lundi, juin 28, 2004

A riot of my own

25 years after London Calling, Mick Jones is back with a new band. In a rare interview, he talks to Chris Salewicz about life after The Clash - and why his moment may just have come again.

26 June 2004

Do I seem very distracted?" Mick Jones asks me quizzically, bottle of Becks in hand, as he looks up from the mixing desk in Metropolis, an expensive recording studio in west London. Not at all, I tell him. Though I can understand why he asks the question. The guitarist and Clash founder is, as he frames it, currently working on his "past, present and future", and is under a certain amount of pressure. This not even taking account the new baby - his third girl - and recent house move: "I'm living out of boxes. I can't even find my passport, so I can't escape what I'm doing."

The previous day was occupied with the past. Jones spent it being filmed for a DVD to accompany this autumn's bumper re-release of The Clash's definitive album, London Calling. Somewhat confusingly voted "album of the decade" by Rolling Stone magazine in 1990, it was actually released in Britain in December 1979, and so is approaching its 25th anniversary.

But today, Jones is in the studio to produce The Libertines's long-awaited second album. "That's the present," he says. Almost two years ago, shortly before the sudden death of The Clash's former singer Joe Strummer, Jones produced the band's first record. The Libertines are currently regarded as one of the hottest (or should that be coolest?) acts in the country, and their success has served to reinforce Jones's position as an enduring force in British pop culture.

Pete Doherty, The Libertines' singer, is absent from the studio, undergoing treatment in The Priory for his well-documented drug addictions. His vocals have already been recorded. The other three band members flit in and out of the studio. When an Indian takeaway arrives, this is explained as being due to the fact that the studio's chef is too hungover to work, a result of having been out drinking until 6am with the band's guitarist Carl Barat. This seems utterly in keeping with The Libertines' reputation for hedonistic behaviour, though Barat himself appears remarkably chirpy.

It was Jeanette Lee, a former member of John Lydon's PiL (Public Image Limited) and the co-managing director of Rough Trade (The Libertines' record label), who introduced Jones to the idea of producing the young band back in 2002. "I went along to a rehearsal in King's Cross," he says. "Pete arrived in the studio on a scooter with bags of beer from the off licence. I thought: 'This is interesting.' I loved the way they looked, and I found they were lovely guys."

Those familiar with Jones's work can hear his influence on the Libertines' first album, Up The Bracket - the balance of sound, the assiduous overlaying of guitar parts, the exactness of positioning in the mix of backing vocals. It was, after all, Jones who arranged the music of The Clash, entitling him to nearly as much praise for the production of London Calling as the accredited Guy Stevens.

There's a wry smile about much of what Jones says and does. He's fun to be with and extremely polite and considerate to all around him. He remains a perfectionist, as aware of the need for attention to detail as was his songwriting and stage partner Strummer.

He says: "I didn't have the compassion that Joe had; I didn't learn about that until later. I didn't have that background. I was the working-class kid who wanted it all. But we all have different talents: we all come together in a team. I could be that central thrust to push the thing along."

Quoting from "Lost In the Supermarket", a London Calling track on which he sang, he says: "I thought Joe wrote that for me. I didn't have 'a hedge back home in the suburbs'. But the 'people who live on the ceiling' I knew all about. And the line about long-distance calls making me lonely could be about me and my mum."

Jones's parents split up when he was eight. His mother moved to the United States and he went to live with his grandmother, Stella, in the 18th-storey tower-block flat on London's Harrow Road that has since become a part of Clash mythology. On Silver Jubilee Day in 1977, an iconic date in the punk calendar celebrated by The Sex Pistols with a boat trip along the Thames, I went to see it for the first time. Outside a row of shops I asked an elderly lady for directions. She turned out to be Stella. Similar, apparently random occurrences often happened around The Clash, something of which Jones was always aware: "You know you're on the right path when things like that are happening," he says.

The "future" for Jones is his new group, Carbon/Silicon, which he has formed with an old friend from the Seventies, Tony James. The pair played together in the legendary (and unrecorded) punk group London SS before eventually going their separate ways - Jones to The Clash, and James to Generation X.

"Mick is like Mozart," James tells me later with undisguised admiration. "He doesn't simply hear the melodies and structure of a new song in his head. He hears every note of every instrument and knows exactly where it goes. He conceives songs in their most perfectly finished form."

Jones and James had already teamed up when Strummer died in December 2002 of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. "When Joe went, I thought that was it," Jones now admits. "I thought everything was finished. I didn't realise it was just the start." With an almost ironic symbolism, Jones had joined Strummer on stage a month before he died, at a benefit concert for striking fire fighters. This was the first time the two had played together in 19 years, Jones having left the band in 1983 before The Clash folded two years later. Strummer's death was such a shock it took him six months before he could come back to the Carbon/Silicon project. So why the name? f

"Human life is carbon-based," explains Tony James sententiously. "Computer life is silicon-based. The future of human life is carbon/silicon, that is, human life allegedly will have computer implants. But it also expresses Mick being carbon, the soul, and me being silicon, the computer." He adds: "It's also incredibly hard to come up with a new name."

Whatever the thinking behind the name, Carbon/Silicon is the first group in which Jones has played since his post-Clash band Big Audio Dynamite finally ran out of steam in 1996. He has not been inactive in the interim, however. Always in touch with the zeitgeist and perhaps influenced by his art-school background (he studied at Hammersmith School of Art before pursuing a career in music), he spent several of the subsequent years teaching himself film editing on his home computer, attempting to blend the simultaneous creation of music and film. He could be seen at clubs with a digital video camera, and would intercut his own footage with material from Egyptian or Indian television, beamed down from an enormous satellite dish on the roof of his house. ("I'll return to that another time," he says.) A knowledgeable film buff, he has always loved the medium - and made movie-dialogue samples from the works of Nicolas Roeg, Clint Eastwood and Powell and Pressburger a trademark of Big Audio Dynamite's work.

The first Carbon/Silicon gig was performed in May at a bar in Camden opposite Rehearsal Rehearsals, home base of The Clash almost 30 years before. The low-key event was filmed by Peter Whitehead, the chronicler of Sixties London, who - among other works - made the celebrated documentary Tonite, Let's All Make Love In London and the video for "We Love You" by the Rolling Stones.

The performance was a revelation, Jones even cracking a loquacious joke or two between numbers as though he had momentarily become the Noel Coward of punk. Oh, and the music was cracking, too: they played nine extended songs that were instantly accessible, their immediate memorability enhanced by the game of spot-the-sample - the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and Aswad all being discernable.

The songs were also distinguished by their positive intent, part of the group's philosophy. The jaunty "Be Good To Yourself" is an obvious example, while "President Warfield" - a passionate expression of contempt for the man "messing with my life/On Pennsylvania Avenue" - is corrosively pointed in its satire. The set finished with a cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful", which Jones first heard when Cream included a version on their Fresh Cream album. ("It was the first song I learned to play.") Around the same time, he remembers going to see the Rolling Stones perform their now legendary open-air concert in Hyde Park in 1969. "I spent the entire day squeezing down towards the front. When I saw a photo of the audience, I could see myself in about the tenth row."

There was a lot of excitement about Jones that evening in May; it was as though a part of him had lain dormant and unrealised for years, not least the consummate stage-performer whose energy is as uplifting and life-affirming as Strummer's ever was.

"I've been missing out on a part of myself," he told me in the tiny dressing room after the Camden show. "I've known since I was ten that this was what I would do with my life. It wasn't so much ambition as what I knew I had to do. I may not seem to have done anything for a while, but I've been doing stuff behind the scenes, like producing The Libertines' records." The future of Carbon/Silicon, meanwhile, seems to be constantly evolving. That evening he also revealed that they would give the music away for free and sell footage of the band recording it over the internet. By the next week he seemed to have come to terms with the need to make an album and officially release it. Or not, as the case may be.

Whatever he does decide to do, it appears that, approaching his fifties, Jones has reflected on his past and decided simply to pursue what he feels to be his purpose in life. "I've survived two near-death experiences," he told me on the night of the gig in Camden. "In 1988 when I was in a coma in hospital with chickenpox in my lungs, Gaby, Joe's then wife, made him come to see me, and going to hospital was the last thing he wanted to do. Then in 1992, I was with some friends on a freeway in LA and we were hit from behind by a drunk driver. Our car went sliding along on its roof. I was clutching a cushion and sort of floating on the cushion on the road, and at a certain point I remember thinking: 'I'm not going to die, I'm going to survive this.' So I'd better get on with it, I suppose."

Back in the west-London recording studio, I watch as Jones spends 45 minutes listening to a pair of tiny lead guitar bursts on one of the new Libertines' songs and deciding whether or not to increase their volume "a tad". Finally he comes to the conclusion that if he does, it will unbalance the rest of the tune.

What advice, I ask him, has he given to The Libertines from his own experience with The Clash? He reflects for a moment. "I didn't always realise that we were having a high point and that we should savour it," he nods thoughtfully to himself. "I've told them to do this. It's moving very fast for them and you don't necessarily have time to see what's going on. I've told them to experience and enjoy the cities and countries they go to. And not to be so exhausted that they can't see how amazing their life is." E

Carbon/Silicon are appearing at the Return to New York Weekend Bash on Saturday 3 July at SeOne club, Weston Street, London SE1. Tickets from or tel 08700 600 100. Chris Salewicz is writing the forthcoming authorised biography of Joe Strummer, to be published by HarperCollins

Orbital, Brixton Academy London

By Chris Mugan

28 June 2004

It was London's turn to bid farewell to the brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll, as Orbital began their valedictory tour before heading off to Glastonbury and then on to Japan. Over the past decade, Orbital have earned their audiences' affection, as their music won techno a previously unknown respect from the public. Inspired by Kraftwerk, they reminded us that electronic music could provide cohesive albums. At the same time, Orbital demonstrated how to take such music on the road, earning admiration from all corners by playing completely live rather than relying on backing tracks. Their Glastonbury headline sets in 1994 and 1995 are still regarded as festival highlights.

This was a well-to-do crowd for a dance gig, with smartly dressed veterans mixing with younger ravers. Despite the rival attraction of a late-finishing England football match, they arrived in time (just) to see the duo emerge, half an hour later than scheduled, with a simple: "Thank you! Thank you!" All other words were lost in a sound system geared toward throwing giant bass pulses across the venue. Not that anyone minded: they were happy to see those trademark head-mounted lights that became icons of rave culture.

