MD: What’s your live click like?
Dominic: It’s 8th notes with three tones of some really annoying cowbell [mimics rising and falling notes]. I don’t have it too loud. It just sits in the mix nicely, so when you’re on it you can’t hear it. If you shift a little, you can hear it and then adjust yourself. It’s distracting playing with a click, really. If it’s too loud, you can’t hear the intricacies of what you’re playing, what the others are playing, or what else is going on in the track. Over the years I’ve found a balance, so I can’t really hear it anymore. Though that might have more to do with my hearing damage! [laughs]
MD: What about your in-ear monitors? What’s in your mix when you play live?
Dominic: I’ve been using Shure E5 in-ears for about six years now. It was a weird switch when you go from yelling for more kick in your huge wedge to these, but I had to for our second album. Our crew is brilliant, so I have a nice, clean balance.
MD: A lot of drums?
Dominic: A lot of bass, really. But I try to make it sound like I’m listening to an album.
MD: Is the audience fed in?
Dominic: Yes, recently I added some audience as well. We were playing a gig in Germany recently, and everything sounded so dry and focused. It sounded good, but I took my buds out and played a bit. I was missing some of that space. So I started putting a lot more ambience in because we have stage mics all over the place pointing at the crowd. So the next gig in Paris, I put in all this crowd noise and loved it. I had such a better gig.
We’re actually going to start putting up a few more ambient mics behind the drumkit. It’s good for the whole mix, because certain crowds, you can hear them screaming and singing along. Like in Paris they’re always bang-up for it all the time; they go really mental in Spain as well. I recall in Marseilles a few years ago, two people broke their ankles near the front because they were just going ballistic.
MD: During your concerts, do you ever change the beats from earlier records?
Dominic: The songs are always changing live. I’ve got so much more to improve with my playing, personally. I still have all these goals, like becoming more fluid and relaxed. Where I am as a player now compared to where I was—I’m much more confident and a bit more proficient in areas. With that knowledge, you tend to perceive the older tunes differently.
MD: What’s an example of a song that’s received an overhaul?
Dominic: Funny, the other day we started playing a tune called “Cave” from the first album [1999’s Showbiz], which was written in maybe 1997. We played a more jazz version of it, with the piano—a bit less aggro. And it was so much fun. It all came back, but it feels so different, almost like a new song. “Plug In Baby” [from Origin Of Symmetry] has evolved over the years. It’s a relatively straightforward tune to play, but because it is I have room to be very spontaneous in the live situation. I improvise on that one quite a lot—little subtle fills.
MD: Does it mess up the other musicians when you change it up? Do you get a couple of glances back at you?
Dominic: Sometimes! [laughs] If I’m greatly speeding up just before the chorus.
MD: Your new single, “Uprising,” is a different kind of shuffle, not the normal dotted ride pattern. There’s a fouron- the-floor kick, with offbeats on the floor tom. The album version also has some tom-fill overdubs. How are you going to do that live?
Dominic: We initially approached recording the new album all live. We tried it, and it was just kind of okay. We then got much deeper with the production, where I recorded all the parts separately. But that was still playable live. Those big tom stabs give the drums some massive dimension. Live, I’ll just add them within the part. We have a keyboard player who will play some auxiliary floor toms and snare live as well.
MD: How about the programmed beats on “Undisclosed Desires”? How will you approach the hip-hop elements of the song live?
Dominic: In the studio I used programming software [MOTU BPM] and put in lots of layers and dynamics. Live, I’ll play a groove with triggers. The triggers go right into a Roland TD-8 trigger-to-MIDI converter and into a Mac running Native Instruments’ Battery 3. It’s a genius piece of software. I can do all sorts of trigger changes for this tour.
MD: Those huge fills in the new threepart “Exogenesis” symphony are quite impressive. Did you improvise those while you were tracking, or were they written out? Will you change them up live?
Dominic: Yeah, there’s an element of craziness there. I was trying to be a bit bombastic, going through a few different ideas in the studio. I’ll probably change it up live—do something and think, Why didn’t I record it like this? That’s a spot to really open up live. For the show, there will be some great video for that symphony. I’ll use some triggers as well. As on Part 1, there’s a Massive Attack influence—that loud, dry rimshot coupled with that “heartbeat style” bass drum.
MD: On the H.A.A.R.P live DVD from Wembley Stadium in 2007, you play with brushes on “Soldier’s Poem.” Isn’t technology amazing that you can do that and be heard in a huge outdoor venue?
Dominic: You know, we recorded that track for the album on vintage gear in a little room with an old jazz kit. The whole band was recorded with just a couple of mics. We took it to the stage and were so surprised at how well the song translated to stadiums and arenas. You’re right, it is amazing that those subtleties can come out in such a vast space. But our sound engineer is amazing, one of the best. It’s weird that such a stripped-down, delicate, acoustic song that’s not rocking or covered in cymbal noise can actually work in a stadium. It was refreshing to do. For the encore, we all moved down to the front of the stage, and I had this little jazz kit that came up on a hydraulic lift. It’s a nice moment because it makes this massive stadium gig feel intimate.
