"Both Extremes": An Interview with Aqualung
Mon, 26 Mar 2007 15:56:28
Much to their surprise, the first song Matt Hales and his girlfriend Kim Oliver wrote together—after Hales' previous band (The 45s) had been dropped from their label in the spring of 2002—went straight from his bedroom studio to a Volkswagen commercial.
By the end of that summer, "Strange and Beautiful (I'll Put a Spell on You)" was a U.K. top ten single, and part of a debut album that went gold. Hales filled out the self-titled record with ten other tracks, which finally provided the world with a proper introduction to his intimate, piano-based—but always epically inclined—vision of thoughtful pop.
The new project was called Aqualung, and, since then, a few things have changed: Hales and Oliver are now married, with a two year-old son; his musical arrangements, still spun around the same humble, emotional core, have become increasingly varied and ambitious; and the crowds have gotten a lot bigger—on both sides of the Atlantic.
While touring in support of Aqualung's latest album, Memory Man, Hales took time out to give ARTISTdirect his thoughts on family, the apocalypse, and the difference between British and American ways of showing a live band appreciation.
Scroll down to the bottom for bonus playlists from Hales.
How's the current U.S. tour going?
Very well, thanks. It's going to be a lot of dates, but it feels good so far.
Do you find that American audiences respond differently to what you do?
Hmm... It's much more similar than it is different, really... I guess there is one major difference, though. There's a particular sound that American men make, always at the quietest moment, when you've finished the most heartbreaking song, and someone comes out with a ‘Yeee—Yeaahhhhhhhhhh!' (Very masculine-sounding, he holds the cheer for at least seven seconds.) It's something you'd never hear out of British men, they'd be too busy, you know, drying their eyes.
(Laughing) I'm pretty sure I've been that guy, so I know what you mean... You've spoken about simplicity being something you were striving for when composing the new record, and yet it seems to be more experimental as well. Do you find that a simple foundation allows for greater experimental possibilities in the eventual realization of a song?
Well, I like to leave space, quite a lot of space in the composition, so that later I can paint over it, add layers. I think when there's enough space, there's more potential for drama and for things to be interesting atmospherically. So, the whole thing changes a great deal between the time when you first write it, and when it's finished in the studio. I hear the songs now and they sound very full... I hope there's still something simple at the core.
You've stated that your biggest inspirations in writing the new material were your two-year-old son, and an increasing concern with the state of the world. Are the two closely related? Has your concern for the state of the world intensified because you're now a father?
Well, yes of course, to some extent. It changes the way you look at things. You know, I have a son now. I mean, his world is the one that we're currently fucking. And this record is to some extent defined by that.
Originally you had an apocalyptic, outer-space concept for the album that was abandoned. How much of this has survived in the songs that remain?
If you know it was there, you can find it. It's like a space ship that explodes with fragments all on the ground. Some of those fragments are identifiable as being part of that original space travel concept—which was sort of a grim, science fiction thing—the last man alone in his capsule; and it became a metaphor for the state of the world. But the trouble was, that was only half of how I felt—the hopelessness and desperation about how things are going on the grand scale—but there were also these good things happening in my own life. There's my wife, and my son, and of course there is a sense of hope there, and that the world is also this wonderful place to be. So the original idea was too limited, as far as how I really felt about things—and I don't think it would have turned out too well in terms of being an album anyone would want to listen to anyway. All the joy needed to come across, too, and I think the album—as it did turn out-—it's definitely in there. Both extremes are in there.
Yes, uplift and angst seem very much to coexist in your music. Would you say one or the other dominates your personality—in your extra-musical life?
The small matter of my extra-musical life. (chuckles) Right now, we're in the middle of 20 dates almost without a break, so there's not a whole lot of my time that isn't taken up by music. But by nature I'm an optimist, even when I'm drawn to sort of darker thoughts and textures, I can't leave them like that. I can't leave textures hopeless.
You had a decade in the music business without any real recognition or commercial success, and then—right after being dropped from your label—you got a call asking for a song for a Volkswagen commercial, which ended up changing everything. Do you think your long road to success gave you any additional perspective on the business?
Must've done, yeah. Over the course of that decade there were a lot of changes—sort of stages—of how I was going about the whole music thing, how I was looking at it. I started like 'This is it, in six months I'm gonna be the Beatles.' And that didn't happen—obviously—but, sort of the main lesson you learn is: What people say is going to happen, isn't. The most important motor, in making things happen, is you. And there were bands [that I was in], and there were the record companies, but the irony was that, in the end, me—on my own—made things happen.
You've talked about the experience of playing the, in many cases, two-year-old songs from Strange and Beautiful (which had a delayed U.S. release) for a new, American audience as an opportunity to workshop new ideas, new approaches to the material.
The only way I could make that material creatively valid was trying new things. So we just started trying all sorts of things during the shows, and what we ended up with was a much broader range of sounds. And it definitely impacted the new record, knowing that we could experiment with things a bit, and people didn't seem to mind. It was funny, actually, because the stranger—the more stretched out—things got, the more people seemed to like it. I found out I could get away with things more here [in America]...
Why is that?
Well I think audiences don't get enough credit, really. People appreciate a different take on the songs... because they've already got the record. But when they come to see you live, they want to be taken on an unexpected journey. And that's what we like to do for them, so...
You're the chief songwriter of Aqualung material, but you have help from your brother and your wife. I assume you've been writing music with your brother for a long, long time. Is it to the point by now that the two of you have developed your own kind of language and way of working together that can be daunting for outsiders to try to participate in?
Yes, I think it is like that. We've been doing it for so long, ever since he's been here, really. And when we're working on something, I think we rely on that shared experience. Like if we're just starting to work on a song, Ben and me, we each already know what the other is gonna do, so we can work things out together very quickly. And someone else in the room who can tell what's going on will be like 'How did you know he was gonna do that?' You know, they can't believe that we don't have to communicate about it, but we don't. As I said, we've been doing it all our lives.
And how natural has it been bringing your wife into that dynamic?
Well, I obviously know her really well. And to tell you the truth it tends to be the one or the other—me writing a song with Kim, or me writing a song with Ben. I think it's hard enough like that. Rarely do we have all three voices sitting at a table screaming at each other.
What was the first song you played for your son?
God knows... matter of fact, it might even have been "God Only Knows." I remember I was listening to that when he came home from the hospital, and I remember holding him and saying, this is what pop perfection sounds like.
Oh that's the first music my niece heard, too, Pet Sounds.
Me, too, apparently. My mum played it for me before I was even born.
Well then, maybe you have her to thank for your success in music.
Well, I'm sure I do, one way or another...
- Nate Cunningham
Matt Hales also made us a playlist of his top ten songs, and a list of his top ten songs from Led Zeppelin.
Aqualung's new album, Memory Man, is available in the ARTISTdirect store.