Orbital embarked on a shamelessly crowd-pleasing set based mainly on their earlier albums, veering between the hazy warmth of blissful anthems and menacing techno stompers. Perhaps in the circumstances (England, of course, had lost), they could have opened with something that better fitted the mood: either the moody spy-flick homage "The Box", with its Third Man-style dulcimer, or the headbanging "Satan". When it came, though, they did get that track right as, to ironic cheers, images of Tony Blair and George Bush flashed up on the screens that stretched from floor to ceiling behind them.

Because of the late start, Orbital played a truncated set, an hour and a half passing far too quickly. Their new CD, Blue Album, was given short shrift, with only one track from it given an airing, the epic "One Perfect Surprise", based on a sighing female vocal that recreated, if not matched, the sunrise-in-a-field feeling evoked by Orbital's classic "Belfast". It was an admission that Orbital had run out of steam. They claim to have spent too long together in confined spaces, but you have to wonder if the claustrophobia is down to only physical space. Recent albums have not cut anyone's mustard. The only other track to make tonight's set from this side of the millennium was the brothers' cover of the Doctor Who theme.

From the outset, this duo's career has been unorthodox, and they have successfully avoided the trappings of DJ superstardom, so it was fitting that, instead of falling out Gallagher-style, the Hartnolls should simply announce the cessation of their joint career. Orbital's music has always reflected movements in the post-acid-house dance music scene, though only the genres with a lineage going back to the illegal parties around the M25 reflected in the group's name. While dance music is certainly not dead, the acid-house generation has finally bowed out gracefully.

Orbital play T in the Park, Balado, Scotland, on 11 July

Muse, Glastonbury Festival

By Ian Burrell

28 June 2004

If ever a band ought to have been prepared for playing the Main Stage at Glastonbury it was Muse. The West Country outfit (hailing from Exeter) have been coming to the festival since they were teenagers.

And this was as close as the Main Stage got to the memorable Radiohead set on the same platform last year. Muse stepped up to the plate for the biggest gig of their career, opening with "Hysteria" before entering into "New Born".

The band went on to paint a series of dreamy soundscapes from the albums Showbiz, Origin of Symmetry and Absolution.

The weather had turned cold for the last embers of the festival but the Muse faithful looked on from around their campfires, as the band made spectacular use of the Glastonbury lighting system.

A high point of the set was the single "Time Is Running Out", with searing guitars and Matthew Bellamy's high-pitched vocals building to a crescendo that perfectly suited the setting and the occasion.

Muse's homecoming was assured, although elements of the crowd seemed a little disappointed that it was over so soon.

Earlier, a red-shirted Morrissey produced one of the strongest performances of this year's Glastonbury. He mixed his solo material with Smiths' tracks such as "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out".

In an occasional aside to the audience, he said: "I know we have some friends out there ... 12.'' It was the understatement of the day.

Michael Eavis

Festival founder fumes over event's 'exploitation'

By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent

26 June 2004

Sunshine nurtured an outbreak of peace and love at the Glastonbury Festival yesterday ­ for all except its founder, Michael Eavis.

While festival-goers enjoyed the laid-back ambience at Worthy Farm in Somerset, Mr Eavis was fuming over what he sees as a blatant attempt to exploit Glastonbury's good name. The row is with the Mean Fiddler, the concert organiser, brought in to take care of security after trouble in previous years threatened the event.

Mr Eavis, who set up the festival more than 30 years ago, is infuriated by claims that Vince Power, the Mean Fiddler's chief executive, is now the force behind the festival. The dairy farmer is concerned that the original concept of the festival ­ which prides itself on distributing profits to good causes ­ has become blurred. He is agitated that the Mean Fiddler's stock is rising with shareholders on what he claims is the strength of the Glastonbury Festival name.

"The Mean Fiddler does not make a big profit out of the festival," he said. "They get 32 per cent of the net profit after I decide what money gets spent on the charities. It covers the cost of Melvyn Benn [who runs site security for the Mean Fiddler]."

In response to Mr Eavis's complaints, the Mean Fiddler issued a one-line statement: "Without the Mean Fiddler and Vince Power and Melvin Benn glorious Glastonbury would not be happening to day and I think Michael knows that."

Elsewhere, festival-goers had few problems. Police reported crime levels had plummeted. A police spokeswoman said that in three days there had been 47 arrests, a 21 per cent drop on last year.The medical team reported an outbreak of common sense. A spokeswoman said only one injury out of more than 360 was as a result of the mud. "We think that is because people have come better prepared for all weathers." Most injuries were the result of people falling over tent pegs and burns from camp stoves, she said.

John Sauven, the campaigns director for Greenpeace, said it seemed better organisation might be responsible for the outbreak of love and peace. "Everybody thinks free love and no authority but somehow having 100,000 people together in one place does need to have some system of control," he said.

Mr Eavis said this year was "fantastic" so far. "We have no hippy convoys, no traveller convoys setting up camp, and the reselling of tickets has virtually stopped. Police tell me there were only four people in a 12-mile stretch of road trying to buy and sell tickets. Last year there were thousands."

Sales were limited to two tickets per person and identification was needed, as all the tickets carried names. Mr Eavis said it had worked well ­ and by starting selling tickets at 8pm instead of 9am, they had succeeded in getting more young people "instead of all 45-year-olds".

There is only one dark cloud on the horizon. It it is expected to deposit half an inch of rain by midday today.


By Chris Bunting

The good old days of smelly canvas tents and £1 tickets may be long gone but Glastonbury festival-goers can be assured that one thing has not changed: the strength of cannabis joints.

A report, An Overview of Cannabis potency in Europe,revealed yesterday that the British cannabis joint has remained almost exactly the same strength for 25 years.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported the potency of the average spliff has been constant at 200mg of herbal cannabis or 150mg of cannabis resin per cigarette since 1979. Levels of D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the drug's active ingredient, have been constant.

The average British spliff is less than half as potent as in the Netherlands, where home-grown cannabis is often used.

Glasto's magic 'shrooms

Glastonbury's 'third summer of love' fuelled by magic 'shrooms

A curious loophole in the law allowing the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms is providing trippy hippies with a legal high at the Glastonbury festival. But how safe is it? Anthony Barnes reports

27 June 2004

Glastonbury Festival was awash with rain yesterday, turning fields to mush and drenching the masses. But spirits remained high, and it wasn't just the power of the music played by Paul McCartney and Oasis.

Festivalgoers, as well as thousands of other people around Britain, have turned on and tuned in to the all-natural hallucinogenic kick of "psilocybe". The magic mushroom is back.

Last week, NME, the music bible, pronounced that 2004 is "the third summer of love" thanks to the resurgence of the "'shroom", previously out of favour for decades. Fans of the magic mushroom praise them as a natural alternative to ecstasy, which is declining in popularity. Yesterday an overdose of ecstasy was blamed for the death of a 24-year-old man at Glastonbury.

A curious loophole means fresh magic mushrooms are legal, whereas the sale or possession of dried or cooked mushrooms are prohibited. This weekend there were several stalls around Glastonbury as well as wandering vendors selling numerous varieties - Mexican, Colombian and Hawaiian. Small-time dealers made hundreds of pounds within hours of the festival kicking off on Friday.

Dreadlocked Mary "the Mushroom Seller" took £600 from the sale of Yorkshire-grown liberty cap mushrooms and others on the first morning alone. "It's a good living for the weekend," said Mary, who tours the summer festivals selling her wares. The use of mushrooms is extending beyond the 900-acre site to towns and cities around the UK.

LSD fuelled the first summer of love in 1967; ecstasy and LSD the second in 1988. NME has hailed the rise of the mushroom as the spark for the third summer of love.

This week it published a "top tips for top trips" guide to magic mushrooms in its Glastonbury edition, although it did add the rider that they are best consumed in a familiar environment.

Concern has been raised about the use of mushrooms because of their unpredictable effects. Professor John Henry, a drugs expert at St Mary's Hospital in London, warned that vomiting, an increased heart rate and flashbacks could result.

"You can't predict what is going to happen," he said. "You may have a nice trip where all the lamp-posts are wailing at you or a horrible one where the lamp-posts are threatening you. People respond in different ways and the same person may respond differently depend-ing on their mood - scared out of their wits or running over a cliff. You can also have terrible flashbacks weeks later."

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset police said: "The advice we always give is that for your own benefit don't try anything new here. If you're in an area you don't know, with people you don't know, be very careful. "

The NME's editor, Conor McNicholas, defended the paper's mushroom guide: "A minority of young people will at some stage of their lives experiment with drugs. You have to talk in a way that young people will relate to - you don't want someone coming on like your mum or dad and being told not to do things."

Certainly, 'shroom fans were much in evidence at Glastonbury. Chris Coul, an electrician from Slough, said: "They're a nice natural buzz. There is no aftermath which you get from chemicals. Pills are a cheap, quick, synthetic buzz. For the same price, mushrooms give you a mind-altering high."

Lucy Scones, 23, had stocked up with 80g of Hawaiian mushrooms from London's Camden Market before heading to the festival to beat the price mark-up. "They're perfect for the festival; with a good crowd and your ego hit by the mushrooms, the magic can happen."

The trade in fresh magic mushrooms is thought to be a multi-million-pound business and growing rapidly. Chris Territt, business manager of supplier Psyche Deli, said his staff has doubled in the past few months to cope. Online orders had doubled as a direct result of people stocking up for Glastonbury.

His company checked with the Home Office last year to establish the legal position and was told fresh mushrooms and growing kits were acceptable.

Mushrooms were also easily available in London last week. At one café in east London they were dispensed from a fridge in tin trays. A 20g bag of Mexicans costing £10 was said to be enough for two potent trips. The stronger Colombian strain cost £15.

A Home Office spokesman confirmed the mushrooms were not illegal: "If they're fresh it's not a problem."

Additional reporting Louise Jury, Genevieve Roberts and Sophie Goodchild


The potent mind-altering effects of magic mushrooms have been known for about 7,000 years. Rock paintings found in Algeria from that time show the harvest, use and adoration of the fungus, which was later called the "flesh of the gods" by the Aztecs.