MD: Also during that encore, you play with bundle sticks on “Blackout.” So at this point in the show, you’ve played with sticks, brushes, and bundles on two different kits. Any mental or physical adjustments to make?
Dominic: You know, it’s the music that gets you in the right spot. We just played this big rock set on the main kit, and it’s refreshing to take a break and come out and play these mellow songs. Just relaxing. At this point we’re knackered, so that’s why we did it too. [laughs] It’s quite easy to play with Hot Rods and brushes because they’re light. You can just tickle around—you’re not smashing the kit and using up lots of energy. They add a different texture to a big rock show. We seem to cover a lot of ground with our music anyway—lots of different styles and plenty of peaks and troughs in the set. It’s nice to get it pumping and then bring it down there, play some piano songs and then build it back up towards the end.
MD: Any specific reason for using clear drums live during that period? You can’t hide any of your secret licks that way.
Dominic: I just think they look really cool. I bought a bunch of Vistalites on eBay then. When we recorded Black Holes And Revelations, I was using a Frankenstein kit for every song—a different tom here, a different snare there…it was all over the place. But I did end up using the ’70s Vistalite toms on most of it. I enjoyed how bright and aggressive and loud they were, and I really wanted to use them live. I thought the clear kit would have a nice silhouette effect with LED screens directly behind me as well. So 50 percent look, 50 percent sound. [laughs]
This time around, for The Resistance, we built our own studio and produced the album ourselves. I did a lot of A/B-ing between my kits, and the DW won. Live and studio playing are obviously two different things. It’s amazing what you can get away with live, but in the focused studio environment the massive magnifying glass comes out, not only on what you’re playing but also on every little frequency of the drum sounds.
There’s a certain mid-low frequency that’s very apparent with the Vistalite kits. The wooden DW kit had a much wider frequency range—much deeper lows—and it was even brighter in some weird way, which surprised me. That made more sense in the studio, so I thought it was time to take that vibe on the road this time, and so far I’ve been very happy with it. It sounds brilliant, very fat.
MD: What are some of the tougher tunes to play live?
Dominic: “New Born” [from Origin Of Symmetry] is quite hard to play. Fun, but hard. It’s relentless—this snare drum thing all the way through for ages. The verses are really long, and it’s just tiring.
MD: What do you do to cope?
Dominic: Just gotta chill out, don’t get nervous, don’t let the fear take over. I’ve really calmed down with that feeling of tension on stage, which so many drummers get. A good friend of mine, Andy Burrows, who used to be in [British indie rock band] Razorlight, always talked about how tense he would get in his arms. When practicing at home he could blaze around the kit, but on stage it was like, What’s going on? I’m stiffening up. I totally understand what he means, because I’ve had that feeling. You get on stage and you get nervous. You want to play well, and you get a bit tired and tense. I’ve gradually learned to get rid of that, mainly by warming up before I play.
There’s also the tune “Assassin” [from Black Holes And Revelations], which we don’t play all the time, but that’s me trying to find an area of heaviness without playing “rock grooves.” It’s like finding an area of madness—controlled madness. [laughs]
MD: What are some of the fun tunes to play?
Dominic: Off the new album, there’s “I Belong To You,” which is a really comfortable groove, a real hip-hop-influenced funk thing. That’s kind of like the piano side of the band, almost like a Ben Folds Five thing. “Stockholm Syndrome” [from 2003’s Absolution] is still one of my favorites. It’s really fun live because it’s a rolling tom beat for the verses, and then it opens out into this half-time 8th-note bass drum thing in the choruses. And it’s got some fat riffs so you can go mental, with your arms flailing around. That’s a song where you get “rock neck.”
MD: Rock neck?
Dominic: Yeah, you get off stage and you have this weird headache, this muscular pain. Sometimes when I play live, if I do a sharp move weirdly, I get this twinge in my neck, this hot, spiking pain that goes up the back of my neck: rock neck. Also, one time at a show in Japan at the Fuji Rock Festival… It’s up in the forest, and they switch on all these bloody lights, and the first thing that comes out is a billion insects! The whole stage is swarmed with two-inch beetles, and they’re crawling up my back and down my pants. I’m freaking out and trying to get them off me, and during a tune I stretched my arm strangely and it locked up. I couldn’t move it for a few seconds, couldn’t play the next song! So you have to watch out for those rock ’n’ roll injuries.
MD: What’s your pre-gig ritual? Anything you go through before every performance?
Dominic: A strong bout of nervousness. [laughs] I normally need at least forty-five minutes in the dressing room. I have a little practice pad and a kick pedal attached to a pad.
MD: You don’t have a kit set up backstage?
Dominic: I’ve had that in the past, but I didn’t use it much. I’ll set up a spare kit when we get into the arenas on our own European tour soon, where there will be lots of space backstage. But on the pad I’ll loosen up a little, warm up, go through some rudiments, paradiddles, a bit of stretching. I use Power Wrist Builders metal drumsticks—quite heavy, so when I walk on stage and grab my sticks they feel really light.
