Muse released the single “Compliance” in March 2022. A couple of weeks later, the British trio performed the song in front of 220 overwhelmed fans at the Exeter Cavern. The song’s live debut was captured for posterity by La Blogothèque on behalf of the Jim Beam Welcome Sessions.
But Muse’s gig at the Cavern wasn’t merely significant for the debut of “Compliance”, as well as the title track from the band’s forthcoming ninth album, Will of the People. It was a long-awaited homecoming for the trio of Matt Bellamy, Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme, who grew up approximately 20 kilometres south of Exeter in Teignmouth, Devon.
Between October 1994 and July 1999, Muse played 32 gigs at the Exeter Cavern. Although Exeter, the capital of the English county of Devon, has a population roughly seventy times smaller than London, landing a gig at the Cavern was a significant milestone for the 17-year-old Bellamy, Howard and Wolstenholme.
“The Cavern was the closest thing we had in our area to be like a real band,” says Bellamy in a voiceover featured in the Welcome Sessions film. “We’d seen other bands play there that we respected.”
Jim Beam’s Welcome Sessions launched in 2020 as a live event series that explores music’s role in fostering belonging and community by bringing artists back to the stages that first welcomed them. When the bourbon brand reached out to Muse, they were immediately attracted to the idea of returning to their old stomping ground and the community that raised them.
“For some reason, and I don’t really know why, we’d never been back there,” says Wolstenholme. “We were really interested in the whole idea of the music and the community thing, which obviously led to the idea of going back to a venue that was really important to us, which was the Cavern.”
As teenagers, the three members of Muse looked up to the acts they saw onstage at the Cavern—such as Cornish funk rock band Rootjoose—regarding them as local heroes and aspiring to gain similar renown themselves.
Nine albums later, Howard, the band’s drummer, describes their return to Exeter as “surreal”. “It was like time travel,” he says, “which is something I’ve always thought music can create—you can listen to something and it can completely take you back to a different time.”
Exeter is more than 250 kilometres west of London, but it can feel even more remote. “That’s part of the appeal of the place,” says Wolstenholme. “It does feel a bit like a slightly slower pace, completely different to London or Manchester or any of the big cities.”
Given the area’s relative seclusion, venues like the Cavern assume outsized significance for the local music community. The Cavern has continued to put on gigs for local and touring bands in the 23-year interval between Muse performances. “I’m pleased we went back to play, but I’m also so happy it still exists,” says Howard.
It’s gained a coat of paint or two—”it’s certainly not as grimy and as sweaty as it used to be”—but there have been no substantial changes at the Cavern. “It’s still got the same vibe in there,” says Howard.
Muse performed prodigiously around Devon and neighbouring Cornwall in their early years, finding a sense of comradeship in the area’s small but active local music scene. But after releasing their debut album, Showbiz, in September 1999, Muse left Devon behind for a life of international touring and high-profile festival appearances.
In 2004, Muse headlined the Pyramid Stage on the final day of the Glastonbury Festival. In 2007, Bellamy, Howard and Wolstenholme played back-to-back sold-out shows at London’s Wembley Stadium. As it stands, Muse have released six consecutive UK number one albums, the most recent of which, Simulation Theory, came out in November 2018.
They’ve also built an effusive fanbase in Australia, where the albums Origin of Symmetry (2001), Absolution (2003), Black Holes and Revelations (2006) and The Resistance (2009) have all gained Platinum accreditation.
Going back to the Cavern for the Jim Beam Welcome Sessions was a humbling experience. “We went in there and it was like, ‘My god, have we really done nine albums and travelled ‘round the world a bunch of times and played to loads of people?” says Howard.
“It brought back a lot of memories,” adds Wolstenholme, “and it really made us think about how important the community that was around us was for the career of the band and where we’ve ended up.”
The latest episode of Jim Beam Welcome Sessions content series is a celebration of Muse’s fan community and highlights the important role they play in creating these musicians. The episode focuses on how music has the power to create strong communities, where literally strangers become friends, and friends become family.