Although the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act bans psilocin and psilocybin - the two main active ingredients found in the mushrooms that result in a trip for their user- the gathering and possession of fresh mushrooms is not a crime in the UK.

However, deliberately drying, altering or freezing them would lead to them being treated as class-A drugs. Both substances disrupt the balance of brain chemicals, which regulate sensory perception.

Eating the mushrooms in their raw form slowly and on an empty stomach leads to a more intense trip but, the taste of the raw fungus is not that appealing. Some people put them on pizzas, French bread, or omelettes to better handle the flavour. One danger in using or picking magic mushrooms is that if you cannot identify them accurately you may eat a poisonous species. Since the plant is considered hallucinogenic, side-effects could include severe anxiety, paranoia, loss of reality or mental health problems. They can also lead to stomach pains, sickness and diarrhoea.

There are four basic types of magic mushrooms for sale legally in the UK. They are usually sold in 10-gram bags and range from £10 to £15 in price.

Zachary Mesenbourg

Macca hits the right note

It was going to take something special after a Glastonbury day when the rain and the grey skies had persisted for more than a dozen hours and every highway and byway had turned to a sticky brown adhesive. But special was what Sir Paul McCartney provided, in a performance that lifted the great festival up from a wet Saturday evening and took it on beyond the high that Oasis had provided the evening before on the same platform.

It was the introduction to The Beatles' classic "All My Loving" that signalled this was going to be a historical Glastonbury moment.

Sir Paul had begun, predictably enough, with a Wings track, "Jet". He then told his audience that he was struggling to "drink in'' the vast assembly before him.

It was when he sat down at the piano for "Maybe I'm Amazed" that the scale of the occasion became apparent.

"Hey, it's great to be at Glastonbury ... standing at the confluence of the ley-lines tonight ­ and tonight we have come here to rock you!" Macca told the crowd.

An acoustic version of "Blackbird", eccentrically introduced as an anthem for African-American womanhood, led into "We Can Work It Out", with everyone singing along.

Appreciating the scale of the occasion, Sir Paul dedicated tracks to John Lennon and George Harrison and even a few bars of "Yellow Submarine" to Ringo Starr.

Ian Burrell

Peter Hammill: Heart attack music

Peter Hammill is convinced, at last, that he may not be immortal. But there was a time when this proto-punk musical terrorist felt differently. Nick Hasted motors west to hear a strange tale of buried treasure and near-death experience

27 June 2004

When Peter Hammill collapsed in the street with a sudden heart attack last year, it didn't make the papers. The one-time singer of the group Van Der Graaf Generator is hardly a household name, but if his obituary had been written that day, the line of figures queuing up to pay tribute would have been starry. Those who have acknowledged his influence include David Bowie, John Lydon, Mark E Smith (of The Fall), Nick Cave, Graham Coxon and Luke Haines, of Black Box Recorder and The Auteurs. It's a list of some of rock's most bloody-minded, maverick talents. In a career now spanning 36 years, Hammill has been, in Haines's words, "consistently undiscovered". He is one of British pop's last buried treasures.

It's his singing that always gets talked about first. Hammill once aspired to be "the Hendrix of the voice" and to that end in the late Sixties he blew out amplifiers as if on a mission. John Lydon admitted partly basing his punk howl on him. If Van Der Graaf Generator are now largely remembered as a "prog rock" band, Hammill's lyrics - a heady brew of science fiction, existential longing and nostalgia - and the band's lengthy, complex songs are to blame. In the era of Led Zeppelin, they preferred saxophones and organs to lead guitars and structured their tunes as if they were small symphonies.

But unlike such contemporaries as Yes, Van Der Graaf's boundary-breaking ambitions for rock still sound exciting, rather than merely pretentious; one reason, perhaps, that this forgotten band's retrospective box-set The Box surprised everyone four years ago by selling 10,000 copies. When the group split in 1978, Hammill had quietly retreated from the record industry to Bath, where he built his own studio and label. This month sees him release his 49th album, Incoherence - a 42-minute song-suite on the subject of "the collapse of language", completed two days before his heart attack.

When I meet him, we indulge in a little telling miscommunication ourselves. Hammill, 55 and largely healthy again, has asked not to be interviewed at home which, I am under the impression, is in Bath. So we meet in nearby Bradford-on-Avon. There, he marches me up near-vertical lanes at a heart-pounding clip (doctor's orders) to a pub. When the pub closes unexpectedly after a single round of Guinnesses, Hammill leads me without explanation to a spacious, soberly decorated house nearby. In a glass refectory looking out over a picturesque English garden, he leans forward to chat animatedly. Only when the interview is over do I realise this is Hammill's home, and that the woman who opened the door to us is his wife.

This mixture of guardedness and sudden, total openness should come as no surprise. Hammill is a reserved middle-class Englishman vigorously schooled by Jesuits; a rock star who once caused riots across Europe; an obsessive fan of Bath rugby club with a framed Aussie newspaper bemoaning their World Cup defeat (which Peter travelled to watch) in his loo; intensely garrulous then suddenly aloof - he is a tight mesh of contradictions.

"I do flip between being chatty and argumentative - and being a psycho-loner werewolf," he concedes in a posh but not plummy voice. His face is almost worryingly gaunt - "The Thin Man" is an old nickname - beneath a shock of white hair. He puts the contradictions in his nature down to a rootless early life. Born in Ealing, he moved a dozen times as a child, before being sent to boarding school. He never called anywhere home - or felt the need to. "My mother was from West Bromwich, my grandfather was Pakistani. I had an aunt who started trying to trace the family tree, and stopped, when she saw what turned up."

Hammill's boarding school was Jesuit. This may help explain the near-monastic stringency which balances his flights of passion, in conversation and music. The Brothers schooled him from the age of nine until he was 18, and left their mark. "I'm not sure that Jesuits ever produce faithful Catholics," he says. "Because they're too fierce. It is Sturm und Drang, and it is guilt - it is all that battlefield stuff. It's the SAS of Catholicism. So even when they're teaching you a Latin verb declension, it's because you might need to know how to decline a Latin verb some day, because the devil will be tempting you. They were all inspirational in their obsession. They were all driven people. And they were interested in getting the process of questioning going. I think it went in. I'm not remotely a Catholic. But my daughters have all gone to Catholic schools, partly because they'll have that questioning too."

When I ask him if this intellectual hellfire left him with the usual Catholic guilt, he rejects the notion with the sort of fierce rigour of which the Brothers would approve. "I think Catholic guilt is vastly over-played," he says. "Sometimes Caths and ex-Caths will parody themselves, to get out of talking about what they really mean - 'Don't worry, it's just my Catholic guilt'. But guilt is easy. It's like Donald Rumsfeld saying he's 'sorry' over Iraq - all that modern, psychobabble crap. Guilt is not something that's just there in a box. If it's anything, it's: where did you go wrong? If you regard rightness as being a natural state, that can induce guilt. But it's not. People screw up. That's the fun. You've got to scrape your knuckles, hit and be hit, in order to learn."

The Jesuits' blandishments were balanced by the equally fierce pull of pop, playing nightly in the clubs of 1960s Derby, where Hammill's family moved when he was 12. "The things that really fired me up were British beat groups, R&B and soul," he remembers. "It was a life-choice then to like that stuff. In the East Midlands triangle, that mod signification lasted longer than anywhere else, and had a particular dancehall relevance, and was about being... in with the in-crowd. So the Derby Meccano, the Clouds Club, the whole mod scene - I was there. The bloke who couldn't dance and talked funny. That was the exciting stuff. And that was what being in a group was all about."

Hammill formed Van Der Graaf Generator with friends, including Chris "Judge" Smith in 1967, at Manchester University. He remembers it as a time of militant student protest - "Che posters, clenched fists, but not much joined-up thought". The leap from mods at the Meccano to Van Der Graaf's lofty aspirations was similarly haphazard.

"It was Judge Smith who was visionary about what a band could be. I just wanted to be a singer and have everyone love me. In '68, it was still a world of beat groups and pop hits. There wasn't anything else. The whole idea of doing music for more than three or four years was out of order. I had a vision of myself as a novelist, because that was where I could be serious. I couldn't with music. I don't know why I started writing about other things. There was a lot of science fiction involved, read in conjunction with dope and psychedelics. And then there was Hendrix. And that was like science fiction and social excitement and drama. Everything was there - this is what's happening, in this hour, on stage! The exciting thing - this is happening now!"

Did Hammill see Hendrix ? "Oh yeah! Van Der Graaf supported him, at the Albert Hall in '69. Obviously we're English middle-class chaps - there's not much voodoo chile about us. But we were looking for that serious laugh. That's still what I get from Hendrix ... There's a bit of syncopation where he's dead serious, but with a wink, a glimmer. That is what we were aiming for. The best accolade we could give to anything we did, including the most scary moments, would be: 'That's very funny'."

Van Der Graaf briefly found themselves fashionable in the new underground rock scene, based around the Marquee and the Reading and Windsor Festivals, and peopled by "seasoned beat group members, public-school boys and art-school students" such as The Soft Machine and Pink Floyd, who "wanted to be marginally more serious, do more than make singles all wearing the same suits". This patchwork movement, applying musical ambition and psychedelic perceptions to pop, had congealed into prog's pompous virtuosity by the 1970s; a suit of clothes which punk then tore to shreds.

In fact, Hammill's raw solo album Nadir's Big Chance (1975) came to be a secret punk touchstone, and the harshness and anger his band were capable of achieving kept them safe from punk's commissars, even before Johnny Rotten named his sources. They had anyway found a home in Italy where, in a way hard to imagine for a pop group now, their tours were magnets for riots, revolutionaries, criminals and extremists. A 1976 Rome engagement brought the madness to a head.

"Our equipment was held for ransom after a show," Hammill remembers. "It was normally people who were held to ransom, and normally their fingers or ears that were returned as proof - which worried us. We'd done a show where the Left were the promoters. But the more I think about this, I don't think I understand what happened in Italy. I don't think anyone did. There was some degree of organised crime, an element of police corruption, some kind of Fascist involvement. Maybe this was the point at which we realised we are just a group, and we're chasing after an urgent human laugh at the absurdity of everything, and trying to be very scary. But that was when we seriously ran up against bigger things."