And I’ll focus and think about the show, maybe about some fills I might try. It’s always good not to over-think things, though, because the moments when you can be spontaneous make the shows better. I like to be comfortable on stage so I can improvise and do things I don’t expect. I like that about some players—that’s just their style, like they’re improvising throughout the whole song. Like Ronnie Vannucci from the Killers—I love his playing, just doing offbeat cymbal hits. You can tell he’s having fun and not really thinking about it.
MD: What kinds of spare snares and cymbals do you bring on the road?
Dominic: We’ve actually got two full sets of backline for the whole band, like an A and a B rig. They leapfrog each other around the world. One will be here and the other on a boat going to Australia. It’s expensive to do that, but it makes it easier to fly and get to places without worrying about the gear. I’ve got a lot of spare equipment for shows, but I don’t really change out different snares during the performance. I just have some spare cymbals and pedals and things like that.
MD: How about preparing for tours?
Dominic: You know, we spend so much time fiddling around with video screens, we don’t really get to play too much. [laughs] We’ve never been a band to practice too much, ever. I’m always the one who wants to, but the other guys are like, “That’ll be it for today, let’s not push it.” I want to run through the set twenty times.
MD: That’s interesting, because the band sounds extremely tight and well rehearsed.
Dominic: Good you should say that, because we tend to use a few gigs as rehearsals. [laughs]
MD: What things need to go right on a gig to put you in a proper headspace?
Band vibe? Sound on stage? Audience involvement?
Dominic: All those things, really. I suppose there are moments on stage when you become so free in the music that you’re not struggling in any way. It’s like you’re standing back and watching yourself. Those are the best moments—when you’re so lost in it that you feel you can do anything. When that happens with all three of us, that’s when the gig is hot. We all know it too, because we’re so tuned in to each other.
Sometimes there are weird moments—some mistake or something technical going wrong with the gear, or you’ve been on the beers the night before and your energy isn’t there. Those moments start to play mind games with you on stage. I hate those moments. As you gain experience playing live, you learn to tune out those things. The other day we played the first gig we had done in a year, and there was a moment on stage, maybe Matt forgot some chords on the piano and it all got strange for a song. I was probably over-thinking it and the audience probably wasn’t aware in the first place, but I got on the mic and cheered up the crowd, and the whole vibe of the gig changed instantly for the better.
MD: Do you feel you might get to the point of going through the motions? Like, does Larry Mullen Jr. still feel it when he plays “With Or Without You”?
Dominic: We want him to, don’t we? When you go see him, you want to think it’s the same. We’re not jaded, though—far from it. You get asked, “Is it boring playing the same songs every night”? And the answer is no. They’re never the same. All these variables are moving around. The audience participation, the band vibe, as you mentioned. Sometimes you put songs away and bring them out and they have more life—a breath of fresh air has been blown into them. We really love what we’re doing.
MD: Now that Phil Collins has announced that he can’t drum any longer, is it up to you to carry the lefty British drummer torch?
Dominic: Yeah, huh? Those lefty drummers are a strange, rare breed. [laughs] When I see another lefty on TV or at a festival, it still looks so weird and backwards and bizarre to me. That’s a shame about Phil, isn’t it? I’m the last one then.
The Police “So Lonely” from Outlandos D’Amour (Stewart Copeland) /// Primus “The
Chastising Of Renegade” from The Brown Album (Bryan “Brain” Mantia) /// The Beatles
“Helter Skelter” from The White Album (Ringo Starr) /// Aphex Twin “Come To Daddy” from
Come To Daddy EP (programming) /// Justice “Waters Of Nazareth” from Cross (programming)
/// Nirvana “Milk It” from In Utero (Dave Grohl) /// Smashing Pumpkins “Silverf**k”
from Siamese Dream (Jimmy Chamberlin) /// Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On
Parade” from Evil Empire (Brad Wilk) /// Iron Maiden “The Number Of The Beast” from
The Number Of The Beast (Clive Burr) /// Helmet “Insatiable” from Aftertaste (John Stanier)
DRUMS: DW Collector’s series maple with VLT shells
A. 6 1/2×14 aluminum snare
B. 10×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 20×22 bass drum
F. 16×21 gong drum
1. 14″ K Custom Special Dry hi-hats
2. 11″ FX Oriental splash
3. 8″ EFX-1
4. 18″ K Custom Fast crash
5. 22″ A Custom ride
6. 19″ A Custom crash
7. 18″ FX Oriental China
8. 11″ Rhythm Tech Ribbon Crasher
STICKS: Pro-Mark Dominic Howard Autograph series American hickory TX101 with wood tip, Hot Rods, and brushes
HEADS: Remo clear Emperor on tops of toms, coated CS on snare batter, Powerstroke 4 on kick, clear Ambassador on gong drum and all bottoms
ELECTRONICS: Roland TD-8, RT-10S snare drum trigger, and RT-10K kick drum trigger into an Apple Mac computer running Native Instruments’ Battery 3