Hammill effectively exiled himself from such tumult when he disappeared into the West Country in 1978. He had tried leaving London before, perversely moving to "the only place in the country where the trains ran all night and I could get home": Gatwick. It would appear that his quarter-century away from the music industry has given him the equilibrium and independence to pursue his undimmed ambitions.

"The music world has gone IKEA - one size," he says. "And I'm a bespoke furniture-maker. Not selling many, and only to people who find me."

Hammill's separation from commercial concerns and continued drive to create helps explain why he remains potently unpredictable. Incoherence is intricate and relevant (it was partly inspired by Blair's Iraq double-speak), shot through with passages of lush beauty. It's a continuous piece. Its synthesisers and violins clash then cohere; its lyrics grapple with the impossibility of true communication. Sung with mature control by Hammill, it is a major work, challenging pop's conventional limits yet again.

The heart attack that felled Hammill 40 hours after its completion, however, challenged him far more profoundly. "I had a bad ache," he remembers. "I was blacking out, I had to sit down. When paramedics start calling you by the wrong name, and you realise they're doing that so that I will bloody well stay awake to tell them, 'No, it's Peter' ... That's... the bit. Life becomes very, very simple, if you know that your only job for the next two hours is to stay awake. It does also finally knock on the head the possibility that I might be the one who's immortal."

Beliefs were tested, as Hammill struggled to breathe. "I didn't have any conversion or recantation of the stuff I've been banging on about for years - religion, the wish to change things, free will, predestination. The values held. But of course, I didn't die. So I didn't reach the final test. If I had, I'd probably have been under too much morphine to know."

The shock waves of Hammill's collapse are still rippling through his system. "Time does very, very funny things," he says. "You are acutely aware of now, and exactly how you feel. You know that time has gone fluid on you. And to be honest, it's still pretty fluid with me. I have a tendency to go off in a ruminative state. Drifting. It is good to just rest and take the longer view, without necessarily making that view cogent."

As the interview finishes, one of Hammill's daughters returns from school, and the shutters around this private man start to close back down. But the intense independence which has let him survive artistically for so long, and secretly inspire so many, may yet be softening into something else.

"The sense in which I think I was a heart attack candidate was obviously the way I obsess about things, and scrabble at them," he says. "But that's just wasting time in a different way. So it will be interesting to see exactly what emerges."

'Incoherence' is out now on Fie! Records

vendredi, juin 25, 2004

Glasto gets wet

Weekend drop-outs tune up for wet Glastonbury

By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent

25 June 2004

As the invasion of middle-class bohemians, weekend drop-outs and the occasional old-fashioned crustie got under way at the Glastonbury Festival yesterday, the storm clouds that had marred Wednesday and created muddy puddles underfoot at last cleared.

And though both sturdy boots and wellies remained the footwear of the festival-wise, those traders advertising waterproofs and wellingtons looked temporarily disappointed - but with the likely satisfaction of a killing if the rain returns tomorrow as predicted.

By last night, around 100,000 people had poured onto the 900-acre site at Pilton in Somerset, with most of the rest of the 112,500 ticket-holders and around 40,000 traders, security and other workers expected on by the time formal proceedings kick off at 11am today.

The England vs Portugal football provided a rousing warm-up last night with as many people watching the game on the special giant screens at Michael Eavis's farm as in the stadium in Lisbon, festival organisers claimed. The screens were laid on after fears that the event would otherwise face a post-match influx from local pubs in the dark.

Today the music begins with performances by Franz Ferdinand, The Kings of Leon and Oasis, nearly a decade after they first headlined the Pyramid stage. Tomorrow sees Black Eyed Peas and Paul McCartney with James Brown, Morrissey and the farewell gig by Orbital rounding things off on Sunday.

Michael Eavis, who has organised the festival on his dairy farm for most of the past 30 years, issued a message of welcome in the programme wishing everyone "a wonderful time''. He apologised that it had proved so difficult to get a ticket, when the tremendous demand caused the online booking system to crash. It was "a selling nightmare that must not be repeated,'' Mr Eavis said. "Next year, we will have in place a system that will be much easier to use, but of course this doesn't mean that more people can come ... our farm is simply up to capacity.'' These days, the common lament is of a commercialised Glastonbury, dominated by traders of all kinds eager to make a quick buck by offering every type of cuisine or the latest fashions. But those who remember the days of trench loos, and the impossibility of finding any of your friends, are more grateful for the solar-powered showers and the mobile phone recharging facilities. The clampdown on security, instituted when breaches of the perimeter fence threatened the chances of the event securing a licence in future, have made it safer than the edgy Nineties when festival-goers often returned to find that their tents had been stolen. Police reported a total of nine crimes and 16 arrests in the first day this year, mainly for minor drugs offences. There were no robberies and no assaults - at least until darkness fell.

And despite the criticism that the event has become too demure and middle-class, there is still something worthy about a long weekend on Mr Eavis's Worthy Farm.

This year left-wing politics are much in evidence with the addition of the trade union Amicus in the Left Field designed as a hotbed of political discussion. Tony Benn, who has become a surprise hit in recent years, returns again and other speakers include Naomi Klein and Billy Bragg.

And, as every year, several charities stand to share in around £1.3m that Mr Eavis donates from proceeds. The principal beneficiaries are Greenpeace, Oxfam, Wateraid and a number of local projects.

John Sauven, campaign director of Greenpeace, which has benefited from this generosity for the past 12 years, said Mr Eavis was their most important individual donor. "The festival has provided Greenpeace - and Oxfam, and Wateraid - with millions of pounds' worth of income," Mr Sauven said.

But what was almost as important is the profile it offers, in terms of branding on the stages and on the tickets, in recruiting new members and in gaining celebrity supporters through encounters with the performers.

"It's a great way of getting in touch with a new, younger generation. It makes the issues very real,'' he said.


Friday 25 June

Oasis, Nelly Furtado, Groove Armada, P J Harvey, Kings of Leon, Chemical Brothers, I Am Kloot, The Rapture, Badly Drawn Boy, Franz Ferdinand, Goldfrapp, Spiritualised, the Levellers, DJ Dave Clarke and Chicks On Speed.

Saturday 26 June

Paul McCartney, Sister Sledge, Starsailor, Black Eyed Peas, Basement Jaxx, Keane, the Von Bondies, Jamie Cullum, Joss Stone, Zero 7, Tim Booth and the Hothouse Flowers.

Sunday 27 June

Muse, English National Opera (Wagner's Ring Cycle), James Brown, Supergrass, Morrissey, Amy Winehouse, Orbital, the Divine Comedy, Belle And Sebastien, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Suzanne Vega.

Dr Robert

Dylan takes centre stage at St Andrews for university show

By Tim Luckhurst

24 June 2004

There was no question who the assembled throng at St Andrews were there for, but the latest addition to the university's academic community kept them waiting yesterday.

The students receiving their BA, MA, and Phd awards had all walked across the stage before Bob Dylan appeared to be awarded a doctorate of music.

A few of his fans, the types who follow him everywhere, had managed to obtain tickets for the ceremony. But they were not the only ones whose eyes turned sharply to the left as Dylan entered stage right.

It was not a showy entrance. He wore the traditional full-length academic gown offered to all honorary graduates and took his seat on the front row of the stage just as the student choir of St Salvator's Chapel began to sing. After working their way through the pieces listed on the programme, they made an unexpected addition, prompting a muffled gasp.

"How many roads must a man walk down...", they sang, a choral version of Dylan's legendary protest song "Blowin' in the Wind."

They say nobody sings Dylan like Dylan and St Salvator's Choir did not try. The students performed in perfect harmony. Dylan looked nervous, studying his order of service as if it was the only object in the room. As the choristers sang their last note he looked in their direction.

Several hundred eyes scrutinised the legend for a reaction. There was none. Dylan was inscrutable. As the congregation of parents, students and fans cheered he did not even clap.

Dylan only began to show signs of interest as honorary degrees were presented to the philosopher Professor Hilary Putnam of Harvard University and the microbiologist Professor Cheryl Tickle of the University of Dundee, congratulating the scientist when she returned to her seat. Professor Tickle beamed radiantly. An honorary doctorate from Scotland's oldest university is a tremendous achievement, but warm words from a living legend seemed to sprinkle gold dust on the day.

Then Professor Neil Corcoran strode to the podium to present the world's most famous singer-songwriter to St Andrews. As Professor Corcoran eulogised, Dylan fidgeted. Hearing himself described as "a great writer" he clenched and unclenched his right fist. Then, praised as a "volatile superplus" of creative energy he began to slowly tap his right foot. If Professor Corcoran had hoped for praise or even just a hint that his words impressed the great wordsmith, Dylan was not giving it. He sat in stony silence.

Nearly 20 minutes after taking the stage, Bob Dylan knelt before the Chancellor of the University, Sir Kenneth Dover.

Dylan was on his knees for four times as long as anyone else. It took that long for the applause to die down. When it did Sir Kenneth read the Latin words of ceremony chancellors of the University of St Andrews have used for more than five centuries. Dylan turned and faced the audience. He bowed and took his seat. It was done.

Tim Booth: I'm still standing

About to tour, Tim Booth is 'ready for whatever they throw at me'. The James years were good practice, he tells Fiona Sturges

25 June 2004

At first, I don't recognise Tim Booth. With his shaved head and pointy Errol Flynn beard, the former frontman of indie survivors James looks less like a million-selling pop musician than a pantomime child-catcher. The look isn't exactly softened by his black combat pants and black sweatshirt: all that's missing is a large net and a bag of candy. I'm not the only one who's confused: after being introduced to Booth, our photographer, a self-confessed James fan, squints and says: "I didn't recognise you without the hair." "You say all the right things," Booth replies despondently.

When he left James in 2001, it looked as if Booth had given up music for good. In a statement to fans, he said he wanted to leave while he was still on top and concentrate on writing and acting. He's won a best newcomer award for his part in a stage production of Saved, written a screenplay and, most recently, landed a small part alongside Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman in Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie - as a baddie, naturally. Yet even with this formidable workload, Booth found himself drifting back towards music. Now he's released an album, Bone (so called because of the stripped-down production) and is steeling himself for his first proper solo tour of the UK.

"I think I'll always write songs," he reflects over lunch near his Brighton home. "Whether they're for me and my friends or for public consumption, it's something I'll always do. Other people write diaries, I write songs. They always show me a lot about myself."

Yet Booth insists that he never intended to make another album. "The plan was to sell these songs to other people. That was partly because in England I felt I always got such a hostile reaction with James that the songs wouldn't get a fair hearing if I sang them. But as we went on with the demos, I guess I gave into the inevitable. I think I felt too attached to them to give them to someone else."

One of pop's great eccentrics, Booth has long been ridiculed for his alternative lifestyle, which takes in tantric sex, scream therapy and five-rhythms dancing ("a system of movement that takes you into your instinctive self. It's like getting high without drugs"). He and his band once joined a spiritual cult that involved meditating for days at a time and enforced celibacy.

His interest in alternative healing and spiritualism stems from a spell in hospital when he was 22 after he discovered that he had Gilbert's syndrome, an inherited liver disease. "I stopped breathing and nearly died," he says. "It's not a big deal if it's diagnosed, though if it's not and you're eating the wrong foods and your liver can't digest them, you go as yellow as a Belisha beacon. Being jaundiced creates a very strange mental state - very isolating and paranoid."

As he found he was able to control the symptoms, his interest turned into an obsession. "I'm fascinated by the potential of what we are," he says. "The original name for New Age was the Human Potential Movement, and it was for people looking to try and get the full potential out of human beings. I think everyone has a sense that we're much more than we're able to be. I don't believe there's such a thing as incurable illness. I believe that somewhere out there, there's some method of curing everything, and if you get sick you have to find it. You might not find it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. That's my thesis. There has to be a purpose when things go wrong."

It's with a mixture of humility and self-assurance that Booth looks back on his 20-year tenure with James. He's dismissive of the music press, which he feels built the band up only to tear them down. "In the music business, there's always an allocated time schedule you're meant to keep to," he reflects sardonically. "Once you've had your time in the limelight, that's it. After that, it's like, 'What are you still doing here? Isn't it time you were somewhere else? Get out of here, you're too old.'"

Is he still hurt by criticism? "Yes, I am. I know it shouldn't matter, but it does. I think within us we all have a saboteur, a voice in us that readily seizes upon that thing. A friend of mine, Gordon Strachan [the former footballer and manager] said there could be 50,000 people at a match, with 40,000 really behind the team. But there was a row of old guys there who really hated him and he could hear them talking about him every week. No matter where he was on the pitch, his ears would somehow pick up on them slagging him off. I think that's the nature of the mind; it gravitates to that stuff."

The story of James is by turns triumphant and calamitous, involving internal disputes, record company clashes, tax bills and a ruptured disc for Booth. The band formed in 1982 when the 16-year-old bass player Jim Glennie found Booth dancing wildly at a nightclub in Manchester. Booth was a drama student at the university. He joined the band, then called Model Team International, as a backing vocalist but was soon promoted to lead vocals.

"They were a very hardcore band back then," Booth says. "The first singer ended up in Strangeways. So did the first guitarist. When I arrived, I think they'd stolen their equipment. But they were great, they had a real fire to them. Then they asked this posh kid to front them, which was very bizarre."

The change of name came soon after: James was picked for its innocuousness in an industry they felt was dominated by huge egos. "We saw the band as being about music and nothing else," Booth says. "At the start we refused to do interviews or have our pictures taken. Once we agreed to a photo-shoot as long as the pictures didn't show our heads. We soon wised up, though."

Booth's nickname in the band was Monty Moneybags due to his prosperous, middle-class upbringing. He'd attended a public school in Shrewsbury where pupils wore hats and carried briefcases. "Actually, everyone carried briefcases but me. I had this bag, a hand-me-down of my dad's from the Second World War. All my brothers and sisters had used it; it had all their names on it, crossed out. The last was Penny, so that became my name at school."

In the early years, James were heroes in their hometown - Morrissey declared them "the best band in the world", while Noel Gallagher, then a roadie for Inspiral Carpets, is said to have decided to form a band after hearing a James soundcheck - but they were ignored further afield. After putting out two EPs on Factory records, they signed a contract with Sire, a move that Booth now describes as "really, really foolish. They had signed Talking Heads and done the first Patti Smith record, but by the time we got to them they had just signed Madonna. An English indie band was really not what they wanted." After releasing two albums, 1986's Stutter and 1988's Strip Mine, they extracted themselves from the label through a loophole in their contract.

For the next two years they lived off the dole, occasionally earning extra money by acting as human guinea pigs for medical experiments in a local hospital. At the end of the decade, however, they found themselves swept up in the baggy tide alongside their Madchester contemporaries The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Charlatans. "Sit Down" became one of the anthems of the early Nineties, and the flowery James shirt turned into a ubiquitous fashion item among students and indie kids.

Their success, Booth says, was both a blessing and a curse. They began to rebel in concert, refusing to play any hits, while their next album, 1992's Seven, was viewed as an ill-judged stab at stadium rock. The following year they secured the services of Brian Eno on Laid, a moodily experimental album that proved hugely popular in America and prompted the band to embark on a three-year tour in the US.

By the time they returned, their British fans had all but forgotten them. But that was nothing next to the nightmare that was to follow. Over the course of a year, Booth ruptured a disc in his neck, the guitarist Larry Gott decided to quit along with their long-time manager, and the band discovered they were broke.

"I got misquoted in an interview saying we had made millions out of selling T-shirts," Booth recalls. "Bizarrely enough, a tax inspector read it and we were investigated. It was a complete disaster. We realised we hadn't paid any tax for five years and our manager hadn't made any provision. We were suddenly hit with this huge bill that nearly killed us. It took us years to crawl out of that hole."

The band decided to take a long break, during which Booth worked on a well-received solo album with the composer Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) called Booth and the Bad Angel. In 1997, James made a spectacular comeback with Whiplash, a boldly melodic album that yielded their second-biggest single, "She's a Star". A best-of album the following year served to restore both their confidence and their finances, shifting more than a million copies. Two more albums followed - Millionaires and Pleased to Meet You - after which Booth decided to call it a day.

He believes that adversity always brought out the best in the band: that, and his indomitable self-belief. Even now, however, he admits to being fearful about pursuing a career under his own name. "There was some safety in the collective of James," he says. "Psychologically, I liked the protection. Even though it was me that took most of the shit in that band, I still had somewhere to hide.

"But I'll stand by this record. I'll stand by any of the choices I've made. You just have to get big in your own attitude again, build a bubble of positivity around yourself. Seriously, I'm ready for whatever they throw at me."

Tim Booth plays the New Stage at Glastonbury tomorrow, and then tours. 'Bone' is out now on Sanctuary. The single 'Down to the Sea' is released on Monday

The Killers: Shooting from the hip

When Morrissey is one of your fans, you've a right to be cocky. And The Killers certainly are that, Alexia Loundras finds

25 June 2004

"We are a great rock band - it's as simple as that," says The Killers' exotically named front man, Brandon Flowers. "We're as good as The Strokes, Kings of Leon and The White Stripes." A smile plays on his lips. Sitting next to him, the bass player Mark Stoermer, looking deadly serious, nods in agreement. Not since Oasis first swaggered out of Manchester have a new band oozed quite so much blind self-assurance. There is no doubt that when they say they intend to become as big as U2, they wholeheartedly believe they will. Being young, good-looking and undeniably talented, the Las Vegas four-piece feel they have no need for false modesty. Their debut single, the infectious "Somebody Told Me", peaked with Flowers boasting: "I've got potential, rushing and rushing around." Brash, definitely. But the key fact here is that they're not the only ones who believe it.

The Killers' debut album, knowingly titled Hot Fuss, is a pop gem. Sharper than a Mod's suit, yet brimming with ocean-sized hooks, it's cool enough to seduce the fashionable media taste-makers and also instant enough to snare the wider record-buying public. The band's second single, the irrepressible "Mr Brightside", was a top 10 smash, and in the past few weeks The Killers have appeared on TV shows ranging from Top of the Pops to Newsnight Review.

Tonight, the band are still hours away from their gig at the Rescue Rooms, in Nottingham, but a swarm of excitable teenage fans have already arrived and are loitering outside the band's gold-painted mini-van, hoping to sneak a peek at Flowers and Stoermer inside.

Fittingly for a band with such a swagger in their step, it was because of Oasis that The Killers formed. Inspired by seeing the Britpoppers' gigs two and a half years ago, the synth-player Flowers decided he quite fancied being in a band with guitars. Scouring the local music press, he happened on the guitarist Dave Keuning's classified ad seeking like-minded musicians, which cited the Gallaghers' band. Such ads were commonplace in Britain, but "in Las Vegas," Flowers says, "that stands out." Indeed, according to Stoermer's story, the fact that Keuning, an Iowa native, was even in Vegas to place the ad was down to another history-sealing twist of fate: passing through Las Vegas on his way back to Iowa after an abandoned move to California, Keuning apparently "stepped off the bus at Vegas and forgot to get back on", Stoermer says.

Flowers and Keuning bonded as outcasts in a Vegas music scene inhabited mainly by what Flowers describes as "chubby guys wearing baggy pants, goatees and tattoos, listening to Slipknot". Determined not be to be smothered by the city's vapid music scene, they sought to recruit fellow outsiders to their cause. Dry, softly spoken and 6ft 5in, Stoermer was first on board. The Scandinavian-looking bass-player didn't need much persuading: having come across one of Keuning and Flowers' early demos, he was a fan already. The drummer, Ronnie Vannucci, was last to enlist. A student of classical percussion, Vannucci was, Stoermer remembers, "the best drummer in Las Vegas. When I heard he was going to be in the band, I knew it was going to be really good."

Line-up complete the band, with characteristic confidence, decided to call themselves The Killers - after a fictional portrayal of the ultimate band depicted in a New Order video, and not, they insist, because they'd ever killed anyone. Well, Flowers admits that, aged nine, he shot a small bird with an air rifle (which he regrets to this day). And after a moment's thought, he adds: "I did hit a man with a car once. It was dark and he was drunk and he walked in front of me. He broke my windshield, and even when the ambulance came, he didn't get up." Clocking my shocked look, Flowers is quick to reassure: "Don't worry. I'm sure he's alive and well."

The Killers then moved on to developing their sound. The fact that their name came from a New Order video offers a clue to their direction. "Peter Hook's the man!" Flowers says. "With his jeans, leather jacket and hairy chest, he's a burly man in a tank top, yet he plays these beautiful bass lines." Flowers' older brother's Smiths videos were another key influence. "I liked the way Morrissey was, on stage," he says. "The way he performed and owned the audience - the way people wanted to touch him. That led me into his music."

Such references explain how the The Killers came to be modern purveyors of a classic British sound. And while they may share these influences withbands like Radio 4 and Stellastarr*, those bands tend to come from New York, where they are nurtured by a hip, educated scene; The Killers had to flourish on their own. "I don't think great bands come out of great music scenes," says Flowers firmly. "I don't need some local person to inspire me." Stoermer agrees: "Being outside a music scene helped us," he says. "Bands in New York and LA are inspired by each other but they are limited, too, because they have to fit into that scene."

The legacy of Flowers' musical idols is obvious but, like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers fuse their influences to create something very much their own. And despite an undeniably cool edge, they are also irresistibly poptastic. "Yeah," says Flowers. "We're a real band with a great talent for writing catchy songs."

Flowers' lyrics are graphic page-turners, cinematic epics, compared with the average chart-buster's aural greeting card. Spinning thrilling yarns of murder, obsession and jealousy, Flowers' lyrics tend to focus on the darker side of existence. "That's how life is," Flowers shrugs. He writes about what he knows best: his own compulsive thoughts. "Mr Brightside" is the story of a man driven mad by the conviction that his girlfriend is cheating on him ("I can make myself miserable in minutes with what my mind can conjure up," Flowers says). "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" tells of the murder of someone's girlfriend. Flowers is never short of source material, plundering the colourful lives of the band's Vegas friends and acquaintances. We meet real-life characters such as Andy, a high-school athlete shadowed by an ominous stalker, and Michael, a poker-player who takes home six-figure sums.

Not that this bunch are the types to dwell on unhappy events. Right now they're putting most of their energy into enjoying their burgeoning rock-star status. "Every time we come back to the UK, we seem to get bigger," Stoermer says. "It's almost too easy." Too easy? Do they fear they may fall from their current position of grace?

Flowers is tickled by the suggestion. "We're not going to crash," he laughs. "We write great songs and we're not going to stop."

Despite Flowers' charming bravado, his ego is not unshakable. There is one man capable of humbling him: Morrissey. Flowers' musical hero is a Killers fan ("He's bought our single - that's nuts!" he gasps) and invited the young band to support him in LA. "Morrissey really was unbelievable," Flowers says. "Everybody did want to touch him. If our fans felt that way about us, that would be awesome." So, when Morrissey turned up to watch The Killers' sound-check, it was all a bit much for Flowers. "Apparently he was tapping his foot," he swoons.

Flowers spots a group of girls he recognises and regains his composure. "Hey, look, it's our favourite fans," he says, affectionately. "We're the next Duran Duran because of them." Is he serious? Are they really on a journey to stadiums and yachts, platinum discs and beautiful women? The glint in his eyes says they are. "If you don't believe it, it won't happen." A true Las Vegas gambler's mantra if there ever was one. Don't bet against them.

'Hot Fuss' is out now. The Killers play Glastonbury tomorrow, then tour until 8 July

Brian Wilson 2004

...just wasn't made for these times

Say Smile, and music fans smile with you. But the composer of that legendary pop album, Brian Wilson, is still wrestling with his demons, despite the adulation accompanying his comeback. Fiona Sturges meets the former Beach Boy in California

21 June 2004

Brian Wilson is talking, as best he can, about the voices he hears in his head. They are not there every day. Sometimes he even goes a few weeks without hearing them. But when they do come, they terrify the life out of him.

"I hear them saying, 'You're OK, you're OK, you're OK.' Then I'll suddenly hear..." - he puts his hands over his ears and shouts - "'You're gonna go, you're gonna get it, you're gonna get it.' And I say, 'Oh my God, what's going on?' I feel real scared. I don't know where it's coming from. I think it's mostly a hallucination, but I think some of it is real. It certainly feels real."

Not for the first time, I wonder if we should go on with our conversation, and whether Wilson is really up to the task of discussing the harrowing details of his existence with a stranger. It's well known that the years of drug addiction and debilitating mental illness have taken their toll on him. But in all the interviews I've done, I've never met anyone so bewildered, so fragile, so clearly close to the edge. Even the simplest things seem to elude him. Over the course of an hour, he asks me my name four times - in one instance he gets me to spell it - but he calls me Winona anyway. It seems easier not to argue.

We meet in the presidential suite of a hotel in Universal City, just across the valley from Wilson's home in the Hollywood hills. Physically, he's much bigger than you'd expect. I had always imagined him to be shrunken and crushed-looking, but he towers over everyone in the room. His upper body is an almost perfect egg shape, with sloping shoulders leading down to a broad, protruding belly. He's dressed all in black, accentuating his pasty grey complexion.

For our interview he sits stiffly on the edge of his seat, his hands clamped to his knees, talking in short, hesitant bursts. Perhaps because he's at a loss for something to say, he'll often repeat himself. In other instances he'll let his answers trail off, as if backing away from memories too painful to share.

As a singer and composer, and founding member of The Beach Boys, Wilson is responsible for creating some of the sunniest and saddest songs pop music has known. While they were still in their teens, he and his fellow Beach Boys - his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine - composed songs that encapsulated the innocence and optimism of Sixties California, such as "Surfin' USA", "Barbara Ann" and "I Get Around". But the shy, introverted Brian was to buckle under the weight of his own genius. By the time he was 30, this once handsome youth had become a 25-stone recluse who, legend has it, only left his bed to check the mailbox where he would receive his daily fix of cocaine.

During the Eighties, Wilson fell under the spell of Eugene Landy, the Rasputin-like psychiatrist who had been hired by his wife Marilyn. Landy managed to get him out of his bed, off drugs and on a diet, although his influence on other aspects of Wilson's life began to alarm those around them. When, in 1990, Landy allegedly persuaded Wilson to re-draft his will, a lawsuit was filed and all contact between the two men was severed.

Wilson's brothers are now dead: Dennis drowned in 1983, while Carl died of cancer seven years ago. It's a strange irony that Brian, whom no one expected to see out his twenties, is now performing and making music again. For the last two years he and his band The Wondermints have travelled around Europe and the United States performing his endlessly worshipped album Pet Sounds and its unreleased follow-up Smile, to ecstatic critical reception. Next week, Wilson is set to release a new solo LP, the ominously titled Gettin In Over My Head, which features collaborations with Elton John, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. It is, at best, a patchy piece of work that desperately tries to evoke the bittersweet wistfulness of his Sixties heyday.

Right now, Wilson's worried that no one will buy it. "I don't think the new generation is on to my music at all," he says darkly. "I don't think they like it. There are some young people that like my music, but there are a lot that don't. They just like rap music - I call it crap music. He-he-he."

Given Wilson's brittle state of mind, it's impossible to imagine how he functions as a touring musician. He admits to being regularly crippled by stage fright. "For about half hour before I go on stage I'm almost throwing up," he says. "I'm so scared, it's really unbelievable. I didn't have it with The Beach Boys, I've only had stage fright with my solo career." Does he know why? "I really don't know," he says. When I suggest that maybe it's because the focus is on him, he nods vigorously, thankful I've given him something to say. "Yeah, it's because the focus is on me and it puts me under more pressure, which makes me feel afraid."

Wilson talks a lot about being afraid - of the voices, of failure, of never being able to write another song. The first time he remembers feeling fear was in the presence of Murry, his violent and domineering father, who took his own failure as a songwriter out on his sons. Despite this abuse, Wilson maintains that the band wouldn't have got where they did without him.

"He was the fire under our butts," he says, smiling suddenly. "He was the one who got us going. He didn't make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I'm pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician."

In 1964, Wilson suffered the first of a series of breakdowns. He was on a flight to a show in Houston when he was found wailing and crawling on his hands and knees in the aisles. After that, he stopped performing live and retreated to the relative security of the recording studio, leaving Dennis, Carl and Mike to keep up the band's public profile on tour.

In 1966, he wrote what is considered to be his greatest album, Pet Sounds, which included the spookily prescient "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" and the elegiac love song "God Only Knows". Conceived partly as a response to Rubber Soul, the album prompted The Beatles to create their own concept album, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

"They say Sgt Pepper and Pet Sounds were the two greatest albums ever made," reflects Wilson blankly. "I'm very proud to think that we could have made an album that good. It was easier back then because I was young and had energy. I wanted to make love music. I was in the mood for love music." But the album was rejected by the rest of the band. Mike Love wrote it off as "Brian's ego music". That must have hurt, I say. "Yeah, but I knew they wouldn't like it. In the end I made them like it. I said, 'You guys like this, you love it.' And they said, 'Yeah we do.'"

Wilson tries to play down the feelings of rivalry with The Beatles that sent him into a psychological tailspin when he was writing Smile. "I never felt any competition," he maintains. "I felt a friendly rivalry. I didn't feel, 'Hey, I can do better than The Beatles.' It wasn't that kind of thing at all. It was just a natural rivalry."

Wilson's neurosis during the making of Smile has passed into rock mythology. He had his grand piano placed in a specially-built sandpit in his living room so he could feel the beach beneath his feet. This, along with an incident at his studio where he set a fire in a bucket so the musicians could draw inspiration from the smoke, was seen by his friends and family as proof of his spiralling madness. Eventually, Wilson pulled the plug and Smile was canned.

I ask how he felt at the time, and Wilson replies quietly: "Unstable, unhappy. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do next? What's this next thing going to be like?' I was feeling this pressure, all this pressure to do something great, and it made my mind hurt."

That Smile, the album that drove Wilson over the edge, is finally reaching the record shops this autumn, 37 years after he started making it, makes you concerned for his sanity. He says that he's happy with the work he and the original producer Van Dyke Parks have done on it over the past year, but adds that he's nervous about releasing it. "I'm nervous that it won't sell, that people won't like it, that they will be disappointed." Is other people's approval still important to him, then? "Yes. I'm not confident at all. Not at all."

You wonder where Wilson's career would be now were it not for the people around him driving it forward. He says it was his second wife Melinda's idea to tour Pet Sounds and his manager's idea to tour and release Smile. Left to his own devices, perhaps he would be happier tinkering in his studio alone, safe in the knowledge that his songs would never be heard and therefore never judged.

On the other hand, Wilson says he is never happier than when he is singing on stage and making music. He describes the moment when a song forms in his head as "an inspiration from God. It feels Godly. It makes me happy." Does he feel happy now? "Sure, I'm happy" he says, forcing a smile. "Not right this moment," I say. "Are you happy with your life now?"

"Not as happy as I used to be. Ten, 20 years ago I was a little happier. I think because I'm getting a little older, it makes me feel depressed. I've been afraid of death lately. I've had fears of dying. Not that I'm not going to die right now. Not today. But within 20 years I'll die, and 20 years is like that..." - he clicks his fingers. "That's real scary."

Wilson's new family has done much to heal the scars of his past. He and Melinda live with two adopted daughters Daria, seven, and Delanie, six (he has grown-up daughters from his first marriage). His music commitments only account for about a third of his time; the rest he spends with his children walking in the park, eating at local restaurants, going to baseball games or just sitting at home in the garden. He also sees a therapist every week.

He looks back on his years as a Beach Boy with a mixture of pride and regret. "I like the music, but I regret things. Drugs have destroyed some of my abilities. LSD really messed my head up. But [drugs] have helped me out when I've needed them. Medicine for depression and medicine for anxiety have helped me out a lot. It could be a lot worse."

With that, the interview seems to be over. Wilson gets up and wanders off to the bathroom. When he comes back, he addresses me as Winona again and asks for a hug. "I enjoyed that," he says as he pulls me into his enormous belly: "It was fun." His sudden warmth is touching, though it strikes me that life is far from fun for the man hailed as pop's greatest living genius. I wonder to myself if he will ever find real peace and contentment. Can Brian Wilson ever live up to the legend? God only knows.

'Gettin In Over My Head' is out now on Eastwest/Rhino. Wilson begins a UK tour at the Eden Project, Cornwall, on 16 July. He performs 'Smile' at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181; on 24, 25, 27, 28, 30 and 31 July. 'Smile' is out on 27 September

Muse: The band who fell to earth

Good news! It's been a while since a group arrived fully formed from outer space. But here they are, primed and ready to storm Glastonbury, phase-shifters set to stun. Simon Price hits the road to Rome with neo-prog-rockers Muse, to reflect on the plenitude of old buildings, onrushing stardom and the place of guitar overload in the music of J S Bach

20 June 2004

Rome is a city where the present tarantellas chaotically with the ancient past, a surreal, anachronistic jumble of 20th-century, Renaissance and first-century architecture. Turn one corner and you're in La Dolce Vita, another and you're in Caravaggio, another and you're in Gladiator.

In the heatlamp-intense glare of the afternoon sun, Muse do not especially resemble intrepid, Icarus-like rock visionaries whose musical ambition knows no restraint. If anything, in their brightly coloured Diesel shirts and three-quarter-length trousers, they look like anonymous, carefree Inter-railers seeing the sights.

The locals, however, are not fooled. As Matt Bellamy (vocals, guitar, piano), Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dom Howard (drums) laze by the Fontana di Trevi, where Anita Ekberg frolicked so iconically, or stroll down the Spanish Steps (until they are shooed away by a rather camp sailors' parade), they are regularly accosted by thrilled Italians asking for photos and autographs.

Bellamy, Wolstenholme and Howard all arrived in the sleepy Devon resort of Teignmouth from other parts of England. Instant outsiders, they bonded, and spent their teens getting into mild mischief, sneaking into the Single Parents Club in Winterbourne on Mondays and Tuesdays, hanging around in Poole drinking cider and playing football, and getting their heads kicked in for having long hair. "We were 14," Bellamy recalls, "and Howard was getting beaten up by 25-year-old men. It was that kind of place." Music was mainly a means to an end. Bellamy, whose father, George, played guitar in the Sixties instrumental group The Tornadoes studied the clarinet from the age of nine and had dreams of becoming a serious jazz musician. That all changed at the age of 13, when he played a Ray Charles blues piece on the piano at a talent contest. "I somehow pulled a girl, and I realised that music was a way to get female attention."

The three future Musos all joined various bands. "Dom's band was the cool one," Bellamy concedes. "They'd rent out a leisure centre, and all the kids would go to their gigs, smoke cannabis and so on." Things became a little more serious when the trio formed their own band. After working through names like Carnage Mayhem, Gothic Plague, Fixed Penalty and Rocket Baby Dolls, and frustratingly finding themselves obliged to play cover versions, they wisely settled on Muse.

With the invaluable help of the techno wizard Tom Kirk - the band's unofficial fourth member who drove them to London for their first gig in the capital, designs their live visuals and keeps a video diary of all they do - Muse were ready for take-off.

After attracting much attention at the 1998 In The City seminar in Manchester, the trio were invited to play similar showcases in New York and Los Angeles, winning record deals with Madonna's Maverick label in the States and Mushroom in the UK.

Their debut EP, Muscle Museum, and album Showbiz, produced by John Leckie(who also produced Radiohead's The Bends), won them a following from the kind of angsty teens who were already listening to bands like Placebo and the Manics, but sceptics dismissed them as a bunch of whiny sub-Radiohead wannabes. I should know. I was one of those sceptics.

For me, it all began to change with the release of "Plug In Baby", a single which sounded like a hotwired hybrid of Air's "Sexy Boy" and JS Bach's Toccata and Fugue, and the second album, the awkwardly titled Origin of Symmetry, in which they perfected a baroque'n'roll sound which combined operatic vocals with quasi-classical keyboards, Hendrix-like guitar overload, and at some points, church organs.

Muse were burning the punk rulebook. They were fearlessly resurrecting the banished ghosts of prog rock, and making music which was unashamedly pompous, histrionic and skyscrapingly ambitious. It was, in their phrase, hyper music.

At first I couldn't handle it. Slowly, I learned to love it. The clincher was their undeniably exciting live show, as encapsulated by their extraordinary appearance on this year's Brit Awards with which, to the minds of many viewers, they stole the show from that night's big winners, The Darkness. I ask if they have been aware of the way in which perceptions towards them have changed.

Howard is impish and smiley; Wolstenholme is the strong silent type; Bellamy is thoughtful and intense. Invariably, it is he who answers first.

"In the beginning," he says in the cool of the dressing room of the Stadio Centrale Del Tennis, "it was because we were young, and people thought we were just following in the footsteps of other bands." (He's right, of course. And some of those bands have been less than gracious about it. At this year's NME Awards, Thom Yorke - accepting the gong for Best Video - sneered: "We were up against some stiff competition there... what a shame Muse didn't win!")

Bellamy adds: "I think we've always been seen as an alternative band by which I mean that we're a band that has never really had its time. We've always been outside of all those. When nu-metal was big, we used to be seen in the same bracket as Coldplay, Radiohead, Travis. Now we're seen as quite rockin' - or maybe to the retro scene. What we've become alternative to has changed."

Muse now play with the assurance of a band who know that their pyrotechnics, both aural and visual, can win over pretty much any crowd. "We played a metal festival in Portugal the other day, and we were pretty nervous because the line-up was Korn, Static X, Linkin Park, and we were the only band who weren't pure metal. But we ended up going down really well. We can just about get away with playing to a metal audience without getting bottled off."

They've recently enjoyed playing to smaller, 500- to 1,800-seat venues in the United States, where the absence of the regimentation which their full visual extravaganza necessitates allowed them to play a more spontaneous, improvised set. But Muse aren't the sort of band who fetishise dingy, smoky club gigs - they're in their element playing to the masses.

Next Sunday, Muse headline the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival. I put it to them that it's a special challenge, since they will be playing to a crowd who aren't there to see them, and indeed who bought their tickets before the line-up was announced. There's a certain pressure to unify and to entertain.

Wolstenholme is sceptical. "Sometimes it's easy to big-up certain festivals, like Glastonbury and Reading, because they were the ones we went to when we were kids. But when you've played loads of other European festivals, you look at it just like any other. But at the same time," he ponders, "it is Glastonbury..."

"Sometimes it's enjoyable," says Howard, "when you know people haven't seen you before. We do know that there will be a lot of people who aren't there to see us..." "Unless it rains," says Bellamy, "in which case they'll all go home except 4,000 Muse fans standing around in their wellies."

Ludicrous. Preposterous. Ridiculous. Absurd. Flick through any random pile of Muse press cuttings, and these words will crop up time and again. Can the band, I wonder, see where this sort of appraisal is coming from? "I think I could," Bellamy admits, "until The Darkness came along. And we had to let them take over. There was a bit of Queen in what we did, a bit of pompous rock, but now they've come along and shown people what that really is like." Listening to The Origin of Symmetry, and it's even more grandiose successor Absolution, I imagine Muse in the studio having debates on whether they can really get away with so many excessive pomp-rock flourishes.

"You'll often turn around," says Howard, addressing Bellamy, "and go: 'We can't get away with this!' And I'll go: 'Of course we can!'" I get the impression that Yes We Can invariably wins... "Definitely," confirms Wolstenholme. "There have been times when we listen to what we've done, and we've forgotten what we set out to do in the first place. And those usually are the best tracks on the album. Like 'Butterflies And Hurricanes', with those 48-track backing vocals..." "We had so many different scene changes," remembers Bellamy. "At one point there were bongos! It sounded like that percussion troupe Stomp. It sounded like that."

Yesterday, I tell them, I watched Ronald Reagan's funeral on CNN in my hotel room. The church organist played a crashing, portentous chord which reminded me of something I'd heard recently, and which made me laugh when I remembered what it was: the final note of "Megalomania" by Muse. "I can see why people are amused by it," Bellamy smiles. "It's music you can't listen to every day. If someone put it on in the background of a party, everyone would go: 'Fucking hell, turn it off!' Our music is definitely not for all occasions."

Muse's latest video, for "Sing For Absolution", is another example of the Yes We Can spirit. Most bands would baulk at a treatment which had them blasting into space on a futuristic shuttle, crashing through a meteor storm, and come skidding to Earth which, in a Planet Of The Apes-like twist, turns out to be in ruins. Muse, however, thought...

"Yeah, why not! Exactly!" Howard says. "We thought: 'Let's fly some spaceships around!'" "Something happened in the early Nineties," theorises Bellamy, "where bands started taking themselves very seriously... No, 'seriously' isn't the right word, but being very anti-everything."

There's always been an idea that "alternativeness" is about sullen refusal, about what you say "No" to. It dates right back to The Clash refusing to play Top Of The Pops. "We do say 'No' to a whole lot of stuff - teenage magazines, certain TV shows we try to shy away from... but the chance to wear a space suit? We're well up for that."

There's a famous Smiths story about Johnny Marr presenting Morrissey with what he considered to be his finest piece of music. Morrissey took it away, and came back with the lyric: "Some girls are bigger than others/ Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers." Marr reportedly wept. When Muse have created a similarly epic piece of music, does Bellamy feel an obligation to match it with lyrics of sufficient solemnity and import? "That can be dangerous sometimes when music is written by one person and lyrics by another. But when I write something epic, I feel I have to match it, sure." Lyrically, Muse have improved noticeably since Showbiz. Gone are the vague abstractions and, while they're never completely specific either, their songs now express a similar pre-apocalyptic dread to Joy Division and The Specials in their era, or Tricky and (yes) Radiohead in theirs. "I think I'm trying to write something that genuinely means something and has a purpose," Bellamy says, "whereas in the past maybe it was vague lines strung together, abstractly. You had to read it a line at a time, and the lines never matched up.

"I've never been that confident writing lyrics," he confesses. "I've always had to do it behind the mask of a melody. I wish I could write lyrics like Tom Waits, where it's full-on stories... But as you get older, you become more open to singing things you would have said no to. I wouldn't sing lyrics like 'You've got to be the best' when I was 17 or 18, because I would have thought it wasn't very cool, and a bit cheesy to sing that hook. But you get towards your mid-twenties..." Once upon a time, Muse were typical tour-bus shut-ins. No more.

"I think something happened about two or three years ago," says Wolstenholme, "where we realised we'd been to so many cities of the world, and never really seen any of them. People come up to you and say: 'Oh, you've been there, what's it like?' and you can't tell them anything." Apart from "nice air-conditioning". "Exactly. So we've been making more of an effort to get out there and take it all in."

"Now we're playing larger venues, though, it's more difficult," Bellamy adds. "Smaller venues tend to be in the town, so you step outside and you're there. Larger venues tend to be out-of-town, so you step outside and you're in... the car park. Before you know it, you've been in five car parks in five countries. So we did a bit of wine-tasting in France, went to a temple in Kyoto in Japan, did a bit of beach surfing in Australia."

"We're just trying to turn the whole thing into a bit of a holiday," grins Howard.

"I had food last night," says Bellamy, "that actually brought me to tears (mass laughter). Home-made pasta with tomatoes. It was so simple, so perfect, so intense that I started to well up! It was so fucking good compared to England. In England, tomatoes just taste of water. And these tasted of pure tomato. I was starving at the time, obviously..."

The Stadio Centrale Del Tennis is part of the vast sporting complex built on the banks of the Tiber as a monument to Mussolini's vanity. On the main piazza, a towering obelisk bears the dictator's surname, with floor tiles spelling out "DUCE DUCE DUCE", and huge blocks of stone carrying the inscription "Fascista". In Germany or Russia, they'd have torn down such an uncomfortable reminder. Not here.

But then, almost all of Rome's great monuments were built to flatter someone, whether Pope, emperor, God or gods. I ask Muse what they make of it all. "It sounds a silly thing to say," says Howard, "but everything's very old. We went to the Colosseum, but couldn't get inside 'cos the queue was so big. And I tried to go to the Vatican but they wouldn't let me in because I had shorts on. They were quite long shorts," he sulks, "they weren't Eighties running shorts... It's a shame, because I really wanted to see the Sistine Chapel."

It took Michelangelo many years to complete his great fresco. The intention was to inspire a sense of religious awe in the viewer. Can Muse identify with that kind of endeavour, to create something magnificent? I betray my question with a giveaway chuckle.

"You can always tell when journalists are trying to make you say something embarrassing," smiles Bellamy, "because they give it away by laughing." Howard is more willing to bite. "I do look at the Colosseum and think how many people and how much talent and how many years did it take to make that. I don't think people will be saying that about us in hundreds of years' time." You're so modest.

"In two thousand years' time," says Bellamy, "maybe The Beatles. But not Muse." But what about the idea of creating something purely for the glory of someone else, be they human or divine? Can you understand that? Bellamy, whose musical heroes include Debussy, Bach, Berlioz, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Reich and Glass, thinks about this one.

"Most great composers," he agrees, "were originally making music for God. And painters. They weren't making it for money in those days, because most of them were already part of a relative upper-class. It wasn't as if you could achieve fame and fortune by doing it. Maybe by the days of Chopin, but I'm talking before that. And I think that enabled them to do something that was out of the ordinary. When someone's got that belief that they are actually in touch with God, I'm sure that brings out things which they would not have thought possible. In architecture, music and the arts, there's definitely an intelligence in the past which has gone missing. We think we're advanced now, but we've actually slipped behind."

One of the stand-out tracks on Absolution is titled "Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist". Did any members of Muse have religious upbringings? Bellamy: "No." Howard: "I got christened, but... y'know..." Wolstenholme: "No." So, will you die an atheist? "I don't know," says Bellamy. "I think it's impossible to. At the last moment you'd be going 'Please!'" If Bellamy doesn't believe in God - yet - then some of his other beliefs may raise eyebrows. He's an advocate of the theories of the writer Zechariah Sitchin, who believes that humans are the result of genetic experiments by visiting aliens.

"It's a logical explanation," Bellamy gamely maintains, untroubled by the possibility that I might be trying to stitch him up and paint him as a fruitcake.

"I think it carries weight. Evolution theory is the most widely renowned anti-religion, anti-creationist argument, but there is a loophole in it, the missing link between humans and apes, the lack of fossils. Evolution normally takes millions of years, but we seemed to advance in a very short period of time." He's in full flow now.

"In Sumerian times they calculated there were 12 planets, counting the sun and the moon - and the 12th planet is on an elliptical orbit, and every time it comes close to the earth, every 3,600 years, Biblical-level events happen. Sitchin takes it a step further, suggesting it's a self-sufficient geothermal planet - essentially a comet - with aliens on it, who experimented with chimpanzees to make us. Which explains the higher levels of thought, objectivity and so on. Our DNA is a mixture of alien and ape." Bellamy is an obsessive character. When he gets into something, he really gets into it. His current fixation is playing poker. He carries a pack of cards everywhere, and would dearly love to be on Channel 4's Late Night Poker.

"I go to a semi-legal poker club on Clerkenwell Road in London. They've found a loophole in the law where as long as you put all your money behind the counter and use chips, it's OK. I only play for small stakes, for fun. It's not really like gambling, it's not just chance: it's more advanced than just sticking your money on a roulette table. There is an element of strategy."

This, however, is about as vice-packed as things get. By rock musician standards, Muse are unusually polite, reserved young men. I only see Bellamy snap once, while he's enjoying a strawberry milkshake outside a pavement café. A corpulent, rude American woman takes an unsolicited photo of my hairdo, with a pig-like laugh, to Bellamy's disgust. "We're gonna take a picture of your arse!" he calls after her as she waddles away. They're not very rock'n'roll, as rock'n'rollers go.

"We should be dressed up like you, shouldn't we?" he jokes, eyeing my black plastic spikes. I know you went through a phase, I say. (Bellamy once sported a huge Judder Man hairdo himself.) "It comes and goes... We had a phase where we had a go," he admits, "at the full-on rock'n'roll life. It lasted about a year, then we got jaded." Nowadays the groupies are a thing of the past. Bellamy and Howard's girlfriends are here, as is Wolstenholme's wife (with whom he has three children).

"Sometimes you have the odd week where you're looking for parties, but the rest of the time you're taking it easy, relaxing on a beach." On stage, however, it's a different story. Bellamy is a man possessed. At a recent show in Atlanta, he somehow slashed his face open with the end of his guitar, leaving a laceration on his top lip which needed five stitches and must have left him looking like a gore-movie version of Moog from Will O' The Wisp.

"In your everyday life you can be reserved, but I think you become more open, comfortable, confident, relaxed on stage. The more crazy part inside gets exposed and you don't have to hide it all." Headlining one of the nights of the oddly titled Cornetto Free Music Festival (it's actually €37 to get in), Muse's intensity and energy effortlessly enraptures 6,000 Italians who know every word of every song in a language they do not understand. When he isn't pulling rock-god poses with his guitar, Bellamy leaps, Oz-like, behind a metal keyboard-pulpit known as "The Dalek", fronted by LEDs which light up every time he hits a note. It's brilliant, and it comes as little surprise to learn that Muse once considered incorporating a vampire act into the show.

Winding down backstage, and accepting with bemusement a visit from the Eighties pomp-rockers Marillion ("Who are they?" they whisper to me), Muse tell me what the future holds in store. I heard a rumour that they want to take their music into a rock-disco direction... "I think it's something we tried with 'Bliss'," says Bellamy. "I don't think we'll suddenly change genre. We may incorporate a bit of funk in there, maybe even samba... Another thing I'd like to do is take pieces of classical music, like Prokofiev, or the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I don't mean sample it, I mean a piece of music which goes in and out of that." Yes, he is serious. Yes, I asked. In the more immediate future, both Howard and Bellamy have started to take helicopter lessons.

"It all depends on how many hours you can do a year to maintain your licence. I've only had one lesson so far. I've always wanted to go in a helicopter, and only recently did we get to do it when we were in..." "Australia?" ventures Howard.

"No, it was the Grand Canyon. I've always been interested in flying anyway. It's the safest form of air transport." Yeah? "People think it would just drop like a stone if the engine failed, but it would just glide slowly down. The blades keep turning - the up-force keeps them spinning." Bellamy, it must be said, has something of a daredevil streak. When he isn't piloting choppers or swimming with sharks, he's being an amateur rocketeer.

"I've got a paraglider at home. It's a 50cc engine you put on your back, with a propeller on it." His eyes sparkle as he describes it. "You've got this enormous parachute, and you run down a hill to get you off the ground, then you switch the engine on. And you can stay in the air, for hours and hours and hours..." Few bands dare to fly as high as Muse. If you see them overhead, give them a wave.

Muse are playing Glastonbury Festival on 27 June (sold out); T In The Park on 10 July (sold out); V2004: Chelmsford, Essex, 21 August and Shifnal, Shropshire, 22 August (tickets: